Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: CATERPILLAR (2010)

AKA Kyatapirâ

DIRECTED BY: Kôji Wakamatsu

FEATURING: Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya

PLOT: Lieutenant Kurokawa loses all four limbs and is rendered deaf, dumb and disfigured during the Japanese invasion of China on the eve of World War II; when the Emperor declares him a “Living War God,” his wife Shigeko is ordered to care for the living torso, including fulfilling all her usual wifely duties.

Still from Caterpillar (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its perverse premise and its superficial similarities to the Certified Weird Johnny Got His Gun, Caterpillar isn’t that weird; instead, it’s an intense domestic drama about duty.

COMMENTS: Lieutenant Kurokawa is a monster. Scarred by the war, unable to hear or to speak (with great difficulty, he can sometimes painfully squeeze out a single syllable), he’s essentially a torso, an esophagus and a fully-functional phallus. Flashbacks reveal that the caterpillar, now revered as a god, was actually a moral monster long before his physique was carved up to match. The duty to care for the god-monster falls upon long-suffering partner Shigeko, who must feed him, wipe him, and cater to his suddenly insatiable sexual needs.  For the wife, the mangled Lieutenant combines the worst aspects of an infant and a spouse—completely dependent, demanding, and incoherent, but with no compensatory cuteness or tenderness. She lives alone with him in a one-room house of horrors. Yet, perversely, this disaster delivers an unexpected upside for the poor farm wife. She gains social standing in the village as the caretaker for a god. She is sure to wheel him out in his cart daily to shore up the morale of the rapidly depopulating village as all available able-bodied men are shipped to the front to help failing war effort (even as the daily radio broadcasts detail Japan’s magnificent martial victories). On the home front, Shigeko also eventually learns to enjoy the petty power she has to deny the god a little bit of rice or sex, becoming herself a mini-dictator of an empire consisting of one subject on a straw mat. Caterpillar starts slowly but draws you in to the compellingly claustrophobic dynamic between these two unlikely mates yoked together by fate and obligation. Shinobu Terajima’s performance as the wife is brave and sympathetic (she won many awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), but Keigo Kasuya’s turn as the caterpillar is even more crucial to the film’s success. His ability to convey mute fury and desperation with just his eyes, stutters and howls humanizes his role as a symbol of national and domestic fascism. The film never becomes truly exploitative, but there is plenty of caterpillar/human sex, in multiple positions, to titillate the curious. The cinematography is mostly cast in a drab browns that are effective at evoking a backwater rural lifestyle but aren’t particularly pleasing to look at. The budget is obviously tiny: for events outside of the hut and the village, the movie mainly relies on archival footage, along with one war crime recreation with distracting CG flames superimposed over the scene. But the inherent horrific drama and Wakamatsu’s insistent indictment of unthinking duty overcome the cheapness, and Caterillar metamorphoses into an anti-authority parable worth paying attention to.

Like many Japanese directors, Kôji Wakamatsu began his career in the trenches making “pink” films before graduating to more serious features. His filmography contains some titles he’d probably prefer we forgot: movies with names like The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Diary Story of a Japanese Rapist, and Violated Angels. In the 1970s Wakamatsu began slipping more politics into his exploitation films, culminating in  United Red Army (2008), an entirely serious drama about the collapse of the Japanese radical movement in the 1970s, and in this film. Caterpillar was adapted from a 1929 short story by Edogawa Rampo that was originally banned as perverse and unpatriotic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a sexually charged two-hander with blunt allegorical implications… Audience interest will be limited to Wakamatsu devotees and the kind of cult-oriented audiences who automatically perk up at the chance to see simulated amputee sex.”–Vadim Rizov, Boxoffice Magazine (contemporaneous)

BUNUEL’S NAZARIN (1959)

Luis Buñuel‘s self-imposed exile in Mexico from 1946-1964 yielded a fruitful harvest, and his films from this period are, arguably, his most organic and economically composed.  The director listed Nazarin, based off the Benito Perez Galdos novel, as a film he felt much affection for, and that affection extended to the character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal).  Buñuel’s paternal attachment to this child/film was sincere enough that when the film failed to win the Prix de l’Office Catholique (Catholic Film Prize), he could express a sense of relief.

