Tag Archives: 2016

CAPSULE: A DARK SONG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Liam Gavin

FEATURING: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker

PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of , Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.

It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.

Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.

Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gavin creates psychological terror that exploits our anxieties with symbolism, nuance and innuendo. That purposeful ambiguity involves the viewer more intimately and increases the power of the story.”–Colin Covert, The Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: RUPTURE (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishe, Lesley Manville, Andrew Moodie, Ari Millen, Jean Yoon, Jonathan Potts,

PLOT: Young mother Renee Morgan (Rapace) is abducted by a strange group and endures tests and tortures designed to elicit some response they refer to as a “rupture”- but what exactly is that?

Still from Rupture (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, though there are some aspects here and there. But it’s certainly odd—those expecting a straightforward piece of “capture/torture porn” will not be pleased. There’s a lot to be intrigued by, if you can run with a variation on the genre.

COMMENTS: Looking at most of the reviews, and the current mainstream arbiter of good and bad films, Rotten Tomatoes, Rupture doesn’t fare well. Fair enough. For this type of thriller, it doesn’t truly deliver in terms of shocks, it’s not nearly as gory as most of its brethren, and most of the events are standard tropes in its genre niche. That said, I think that most of those negative reviewers overlook the interesting aspects of this film, which tips its hand fairly early that it’s not going to be the usual capture/torture story.

For one thing, there’s a subtle humor running throughout the film in the lighting and art direction. There’s Suspiria-style lighting throughout the facility, and one room referencing Kubrick’s The Shining. In the performances, Renee’s captors/tormentors are surprisingly polite and deferential, if extremely focused. There’s also the lack of over-the-top graphicness and the growing realization that despite the fearful goings on, very little of the film orients towards horror. It’s not quite a subversion of the torture/capture scenario, but it’s certainly a side path.

Rupture is a much less graphic Martyrs, with a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as things play out. You can call it a social satire, if you consider current events as having some influence in interpreting and enjoying the arts. Those factors, plus an ending which leaves things open to continue the story, makes it understandable why audiences expecting a taut thriller would be slightly disappointed.

Rupture can currently be viewed on the Cinemax networks and on DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rupture is worth persevering with as it turns into a tense, claustrophobic and strange experience.”–Katherine McLaughlin, SciFiNow (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Anne Hamilton

FEATURING: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, Zuleikha Robinson

PLOT: A 11-year old girl in Reagan-era America wrestles with her conscience when she discovers a man being held hostage on her farm.

Still from American Fable (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film pays lip service to magical realism and utilizes some striking imagery, there’s nothing especially weird about American Fable, although it does signal some interesting new voices.

COMMENTS: American Fable lays all its cards out on the table before the movie even begins. After all, the name of the movie is American Fable. Our tale will be fantastical, but highly moral, and with the particular shadings of fierce independence and bull-headed determination that flourishes in the United States. Titles, after all, are important.

They certainly nail the “American” part right away, opening on a family farm in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where a father reads a story to his daughter while Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial plays in the background. As that combination would suggest, times are tough, with small farmers struggling to fight off the banks and predatory land barons, with increasingly dire results. Indeed, the family of our hero will eventually turn to crime in an effort to buy their way out of the hole.

The “fable” part, on the other hand, is a longer walk. That father is reading tales of princesses and monsters to his daughter, Gitty, and while she is on the cusp of learning harder truths about the world, she still has a childlike attraction to the trappings of fairy tales. As she learns more about her family’s situation, she is inclined to view them through the lens of fantasy.

This isn’t a “Walter Mitty” scenario, though. Aside from a couple dream visions that portray one of her father’s associates as a fantastical witch queen, the elements of fable come through more as tropes played straight. A lonely farm girl with only a chicken for a friend, the discovery of a man in an abandoned tower, a handsome young man who is revealed to be thoroughly wicked: these would be perfectly at home in a Disney feature, but American Fable never winks at them.

