Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, , , Guy Boyd

PLOT: A young woman goes on a trip to meet her new boyfriend’s parents at their farmhouse on a night when a blizzard is brewing; the night grows increasingly strange and unsettling as it becomes unclear what is real and what is imaginary.

Still from I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: By the time the pig shows up at Jake’s old high school, it becomes apparent that this maze of awkward interactions, faulty memories, and uncertain identities may just be Charlie Kaufman’s most surreal film.

COMMENTS: The first inkling that something is not quite right in I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes when the young woman (who is first introduced as “Lucy,” although it turns out that may not be her real name) thinks to herself, “I’m thinking of ending things.” “Huh?,” says Jake (that is his real name), from the driver’s seat. Can he hear her thoughts? She denies speaking. “Weird,” says Jake. “Yeah,” she answers.

Things will get weirder. She’s unsure why she wants to break up with him. Her backstory doesn’t add up. And she’s getting a lot of phone calls, which she’s not answering. When they arrive to meet Jake’s parents at their remote farmhouse, things get even stranger. As it turns out, Jake’s parents would creep out Henry Spencer‘s in-laws. Dinner is uncomfortable, full of small talk that often sounds like hidden accusations, and—once more—competing backstories that contradict each other. Jake’s parents age, almost before her eyes… Nothing explicitly supernatural or menacing happens, but the creaky farmhouse emanates a horror movie vibe, intensified by Jake’s passive-aggressive insistence that his girlfriend stay out of the basement. Meanwhile, Lucy—or whatever her name is—anxiously suggests that Jake take her home before the coming blizzard snows them in and traps her there.

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest mind-massager is another intensely subjective and literate tour of the lonely corridors of the mind, where nothing is as it seems. It’s one of his strangest offerings— particularly when it reaches an irrational finale that departs from the source novel—but perhaps what distinguishes it the most is the exceptional ensemble acting, best seen in the four-way sparring at the dinner table. Their expressions are priceless: Collette smiling to herself at private jokes only she can hear, Thewlis aggressively incredulous at the idea that a landscape could appear sad, Plemmons understandably embarrassed by his parent’s odd behavior, and trying to coax his girlfriend into revealing the correct details about how they met. We expect accomplished performances from those three celebrated actors, but relative newcomer Jessie Buckley is a revelation. She mutates throughout the film, portraying everything from a nervous recalcitrant girlfriend to an angry feminist to an apparent victim of very early-onset Alzheimer’s. She even slips into a Pauline Kael impression. Remarkable.

As with all the best trips, it’s the journey that’s most memorable, not the destination. There is a reveal at the end, but the twist, while satisfying, is hardly the point. Each scene is structured as an individually confounding moment: on the long ride there and back, Jake and his girlfriend discuss everything from the human experience of time, bad movies as viruses, with citations to Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, and musical theater (familiarity with “Oklahoma!” will enrich your experience). Jake says he like road trips because “it’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head”—but does the movie believe this thesis? As they travel, the couple learn less about each other, and more about the slipperiness of human memory, fantasy, and identity.  It’s Kaufman’s favorite theme: the loneliness of our inherent interiority. The paradox is that our inescapable subjectivity is the one thing we all share and bond over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience… There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.”–David Sims, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: #SHAKESPEARE’S SHITSTORM (2020)

Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lloyd Kaufman, Kate McGarrigle, Erin Miller, Monique Dupree, Abraham Sparrow, Amanda Flowers

PLOT: Very loosely following the plot of ‘s “The Tempest,” the story involves a party ship packed with pharmaceutical executives washed up on the shores of Troma, New Jersey, after a storm of whale feces.

Still from #SHAKESPEARE'S SHITSTORM (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: You’ll get more out of it if you know “The Tempest” (and know Troma well enough to catch Easter eggs like the “Kabuki flip”)—but, Shakespeare’s Shitstorm should shock and amaze anyone with a sense of cinematic adventure and strong stomach. It’s one long hedonistic orgy of grossout comedy and Bardic references. It’s got Lloyd Kaufman in two roles, including one in drag (in a Snow White costume, for reasons never explained); William Shakespeare telling a donkey show joke to a panel of Ph.Ds; and a climax that is accurately characterized as “like a Hieronymus Bosch painting” (if Bosch had been just a bit fonder of green slime, prosthetic boobs, and punk rock anthems). It’s the stuff that dreams are made of—at least, the kind of dreams you might have if you ate an entire herring pizza laced with ketamine as a midnight snack before going to bed.

COMMENTS: “The Tempest” was not William Shakespeare’s final play, but it was his last masterpiece. Its closing acts are widely interpreted as the Bard’s farewell to the theater. At 74 years of age, Lloyd Kaufman has already outlived Shakespeare, but the feeling that Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is intended as his final trashterpiece is inescapable.