The saturnine Fr. Nazario lives in a phantasmagoric haze, imagining that he is following the commandment of Christ to “take up one’s cross,” but only disaster lies in the stations Nazrio visits.  Nazario does not build his house on rock, but on mud.  He keeps company with a menagerie of freaks: beggars, thieves, whores, and a dwarf.  Nazario refrains from bolting his door, despite the fact that his mob plunders his abode daily.  He is relieved of all possessions, save his Sunday best and crucifix.  Thank God for that.  He befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga Lopez), whose self destructiveness is birthed from her incessant need for the abusive man who regularly deserts her.

Still from Nazarin (1959)Nazario provides shelter to Beatriz’ homely prostitute sister, Andara (Rita Macedo) after she is wounded in a knife fight.  Andara has killed her rival and is hiding from local authorities.  The local Church learns of the living arrangement and accuses Nazario of improprieties.  Beatriz and Andara become Nazario’s Mary and Martha, but the paradox of the priest’s hypocrisy is that he pragmatically shuns Andara’s imaginative qualities, labeling it a “sickness.”  Yet, Bunuel invests this setup with an inviting sense of irony.  Nazario is Continue reading BUNUEL’S NAZARIN (1959)

CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (U.S. EDITION) (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Juan Solanas, Andrea Arnold, Christopher Nolan, Roy Andersson, Toby MacDonald, Lynne Ramsay, Jan Svankmajer, Mathieu Kassovitz, , Virgil Widrich, Ridley Scott, , Balint Kenyeres, Anders Thomas Jensen, Martin McDonagh, Nanni Moretti

FEATURING: Natalie Press, , Rúaidhrí Conroy, Klas-Gösta Olsson, Kris Marshall, Johannes Silberschneider, Tony Scott, Ulrich Thomsen

PLOT: This collection of sixteen award-winning shorts made by Europeans (mostly Brits) is a mix of dramas, comedies, and experimental pieces.

Still from Jabberwocky (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compilations aren’t eligible for the List.  Although there are several short films on this set that are both weird, and great for their length, none of them have the weight it would take to displace a full-length feature film from the List.

COMMENTS: Like any box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get with this collection of sixteen shorts—it could be a caramel, a raspberry creme, or one of the dreaded coconuts.  The wide array of styles from artists working free of commercial concerns makes collections like this excellent primers on what cinema can accomplish, and this selection  from short film specialists Cinema 16 is one of the most award-studded compilations you’ll find.  Not having to worry about the box office receipts allows short film-makers to experiment with technique and go weirder than they otherwise would; indeed, about half of the movies here have at least a nodding acquaintance with the bizarre, while a couple are full-fledged works of surrealist art.  But no matter what direction your tastes run, rest assured there is something here to delight, and to bore, every film fan.

For completeness’ sake, I’ll briefly run down the realism-based entries first, in ascending order of quality.  We’ll then spend a little more time with the experimental offerings, a few of which are extremely important to the world of weird film.

The oldest film, Ridley Scott’s 1956 Boy and Bicycle, about a lad who takes a bike ride to the Continue reading CAPSULE: CINEMA 16: EUROPEAN SHORT FILMS (U.S. EDITION) (2007)

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

“If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of ‘2001’ could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be ‘Tree of Life.'”–Film critic Andrew O’Hehir after the Cannes screening of Tree of Life (via Twitter)

“If you didn’t care for Tree of Life then genetically you are not a human being.”– (via Twitter)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: , Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain,

PLOT:  A couple learns about the death of one of their three sons.  Then, a flashback covers events from the birth of the universe to the birth of the couple’s first son, Jack.  A series of impressionistic scenes show Jack growing up in a small Texas town, afraid of the stern father who wants to toughen him up to face life’s trials.

