Tag Archives: Mystical

312. MOTHER! (2017)

“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”–Revelation 11:18

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A writer and his wife live alone, rebuilding a house where the man used to live before it burned down. One day, a stranger shows up at their door and the husband invites him to stay, against the woman’s wishes. More uninvited guests arrive, first the family of the original man, and then hordes of the writer’s adoring fans, sowing complete chaos in the home just as the woman gives birth.

Still from mother! (2017)

BACKGROUND:

  • Darren Aronofsky says he wrote the first draft in “a fever dream” in just five days.
  • Per Aronofsky, 66 of the film’s 115 minutes are closeups of Jennifer Lawrence.
  • 20th Century Fox passed on distributing the film due to a controversial scene.
  • The movie received a rare “F” rating on CinemaScore (which measures audience reactions). Fewer than 20 movies have ever received such a low score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t mention the scene that makes the most impact for fear of spoiling your reaction. (You’ll know it when you see it). That leaves us looking for a second place image to fill this space; we’ll go with the vagina-shaped wound that develops out of a bloodstain on the house’s hardwood floor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine-Seltzer; toilet heart; crowd-surfing baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Writer/director Aronofsky lets this movie go all to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene in particular that sent ’em packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood offering with an outsider’s brashness, transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Outraged moviegoers who came to see megastar Jennifer Lawrence’s horror film got a puzzling, punishing allegory instead. mother! was an all-too-rare “event movie” in the weird genre.


Original trailer for mother!

COMMENTS: The first act, with uninvited house guests arriving in Continue reading 312. MOTHER! (2017)

CAPSULE: MIMOSAS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Laxe

FEATURING: Ahmed Hammoud, Shakib Ben Omar

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

Still from MIMOSAS (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

mother! has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please read the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (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)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGELUS (2000)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Siodlaczek, Pawel Steinert, Daniel Skowronek, Tadeusz Plawecki

PLOT: Just before dying, the Rosicrucian master of a cult of painters in the Polish mining town of Katowice predicts WWII, Stalinism, the atom bomb, and the end of the world via a death ray shot from Saturn.

Still from Angelus (2000)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lech Majewski seems like the kind of aggressively surreal filmmaker who should be represented with a spot somewhere on the List, and with its mix of Eastern European mysticism and historical absurdism, Angelus is likely the top candidate in his oeuvre—so far, at least.

COMMENTS: Composed of a series of snapshots rather than a typical flowing narrative, Angelus features an extensive gallery of nearly-static tableaux, accompanied by voiceover narration. Many of the compositions, especially those shot outdoors, recall the meticulous constructions of (including the use of splice-editing to cause objects to suddenly materialize on screen). Scenes like the one where a young boy stands eating a roll in the foreground while seven painters stand stock-still in the background, flanking a nude woman who sits on an improvised stage draped in red velvet as the sun rises over a hilltop, inevitably evoke the adjective “painterly.”

As a historical allegory on the fate of post-war Poland, the movie ridicules the absurdities of both Nazism (Hitler is seen soaking his feet in a swastika-bottomed basin) and, for most of its running time, of Stalinism. The cult members (who can actually perform small-scale miracles) hold to their apocalyptic faith in the face of persecution, and guardian angels wander through the landscape offering advice and consolation. Angelus starts off very strong, introducing us to a series of quirky cultists in a highly peculiar situation, but by the time Stalin arrives, it loses much of its narrative momentum, sinking into relatively mundane subplots about life under the Communist regime. One of the cultists has an insatiable sexual appetite, another is an aspiring alchemist sworn to celibacy and who calls his girlfriend “man,” there are dances, the young narrator falls in love with the only pretty maiden in the village, and there is a half-hearted plan to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark. Much of the middle section of the film gets lost in these digressions, which sometimes seem like they would be at home in a more naturalistic-minded film, until we finally circle back to the death-ray-from-Saturn plot. It all ends in an unusually abrupt fashion.

Billed as a “komedia metafizyczna,” the film’s main purpose is to demonstrate the resilience of man’s spiritual nature under even the most repressive social orders. The cult’s beliefs may be ludicrous, but they are soulful, and despite their oddities their dogmas are far preferable to the equally absurd ideologies designed by cynical dictators as tools of subjugation.