Something about Shakespeare inspires Kaufman and his Troma team to heights of lunacy even beyond their usual excesses. Shitstorm may not be quite as surreal as Troma’s weirdest feature, Tromeo & Juliet, but it represents a capstone of their transgressive punk aesthetic. One affinity between Stratford-upon-Avon’s favorite son and New Jersey’s least reputable film studio is the large cast of characters: Troma has always favored maxamilized plots and as many odd-looking extras as they can convince to work for a mention in the rolling credits. The discipline (such as it is) imposed by being forced to parody the Bard’s sprawling plots enforces some structure on Kaufman, whose tendency is to make his movies as digressive and improvised-looking as possible. And of course, the tension between Shakespeare’s humanistic aspirations and Troma’s scurrilous antics is inherently amusing. The combination gives the studio the chance to argue, “sure, we may be lowbrow… but we’re smart lowbrow.” After all, they quote from the play’s text and throw in references to other plays and sonnets (always undercut by a corny or obscene joke), along with bits of Shelley and bawdy couplets of their own devise. It reminds us that there is an intelligence hiding under the layers of shit jokes.

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm isn’t just offensive; it’s an ode to offensiveness. It starts off with a toddler spattered with blood from her mother’s suicide. There’s a “diversity hire” stripper in a wheelchair, two separate subplots involving crack whores (including one who sings a musical number with the lines “suck her in and blow her out, my crack pipe never screams and shouts”), and bloody oral rape scene performed by an animatronic chicken. After all that, the nauseating scenes of characters getting lapdances while being showered by brownish buckets of cetacean “fecal bloom” seem positively quaint. The only real suspense is whether—or rather, when and how—they’ll drop the N-word. That’s all standard practice for Troma, though I daresay that Shitstorm breaks all previous Tromatic records for repulsion. But this time, offensiveness itself is the front-and-center theme of the movie; it makes the studio’s boldest case that causing offense is a social service. Shitstorm‘s chief satirical targets are entitled “SJW” bloggers with no sense of humor. Shitstorm‘s final moral is delivered as a string of ethnic jokes—with accompanying visual metaphor—an argument that mocking everyone and everything equally is a better route to solidarity than contorting our speech awkwardly to avoid stepping on any one group’s toes. In other words, lighten up. We’re all here to laugh, and if your in-group gets lambasted, it will be someone else’s turn in about 30 seconds.

And thankfully, the movie is funny. They even insert what I think is a joke for early reviewers only. Often, when you watch pre-release screeners, there will be a legend that periodically appears warning “for review purposes only.” In Shitstorm, that reminder instead reads “for bootlegging purposes only.”

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is a monumental movie. When you sit through the nine minutes of end credits—taking care to watch those amazing outtakes and read the jokes hidden in the text—you’ll realize that it takes an enormous pile of money to make something that looks this cheap. We are unlikely to see a Lloyd Kaufman movie on this scale ever again, and it’s a shame that Covid-19 prevented it from having the grandiose premiere to a packed house that it deserved. Troma has worked its way up from a disreputable B-movie studio to an underground institution. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of their approach, but Kaufman and team have worked ceaselessly doing their own thing their own way for 35 years now—and that deserves a celebration. Of course, Kaufman’s Prospero might actually like it better this way. He doesn’t deal well with sudden popularity near the end of Shitstorm: “You’re supposed to be triggered! Do not put me on a pedestal!” So instead, let’s send him off with a quote from Shakespeare: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free.” We’ll indulge you, Mr. Kaufman, in one last glorious barf fest.

 

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: TIME OF MOULTING (2020)

Fellwechselzeit

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Sabrina Mertens

FEATURING: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam

PLOT: Stephanie grows up with her eccentric, sickly mother and her “present-but-absent” father, becoming a troubled teenager.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Teutonic-degrees of mise-en-scène fastidious, tormentingly oblique dialogue, and an unflinching obsession with medium shots make Time of Moulting far too enigmatic and unnerving to fall into mere “arthouse”-levels of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The stifling warmth in this room and the ominous thunder and lightning outside is an appropriate environment for writing this review of Sabrina Mertens’ directorial debut. Time of Moulting is dark, oppressive, and ominous. It’s a slender movie, merely eighty minutes long, but every slice of it—dozens of fixed-camera, “photograph”-style cuts—drip a slow build of tension, like a viscous ooze that is gradually filling a dust-covered bottle. By the finish, I was torn between scratching my head in confusion and hugging myself in despair.