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Tree of Life may be a partial reworking of Q, a discarded Malick script from the 1970s, which was said to involve “a Minotaur, sleeping in the water, and he dreams about the evolution of the universe…
  • Producer Grant Hill recalls that when he first saw Terrence Malick’s original script for The Tree of Life, it was “a long document that included photographs, bits of material from his research, paintings, references to pieces of music.  It was like something I’d never seen or even heard of before.”
  • Special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blade Runner (1982).  He came out of retirement to work on this film at Malick’s request.
  • Won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2011 and was voted “best film” in Sight & Sound‘s 2011 poll.
  • After some theatergoers asked for their money back after screenings of the movie, the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut put up a poster reading, in part: “We would like to remind patrons that THE TREE OF LIFE is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director.  It does not follow a traditional linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it, and for those electing to attend, please go in with an opened mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy once you have purchased a ticket to see one of our films.”
  • A shorter version of the film, featuring expanded versions of the birth of the universe sequences, is planned for a separate release as an IMAX documentary at a later date.
  • Our original July 5, 2011 review rated The Tree of Life a “Must See,” but demurred that the film was not quite weird enough to merit a place on the List.  Readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice Poll they voted Malick’s masterpiece be promoted to a List Candidate.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Thanks to its cosmic visuals, The Tree of Life is compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey more often than any other movie.  That should tip you off that selecting a single indelible image is no easy task.  I could cheat and include the entire twenty minute birth of the universe montage.  I could select my personal favorite image: the child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom who swims out the window to be born as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But I believe we will be forced to anoint the “gracious dinosaur” scene as the film’s most unforgettable gambit.  It’s Malick’s “chaos reigns” moment, the juncture at which you either get out of your seat and leave the theater, or experience your first weirdgasm of the evening.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Sometimes, when you spend your cinematic time immersed in the surrealistic worlds of and , it’s easy to forget how uncompromisingly radical and bizarre a film like The Tree of Life appears to someone whose idea of an “out there” movie is of Cowboys and Aliens. In our initial assessment of Malick’s grandiose God picture, we concluded that “surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as ‘poetic’ rather than ‘weird’” while acknowledging that “[a]ny movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.” In the months since that initial review, however, The Tree of Life‘s empyrean strangeness has continued to impress us as 2011’s best weird work. The clincher came when co-star Sean Penn complained to the French press, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” That’s all the endorsement we need: when a movie is too weird for its own Hollywood stars, we have to accept that it’s just weird enough for us.


Original trailer for The Tree of Life

COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for Continue reading 99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

CAPSULE: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Charlotte Gainsbourg, , Alexander Skarsgård, ,

PLOT: A young woman grapples with serious depression on her wedding day, causing rifts i nher already-tempestuous family relationships. Meanwhile, a planet known as Melancholia is making its way towards Earth.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Von Trier’s rumination on the end of the world is for the most part surprisingly understated, incorporating surrealistic imagery here and there but primarily relegating itself to a realistic study of a family in crisis with a science-fiction background.

COMMENTS: Opening with breathtaking slow-motion shots of a dreamlike apocalypse set to a bombastic Wagner score, Melancholia begins with the promise of something literally earth-shattering. Its ambition and scope seem far-reaching and all-encompassing, much like Malick’s confused 2011 offering The Tree of Life. Shifting to close-quarters shaky cam as the focus moves to new bride Justine’s wedding party, Melancholia becomes an investigation of her debilitating depression and how most of her wealthy, bitter family is unsympathetic. The second half keeps the setting of an isolated mansion inn, but puts the spotlight on sister Claire, whose extreme anxiety is increased by the foreboding presence of the incoming planet.

