Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: PIERCING (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Pesce

FEATURING: Christopher Abbott, , Laia Costa

PLOT: Reed has a good job, a loving wife, a cherished newborn daughter, hallucinations, and a (hopefully satiable) lust to kill; he checks into a hotel planning to get his bloodlust out of his system by murdering a call girl, but the woman who arrives may be more than a match for him.

Still from Piercing (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s slick and sick, but plays like a milder version of a film that already made the List.

COMMENTS: Piercing will play better if you’ve never seen Audition, but if you have seen the older film, you may find that the newer one suffers (hee hee) by comparison to its sadistic sister. Piercing is adapted from ‘s 1994 novel of the same name. The author reworked the same general sadomasochistic theme three years later for “Ôdishon.” In doing so, Murakami improved the scenario by making the male protagonist more sympathetic and the female antagonist more mysterious. That’s not to say Piercing is unworthy of your time, or that you will always know exactly where it’s heading, but Audition initiates should prepared for a little bit of a disappointment.

Director Nicolas Pesce explored similarly dark territory in his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, which he shot in rustic and minimalistic grayscale. Here, he goes for a much richer stylistic palette, with a Technicolor style showcasing deep reds and mahogany wood paneling. The opening, in fact, puts us in mind of Rear Window, with the camera panning over an artificial mosaic of skyscrapers, inside whose windows we can imagine individual dramas playing out. Hitchcock, of course, would never have added an infant girl who tells daddy “you know what you have to do” in a creepy baritone.

Pesce creates a genteel atmosphere—a world where men put on ties to meet call girls, hookers wear stocking and fur coats, everyone drinks their spirits on the rocks before getting down to business, and guys use embroidered silk handkerchiefs to douse their dates with choloroform. The soundtrack is a selection of smooth and sophisticated pop, including “The Girl from Impanema” and needle drops from classic gialli like Profondo Rosso; even the most cloying number, the mellow folk-rocker “Bluer than Blue,” is given the best possible treatment. The hotel room and apartment interiors all look like 60s penthouse bachelor pads, with sunken living rooms and dramatic wall-mounted half-moon sconces, very mid-century modern. All the elegant trappings of civilization, of course, only serve to disguise the depravity and barbarism squirming inside the characters’ souls.

Abbott and Wasikowski are perfectly cast. He is superficially suave, but constantly bumbling as he hides his guilty secret; Wasikowski, keeping her natural Australian accent, is a psychotic pixie dream girl who lets on very quickly that she’s not quite all there. They are a perfect match. In terms of gruesomeness, Pesce doesn’t go quite as far as would, but he is willing to go quite a ways, and you should find yourself squirming often. Abbott’s casual hallucinations—he constantly carries on conversations with people who encourage him to carry out his secret murderous plan—keep things interesting, and cast doubt on Wasikowski’s character. Is she really as depraved as he is, or is it just his projection of her as a willing victim/collaborator in his elaborate fantasy? A grotesque dream sequence (scored to the aforementioned soft-rock hit) also mirrors the surrealistic excursion of Audition, and although it is put in service of revealing backstory, there are still some tremendously eerie moments here, with a scorpion-bug monster scurrying from out of a toilet to harass our paralyzed protagonist.

For an evening of dangerous fun, refined sickos could do a lot worse than Piercing. Pesce reaffirms his talent while broadening his range. He’s come close to a breakthrough weird movie with his first two films; his next project is a remake of Ju-on [The Grudge], after which we’re hoping he will be able to come through with something that will really blow our socks off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie gains momentum as it indulges in hallucinogenic phantasmagoria.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Luigi Bazzoni

FEATURING: , Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Renato Romano

PLOT: A newspaper investigative reporter is obligated to turn full detective as a series of murders seemingly tie together everybody in his life in a labyrinthine web of intrigue.

Still from The Fifth Cord (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only remotely possible way you could call this movie weird is if you had never seen a giallo before. It’s not just a giallo, it’s a stereotypical giallo just short of a scathing parody of the genre. It wouldn’t even make the list of the 366 mildly quirkiest movies.

