All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREENER GRASS (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey

PLOT: In the pastel roadways of an uncanny suburbia, Jill gives her baby away to a friend and then starts losing everything else she holds dear.

Still from Greener Grass (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In case you were thinking that Hell Suburbia was over and done with as a genre, think again. Greener Grass piles the golf carts, dental perfection, tight-femme-mom-chic pinks, and non-sequitur Valley Girl dialogue high on a teetering mound of absurdity, satire, comedy, and dystopia.

COMMENTS: Everyone envies Jill (Joceyln DeBoer). Her best friend Lisa is jealous of her baby immediately upon belatedly noticing it for the very first time. Another friend is amazed at the canapés she brought to her daughter’s birthday party. (“They’re so small!”) Her son is in the school’s elite “Rocket Math” program. Her home is pitch-perfect “Better Homes & Gardens” elegance, complete with a new pool whose oxygen filtration system makes its water, according to her husband, delicious. Her teeth are getting better, too; like every other adult in her town, she has braces.

Beginning with an impulsive effort to please her best friend (Dawn Luebbe, all glorious awkwardness and legs), Jill’s life starts sliding downhill. Handing off her baby to its new owner (cue portentous music) we see Jill’s awkward smile, which continues during the opening credits, filling up the entire screen, the rictus grin quavering throughout, then continuing to quaver on and off through the entire movie. Greener Grass blinds us with its pink and glossy-white vision of a post-utopian Suburbia. These folks have every comfort, and so fall back on one-upmanship and staggering vapidity. Jill’s cracks at the start become fissures during her husband’s 40th birthday party, when their son, himself quavering in his awkwardness, feebly croons the “birthday song” before collapsing into the immaculate pool, emerging as an immaculate yellow retriever. (His father is thrilled at the change.)

I don’t know the history of evilly pristine suburbs, but David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet is as good a landmark as any. While his had an underside of all-too-human unpleasantness, Greener Grass doesn’t allow for a speck of what we’d recognize as genuine humanity. There is no controversy or evil, just pettiness: withering criticism of a child’s tardiness—directed against Jill; dismissiveness of a gift of bean dip (being a mere five layers instead of seven)—directed against Jill; chastisement for being “rude” at a four-way intersection—directed against Jill.

Greener Grass is something of a feminist movie, but it points out that some of women’s worst enemies can be their fellow women. Jill’s friend attempts to take over her life from the start, beginning with the baby, before moving on to subtly co-opting everything else. This Mean Girls reality—one seen through (ominously) rose-colored lenses—creates something entirely unexpected: a sympathetic character amidst the dross of upper-middle class nothings. I couldn’t describe the tone simply as being “heavy-handed”; although it’s like a shotgun to the face for ninety minutes, it’s saturated as much by weirdo, “Upright Citizens Brigade”-style comedy as it is with social criticism. “Miss Human”, the second-grade teacher, with her Oregon Trail-style lesson plans; the “French”-style bistro replete with beret-wearing waiter fops; and the father’s beaming pride at his son’s new speed and charisma as a dog: these are all odd, and well executed—and taken as far as possible without letting up. Jill’s torment never ceases, but she never stops smiling. Ever.

Greener Grass was expanded from a 15-minute short (a Saturday Short selection, natch)—you can view it here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…future cult favorite — a fate that seems all but guaranteed for this weird and wonderful comedy of manners…” –Peter DeBruge, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1975)

El Asesino de Muñecas, AKA Killing of the Dolls

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DIRECTED BY: Miguel Madrid (as Michael Skaife)

FEATURING: David Rocha, Inma de Santis, Helga Liné, Rafael González Jr.

PLOT: Expelled from medical school because of his aversion to blood, Paul moves back home only to succumb to murderous impulses.

Still from Killer of Dolls (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Dolls has more than a normal movie’s share of “WTF?” moments, but its overall tenor is more of poor (but enthusiastic) execution than weirdness.

