Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ADULT SWIM YULE LOG [AKA THE FIREPLACE] (2022)

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The Adult Swim Yule Log is currently available for VOD purchase.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Andrea Laing, Justin Miles, Charles Green, Tordy Clark, Brendan Patrick Connor

PLOT: It begins as an ambient shot of a Yule log, but then the cleaning lady walks into the frame, and soon enough we’re dealing with serial killers, aliens, occultists, flashbacks, and the Little Man: is this log haunted, or are the edibles hitting early?

Still from adult swim yule log [AKA The Fireplace] (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Considering the source, this prank probably caught no one off guard, but it is utter madness in seasonal horror. Don’t believe us? Read some responses on the Twitter thread.

COMMENTS: It would have been amazing if The Adult Swim Yule Log had managed to remain in that tight closeup on the crackling log for it’s entire 90 minute run time—a one shot, static found footage film—but that challenge exceeds even Casper Kelly’s ingenuity. He’s eventually forced to pull back and resort to a conventional omniscient third-person camera. Excepting a few haunted flashbacks, however, he does manage to stay locked into that perspective (with a small adjustment) for the entire first act.

But don’t be disappointed if you were looking forward to Yule Log pushing its fixed-camera conceit to the limit. The movie has plenty of other tricks up its sleeve. After a few minutes of a lightly orchestrated carols over hypnotic flames, the cleaning lady comes in tovacuum. Then there’s a knock at the door, and a couple of strangers arrive complaining of car trouble. A bit later, the couple who’s rented the cabin for a romantic weekend come in, and the film briefly turns into a relationship drama. And then some other visitors arrive with a dire warning, And then a quartet of attractive young podcasters arrive. And then things get… odd. The movie follows several threads at once, exploring a tragic backstory hearkening to the antebellum South, while introducing multiple inconsistent antagonists: serial killers, aliens, and the log itself, who puts in an inanimate performance nearly worthy of Robert the tire. And of course, there’s the dapper Little Man, who adds a real element of supernatural horror (and probably has a great recipe for fried chicken). What comedy there is arises naturally from the absurdity of the situation. But what impresses more is Kelly’s ability to create genuine unease and suspense amidst all the kookiness: a bit where a killer feeds a victim pimento cheese from a jackknife during a psychological cat and mouse duel, while another, more mentally-challenged killer selects a victim in the next room, creates horror tension worthy of a chef’s kiss. Then, of course, the scene resolves in the only way possible: through completely ridiculous deus ex machina. The unknown cast all competently enact slasher movie stereotypes, without ever winking at the camera. So accept your time privilege, grab a Nurse Nutmeg, and sit down by the fire to enjoy the soothing chaos of Adult Swim’s Yule Log. Yule like it.

Casper Kelly caught the world by surprise with his interminable viral sitcom introduction spoof “Too Many Cooks” in 2014. That success encouraged Panos Cosmatos to subcontract Kelly to direct the memorable “Cheddar Goblin” sequence in Mandy. Still, although Kelly continued to work on short projects for the edgy/surreal “Adult Swim” block on the Cartoon Network, his feature film debut was kept secret, coming as even more of a surprise than the fact that Adult Swim’s version of a Yule Log would go terribly awry. Now that Kelly’s broken out of the TV short game, it will be interesting to follow his career and see if he indulges his imagination with more conventionally distributed—if never conventional—material. For those who missed the original broadcast, Adult Swim’s Yule Log can be seen on HBO Max or purchased VOD (it’s a true bargain at $2.99 to own—not just to rent for the usual 48 hours). Here’s hoping it also receives the physical media release it deserves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Adult Swim’s first fright flick is in the vein of schlocky ‘80s midnighters, where chaos trumps coherency. Maybe burn this hallucinogenic strain after you already have the munchies?”–Matt Donato, IGN (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

PLOT: A bartender and a divorcee witness supernatural phenomena and fall into an increasingly disturbing—and increasingly compromised—investigation into patterns, aliens, multiple dimensions, and secret societies as they try to come to terms with their own reality.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Returning to their Endless musings, this filmmaking duo once again fuse unsettling metaphysics with comedy-tinged chamber drama, creating a fantasy which straddles the cosmically significant and the piercingly mundane.

