All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

El àngel exterminador

Must See

“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”

“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rambal, , , Lucy Gallardo, Augusto Benedico

PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.

Still from The Exterminating Angel (1962)

BACKGROUND:

  • After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
  •   Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
  • Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
  • The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
  • Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
  • While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
  • The Exterminating Angel is a staple of “top films ever made” lists, including The New York Times‘ Best 1000 Movies Ever Made and Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works. British composer Thomas Adès recently adapted the movie into an opera.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The Exterminating Angel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.

COMMENTS: Between his genre-establishing Un Chien Andalou up Continue reading 261. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962)

LIST CANDIDATE: TALE OF TALES (2015)

Il Racconto dei Racconti

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Jones, , Bebe Cave

PLOT: Peace and harmony reign between three neighboring kingdoms, but all is not well with the countries’ monarchs: in her desire for an heir, the Queen of Longtrellis goes to extremes; trying to avoid marrying off his daughter, the King of Highhills accidentally dooms her to wed an ogre; and the King of Strongcliff attempts to woo an unseen (and unsightly) singer that won his heart.

Still from Tale of Tales (2015)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Director Matteo Garone weaves together three differently unsettling fairy tales with a sure hand and A-list actors. Sea monsters, giant fleas, and creepy albino twins are just a few of the wondrous sights to see in this medieval fantasy. The undercurrents of death, deformity, and violence make for an unsettling amalgam when coupled with picturesque castles and countrysides.

COMMENTS: An international cast, sumptuous European locales, familial conflict—yessir, Tale of Tales screams “Film Festival” and “Art House.” Fortunately for us, attributes like bloody murder, spontaneous gestation, and youth-bringing lactation also make it scream “weird”! Indeed, looking over some of the “Weirdest Search Terms” from my time here, I suspect at the very least that last one will notch 366 another visitor from the far corners of the web. Tale of Tales delivers a strong dose classic European fairy-tales without skimping on the grisly elements that made them such macabre stories.

Using three stories from Giambattista Basile’s early 17th-century collection of Neapolitan fairy-tales, director Matteo Garrone allows an unlikely group of fantasy characters to stumble toward their fates, occasionally stumbling into each other. The Queen of Longtrellis’ (Salma Hayek) husband is slain while killing a sea beast he hunted so that his wife could devour the monster’s heart—a solution, we are told, for the couple’s infertility. Attending the funeral is the kind-hearted King of Highhills (Toby Jones) together with his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). We also meet the lusty lord of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), appearing from beneath the skirts of two courtesans in his coach before arriving at the procession. Things bat back and forth between their tales throughout the movie, and needless to say, the roads these monarchs and their families take are a bit bumpy.

Judging the “weird” merits of a fantasy movie can be a challenge, for while unreal things necessarily go on, that is expected from the genre. However, the defense of my bold claim in the case of Tale of Tales is made easier because of the extremes the movie goes to with its material. The story of the Queen of Longtrellis alone cements things firmly in our realm of the weird. Not only did the Queen need to eat the serpent’s heart, but during the preparation thereof (by, as specified, a solitary virgin) the young cook becomes with child herself; both women are pregnant just one day before delivering, separately, identical albino twins. Disapproving of her own son, Elias[1], fraternizing (as it were) with the peasant’s son, Jonah[2], the Queen eventually makes a second Faustian bargain resulting in, to put it crudely, “Form of Bat!” …And on top of that there’s the mightily growing flea-pet of the King of Highhills and the sad tale of the two crones who accidentally steal the heart of the King of Strongcliff.