COMMENTS: If there is one takeaway from Killer of Dolls, it’s that director Miguel Madrid really wanted to make something special. If there’s a second takeaway from Killer of Dolls, it’s that Miguel Madrid really liked his lead actor’s body. Alternating between being waifishly coy and flailingly bombastic, David Rocha’s performance as Paul, the would-be surgeon and definite-murderer, involves more shirtlessness and short-shorts than perhaps any movie I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there was any excuse to get Rocha nearly naked, writer/director Madrid took it.

This artistic choice’s bearings on the proceedings is at least nominally explained: Paul was his parents’ second child, born after his sister had passed away. His mother treated him as a little girl when he was quite young, going so far as to call him “Catherine,” the name of his erstwhile sibling. Grown up, Paul is too squeamish for medical school, to the point of being expelled. Moving home, he takes up some tasks at the public garden his father tends on behalf of the countess who technically owns the grounds (?–one of several unclear background points). While mincing around the plant life, he begins an altogether questionable friendship with a prepubescent boy while somehow simultaneously seducing the countess and her comely young daughter. However, he is haunted by his sister’s spirit (?), and despite his inability to cope with blood in a medical setting, he overcomes this difficulty by donning a woman’s mask and wig in order to kill various sexually precocious park visitors.

The movie begins with a doll being dismantled by a young fellow who goes on to explain the psychological nature of the feature to follow. This dalliance with feminine fetishization and psychological hokum goes unabated throughout as Paul has screaming-running fits when distressed, takes very strange showers (his writhing and vocalizations suggesting anguished arousal), wanders around his home in (short) shorts, towel, or y-fronts, or when he gears up to kill a traveling band of singing, dancing hippies who break into the park after hours for what seems like a musical intermission. It is somewhat grudgingly that I haven’t nominated this film for our Apocrypha, but in the end I had to ask myself if Dolls was any good. Alas, it falls into an awkward category; I could only screen this for someone as a lighthearted punishment, or to illustrate the kind of things 366’s reviewers are obliged to dive into. At least Rocha was easy enough on the eyes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an effectively weird film…”–Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, , Christopher Walken

PLOT: Constable Ichabod Crane is sent from New York City to investigate a string of murders in Sleepy Hollow only to find that there are grisly supernatural machinations afoot.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If Tim Burton maintained the off-kilter, whimsical bloodiness of the film’s first half throughout, it might have stood a chance. Unfortunately, the tone and narrative collapse together as the movie progresses.

COMMENTS: We’ve spilled a fair amount of ink writing about our mounting disappointment in Tim Burton—a director who had such promise starting out, with a string of odd-to-weird hits including Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Apocrypha Candidate Beetlejuice. The end of the last millennium also heralded the end of Burton’s dalliance with weirdness, and Sleepy Hollow acts, appropriately, as the gravestone to his career in weird cinema.

After its haunting introduction, the story proper begins down by the docks, in a young New York City, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp, in perhaps his last role before the living ghost of took full possession of him) pulls a bloated corpse from the waters. Irked by his cleverness, but bowing to his investigative acumen, the authorities send him packing to the gloomy town of Sleepy Hollow, as a string of murders there has left a terrified populace along with a growing stack of headless victims. He immediately is smitten by the fey Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town’s chief farmer, magistrate, and all around patriarch Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane soon begins his twitchy investigation, uncovering a conspiracy involving some very dark arts.

With Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton reaches the peak of his storybook, Expressionistic powers. Smoke and clouds are used to the most sinister of effects. Dark dreams filled with white magic and black torture batter the hero’s consciousness. The movie’s wicked ambience—gloomy landscapes, stunted buildings, and colorful townsfolk—seems impossible to maintain. And so it turns out to be. The strangeness of seeing Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, and Michael Gough as the gaggle of terrified and powerful officials is undercut, unfortunately, by two serious casting errors. I am a big fan both of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson, but in Sleepy Hollow the former is too childlike, and the latter too modern.

Obviously, Christopher Walken helps—he always does. His dialogue-free performance as “the Hessian” would have been a major selling point had the marketers not (commendably) opted to keep his presence hush-hush. But as I said, the whole venture starts crumbling as we learn more about the conspiracy (all these machinations for what is, effectively, a mere cash grab) and as Ichabod Crane develops his increasing fancy for Katrina (who is simultaneously fascinating and charmless). While it’s not a high water mark for Burton, Sleepy Hollow is his last good movie. (This position is perhaps affected by my own nostalgia, having seen it in theaters in my younger days.) Had he gone full tilt, it could have been a great movie.