COMMENTS: I have to break my usual mold with this one, because The Fifth Cord is just a special case. On the one hand, make no mistake, this is a good movie overall. It’s breathtakingly shot, handsomely mounted, beautifully scored, and is in fact a stand-out example of its genre. But when it comes to the plot… Italian giallo is a genre known for soap opera plotting that stretches credibility, but The Fifth Cord just takes that sucker to another level. It’s like twenty seasons of “Days of Our Lives” packed into a clown car. Giallo also has a reputation for being derivative, but this movie goes straight to the movie cliché Dollar Store and maxes out its credit card. This gives you two choices: try, in spite of the pumpernickel fruitcake structure, to follow the story (bring a notepad and a bottle of adderall), or ignore the yammering yarn and resign yourself to oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures and atmospheric scenes. Let us start down the first path and see how far we get into The Hyperthyroid Yarn From Hell:

Through the opening credits we witness a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian watering hole. Normally that’s movie-talk for “go ahead and get your drink, nothing important is happening yet.” But no, this is actually the most important New Year’s Eve party in film history, because everybody here is interconnected, and most of them are going to end up dead. At the party is one Julia, who takes her date under a bridge the next day, and Walter, a teacher who happens to be walking through a nearby tunnel at the same time. Walter is clubbed by a shadowy attacker, and Julia is first on the scene as the assailant flees. Walter ends up in the hospital. The main character, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), is a newspaper reporter dispatched to cover this crime, although Bild is in fact more of a hardboiled detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. At the hospital Bild meets Dr. Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano), who stonewalls him, and the more helpful police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss), who directs him to Julia, who slams a door in his face.

Bild goes back to the home he shares with his cheesecake mistress Lu, but she checks out, so he visits his old flame Helene (Silvia Monti), who knows Walter, since they teach at the same school. While he’s following up on her leads, Dr. Bini is at home with his crippled wife Sofia. The doctor gets called out on an emergency that Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

CAPSULE: THE BURIAL OF KOJO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Blitz Bazawule

FEATURING: Cynthia Dankwa, Joseph Otisiman, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Mamley Djangmah, Ama Abebrese

PLOT: With the help of a sacred bird, Esi  races to free her father Kojo after a suspicious fall into a mineshaft.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Burial of Kojo seamlessly combines elements of cinematic neo-realism and narrative magical realism: it’s a fantastical story that isn’t weird so much as beautifully told.

COMMENTS: The Burial of Kujo is an allegorical tale told as a meta-meta-narrative: a story delivered as a story about a storyteller. Sam “Blitz” Bazawule weaves together disparate stylistic threads to craft an inspiring vision about loss, of both family and of history, and wonder. Its simple cinematic magic pins the action in a realm that is both of this world, and of the next; as explained by the story-teller, “where the earth meets the sky and everyone stands upside-down.” It is like a reflection in a lake: what you see is not so much real as an undulating facsimile of gritty reality in the distorting purity of clear water.

Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) is a dreamer, and a man on the run from his own guilt. Having moved from the city to a mystical lake-town on stilts, he meets his new love Ama (Mamley Djangmah), but cannot find consistent happiness with her. His daughter, Esi (Cynthia Dankwa), is an enchanting girl born in the lake-enclosed town. But something haunts Kojo, and that something starts haunting Esi’s dreams. In Esi’s visions, a sinister crow pursues a blessed bird that is left with her for safekeeping by a blind visitor. When Kojo is pulled back into the city by a visitation from his brother, his destiny begins to unfold as the tragedy he fled comes back to the fore.

Using magical realism as the film’s lens is a perfect way to frame this uplifting tragedy, a tale told through the eyes of a young girl. Lyrical camera work, with simple tricks like picture inversion over moving water or “realist dream” sequences, adds a desirable degree of separation between what is seen and what is real. Esi’s encounter with the blind visitor, who inexplicably finds his way by boat to the island town, anchors the film’s pervading mysticism, and in so doing gives the girl the power she needs to navigate her way through what is in essence a sorrowful story about the death of a broken man who is touched by nature’s spirits and his people’s mythology.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kojo is fated to die from the outset: that reveal is provided right in the title. The narrator is a obviously a grown woman looking back on her early childhood memories. But The Burial of Kojo continues to surprise at every turn. Using the style of traditional African legends, Buzawule imparts bitter-sweet wonders through his young protagonist. And throughout the film he pulls off the impressive stunt of including social commentary without brazen moralizing. The Burial of Kojo is one of the better movies to denied an official space on the list: its exclusion should not be interpreted as a reason to forego its wondrousness.

The Burial of Kojo is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a visionary fable drenched with vibrancy and lyricism… As grounded in reality as it is informed by outright fantasy, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ is deceptively simple, unfolding in the soothing, singsong manner of a child’s fragmentary dream, but containing within it myriad truths about an Africa where economic exploitation and co­lo­ni­al­ism have taken on new forms and accents.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MAN WITH THE MAGIC BOX (2017)

Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem

DIRECTED BY: Bodo Kox

FEATURING: Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Stankiewicz

PLOT: In Warsaw in the near future, an amnesiac man (whose memory may have been wiped by the government) goes to work as a janitor and falls in love with a superior, but the past inevitably catches up to him.