I’m generally skeptical of the “interlocking narrative” structure found in some films — I regard it as a poor excuse to cobble together what should have been multiple short ones. However, the tone in Tale of Tales is consistent throughout, and any potential disjointedness is mitigated both by the very smooth editing work and the presence of a troupe of carnival performers who appear at key points throughout the three narratives. And did I mention there’s ? Showing up barely in time for his own demise, I like how he can always be counted on to add a touch of pathos. Tale of Tales is a beautiful, weird movie that is a reassurance to fantasy genre fans everywhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There was already something wonderfully weird and carnivalesque about Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s past films… Now, the director has let his circus ringmaster’s instinct flower with the bold, barmy ‘Tale of Tales’… the sheer, obstinate oddness of ‘Tale of Tales’ sends crowd-pleasers like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Hobbit’ scuttling into the shadows of the forest in terror.”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

  1. “Elias” is a variant of “Elijah”, the prophet known, among other things, to be the harbinger of the End of Days; he twice fills this role vis-à-vis his own parents. []
  2. That a boy conceived by the consumption of the heart of a giant fish should be named “Jonah” is, in my view, more than a bit gratifying. []

254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

Recommended

他人の顔; Tanin no kao

“The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its own and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape…”–Peter Grilli, writing for the Criterion Collection

“Yield to the mask.” —The Face of Another

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mikijirô Hira, Machiko Kyô, Miki Irie

PLOT: Left with a disfigured face after an industrial accident, Okuyama spends his days in bandages while complaining to his wife. Hatching a scheme of questionable ethics with his psychiatrist-surgeon, things change for Okuyama after a cunningly designed mask is crafted to allow him, at least part of the time, to be “normal.” However, the doctor’s warnings of personality shift come true as Okuyama attempts to seduce his own wife to wreak emotional revenge.

Stoll from The Face of Another (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Like 1962’s Pitfall and 1964’s Woman in the Dunes (also Certified Weird), The Face of Another was based on the work of novelist Kôbô Abe. While the psychiatrist appears only passingly in Abe’s book, his role was greatly expanded in the film to allow for a more tangible counterpart to Okuyama.
  • Director Hiroshi Teshigaraha stuck with the classic “academy ratio” and black and white film one last time with this movie, despite the then-current popularity of color and CinemaScope. He surrendered to modernizing pressures with his next movie, The Man Without a Map.
  • The incongruous waltz playing in the opening credits (as well as the German night-club song at the biergarten) was written by Teshigahara’s and Abe’s collaborator, composer Tôru Takemitsu, whose score was also instrumental in Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes.
  • Despite being commercially and critically well-received in its home country, The Face of Another met with a tepid audience beyond Japan’s borders. A number of critics, it seemed, had had just about enough of the intellectualist, art-house cinema that had been bombarding the movie scene for some years by then.
  • Another of Teshigahara’s art buddies — Arata Isozaki — stepped up to the plate, designing the psychiatrist’s morphing, glass-filled office. An architect by vocation, Isozaki went on to design numerous famous buildings, including the MOCA in Los Angeles and the stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though any shot with Okuyama bandaged sticks in the mind, the most jarring scene occurs when he’s fully disguised as a normal person. Having just been released into the custody of his psychiatrist after an arrest for assault, Okuyama and the doctor face a swarm of sack-clay masked citizens descending upon the streets. The doctor looks unnerved by the sight; his patient less so. Before their dramatic “goodbye”, they are utterly enveloped in a sea of faceless faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ever-mutating doctor’s office; sunbeam cooks incestuous brother; the faceless masses

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Face of Another  is essentially a Japanese New Wave art-house musing on the nature of identity. But cranking things into the realm of bizarre is a series of sets and scenes—the doctor’s uncannily undefinable office space, mirrored mirrors, and so forth—as well as strange veering between philosophical and vengeful tones. Throw in a second (and even an obliquely referenced third) story line, a German biergarten in downtown Japan, and the occasional symbolist image (among them a Doorway to Whirling Hair and spontaneous transfiguration to slaughtered livestock), and, well, you could say you’re facing something pretty weird.

Trailer for The Face of Another

COMMENTS: The meaninglessness of personal identity is a troublesome thing to ponder. The interchangeability of any given cog in society’s wheel flies in the face of notions of individuality and the Continue reading 254. THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966)

366 UNDERGROUND: SOLE PROPRIETOR (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Eberle

FEATURING:  Dan Eberle, Alexandra Hellquist, Nick Bixby, and Alexandra Chelaru

PLOT: In hopes of starting life anew, a man with a nebulous past agrees to take on a job from an organization that promises to provide him with a legit history; while waiting for “the call,” he takes up with a nearby prostitute and becomes embroiled in a plot involving Russian pimps, Honduran gangsters, French molls, and a missing bag stuffed with money.

