Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: THE RAZING (2022)

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The Razing is currently available for rental on Vudu.

DIRECTED BY: J. Arcane, Paul Erskine

FEATURING: Jack Wooton, Laura Sampson Hemingway, Logan Paul Price, Nicholas Tene

PLOT: Four friends from high school gather at Corey’s place for his birthday, as they have for years; this time around, it seems as if their world may be ending.

Still from The Razing (2022)

COMMENTS: There are some guidelines one should bear in mind when crafting film characters. If the characters aren’t entertaining, they should be relatable. If they aren’t relatable, they should be convincing. And if they aren’t convincing, they should be out of the way. In their film The Razing, directors J. Arcane and Paul Erskine never reach any of these levels, and so we’re left with a moody, stylized mess of melodrama.

The camera skulks around, centering the action (so to speak) in a vignette frame. Ostensibly it focuses on a stylishly open-plan home—the home of emotionally-addled rich boy Corey, to be precise—but it looks more like a gauchely decorated penthouse suite. Together with Ellie and Ray, he waits on Lincoln’s arrival. Ray’s brought his girlfriend, possibly against protocol; Lincoln eventually meanders in with his latest boy-toy. Together, the six sit down to an unpleasant dinner in which more scenery is chewed than food—an unimpressive feat given the scenery is merely a bougie dining room table. While some kind of apocalyptic incineration may be going on outside, the only action within these sprawling rooms is odd delivery of overblown dialogue about some past predicament illuminated through a series of flashbacks.

I will overlook the cinematographic decisions out of deference to the directors. While camera’s ooze-flow may not have been my cup of tea, it adequately fits the action’s (read: dialogue’s) lack of clarity: this story is rife with dangerous drugs and unreliable memories. However, I cannot bring myself to forgive the script. Lines like “I may have ended his life, but I wasn’t the one who stopped his heart”; “You sound like someone I used to know”; and “You can’t run from who you are” are among the ceaselessly unspooling rejoinders to ill-delivered outbursts of emotion. The Razing is peopled by characters all in desperate need of therapists, or perhaps just of a reminder that they really needn’t live like this.

It’s worth mentioning two elements in the film’s favor. First, despite everything, The Razing left me feeling contemplative afterwards. Second, I had never heard the nickname “Ellie-Belly” for someone named Eleanor before. But whatever guignol-flirting was going on here, I couldn’t buy it, no matter how hard I pulled on the rope which suspended my disbelief. It’s a muddled movie presented in a muddled fashion, and no one on the screen managed to rally a scintilla of concern on my part. As tragedy befell, I befelt it couldn’t befall fast enough.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Between the obnoxious, shouty characters and the distorted sound and visuals, the effect was more like dropping acid at a bad party than watching a horror movie.”–Jim Morazzini, Voices from the Balcony (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: APPLES (2020)

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Apples is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Christos Nikou

FEATURING: Aris Servetalis, Sofia Georgovassili

PLOT:  After falling victim to a syndrome that causes sudden memory loss, Aris enters an odd recovery program designed to create new memories for a new identity.

Still from Apples (2020)

COMMENTS: When a man snarls traffic by abandoning his vehicle in the road and sitting on the curb, then denies it was his car, a fellow passenger takes it in stride and calls an ambulance. In Apples, an incurable plague of sudden-onset amnesia is so common that people don’t get angry about the inconveniences it causes. When Aris forgets his name and where he’s going on a public bus, he is routinely sent to a hospital wing dedicated to amnesiacs. After no friends or family come to claim him, he is enrolled in an experimental new program designed to give amnesiacs a new beginning. The regimen involves the subject recreating a series of representative experiences—riding a bicycle, crashing a car, having a one-night stand—and taking Polaroids of themselves at the scene, which they place in a special memory album. With no other obvious options, Aris dutifully enters the program and sets about following the doctors’ instructions for creating a life. A few tantalizing memories of his old existence occasionally break through the fog: a dog’s name, a street address. But all we can be reasonably certain of from his previous life is that he loved apples.

