Tag Archives: Drama

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)

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)

360. COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i smotri

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. “–Revelation 6:7-8

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius

PLOT: Florya, a boy of about 14, digs in a field with a playmate, hoping to find a buried rifle so he can join the Belorussian partisans fighting against occupying Nazis. He finds one, and is soon roughly whisked away by soldiers to the forest campground, leaving his sobbing mother behind. When the troops go on patrol he is left alone to guard the camp, but after the Luftwaffe bomb the area he and a female companion return to Florya’s village, where he finds the war has devastated everything his once knew.

Still from Come and See (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a memoir of a teenage Belarussian partisan, Come and See was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.
  • Director Elem Klimov, still a relatively young man at 52 when he completed Come and See, chose to retire from filmmaking after its release, saying that he could not top this achievement.
  • Come and See is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and tied for 30th (among directors) and 154th (among critics) in “Sight and Sound”‘s 2012 Greatest Movie poll, among other accolades and honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It could be the closeup of Aleksey Kravechenko’s prematurely aged face at the end. Or the S.S. skull-on-a-stick the refugees turn into an effigy of Hitler. For me, however, the most surprising and unforgettable image was the nightmare of Florya and Glasha sloshing through a muddy bog in desperation, fleeing from a horror they will never be able to outrun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forest Charleston; cow in a firefight; kill baby Hitler?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come and See’s flirtations with surrealism nudge it into the “weird” category, and then its sheer grueling intensity carries it to “must see” status. That recommendation should perhaps come with a warning that, despite containing nothing particularly graphic, this movie’s sheer aura of evil is likely to disturb you on a deep level. This is not a shock-for-shock’s-sake experience, however, but an honest, unflinching dip into the subconscious of an adolescent boy thrust into a horrific situation initially beyond his comprehension—one which he tragically comes to understand all too well.


DVD trailer for Come and See

COMMENTS: Come and See is war movie as horror movie. It is notable for its immersive intensity. It unrelentingly assaults your sensibilities, as sadistically eager to strip away your innocence as it is to Continue reading 360. COME AND SEE (1985)

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSIS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Eric Leiser

FEATURING: Maria Bruun, Chris O’Leary

PLOT: In a dystopian future/present/alternate history, a saintly albino woman has visions while reading the book of Revelation, and tries to convert an atheistic conspiracy theorist/hacktivist who’s being hunted by agents of the New World Order.

Still from Apocalypsis (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This straight-faced CGI-Revelation cum New World Order paranoia piece, steeped in psychedelic visuals, is a curiosity piece; a worthwhile trip if you want to follow the author’s off-center obsessions for 90 minutes, but it’s not essential weirdness.

COMMENTS: Taken at face value, Apocalypsis is an ecumenical outreach from the end times crowd to the chemtrails crowd, with bad acting and cheap but surprisingly effective acid trip visuals sprinkled throughout. I think that writer/director Eric Leiser is correct in assuming that people who will swallow a main character trying to use organite to shut down “the Grid” are also likely to find the Book of Revelation as credible a source of solid factual information as Infowars.

You have to grant that Apocalypsis avoids the pitfalls of boring, preachy “faith-based” films in favor of something more challenging. It replaces those pitfalls with conspiracy theory rabbit holes, but I’d much rather fall into those. Your spinster great aunt who goes to Bible study five nights a week is probably not going to dig Apocalypsis. It’s informed by experimental movie aesthetics, with about twice as many trippy montages as plot points. (Maybe Leiser’s recruiting the acidhead crowd, too?) The movie starts off by peering into some sort of cosmic whirlpool and never looks back, giving us double images, time lapse photography, fisheye lenses, negative images, and so on throughout the film to give it an on-the-cheap “mystical” aura. Most notable are the heroine’s Revelation visions, where you will see, among the CGI fractals, crudely animated scenes of what look like child’s dolls playing out Bible verses involving prophets, skeletal angels, seven-eyed lambs, and other briefly seen figures, accompanied by a “whooshing” sound. It’s surprisingly effective; going for too much realism would have been a huge mistake. It somehow seems right that the Archangel Michael and a seven-headed dragon are sculpted out of plasticine, and their choppy stop-motion battle is almost as unnaturally memorable as one of Ken Russell‘s bizarro green screen compositions in Altered States.

