Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: CLOSET MONSTER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:  Stephen Dunn

FEATURING: Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Aliocha Schneider, Isabella Rossellini (voice)

PLOT: A closeted gay teenager who wants to be a horror makeup artist finds himself inhibited from the same-sex experiences he craves due to a traumatic hate crime he witnessed as a child.

Still from Closet Monster (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you want a coming out story, and you want it to be slightly weird, this is an option. If you want it really weird, you’d be better off with Der Samurai, however.

COMMENTS: In its short existence, the “coming out” film has already adopted certain cliches: the disapproving macho dad who fears a “wimp” son, the ambiguously homosexual/bisexual love interest, loss of virginity at an ecstasy-fueled rave. Closet Monster doesn’t throw away this boilerplate, but it does cleverly distract our attention from the usual structure with bizarre touches meant to evoke the troubled feeling of growing up different. Monster mixes in tropes from the horror movie (an appropriate import) and, in its most whimsical and salable touch, gives us Isabella Rossellini as the voice of Oscar’s hamster spirit guide (wittily, the pet is ambiguously gendered). A series of hallucinations, mostly stemming from a traumatic homophobic assault Oscar witnesses as a child, round out the weirdness.

Steven Dunn’s direction in his first feature is confident, although wen dreamy Wilder enters the picture the will-they-won’t-they second act does drag. The horror angle, which seemed like the film’s  hook, gets pushed aside for the type of dramatic development we’ve seen many times before. But the actors are universally competent, led by conflicted Jessup. Dad Abrams has a nicely complicated character: he is more of an all-around mess—well-meaning but impulse-control challenged—than the simple homophobe he might have been. The horror scenes return at the very end, when Oscar confronts his repressed longings, including hallucinations involving vomiting bolts and a gory impalement with an iron rod. It ends at one of the most marvelously idyllic locations in Newfoundland, a mystical modernist cabin set on a rock outcropping overlooking the sea. Closet Monster is not the whimsically surreal gay horror movie we’ve been waiting for, but it is a decent watch while we wait for someone to perfect the formula.

Closet Monster won the award for Best Canadian Film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. At the time of this writing you can catch it streaming on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Willfully weird tale of a gay youth in a world of confusion. Noisily off-kilter… the determined eccentricity of the entire conceit—liberally laced with moments of hallucinatory surrealism—weighs the movie down, creating an airless ambiance at odds with any youthful verve which might appeal to the viewer.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971)/OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Juliet Berto, Michele Moretti, , Bernadette Lafont, Bulle Ogier, Francoise Fabien, Hermoine Karagheuz, Eric Rohmer

PLOT: Two theatrical troupes: one amateur and one professional, with different artistic approaches, rehearse plays by Aeschylus. Two loners: one male and one female, both scam artists, operate independently of each other. All these players are seemingly connected via a loose conspiracy of “13,” inspired by the work of Honoré de Balzac and .

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The improvisational framework is experimental, but it’s more conventional in its overall form. Rivette’s follow-up feature, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is indebted to Out 1 in its production and concept, is closer to “weird.”

COMMENTS: Out 1 was long hyped as “the Holy Grail of modern French cinema,” and that was not mere hyperbole. After French television turned the project down, a four-and-a-half-hour cut, Spectre, was edited to screen in theaters (with an intermission). The original version thirteen-hour version, Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me) was screened only once in workprint form in the early 70’s. A re-edited version followed in the late 80’s, and a “finished” version turned up on German and French television in the early 90’s.

At first, watching the complete, restored Out 1 may seem a daunting enterprise, but in a world of binge viewing, it seems very contemporary, while simultaneously presenting a time capsule of France in the early 70’s. Out 1 explores the role of art (specifically theater) in society, interpersonal relationships, and secret societies/conspiracies, all in a way that is very entertaining—much more than the words “experimental feature” would suggest.

Looking at it 45 years later, one thing that helps give Out 1 some perspective are the events of May ’68, which is the hub from which the story revolves around. After a brief period of revolution and the hope of all things possible, we pick up two years later; and while the revolutionary spirit is still alive in the efforts of the troupes, everyone involved is disillusioned with their current reality to some degree. The passing of a note to Colin (Leaud) by an unknown woman—seen as one of the actors in one of the troupes—stirs him to investigate the concept of the “13,” and its effect ripples out among the characters. Is there indeed a conspiracy? Or is the conspiracy merely an abstract concept of a fleeting ideal that may never be obtained, but should always be pursued?

