The elevator pitch for Patrick immediately calls to mind Lukas Valenta Rinner’s A Decent Woman — both films are outré comedies set in the rarely represented world of naturism. But where Rinner’s film operated primarily as a gonzo classist satire, Tim Mielants’ feature debut falls more squarely within the sub-Coen school of comedy (think a drowsier take on Alex van Warmerdam). Kevin Janssens stars as Patrick, a meek 38-year-old handyman who lives and works on his family’s campsite in some Beneluxian forest. When his father suddenly dies, he is thrust into an undesired decision-making role, but instead chooses to fix his attention on a missing hammer and embarks on a mission to reclaim what’s his. Patrick’s particular pathology remains vague, but what’s clear is that he struggles to process emotions, possesses severely underdeveloped interpersonal skills, and avoids conflict at all costs. Janssens goes full Bale in the part, going from his finely coiffed, sleekly beard beefcake role in Revenge to a paunch, baby-faced schlub sporting something close to a bowl cut. While mostly nude throughout the entire film, Patrick usually wears a dull brown button-up that frames his burly mass, and he seems to trudge everywhere he goes, shirt flapping in his wake — it’s an image that is repeated for dry comedic effect every few minutes.
The problem, then, is that beyond these comic signifiers, there is very little that defines what this film wants to be, and even those efforts are more winking than humorous. Another example: a certain conniving couple in this makeshift community, though otherwise nude, frequently wears country club-style sweaters draped around their necks, just to make their true nature clear. Each similar instance is but another part of the same broad joke about internalized social constructs, and it’s a bit of an odd strategy to use nudity to contextualize all of the humor given how otherwise admirably normalized the film’s depiction of the human body is. It would have been more radical to adhere to a comedic template operating in full ignorance of the film’s central conceit. But Patrick doesn’t really know what to do with its material, and settles on a stale narrative about a group of people who are physically naked but emotionally swaddled. Mielants does his best to build a discomfiting mood — a few swirling musical cues and a whole mess of ominous, dead-eyed stares do the heavy lifting — but this does little to pitch-correct a dawdling film that seems to be simply running out the clock. Patrick strives to be understated, but manages it to a fault: on screen, its conceptual docility is merely soporific. It’s as if the only artistic ambition here was to treat nudity with nonchalance, attempting to create layers of depth by laying bare its conceit — it’s the sort of addition by subtraction logic that rarely works in execution. There’s a running gag here about white bread, which seems to be the cuisine du jour on the campground, but much like the film itself, it’s never clear what the joke is. It’s a fitting metaphor for Patrick as a whole: for all its effort to suggest something satisfying and unique, in the end it’s still just white bread. Luke Gorham
Feels Good Man
Poor, meek Matt Furie. The San Francisco cartoonist doesn’t seem like he has an indecent or aggressive quality to his name, but his innocent creation Pepe the Frog, from his 2006 comic Boys Club, somehow wound up a twisted mascot for right-wing hate speech. The most engaging sections of Arthur Young’s documentary Feels Good Man attempt to chart that “somehow,” connecting dots between bodybuilding memes and increasingly troubled and angry 4chan trolls, all the way up to the President’s tweets. Young consults linguists, tech heads, and reporters, even an occultist for some reason, in a fascinating and detailed examination of how, gradually and sometimes painfully, something goes viral and changes our language. The aforementioned angry trolls and assorted other assholes (spare some particular rage for the Trump campaign guy or the stupid cryptocurrency jerk) are even given space to dig their own rhetorical graves in fruitless attempts to justify their awful behavior. You might need a shower after all of it.
Unfortunately, that’s only about 40 minutes worth of material in this wildly extended and only fitfully enlightening tale. There’s an entire other sturdy third of the film devoted to Pepe’s creation, and another devoted to his eventual redemption, and so Young is forced to pad out Feels Good Man with little animated sequences and original songs, not to mention the endless b-rolls of Furie fidgeting in lawyers’ offices and moping around his house looking sad. It’s obviously nice to get a sense of what a truly decent guy Furie is, and in the end it’s lovely to see him retake some measure of control over his art, but honestly those are just prologue and epilogue to the much more fascinating project that could have been. Matt Lynch
Noah Hutton‘s Lapsis is a genuine curiosity, a micro-budget sci-fi feature that blends speculative technology and a dry sense of humor with Ken Loach-style political agitprop. The world of Lapsis looks much like ours, circa 1998 or so; people still use VCRs and bulky desktop computers and those thick, heavy cathode ray tube TVs. The one big difference is a new-fangled ‘quantum network,’ a series of huge, magnetized metal boxes that are connected by fiber-optic cabling and which power various financial markets. Ray (Dean Imperial) is something of a (likable) loser, a schlubby Luddite who doesn’t understand technology and works a job that is essentially a pyramid scheme involving stolen airline luggage. Deciding he needs some quick cash to help his sick younger brother, Ray wades into this world’s version of the gig economy — here, people are paid to manually run cabling from box to box through long swathes of wooded or otherwise inhospitable terrain.
