Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: SASQUATCH SUNSET (2024)

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DIRECTED BY: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner

FEATURING: , Christophe Zajac-Denek, , Nathan Zellner

PLOT: A fictional nature documentary following a family of four (at first) Sasquatch trying to survive in the Pacific Northwest.

Still from Sasquatch Sunset (2024)

COMMENTS: Sasquatch Sunset has to think up some creative solutions to overcome the central problem of the premise, which is: it’s absolutely nuts. It’s a vignette-based, documentary-style work of imaginary anthropology about a mythical subspecies, starring a couple of famous actors who are unrecognizable in their Bigfoot fursuits, liberally spattered with sex and scatology. The fact that such an noncommercial property was able to get greenlit is a testament to the pull of “name” producers like and Jesse Eisenberg. The fact that it is an unlikely success is a credit to the talents of the Zellner brothers, who continue to push the oddball envelope after the cult success of their supernatural TV satire “The Curse.”

Sasquatch Sunset‘s chief gambit to keep you watching is to pepper its Animal Planet-esque scenes of a quartet of Bigfeet foraging for food and shelter with comedy—particularly, grossout comedy. There’s a Sasquatch sex scene in the first fifteen minutes, a bit of slapstick with a turtle who gets treated like a cellphone, skunk sniffing, and so on. You learn more about the Sasquatch reproductive system than you would ever want to know, capped by an unforgettable use for Bigfoot placenta. Perhaps the grossest and most absurd scene occurs when the family discovers a logging road, which disorients them so much with its unnatural regularity that they break into spastic gibbering fits and spontaneously evacuate all over themselves (including shock lactation.) Between these moments, you drink in the natural beauty of Pacific Northwest logging country, with its majestic redwoods, and try to count the infinite stars (along with one Bigfoot who can’t count past “ugh.”)

While the movie is entertaining you in its unpredictable way, it is also sneaking in empathy for its subjects—and making you wonder just how human they are. The beasts have humanizing traits and a sense of natural curiosity; the youngest even has an imaginary friend. Be prepared for family members to pass away, in grotesque and painful ways, and new ones to join the clam, at less than replacement rate. And, although no humans are seen (we are apparently as mythical to Bigfeet as they are to us), evidence of our presence sneaks in frequently; the mere sight of a red “X” on a sawed-down redwood confuses the anthropods, but raises alarm in us viewers. Several times, the Sasquatch family enacts a strange branch-banging ritual that suggests that they are more intellectually developed than they seem, and which may have a wistful significance.

The obvious precursors for Sasquatch Sunset are two works by Jean-Jacques Annaud: the prehistoric Quest for Fire (1981) and the ursine bildungsroman The Bear (1988). Both are fictional features set in primeval landscapes; the first uses a fake language of mostly caveman grunts, and the second has no dialogue at all. It’s a specialized subgenre, but one that was overdue for a revival. Scatological comedy was an unexpected addition to the formula, but one which makes intuitive sense; these pseudo-humans don’t share our bathroom taboos. But, as the melancholy title and odd ending makes clear, this story is a tragedy, not a comedy. At the end, the survivors stand in a world that’s not their own. They are the end of the line, their numbers are unsustainable, and their morphology is soon to become nothing more than an iconic curio suitable only for a roadside attraction.

One note: a lot of cinemas reported walkouts during screenings: often the sign of a weird movie, but in this case maybe the sign of a gross movie. This was not the case when I watched it, as I was the only one in the theater.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Consistently weird and frequently wonderful, ‘Sasquatch Sunset’ uses its high-concept premise to consider a host of themes: collective living, coexistence with nature, longing stirred by seclusion.”–Natalia Winkelman, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PITFALL (1962)

Otoshiana

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Kunie Tanaka

PLOT: A miner in search for work is led to a ghost town where he’ll become embroiled in a plot involving manipulation, trade unions, and doppelgangers.

Pitfall (1962)

COMMENTS: Pitfall was the first of a series of collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), author Kobo Abe (screenwriter), and Toru Takemitsu (composer); the trio would later produce works like The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Although an interesting piece on its own, Pitfall feels more like a prelude to greater works to come.