Speaking of tilting, there is that fiery showdown at a windmill, an apt metaphor for the film. Tim loses his nerve, and crashes and burns.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Heads roll, bodies pile up, and the horseman — played in flashback by a mega-weird Christopher Walken — rises from the dead. Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, turns Irving’s Sleepy Hollow into one fucked-up farm town, filled with adultery, theft, murder and witchcraft. It’s a Burton kind of place.” -Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.

Srill from The Lighthouse (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.

COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.

The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.

Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)

Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone.”–Lindsey Barr, Associated Press (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)

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Recommended

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: DRY BLOOD (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Kelton Jones

FEATURING: Clint Carney, Jaymie Valentine, Kelton Jones

PLOT: As Brian navigates his way through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol in a semi-secluded cabin, he may or may not be killing people.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would have taken a far worse script (as it stands, it hits “Competent Soap Opera” level) or far more inspired acting (see previous parentheses; where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him?) to turn this into something of interest for us. Dry Blood is either a missed opportunity for a serious allegory on substance abuse, or a missed opportunity for mad-jack violent ambiguity.

COMMENTS: I typically avoid doing research on new releases, preferring to make my remarks based solely on the film’s merits. Somehow, though, I discovered that Dry Blood garnered a lot of awards. A whole lot of them. Would I say that Dry Blood deserved those Best Writer/Picture/Director/ and Actor awards? Oh no. Ohhh deary me, no. Unfortunately this movie isn’t that good. More unfortunately, it isn’t quite bad enough, either.

Brian (Clint Carney, who is to Nicolas Cage what James Belushi is to John Belushi) wakes up hung-over in his car and leaves a message for his ex-girlfriend to come and help him to sober up in his mountain cabin. Strung out on pills—primarily; we also see problems with alcohol, cocaine, and references to more injectable varieties of distractors—he keeps seeing glimpses of corpses, standing and otherwise, around his cozy abode. A local sheriff (Kelton Jones) keeps popping into his life uninvited, typically delivering a line of non sequitur dialogue (“Do you know where I could score any dope?”) before stating, “I didn’t say anything”. Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Anna (Jaymie Valentine), finally shows up and the duo morphs into a trio as the plot builds toward its inevitable mental collapse where we lose all ability to judge what’s real and what isn’t.

That in mind, Dry Blood does two things well. First, there’s the unreliable narration. Everything is viewed from Brian’s perspective, and he is obviously a troubled man. He becomes increasingly aware of this, but his heightened grasp on whether or not something is real somehow works to our disadvantage. Dead woman in the shower? Probably not there. Strange hair ribbons around key props (drug baggy, rusted knife)? Probably put there by Brian—for reasons unexplored. The arrival of his ex-girlfriend (not to be confused with the fourth main character, his ex-wife) should give us a greater grip on the proceedings, but she just muddies the water with platitudes and stilted delivery.

As for the second thing, it’s this film’s only true saving grace. Kelton Jones should really think about pursuing a career specializing in creepy cop characters. The sheriff seems plucked straight from the nightmare version of Super Troopers (Broken Lizard, if you’re reading, get on that right now). Whether he’s fondling his revolver during a “friendly conversation” or pulling over poor Brian “just to say good morning,” he’s a hoot. But he’s the film’s only hoot.

Which is a shame, because this movie could have been a fascinating depiction of the addiction-recovery cycle. Dry Blood begins and ends with Brian leaving different messages for Anna about wanting to sober up. Unfortunately, it over-plays its horror-hand and hitches its wagon (to mix metaphors for a moment) fully to standard genre gore-play. Brian never learns from his mistakes; having watched this movie on the heels of Odissea della Morte, it would appear that I never learn from mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As you’d expect, the nature of the ghosts becomes more ambiguous as the film progresses, but the results are less of a clever attempt to mess with the viewer’s head or convey a filmic portrait of drug-addled mania and more just bafflingly incomprehensible.”–Sol Harris, Starburst (contemporaneous)