The main character, Evelyn Rose, is impossibly good, impossibly white, and persecuted by agents of the NWO for feeding the homeless. Leiser likes to shoot his albino subject in overexposure, to create glowing white-on-white compositions. Subplot visions send her to Japan to help with a nuclear disaster, but mostly she spends her time trying to convert her atheist friend Michael, who does an underground radio show where he warns listeners about the NSA trying to wipe out dissidents by nanobots, or radiation, or something. Michael has the squeakiest voice of any leading man in a 2018 feature, which is probably why his radio show’s ratings are so low. After Evelyn takes him to Church, he squeals, “That was so awesome!,” but he still professes “self-divinity” for a while. Black helicopters and such follow them both around a lot, and there are also guardian angels wandering around in the script. Much of it seems to have been shot in Central Park. According to the director-supplied IMDB synopsis, the whole film takes place in “a parallel universe entering a black hole,” although the screenplay doesn’t reference anything of the sort. It is, at bottom, a weird movie, for reasons both intended and unintended.

Apocalyspsis is actually the third part of a trilogy, although neither of the leads appear in the previous installments. Maybe the other two films explain more about that black hole, though. If anything, Apocalypsis feels like the opening movie in a trilogy; instead of resolving anything, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Like, what just happened? Did we just get raptured through a black hole or something?

Apocalpysis is available solely on VOD at the present time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s as though David Lynch and Ridley Scott fell asleep in a candy store and collaborated on the same psychedelic dream.”–Porfle, HK and Cult Film News (DVD)

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”1)Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD. (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ (which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem2)Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.  ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Still from Son of Man (1969)Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes. Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd Continue reading DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

References   [ + ]

1. Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD.
2. Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.

CAPSULE: SCARLET DIVA (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Asia Argento

FEATURING: Asia Argento, Jean Shepherd, Joe Coleman

PLOT: A hot young Italian actress has dirty sex, encounters Hollywood scumbags, and does too much Special K while looking for true love.

Still from Scarlet Diva (2000)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-hallucinatory semi-autobiography, the directorial debut of ‘s actress daughter, is merely a curiosity, though frequently an outlandish and entertaining one. It’s made with all the taste and subtlety you would expect from a woman with an angel tattooed over her crotch.

COMMENTS: Scarlet Diva is an experimental art movie that wouldn’t have been out of place on Cinemax After Dark. Asia Argento, the writer-director, asks Asia Argento, the actress, to do full frontal nudity, multiple sex scenes, a lesbian scene, and a couple of attempted-rape scenes. To freak out in front of a mirror while tripping on ketamine. To smoke, drink, and get into a mosh pit while pregnant. To pathetically pine for a pretty boy rock singer who doesn’t have time for her. To imagine herself as the Virgin Mary. Asia Argento, trooper that she is, eagerly complies with all these requests.

Scarlet Diva is timely because, among its many unsavory anecdotes, it includes a fictionalized version of the actress’ sexual abuse at the hands of now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein. (In this version, she gets away, and he chases her down a hotel corridor as the camera focuses on his hairy ass). Yet that episode is only one of the many chaotic tales in this rambling confessional that plays like a trashy tell-all bestseller brought to life by an ambitious film student who hadn’t quite decided whether she wants to direct for the arthouse or for the late night cable market. So you get a hog-tied nude roommate, childhood flashbacks, a puking scene, dream sequences, a drug trip complete with an out-of-body experience, a religious bestiality icon, aerobics in leopard-skin panties, screaming into the void, an encounter with a horny heroin-addicted genius, Asia nude shaving her underarms while Nina Simone sings “Wild is the Wind,” and so on. And exchanges like, “That’s the first time I’ve ever made love.” “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin?” “No, I’m a whore.”

It’s pretentious, sure, but in the most enjoyable way: honest, over-the-top, passionately personal, and never boring. Scarlet Diva is not, by most definitions, great filmmaking. And yet, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find yourself entertained by it, in a guilty pleasure way.  And you’ll also feel legitimate pity and affection for Argento, despite the occasional clumsiness with which she makes the case for her own debasement. It’s better than a so-bad-it’s-weird movie, but it’s in the same general region, in the sense that it’s as often interesting for things it does wrong as for things it does right.

Film Movement Classics treats Diva like a Criterion-worthy masterpiece. There are tons of supplements, including an 8-minute “making of” featurette; an archival Asia Argento interview;  multiple versions of the trailer, including an 8-minute promo; and an odd piece called “Eye of the Cyclops” where Joe Coleman talks about his role in the film while showing us his titular conceptual art piece. It’s capped off by a very personal, even uncomfortable commentary track where Argento almost breaks into tears at times, curses Harvey Weinstein, and refuses to discuss certain painful scenes in detail.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is, by conventional standards, a fairly terrible movie — crudely shot on digital video, indifferently acted (in three languages) and chaotically written (by Ms. Argento) — but it is also weirdly fascinating, a ready-made Eurotrash cult object.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (U.S. debut)

CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)