“Jessica Oreck‘s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga [ND/NF] is a staggeringly polymorphous documentary that often suggests a collaboration between Carlos Reygadas, Godfrey Reggio, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” wrote Clayton Dillard at the House Next Door a few weeks ago when he caught the film at True/False. “Part meditative nature film, part urban observational, part fairy tale, these seemingly disparate parts consistently juxtapose throughout to form not just an evocative mood piece, but a larger, discursive work that achieves something resembling Sergei Eisenstein‘s concept of dialectical montage.”
“Creepier and more twisted than the Grimm Bros’ tales, Baba Yaga tells a story of a witch who lives in a hut that stands on giant chicken legs and eats children who get lost in the forest,” explains Dustin Chang at Twitch. “As with her first two beautiful films, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and Aatsinki: The Arctic Cowboy, Baba Yaga also falls neatly into region specific ethnographic study at first, this time, of the Slavic world…. Baba Yaga takes on that magical, dreamy quality I’ve only experienced in watching Chris Marker‘s Sans Soleil.”
The film is “studded with so many philosophical and cultural references, to everyone from Theodor W. Adorno to Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, that it might have easily devolved into a discursive morass,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Slant. “Instead, Oreck has created a work that’s satisfying in spite of being illusive—a film essay that evades easy classifications.”
Jordan Cronk here in Keyframe: “In her singular assemblage of disparate aesthetic strands, and her radical disregard for conventional modes of storytelling, Oreck may most fully embody another, far more exciting interpretation of the label of a new director or a new film, that of fresh filmmaker creating an altogether new kind of art.”
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Brian Brooks has a few questions for Oreck.
Update, 3/29: David Gregory Lawson interviews Oreck for Film Comment.
“Iceland’s most celebrated theater director, Benedikt Erlingsson, makes a film debut with Of Horses and Men [ND/NF], a wry, episodic tale of love and death in a small community all reflected on the eyes of the much coveted Icelandic horses,” writes Dustin Chang at Twitch. “The film garnered directing awards at San Sebastian and Tokyo Film Festival last year.”
R. Kurt Osenlund at Slant: “Visually bolstered by such striking tableaux as horses and people corralled in the same pen, the theme of animalistic commonality—or, perhaps, equine equalization—is fascinating in the sense of a NatGeo special turned on its head, but it’s not what spurs the movie to hit its stride. Instead, Of Horses and Men is propelled by our collective inability to tame nature, and the gallows humor that arises when characters feebly attempt to do so.”
The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott agrees, adding that “Erlingsson has a dry, precise style that erases the distinction between comedy and tragedy and emphasizes the dignity of his equine characters and the ridiculousness of their supposed masters.”
Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker: “Bergsteinn Borgulfsson’s cinematography captures the grace of groups of exquisite riderless horses as well as the harmony of man and beast, galloping against a backdrop of large white clouds, blue sky, and downs that abut the sea. David Thor Johnsson’s music, bouncy percussion and accordion that create a sound akin to Scottish pipes, is an ideal grounding accompaniment. In typical Icelandic fashion, irony and dry humor abound.”
Updates, 3/29: For Steven Mears, writing at Film Comment, “the proximity of man and beast, and the blurring of those categories, has seldom been expressed with such earthy authenticity. The film’s aim is not to romanticize in the manner of Black Beauty, or make symbols of its equine characters as in War Horse, but to affirm traits in animals that we, out of perceived supremacy, tend to deny. Above all is a sense of self-possession; Erlingsson’s horses are misused but never misled.”
Erlingsson “shows remarkable cinematic talent in his debut feature,” finds Christopher Bourne at Twitch.
At Thompson on Hollywood, John Anderson has notes on Erlingsson’s comments during a post-screening reception.
“In 2009, experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell toured a program of their short films,” writes John Semley at Slant. “Called We Cannot Exist in This World Alone, the program exposed the intersections of the British Rivers and American Russell’s concerns: ethnography, alienation, and artistic and social primitivism. Their first collaborative feature, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness [ND/NF], further explores these themes, tracking musician-artist Robert A.A. Lowe (of Lichens and Om) as he moves through three uniquely defined social configurations. In the first, Lowe’s nameless itinerant mixes among members of an Estonian commune… The keystone in Spell‘s triptych sees Lowe rowing out to a desolate forest to live in solitude, recalling (however incidentally) the hermit of Rivers’s 2011 film Two Years at Sea…. In the film’s final section, Lowe is found in a basement club, fronting a black metal band, his face lathered in chalky white corpse paint. Here, the film’s transcendentalism reaches a full sonic boom.”
