Tag Archives: Coming of Age

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.)

CAPSULE: BLUE MY MIND (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lisa Brühlmann

FEATURING: Luna Wedler, Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen

PLOT: A teenage girl finds her body is going through a strange transformation.

Still Blue My Mind (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s explored fully, the puberty/body image metaphor here is too obvious to create a mood of mystery.

COMMENTS: Mia is basically a normal 15-year old girl, dealing with normal 15-year old girl problems: trying to make friends with the cool crowd at a new school, worrying that her parents understand her so little that she must be adopted, and stressing about the strange changes her body is going through.

And fighting her compulsion to snack on goldfish straight out of the tank, a habit which is constantly getting her grounded.

Aside from the movie’s fantasy element (an intended surprise that’s likely been spoiled for you already if you’ve seen any of the marketing surrounding the movie), there’s another mild issue which inhibits your suspension of disbelief. Mia is supposed to be 15 years old, which is a little late to be getting her first period—especially when she looks like a fully developed young woman (Wedler was 17 or 18 years old during filming). It seems like the script compresses and crams in the entire range of problems faced by girls from 12 to 18 into 90 minutes: Mia simultaneously deals with the hormonal stress of oncoming adolescence, and with the rebellious delinquency typical of older teens.

Nevertheless, if you can accept that Mia’s experiencing an uneven, delayed puberty—possibly related to her biological “specialness”—her travails are believable. Perhaps too believable, in fact: large stretches of segments dealing with unsatisfactory crushes and awkward sexual encounters, getting buzzed on Saturday night, experimenting with asphyxiation or shoplifting on a dare, girlfriends who are carelessly and causally mean to each other at one moment and fiercely loyal the next, and so forth all start to feel routine, like incidents we’ve seen in dozens of teen-development dramas.

When Mia’s slow-gestating transformation finally blossoms, however, it breaks through all of the sudden. In a hazy, dreamlike trance, she freshens up her makeup with a brighter shade of red, takes a swig of vodka, and wanders out to the party she just excused herself from to dance seductively for a group of college-age boys, who invite her into the back bedroom for an “erotic” encounter sure to make you squirm in your seat. This peak of teenage peril is followed by a disappointing reveal and an inevitable denouement.

Although Blue My Mind isn’t exceptional, as a low-budget debut feature from a director fresh out of film school, it is remarkably assured. Freckle-faced Luna Wedler’s on-key performance helps a lot, and the rest of the cast assists ably. Other than an attempt at a beyond-her-means special effect, the technical aspects are all professional, and writer/director Brühlmann handles her actors well. She has talent, and with a different script and a few more Euros she could make something that will really blow your mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Up to a point, the central analogy works rather brilliantly. The menacing yet dreamlike tone grounds the film’s dark-fairytale transformation… But at some point the allegory slithers out of Brühlmann’s grasp, and grows too large for its tank.”–Jessica Kiang, Variety (festival screening)

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

366 UNDERGROUND: MANGOSHAKE (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Chiu

FEATURING: Matias Rittatore, Jessica McKnight, Ian Sheldon, Philip Silverstein, many others

PLOT: A group of young people hang out in the suburbs running a stand that sells mango shakes, until a rival sets up a stand selling chow mein.

Still from Mangoshake (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too far down the production ladder. If you make a movie for $0, it needs to be ceaselessly and relentlessly weird to make our List. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see Mangoshake if you get the chance, of course, but realize it’s aimed primarily at no-budget movie fans rather than weird movie fans.

COMMENTS: The most important exchange of dialogue comes at the end. Mangoshake entrepreneur Ian (occasionally pronounced “Juan”) confesses to Spaceboy (the nerd who obsessively documents this lazy summer in his diary, hoping to make sense of it all) that his entire enterprise has not been about building a sense of community, as he publicly claimed, but about getting laid. (How giving away free mango shakes was going to get him laid is one of the many absurdities Mangoshake lays out without explanation). “All of this was just to try to have sex?,” objects Spaceboy. “No, I won’t accept that, it was more than that.” Ian responds, “It’s not. It’s just straight up not.” He pauses. “Look, if it was more than that for you, no one can take that away from you.”