Apples will necessarily be seen as a late entry in the Greek Weird Wave—launched by with the deadpan absurdity of 2009’s Dogtoothand I doubt debuting director Christos Nikou would disavow the influence. Apples is Lanthomisian in rhythm and style, but pared-down to its essential moods. The acting is restrained but subtle, as opposed to the in-your-face, disconnected-from-reality non-acting that inhabits much of the Weird Wave. Servetalis’ nondescript, bearded face forms the perfect blank canvas on which we can project our own anxieties and melancholy. The sense of humor is absurd—Aris on a child’s bike, a doctor suggesting patients’ make therapeutic Molotov cocktails—but never approaches the surreal heights of something like The Lobster. The world here is only slightly askew, with the unexplained amnesia plague and the low-tech setting (Polaroids and cassette tapes instead of cell phones) serving as the only clues we’re not in present day reality. The spare cinematic compositions are designed to reinforce a sense of isolation, even in urban settings, but they are classically framed. (A cemetery scene with bone-white tombstones set against a gray sky and Aris standing in a slumped silhouette is one of the sweeter shots of the year.) It all seems designed to be more audience friendly than usual for the genre, but that choice doesn’t feel like a calculated compromise; rather, Nikou locates a natural space between standard arthouse drama and experimental film where he’s comfortable exploring penetrating ideas.

Note that there are two parts to the program Aris enters: constructing false memories, and creating a new identity for himself. Apples‘ plot focuses our attention on the bizarre methodology of the first part, but thematically, it’s more interested the second part of the formula. Apples becomes an existential fable raising open-ended questions: is Aris’ amnesia a result of traumatic event? Is it, in some sense, a choice? How essential is memory to our identity—if I forget everything, am I still me? Does the hospital’s structured regimen help or hinder Aris to live authentically? Apples invites you to puzzle out these questions on your own. The ending is, ironically, memorable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all sounds bizarre on paper. But Apples, the first feature from the director and co-writer Christos Nikou, unfolds with an understated deadpan wit that makes even its weirder touches seem plausible, even logical. At times it reminded me of some of the brilliant absurdist satires, like Dogtooth and Attenberg, that have put Greek cinema on the map over the past two decades.”–Justin Chang, NPR (contemporaneous)

29*. TITANE (2021)

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WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Recommended

“I wanted to create a new world that was the equivalent of the birth of the Titans after Uranus and Gaia mated. The sky and the Earth. That’s where it comes from. The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around. Monstrosity, for me, is always positive.”–Julia Ducournau

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Agathe Rouselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After having a metal plate inserted into her skull following a car accident, young Alexia develops an empathic relationship with cars. She grows up to inhabit two careers—modeling at car shows and murder—and ends up impregnated after a one-night stand with a muscle car, and on the run from authorities who suspect her in a series of killings. Alexia assumes the identity of Adrien, the long-missing son of fire chief Vincent, and forms a relationship with him.

Still from titane (2021)

BACKGROUND:

  • In winning the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau became only the second female director to claim the festival’s top prize, and the first to win the award outright (Jane Campion won for the Piano in 1993, but shared the award with Chen Kaige/Farewell My Concubine.)
  • Titane received four Cesar nominations, including for Ducournau as director and Rouselle as Most Promising Actress. Ducournau also earned a Best Director nomination at the BAFTA Awards. (Rouselle also won “Best Actress in a Weird Movie” in the 2021 Weirdcademy Awards, where readers also selected Titane Weirdest Movie.)
  • The title is French for titanium, the material of which the plate in Alexia’s skull is composed and which seems to be part of the body of her newborn. The epigram above, from an interview with Ducournau about the goals of her film, hints at another meaning.
  • Three of Titane’s characters share names with the leads in Ducournau’s previous film, Raw.
  • The fiery vehicle with which Alexia has carnal relations is a 1984 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pregnancy can wreak havoc on a woman’s body, but the changes Alexia undergoes are especially acute. The rips in her skin revealing a metallic womb are quite unnerving, but nothing quite exemplifies Titane’s particular brand of maternal body horror as when she finds herself expressing motor oil through her breasts. Writhing in pain and oozing engine lubricant, her transformation is both disturbing and completely logical.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Seduced by a Cadillac, bluegrass twerking