The Noli Me Tangere version, presented over eight episodes, anticipates such shows as “Lost” with its canvas of characters and a central mystery at the core. However, while that mystery provides dramatic momentum, it is not the primary focus; in fact, it isn’t until Episode 5 that it begins to coalesce. A substantial portion of each episode focused on the exercises and rehearsals of both troupes, and their succeeding analyses. It’s a detailed look at theatrical process, and while some may find these sections maddening, they’re an important part of the whole: “acting”  and “performance” are the main subjects, after all. The characters’ interactions with each other at many points are performances, especially the outsiders Colin and Frederique (Berto), whose scams are another form of improvisation. And the entire enterprise is a performance by everyone involved. The Spectre version keeps this basic frame intact, yet at four hours, much is condensed. Scenes are rearranged, some tangents are dropped, and the “Conspiracy of 13” aspect is center stage.

BLU-RAY/DVD INFO: In 2016, Carlotta released a region free box set in North America of both versions of Out 1 on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring a 2K restoration. Also included in the set is a documentary, The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1 Revisited, which is extremely informative, and a 120 page booklet with essays and notes. For those in the UK or with region free players, Arrow UK issued the box set “The Jacques Rivette Collection” which includes Out 1, and the additional Rivette features Duelle, Noroit and Merry-Go-Round.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Order of the Exile – Jacques Rivette website

Introduction to Rivette – Jonathan Rosenblum essay on Rivetter

Out 1 And Its Double – Jonathan Rosenblum’s essay from the box set release

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KAILI BLUES (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi

FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen

PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.

Still Kaili Blues (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.

COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.

Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s like with less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).

Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Banlop Lomnoi, Jarinpattra Rueangram

PLOT: Soldiers struck with an inexplicable sleeping sickness are housed at an old school, and a housewife volunteer develops an empathic bond with one young victim, which may involve entering his dreams.

Still from Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who mercifully nicknamed himself “Joe” for the benefit of Western audiences) know exactly what to expect from his latest experiment in dream cinema: long takes, quiet moods, the blurring of the line between the real and unreal, and mundane dramatics that subtly slip into the surreal. Cemetery will please those he’s already won over, but his Palme d’Or winning breakthrough Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives makes for a better representative of his sleepy, spiritually weird style. We wouldn’t rule out adding another of Joe’s movies to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies down the road, but it will need to venture farther into the bizarre than Cemetery does.

COMMENTS: With four minutes of nearly silent establishing shots—showing sleeping soldiers being shipped by the truckload to the makeshift hospital, and our limping protagonist making her way up the wooden planks of the porch on her way to volunteer duty—Weerasethakul throws down the gauntlet to viewers’s attention spans. This introduction is followed by an initial half-hour that seems composed mostly of long and medium shots of young men sleeping, with middle-aged women quietly sitting by their bedsides watching over them, and a lunch break to introduce the fact that one of them has psychic abilities. (We also, for reasons only Joe could explain, watch a man poop in the woods).

The movie, set in a leafy Thai jungle and scored to the hum of insects and distant rumbling backhoes, lulls us into a peaceful mood. We might be forgiven for wondering if we have fallen asleep ourselves and are dreaming when things start to change. Does the soldier Jen watches over, Itt, briefly wake up and take a meal with her? Maybe, maybe not, but surely two dead princess don’t visit her at a picnic table at the dinosaur park to share fruit and explain a possible origin of the sleeping sickness. And we might doubt that the psychic licks Jen’s deformed leg as a form of therapy. And when amoebas appear drifting among the clouds in the sky, you can be absolutely sure it’s a dream.

Cemetery of Splendor never goes anywhere, so there’s nothing to wrap up. The soldiers, and their caretakers, simply sleep and dream on, and at some point Weerasethakul decides to turn the camera off. A paradoxical offering from a Valium-toned auteur, Cemetery of Splendor is simultaneously minor and profound, inconclusive and whole. It’s a film you’re proud to have seen, but in no rush to watch again.

For those not yet ready to wake up, the 2016 Strand DVD includes a “making of” featurette and deleted scenes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[Weerasethakul’a] movies work best when they’re washing over you, even when — in fact, especially when — things get weird.”–Matt Prigge, Metro

253. IF…. (1968)

“What child has ever been silly enough to ask, when Cinderella’s pumpkin turns into a golden coach, where reality ends and fantasy begins?”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Wood, Richard Warwick, Robert Swann, Hugh Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Christine Noonan

PLOT: Mick Travis is a rebellious teenage boy at a British boarding school. Because of “general attitude,” he and two friends are persecuted and beaten by the “whips,” older students given privileges to enforce discipline. During military exercises, Mick and his friends discover a cache of automatic weapons and make plans to disrupt the school’s Founders’s Day celebration.

