Tag Archives: Character study

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POSSUM (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Holness

FEATURING: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong

PLOT: A lonely ex-puppeteer tries to dispose of his demonic spider puppet, but it returns to his room every morning.

Still from Possum (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Possum earns a look due to its sheer intensity and commitment to a consistent mood of lingering, suppressed evil.

COMMENTS: You’ll know whether you are into Possum or not from the pre-credits scene. Sean Harris, with a face that can only be described as carved into a permanent frown, gray shirt buttoned to his chin, looking like a guy forced to sign up for the sex-offender registry solely because he looks like a pervert, stands in a field while he reads a corrupted nursery rhyme in voiceover: “…Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum, black as sin…” He places a bag at the base of an odd tree formation with seven trunks. Shot from a dramatic low angle, he stands before it, looking down at the package, pensive, uneasy, shoulders hunched, hands pointed inward toward his crotch; two trunks flank him on either side like splayed limbs. A flute plays a nervous melody, accompanied by the deep strings of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which explode into a cacophonic drone as the titles play. The atmosphere is already thick and dreadful, filled with a tension suggesting horrible repressed secrets.

Possum is great at suffocating you, making you feel like you’re inside the airless mind of a tormented madman. It fills you with apprehensive suspicion. But, up until the end, the story does not really develop so much as pile on. Every day, the same scenario repeats, with hallucinatory variations. Every day, Philip leaves his brown and dingy house with a large sack containing his puppet, Possum, a spider creature with a human head that looks suspiciously like its owner. He slouches about town, avoiding human contact; he throws the bag in the trash, in the river, burns it, but when he wakes up in the morning Possum is there again at the foot of his bed, or hanging on his wall. Other than a few awkward encounters with locals who shoo him away, Philip only converses with his housemate Maurice, an avuncular older man with a veneer of sarcastic friendliness, who obliquely hints that he knows things from Philip’s past—awful things, it goes without saying. Their daily conversations, though nominally about Philip’s indestructible puppet, are almost entirely subtextual. “You show that to children?,” asks a skeptical Maurice.

Although the movie initially plays as obscure, the symbolism is not difficult to tease out, and becomes fairly explicit by the end. But that hardly lessens Possum‘s effect. Although the repetitive first hour may lose impatient viewers, Possum is unforgivingly rewarding to those who stick with it. It wears away at your sanity drip by malicious drip. Armstrong, primarily known to British audiences for his portrayals of Dickens characters in stage and television plays, makes a wily and terrifying villain. Harris completely crawls inside the shell of his loner puppeteer; he generates sympathy while simultaneously remaining alien and creepy. The camera is bleak and the music oppressive. It’s a great movie for those who like their horror emotionally punishing, and no fun whatsoever.

Believe it or not, writer/director Matthew Holness was previously best known to the British public as a comic actor. I haven’t seen his comedy, but I believe he should stick with horror. Possum is an adaptation of a short story he wrote for an anthology themed on Freud’s notion of the uncanny. The movie did not play in U.S. theaters, but it was released on a DVD with extensive interviews with the director and cast. It’s also currently available free to Amazon Prime subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’ve dreamed of ‘Ken Loach’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,”‘ here is the closest such thing anyone is likely to ever commit to celluloid… Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)

DIRECTED BY: George Clooney

FEATURING: , , George Clooney,  Julia Roberts

PLOT: Chuck Barris is a producer of game shows by day and a free-lance CIA agent by night; the successes and failures of his parallel careers are remarkably in-step with one another.

Still from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With as screen-writer and television’s slimiest visionary as the subject matter, we might have been on course for a nomination. However, director George Clooney grounds Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as conventional, hip Hollywood fare, embellished with some creative window dressing.

COMMENTS: An unlikeable protagonist, an unbelievable premise, and an odd fixation with montages add up to a dark and breezy viewing experience in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. In his directorial debut, Clooney artfully weaves a tale of Cold War intrigue, mental collapse, and really, really bad television programming. Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints coat Confessions, but while self-examination-through-self-debasement oozes throughout it is simultaneously an odd character study as well as a Hollywood thriller. Chuck Barris strikes us as a skeezy guy doing the CIA’s skeezy work.