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For its first half-hour, Titane is a perfectly unsettling account of a serial killer who has sex with cars. This would be game-set-match for many films hoping to earn a spot on our List, but the movie soon transforms into a meditation on gender identity, faith, and the ineffable pull of family. The sheer intensity of the characters’ pain and emotional burden is overwhelming, and Ducournau’s choice to filter these themes through outrageous story beats lends the film an operatic quality that heightens the entire tale.


Official English Language trailer for Titane

COMMENTS: For Vincent, the mere idea of a DNA test is absurd. Continue reading 29*. TITANE (2021)

CAPSULE: BLOODY ORANGES (2021)

Oranges Sanguines

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Bloody Oranges is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Christophe Meurisse

FEATURING: Alexandre Steiger, Christophe Paou, Lillith Grasmug, Olivier Saladin, Fred Blin

PLOT: An elderly French couple enters a dance contest hoping to ease their debts, while a scandal-ridden politician schemes to rehabilitate his image, and a 16-year old girl hopes to lose her virginity.

Still from Bloody Oranges (2021)

COMMENTS: If you like movies about French pension reform with a side of torture porn, you’ll dig Bloody Oranges. There are lots of discussions of the French pension system (which, we learn, constitutes 13.5% of the annual budget) and the younger generation’s resentment towards funding it. Pension complaints are pillow talk, getting rid of pension fraud among the elderly is the centerpiece of a fiscal cabinet meeting, and pension reform is the subjet de tous les jours on ambient TV news broadcasts. Olivier and Laurence are deep in debt and their combined monthly checks can’t cover their expenses, so they’re hoping to win a rock n’ roll dance contest that would net them an SUV which they could resell and possibly cut their debts in half.

But perhaps the modern French have deeper problems than the pension system. In almost the dead middle of the film we get an epigram from Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci that ends with the line: “Now is the time of monsters.” And this is when the movie, which had been an ensemble comedy dry as a glass of Merlot, suddenly takes a turn for the bloody. The change in tone is jarring and won’t work for many, but you do have to say one thing: le patriarcat gets (by which I mean loses) theirs at the end.

Writer/director Jean-Christophe Meurisse has fashioned a well-written, if not necessarily pleasant or tonally coherent, third feature. Although the situations get a bit bizarre, the characters are generally believable. Much of the dialogue is delivered through complicated discussions full of counterpoint: the dance jury argues spiritedly about the role of diversity in the selection process, a family birthday party is full of subtle recriminations and resentments. Individual scenes are well-crafted: a lover takes little post-coital digs at her partner’s slight build, microagressive but delivered with such sweetness that taking offense would appear as a gauche overreaction; in another amusing incident, a gynecologist gives advice to a virgin (I like to believe all French gynecologists flippantly explain hand job techniques to their inexperienced teenage patients).

But the movie’s central shock scene, while perhaps cathartic, reveals none of the careful control or wit Meurisse displays throughout the rest of the movie. It makes narrative sense, sure, but its brutal over-explicitness makes it a mood-killer. Instead of sweet orange flesh, with are left with bitter pith.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film with bizarre events strung up together with not real interest and barely any joy at all is what is presented here and unless one wants to watch something that is just blandly negative, this is not a film many will like watching.”–Emillee Black, Cinema Crazed (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ANATOMY OF HELL (2004)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat

PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.

Still from Anatomy of Hell (2004)

COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.

A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.

Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties.  And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).

On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)