Still from Sole Proprietor (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With smoothness, competence, and a fair degree of ambiguity, Sole Proprietor nicely fills a space in the “noir-esque thriller” gap for those willing to settle for direct-to-video fare. Described as an “elliptical crime story,” Dan Eberle’s latest feature does some shuffling of shot and sound, but decidedly hews close to gritty realism: a poor man’s The Limey, if you will.

COMMENTS: For reasons entirely nostalgic, a part of me is pleased to see that there are still filmmakers out there producing low-budget movies like Sole Proprietor. Out in the world of Hollywood Cinema, and to a lesser degree in the world of Underground Cinema, there are people filling all manner of genre gaps with either expensive or offbeat fare. Eberle’s picture reminded me of the nerdy misspent days of my youth when I used to visit the little video rental place daily to find a new movie to watch that evening. Perhaps I wasted a lot of time, but, as they say, it kept me off the streets. Sole Proprietor goes about its business without much fanfare, but it rewards the viewer with a pretty neat story and a derivative, but satisfying, style.

“I am the man with no name,” says the protagonist never. Becoming known to us (and listed in the credits) only as “Crowley from the Internet” (Dan Eberle), we slowly learn the nature of Sole Proprietor‘s hero. He’s your run-of-the-mill deadly but swell guy, possibly ex-CIA, who is keen on disappearing from the sordid world of crime and black-ops, hoping to “join the human race.” There is a major hitch, though, in that he has one last job to get done (of course) before unspecified powers will give him the new identity he craves. Killing time while waiting for a phone call, he decides he might better while away the hours by seeing a local prostitute (Alexandra Hellquist). Enter the hooker with the heart of fool’s gold, and a mountain of complications.

Those of you familiar with ‘s The Limey and, to an extent, s King of New York will immediately recognize the style Eberle hopes to, and more or less does, achieve. Beginning with a very unclear establishing scene involving a (probably) dead person and a French-speaking woman with a gun, the movie zips quickly back to the story’s start. From there, scenes move forward chronologically, but within them are oscillations where the timing becomes jumpy and perspectives can shift. This potentially confusing effect is greatly mitigated by the fact that each occurrence is self-contained, requiring no long-term memory to speak of. Other than that legerdemain, the audience has nothing to chew on but the grit of the characters as their lives circle closer and closer to each other during the hunt for a whole lot of money that slipped the hands of an Honduran bag-man who partied a little too hard.

Though the huge advantages provided to me these days by Vimeo and Netflix (the mail-delivery part, anyway), I was able to briefly relive my days of being a do-nothing high-schooler who would just as soon see a no-name film than socialize with my peers. Sole Proprietor brings nothing new to the table, but ultimately I wouldn’t want it to—and it made no promises it would do so. Yes, I may be ninety minutes closer to death than I was before watching it, but as with the sub-classics churned out in the ’90s starring the likes of Michael Madsen and (Chris) Penn, I found some entertainment, now spiked with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling of sentimentality. Not a bad thing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie sports more personality than most low-budget thrillers, yet sometimes devolves into the kind of ponderousness that a collaborator might have second-guessed.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BASKIN (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Can Evrenol

FEATURING: Gorken Kasal, Ergun Kuyucu, Mehmet Cerrahoglu, and Muharrem Bayrak

PLOT: A team of five police officers is called to provide backup at an abandoned building in Inceagac, a locale of some occult notoriety; things go badly pretty quickly for the officers as they travel deeper into the film’s ominous backdrop.

Still from Baskin (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In an earlier age it could have been considered among the finest “B-horror” movies to grace the midnight movie scene during the ’80s through early ’90s, but as it stands, Baskin’s competent execution is marred by the tale’s derivative and meandering nature. Some token shocks do their job nicely, but the “film twist” advertises itself far too blatantly and doesn’t come off so much as, “Didn’t see that coming, did ya?” as it does, “Hey, check out what I’m doing!”

