Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: THE BURIAL OF KOJO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Blitz Bazawule

FEATURING: Cynthia Dankwa, Joseph Otisiman, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Mamley Djangmah, Ama Abebrese

PLOT: With the help of a sacred bird, Esi  races to free her father Kojo after a suspicious fall into a mineshaft.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Burial of Kojo seamlessly combines elements of cinematic neo-realism and narrative magical realism: it’s a fantastical story that isn’t weird so much as beautifully told.

COMMENTS: The Burial of Kujo is an allegorical tale told as a meta-meta-narrative: a story delivered as a story about a storyteller. Sam “Blitz” Bazawule weaves together disparate stylistic threads to craft an inspiring vision about loss, of both family and of history, and wonder. Its simple cinematic magic pins the action in a realm that is both of this world, and of the next; as explained by the story-teller, “where the earth meets the sky and everyone stands upside-down.” It is like a reflection in a lake: what you see is not so much real as an undulating facsimile of gritty reality in the distorting purity of clear water.

Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) is a dreamer, and a man on the run from his own guilt. Having moved from the city to a mystical lake-town on stilts, he meets his new love Ama (Mamley Djangmah), but cannot find consistent happiness with her. His daughter, Esi (Cynthia Dankwa), is an enchanting girl born in the lake-enclosed town. But something haunts Kojo, and that something starts haunting Esi’s dreams. In Esi’s visions, a sinister crow pursues a blessed bird that is left with her for safekeeping by a blind visitor. When Kojo is pulled back into the city by a visitation from his brother, his destiny begins to unfold as the tragedy he fled comes back to the fore.

Using magical realism as the film’s lens is a perfect way to frame this uplifting tragedy, a tale told through the eyes of a young girl. Lyrical camera work, with simple tricks like picture inversion over moving water or “realist dream” sequences, adds a desirable degree of separation between what is seen and what is real. Esi’s encounter with the blind visitor, who inexplicably finds his way by boat to the island town, anchors the film’s pervading mysticism, and in so doing gives the girl the power she needs to navigate her way through what is in essence a sorrowful story about the death of a broken man who is touched by nature’s spirits and his people’s mythology.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kojo is fated to die from the outset: that reveal is provided right in the title. The narrator is a obviously a grown woman looking back on her early childhood memories. But The Burial of Kojo continues to surprise at every turn. Using the style of traditional African legends, Buzawule imparts bitter-sweet wonders through his young protagonist. And throughout the film he pulls off the impressive stunt of including social commentary without brazen moralizing. The Burial of Kojo is one of the better movies to denied an official space on the list: its exclusion should not be interpreted as a reason to forego its wondrousness.

The Burial of Kojo is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a visionary fable drenched with vibrancy and lyricism… As grounded in reality as it is informed by outright fantasy, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ is deceptively simple, unfolding in the soothing, singsong manner of a child’s fragmentary dream, but containing within it myriad truths about an Africa where economic exploitation and co­lo­ni­al­ism have taken on new forms and accents.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BATTLE IN HEAVEN (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Reygadas

FEATURING: Marcos Hernández, Anapola Mushkadiz, Bertha Ruiz

PLOT: A chauffeur falls in love with his boss’ daughter, who is secretly a prostitute, and confesses a terrible secret to her.

Still from Battle in Heaven (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Battle in Heaven really only gets “weird” in its final act; up until then, it qualifies more as “insufferable.”

COMMENTS: Battle in Heaven begins with a paunchy nude middle aged man standing against a blank background as an equally naked young woman kneels before him, her blonde dreadlocks bobbing ever so slightly. The camera pans teasingly, blocking the action for as long as possible as it slowly pans around to reveal the “money” shot.

Daring? Sure, especially for a Mexican film of the period. But like this shot, Battle in Heaven lacks any sort of discernible moral or purpose. The movie is technically accomplished, but as empty as the featureless room where the contextless oral sex takes place. The movie is not about sex—although there is a good deal of sex in it—or about the relationship between the two mismatched characters in the opening (which never becomes convincing). The best one might be able to say about it is that it’s about a man, Marcos, and his working class ennui—although the tragedy that follows is driven not so much by existential angst or sociopolitical oppression as by a series of perversely stupid choices.