The beginning of the film establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as well as looming menace and disquiet (to which Takemitsu’s experimental score proves indispensable). Our main character is a miner traveling with his son in search of a job; he receives a map and instructions to go to a certain town where work awaits him. Upon arrival, the place is revealed to be practically deserted, save for a woman living in a house on its outer edges. After a brief interaction with her, the miner finds himself pursued by a figure in a white suit who eventually stabs him to death.

The Kafkaesque setup (and tone) only paves the way for further strangeness. A few scenes later the miner returns as a befuddled ghost helplessly wandering around the town, unable to interact with the living but trying to uncover the reason for his assassination. The remainder of the film maintains this dynamic: an unfolding drama in the realm of the living, with commentary of ghosts who can do nothing but passively observe.

Even before being reduced to a ghost, the main character is already caught in a web of mysterious causes and effects, moved by an ineffable logic not unlike the inscrutable bureaucratic machinations of  The Trial. Once the plot turns its focus on the investigation of the miner’s murder, the drama thickens (along with the confusion and weirdness), and stretches to a conspiracy involving the leaders of separate factions of a trade union.

More so than in the other films by the trio, the political dimension is particularly evident in Pitfall. The well-dressed figure in white, a symbol of the upper class or even capital itself, orchestrates the events like a demiurge, leading the working class to destruction. They persist only as powerless ghosts who can only witness their own oppression, and comment on it without ever being heard. This is but one of the levels of analysis, and we should not ignore the aura of alienation that the film communicates on a purely existential level.

For a first excursion, Teshigahara’s direction is surprisingly assured. As is usually the case with early efforts by masters, the seeds of what he would go on to accomplish are fully on display in Pitfall. Even if the story does not play out as elegantly and concisely as future offerings by the same team, the film is an assured recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classic ‘first film,’ full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It’s doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.”–Noel Murray, AV Club (Criterion DVD box set)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: PERFECT SENSE (2011)

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DIRECTED BY: David Mackenzie

FEATURING: Eva Green, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Dillane, Ewen Bremner, Denis Lawson, Connie Nielsen

PLOT: Epidemiologist Susan and chef Michael meet and begin to fall in love, but their romance is complicated by a slowly unfolding global pandemic that methodically strips the human race of its physical senses.

Still from Perfect Sense (2011)

COMMENTS: Hey, remember the COVID pandemic? Wasn’t that a ton of fun? We learned—and perhaps are continuing to learn—a whole lot about how our society would react to a worldwide health crisis, and the answers involve far more skepticism, selfishness, and general ignorance than we might have preferred. So there’s nothing quite like watching a movie in which the protagonists don masks to try and prevent the spread of an airborne virus that is threatening the entire world. Such happy memories come rushing back!

It seems that the cinema was prescient about such things about a decade before we got the real deal. Audiences had recently been treated to the horrors of outbreaks in films such as I Am Legend, Quarantine, Carriers, and (heaven help us) The Happening. One, Blindness, even focused specifically on a health crisis that deprived the populace of one of its senses. And in the year 2011, you had a choice: get a glimpse of the near-total failure of our public infrastructure in ’s thriller Contagion, or deal with the effects such a worldwide disaster would have on a budding romance in Perfect Sense, a love story suffused with foreboding and melancholy.

Diseases often propagate by preying upon our desire to help and comfort one another. But the contagion in Perfect Sense is unusually cruel, by turns capitalizing on our natural inclination to be kind toward one another, then exposing us at our most primal and emotional level, and finally stripping away that which allows us to interpret and enjoy the world. The film finds a particular power in images of the populace as a whole suddenly losing all control and self-possession, overcome by bouts of rage, despair, or even gluttony and pica. In each case, people try to pick up the pieces as best they can, and director Mackenzie and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson envision these victims reaching out to each other to fill the ensuing losses with hope, which is a welcome grace note in a film about the encroaching end of the world. 

The story of this ever-evolving sickness is an odd counterpoint to the more intimate tale of two people who are rotten at love but find each other. Green and McGregor have terrific chemistry, impressive considering they are introduced to us as particularly poor romantic prospects: she’s an emotionally unavailable pessimist and he’s a frictionless cad. They have a genuinely effective, character-driven meet cute, and despite the obvious nature of their jobs—she works with diseases, his job revels in the senses of taste, smell, and sight—they act as worthy avatars for the damned human race. Just as their fellow humans find ways to go on, so do Susan and Michael keep after their mutual attraction, determined to hang on to their story even as the world falls apart.

