Tag Archives: Death

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

CAPSULE: SHE DIES TOMORROW (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jane Adams,

PLOT: Amy is convinced that she will die tomorrow.

Still from She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

COMMENTS: Amy plays an LP of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” over and over. She calls her friend Jane, who can’t come over because she has to go to a birthday party, but sounds worried about her. Amy drinks a bottle of wine, slithers on a cocktail dress, and climbs up on the neighbor’s wall with a leaf-blower—never a sign of good mental health. Jane finally arrives, and Amy tells her that she’s going to die tomorrow, and asks if Jane will ensure that her body is made into a leather jacket after she’s gone.

Kate Lyn Sheil carries the opening act of the film, mostly alone and silent, conveying a despair that builds to resigned madness. The opening features a lot of extreme close-ups of tear-filled eyes, a half-full wine glass, red blood cells; shots that suggest both loneliness, and an uncomfortable intimacy. This solitary mood is sustained about as long as it can be before Jane (Jane Adams) shows up to introduce a more dynamic note. Jane, an artist, dismisses Amy’s premonition of death as a self-pitying drunken ramble; but when she leaves, she begins thinking about mortality… and convinces herself that she, too, will die tomorrow. Jane then hauls herself to the birthday party, with predictably dire results.

If I were to assign a genre to She Dies Tomorrow, it would be “macabre drama.” Writer/director Amy Seimetz takes a simple irrational conceit—what if we were inalterably convinced that we would die tomorrow?—then it fully explores the dramatic ramifications through multiple characters. It’s the sort of idea that would have turned into a satire, but the tone here is forlorn. There is humor, to be sure—a conversation about dolphin sex, Jane’s panicky visit to an emergency room physician, Amy’s desire to be turned into a post-mortem apparel—but black comedy is not the predominant mood.

Neither is it a science fictional, “Twilight Zone” conceit; there are no firm answers given to why Amy is struck with a paralyzing consciousness of death. Scenes of rainbow-colored flashing strobe lights accompanied by the sound of garbled radio transmissions only confuse matters. The crucial fact that Amy’s morbid thinking is contagious converges with 2020’s pandemic, creating a layer of accidental relevance to contemporary times—one that you may find too relevant for comfort. A crowd-pleaser, She Dies Tomorrow is not; a worthwhile challenge for the brave and introspective, it is.

With it’s crushing sadness and lack of answers—much less solace—She Dies Tomorrow will frustrate the hell out of some viewers, which is a compliment. Seimetz is onto something desperately human here, a truth we’d rather avoid. We like to imagine that if we knew the date of our own deaths, we’d be freed to truly live life, not worrying about next month’s rent, pursuing our bucket list, renting a dune buggy. But Seimetz’s characters are instead paralyzed by knowledge of their impermanence, unable to enjoy their last moments on Earth or appreciate the simple beauty of a sunrise. The movie is an elegy for us all. True to its own despair, She Dies Tomorrow offers not a ray of hope.

She Dies Tomorrow counts and among its producers. Our readers will remember Amy Seimetz best for her performance in front of the camera in Upstream Color. This is her second feature film as director, and it’s a great leap forward from 2012’s promising but incomplete Sun Don’t Shine (which also featured Sheil as lead). Seimetz continues to act and direct TV projects, but she’s paid her dues, and let’s hope she doesn’t have to wait another eight years between features. She might die tomorrow, and that would be a great loss to the film world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a gripping seriocomic apocalyptic thriller that combines classic David Cronenberg body horror and with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel.”–Eric Kohn, Indiewire (remote festival screening)

CAPSULE: MY HINDU FRIEND (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Hector Babenco

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Guilherme Weber, Rio Adlakha, Selton Mello

PLOT: Diego Fairman is an Argentinian filmmaker of modest fame whose apparently terminal cancer has prompted him to be a jerk to all of those around him; then again, he’s always been a jerk to those around him.

COMMENTS: Like most of you, I’m a fan of the musician Taco Ockerse and his gold-certified album, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The plucky Western German had a smooth crooner’s voice and used his musical talents to drag hits from the mid-20th century into the 1980s’ New Wave. Three such songs featured in Hector Babenco’s My Hindu Friend. That’s not to say they used Taco’s versions, but “Ma Vie En Rose,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” and Singin’ in the Rain form a trifecta of “Why is this song here, now, doing this?” in a movie ripped straight from The Hallmark Channel Presents: Fellini‘s Night of Melodrama.

