Tag Archives: Arthouse

CAPSULE: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek

FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, , Keira Knightley,

PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented.  The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.

COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes.  One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s.  She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two.  Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe.  (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision).  The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.

The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel.  Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario.  Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer.  His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOME (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Ursula Meier

FEATURING: , Olivier Gourmet, Madeleine Budd, Kacey Mottet Klein, Adélaïde Leroux

PLOT:  The idyllic existence of an isolated family is shattered by the re-opening of an abandoned highway that runs through their front yard.

Still from Home (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the absurd rot at its core, Home is structurally sound; but it’s too low-key and lacking in zing to be counted among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  There’s not much plot to Home—a highway opens in a family’s front yard, the fumes and endless noise bug them, and they eventually put cinder blocks and cement over their windows to keep the outside world out. The idea could have packed a compact wallop in a short; but here, there’s ninety minutes to fill up. Promising first time director Ursula Meier saturates the empty spaces with acting; thankfully, she has Isabelle Huppert and a pro cast on her side. Home will work best for those who find the carefully observed intimate details of other people’s family lives fascinating, but the leisurely pacing will make this thin allegory something of a grind for others. Early scenes establish the bucolic Eden that’s about to be paved over: the family plays hockey in the abandoned highway, watches TV on a couch outdoors, and bathes together. (Meier makes a major point of the family’s unselfconscious, unsexual nudity; Huppert is the only one in the film who keeps her clothes on). External pressure on the happy family arrives when the highway reopens (allowing Meier the opportunity for a nicely absurd parody of the “incredibly specific news broadcast” movie cliché: the only radio station the family receives focuses exclusively and obsessively on the new thoroughfare, tracking the progress of the first motorist as if he were a national celebrity). Amusingly, at first the brood attempts to go about its normal routines despite the intrusion of the motorway; college-age Judith continues her full-time bikini sunbathing career (to the delight of passing truckers), and the two younger kids dodge cars as they cross the highway on their way to school each morning. Eventually the pressure starts to get to the family unit; the incessant freeway noise causes sleepless nights, and fatalistic middle child Marion takes to wearing a homemade gas mask and filling her younger brother’s head with tales of how the gasoline fumes will stunt his growth. Father Michel (Gourmet) reasonably suggests relocation, but mother Marthe (Huppert) digs in to preserve the homestead. Under stress the family’s behavior takes a turn for the bizarre (especially Mom’s). When they decide to wall up the house, the heat inside becomes stifling and the air stale; they spend most of their time sleeping, lacking the strength to do more. The film’s symbolism is open-ended, which can be a very good thing, but which works better when coupled with a stronger narrative. Critics seem to be focusing on the happy pastoral family vs. poisonous industrial society theme and the environmentalist subtext, but there’s also a metaphor about growing up at work here. At each stage of the story, the tone reflects one of the three children’s perceptions of family life. At first there is a childish innocence and fun to the home, with nothing of too much importance existing outside it. The outside world (represented by the highway) begins to encroach on the family sanctuary and penetrate its four walls, reflecting the anxiety and disillusionment of the early teen years. Finally, the home becomes a stifling prison run by madmen whose walls must be torn down in order to become an adult.

This Home is often confused with Home (2008), a mother-daughter cancer drama, and Home (2009), an environmental documentary narrated by Glenn Close. I have no theory to offer as to why the filmmakers gave their French language film shot in Bulgaria an English title.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the engaging, darkly funny, surreal story of what happens when people who have thrived by keeping civilization at a safe distance suddenly find themselves pushed right back into its headlights… an absurdist pit stop on the order of ‘Bagdad Café,’ but with more edge and less charm.”–Janice Page, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

66. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP [La science des rêves] (2006)

Mrs. Miroux: “So, what did you think?”

Stephanie: “I adore it!”

Mrs. Miroux: “Really? I’ve always found it rather strange.”

Stephanie: “That’s what’s good.”

DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry

FEATURING: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg,

PLOT: Stephane is a young artist and inventor from Mexico, a man who has always had trouble distinguishing dreams from waking life; he is lured to Paris by his mother with the promise of a “creative” job that turns out to be a position as a typesetter at  a company that makes nudie calendars. He slowly falls in love with his next door neighbor Stephanie, who is also a creative type, an amateur composer and toy designer. Their developing relationship becomes complicated and eventually melancholy because Stephane can’t tell if Stephanie returns his affections; whenever he meets her, he can’t even be sure if it’s in a dream or reality.

Still from The Science of Sleep (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Science of Sleep was Michel Gondry’s feature fiction followup to 2004’s Certified Weird Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It was Gondry’s first feature screenplay.
  • Gondry stated that the character of Stephane was about 80% based on himself (the other 20% coming from Gael García Bernal’s interpretation of the character). Many of the dreams depicted in the film came from Gondry’s own dreams; the scene where Stephane has giant, cartoon-like hands came from a recurring nightmare the director had as a child. In the commentary on the DVD Gondry also implies that the romantic trauma Stephane goes through in the script was inspired by a real life unrequited love. Gondry also filmed the picture in the house he grew up in a s a child.
  • The director said in an interview that he got some of the inspiration for the film’s look from Communist propaganda films aimed at children.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The two would-be lovers on a gray felt horse with button eyes in a white boat with a forest inside, sailing off on a cellophane sea.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Science of Sleep is nearly a straight shot of surrealism masquerading as a romantic comedy, under the cover of dreams. In this movie, it’s the reality-sequences that interrupt and inform the dream narrative, not the other way around.