After a slow beginning that sets up this slightly absurd parallel reality, Lapsis hits its stride; Ray begins this strange new job, and Hutton mines mild cringe-comedy from Ray’s befuddled ineptitude. As he gradually gets his bearings, Ray meets Anna (Madeline Wise), a fellow worker who shows him the tricks of the trade, but also opens his eyes to their exploitation at the hands of omnipresent corporate overlords and encroaching robotic technology that threatens to make the human workers obsolete. Their conversations are plainly didactic, but Wise and Imperial are so charming that it’s not hard to shrug off the more blunt talking points. Hutton is adept at quickly sketching small details that flesh out this world, envisioning an entire community of these freelance workers and the various satellite economies that have sprung up around them — the thematic and imagistic similarities to campsites full of Dust Bowl-era migrant workers are clearly intentional. There’s more to the plot, including the mystery of the name Lapsis and a scheme to disrupt the robotic work force, but the film’s virtues are most keenly observed in its small scale approach to world-building and clear-eyed view of worker solidarity. Hutton clearly understands how emergent technology can be used as a tool of manipulation and control, and Lapsis effectively expresses the oppressive ennui of barely scraping by. Daniel Gorman
Crazy Samurai Musashi
Expectations for Crazy Samurai Musashi are pretty clear. Everything surrounding the film — the popular history that informs the film’s plot, the trailers and publicity materials — is trying to sell you on its gimmick: a one-take, film-length samurai action sequence. But first, some context: Miyamoto Musashi is a particularly revered and important historical figure in Japan from the late 16th and early 17th century. Besides his proficiency in fighting, he also was a philosopher and strategist, and his writings gave birth to a school of thought and a martial arts technique that are practiced to this day. The more famous presentation of Miyamoto Musashi’s life is found in the Samurai trilogy, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, where the primary focus is on his travels and the various struggles of his life rather than a concentrated depiction of his swordsmanship. In contrast, Yuji Shimomura‘s Crazy Samurai Musashi, fronted by fan-favorite action star Tak Sakaguchi, captures Musashi engaged in his most mythical battle, the warrior armed alternately with one or two katanas and confronting over 500 would-be foes across an hour-plus runtime.
Given that description, it’s fair to wonder exactly what depth there is to find in a film that is essentially just one long, repetitive action sequence. While there is the opportunity for a visually dynamic work built on impressive, extended choreography, Musashi demonstrates a startling lack of variety — there are only around ten swordplay techniques used here, and the only weapons used are katanas — and the single shot gambit is mishandled; certain camera movements are sloppy, some visual tricks are deeply obvious, and the presence of the camera can be distractingly felt at times. To the film’s credit, there’s a certain fascination that builds while watching Sakaguchi’s remarkably physical performance, slashing his way through a never-ending tide of enemies. It’s more than just the samurai kineticism — the camera watches as he struggles to catch his breath, his brow pearled with sweat, occasionally stumbling. We see a human being in the warrior, brought to one possible extreme. This intimacy helps deepen the spectacle, even if the whole thing is a bit undone by the sloppy editing and repetitive filmmaking techniques. Still, at the very least Crazy Samurai Musashi is a testament to Sakaguchi’s talent, a document of his tiring day at the studio — both a one-man play and a dance, all of it accompanied by a spate of blood dummies. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Shinichiro Ueda’s debut feature One Cut of the Dead was a sensation both in Japan and abroad when it came out a few years ago. A clever riff on the indie film production comedy that unfolded over three different layers of reality (a single-take zombie film, a film about the pre-production of that zombie film, and then a what happened during the production of that film), with each layer becoming progressively less convincing as a movie and more like real life, or rather, more like a movie version of real life. A similar ambivalence about the distinction between performance and reality animates Ueda’s follow-up Special Actors (which also served as the opening film of this year’s Japan Cuts). A young man named Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) wants to be an actor but inevitably faints whenever he finds himself under any kind of stress. His brother hooks him up with a group of actors that help solve real-world problems: they fill out audiences at movie theatres or funerals, laughing and crying as the situation demands; or they pretend to instigate fights to help guys look tough for their girlfriends. They get hired by a young woman to infiltrate a cult that are surely scammers, seemingly intent on taking over her sister’s inn.
Various capers ensue, mildly amusing but never really all that interesting. The shy person + acting troupe conceit is reminiscent of an idea in Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, while the cult recalls Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, but the film lacks either of those movies’ boldness or willingness to really engage with its broken characters. Kazuto remains a blank slate: he doesn’t seem any more interested in the cause of his condition than we are. In a stab at whimsy, he’s obsessed with an old VHS tape of a tacky superhero movie (it looks just like an old Bill Nye “Speed Walker” skit from Almost Live, for those of you familiar with early ’90s Seattle sketch comedy), which the film’s conclusion will inevitably see him reenacting in an instance of self-actualization through imitation. As in all good con artist movies, there’s one twist more than you expect, and as a result the movie is a little more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to watch. But even that twist mainly serves to remind one of other, better movies. Sean Gilman