Babenco presents film a variant of himself, like Fellini did.  Babenco revels in whimsical dream interludes, like Fellini did. Babenco’s movie just sort of trails off at the end, like Fellini’s… (I’ll stop myself before completing that sentence so as to keep the comment hounds at bay.) Suffice it to say, My Hindu Friend is intensely personal: the upshot of which is that those of us who aren’t actually in the movie can merely try to enjoy Willem Dafoe moping around a hospital, moping around a Seattle mansion, and moping around his trendy home in Argentina.

It took over half an hour for me to find what could have possibly brought this on to 366’s radar. After untold days/weeks/months in hospital undergoing a bone-marrow transplant (and a similarly-feeling number of minutes), Diego starts hallucinating Death—who, in a refreshing twist, is just a work-a-day guy who’s having problems with his wife. There’s talk of the afterlife, but no secrets are  revealed; apparently such revelations are above Death’s pay grade. There are discussions about cinema. And, of course, there’s a game of chess—’cause that’s something a film fanatic might hallucinate while weakened to the core and dosed up on morphine.

Morphine. Yes, I would have preferred more morphine shots, as that not only brought forth the affable Death character, but also the only show-stopping scene in My Hindu Friend. In the middle of the night, the heavily-drugged Diego awakens singing a song through his breathing apparatus before removing it and, wonderfully, crooning into it as if it were a microphone. The song going through the dope-addled director’s mind? “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.”

And that titular Hindu friend? A young boy he meets in the infusion room at the hospital during his cancer treatment. The ailing director tells this narrative crutch anecdotes, ultimately living through fantasy stories as he does his best to comfort the eight-year-old whom the cosmos considered deserving of such a terrible fate. I’m rambling at this point, but I blame the movie. Touching, certainly; well-produced, without a doubt; but—well, I think I’m just going to trail off here…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…told from [Diego’s] perspective, in an alternately surreal, reflective (though never sentimental) fashion with Fellini-esque flights of frank sexuality, eroticism and existential whimsy…”–Jarrod Walker, FilmInc (streaming)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KOKO-DI, KOKO-DA (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Nyholm

FEATURING: Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Peter Belli, Brandy Litmanen, Morad Khatchadorian

PLOT: Three years after the death of their daughter, Tobias and Elin go on a joyless camping holiday; a trio of otherworldly psychopaths interrupts their first night—again and again.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Heart-rending shadow-style animation coexists with some of the cruelest nightmare denizens to be found in a cryptic forest milieu. There’s also the lurking white cat guiding the way toward salvation.

COMMENTS: Last night I did something I had never done before: I attended the second screening of Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. Frankly, I had to. After the first screening, during which at least four people walked out, there was a deafening silence as the credits began rolling. A few rows ahead of me, I spied a young woman raising her hands to applaud, only then noticing that everyone else—at least everyone who had remained—was seated in a rapt silence. Upon exiting the theater, the discussions between me and my reviewer friends immediately began. Two didn’t care for it, two had fallen under its spell, and a fifth could not yet express her opinion. It was, for sure, the most divisive film I’ve encountered this festival.

We meet an unsettling trio of travelers in the woods. A sinister dandy of a man (Peter Belli) sings softly while leading a strange young woman with a leashed dog and a giant of a fellow carrying a dead white dog. Then, the one happy part of the film: Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elyn (Ylva Gallon) are out celebrating their daughter’s birthday—done up in bunny makeup for dinner.  But Elyn gets food poisoning from some mussels. They camp out at the hospital, and when the parents arise the next morning to sing birthday greetings to their daughter, they find that she died in the night. “Three Years Later” we find the couple again, sniping at each other on their way to a camping holiday. They spend a restless night, and the next morning are set upon by the strange gang from the opening sequence. Again, and again.

I have seen time loops a-plenty, but the cruel, repeated turns of events make Koko-di Koko-da stand out from among its Groundhogian peers. The subtle shifts in climax from doomed encounter to doomed encounter exhibit a psychological nastiness that suggests the director aims to be as unkind to his audience as he is to his characters. But there is a beauty in his movie that rests surprisingly well alongside the surrounding trauma. The two animated shadow-sequences involving two bunnies losing their child, then destroying a (pointedly symbolic) rooster, have an aura of magic tinged with sadness. These accentuate the barbarity found in the encounters with the trio of eerie horrors.