COMMENTS: Levi has the aura of a past-his-prime surfer bro, crashing through life as he tries to stay ahead of an unfortunate criminal past. He awakens in a spartan apartment, crummy even by dirt-cheap Los Angeles standards, and encounters another tenant in the side alley. Bumming a cigarette, Levi learns in brief that this is John, who recently separated from his husband—and so is new to the whole “smoking” thing. They hit it off, more or less, despite John being a bit stilted and over-eager and Levi being disconcertingly cryptic; is Levi actually a bartender? And what’s this “charity” work he mentions? After John drops off some old furniture in a neighborly gesture, the trap is sprung for their strange investigation: there’s a play of light through a crystal ashtray, and as Levi enters from the kitchen, both men witness it hovering.

The LA setting and pervasive mystery-cum-layered-conspiracies brings to mind Under the Silver Lake, but this digs more deeply through time and space while achieving a personal, claustrophobic tone. Nearly all the action—supernatural and otherwise—occurs in the two-room apartment. (Well, three-room, I suppose, but we never see an oft-mentioned bedroom.) While John and Levi pursue answers to the localized irregularities (suspects come to include an ancient Pythagorean Society, pre-historic alien visitors, and brain maggots from cats), the pair attempt to document their findings. However, both are prone to lying and to showmanship. What is on-screen is unreliable, and there may be nothing really going on outside the norm.

But that’s the point. This is actually a film about two men, reaching middle age, having achieved nothing. John is professionally washed-up and a member of an evangelical apocalypse cult, Levi is a registered sex offender (for reasons both amusing and tragically bureaucratic), burdened by guilt over his responsibility for his sister’s unfortunate downfall. The exploration of the mystery around them acts as a vehicle for their own self-revelation. A poignant scene near the finale has the pair of them recording the other, going blow-by-blow about how they’re both losers who have either destroyed their lives or never built one in the first place; as they exchange accusations, every item in the apartment floats around ominously.

The cinematic world of Something in the Dirt exists within The Endless‘ troubling confines, and the ultimate fate that Levi faces echoes that risked by the two brothers in their earlier film (itself an expansion of the vision first laid out in Resolution). The implication is that the inscrutable entity which is playing with time and space is now broadening its grip. The nonsensical conspiracy-fluff behind the rabbit holes within rabbit holes is interesting (“We’re not going into Dan Brown territory, are we?” a skeptical Levi inquires of John early on), but the meat of Benson and Moorhead’s message is closer to the philosophy found in Steppenwolf. We are doomed to repeat and re-digest this farce that is our life; but this condemnation brings with it our hope for salvation. Eventually, we might figure out the true pattern, and everything will make sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once again, Benson and Moorhead prove that they can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.”–Chris Evangelista, Slash Film (festical screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BARDO, FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

Bardo, Falsa Crónica de unas Cuantas Verdades

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid, Francisco Rubio

PLOT: A Mexican national film director receives an award in Los Angeles, causing him to reflect on his own artistic life and the Mexican immigrant/expatriate experience.

Still from Bard , a false chronicle of a handful of truths (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No director can adopt 8 1/2‘s self-reflective template without risking charges of narcissism, pretentiousness, and plagiarism. Iñárritu changes ahead anyway, and proves that there are still unexplored territories in the subgenre—and that you can keep a slice of the audience’s attention, as long as you keep it weird.

COMMENTS: If Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truth‘s daunting title doesn’t scare you off, maybe the 200 minute (scaled back from the 222-minute version that met with a mix of indifference and mild hostility at its Venice premiere) runtime will. Whenever a director decides to pursue a semi-autobiographical project in a surreal style, and amasses an epic budget to realize his dream, red flags start going up: get ready to gaze at a navel not of your own choosing. For these reasons, I approached the prospect of previewing Bardo with trepidation. But I’m happy to report that the movie, while it lags at times and never finds a way out of its own desert, delivers the necessary audacious panache to justify its aspirations.