Still from If.... (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • In England if…. was controversial due to its unflattering portrayal of English boarding schools (particularly, one suspects, of the depiction of pervasive homosexuality) and, by extension, of English traditions in general. When David Sherwin and John Howlett brought their original screenplay to one producer, he called it “the most evil and perverted script he’s ever read.”
  • The film was inspired by ‘s 1933 Certified Weird anarchist screed Zéro de conduite, relocated from 1930s France to then-contemporary Britain.
  • if… was filmed mostly on location at Cheltenham College, director Lindsay Anderson’s alma mater. Many of the boys who appear in smaller roles were students there at the time. A doctored script, missing the final scenes, was given to the college, since the school never would have granted permission to shoot if they had known if…’s climax beforehand.
  • This was Malcolm McDowell’s film debut.
  • Look for portraits of famous revolutionaries and icons of rebellion like Che Guevara, Geronimo, Vladimir Lenin, James Dean and others hanging on the boys’s walls.
  • There is a legend that the film shifted from black and white to color because the producers ran out of money for color stock. Lindsay Anderson contradicted these rumors, saying that they decided to shoot the first chapel scene in black and white due to lighting considerations. He liked the effect so much that he inserted black and white scenes at random to disorient the viewer and to hint at the fantasy elements to come later.  Anderson insists there is no symbolic “code” or reasoning for why some scenes are monochrome and some in color.
  • Distributor Paramount was horrified by the film and certain it would bomb in Britain. They wanted to bury it, but at the last minute they needed a movie to screen in London to replace their current flop: Barbarella. if… went on to be a hit.
  • if…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, although in the commentary Malcolm McDowell recalls that he was told that the film actually came in third in the voting, but was chosen as a compromise because the jury could not break a deadlock between supporters of Costa-Gavras’s Z and Bo Widerberg’s Adalen 31.
  • Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell made three films together, in three different decades. In each of them McDowell plays a character named “Mick Travis,” although based on their varying personalities it’s unlikely that they are intended to be the same person. The other two “Mick Travis” films are 1973’s O Lucky Man! and 1982’s Britannia Hospital.
  • Anderson actually wrote a proper sequel for if…, which was to take place at a class reunion, which was unfilmed at the time of his death in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shootout, as a whole; it’s both a troubling massacre and an immensely satisfying revenge. Early posters of if… favored shots of star McDowell or the photogenic Girl; we prefer the brief image of a dowager who grabs a machine gun and pitches in for the defense of the school.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tiger mating ritual; chaplain in a drawer; granny with a machine gun

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Throughout most of its run time if… is a viciously realistic boarding school drama. But when the Headmaster sternly tells the boys “I take this seriously… very seriously indeed” after Mick shoots a chaplain and bayonets a teacher during the school’s campus war games, we suddenly realize the line between realism and fantasy has been thinner than we thought.


Original U.S. release trailer for if….

COMMENTS: if…‘s theme is the conflict between tradition and rebellion, age and youth, especially resonant concerns in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the firebrand film was fortuitously released a few months after the student riots in Paris. Structurally, ifContinue reading 253. IF…. (1968)

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)

CAPSULE: THE FITS (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Anna Rose Holmer

FEATURING: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett

PLOT: A preteen tomboy finds herself drawn into the dance classes at her local recreation center, but soon after she joins the group the older girls begin suffering mysterious seizures.

The Fits (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While definitely of interest to aficionados of weirdness, and a highly recommended film overall, it just doesn’t reach the levels of  bizarre we aim for with the List.

COMMENTS: Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a quiet, athletic 11-year-old girl who spends her afternoons at the local rec center with her older brother, training in the boxing gym with a group of teen boys. She finds herself compelled to join the dance drill team that rehearses down the hall, feeling shy around the girls but determined to show off her moves. Though she doesn’t appear to be naturally gifted at dance, she sticks with it and befriends some of the other new recruits, observing the older girls who lead the troupe with the curiosity of a child and the growing understanding of a young adult. When the seizures start, Toni and her friends are more intrigued than scared, and they watch from afar as more and more of the older girls are affected by this unexplained malady. Toni begins to suspect that it’s intentional, that they want it, and it becomes a kind of calling card for a cool inner circle.