Stephanie (played by a charming Zelda Espenschied as a young child, and a surly Miriam Schiweck “tens years later”) is raised by two parents who have no business having children. The mother (Freya Kreutzkam, never far from despair-induced collapse) suffers from an unspecified medical condition—one both mental and physical, probably. The father makes it clear early on he has no patience for his daughter. Young Stephanie takes solace in exploring the mysteries hidden away in the increasingly untidy house, particularly the trunk full of her grandfather’s butcher’s equipment; older Stephanie takes far more sinister “comfort” in the tools found therein.

By IMDb’s count, there are 57 vignettes adding up to a cryptic whole. By my count, there are only two close-ups: one shot of false teeth creepily snapping shut, and one of liver curling while being fried upon a skillet. The recurrence of meat—always raw—is never a good sign in movies. In Time of Moulting it takes on a more abstract but equally sinister imagery. Young Stephanie arranges two slices of something almost origami-like on a plate; later in life she takes to drawing some truly grisly scenes of death, and even cannibalism.

But Time of Moulting’s horror elements take a back seat to the oppressive formalism of the whole affair, lingering in the many shadows with a quietly sadistic grin. I have never felt so unnerved by medium shots. You see everything going on in the scene, but that only makes the goings-on eerily detached. By this point in the review, I’ve realized that I am not communicating the movie’s aura as well as I would like; but that just reaffirms my position that Time of Moulting is a truly strange take on horror, art-house, and melodrama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale..” -Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: FRIED BARRY (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Kruger

FEATURING: Gary Green

PLOT: Heroin addict Barry is possessed by a creature from outer space.

Still from Fried Barry (2020)

COMMENTS: Looking like a pre-mortem Crypt Keeper but with a glorious goatee, Gary Green’s gaunt visage may be Fried Barry‘s greatest asset. It’s not surprising that someone would want to build a film around that face, even if for most of the movie it does nothing but stare blankly. Balding, but with long stringy hair (and thin, but with a surprisingly cut physique), Green looks the part of a deteriorating addict under constant threat of eviction. I enjoyed looking at that face even when the attached film dragged it into shaggy, often improvised vignettes.

The movie begins with “adults only and no one else!” content disclaimer promising (er, I mean, warning of) “explicit language, nudity, and strong scenes of high impact sexual violence…” The explicit language box is simple enough to check off. There is nudity—and some awkward fully-clothed sex—because, apparently, bedraggled aliens with bug-eyed stares attract the ladies like flies. There is also plenty of violence, but not really any “high impact” sexual violence (it’s indirect, homophobic sexual violence). There is, on the other hand, a lot of senseless non-sexual violence—including an uncharacteristic detour into torture porn that ends in a chainsaw battle—if that counts for anything. What the presenter in the opening didn’t warn about was the public toilet sex, hospital corridor pooping, or adult breastfeeding. Or the hard drug porn: whether it be old-fashioned shooting up, complementary club ecstasy, or random junk smoked out of a light bulb, all of Barry’s friends (and about half of the random strangers he meets on the street) want to get him high for free. And what the presenter especially doesn’t warn you about is the insta-birth alien conception scene…

In other words, Fried Barry‘s exploitation credentials check out. There are also decent dollops of weirdness in its nearly structureless runtime. Ten minutes into the movie Barry shoots up, finds himself submerged underwater, has flashbacks, sees colored lights, and levitates into the heavens. Then, some weird stuff happens in what we assume is an alien spacecraft. After returning to Earth, he takes a few more psychedelic trips, becomes a dad, uses his eyelids as remote controls, has visions of an old guy singing in tongues while doing a soft-shoe routine, and makes a highly illogical escape from the loony bin. These snatches of madness break up his odd encounters with various prostitutes, lowlifes, and eerily cheerful cheese-sample pushers.

Fried Barry is part of a mini-tradition of movies about mute or verbally challenged outsiders/aliens wandering about urban areas, holding up mirror to society. There’s more than a little Bad Boy Bubby (1993) here: Barry speaks no dialogue save what he repeats, and his son is even named “Bubby,” in what surely must be a tribute. Barry also can heal like the Brother from Another Planet (1984); at least, he does so once. There’s a touch of Under the Skin (2013), too, and maybe even a drop of Liquid Sky (1982). For all the nods, Fried Barry brings nothing new to this particular table. What it especially doesn’t bring is any kind of visible ideas. Barry’s ordeal is most naturally viewed as one long, drug-induced psychosis. If you take the story at face value, it’s a sci-fi film about aliens who travel across the inky blackness of space to South Africa so they can possess heroin addicts and… who don’t have much of a plan beyond that. Fried Barry won’t give you any great sociological or existential insights, but if it’s a mindbending trip to the outer limits of consciousness you’re after, it’s a lot safer than sticking a needle in your arm—or being beamed up by saucers.