Bardo begins with a shadowy man flying (well, jumping so high that he might as well be flying) over an endless desert scrub brush, reminding us of Guido’s opening dream of artistic escape. Later, a passerby addresses Silverio, our director protagonist, as “maestro.” Backstage at a popular Mexican TV show, he must weave through a throng of strongmen, dwarf matadors, a white pony, and primping showgirls in pink fur, a scene as chaotic as any Fellini circus. A character critiques the director’s latest movie (or the one we’re watching?) as “pretentious and pointlessly oeneiric,” surfacing Silverio’s own internal doubts.  Silverio sneaks out of an obligation to face the press just like . Silverio’s friends and family show up in a dreamscape in the end as a brass band belts a march that could have been written by Nino Rota in a mariachi mood. There are probably more 8 1/2 references stuck in Bardo, and of course the entire structure of the film—the leaps backward and forward in time, the confusion between reality and fantasy, the reappearance of vanished past memories in the present—comes straight from the maestro’s playbook. Iñárritu  could not have ignored Fellini’s influence without appearing like a thief, so he wisely honors the spirit of his filmic ancestor with these respectful tributes.

Where Iñárritu departs from Fellini is in his explicit Mexicanness, and his explicit politics. Fellini’s films were always completely personal; if they helped define the world’s view of what an Italian  man was, that was simply because Fellini could not exist in a world without pasta and palazzi. He had little interest in the partisan issues of the day, however. Iñárritu is far more didactic in his approach: a completely realistic breakfast conversation between the director and his teenage son exposes the tension between Mexican Americans who primarily identify with their homeland and preserving its heritage, and those who prefer to assimilate and embrace the opportunities of their new home. At other times, the symbolism is broad and powerful: in a centerpiece of the story, Silverio climbs a mountain of corpses in downtown Los Angeles, only to find Hernán Cortés sitting on top: the conquistador bums a cigarette, and they discuss colonialism.

Bardo is about 50% personal and 50% political, and while not all of it works—which is almost inevitable in a work of this scope—almost every scene has a weird dream twist to it to catch your interest. Sometimes, Silverio speaks without moving his lips, to the annoyance of his family. When the director meets his father in a men’s room, his own body digitally shrinks to the size of an eight-year-old. And there’s a great—shall we say “spare”—rendition of ‘s “Let’s Dance” on a crowded dance floor. By casting some element magically off-center in every scene—and occasionally throwing a curve ball to surprise us with sequences that are completely realistic—Iñárritu builds a dreamlike portrait of a man, of a diaspora, and of the tension between the two.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths streams exclusively on Netflix starting December 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The whole thing is supposed to run on a dream logic reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman, but rather than immersive or contemplative it’s just confusing and weird.”–Jennifer Heaton, Alternative Lens (festival review)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CITIZEN DOG (2004)

Mah Nakorn

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DIRECTED BY: Wisit Sasanatieng

FEATURING: Mahasamut Boonyaruk, Saengthong Gate-Uthong

PLOT: Pod moves to Bangkok, despite his grandmother’s warning he will grow a tail if he does so, and falls in love with Jin, a woman of serial obsessions—none of which involve Pod.

Still from Citizen Dog (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It begins with Pod losing his finger at his sardine-canning job (he gets it back later). It ends on a mountain of plastic bottles that dominates the Bangkok skyline. In between, it indulges in a subplot about an affair between a girl who’s either 8 or 22 years old and her talking teddy bear. Oh, and it’s also intermittently a musical. Citizen Dog takes a lot of lunatic swings, and still manages to remain a crowd-pleasing romance.