In August, as the first reviews came in from Locarno, I opened an entry on A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness and updated it on through Toronto and up to Agnieszka Gratza‘s October 1 interview with the Bens for frieze.
Updates, 3/29: Christopher Bourne at Twitch: “A combination of movie and art installation, one’s sensibilities and inclinations toward this type of cinema will determine if you find the ultimate effect hypnotic or merely soporific.”
Violet Lucca interviews the Bens for Film Comment.
Manohla Dargis in the New York Times on The Babadook (ND/NF): “This sleek, Australian frightener has a dull, near-monochromatic palette and a muted, muffled quality that suggests that life itself is leaching out of the claustrophobic world on screen. Essie Davis plays Amelia, a lonely, hollow-eyed widow who, six years after her husband’s death, is holding on to her sanity and her tiny family…. Jennifer Kent, making her feature-film directing debut, has a lot of fun playing with horror clichés that she freshens up partly by refusing to establish whether The Babadook is a haunted-house movie, a haunted-human one or something in between.”
At Slant, Abhimanyu Das finds that “as the film gathers steam, it becomes thrillingly apparent that this seemingly rote setup is in service of an astonishingly assured experiment—a two-way prism of narrative layering that draws out its leads’ fractured psyches and reflects them in the jagged remnants of the genre trappings audiences have been conditioned to expect. It’s a shattering psychological study whose supernatural aspect is a mere catalyst or perhaps even misdirection.”
Time Out New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf notes that The Babadook has “the narrative chutzpah to show its entire hand in the buildup and then make us squirm as foretold events come true.” Interviews with Kent: Brian Brooks (Film Society of Lincoln Center) and Max Kyburz (Film Comment). Earlier: Reviews from Sundance.
Update, 3/29: “The film’s design is a pleasing throwback to such influences as German Expressionist cinema and Italian horror, with its emphasis on hand-crafted effects rather than CGI or cheaply gory effects,” notes Christopher Bourne at Twitch.
Calum Marsh in the Voice: “Marty Jackitansky, sprawled across fresh hotel linen in a complimentary bathrobe, dials room service: ‘I just wondered if I get any free stuff.’ This is Marty’s purpose in life. It is also, in essence, the premise of Buzzard [ND/NF], a modern picaresque that follows this sunken-eyed young grifter as he pillages the world of its gratis pleasures…. The director, Joel Potrykus, hardly seems interested in the twists and turns of the conman film, and indeed, Marty recalls not so much a slick Mamet–esque swindler as the urban vulture suggested by the title. But around this unlikely hero Potrykus has fashioned a vigorous and strangely compelling character study, a sustained burst of punk-rock ferocity, and one of the most original American films to emerge in some time.”
“Potrykus casts his regular go-to ‘star,’ Joshua Burge, from the first (the 2010 short Coyote) and second (the debut 2012 feature, Ape) pieces of his Animal trilogy,” notes Robert Koehler at filmjourney.org, “and by this point, the director and actor have developed a electrifying collaboration that recalls Lindsay Anderson (If… and O Lucky Man!) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) allowing young Malcolm McDowell to let his id to run free…. Buzzard is in fact a salad of cinephilia; the penultimate scene, an astonishing travelling shot following Marty running down a Detroit street, just as deliberately quotes from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang.”
“Potrykus cultivates intense and uncomfortable ambivalence about this character,” writes A.O. Scott. “You kind of want him to succeed in his petty rebellion against boredom, conformity and corporate blandness, and you kind of want him to be punched in the face. What happens is more complicated, and the movie, though it is aggressively satirical and sometimes shocking, is in the end hauntingly sad.”
Updates, 3/29: “Shot guerilla-style on the streets of Grand Rapids and Detroit, Buzzard casts an unblinking gaze at its prickly protagonist and its caustic take on life as a wage slave,” writes Christopher Bourne at Twitch.
Introducing her interview with the director and star for BlackBook, Hillary Weston writes that “what’s so wonderful about Potrykus’ film is how it transcends genres and cinematic class distinctions to form something that’s as bizarrely goofy as it is brilliantly crafted by someone who truly knows his medium—seamlessly blending junk food culture and nerd aggression with odes to Leos Carax and Stanley Kubrick. And with Burge as our not-so-humble leader Marty, he’s absolutely magnetic and enjoyable to watch—his presence onscreen as hilariously deadpan and riotous as it is dramatically compelling—and couldn’t be more perfectly grounded in Potrykus’ world.”