Tag Archives: Tilda Swinton

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MEMORIA (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A Scottish woman traveling in Colombia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound.

Still from Memoria (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Memoria is a deliberately-paced accumulation of subtly odd incidents, with one big weird reveal.

COMMENTS: Memoria has a lot on its mind, but Weerasethakul’s philosophy, if not his film’s purpose, is summed up in a discussion in a doctor’s office (a conversation that Pfizer might not appreciate). Jessica has come to see a physician in a small Amazonian town seeking relief from her increasing auditory hallucinations and concomitant insomnia. She hints about pills. Tranquilizers, the non-prescribing physician advises, “will make you lose empathy. You will no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sadness of this world. Do you know Salvador Dalí? Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world.”

With all of the potential themes weaving their way through this movie, and through all of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, the simple directive of not overlooking the beauty of this world is a constant. As with other minimalist filmmakers, Weerasethakul pauses on scenes like a shot of a woman silhouetted in the silvery night, or an quietly teeming Amazonian jungle seen from a balcony, long enough so that you can absorb all the detail, all the beauty. Though she seeks a brief relief from the pressures of her world with Xanax, Jessica is not alien to this insight: on an errand at a music studio, she stops in a doorway to listen to a spirited jam session from a jazz quartet. Not many movies take time out in the middle of the story for a brief and totally superfluous recital—but for Weerasethakul, beauty pops up unexpectedly, and we must take time to savor it when it arrives.

It should be noted that much of the beauty he arranges for us is strange beauty, the beauty of the inexplicable and the supernatural. The movie’s second scene is a symphony arranged for car alarms, whose various honks and sirens, set off by some poltergeist, perform an aleatory rhythmic concert. Another early scene involves Jessica talking to sound engineer Hernán, who takes time out of his schedule to help her recreate the sound she’s hearing in her head in the studio, working from a library of movie effects, sculpting waveforms to create a “more earthy,” “rounder” sound at Jessica’s direction. This is an unusual scenario, to say the least. From this meeting Hernán takes a strong and peculiar interest in the older woman—that is, until he suddenly disappears from the story. Then, oddly enough, in a remote village Jessica meets a fish-scaler and mystic who just happens to also be named Hernán. This second Hernán understands the language of howler monkeys, does not dream, and holds the answer to the source of the thumping sound Jessica has been hearing… a rather astounding answer, it turns out.

Swinton is reserved here. She is quietly lost in the world, never raising her voice, reacting with widening eyes and tightening lips to the alarming noises echoing in her head. She is the perfect  Weerasethakul heroine, reacting just enough to these beautiful mysteries to guide us towards absorbing and savoring them. Memoria is a wispy piece of poetry that rewards concentration, but doesn’t demand it. If your mind drifts, you won’t miss anything. You see what is there to be seen, and hear what is there to be heard.

The screener copy I received on DVD was preceded by an short apologia from Weerasethakul and Swinton reminding us to “respect that this film was intended for a very, very much larger screen than the one you’re probably viewing it on now, and to keep that sacrosanct.” I didn’t get it at the time–I thought it was an unnecessary plea to not pirate the film, or simply to take into account that this was a sub-optimal presentation. But it turns out that these critics’ screener copies are reluctantly granted exceptions to the film’s rule: Weerasethakul intends for the movie to be shown only in theaters, with no home video or streaming release. (I imagine they will relent on that restriction after a few years pass, but then again, never has.) In the U.S., it begins its release on December 26, traveling from town to town, one engagement at a time. We’ll post a schedule when we can. If you want to see Memoria, you’ll have to make a point to seek it out; it won’t come to you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It’s like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming… Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.”–Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, , Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez,

PLOT: The townsfolk of Centreville, USA find their quiet routine is interrupted by re-animated undead who rise when the Earth is thrown off its axis by polar fracking.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jim Jarmusch opts for restraint in his take on the zombie genre, resulting in a Xanaxed, matter-of-fact “horror” movie that will tickle zombie movie revisionists and infuriate dogmatic enthusiasts. “Oddball” describes the tone well, as it describes pretty much everything Jarmusch has put his hand to.

COMMENTS: I’ve been advised by 366’s executive board on a handful of occasions that the movie image I choose for my reviews should be “more dynamic.” I am flouting that admonition for Jarmusch’s latest outing because, though it is certainly well-shot, its overall tone is “languid.” Indeed, the preponderance of A-list actors delivering hyper-low-key performances nearly tipped The Dead Don’t Die into apocrypha candidacy—that, along with its self-awareness, and humorous streak being coupled with an unfailing adherence to every zombie-movie rule in the book. Jarmusch’s venture into the realm of horror-comedy doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights for certification, but to its credit it’s also a near-miss for the “” designation.