COMMENTS: Pod and Jin are each, in their own way, searching for a dream, while not realizing that they are living in one. Jin dreams of one day reading the book that fell out of the sky and landed on her deck, written in a language unknown to her; later, she is able to put that dream to one side to pursue an obsession with saving the planet via recycling. Pod, meanwhile, is introduced to us as “a man without a dream”—at least, until he encounters Jin and quickly falls in love. Jin drifts from dream to dream, risking devastation when her plans don’t turn out as she expects, while Pod drifts from job to job, too scared to commit to anything and declare his feelings. Meanwhile, both of them miss the magic of the world around them.

The viewer doesn’t make that mistake, however. Wisit Sasanatieng drenches his movie in some of the boldest color schemes ever ladled on the big screen. Pod leaves a country home where swaths of golden grass grow from russet dirt, waving against a painted backdrop sky with an eternally glowing sun, and lands in a busy Bangkok where he gets a job at a ruby and emerald colored sardine-processing factory where even the fish have pink eyes. The people who populate the city are even stranger than their visual environments: a zombie taxi driver, killed during one of the city’s periodic rains of helmets; an amnesiac obsessed with licking; a talking teddy bear, who’s also a chain smoker who falls on hard times and turns homeless. Don’t worry, there are plenty more crazy characters where those came from, along with breaks for musical numbers, sequences that are sped-up or which play out in lethargic slow motion, and a gecko sex scene. Citizen Dog never runs out of ideas to throw at the viewer; but for Pod and Jin, it’s all just part of everyday life in the big city.

In conventional terms, Citizen Dog fails as a romantic comedy, because it never convincingly shows how Pod wins Jin’s heart. Dreamy Jin is completely blind to Pod’s devotion up into the final scene, when she suddenly succumbs to a short sappy speech and a kiss. But who cares? In unconventional terms, the movie succeeds brilliantly; each part of the series of almost-unconnected vignettes is a miniature joke brilliant enough to keep you eagerly awaiting the next one, so that you don’t really notice (or care much) about Jin’s lack of romantic development.

Citizen Dog‘s blend of old-fashioned romance and digitally-enhanced surrealism often draws comparisons to Amelie (2001). Tonally, however, it more resembles ‘s Mood Indigo (2013), in that it creates a whimsically unreal but fully lived-in universe where absolutely anything can happen. The difference is that Citizen Dog remains lighthearted to the end, never succumbing to the darkness that envelops the moody Indigo.

The genesis of Citizen Dog is as odd as its story line. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Koynuch. But, in a twist, Koynuch’s novel was itself an adaptation of Sasanatieng’s original unpublished screenplay! Once Koynuch gave Sasanatieng’s collection of vignettes without a story a unifying theme of dreams, the director felt he could come back to the script he’d abandoned and turn it into a feature film.

Sasanatieng’s first movie, Tears of the Black Tiger, was a Spaghetti Western parody with vividly artificial visuals similar to Citizen Dog. Both movies were minor hits with film-festival followers, although Dog is the more accessible of the two. But none of Sasanatieng’s subsequent movies have made much headway in the West, although he is still active. Unfortunately, Citizen Dog is not currently available on home video or (although you might be able to find a used all-region DVD on Ebay or other sources—be cure to confirm English subtitles are included). Tears of the Black Tiger, on the other hand, is still easy to acquire.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“People are able to swap fingers, they can grow tails, teddy bears are able to talk and sometimes it rains helmets. And that’s just a small selection of the weirdness this films throws at you. None of these things are ever properly explained, they’re just a part of the surreal world the characters inhabit and have to deal with on a daily basis.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy

(This movie was nominated for review by Welrax. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M NOT THERE (2007)

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
“(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

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DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, , , , Kris Kristofferson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore,

PLOT: The intermingled stories of an itinerant child blues guitarist, a folk singer-turned-preacher, a philandering movie actor, an indulgent rock star, an aging outlaw, and a poet under interrogation, all of whom represent facets of the life of Bob Dylan.