Battle in Heaven is one of those self-important “quiet” films with lots of lingering shots of expressionless faces, where evoking boredom is seen as a brand of authenticity. There are long, drawn-out scenes of people we don’t particularly know or care about driving through Mexico City, talking on cell phones to characters we’ll never meet about nothing in particular. One can only imagine the director starting each scene by calling out “lights, camera, inaction!” And while that would normally be cause to assign a rating, the truth is that the technical qualities of Battle are too advanced for us to slam the film. Although most people in the audience will not care, the camerawork is excellent, featuring one 360 pan that abandons a lovemaking couple and travels outside their apartment window to survey the local neighborhood in a long unbroken shot before peeking back in to find them spent. There is no real purpose behind the virtuoso shot, but it will be appreciated by some. Even better is a scene where Marcos stops at a gas station which is blasting Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 over its loudspeakers (!); as the driver wanders towards the street, that music is overlaid with, then yields to, the sound of a parade where the marchers sing a patriotic anthem. That crossfade is the aural equivalent of the camera’s 360 pan. These moments remind us that Carlos Reygadas has real filmmaking talent—it’s just that this script has no direction.

As far as weirdness goes, there’s not much, up until Marcos starts masturbating while watching a futbol match (for some reason, Reygadas spares us the explicit details, although this seems to be exactly the kind of taboo he generally gets keyed up to commit to film). The protagonist then wanders off onto a hilltop, performs an unspeakable act, and joins a band of Catholic pilgrims in repentance. Some guys ring the cathedral bell that makes no sound, and then a bunch of soldiers take down and fold up a Mexican flag that’s as large as a house to signal the end of the film.

If watching a middle-aged man’s penis detumesce in real time is what you look for in a movie, then Battle in Heaven has got you covered. If you’re looking for any of the other things we normally seek out in movies—a story, an emotional connection, thought-provoking developments—then you may find it more of a hellish experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The pic’s strangeness becomes its strength, as it is aesthetically pleasing and then some, even if not completely satisfying in a rational narrative sense.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

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

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

CAPSULE: PARIS IS US (2019)

Paris est à nous

DIRECTED BY: Elisabeth Vogler

FEATURING: Noémie Schmidt, Grégoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel

PLOT: Anna does not go on her boyfriend’s flight that crashes; back in Paris, she becomes increasingly detached from herself and society.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alhough there are many Canonical titles that, it could be argued, are a bit incomprehensible, they also necessarily have some verve, panache, charming idiosyncrasy, or other stylistic or narrative merit. Paris Is Us is wanting for a purpose to complement its opacity. If you seek aimless ennui worth watching, check out Godard‘s early works instead.

COMMENTS: Two interesting things happened within minutes of each other when I began Paris Is Us. The first was a demonstration of the differences between dubbed dialogue and subtitled dialogue. (For reasons unknown, Netflix defaults to the English-language dub when available for its foreign fare.) The second was my cat hunting my pen as I waited patiently to find something worth writing down. That excitement out of the way (by correcting the audio to play the French-language track and by my cat nestling down to go to sleep next to me), I found myself trapped for the long-haul of a not-particularly-organized (and even less happy) spewing of montage.

Regular readers of my reviews know that this is the “plot” paragraph. There isn’t much more to say beyond the bare-bones description above. (And I’m probably repeating this ruse, now that I think of it.) The few minutes of dialogue in English perhaps skewered the whole viewing experience, as I couldn’t get the whole Frat-bro dialogue out of my mind while the (now) French-speaking twenty-somethings went on ad nauseum about: What if we’re all in a video-game? Isn’t there more to life than money? And can we even do anything about the state of this world that so drives us to European angst? Clattering around these musings were some specific lines that stood out, working at least as spoken in French (I shudder to think of the Frat Bro voice dub), like “I wanted it to create something so I could feel… alive” (in regards to hoping two planes might crash into each other overhead), and “We have something unique. We can’t throw it away” (said in the midst of one of the incessant fights between Anna and Greg).