Lustful from the age of eleven, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) crashes through his youth horny and bitter. Wanting nothing more than to score with women, he is adrift in life, failing at his job as a minor, minor television executive. His fortunes change when he encounters Jim Byrd (George Clooney), a CIA recruiter who wants to take Chuck on as a freelance agent. After his run in with this shady emissary, Chuck’s life in the Biz immediately turns around: his “Dating Game” pilot is picked up, and his career rockets to a grimy pinnacle of debased pop success. Taking his longtime lover and friend Penny (Drew Barrymore) for granted, he dallies with classically educated, icily erotic fellow contractor Patricia Wilson (Julia Roberts). Chuck’s TV ratings begin to slide at the same time his CIA career takes a dangerous, deadly turn.

Confessions‘ budget hovers just below the thirty-million-dollar mark, but considering the actors involved, Clooney makes that outlay look altogether frugal. To accommodate, he uses a lot of novel sets to  create an illusion of grandeur, some deal-making with his fellow heavy-hitters (Julia Roberts, for instance, agreed to work for a mere $250,000), and plenty of vintage television footage. Beyond that there are the montages. In fact, the whole thing feels like a montage of montages: a montage of Barris’ rise, a montage of Barris’ CIA training, a montage of Barris’ conquests, a montage of… you get the picture. With Confessions, the point where flashback montage and current montage meet is blurred by further montage.

Perhaps it’s appropriate. Chuck Barris is constantly running just to stay in place as Sam Rockwell’s sickly charm carries the character through all the depressing motions, showcasing someone that we cannot help but loathe while simultaneously rooting for. After the suicide of an assassin buddy, he refers to him as a “stagehand.” That description is strangely apt: Barris and his cohorts were the kinds of guys that constantly lurked around the periphery, making sure the show went on without others’ awareness. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind acts as a eulogy for these men and women. All those spooks and hitmen were at heart ordinary people trapped in the giant reality show of the Cold War. And though heavily laden with regret and contemptuousness, this darkly comic biopic shows the tenderness and humanity of history’s dirtbags.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole is less than the sum of its parts: the dueling Kaufman and Barris takes on self-flagellation don’t exactly mesh. This film, a shape-shifting apologia-biopic as weird as Adaptation, is too cold for its own good.” –Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LIKE ME (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Mockler

FEATURING: Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden, Ian Nelson

PLOT: A teenager embarks on a low-impact crime spree in support of her burgeoning social media presence, but feels pressured to escalate in the face of blistering online criticism.

Still from Like Me (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Off-kilter sound, picture, and editing all combine to keep viewers on unsteady footing throughout, but Like Me ends up being a lot like the cereal its heroine grossly consumes: empty calories, all color and no nutrition.

COMMENTS: To be a creator of any kind—whether your forum be art or music or performance or, God help you, a writer of online movie reviews—is to crave an audience. Even if you yourself want no part of the attendant fame and controversy, the compulsive need to be heard remains. Sia may hide behind surreal dance routines and bichromatic wigs, Banksy might destroy his own work by remote control, even the mind behind the reboot of “Nancy” might prefer to fly under the radar, but they all still have something to say and want you to listen. You may have already noticed me , waving meekly at you in hopes that you will heed what I have to say about offbeat cinema. It’s no small knock on this writer that the most comments I have ever received on this website came not from a careful consideration of an epic montage or a dissection of the cinematic adaptation of one of theater’s seminal works, but rather for that time I caused a controversy by mentioning an alert to sensitive material with insufficient care. I mean, we all just want to be loved.