The central figures in our story are so strong that it can be frustrating when the movie cuts away to share the ongoing collapse of the human race, complete with an omniscient narrator to explain “what it all means.” Unlike it’s cousin Contagion, which juxtaposes personal stories of survival against the global effort to defeat the pandemic, Perfect Sense works best at the micro level, with Susan and Michael navigating the crisis alongside their relationship with their friends and family. (McGregor also gets two reunions of a sort, with a fellow chef portrayed by his Trainspotting co-star Bremner, while his boss at the restaurant is none other than his own uncle Lawson, with whom he also shares a Star Wars pedigree.)

It’s only in the peculiar landscape of Perfect Sense that the closing moments of the film could be considered in any respect a happy ending: the world overtaken by a wave of unreserved euphoria, followed by Susan and Michael realizing the depth of their feelings and racing through the streets of Glasgow toward a heartfelt embrace—at the precise moment that their ability to see is snatched from them. Humanity won’t be long for this world, and all they will have is the sensation of this final, passionate embrace, but they will have that. It’s a dark but oddly hopeful conclusion regarding the one thing we learned for certain during the course of the pandemic: we humans are nothing if not persistent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Perfect Sense is, to put it bluntly, a weird film… Overall Perfect Sense is a very strange and grim oddity that evokes the wrong reaction.” – Maxine Brown, Roobla (contemporaneous)

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

Perfect Sense
  • DVD
  • Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC
  • English (Original Language), English (Unknown)
  • 1
  • 92

CAPSULE: LA CHIMERA (2023)

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La Chimera is currently available to purchase on VOD (more rental/streaming options available later).

DIRECTED BY: Alice Rohrwacher

FEATURING: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte,

PLOT: An Englishman in Italy with a mystical talent for discovering burial plots joins a group who traffic in ancient Etruscan artifacts while brooding over his lost love.

Still from La Chimera (2023)

COMMENTS: If nothing else, La Chimera‘s milieu is unique: a ragtag gang of modern tomb raiders, trading in a black market for Etruscan artifacts. We first meet Arthur (a slovenly, rakishly melancholy Josh O’Connor) in mid-dream, as he remembers the woman whose absence will lurk in the background of the rest of the picture like a ghost. Arthur, an Englishman who speaks passable Italian, has just been released from jail, and he soon reluctantly returns to his gang and their old racket: digging up ancient pottery for resale on the black market. They need Arthur because of his preternatural ability to locate old burial grounds, which he can do with a diving rod like he was dowsing for water. The crew is motivated by money, but Arthur, we are told, investigates the tombs because he believes he can find a legendary door that leads to the afterlife. Besides his crew, Arthur hangs out with Flora (Rosselini), an old friend who lives in a decaying villa. There he meets the oddly-named Italia (Duarte), a tone-deaf maid who shows an interest in the handsome brooding stranger. Will she be able to spark new life in him, or will he continue descending into graves?

La Chimera is a European-style drama, more focused on character than plot. It wanders about, in no hurry to get to the point, but rather allowing us to soak in the characters for 130 minutes. Rohrwacher enlivens the stroll with assays into multiple (not always congruent) styles, including a smattering of magical realist touches. She provides changes in film stocks, digital undercranking for comic montages, fourth wall breaks, a Felliniesque festival where the gang’s males dress in drag, an outlaw folk song about the “tombaroli” (grave robbers), and an affecting dream on a train where Arthur faces up to some supernatural ethical dilemmas. There is also a repeated vertical pan that always ends with O’Connor upside-down, to simulate the vertigo that accompanies a successful divination. But despite these touches, La Chimera hews close to the standard art-house drama formula. It is, to a large extent, a meditation on death; with tomb-raiding as a plot point, it would have to be. But it seems somewhat unsure as to what it wants to say on the topic. Arthur struggles with a death wish, which is something of an addiction for him, so perhaps it’s an ersatz cinematic take on Keats: “Ode on an Etruscan Urn.”