COMMENTS: Baskin starts out with a mountain of promise that it proceeds to dynamite away, taking the occasional break from destruction to rebuild the edifice. The movie starts with a flashback to the childhood of Arda (Gorkem Kasal), the main character, and so the temporal jumps begin. After some creepy behavior and a few screams and shouts, off we go to “now”, where a convivial conversation between fellow-officers contrasts with a restaurant seemingly assembled from bits cast off from Planet Terror‘s BBQ joint. Five cops: the esteemed leader, the arrogant chatterbox, the calm friend, the rookie, and the one with a migraine. After menacing the son of the restaurant’s owner (and seeing an ominous frog in the men’s room), the gang stumbles out to continue its patrol.

Much to its credit, Baskin does a lot of things right. The main fellows are easily distinguishable from one another (even when having to rely on subtitles), each of them is interesting, and the rapport struck on screen seems truly genuine; it’s apparent these policemen have worked with each other for a while. The sound design, too, adds to the realism. The dialogue always comes from the right place, and once the element of the macabre is snuck in, the various squelches, squidges, and scrapings all work to nice effect. The set piece of an abandoned Ottoman-era police barracks, too, is a perfect choice. The jump cuts convey an appropriate initial shock as well as add to a growing sense of dread. I had such high hopes.

Unfortunately, the movie falls apart by trying to do two things at once — and through this effort, succeeds at neither. Firstly, the “horror” element. Having already listed the merits above, it pains me to mention the failings. As events shuffle from the restaurant to the squad car to the crash before the evil building, things proceed apace well enough. Sure, there’s no need for the swarms of little frogs that litter the movie, and indeed the gypsy-style family by the barracks in utterly unnecessary—but, live and let live. It is when the crew descends the depths that this pastiche of classic horror collides badly with the “clever” thing the film tries to accomplish… the main impact of which I shall leave to the more adventurous reader to investigate. I will hint, though, that it’s the kind of thing I’ve only seen done well by , who was obliged to be counted among cinema’s greatest directors in order to handle his jumps correctly.

But enough cryptic ramblings. Baskin tries very hard, but comes up short. When you have a shocking horror picture, it certainly helps that your characters are great to watch interacting with one another, but that means you compromise your core asset when you begin killing them off. The 11-minute short film that the feature-length grew from, though, was a delight. Comparable setup, though (obviously) less fleshed out. However, whereas the original short managed to quickly establish and maintain a very unsettling mood, the director’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp when he tacked on another 80 minutes of movie. Still, Baskin was Evrenol’s first full-length attempt. I would certainly be willing to give his sophomore effort a try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A heady blend of Ambrose Bierce and Herk Hervey, of Lucio Fulci and David Lynch, and of Nicolas Winding Refn and Dario Argento (these last two channeled through director of photography Alp Korfali’s hyperreal lighting), Baskin is an astonishingly assured debut. Driven offroad by Ulas Pakkan’s unnerving ’80s synth score, it is a surreal, uncompromising, bestial and eerily beautiful descent into a hell of self-knowledge, whose precise entry and exit points remain difficult to determine.”–Anton Bitel, TheHorrorShow.TV (festival screening)

366 UNDERGROUND: DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO (2013)

Destination: Planet Negro!

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott

FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers

PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.

Still from Destination Planet Negro (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.

COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.

My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.

At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to  contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.

All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015)

Volume 1 – the Restless One

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Gomes

FEATURING: Crista Alfaiate, Miguel Gomes

PLOT: Vignettes of the lives and circumstances of various “everyman” Portuguese citizens are spliced together in the form of a series of tales à la Arabian Nights.

Still from Arabian Nights Vol 1: The Restless One (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an almost wholly documentary-style pastiche narrative, Arabian Nights is not so much weird as relentlessly tedious and preachy. A spark of the bizarre, when the director seemingly abandons his own movie, is slow to appear and is quickly snuffed out as the film-makers go on to sermonize the audience with tales of woe.

COMMENTS: Early in the movie a massive red flag pops up when the director admits that he suspects it impossible to make a movie about tales of wonder when he’s surrounded by the uncompromising dreariness of everyday life. Indeed, he does find it impossible. He takes one of the earliest examples of fantasy as a storytelling framework to convey a series of tales that delve into the personal costs borne by Portugal’s citizenry during the Euro crisis years of austerity (from August 2013 through July 2014, as explained by an inter-title that doubles as a disclaimer about the use of the Arabian Nights name). What follows is, well, both a grind and a bore.