The line this film walks is a tricky one. If you take the story seriously, then the plot immediately falls apart. If you insist that it’s merely an ancient tale transplanted to more recent times, then it’s lacking in any real mystery or magic. Director Hamilton tries to help her own script with a genuine knack for visuals. She has a painterly eye, artfully composing every shot and transforming rural Illinois (standing in for Wisconsin) into a setting worthy of the Impressionists. But her story tries to have it both ways, and never really succeeds at either.

Working in the film’s favor is uniformly strong acting, selling situations and characters that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. In particular, Schiff is expectedly reliable as a man by turns wistful and desperate about his circumstances. But the whole enterprise rests on the shoulders of Kennedy, who succeeds completely. Not an inexperienced actor (I encountered her previously in another weird setting as the irascible doctor on the educational quirkfest Odd Squad), she is completely believable, naïve but not stupid, reacting in the best way she knows how to situations beyond her understanding, and torn when she finds herself on both sides of a moral dilemma. American Fable ultimately doesn’t succeed as either the raw drama or the mystical metaphor that it wants to be. As a showcase for its director and star, however, it’s an outstanding calling card.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anne Hamilton’s first feature as a writer/director… plays out in a landscape aching with beauty and color and strangeness, a vivid Eden about to disappear. Hamilton has created a surreal and magical atmosphere for this melodramatic family thriller, and it is the atmosphere that dominates.” – Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com

CAPSULE: MIMOSAS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Laxe

FEATURING: Ahmed Hammoud, Shakib Ben Omar

PLOT: A traveler accepts a mission to escort a dying sheik through a mountain pass, assisted by a mysterious younger man sent to help him by unknown benefactors.

Still from MIMOSAS (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Every year, a handful of slow-paced, low-budget surreal features (usually European, sometimes from emerging markets) screen at film festivals, and quickly disappear from view and memory. This is one of them. Ultra-minimalist and lacking much visual texture beyond the glorious landscapes, its obscure basis in Sufi mysticism makes Mimosas unique, but not enough to overcome its baggage.

COMMENTS: There are two worlds in Mimosas. In one, a caravan of horses makes its way through Morocco’s snow-capped Atlas mountains, seeking to bury a sheik’s body in his homeland. These characters could have stepped out of an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament or the Quran. The other is a modern world of junky taxis idling in a desert town, where scores of drivers jostle for rare fares. The mediator between these two worlds is young Shakib, a junior driver who we first see mocked by his fellow workers for messing up the details of the story of Iblis and Adam (when corrected, he responds, “let me finish my story, and interpret it as you want”). To his foreman’s amazement, Shakib is selected for a job; which, unaccountably, is to guide two roguish companions of the sheik on the quest to find his home town—no one knows exactly where it’s located—and put him at rest among his fathers.

Though Shakib may be inexperienced as a guide, he has one crucial trait: an unshakable faith, which shames the increasingly reluctant Ahmed into persevering through the rocks and snow, despite the fact that the city they are seeking seems to have vanished from all maps. Most of the movie is nothing more than a small team walking through the scenic landscape, with Shakib pressing Ahmed for his lack of faith; but the ending goes full-wacko, with the two worlds colliding, and Shakhib and Ahmed undertaking a new quest that crosses barriers of time and space.

With chapter titles taken from Sufi prayer positions and not a hint of blasphemy, there is little reason to doubt that the film’s attitude towards religion is sincere, which makes it more interesting. It has the shape of a religious parable, although the meaning is opaque. The Islamic influence makes it novel and exotic and gives the film a cultural leg up on similar projects; the unique perspective made it more intriguing to me than the superficially similar spiritual wilderness journey depicted in the The Ornithologist. Although it’s not a faith we Westerners generally associate with narrative subversion, there may be a future for Muslim surrealism.

Footage from the filming of Mimosas can be seen in Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, which stars director Oliver Laxe as a director who abandons the project he is filming (which is, in fact, Mimosas). Mimosas won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not currently on DVD, but you can find it for digital rental at distributor Grasshopper Film‘s site.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is a strange enchantment woven here. If the film speaks to you at all, you can expect to fall under its spell.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016)

O Ornitólogo

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao Teijo, Han Wuen, Chan Suan

PLOT: After being swept away by rapids, Fernando, an ornithologist looking for black storks, finds himself in a mysterious forest where he’ll undergo a transformative spiritual journey mirroring the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Still from The Ornithologist (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Ornithologist is the allegorical tale of an atheist ornithologist’s conversion through a succession of increasingly bizarre occurrences. Given that these moments vary from slightly odd to truly surreal, the film plays the weirdness card, although the limited number of remaining slots in the List make its inclusion uncertain.