The story is as old as time itself (or at least as old as 1968), as a tiny American town finds that it’s on the front line against a horde of shambling undead. The action kicks off with Centreville’s chief of police, Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray), with his sidekick Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, proving he isn’t the mopey so-and-so his more famous films would suggest), investigating the alleged theft of a chicken from Farmer Frank (a “Make America White Again”-hat-wearing-hick incarnation of Steve Buscemi) by Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, who also acts as a Greek chorus throughout). “This isn’t going to end well,” Ronnie tells us. And it doesn’t. Despite the best efforts of the police force, as well as the local merchants (the ever-reliable Danny Glover as the hardware store owner, the ever-mustachioed Caleb Jones as the gas-station/horror memorabilia shop-keep, and the ever-mysterious Tilda Swinton (as the possibly Scottish undertaker who is Not of This Town and is on a mission to “accumulate local information”), events teeter on, slowly and lugubriously, to the doomed showdown in the town cemetery.

I never thought I’d see the day that I’d recommend a Jim Jarmusch movie. While I’ve always respected him as a filmmaker for doing things differently, I’ve never been one to much enjoy what he was up to (barring a handful of the vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes). However, any artist that can make a jab at himself (delivered by Bill Murray at his world-weariest, no less) is all right in my book. And The Dead Don’t Die is an unequivocally fun movie that takes jabs at other worthy targets: hardcore horror buffs, small town America, and, in particular, hipsters (“…with their ‘irony'”). All the pokes are light and playful, though, as if Jarmusch has come to realize that the many people in the world who aren’t his fans (and the greater number who have no idea who he is) are people, too.

Indeed, the whole thing is worth it just to hear nerd-cop Adam Driver matter-of-factly remark, “I have an affinity for Mexicans.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Dead Don’t Die very occasionally seems flippant and unfinished, an assemblage of ideas, moods and prestigious actors circling around each other in a shaggy dog tale. But it’s always viewable in its elegant deliberation and controlled tempo of weird normality – and beautifully photographed in an eerie dusk by Frederick Elmes.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

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

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Created by Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange was an authentically odd character in the Marvel universe of the 1960s. Aptly, he debuted in the “Strange Tales” comic. The character almost perfectly encapsulated Ditko’s idiosyncratic, surreal pencil work, even more so than his better known co-creation, Spiderman. Complementing Ditko’s art, Stan Lee scripted the character as a hybrid mixture of Jungian archetypes with a theosophist cocktail of Eastern mysticism and Egyptian mythology. When other artists took over Doctor Strange after Ditko’s departure, it never had quite the same texture, and quickly became bland before descending into parody as the good doctor could be found in superhero team-ups with the likes of Hulk and Spiderman (!)

A pulp mystic, the character hardly seemed like a viable nominee for big screen treatment, and when Doctor Strange (2016) was announced as the next Marvel movie, the prospects didn’t look hopeful, considering director Scott Derrickson’s execrable resume.  Surprisingly,  Derrickson and his co-writers went straight to Ditko and Lee’s original source material, delivering an entertainingly psychedelic production, which is helped by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, , the ever reliable , and .

Still from Doctor Strange (2016)As much as embodies Iron Man, Cumberbatch does the same for this surgeon with the Trump-sized ego. However, an accident leaves Doc’s precious surgical hands mutilated, prompting him to seek enlightenment via the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, filling in for ), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Before you can say Expecto Patronum, Strange sees the light and transforms into Chandu the Magician heading to the next Hare Krishna meeting. Despite the here-we-go-again St. Paul conversion myth, it plays out much more uniquely, viscerally, and tongue-in-cheek than one might expect.  As Strange perfects his new metaphysical trade, the CGI actually enhances the narrative, as opposed to distracting us from it—and, yes, see it in 3D, because that’s the best route for trippy 60s symbolism. Derrickson and company faithfully recreate and expand upon Ditko’s peculiar brand of surrealism and the havoc they wreak with illusionary imagery from the mirror universe is refreshingly off-kilter.