Angelus is available in a region-free DVD with English subtitles, although the menus are exclusively in Polish. The seller I bought it from included a handy “cheat sheet” with Polish-to-English translations to help with navigation. This article from a Polish culture website describes the historical Silesian cult that inspired Majewski’s story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A comical, artistic, absurd and surreal portrait of a cult/communal culture in historial Silesia of the 20th Century… A unique experience…”–Zev Toledano, “The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by NGBoo, who called it a “mix of unorthodox comedy, absurd drama & fantastic mystery,” and who got tired of waiting for our review and wrote it up himself [in Serbo-Croatian, unfortunately]. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: In the present day, a scientist searches for a cure for his wife’s brain tumor; two other stories are interspersed, one about a conquistador’s search for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and another about a tree-tending bald guru in a space bubble floating towards a nebula.

Still from The Fountain (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A spiritual allegory told in three different timelines, one of which is set almost entirely in a traveling golden space bubble, The Fountain is far out by Hollywood standards. The final ten or fifteen minutes, when Aronofsky goes all 2001-y, may push the film onto the List. I expect to see lots of readers stumping for this; it feels like a burgeoning cult movie, one whose momentum is still building.

COMMENTS: The Fountain has an extraordinarily tight script, with reflections of each of its three different stories showing up in the others. Rings, trees, and immortality are just a few of the recurring symbols. Some viewers—even a few critics who should be better equipped to parse unconventional narratives—found the story baffling. I didn’t think it was especially confusing (except, perhaps, for the very end), nor do I think that anyone who’s seen a weird movie or two will find The Fountain too challenging to follow. I won’t spoil the plot—uncoiling it is the movie’s greatest pleasure—but I’ll give a single hint if you get stuck. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all three stories are of equal weight; one of them clearly has what we might call a higher degree of reality than the other two.

As hinted, that script is tight up until the ending, where the movie stretches its weird credentials in a pan-religious finale that crashes a spaceship of Buddhist philosophy into a temple of Mayan mysticism to unlock a door to Judeo-Christian symbolism. The lotus position is assumed, conquistadors get stabbed, and trees bleed spermlike sap as a golden nebula explodes. Not bad for a trip sequence, but the visual fireworks play more like a substitute for a conclusion than as a culmination of the movie’s philosophical themes. Back on planet earth, I think a key element of allegory is missing. The movie’s message of acceptance does not seem profound enough to justify the preceding bombast, and it all leads to an abrupt, none-to-satisfying final scene.

Although the glory of the movie’s visuals can’t be denied—the fantasy scenes look like embossed gold foil is running through the projector—emotionally, The Fountain does not always achieve its aims. Weisz is too mannered and inhuman in her scenes as the Queen, and too much on the sidelines in her present day role. Her dying-of-a-tragic-disease-that-leaves-her-weak-but-still-pretty character never seems like a real, independent person; she’s just a motivation for Jackman’s obsession. We sense how amazing she is only by her effect on her husband, by the lengths to which she drives him to travel to the ends of the earth, the limits of medical knowledge, and the ends of the universe. For Jackman’s part, he certainly acts his heart out, gnashing his teeth and steeling his brow as he buckles down for another bout of uncompromising, denial-based medical research, but the performance is nothing transcendent. Emotionally, the film feels a little hollow, taking its theme of eternal love too much as a stock situation rather than something to be demonstrated onscreen. These complaints only take a little away from the beauty of the film’s construction; the movie was inches away from being a great one. I can see what The Fountain‘s partisans see in it, but I don’t feel what they feel.

Critics were about evenly divided between admiring the film for its audacity and calling it out for its pretensions. But if nothing else, Darren Aronofsky is one of the few directors working today who can actually convince a Hollywood studio to bankroll a weird movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tim,” who [somewhat misleadingly, in my view] synopsized it as “about a guy [looking a lot like Kwai Chang Caine] who is floating through space in a bubble, with a tree, thinking back on his life as a Conquistador and pharmaceutical researcher.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra

FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, , Brionne Davis

PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.

Still from Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.

COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.

One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.

The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.

The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)