Tag Archives: 2019

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PINOCCHIO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matteo Garrone

FEATURING: Federico Ielapi, , Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Maria Pia Timo

PLOT: A traveling puppet show comes to his dusty town, inspiring impoverished Gepetto to make his own marionette; but the wood he uses to craft the boy is alive, and has a deep-rooted wanderlust.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Is it the slow-talking snail-form maid who’s sanguine about the trail of goo she leaves everywhere? Is it the pair of anthropomorphic swindlers, Cat and Fox? Is it that puppets seem to be their own species? Yes, and more: Matteo Garrone’s fusing of fairy tale whimsy with Southern-Italian Gothic realism is what makes Pinocchio so strange. Gepetto crafts a living, sentient son out of wood, and the most the townsfolk can muster is, “We’re happy for you, Gepetto, really, but can stop shouting about it? It’s the middle of the night.”

COMMENTS: Pinocchio‘s climax is a long shot of a boy crashing through a field of wheat, shouting enthusiastically for his father. His joy is palpable; and his many stumbles inspire a chuckle. His reunion with the much put-upon carpenter is heartwarming. And the scene takes a looong time. No storyteller relates the puppet boy’s narrative more thoroughly than Matteo Garrone, which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because, at over two hours, Pinocchio is beyond the patience of its ideal audience; a blessing because the film gives so many wondrous characters and spectacles time to blossom.

Pinocchio’s quest is Homeric in spirit, if not quite in length—though it’s pretty darn close in that way, too. Summary: wooden puppet carved from a magical log, occasional advice proffered by a supernatural cricket, a fairy godmother figure with a pocketful of fresh chances, and much succumbing to temptation. But as in his earlier fantasy (Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone populates Pinocchio’s world with entities both grotesque and magical. The gloriously named carnival master, Mangiafuoco (“fire eater”) is, in effect, a slave owner. His show’s intricate and well-articulated marionettes are sentient creatures, whose “strings” are merely the restraints of bondage. When a stage puppet spots Pinocchio in the audience, they marvel at his freedom, a freedom Mangiafuoco soon quashes, shanghaiing him first to be part of his act, then to be fuel for his campfire. (“I hated eating half-roasted mutton!”)

These dark entities (the lighter ones, too) inhabit a world best described as “Dust Bowl Fairy Tale.” Beneath a subduing filter, you can see the popping colors used to fill this poverty-stricken milieu. Homes, streets, even the good fairy’s country estate: everything is falling apart. Gepetto is on the cusp of beggary. He uses chisels, adzes, and all the tools of his trade to whittle away at a strange cylinder. We soon learn he is extracting the few remaining edible pieces of cheese from their desiccated wheel. The tragic villains Cat and Fox, who attempt to murder Pinocchio after robbing him, become more desperate and crippled each time we see them.

Carlo Collodi’s original story is a tragic morality tale. While Matteo Garrone scales back the tragedy (a little bit—our boy here, as I’ve spoiled, enjoys a happy ending), his movie is striped throughout with cruelty. It has morality in spades: each time Pinocchio errs—selling his school book to see the puppets; abandoning his father; and, of course, his near-fatal run-in with Mr Butterman, the too-smiling guide to the Land of Toys—he pays heavily for it. But I focus too much on the darkness. Gepetto ridiculously seeks jobs from the innkeeper by nearly breaking his tables, chairs, and door; the young fairy with her snail maid ooze old world wonderment; and Pinocchio laments to Mr. Tuna while in the belly of a giant dogfish, “But I don’t want to be digested!” Pinocchio the film is a bit of slog, but one bursting at the seams with curiosities; not unlike Pinocchio’s journey.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is so much that Garrone’s Pinocchio appears to resemble: there’s a bit of Tod Browning’s Freaks (and a bit of Frankenstein): echoes of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Old and New Testament… Pinocchio is a thoroughly bizarre story; Garrone makes of it a weirdly satisfying spectacle.” -Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Anonymous, who dubbed it “”a strong Apocrypha candidate, in my opinion.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE PLANTERS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

FEATURING: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna

PLOT: Emotionally-stunted Martha Plant is a terrible telemarketer and prefers her side hustle of burying junk in the desert for treasure hunters to dig up; things change when she offers her spare room to a recently released mental patient with multiple personalities.

Still from The Planters (2019)

COMMENTS: The appropriately named Martha Plant is an odd woman with an odder passion: she shoplifts souvenir shop trinkets, buries them in the desert, posts the GPS coordinates on a lonely bulletin board, and then digs them up later to find the cash left behind by grateful treasure hunters. (“It’s one of the most successful enterprises in the area,” she brags.) Martha is such a great crackpot that all she needs is an equally oddball sidekick, and the script almost writes itself. Enter Sadie, who literally comes careening down a sand dune, padlocked into a bicycle helmet and carrying a red suitcase, and crashes into Martha, the only landmark visible for miles. Laid-back, whimsical wackiness ensues.