Based on plot alone, The Fits sounds like a fairly standard coming-of-age drama, and in some ways it is: a shy and intelligent girl finds community within a larger group, learns about new adult realities, maintains her independence, etc. The parallels between the girls’s seizures and female puberty are obvious, as Toni feels the kind of ostracization and curiosity that preteen girls might experience as their friends start getting (and discussing) their periods. Along with fear of the unknown there is a pride attached to the phenomenon, a feeling of special knowledge and maturity. Throughout the film, we see our tomboy protagonist slowly acquiring visual markers coded as “girly,” including glitter nail polish and pierced ears, which help her fit in with her friends. But she slowly sheds them all, retaining her sense of difference. Eventually, Toni (and the audience) senses that there is a kind of freedom attached to the seizures—the precise, fluid movements of the drill team are liberally flung out the window in the sudden and erratic fits the girls exhibit. There is a beauty to letting go, to giving in to being a girl, to finding acceptance in her changing, awkward preteen body.

With a keen observational eye and resourceful use of a single location (the town recreational center), first-time director Anna Rose Holmer fully engages with the perspective of her central character. We see everything through Toni’s eyes, and the subtle, powerful performance of Royalty Hightower communicates a world of experience with little expository dialogue. But the most intriguing stylistic element of The Fits is its sound. While one might realistically expect a soundtrack of dance music, specifically pop or hip hop, to go with the performances of the drill team, the music rarely matches the action onscreen. Instead we are treated to bizarre, somewhat abstract soundscapes that create a sense of intrinsic eeriness, hinting that something must be wrong here. The surreal music serves to pick apart the weirdness of adolescence, and to heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Toni feels every day behind her stony exterior as she maneuvers the muddy waters between childhood and adulthood. Without it, the events of the film would be dramatic, but not necessarily extraordinary. With it, we are left with a distinct but ambiguous sense of strangeness, an itch we can’t quite scratch, a mystery never to be solved. And yet, thanks to an exuberant final dance number, there’s a contentment that goes along with it, suggesting the power of sisterhood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale.”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida

PLOT: A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

CAPSULE: LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003)

Ruang rak noi nid mahasan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

FEATURING: , Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak

PLOT: Suicidal expatriate librarian Kenji witnesses a fatal automobile accident while contemplating jumping off a Bangkok bridge, and falls for Noi, the victim’s sister.

Still from Last Life in the Universe (2003)\

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Last Life in the Universe is a quality romantic drama with a strong “indie” flavor to it, but the few liberties it takes with reality aren’t quite enough to tip it into the “weirdest of all time” category.

COMMENTS: Suicide attempts, pot-smoking hallucinations, abusive boyfriends, yakuiza revenge killings: Pen-Ek Ratanaurang slips a surprising amount of plot into a languid movie that’s essentially about two mismatched people lying around talking and occasionally cleaning the house. It also has enough fantasy sequences (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality) that you may become confused once or twice as to whether events really occurred (I confess that I thought one of the major plot twists was a dream up until the end of the movie). Asano and Boonyasak make for an appealingly melancholy couple, each of them mired in their own particular tragedy. The Japanese librarian is an obsessive neatnik, while the Thai local is a pothead slob, but the movie makes the barrier to these two consummating their attraction feel like it runs deeper than superficial traits; their private sadnesses seem unbridgeable.

As a whole, Last Life‘s story is denser than the minimalist individual scenes might suggest; it’s a movie with good replay value. Try to catch things that you missed on a first pass. Look for lizards everywhere, and a nod to That Obscure Object of Desire. You’ll also learn about Bangkok bars where the hostesses dress like schoolgirls wearing bunny ears, and how to get bloodstains out of your Escher print. And you can make up your own mind about the ambiguous ending. If nothing else, Ratanaruang goes down easier than fellow sleepyThai ‘s work: it’s not as weird, but a lot more happens.

Last Life was lensed by cinematographer nonpareil ; according to an interview with Ratanaruang included on the DVD, the chance to work with Doyle was one of the main inspirations for the movie, and the DP seems to have had an unusually large role in the finished project. Last Life is also notable for a rare acting cameo by director , who does well as a yakuza boss. Miike, of course, directed Last Life star Asano in Ichi the Killer. If you’re looking for a truly international film production, you can’t get much more cosmopolitan than this: a Thai setting and director, a Japanese star, an Australian cinematographer known for his work in Hong Kong, and the whole thing was partially funded with French and American money. They even speak three languages in the movie: Thai, Japanese, and English (although Asano and Boonyasak’s English accents sometimes made me anxious to return to the subtitles).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The closest thing to entering a dream state at the movies right now is watching ‘Last Life in the Universe’…”–Charles Taylor, Salon (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “CoinLocker.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)