Still from The Man with the Magic Box (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has a record player that plays postcards, a radio that tunes itself to the self-hypnosis channel, and a government that’s possibly putting hallucinogenic drugs in the water supply, it’s not quite strange enough for us. It is well outside the boundaries of what an average person expects to find in a low budget dystopian sci-fi thriller, however.

COMMENTS: Specialty distributor Artsploitation fulfills a crucial film niche by taking chances on arty, low-budget genre fare from (mostly) outside the English-speaking world. I’m discovering a pattern, however: always skip their horror offerings, and take a flier on their weird fantasy or sci-fi offerings. You may find a hit or two. The Man with the Magic Box fits that general strategy, and although it’s not a breakout film for the distributor, it is an interesting one.

Magic Box takes place a mere 13 years in the future. Its dystopian aspirations echo Brazil and Blade Runner, it name checks Men in Black, and it pays direct homage to a scene in Fight Club, but despite all the tributes to his influences, Bodo Kox’s film does become its own thing. If you can swallow the big, implausible plot twist, your hundred minutes in Warsaw, 2030 will be well-spent.

This future society feels more advanced than a single decade forward in time; but at the same time it’s a cinematically familiar future, and one that’s anxious to create a deliberate link to Poland’s Communist past. At first, placing amnesiac Adam in a pre-WWII-era flat seems like a cost-cutting measure to save precious prop money that might be spent on futuristic doo-dads, but it turns out there is a purpose behind the setting—it allows Adam to find the titular “magic box.” The film alternates between scenes set in 2013 and in the past, with a few set entirely in the “superconsciousness” or in a virtual reality “Alice in Wonderland” themed park. The World of Tomorrow utilizes an antiseptic silver-blue metallic color scheme, while a grungy sepia-brown denotes the past. Secret police roam both landscapes. The future is full of cost-conscious innovations like cybernetic eyes, invisible cell phones, pets that resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, talking mailboxes, and limited Internet access, along with a few big effects like a terrorist attack that levels a skyscraper. The film uses its limited CGI budget with considerable economy to create a universe that feels fairly real.

Piotr Polak’s Adam is a bit of a blank slate. He’s an awkward weirdo, but he doesn’t attract too much attention because everyone in the future is a self-absorbed weirdo, oblivious to other people’s eccentricities. The closest thing Adam finds to a friend is Sebastian, the autistic janitor who trains him for his new minimum wage job and who lives in a closet. But it’s Adam’s fast-talking, model-skinny love interest Gloria (Olga Boladz), a hot-to-trot executive at the miscellaneous firm where Adam is sent to clean, who makes the biggest impression. She’s odd even by this world’s standards, addicted slumming it with attractive custodians in a world where any interest in sex appears to be fairly taboo. And, she can really pull off an optical illusion hoop skirt. Gloria starts at the periphery but moves towards the center as the film progresses.

In true 1984 fashion, the apparatchiks of The Man in the Magic Box try to stamp out romantic love as the final obstacle to complete loyalty to the State. As previously mentioned, the film explicitly draws parallels between Communist Poland and the world of the near future it prophesies. The depressing implication is that totalitarianism the natural state of Poland (and possibly of humanity), and any other system is a temporary aberration.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…stylish and eccentric, but… also disciplined and coherent…”-Ola Salwa, Cineuropa (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TERROR 5 (2016)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Sebastian Rotstein, Federico Rotstein

FEATURING: Walter Cornás, Lu Grasso, Gastón Cocchiarale, Arias Alban

PLOT: An anthology of horror stories in an Argentinian town told over a single night, involving revenge, zombie-like creatures, and snuff films.

Still from Terror 5 (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What strangeness is to be found here can mostly be credited to shoddy construction.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for something nice to say about Terror5, then camerawork isn’t bad. There’s a nice shot of a blue neon cross, whose glow becomes reflected in the luminous eyes of the “zombies” who spontaneously appear when the local mayor is cleared of corruption in a construction tragedy. And there’s nothing wrong with the acting; the players do the best they can to inject some life into the dull scenarios.