Kiya, the teenage protagonist of Robert Mockler’s debut feature, understands instinctively the importance of being heard, and she’s coming to realize how it is equally valuable to have something to actually say. Twice, she asks another character to “Tell me a story,” as if she knows that she is an empty vessel who desperately needs something hearty and substantial to fill her up and give her meaning. She never really gets that need met, though, and instead fills her days with hopelessness and her nights with making videos of humiliating pranks which a portion of the population devours as rich content.

Mockler has real visual flair. His jittery camera, rapid-fire editing, random imagery, and electrified color palette all speak to a deliberate and ambitious cinematic strategy. He isn’t shy about using his bag of tricks, most notably in a nightmare sequence where Kiya’s beat-up clunker motors through a candy-colored underwater bubblescape in a 900-degree long take, like Children of Men on shrooms. But what soon becomes apparent is that the weirdness is less of a mission than it is joint compound; cinematic spackle smoothing over the emptier, more aimless stretches of the thin plot. Unusual imagery does help put us inside the mindset of our quixotic, sometimes drug-buzzed protagonist, but more often than that it’s padding.

Like Me is undoubtedly titled ironically, as it’s next to impossible to like anyone in it. As Kiya’s online nemesis, Burt, spews venom at her online art project, it’s possible to agree with his harsh assessment of the pointlessness of her efforts and the vapidity of those who would lavish their attention on her while simultaneously concluding that he is an obnoxious blowhard. Her hostage-collaborator, Marshall, is both a pitiable figure for his predicament (I kept worrying about his unattended motel) and a wretched, pathetic loser. Even a little girl we meet at a service station is corrupt, shooting everything she sees with a toy gun “because it’s fun.” And then Kiya herself, played with real movie magnetism by Addison Timlin, is strangely the most compelling of all, managing to be intriguing despite having no clear inner life whatsoever. Not likeable at all, mind you. But fascinating.

There’s a lot of talent on display in Like Me, and enough of an understanding of the allure and the method of the wired world to give it verisimilitude rarely found in more mainstream films. But the whole of the movie is so much less than the sum of its parts; it can warn of the hollowness of our way of life or stoke incipient distaste for affirmation measured in followers and thumbs-ups. But once it has our attention with its sharp imagery and flowery language, nothing of consequence lingers. Which I guess is a red flag for all of us who insist on sharing our voices with the universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressionistic portrait of modern estrangement, using all manner of stylistic devices to capture his protagonist’s tumultuous psyche. The film’s lack of a traditional narrative will no doubt alienate many, but for the more adventurous, it offers a uniquely weird take on loneliness and lunacy.” – Nick Schager, Variety (contemporaneous)

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

CAPSULE: BAG BOY LOVER BOY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Andres Torres

FEATURING: Jon Wachter, Theodore Bouloukos, Adrienne Gori

PLOT: A slow-witted hot dog vendor takes it into his head to become an artist after an uptown photographer uses him in a photo shoot.

Still from Bag Boy Lover Boy (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A throwback to the artier side of grimy NYC exploitation films a la , Bag Boy is unusual because of its odd lead and a few perverse set pieces, but the script ultimately does little to distinguish itself from an ordinary slasher flick.

COMMENTS: John Wachter has a swayback that gives him a pot belly in profile, even though he’s almost painfully thin. He speaks in a nasally voice that sounds like an Eastern European Dudley Do-right. His character, Albert, works at a hot dog cart and has very little sense of hygiene (he drops wieners on the cart floor, then assures a potential buyer not to worry because it’s for “tomorrow’s customers”) and even less range of expression. Those features wouldn’t seem to make him the ideal candidate for supposed uptown star photographer Ivan, especially since most of those personality traits don’t come across in stills. (Would work as a fashion model?) Still, Albert’s supposed to be some kind of Diane Arbus-style “discovery.” Just roll with it. Ivan does, and mooning over Albert in a couple of photoshoots where a busty model in black lingerie feeds him strawberries or where he’s covered in fake blood holding a tiny pitchfork and (literally) grilling a nude model painted up as a pig. You know, “real art.”