I mentioned earlier that there was a tiny glimmer of something interesting occurring. While the director suffers his existential crisis (something that, like the movie, only truly springs into action after twenty five minutes of dockyard and hornet nest clips dubbed over with remarks about the collapse of the shipping and honey industries), he flees his own crew and tries to hide. He is found by unidentified militants who sentence him to death for his filmic recklessness. So now we have our storyteller neck-deep in sand, and the not-so-subtle allegories begin, sporting the titles “the Men with Hard-Ons,” “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” and finishing with the tripartite “Story of the Magnificents.” Each in turn becomes progressively less allegorical and increasingly polemical.

Having taken advantage of the dubious opportunity of enrolling in a “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience” seminar back in my long-distant college days, that “genre” was the first, and almost only, one that sprang to mind while watching Arabian Nights. In the vein of Soviet Socialist Realism, glorifying the common man, as well as that of Italian Neo-Realism, Arabian Nights eschews the traditional tools of (truly) cinematic storytelling in favor of capturing reality as closely as possible. While such a practice isn’t something I particularly enjoy, I don’t begrudge the fans of the genre their entertainment (or whatever word would describe the experience). However, it most certainly isn’t the way to make a weird movie.

Taking over two hours to convey its message of “austerity is unkind to the masses” (actually over six hours—there are two more installments that I am shying away from) using the same documentary/talking heads/ voiceover techniques throughout lends itself to whinging tedium. I wonder what Mr Gomes’ Iberian confrère, , might have done instead. Buñuel dabbled in documentary back in the 1930s with a short piece entitled Land Without Bread. In the space of twenty seven minutes, he not only raises the viewer’s awareness of the plight of grinding poverty in a backwards rural society, but also thoroughly tweaks the documentary genre’s nose. A modern take on Buñuel’s socially conscientious subversion might have been interesting; Gomes’ outing barely qualifies as a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opaque compendium of stories – like the ones Scheherazade told to stave off her own death – all responding in indirect ways to the miseries forced on Portugal by austerity, as if by a social-realist Buñuel with a bit of the novelist José Saramago’s existential musing; the same kind of absurdism and deadly serious political scepticism.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE CHASE (1946)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Ripley

FEATURING: Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre

PLOT: A mentally fragile veteran of the U.S. Navy stumbles into the employ of an eccentric gangster and inadvertently seduces the hoodlum’s wife; his dodgy escape gets dodgier when his mind snaps and he awakens in an unfamiliar apartment.

Still from The Chase (1946)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it is rare to find an example of film noir that isn’t worth seeing, it is also rare to find one that fits the description of “weird.” The Chase dabbles with some strange encounters and has a plot explosion that very nearly carries it into 366’s warm embrace, but it comes up short enough to make one wish the film-makers had gone the distance.

COMMENTS: With a scramble of memory loss, noir grit and brevity, oddball bad guys, and a side of Peter Lorre, The Chase cruises down its narrative path with an unlikely mix of the conventional and the abnormal. We dive right into the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-at-the-heels navy veteran in Florida who finds and returns the cash-filled wallet of one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Both impressed and amused by the man’s honesty, Roman hires Scott as his chauffeur, firing the man’s predecessor on the spot. Scott quickly gains the trust of Roman’s captive wife, Loran (Michèle Morgan), and after a number of trips to a nearby beach, they plot an escape. An hour in, we are deep indeed in standard noir territory—and then something odd happens.