In a rarity for something churned out by Marvel, the director and team have been given room to play outside of conveyor-belt dictates. The fun they have is contagious, but such a subject can only be as good as its villain. Fortunately, they have one in the outlaw mystic Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) who engages in a phantasmagoric battle with Strange on the streets of New York (aided considerably by Michael Giacchino’s galvanizing score). Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius could very well be his astral, Dark Dimension, bony version of Hannibal Lecter (and shame on those who missed that late series, which rendered the /Jonathan Demme version obsolete), delivering his hocus-pocus dialogue with such aridity, he scares the hell out of you just by speaking. Mikkelsen is cast well (although underused) against Cumberbatch’s in-the-know remote wit. Likewise, McAdams is smartly cast as Strange’s ex-girlfriend who literally assists in his physical and metaphysical healing. The actors, coupled with visuals blatantly inspired by MC Escher, give Doctor Strange an all too uncommon individuality. This is not the Avengers taking turns pounding away at big shiny black, metallic thingamajigs. Rather, the good doctor, with his cloak of levitation, takes his battles to the realm of pop nightmares, which makes the late hint to an inevitable Avengers tie-in all the more disappointing. Is it weird? Nah, but it’s an empyrean burlesque and, for this studio, that is a surprising treat.

CAPSULE: THE ZERO THEOREM (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mélanie Thierry, , Lucas Hedges, , Matt Damon

PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.

Still from The Zero Theorem (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.

COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.

The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels ‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s weird and there’s Terry Gilliam weird, and his latest exploration into the fleeting nature of humanity, The Zero Theorem, may as well have been watermarked with his name… weirdly enjoyable”–Blake Howard, Graffiti with Punctuation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Anton Yelchin

PLOT: A reclusive composer living in a cluttered house in a decaying neighborhood of Detroit is actually a vampire suffering from severe ennui; he reunites with his undead wife, who flies in from Morocco, and is visited by her troublemaking younger sister.

Still from Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: No Jim Jarmusch movie is ordinary or normal, but this languid vampire romance/drama, while intoxicating, doesn’t quite make it all the way to “weird.”

COMMENTS: I’ve always wondered how vampires keep from getting bored with eternal undeath. I occasionally find it hard to find something to do to fill up a few hours on a rare free Saturday afternoon; how in the world would I pass the endless nights of dozens of strung-out lifetimes?

Only Lovers Left Alive starts from that very premise, with vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries-old composer who now collects vintage guitars and composes feedback-laced funeral dirges, bored and contemplating offing himself with a new twist on the old stake-in-the-heart methodology. The only thing that keeps him from retiring to the coffin for good is his love for fellow walking corpse Eve (Tilda Swinton, who in an albino wig looks oh-positively undead, as well as slightly resembling a transgendered Jim Jarmusch). The mood of luxurious, decadent idleness is a fit with Jarmusch’s patient style of filmmaking. The vampires here are wan intellectuals, disaffected Romantics, above the common run of the living (whom they refer to as “zombies”). There is a reference to some recent corruption of the human world, in the idea that human blood is now largely contaminated, and it’s hard for the vampires to find “the good stuff” without a connection at the blood bank (the only truly funny moment in the movie comes when a bloodsucker feels sick after sipping at the veins of a poorly-chosen victim). The script is peppered with English-lit jokes (one of the vampires is a famous Elizabethan writer), and the soundtrack is largely dark psychedelia that give off a decadent, hashish-y vibe. The commonplace hemoglobin-as-a-dug motif further reinforces the film’s Bohemian aura. Some of the best moments are the blood on the teeth montages, when the undead each down a cup of red stuff and throw back their heads in ecstasy, looking for all the world like hopheads getting a fix. Later, disheveled, wearing sunglasses at night as they wander the streets of Tangiers looking for a score, Swinton and Hiddleston might as well be staggering in the footsteps of .

Even though a couple of characters die, it seems that not much actually happens over the course of two hours, or that there is much new that can happen to these jaded walking corpses. Though not as abstract and punishing as his previous experiment in stripped-down spy fiction, 2009’s The Limits of Control, Jarmusch’s latest is bound to alienate many viewers with its lack of action and highbrow references that sometimes seem self-congratulatory. Still, if you get on its arty wavelength, you’ll find euphoric moments that hit you like a rush of fresh blood to the cerebral cortex. Colorful, arabesque, and throbbing with a melancholy drone, the purpose of the movie is not to tell a story so much as to enfold us inside of these vampires’ immortal languor. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film to soak in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…part spot-on Detroit travelogue, part pop culture satire and part fish eternally out-of-water anxiety exercise. Somehow it’s all very entertaining and weird and fitting, with Detroit looking like a place any vampire would be happy to be.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)