With dozens of thinly-sketched characters (actors clearly in their twenties but acting like teenagers), Mangoshake is a nearly plotless experiment evoking a certain summer slacker ennui through comic vignettes that err towards the goofy side of absurd. It’s sort of a sunny combination of Clerks and that sets out to subvert teen cliches. The comedy is uneven, often relying on gambits like characters suddenly wearing fake beards and reciting dialogue in funny accents, or pitching dumb movie ideas—“clowns crushed by gravity!”—resulting in mock hilarity. There is a whiny monologue from a discarded pizza crust and a pretty good musical number, though. The best bit, which involves a black market fruit dealer named Nancy, could stand alone as a Youtube short. It ends with a food fight where a couple of the actors sort of break character and crack up, but they just keep rolling.

Filming on unforgiving equipment one step above an iPhone, Chiu uses simple techniques—jump cuts, subtitles, upside-down shots, and a crashing-skateboard cam—in an attempt to create visual interest in the bland suburban setting. As is often the case with low budget productions, sound can be an issue, making it hard to make out some dialogue. As a joke, one shy character is always subtitled, but the whole film might benefit from close-captioning. Adding to the proudly amateur aesthetic, the actors have such blank deliveries that you sometimes wonder if Chiu is trying to translate into mumblecore. There are a few moments of genuine melancholy sincerity as the characters awkwardly attempt, and generally fail, to connect with each other on a deeper level than just “hanging out.”

Mangoshake is the DIY coming-of-age-film for people who hate coming-of-age films, a mission it announces up front. Mainly, it seems to be cynical about the possibility of romance. People don’t hook up, or they don’t hook up meaningfully, or they don’t hook up with the person they want to hook up with. The nerd doesn’t get the hot girl, but neither does the douchebag; the hot girl doesn’t get the nice guy, or the cool guy either. The lesbians do seem to do OK. The best thing about Mangoshake may be that it might convince you that you can make your own movie, which would be in line with the director’s intent. From his “mission statement”: “The philosophy is taking nobody-filmmaking to a raw place that can challenge the inclusivity of the cinematic language, and to communicate a story that have-nots could’ve made and could connect with. Regardless of if one thinks this works or not, what could matter more is if it gets across what it could represent. If it could be an honest expression of nobodies putting together a feature-length movie that holds resonance.” Call it a nonifesto for “nobody-filmmaking.”

Mangoshake plays tomorrow at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn; its fate thereafter is unknown.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealist comedy of late-summer ennui… This breed of absurdism, however, will only appeal to an audience who will truly appreciate the pleasure of surrendering yourself to the most primitive and instinctual of delights…”–Gary Shannon, The Young Folks (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Lewis John Carlino

FEATURING: Jonathan Kahn, Sarah Miles, , Earl Rhodes

PLOT: A young boy growing up in a seaside English town with his widowed mother is involved in a cultlike group of juvenile delinquents, but idolizes a passing sailor who woos his mom… for a while.

Still from The Sailor Who Eell from Grace with the Sea (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of the all-time great titles, but definitely not one of the all-time weirdest movies. What little weirdness it has is more of a function of its unfashionable (some might say “clumsy”) use of symbolic narrative than anything else.

COMMENTS: Lewis John Carlino (screenwriter of Seconds) adapted The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea from a novel by oddball nationalist Japanese writer . Some critics argue that, in changing the location from Japan to Wales, the movie fails to achieve greatness because it can’t translate Mishima’s specifically Japanese cultural concerns to screen.