As the promise of a visually and thematically grandiose event lingers over the film’s proceedings, von Trier endeavors to first fully establish his characters and their relationships. We spend a lot of time with these people, seeing their connections and lack thereof, slowly understanding their underlying flaws and neuroses. The looming threat of complete world destruction is barely acknowledged during the first half as the script is absorbed in Justine’s efforts to hide her disease and Claire’s concern for keeping up appearances. It’s meandering and slow-moving, but the strong lead performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg—along with a charismatic supporting turn from Sutherland—are engaging enough to keep things interesting until the apocalypse strikes.

Because we spend so much time with these characters beforehand, their plight at the end is felt all the more acutely. Seeing how these women lived—raised in wealth but suffering internally (all very Salinger-esque)—is such an intimate experience that it’s hard to not feel involved personally. The planet Melancholia itself is truly an awesome sight, eerie and intimidating, seeming to affect the actors internally and causing a few mouths to open in the audience.  Of course, the ear-shattering Wagner orchestration helps build the intensity.

Weird movie fans will surely appreciate the gorgeous surrealistic imagery peppered throughout, but at its heart Melancholia is a serious examination of mental illness and family ties in the shadow of a cataclysmic event.

G. Smalley adds: Melancholia is an intensely metaphorical movie, but it is essentially a more conventional, dramatic reworking of the theme of clinical depression vonTrier explored in the weirder, more outrageous Antichrist.  The two movies contain common themes and a similar look (I was surprised to discover that they had different cinematographers), but they are so different in their approach that I’m not sure liking one will predict how you’ll react to the other.  In fact, I suspect that many of the people now singing the praises of Melancholia were the ones complaining the loudest at Antichrist and von Trier’s descent into “torture porn.”  Melancholia is strong throughout, but I found the opening the most astounding part.  It’s a six-minute super slow motion surrealistic montage that manages to enrapture while featuring characters and events about whom we know nothing yet.  It opens with a shot of a devastated-looking Kirsten Dunst with dead birds falling in the background, and includes what may be my favorite image of the year: Dunst trudging through a forest glade in her white wedding gown, dragging behind her a train of huge vines tied to her ankles and waist.  The slow motion photography is technically amazing; sometimes you believe you’re looking at a still photograph until you see a foot lift, and at other times it seems figures in the foreground and background are moving at different rates.  It’s thrilling (to me, at least) to see a director who once advocated stripping film down to its basics (the short-lived “Dogme 95” movement) now embracing the full operatic range of cinematic tools.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In many ways this bizarre, nihilistic meditation is a dreary, redundant, pretentious bore… On the other hand, the magnificent, ethereal visuals/special effects are haunting, particularly the opening collage which compresses the entire story.”– Susan Granger, SSG Syndicate

LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)

AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo

FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein,Gérard de Bédarieux

PLOT: Schoolboys stage a revolt at a French boarding school.

Still from Zero de Conduite (1933)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTZéro de conduite is an important historical film.  It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by (If…)  With its dwarf headmaster, disappearing balls and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner.  Its mildly surreal oddness nudges the needle on the weirdometer, but, despite its near-legendary status, it’s not thoroughly strange enough to make its way onto the List on the first ballot.

COMMENTS:  Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films.  The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29.  Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.

By banning Zéro de conduite, the director’s film about an imaginary rebellion in a boys’ boarding school, for thirteen years, the French censors only augmented Vigo’s legend.  From the perspective of patrons who are used to seeing political leaders openly mocked and clitorises graphically snipped off in movie theaters as they munch on popcorn, the idea of a movie with only a single “merde!’ and no violence, fetal rape, human centipedes, or even an obvious political target would be banned for over a decade is almost unimaginable.  The film contains hardly audible whispers of schoolboy homosexuality, but it was suppressed not for these but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”  Vigo’s anarchic, anti-authoritarian philosophy, which pervades the film’s 44 minute running time, was too hot and subversive for 1933 sensibilities.

Today, of course, the movie is notably tame.  In fact, if you’ve been exposed to any of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ZERO DE CONDUITE (1933)