COMMENTS: The first shots of The Ornithologist, after an introductory quote by Saint Anthony, depict a dark, calm river with a bird and plant life, accompanied by the ambient sounds of nature. After the film’s weird notes kick in, the atmosphere remains remarkably the same: quiet and naturalistic, persistently treating the strange sights of Fernando’s mystical journey as perfectly normal. The stunningly shot setting, a Portuguese forest that director João Pedro Rodrigues populates with strange images and figures, also persists for the entirety of the movie (save for the very last, and very weird, scene).

After he crashes his kayak, the titular protagonist is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims, on their way to Santiago de Compostela, with whom he spends the night. This moment marks the film’s first foray into Fernando’s symbolic journey, as well as a turn to a darker tone. When a menacing sound is heard, the frightened pilgrims assume it’s a demonic entity just as quickly as Fernando casually rebuts their belief, claiming there’s no God or Devil. Shocked by his lack of faith, they oblige him to sleep outside of their tent, and the next morning finds him tied to a tree.

From that point on, the steps on the ornithologist’s conversion grow progressively surreal; some are blatant in their symbolism (such as the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a white dove), others more obscure (naked amazons shooting him with a rifle, only to have a quick chat with him after he revives). Most are blasphemous and/or contain homoerotic undertones. They include Fernando’s baptism in urine (!), sex with a mute shepherd named Jesus (!!!), and the appearance of what appear to be embalmed animals in the woods, among other outrageous stops in his mystical-existential self-discovery arc.

These episodes are consistently engaging and reveal Rodrigues’ fascination with Christian iconography, mysticism and eroticism (a potently heretical mix), as well as his intention to filter universal religious symbols through his personal sensibilities. The “enlightenment quest” narrative will likely remind weirdophiles of ’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain, but the film is stylistically much closer to ’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, The Ornithologist‘s bizarre and phantasmagorical apparitions seamlessly blend in the environment as if they were no less natural than a tree or a bird. Accordingly, our main character remains stoic throughout his adventure. Speaking only when needed (that is, sparsely), his language, like the film’s, is mostly non-verbal. Actor Paul Hamy subtly conveys feelings of confusion and curiosity; interestingly, he has explained in interviews that he likes physical expression, comparing himself to a sculpture that the director shapes in front of the camera. The Ornithologist displays this particularly well, as Hamy’s character is aloof and his metamorphosis occurs internally, manifesting itself mostly in his careful physicality and expressions.

Even if you have difficulty relating to Fernando, it’s apparent that this is a very personal affair for Rodrigues. At one point near the end, the director himself literally steps into the shoes of the main actor. The character’s name changes to António (another reference to Saint Anthony), signalling that his transformation is complete. Fernando is not meant to be an avatar of the audience but, rather, of his creator; as a result, viewers without familiarity or investment in the narrative of Saint Anthony may find themselves estranged. The story is clearly very important to Rodrigues, and ultimately asserts itself as vaguely autobiographical. This is not to say, however, that its deeper meaning is impenetrable. Surely, watching The Ornithologist is, above all, an experience, and the beautiful cinematography and pervading atmosphere, languid and sometimes sinister, will please the adventurous viewer. But I believe exploring the film’s symbolism is a rewarding enhancement. Like Fernando, we feel shipwrecked and disoriented in such a strange environment, but by the end, we’ll probably have changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Rodrigues toys with his audience with the deadpan playfulness of Luis Buñuel, whose films The Ornithologist sometimes recalls in its tricky approach to religious themes… If nothing else, the film reminds one of how strange and beautiful existence can be.”–Ben Sachs, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, Michael Patrick Jann, Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , Samuel Barnett, Jade Eshete, Hannah Marks, Michael Eklund, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Kaoho, Dustin Milligan

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)