La Chimera has been receiving near universal praise from critics, as did Rohrwacher’s previous magical realist drama, Happy as Lazzaro. I must confess that the director hasn’t won me over yet, and I have difficulty figuring out what all the fuss is about. She’s a  craftswoman who wields cinematic techniques competently, but with no strong auteurial stamp. That’s not to say her films aren’t thoughtful and well put together; they just fail to stand out from the art-house pack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange, aesthetically gorgeous and profound, La Chimera is ultimately just as unknowable as the liminal space that it protagonist inhabits within it.”–Tanner Gordon, Spectrum Culture (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SHADOW OF FIRE (2023)

Hokaje

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DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Shuri, , Ouga Tsukao

PLOT: Amidst robberies and other exploits, a young boy tries his best to survive in the black market area of a ravaged town in post-WWII Japan; his path intersects with other struggling characters, including a war widow and a man who recruits him for an unknown enterprise.

Still from Shadow of Fire (2023)

COMMENTS: Shadow of Fire is the latest offering by Shinya Tsukamoto; more specifically, the Tsukamoto who brought us films such as  Kotoko, Fires on the Plain, and Killing. These late-career outings see the director opt for a more conventional register, while keeping more or less all of the trademarks that define his peculiar filmmaking style.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, an unnamed war orphan makes his way through a devastated town’s black market, eventually finding refuge in a tavern kept by a woman who has resorted to prostitution after the loss of her husband and her son. She soon develops a motherly affection for the boy; the inn also begins receiving frequent visits from a young soldier.

In spite of all the differences that separate Shadow of Fire from Tsukamoto’s earlier work, the sensibility of the Tetsuo director is still on display here, not only in certain aesthetic choices but also in film’s core themes: for instance, the emphasis on the thinness of the barrier between what we call “human” and whatever lies outside its fragile boundaries. The soldier who finds shelter in the tavern undergoes, at a sudden reminder of his wartime torments, a quick transformation, unlike those in the director’s more fantastical productions, but no less terrifying precisely because of how plausible it is. (One can only imagine how many veterans underwent similar transmogrifications.) Equally notable is how repressed subjects (in this case, war traumas) are always ready to burst forth violently and dramatically—this time, not through physical mutations or explosions of steel and monstrous flesh, but in eruptions of emotional intensity. Shadow of Fire portrays an environment of disquieting uncertainty that underlies even its warmer moments, such as the familial bonding that develops between the three characters, with horror always on the periphery, looking to intrude at the slightest invitation.

In moments like these Tsukamoto’s DIY approach reveals its strengths. The handheld camera adds immersion and immediacy, and a visceral sense of physicality that heightens the brutality. The more discrete scenes might not be pulled off as efficiently, but they are as satisfactorily executed as in a piece by a more traditional filmmaker.

In any case, the drama is genuinely compelling: in particular, the plotline involving the boy’s dalliances with a mysterious man with whom he tags along for a mission whose nature is never disclosed, apart from the fact that it requires the boy to carry a pistol. Tsukamoto maintains an effective sense of tension and intrigue until this arc’s climax, which ties in with the film’s overarching themes of the lasting effects of trauma and dehumanization.

The film’s entire POV is the boy’s, much like in the masterful Soviet war film Come and See. While the adults surrounding him deal with a variety of war scars, his plot arc mirrors his condition as an orphan. Throughout his journey, he finds himself successively abandoned, first by a new mother figure (who unexpectedly rejects him after their time together), and then a masculine figure who accompanies him for a tragically short but intense stint.

The film’s coda may be unnecessary, but further testifies to Tsukamoto’s compromise to conventional narrative film trappings, attempting to close all of the plot’s loose ends and develop them to a conclusion (that is, within the climate of uncertainty that envelops the entire scenario).

Shadow of Fire will please Tsukamoto fans who have stayed on board for his more “sober” output, like his post-2010 war films or, for a less recent example, 2004’s Vital. While the director’s style might not always lend itself seamlessly to the premise at hand, and the content might inevitably lead to cliché and over-trodden territory, the power of certain scenes is undeniable. Shadow is a worthy addition to the Japanese icon’s resumé.

The reviewer saw this film at Fantasporto’s 2024 festival; U.S. release plans are uncertain at this time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is not an easy watch, but, driven by performances that range from haunting and affecting, to terrifying and grotesque, it is a powerful one.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Daily (festival screening)