Tag Archives: Alice Krige

CAPSULE: GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins

FEATURING: Sophia Lillis, , Samuel Leakey

PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.

Still from Gretel & Hansel (2020)

COMMENTS:There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.

Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch.  Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…

This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: not just the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on the tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.

Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.

Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life

Recommended

“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Marc Rylance, ,

PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.

Still from Institute Benjamenta (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
  • The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
  • The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
  • The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.


Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta

COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of Continue reading 127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

CAPSULE: TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorshin

PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a

twilight_of_the_ice_nymphs

mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.

WHY IT  WON’T MAKE THE LISTTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough to make the List, although it can be such slow going that many folks will tune out before discovering it’s weirder points.  Twilight just isn’t good enough.  With several of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort, weird though it may well be, to take space away from a more deserving contender.

COMMENTSTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting.  The protagonist, Peter (Nigel Whitmey), is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also, it seems, to episodes of sleep-acting.  For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed.  It doesn’t help that Whitmey’s dialogue was dubbed in by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor.  Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance.  Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent.  Veteran movie actors Shelley Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.

That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous.  Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene.  Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy.  This makes the movie effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection” (buy), along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Maddin’s fictional world is… so infused with such a delightful weirdness, such a disorienting, overwrought absurdity, that its artificiality and peculiarity give it a marvelous flavor that is a real pleasure to savor.” -Keith Allen, movierapture.com