I admit this is a really lazy review, but I only give the film-makers a qualified apology. Paris Is Us could have been tossed together by any freshman-level film students given cameras and a Parisian backdrop. The first act was long enough to make me dislike the protagonists; the second act stretched one obliquely conveyed tragedy across twenty-odd minutes; and the third act’s only saving grace was the random appearance of the only older character (Lou Castel), an ex-con on his way to visit his daughter’s grave. He has moved on with his life in the face of his double-tragedy, and the young ‘uns in the rest of the movie could do well to learn from his example. The administrator described this as “your oddest gamble” for Oscar week. It was a gamble. I have lost, but you needn’t do so.

Paris Is Us streams exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ce qui frappe immédiatement dans PARIS EST À NOUS, c’est son incroyable ambition esthétique. L’équipe du film prouve que la configuration de tournage imposée par son économie de moyen n’est absolument pas un frein à la qualité visuelle du métrage, bien au contraire.” –Aurélien, leblogducinema.com1)I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

“…a surreal slog in search of a plot.”–Joel Keller, Decider

References   [ + ]

1. I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

CAPSULE: THE LAST MOVIE (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Stella Garcia,

PLOT: A stuntman stays on in Peru with his mistress after his American movie crew has moved on, and is involuntarily cast in a movie the locals are making with fake cameras.

Still from The Last Movie (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The initial critical assessment of The Last Movie said it was a stumbling, self-indulgent mess of random, stoned footage that director/star Dennis Hopper tried (and failed) to salvage by editing it into something resembling a ian Western. Now that years have passed and we can reappraise the work from a more sober perspective, we can see that this knee-jerk reaction was absolutely correct. It’s half-baked Surrealism, with the emphasis on the “baked.”

COMMENTS: So here’s how I like to imagine the making of The Last Movie went. “Dennis, you’re a genius, and ‘Easy Rider’ made a gazillion dollars, so let’s fly to Peru and make a Western about Hollywood types going to Peru to make a Western!” (Puff.) “Get a crate of whiskey! He can play the director.” (Glug.) “Great! Sam, now shoot a bunch of Western-type scenes, put a guy in jail, get some dancing girls to do the can-can, blow some stuff up. Doesn’t matter what you shoot, there’s no plot. It’s not a real movie.” (Puff.) “Kris, can you play us ‘Me and Booby McGee’ while Dennis rides a horse? Cool.” (Glug.) “OK, everybody get drunk and we’ll film it. Dennis, cry a little.” (Puff.) “Wait, it’s been 25 minutes, did we remember the opening credits? Throw ’em up on screen while Dennis and his chick kiss in a field.” (Puff.) “OK, now let’s have the villagers film some scenes using cameras made out of bamboo… see, they can’t tell the difference between reality and the movies anymore. Did I just blow your mind?” (Snort.) “Damn, that’s some fine Peruvian coke. Get that chick naked in that waterfall, Dennis wants to make out with her!” (Puff.) “Throw in a ‘scene missing’ intertitle at random. Remind ’em it’s a movie.”  (Puff.) “I know what we need: a gold mining subplot! It’ll be, like, a metaphor for Hollywood!” (Glug.) “Let’s all get drunk and go to a brothel.” (Next day.) “Let’s film a scene where everyone gets drunk and goes to a brothel.” (Sniff.) “Wait, is that ether? Let’s have Dennis try to get a fur coat from this guy’s wifuuuh sajkagkudsigkuytadijah… bluh… panties.” (Puff.) “We still got some time? Gold mining expedition montage.” (Sip, looong puff.) “I think I’m peaking… what was in that tea? Anyway now the villagers are shooting the movie for real with live ammo and they put Dennis in jail and shoot him while he rides away on his horse and he gets drunk and slaps some whores and no one will believe he’s actually in a movie cause they’re too busy making a movie and he stumbles into a church and then a woman lactates on his face and the villagers throw a fiesta with fireworks and let’s have Dennis confess to the priest that he sinned ‘in movies,’ and then everyone gets drunk and Dennis dies for their sins, but he does a couple of takes, because it’s a movie.” (Puff, glug.) “Did we remember to tie up that gold mining subplot? Let’s close with a scene with two guys by a campfire talking about whether you need mercury to pan for gold. Just improvise. Has anyone seen my Quaaludes?”