Original trailer for The Science of Sleep

COMMENTS: In the very first scene of The Science of Sleep, Stephane’s subconscious,  Continue reading 66. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP [La science des rêves] (2006)

GUEST REVIEW: DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

UPDATE 2/16/2011: Dogtooth was placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the Certified Weird entry is here.

Imagine a world where up is down, hot is cold, red is black, dandelions are zombies and that mysterious slit between a young girl’s legs is called a keyboard.  Welcome to the bizarre world of Giorgos Lanthimos’ deep black comedy-cum-Greek tragedy oddity, Dogtooth.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)The strange story of a father who keeps his three adult children locked away on their country estate, allowing them no knowledge of the outside world other than what he and their mother (almost a prisoner herself) let them know—most of which is a twisted version of reality.  Never allowing the children (and though they all seem to be in their twenties, they are still very much children emotionally) to set foot outside of the family gate, the father tells them no one can venture outside the home except in the family car.  Only he ever does.  He drives his car ten feet past the gate to retrieve the son’s lost toy airplane.  Down on all fours and barking at unseen terrors lying in wait just outside of the family compound, these are not your normal cinematic children.  Though they live in what they perceive to be reality (and the only world they know) they could very well be living on another planet.

Essentially prisoners, these children are like experiments to the father (much like the dog training he is introduced to at one point in the story).  Each day they learn new words that have no correlation with what they actually mean in the outside world.  They are told that they can leave home only once their canine teeth fall out—a thing that of course we know does not happen without a bit of forceful persuasion.  At one point, the father begins bringing home a young woman he works with (blindfolded, of course) to have her engage in sexual relations with the son—a thing that is done without emotion, without fanfare and without any seeming pleasure on either end—only to have her betray his confidence by beginning to have a sexual relationship with the youngest daughter in exchange for presents.  Again, this is done without any semblance of emotion or passion; the daughter simply tells the girl if she licks her “there” (pointing to the obvious spot) she can have a gift.

Playing off Shyamalan’s The Village (though without the ridiculousness of that film) but done in a very matter-of-fact style typical of Greek cinema (or any Balkan cinema really) and especially of the nation’s cinematic icon Theo Angelopoulos, Lanthimos’ odd little movie reeks of possible exploitation, both in character and in style.  But, instead, it comes off as almost experimentation—as much as the father’s experimentation (i.e., the dog-like training) upon his unknowing children.  Yet, even with the passionless approach to characterization (including the most banal sex scenes ever filmed) we can feel the tremors begin beneath the surface, and we know that eventually there is going to be a deeply felt emotional explosion from at least one of these children.  Of course this emotional A-Bomb does eventually come (culminating in that aforementioned forceful persuasion) and we are left with a haunting final image that may be the inevitable conclusion to a psychologically dangerous tale such as Lanthimos’ bizarre Dogtooth.

This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.

58. DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969)

Dillinger e Morto

Dillinger Is Dead throws narrative, psychological, and symbolic common sense out the window… the film’s refusal of clear-cut logic, its contradictory symbols, and its moral ambiguity open it to endless interpretation.”–Michael Joshua Rowin, from the notes to the Criterion Collection edition of Dillinger is Dead

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annie Girardot, Anita Pallenberg

PLOT: Glauco designs gas-masks by day.  One night, he returns to the apartment he shares with his wife and live-in maid and, while searching for ingredients for dinner, discovers a gun wrapped in newspaper in his pantry.  He spends an evening puttering around the house, making dinner, watching home movies, playing with his various toys, disassembling and reassembling the gun, painting it, then using the weapon in a senseless final act.

Still from Dillinger Is Dead (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dillinger was a bank robber in the 1930s who became both Public Enemy #1 and a folk hero.
  • Ferreri barely directed Piccoli, giving him only simple blocking instructions and dialogue and allowing the actor to improvise the rest of the performance.
  • This is the first of six films Ferreri and Piccoli made together.
  • Model Anita Pallenberg may be best known for her romantic involvements with two members of the Rolling Stones (first Brian Jones, and later Keith Richards), but she has had small roles in a couple of weird movies besides this one: Barbarella (1968) and Performance (1970).
  • The movie was filmed in the apartment of Italian pop-artist Mario Schifano, and some of the painter’s works (most prominently, “Futurismo Rivisitato“) can be seen in the background.
  • The observations that the young worker makes to Glauco in the prologue are all paraphrases from philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s essay One-Dimensional Man, a critique of then-contemporary consumerism, mass media and industrialism.  Marhola Dargis of the New York Times believes that the entire movie is an attempt to give cinematic form to Marcuse’s ideas.
  • After its initial release, Dillinger is Dead nearly disappeared.  Variety‘s 1999 version of the “Portable Movie Guide” didn’t mention it among their 8700 reviews, Halliwell never heard of it, and Pauline Kael didn’t encounter it in “5001 Nights at the Movies.”  It was seldom screened and never appeared on home video until a 2006 revival led to the film being virtually rediscovered, culminating in a 2010 release by the Criterion Collection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gun that may have belonged to John Dillinger, which fascinates the protagonist. Especially after he paints it bright red and carefully paints white polka dots on it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dillinger is Dead is a disconnected, absurdist parable where nothing seems to be happening, and when something happens, it doesn’t make sense. It’s very much a product of its time—the anarchic, experimental late 1960s—-yet the world it portrays still feels oddly, and awfully, familiar.


Clip from Dillinger is Dead

COMMENTS: Dillinger is Dead doesn’t take leave of reality until its very last moments, Continue reading 58. DILLINGER IS DEAD (1969)