But the script! Ay! It all plays out in one Argentinian town in a single night, and the five plot strands—each of which is supposedly inspired by an urban legend—connect, somewhat. But none of them are well thought out or interesting in themselves. Nor is the overall architecture sound. While the movie cuts between four of the stories, the worst, a tale of students who take revenge on their teachers at night, plays out in its entirety right up front. Since there isn’t much to it—the characters all buy into the absurd conceit with little resistance, with no explanation of why the teachers don’t fight back and no tension or internal conflict to be found in the new student seduced into the cabal—it lowers expectations for the rest of the tales. One of the remaining plotlines is basically an extended sex scene with a senselessly brutal finale. Another involves two men in their cars, waiting patiently for a plot that never arrives; it’s largely a conversation over walkie-talkies, with another grisly out-of-nowhere ending. It makes almost no sense at all. (At one point one of the men says “I’m super confused,” and that’s before his pal starts talking about “the shower game” and parallel universes.) The introductory and climactic story involves the aforementioned non-zombies and makes a weak stab at a generic satire about political corruption. That leaves one episode of some interest: a booze-and-pot costume party at which a jerk dressed in KISS makeup dares the assembly to watch a snuff film and bullies a heavyset kid until he snaps. Due to some reasonably convincing acting from the greasepainted lout and his victim, it’s the best segment, but it’s still a yawner.

Each of the stories are ridiculous and poorly motivated, but they aren’t executed in a dreamlike or absurd fashion that might engage our interest. Instead, they’re played straight, as if they were really horror shorts. Although there is a mildly surreal aesthetic at work here in the unreal scenarios, what weirdness results is largely by accident rather than design.

The idea of making a hypertext horror is not a bad one, and the filmmakers don’t do anything especially obnoxious, but Terror 5 just plain fails on a storytelling level. With ruthless cutting, they might have salvaged a (still relatively lame) 30 minute short from this material. For sleaze film fans, it offers a smidgen of sex and nudity and a modicum of violence and gore. There’s very little terror, though, and even less sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Terror 5 is a movie that will turn viewers on and probably trip them out once they realize the almost certainly ominous object of their salacious contemplations…”–Misty Wallace, Cryptic Rock (DVD)

CAPSULE: BATTLE IN HEAVEN (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Reygadas

FEATURING: Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz, Bertha Ruiz

PLOT: A chauffeur falls in love with his boss’ daughter, who is secretly a prostitute, and confesses a terrible secret to her.

Still from Battle in Heaven (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Battle in Heaven really only gets “weird” in its final act; up until then, it qualifies more as “insufferable.”

COMMENTS: Battle in Heaven begins with a paunchy nude middle aged man standing against a blank background as an equally naked young woman kneels before him, her blonde dreadlocks bobbing ever so slightly. The camera pans teasingly, blocking the action for as long as possible as it slowly pans around to reveal the “money” shot.

Daring? Sure, especially for a Mexican film of the period. But like this shot, Battle in Heaven lacks any sort of discernible moral or purpose. The movie is technically accomplished, but as empty as the featureless room where the contextless oral sex takes place. The movie is not about sex—although there is a good deal of sex in it—or about the relationship between the two mismatched characters in the opening (which never becomes convincing). The best one might be able to say about it is that it’s about a man, Marcos, and his working class ennui—although the tragedy that follows is driven not so much by existential angst or sociopolitical oppression as by a series of perversely stupid choices.

Battle in Heaven is one of those self-important “quiet” films with lots of lingering shots of expressionless faces, where evoking boredom is seen as a brand of authenticity. There are long, drawn-out scenes of people we don’t particularly know or care about driving through Mexico City, talking on cell phones to characters we’ll never meet about nothing in particular. One can only imagine the director starting each scene by calling out “lights, camera, inaction!” And while that would normally be cause to assign a rating, the truth is that the technical qualities of Battle are too advanced for us to slam the film. Although most people in the audience will not care, the camerawork is excellent, featuring one 360 pan that abandons a lovemaking couple and travels outside their apartment window to survey the local neighborhood in a long unbroken shot before peeking back in to find them spent. There is no real purpose behind the virtuoso shot, but it will be appreciated by some. Even better is a scene where Marcos stops at a gas station which is blasting Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 over its loudspeakers (!); as the driver wanders towards the street, that music is overlaid with, then yields to, the sound of a parade where the marchers sing a patriotic anthem. That crossfade is the aural equivalent of the camera’s 360 pan. These moments remind us that Carlos Reygadas has real filmmaking talent—it’s just that this script has no direction.

As far as weirdness goes, there’s not much, up until Marcos starts masturbating while watching a futbol match (for some reason, Reygadas spares us the explicit details, although this seems to be exactly the kind of taboo he generally gets keyed up to commit to film). The protagonist then wanders off onto a hilltop, performs an unspeakable act, and joins a band of Catholic pilgrims in repentance. Some guys ring the cathedral bell that makes no sound, and then a bunch of soldiers take down and fold up a Mexican flag that’s as large as a house to signal the end of the film.