But please allow me to back-track for a moment. As characteristic as it was to start with, The Chase already seemed to have a weird undercurrent attempting to break free. The scene where Scott tracks down Roman and tries to get a meeting with him to return the wallet is a bizarre set-piece that I can only describe as repetition at the corner of creepy and amusing. Through the door’s peep-hole, Scott first explains himself to a butler (named “Job,” of all things), then holds the exact same conversation with a henchman, one “Mr Geno” (Peter Lorre). Gaining entrance, Scott explains himself a third time before Mr Geno reluctantly directs him to Eddie Roman, who is being groomed by two female attendants. Roman asks one, “How do you feel being a barber … cutting a man’s hair. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Between this scene and the twist we see a souped-up luxury car with rear-seat gas and brake, Peter Lorre laconically quipping, a knife-throwing Cuban waiter, and a biddable Asian imports/exports shop-keeper. Or do we? There is a dimly lit transition shot of a telephone ringing and all of a sudden the movie jumps from bad things happening in Cuba to unclear things happening back in Florida.

Scott, waking up in a room we know he lives in, has no idea what’s going on. He stumbles around a little, he takes the medication he left on the desk, and makes a phone call, explaining, “…it’s happened again.” At that point, The Chase seems to shift into high-weird gear, and we start trundling down an understated but “off” string of events. Build, build, build—and oh so sweetly—only, alas, to have the weird rug pulled away to make room for an altogether too prosaic ending. I generally don’t say this, but this film seems ripe for a re-make by a director who’d be willing to go as far as coherently[1] possible; that said, I recommend you check this one out.

Kino Lorber’s 2016 DVD/Blu-ray release of The Chase includes commentary by none other than .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an especially bizarre jaunt through a nightmarish crime world… More than any classic film noir that I can think of, The Chase stands as a predecessor to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.“–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

  1. Or, for those who’d prefer, as incoherently as possible. []

CAPSULE: LOOK WHO’S BACK (2015)

Er ist Wieder da

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Oliver Masucci, Fabian Busch, Franziska Wulf

PLOT: After a seven-decade hiatus, Adolf Hitler returns to Berlin, emerging alive from his cremation pit outside his erstwhile bunker to take modern Germany by storm when he’s mistaken for a comedian.

Still from Look Who's Back (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Comedies focusing on Adolf Hitler have been around since at least 1940, and have been a part of cinema in fits and starts ever since. Look Who’s Back is the latest film taking a jaded view of the whole Hitler phenomenon. It is often funny and sometimes thought-provoking, but far from weird.

COMMENTS: Look Who’s Back is a series of gambles. It aims to be a buddy comedy. It includes filmed interactions with real people. It uses the medium of film to satirize the more popular media of television and the internet. It takes on the wimps and bullies of modern politics using a mid-20th-century perspective. And, of course, the biggest gamble is the man providing that perspective: Adolf Hitler. One has to judge a movie like this on whether these gambles pay off. Do they? Mostly.

Adolf Hitler (Oliver Masucci) remains an undaunted version of his old self. Anyone who’s seen Downfall (or otherwise knows a bit of history) will recognize the strange mix of unflappability and histrionics that defined the 20th-century’s most notorious figure. Upon awakening amidst a puff of smoke, the erstwhile Führer assesses his situation. Surrounded by buildings and prosperity, as well as all manner of ethnicities, he keeps his cool as he makes his way to a newspaper stand. As Hitler finds his footing, a hapless loser of a freelance newsman, Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), becomes his guide. Together in a flower van borrowed from Sawatzki’s mother, they tour the country: interacting with locals, taking in the scenery, and having a bad run-in with a dog breeder (something that comes back to haunt them). Clips of Hitler’s shenanigans go viral, he lands a number of TV gigs, and becomes a media sensation.

Look Who’s Back is at its finest in the first half as a whimsical buddy comedy. The unlikely chemistry of Masucci’s Hitler and Busch’s Sawtzki is humorous and touching. As bombastic as he ever was, Hitler waxes grandiloquent; Sawatzki, while listening to and showing off his find, can barely believe that such a man could exist now, much less ever. In their way, they’re cute together. This chemistry gets put to the side during the second half, when things get a bit too Network-y. A TV studio picks up the act, and all the points made in the classic 1976 satire about the evils of pursuing ratings are rehashed, spiced up with YouTube and social media jabs. It seems that the modern world can accept a crazy racist with charisma; a line is crossed, however, when the truth about the dog comes out.