Giles Edwards adds: Fried Barry left me feeling that pleasantly odd, detached sensation I get when I watch a weird movie, and so I make this pitch on its behalf for Apocryphizing. The lead’s performance alone is a continuous oddity–almost 100 minutes of jittery reactions. Gary Green is always interesting to look at, and observing his “Barry” go through four drug overdoses (that I could count) was impressive. With virtually no dialogue for his character, it was like watching the half-awake facsimile of Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks: the Return stumble, dance, and twitch through two jam-packed days full of run-ins with thugs, unlikely escapes, and even the daring rescue of a dozen kidnapped children.

The lighting and score of Fried Barry supplement Green’s spastic tics, rendering his forty-eight-hour (?) journey somewhere between reality and unreality, further rendering the unreal somewhere between an exalted and sinister dream. In particular, Barry’s abduction comes across as an unsettling fusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a H.R. Geiger-saturated nightmare. The pulsing electro-score and violently-hued color schemes add a shining varnish to Barry’s jerking physical flow. When the ominous “Intermission” sequence spooled on-screen, I finally gave up on trying to guess where the heck this movie was going and let myself sit back to enjoy the wild fried.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy exploration of mankind.”–Norman Gidney, Horror Buzz

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CAPONE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh Trank

FEATURING: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Kyle MacLachlan,

PLOT: Released to his Florida home on humanitarian grounds, Al Capone spends the last year of his life rapidly deteriorating in body and mind, while trying to remember where he hid ten million dollars.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Capone alternates between being uncomfortably realistic and markedly dreamy, with the former often seamlessly segueing into the latter. By the time we see Al Capone, clad in diaper and dressing gown, chomping on a carrot and madly firing a gold-plate Thompson submachine gun at his staff, it’s hard to guess what’s actually happening.

COMMENTS: Capone plays like an anti-biopic: there’s no glamorization, and virtually no sympathy elicited for its protagonist. As a star vehicle for Tom Hardy, it also veers off the beaten path. Hardy’s performance is a strange hybrid of tin-pan-alley grandiosity and bloodshot malevolence. Capone‘s reception by the common viewer has been unsurprisingly frigid—it holds a damning 4.7 rating on IMDb. But for those who want a haunting, sickly, and uncomfortable dissection of the mental deterioration of history’s most notorious gangster, Capone is as priceless as the treasure that eludes the titular character.

Al Capone’s sentence for tax evasion is cut short to allow him to spend his final days in his sprawling mansion surrounded by a sprawling swamp. His homestead’s grounds are infested with crocodiles of the literal variety; its hallways are infested with metaphorical ones. Al Capone sounds like a dying horse, croaking out random threats and random pleas. He is prone to incontinence—so much so that his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan, both slippery and terrified) supplies Capone’s long-suffering wife (Linda Cardellini, emanating frustration) with diapers for her husband. When not staring at his lake, while puffing endless cigars and listening to his radio, Capone endures encounters with friends both past and present. On a fishing trip with an old criminal associate, he casually lets slip that he has hidden ten million bucks, but he can’t remember where.

As in Bronson, Tom Hardy makes this movie, delivering an unnerving performance of a former kingpin suffering from syphilitic dementia and the effects of two strokes. The film begins with a wild-eyed Capone in night attire, wandering a dimly lit hallway while holding a fire poker, pursuing someone. He finds his target—a little girl—and makes a play at attacking her. She screams, then laughs, then runs, and soon Capone is chasing a bevy of little ones through his mansion, out to his rain-drenched yard, and ending up the playful victim of a pile-on. This is, alas, the high point for the frail gangster. Waking dreams and hallucinations occur with increasing frequency as his mind and body shut down.

Capone’s mental fragility contrasts with the precise formality of the rest of the movie. Each scene is impeccably orchestrated around Hardy’s characterization, the surrounding cast providing the struts on which Capone’s quiet madness is displayed. The dream sequences often manage to be unpredictable—the final blow-out only showing its hand at the scene’s watery collapse—while at other times there’s obvious pathos. The recurring symbol of gold—in the form of a balloon held by a boy, the metal trim of a shotgun Capone uses to shoot a crocodile that stole his fish, or the gaudy submachine gun used on his rampage—acts as a clue to the viewer, but also as a metaphor for what Capone has lost. His youth and power are gone forever; what’s left is a tragic cartoon ever veering between rage and collapse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an odd little film, at times weirdly engaging but often so bizarrely muddled that you might identify a little too closely with its perpetually unglued protagonist.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Time (contemporaneous)