And then Dennis Hopper takes all the footage back to his shack in New Mexico and drops acid and starts editing it together. Then his good friend shows up and looks at the rough cut and says “Dennis, it’s good, but it makes too much sense. You need to put all these scenes in random order.” And then Dennis passes out on the editing machine.

I kid The Last Movie, but there’s one thing that can be said for it: absolutely no drugs were spared in its making.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the all-time classics of pretentiously incomprehensible cinema.”–Radio Times

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: MOUNTAIN REST (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Alex O Eaton

FEATURING: Natalia Dyer, , , Shawn Hatosy

PLOT: Frankie takes her teenage daughter Clara to meet her ailing grandmother, a retired Hollywood actress, for the first time at her cabin in the mountains, where old resentments resurface.

Still from Mountain Rest (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite being pitched as a “surreal drama,” the only weird elements here are a single dream sequence and an incongruously ominous tone.

COMMENTS: A chamber drama shot almost entirely in the director’s family’s cabin, Mountain Rest‘s greatest strength lies in its trio of female leads, followed closely by the postcard-perfect shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Natalia Dyer (the main commercial draw, thanks to “Stranger Things”) plays granddaughter Clara. Dyer, incredibly, is already 21 years old; I would have pegged her character at 15 at the oldest. She takes advantage of her waifish look to portray a teen more convincingly than an actual teenager would; when her character nervously samples a glass of wine or tries for some ambiguous flirtation, the actress has the underlying awareness of someone who understands both the insecurity of late adolescence and the lurking perils of adulthood. TV vet Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) gets the chance to give her take on a flamboyant Norma Desmond type past-her-prime starlet, and clearly relishes the opportunity. As the mother caught between these two women, Kate Lyn Sheil—who for a decade now has seemed like the hot young indie actress just about to break into the mainstream—has an almost thankless role, mainly reacting to the younger woman with concern and the older with simmering resentment, yet holds her own. It’s no surprise that the only male actor is upstaged by these three. His character is a bit ambiguous (is he a scheming gigolo, or just a faithful caretaker?), but his Carolina accent is a softspoken fail.

The scenario puts these four in a cabin for a couple of days; sparks threaten to fly, but nothing really ignites. A secret is revealed, but it has dull teeth. And, most frustratingly, the Mountain Rest keeps threatening to venture into scary psychological thriller territory, then pulls back. The film suggests a sense of danger around Clara that never materializes. She meets the local teens and drinks beer/smokes pot, and soon thereafter is mysteriously hypnotized by a rushing mountain stream. Later, in the film’s only weird sequence, she will visit that location again, in a dream. One-shots show her apprehensive knitted brow and a string quartet broods ominously as she eavesdrops on conversations between her mother and the caretaker, or her grandmother and her dead husband. A minimal level of taboo sexual tension develops between her and Bascolm. Wrapped in a towel, she discovers a knothole in the bathroom door. She’s so tightly wound that she bites off the rim of a wine glass. But nothing ever develops from these hints; the noose stays slack.

Alex O Eaton (no “.” after the middle initial) assembles and directs a fantastic cast. The three actresses create a realistic, distrustful-yet-fond generational dynamic among each other, one that often plays out as more gripping than the dialogue directs. The cinematography is pro, the music well-chosen.  And Eaton has a gift for creating miniature moments of subtle unease. But the story here stays too restrained; every time it threatens to move in a dangerous direction, it pulls back and goes for the obvious angle. The young director shows talent to craft individual scenes and shots that hint at deeper meaning and menace; I’d like to see what she could do if she lets herself go for broke.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tense, imagistic drama with an almost somnambulant rhythm…”–Steve Haruch, Nashville Scene (festival screening)