Still from I'm Not There (2007)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The biographical film is a genre ridden with cliché, perhaps an inevitable result of trying to condense decades of life into a limited running time, as well as the absurdity inherent in calling upon famous people to embody other famous people. I’m Not There sidesteps this issue by shattering its subject’s life into fragments, echoes of Dylan who are never quite Dylan, but united in the spirit of an artist with the soul of a poet and an aversion to being analyzed. You won’t leave the film having learned a single fact about the man, but you will feel like you know him far better than any encyclopedic review of his life could impart.

COMMENTS: Facing down his interrogators, a poet lays before them the seven simple rules for life in hiding. Our protagonists, despite some of their very public lives, seem pretty adept at the first six, having created chameleon-like personalities that defy categorization or understanding. But it is the seventh–“Never create anything”–that trips them up. As much as they want to avoid capture, no matter their revulsion toward fame or notoriety, as much as they want to leave past choices behind them, the urge to create is inescapable.

Todd Haynes is in love with metaphor. His films luxuriate in the power of a thing standing in for another thing. Some examples are more blatant than others (this reviewer has previously chronicled one particularly unsubtle instance), but he always comes back to the idea that coming at an idea directly is rarely as interesting as something more tangential. That makes him a good match for Bob Dylan, an artist who is noteworthy for his refusal to ever say anything right out. In Dylan, Haynes has found a muse who indulges his vision of the world through fun house mirrors. If Dylan is never just one thing, Haynes surmises, then he must be many things. And that’s what he sets out to dramatize.

The result is something of an anthology, with stories that sometimes intersect or echo each other, but are always their own narrative. This procedure permits Haynes to indulge in ambitious flights of fancy. To depict Dylan’s early interest in folk music, for example, the singer is embodied by a young black boy with Woody Guthrie’s guitar, the spirit of an early-20th century bluesman, and a hobo’s life on the rails. None of these things are literally Dylan (and the racial dimension just barely avoids issues of cultural appropriation), but they get at the heart of his curiosity and determination to slip the chains of his past identity to explore a new one.

Sometimes these depictions are very literal, such as Bale’s Greenwich Village troubadour. Other times, the symbolism is extremely heavy-handed, like naming Whishaw after Arthur Rimbaud, a poet who inspired Dylan’s lyrical obfuscations, or Gere assuming the character of Billy the Kid, whose own biography Dylan famously scored. Interestingly, the most Dylan-like character is Blanchett’s Jude Quinn, who takes on the precise look of the star’s “Judas” heyday, and yet occupies a esque fantasy landscape of parties in white rooms and giddy romps with coy models and fawning pop stars. Most of them revolve around music (but not all), many of them incorporate a faint whiff of impersonation of Dylan’s notorious nasal drawl (but not all). The one thing that unites all six version of Dylan is a stubborn refusal to be seen, to be captured and measured and sized up. Haynes wisely turns that inability to present the man into his boldest technique.

The biopic has matured over the decades, as filmmakers have largely abandoned regurgitated womb-to-tomb accounts in favor of more telescopic views of key moments from the life. In so doing, they’ve been willing to play with the form, demolishing linear time (like Chadwick Boseman’s electric embodiment of James Brown in Get on Up) or providing on-screen commentary (as in the to-screen objections of characters in 24 Hour Party People). Haynes does them all better by presenting a biography that doesn’t even feature its subject, Because while my review keeps saying Dylan Dylan Dylan, you’ll never hear that name in I’m Not There. Not once.

I’m Not There is definitely a weird watch because it has completely rethought the language of its genre. The life of the subject here is not character, it’s not plot, it’s not dialogue. It’s theme. And as such, it leaves interpretation to the viewer, even as its subject resists interpretation at every turn. So make of it whatever you will, knowing that you’re on your own. How does it feel?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie looks and sounds so purely pleasurable in isolated moments that I thought, more than once, that Haynes would’ve better served Dylan by putting together a DVD of music videos. In a way, that’s what he’s done anyway, and perhaps the whole weird, scattershot thing might play better when you can skip-search to your favorite bits.”–Rob Gonsalves, Rob’s Movie Vault (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)