Put simply, I loved this movie, and I knew this immediately upon finishing it for the first time. Generally I can talk about the intellectual reasons I really like something, but here I found myself affected more on a visceral level. I spoke with two of the fellows who walked out, and I couldn’t blame them; the wringer this movie puts the audience through is very trying. But, for those of you who click with this bad dream, there is the reward of intoxicating relief and exhilaration. And like Koko-di Koko-da‘s mystical story, its haunting tune will cling to your memory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…von Trier’s Antichrist meeting Groundhog Day in laconic and absurdist Scandi poetics.”–Martin Kudlak, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”–Haruki Murakami

DIRECTED BY: Daryush Shokof, Stefan Jonas

FEATURING: , Sonja Kirchberger

PLOT: Wealthy, elderly Archie is visited in his villa by a mysterious woman who sings an aria to him. Realizing that his death is near, he places an ad requesting young male servants. When the first of these arrives, he tells him he will earn ten thousand dollars if he inserts a finger in the old man’s ear and leaves it there for ten days; he then hires three other men to plug up his other ear and each of his nostrils.

Still from Seven Servants (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Born in Iran but living in the U.S. and Europe, Daryush Shokof is a painter and experimental video artist. He co-wrote Seven Servants‘ script with his wife from a dream he had. This was his first feature film.
  • Shokof considered cinematographer Stephan Jonas’ contribution so important that the opening credits announce it is a film by “Daryush Shokof & Stefan Jonas.”
  • Anthony Quinn said that the finished project was ahead of its time, “a work for the 21st century,” and that release should be delayed. Although it played at two film festivals in 1996, Quinn, who was also an executive producer, decided to delay release after a timid reception. Soon after, the production company went bankrupt, so Seven Servants wasn’t screened again until 2009, and received a DVD release from Pathfinder Entertainment in the same year. Quinn died in 2001, which is why the film’s dedication speaks of him in the past tense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing less than cinema icon Anthony Quinn surrounded by four shirtless young men of different ethnicities, each with a finger stuck in his ear or nostril, with the whole assembly undulating like a dancing octopus as fruit floats over their heads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Death sings an aria; Quinn’s plugged orifices; floating fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of my favorite species of weird movies is the experiment in taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. Seven Servants starts in earnest when a man sticks his finger in Anthony Quinn’s ear and doesn’t let up until every last one of his apertures is closed. It’s end-of-life porn, a smooth jazz fantasy of death as an epicurean celebration of life.


Original trailer for Seven Servants

COMMENTS: So, what do you do if you’re an obscure Iranian expatriate artist and you have a dream about a dying man who hires Continue reading 352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

349. MIND GAME (2004)

“Your life is a result of your own decisions.”–text message briefly glimpsed in the opening scenes of Mind Game

“There’s a lot of randomness in the decisions people make.”–Daniel Kahneman, psychologist

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Kôji Imada, Sayaka Maeda, Takashi Fujii, Seiko Takuma

PLOT: Aspiring manga artist Nishi meets his schoolboy crush Myon on the subway and realizes he still loves her. They go to eat at her family’s noodle shop, but two yakuza break in, demanding repayment of loans, and in the ensuing scuffle kill the cowardly Nishi. In the afterlife, Nishi meets God, but decides he’s not done living and returns to earth, where he becomes a hero by rescuing Myon and her sister, then is swallowed by a whale and shacks up with the old hermit who lives in its belly.

Still from Mind Game (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a manga by Robin Nishi.
  • This was Masaaki Yuasa‘s feature film debut as a director. He had worked as an animator since 1990. He also had a big role in producing the Certified Weird short feature Cat Soup (2001), working as co-writer, co-producer and animation director.
  • Animation director Kôji Morimoto’s credits as an animator include Akira (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).
  • Mind Game won the equivalent of Best Animated Feature at Japan’s Media Arts Festival (placing ahead of Howl’s Moving Castle) and was named Best Film at the 2004 Fantasia Festival (narrowly beating out Survive Style 5+).
  • Despite its accolades, Mind Game never had an official U.S. premier or home video release until 2018. It nevertheless developed a cult following with the few people who managed to see it, and told their friends.
  • Mind Game was the winner of 366 Weird Movies’ final readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: God, the cigarette smoking fish. Seriously, how many movies dare to literally depict God on-screen? Now, subtract the ones that show Him as a bearded old white guy or George Burns, and ask yourself the question again.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: God’s many cartoon faces; gay ex-yakuza in a whale; external translucent womb

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mind Game is trippy and surreal—the plot and the animation style both change every few minutes—but a sense of mystical wonder and an elusive wisdom underlies the whole crazy game. Put your seat belt on, this is going to be a bumpy ride.


US release trailer for Mind Game

COMMENTS: Mind Game begins with a stakeout in the rain; a man Continue reading 349. MIND GAME (2004)

340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , Frances Barber, , Agnès Brulet

PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.

Still from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
  • Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
  • In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
  • Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
  • On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying  zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.


Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts

COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes Continue reading 340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)