If watching a middle-aged man’s penis detumesce in real time is what you look for in a movie, then Battle in Heaven has got you covered. If you’re looking for any of the other things we normally seek out in movies—a story, an emotional connection, thought-provoking developments—then you may find it more of a hellish experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The pic’s strangeness becomes its strength, as it is aesthetically pleasing and then some, even if not completely satisfying in a rational narrative sense.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

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

CAPSULE: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984)

aka Gwendoline

DIRECTED BY: Just Jaeckin

FEATURING: Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont

PLOT: The precocious and beautiful daughter of a lost explorer follows his footsteps into the wilds of darkest Asia, stumbling upon a distaff cult that has harnessed the power of a volcano for their own nefarious ends.

Still from THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gwendoline is going for a Barbarella-meets-Indiana Jones vibe, which means a lot of silliness and comic book-style strangeness. Ultimately, it’s all empty calories, neither compelling enough as a story nor strange enough as a concept to earn a spot here. Softcore eroticism is all it has to offer.

COMMENTS: This is undoubtedly a politically incorrect thing to say in this day and age, but for a teenage boy in the mid- to late-80s, premium cable was an absolute godsend. Before the internet gave us way too much access with more excitement and variety than the average copy of Playboy could offer, softcore cinema on TV was a treasure to any puberty-stricken manchild who had no concept of how to relate to the opposite sex but still longed with piquant desperation to see a bare breast. So many spring breaks and fraternity vacations and sorority car washes captured on celluloid seemingly for the exclusive enjoyment of these sad bubbling cauldrons of undirected testosterone… and if the movie had a nerdy theme or a B- to C- list star, so much the better.

The Perils of Gwendoline is an almost perfect exemplar of the form: a goofy adventure with shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the only real reason for its existence—a frequently naked Tawny Kitaen. Before her hood-sliding appearance in Whitesnake videos (and well before her unfortunate turn as domestic abuser and troubled soul), Kitaen was probably best known as Tom Hanks’ smokeshow bride in Bachelor Party. With fiery red hair and a girl-next-door smile, she had all the makings of a star. Gwendoline is one of her few starring roles, and watching it… well, it quickly becomes clear why her career didn’t exactly take off. Kitaen is beautiful, but pouty and whiny. Yes, we expect our heroine to be shallow at first, as she wanders innocently into the wild world in pursuit of the rare butterfly that became her father’s obsession. But Gwendoline goes well past naïve and arrives at annoying, so much so that you wonder why her faithful maid Beth doesn’t ditch her at the first opportunity.

Gwendoline meets her match in the mercenary Willard, played with equal parts stupidity and obnoxiousness by Brent Huff. This relationship is clearly meant to sparkle with witty repartee, and perhaps the dubbed version of this French film achieves that goal. Alas, in English, not so much. Together, it’s a contest between Kitaen and Huff to see who can be the more irritating. But since we’re treated to several not-remotely-subtle excuses for Gwendoline and Beth to strip or writhe in ecstasy, it’s a burden we just have to bear.

Fortunately, once our adventurers escape from a tribe of cannibals of dubious racial sensitivity, we get to where the movie really wants to go: the hidden city of Pikaho (no, seriously), populated exclusively by women who fight and race chariots in leather shoulder pads and thong bikinis. This ups the weird quotient significantly, with complex explanations for how this society prospers, strange medieval-futuristic design mashups, and the all-important minimum justification for women to take off their clothes. It’s as though the filmmakers took their jungle adventure-pastiche as far as they could go, and then just started indulging every other fetish they had.

A movie like this can be enjoyably dumb, even beyond its usefulness as fantasy fodder. But Gwendoline is more often just dumb. For exotic locales and copious nudity (both specialties of director Jaeckin, as seen in his magnum opus, Emmanuelle), the movie delivers in spades. But for coherent story and decent acting, you should not have come here in the first place. It mainly serves as a relic of a far off time, back when one could turn to HBO after midnight for a glimpse of the forbidden.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Perils of Gwendoline is a movie I saw way back when I was probably too young to appreciate it, and time has only made it more wacky. Half a low-rent Indiana Jones rip-off, half a French tittie flick, The Perils of Gwendoline is bad to be sure, but it’s so bizarrely and charmingly bad that you simply have to see it to believe it really exists. Fans of bad acting, sets literally made of cardboard, and action sequences bordering on the surreally amateurish will have a ball with this one.” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic

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