Well, there are a couple more complications. One, Sadie has been released—or rather, cut loose—from a mental hospital that’s gone bankrupt. And she has multiple personalities, which show up over the course of the film. Two, while working at her day job selling air conditioners by phone, Martha develops a friendship with a lonely widower who’s just as socially awkward as the two women. And three, when Sadie peeks into the tins Martha buries, she sees biblical scenes (which play out in claymation): Jesus carrying on a casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, Moses parting the Red Sea, that sort of thing. Sometimes Sadie sees herself inside these little clay parables. These hallucinations are obviously the weirdest feature of a movie that otherwise merely leans to the absurd side of quirky, but it sets up a final scene that, for what it’s worth, indeed goes all the way into the surreal.

With its squared-off mise en scene, bright colors, deadpan line deliveries, twee musical selections, and eccentric characters, comparisons to are inevitable. And although that’s a great touchstone to determine if this might be your bag, Anderson rarely gets anywhere near this weird. Readers of this site might instead find connections to a similar mismatched-oddball desert buddy comedy, Rubin & Ed (although The Planters never gets quite that wild or aggressive). At any rate, it’s unfair to write this original comedy off as simply ersatz Wes. It’s its own weirdo thing.

The Planters has a terrific DIY backstory. It was created almost entirely by the two lead actresses/co-directors, from scriptwriting to costumes, sets, lighting, props, and sound, with no other crew. Begun in 2016, it took half a year to shoot, and spent a couple more years in post-production (Sam Barnett’s claymation creations took a while), finally arriving at film festivals in late 2019, and getting a very limited theatrical release in December 2020. The best part about it all is that, watching the film, you have no idea that the actresses are alone on set; everything seems to flow naturally from deliberate stylistic choices rather than result from filmmakers scrimping to cram their vision within their limitations.

The Planters is currently free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Odd. Quirky. Deliberately stilted at times. Colourfully shot with interesting camera angles. Filled with eccentric characters.”–Carey, OrcaSound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUPER ME (2019)

Qi Huan Zhi Lv

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DIRECTED BY: Zhang Chong

FEATURING: Talu Wang, Bingkun Cao, Jia Song, Shih-Chieh King

PLOT: Sang Yu, a screenwriter at the end of his tether, finds he can swipe high-value artifacts from his nightmares to sell in the real world.

COMMENTS: Oh, unreliable narrator, how you revel in tales of dreams and dreams within them. Oh, Chinese cinema, how quickly you catch up to the West. Oh, Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” And, oh, there are yet more questions to pose concerning Super Me, but for the time being, I will table the niggling unanswerables. The most surprising thing about Zhang Chong’s dream-thriller (rated TV-14 for, among other reasons, “fear”) is that its double twist undercut my predictions. The least surprising thing about it was that once our hero shaved his dorky facial hair, he became rather handsome and self-assured.

Sang hasn’t slept in half a year, or so he tells us. This obviously cannot be true. But as we suspended our disbelief for Fight Club, so let us extend that courtesy to Super Me. Sang is harried by San, to whom he owes a screenplay. This movie is about a screenwriter, one who pines for humble café owner (and possibly ex-nightclub singer; the flashback is thorough but not entirely clear), Hua’er. Sang runs out of cash, has his laptop stolen, is kicked out of his apartment, and is about to jump from a roof when he’s talked down by the kindly pancake vendor on the sidewalk below. This mystical philosopher advises the worn-out young man that in life, people always talk about death—to remind themselves they are still alive. During his nightly nightmares (in which he’s being murdered by some otherworldly blue goon), Sang should just declare, “I’m dreaming” to break the spell. Taking this sage advice, the next thing we know, he awakes with the goon’s impossibly valuable sword in hand. Pawn shop, money bags, big living, and lucid dreaming ensue.

Chong’s film is peopled with run-of-the-mill characters and the third act’s tone shift doesn’t quite gel—its sudden menace kneecaps the arc of wish fulfillment/cutesy romance an hour into the proceedings. I liked the menace; it was well executed, with unlikely but believable gangsters. Having derailed the fun and breezy tone that had dominated (post-suicide attempt, of course), Chong undercut what could have made his story even rarer: the feel-good thriller. But the lead is so goofily charismatic that I couldn’t help but root for him as he traveled along his path to wisdom at a pleasant clip.

I approach modern Chinese cinema with something of a jaundiced eye, always wondering where the propaganda will seep into the picture. But Super Me was no more laden with moralizing than standard Hollywood fare. This was aided by its narrative structure. While not on the same satirical-poetical level as Buñuel, Chong nicely bleeds reality and dream together. (His hand is heavier than the late Spanish master, but so is everyone else’s.) And moreso than Chris “I’mma Dreamer” Nolan, Chong has a playfulness and lack of pretention that makes Super Me a pleasant diversion from waking life.

Super Me is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…startling visuals, an immersive video game atmosphere, and a steady wash-rinse-repeat plot that’s equal parts simplicity and obscurity make this a potential cult film…  Just when you think you understand the rules of this bizarre world, a plot twist contradicts the conclusion.”–Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)