Running close to two hours, Look Who’s Back tries to cover a lot of ground. Its biggest gamble pays off to such an extent that whenever Hitler is not on screen, the movie sags. A couple of sub-plots involving machinations at the TV studio and Sawatzki’s romantic pursuit of a secretary (Franziska Wulf) seem tacked on and make for some cumbersome dead time. Look Who’s Back would have done better as a television show: this masterful Hitler impersonator roaming Germany and interacting with unsuspecting civilians could have made for a biting series à la Sacha Baron Cohen (whose antics this Hitler probably would have liked). As it stands, it’s definitely worth a view, but you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wanting more Führer for your time.

Look Who’s Back is not currently on DVD in North America—although a German Region B Blu-ray with English subtitles is available—but it was streaming on Netflix at the time of this writing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Masucci is well-chosen, but the film would have benefited from a much shorter, focused narrative.”–Stepahn Hedmark, “Thrill Me Softly”

366 UNDERGROUND: WINNERS TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Channell

FEATURING: Zane Crosby, Joshua Lively, and Chris LaMartina

PLOT: The exploits of a hyper-low-budget ’80s horror duo are chronicled in the form of a public access television “documentary”.

Still from Winners Tape All (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Winners Tape All is a cheeky dissection of the various failings (and unlikely successes) of the straight-to-VHS horror phenomenon that gripped (?) the nation back in the 1980s. While some of the fake movies “discussed” in this mockumentary would easily be Certifiable contenders, Channell’s homage to one of the stranger pop-genres stands as a straightforward, well-made, and very funny bit of fare.

COMMENTS: Today’s big-name directors would do well to learn a lesson from some of the novices that have sprung up in recent years: your movie should only be as long as it has to be. Winners Tape All stands as a testament to the fact that a movie less than an hour and a half long isn’t less of a movie for its efforts, but can be much more. This breezy mockumentary clocks in at a sweet sixty-seven minutes. It is brief, but uses every moment well, exploring the fictional history of two crummy film-makers from West Virginia in a manner that is both hilarious and, somehow, a little touching.

Within the framework of an “Eye on the Cinema” public access TV episode, Channell tells us about the Henderson brothers. These step-brothers are a lens through which Channell explores the genre. With only two movies to their credit (Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club), they represent what cinephiles regard as all that’s wrong with amateur auteurs. The narrative, however, makes clear that guys like these were instrumental in propping up a genre that, though lacking perhaps in quality, made up for it in mind-numbing quantity. That distributors can’t be bothered to transfer so many of those shot-on-video rental horror movies with titles like Scream Dream and Mad Mutilator to cheap-o DVDs suggests that those “50 Classics of Horror” compilations out there barely scratch the surface.

Zipping back and forth between interviews with Richard Henderson (Joshua Lively), a laid-back surfer of a movie maker, and Michael Henderson (Zane Crosby), a pony-tailed gore fan with a hick accent, we also get to see snippets of the two awful horror movies that made them “rich” (Curse of Stabberman‘s popularity on the rental circuit was unexpected) and then bankrupted their distribution label (Cannibal Swim Club was more of the same coming out a little too late). Scattered throughout are interludes with perhaps the most die-hard fan ever made, Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina). While part of me feels Jacoby’s awkward zeal compromises the movie somewhat, another part acknowledges that he is in all likelihood an accurate representative of militant bad-horror enthusiasts.

Little jokes and asides come and go, sometimes stacking on each other. Michael addresses the phenomenon of “walk time” for Curse of Stabberman (used to fill out a movie’s time clock when plot and dialogue are wanting); later, Richard echoes the idea with “swim time” when discussing Cannibal Swim Club, giving a “see what we did there?” kind of look to the camera. I’m no expert in the genre being ribbed here, but I’ve seen enough to know that Channell’s distilled all the very worst parts of it into these guys and the two movies they made. While I’d be loath to watch either of the films from the Henderson’s oeuvre, it was a very enjoyable experience to see those two brothers done justice (of sorts)—or, more accurately, to see justice done for all those amateur directors, writers, and actors who, despite the theme of their chosen genre, were never ones to say die.

Winners Tape All is available exclusively from IWC Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s always fun to see straight-faced depictions of made-up things which are just plain ridiculous.”–Jesse Skeen, DVD Talk (DVD)