I disagree. I think The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea fails to achieve greatness on its own merits. Specifically, the movie is poorly paced, losing rather than gaining steam as it goes on, and the acting is flat and uninspired. Sarah Miles does best as the young widow hiding her simmering sexuality under the cover of prim country Victorianism (although her mournful masturbation scene in front of her dead husband’s portrait is risible). Kris Kristofferson is mainly there as a manly prop for the sex scenes, a duty he performs well enough. The main acting issue is one that brings down many coming-of-age films: the reliance on young, untrained actors in crucial roles. Star Jonathan Kahn, whose only other credits were literary parts in BBC juvenile television adaptations, is just serviceable: he has the look of a conflicted adolescent, but he can’t channel the surging hormonal rage needed here. Earl Rhodes, as “Chief,” is more of an obstacle to success. He gives theatrical speeches that sound like a schoolboy’s self-serving impressions of Nietzsche (“morality is nothing more than a set of rules adults have invented to protect themselves.”) He always sounds like he’s reading from a script and never develops the sinister charisma necessary for us to buy him as a mini-Manson; and if we can’t believe he seduces his schoolboy chums into bizarre acts of anti-adult rebellion (like a ritual involving a poor kitty), the delicate credibility of the plot falls apart.

Hints of perversity and sex can’t overcome the movie’s over-solemnity (the tone they were going for was “haunting,” but it’s a near miss). Sailor‘s lack of spark is a shame, because the film raises a multitude of interesting topics: youthful rebellion, missing father figures, Oedipal desire, the foundations of morality, the lure of romanticism, the tension between pure ideology and real life. While there is a certain fateful irony in the conclusion (optimistically promoted as “startling” in the tagline), it’s deliberately telegraphed so that there is no suspense. A few indicia of derangement–dissonant baroque music played on prepared piano during the boy’s memory of seeing his nude mother, a stuttering montage as the boys prepare their final act–give the movie the slightest touch of formal strangeness.

There is one major support for the interpretation that the film is a failure of translation. Mishima likely intended the novel as an allegory for Japan’s postwar situation, and viewed the boys as the upcoming generation of heroes and patriots who would overthrow Western domination of “pure” Japanese culture. In Carlino’s hands, these brats are misguided monsters, Lords of the Flies refugees, who make the parents into tragic victims of their misguided fanaticism. Obviously, that’s a seismic thematic shift—but again, I don’t think that’s the reason the movie fails to hit its mark. With more vital direction, they could have pulled the reversal off.

At the moment The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is free to watch on Tubi.tv (no way to know if that will still be true by the time you read this, naturally).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an intriguing effect by virtue of its very strangeness, with its uneasy combination of a sex-starved widow and twisted kids making for, at the very least, a memorable experience, if not entirely for the right reasons.”–Graem Clark, The Spinning Image

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

CAPSULE: THE BOOK OF BIRDIE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth E. Schuch

FEATURING: Ilirida Memedovski, Kitty Fenn, Suzan Crowley, Kathryn Browning

PLOT: A young woman is brought to a convent to protect her from an unspecified danger. There, she explores both her emerging spirituality and womanhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Schuch’s movie relies heavily on a theological flavor of “magic realism”. While it explores various fringe topics—(clerical) sisterhood, puberty, paganism, and suicide—using a variety of stylish techniques, it doesn’t push boundaries as far as it should, and ultimately doesn’t adequately explore the various narrative avenues it goes down.

COMMENTS: Director Elizabeth Shuch cannot be accused of lacking in ideas:

  • The intersection between Femininity and Christianity.
  • The intersection between Christianity and Paganism.
  • The intersection between Paganism and Femininity.
  • Coming of age, first love, and suicide.

Throughout The Book of Birdie, Shuch addresses all these topics while maintaining a precarious narrative thread.

Our story begins in a dying convent consisting of a dozen or so nuns. Young Birdie (Ilirida Memedovski) has been brought there for the protection and (ostensible) comfort that a life of wholesome religiosity may bring. Birdie integrates with her new wards slowly, but surely, while also making acquaintance (then friendship, then love) with Julia, the groundkeeper’s daughter. Birdie learns prayers, attends services, and sees the ghosts of two dead nuns haunting the convent. After staining her bedding with a heavy menstrual flow, things become slightly more unreal.