Albert is infatuated with a local street girl whom he supplies with free hot dogs, but when she walks off with an amateur photographer (because she doesn’t realize it’s never a good idea to make the psycho jealous), the vendor becomes convinced that a career in the arts is the key to her heart. (Adding to his newfound enthusiasm is the fact that his blood got pumping when Ivan instructed him to place a bag over a model’s head and pretend to strangle her). When Ivan goes off on an assignment and Albert starts hiring streetwalkers as models, you can probably figure out where this is going—no surprises will follow, although a few well-done, short dream sequences and gross-out scenes liven things up. Bag Boy does reasonably well with a low budget, delivers acceptable performances, and never bores despite its predictability, but it’s not essential viewing. More derangement would have helped.

The DVD/Blu-ray features commentary from Torres, Bouloukos, and the editor, plus a couple of very short, inconsequential silent black and white student shorts starring Wachter. One of them has amusing commentary: during one shot of a closed door, Wachter reflects “there were supposed to be a lot of interesting things happening… but that didn’t really happen this time.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this low budget effort (actually made in 2014) ticks all the boxes as a cult hit. Some films, however, try far too hard to win over the hipster cool crowd with bizarreness. We’re happy to report that Bag Boy Lover Boy manages to walk the tightrope of knowing weirdness perfectly.”–Martin Unsworth, Starburst (DVD)

CAPSULE: LEMON (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Janicza Bravo

FEATURING: Brett Gelman, , Nia Long, , Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs

PLOT: A struggling, middle-aged actor/director loses his long-time girlfriend.

Still from Lemon (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lemon is an awkward formalist comedy that’s just weird enough to hold your interest, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot.

COMMENTS: Not much happens in Lemon, a low-key, lightly absurdist comedy (flirting with anti-comedy) that positions itself as a character study of a delusional, narcissistic type working on the margins of the acting profession. Brett Gelman (who also co-wrote) plays sad sack Isaac with so little expression, he makes  actors look like hams. Isaac has a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), but things are going about as well with her as they are with his stalled career. The schlub shamelessly but unconsciously projects his personal life onto the acting courses he’s teaching, where he continually sides with a pretentious actor (Michael Cera, who prepares for scenes by “exploring” colors and animals) while picking on an unassuming actress (poor Gillian Jacobs). (In one of Lemon‘s wry meta-jokes, the editor cuts off her scenes in mid-sentence, the same way that Isaac disregards her attempts to speak to him). Once outside of his petty teaching kingdom, he finds himself judged by two female casting directors who treat him like a piece of meat, but still lands an unflattering role in a commercial campaign. While on that set, he meets an African-American makeup artist (Nia Long) whom he will eventually romance, setting up the film’s only conventional comic situation when Isaac displays clueless racial insensitivity when he attends her Jamaican family’s barbecue. And that’s pretty much it; by the time the credits roll, Isaac has learned nothing and experienced no personal growth, ending up slightly worse off than when he started.

Lemon comes across as much weirder than that synopsis suggests. All of the scenes are “off” to some degree, some more than others. Isaac has his own avant-minimalist music, sometimes with operatic accompaniment, that follows him around. At one point, a man who looks like his approximate double simply walks into the class and sits beside him, saying nothing; it’s never explained. At least one flashback is played out live, without an edit, with the absent character simply walking into the room after the others depart. There is a very strange masturbation scene that seems inspired by James Lipton’s old “Actors Studio” interviews. And a sprightly singalong at a family reunion (“A Million Matzo Balls,” led by patriarchs Rhea Perlman and A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed on piano) is an out-of-place highlight.

Lemon is reminiscent of something might write in a very depressed mood. With its nearly inscrutable, yet mean, antihero, the autistic social interactions, and the jarring transitions from scene to scene, the tone rests just this side of a nightmare. It’s a movie that will have some interest to fans of uncomfortable comedy, but it’s hard to love. If nothing else, however, Lemon is notable for bringing us Michael Cera’s worst onscreen haircut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more tart than sweet, but deliciously weird nonetheless.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)