Arthouse film techniques abound. There are extended shots of Birdie’s entrancingly dark eyes. Ephemeral lighting abounds inside the compound while a bleak sun saturates the outdoors. Animations of symbolic imagery are seamlessly integrated. While the camera-work and editing veer close to heavy-handedness, they never fall into parody. The nun characters—both alive and dead—help to keep the film grounded in the reality of this hollowed-out haven. One enthusiastic nun in particular stands out. She confides her aspirations to Birdie: “I knew Jesus was the only man for me when I had my First Communion. I felt the wafer sizzle in my mouth and I felt him calling to me. Everything I’ve done since then has been to prepare me for a spiritual life. I want to be the best.” Unfortunately, it is Birdie who experiences the transcendence that this nun strives for. The cause (effect?) of this brings me to a needful observation.

This film has a lot of blood in it: a lot of menstrual blood. It shows up in specks around the chapel, it shows up in trails, and it shows up in the small vials that Birdie fills with it and, on occasion, drinks from. She also crafts what I can only describe as a “fetus fetish” from porridge and stores it in vinegar. This entity comes to life on occasion, as does a statue of Christ—as do her reproductive organs, which we see escaping her body and flying off, like an angel. There is a mountain of symbolism of which, with my limited catechism, I can only understand fleeting hints.

The important question, though, is whether this works as a movie. To that I say, “Yes… mostly.” The performances are all tip-top and the limited scenery provides a real sense of a derelict haven. And the narrative moves from one point to the next, with a beginning, middle, and end. However, I can’t help but feel that this movie is like an empty Chinese puzzle box: fascinating to watch unfold, but ultimately yielding nothing. An ambiguously tragic life is explored with ambiguously theological symbols bringing us to an ambiguous, tragic ending. All spirit and no flesh, perhaps?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, glittery, feminine fever dream.”–Lindsay Pugh, Woman in Revolt (festival screening)

351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

Psiconautas, los Niños Olvidados; AKA Psyconauts: The Forgotten Children

“Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.”–“The Parlour Companion” (1818)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of Andrea Alzuri, Félix Arcarazo, Eba Ojanguren. Josu Cubero; Lauren Weintraub, Jake Paque, Sofia Bryant, Dean Flanagan (English dub)

PLOT: This fable takes place on an island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals years after a nuclear disaster has devastated the ecology and economy. Dinky, an adolescent mouse, plans to run away with her friends, hoping to leave the island and find a better life. She desperately wants her boyfriend Birdboy to accompany her, but the feral child is addicted to pills and too absorbed in his own problems to join the small crew.

Still from Birdboy, The Forgotten Children (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Birdboy: The Forgotten Children began life as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez. Pedro Rivera, a screenwriter who had directed one animated feature at that time, read the book and got in contact with Vázquez to see if he would be interested in adapting the book into a movie. The two made the short “Birdboy” in 2011 as a proof of concept, then were able to raise funds for the feature film.
  • Psiconautas won best animated film at Spain’s 2016 Goya awards but it was not a financial success, grossing a mere $13,000 in Spain and only $52,000 worldwide.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When Birdboy’s adolescent brain finally breaks and his horde of shadowy bat demons break loose, flocking up his lighthouse lair and coalescing into a dark dragon with glowing red eyes and a vicious pincer beak.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Abused alarm clock; adopted luchador pup; addicted nose spider

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Birdboy is the story of cute, drug-addicted baby animals stranded on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic island. It’s got talking alarm clocks, piggy banks, and inflatable ducks, all of whom have tragic stories to tell. It’s not afraid to give a puppy a rifle, or put one in a skintight leather mask. But for all of this sarcastic nihilism, it’s not a black comedy, but an empathetic fable and an immersive spectacle, told through beautiful and often psychedelic animation.


Trailer for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

COMMENTS: Birdboy is, honestly, a pretty easy sell. It’s got cute Continue reading 351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)