Tag Archives: Drama

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STANLEYVILLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

FEATURING: Susanne Wuest, , Cara Ricketts, Christian Serritiello, George Tchortov, Adam Brown

PLOT: Maria is selected for a contest that promises to “probe the very essence of your mind-body articulation”—and to present the winner with a brand new SUV.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHAStanleyville‘s DIY-feel is paralleled within the narrative as candidates partake in a series of increasingly unhinged, but always ramshackle, challenges (two favorites: “Lobe of Ear” and “Diogenes Nose-Peg”). Trapping five bizarre specimens of humanity in a pavilion, McCabe-Lokos lets his unwieldy absurdist-reality-chamber-drama creak and crash as it lurches toward a gracefully symbolic climax.

COMMENTS: Until watching Stanleyville, I had never heard a ravenously pro-capitalistic screed in folk song form. This was among a number of “firsts” for me, as a pentad of archetypes squared off against one-another over the course of two days. This group is gathered together by an out-of-sync master of ceremonies named Homonculus, and “the heat heats up” as irregular time intervals count down, minds get stretched to snapping point, and bodies pile up in the food pantry.

Stanleyville‘s framework is not ground-breaking: apply pressure to some weirdos in a confined space and see what happens. Marat/Sade did it way back in the 1960s. (In fact, Stanleyville‘s setup makes me wonder if this was a stage play; and if not, when can I expect it to be?) The ingredients are fresh, however, particularly the mysteriously European (and Europeanly mysterious) Homonculus, who finds our heroine Maria sitting in a shopping mall massage chair and promises to change her life. She’s recently finished a shift at her dead-end job, left her dead-end home life, and discarded her purse, along with its contents, in a trash can. An earlier encounter at the office, witnessing a majestic, soaring bird unceremoniously thwack into her window, has left her aware that something is missing in life. She eagerly accepts Homonculus’ offer; not for the brand new habañero-orange compact SUV (a prize description mentioned often, with quiet enthusiasm), but because she feels that fate may have finally gotten up off its ass to give her some purpose.

Her contest competitors are a hyper-affable beefcake who’s neck-deep in a protein-powder Ponzi scheme; a jaded nihilist who incongruously lusts after the SUV; a hedge fund fellow sitting atop a mountain of privilege and self-loathing; and an actor/junkie/musician who never found a failure he didn’t have an excuse for. The four ancillary stereotypes lack depth (as is their wont), but they are merely background distraction (ironic, being the loudest characters in the piece), pushing Maria and her pensive wonderment to the fore.

The fourth stage of the contest (after the balloon-blowing, item sequencing, and the “write a national anthem for everybody everywhere through all time” trials) is when Stanleyville slips from ominously silly into philosophical. If I asked you, “Who is Xiphosura?”, you might not guess an entity who transmits crypticisms through a conch shell —but that’s as much as we learn about him. This is the kind of mystery found in Stanleyville; just enough is explained to keep you going, right up through the (off-screen) final event. Like Homonculus, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos may seem like he’s just making it up as he’s going along. He isn’t; he’s deliberately constructed the pathway toward new modes of mind-body articulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The persistent failure, however, to conceive of connective tissue between the elements it engages with (either through some development of narrative or in formal playfulness) ensures that the thematically derivative interests and pedestrian existential angsts of Stanleyville on the whole amount to little more than nothing at all…”–Zachary Goldkind, In Review Online (festival screening)

 

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore Schaefer

FEATURING: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman

PLOT: A suburban mother and her son’s pregnant girlfriend take a surreal road trip to try to fix a financial mistake.

Still from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

COMMENTS: Diana is the matriarch of an average suburban family who’s made an embarassing mistake. Her husband Daryl hates his job and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Daughter Danielle is assisting in the school play. Son Andrew has a pregnant (though not with a butterfly) girlfriend, Marlene. Marlene’s mother is delusional, believing herself a famous but forgotten actress about to be rediscovered.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly starts out as a domestic drama, but one with a very dry sense of absurdity. Marlene reads off eye-catching headlines from a tabloid magazine: “Child Sings in the Womb,” “Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral,” that sort of thing.  Diana’s co-workers have confusingly similar names and appearances. Characters drift into improbably poetic monologues. And Marlene’s mom is totally bonkers, a good excuse for the movie to cut loose from some of its subtlety. But although the dialogue is sometimes ridiculous, the dynamics between the characters are believable: Diana and Daryl share a low-grade, polite hostility. Dad wants to impose his dreams on the whole family. The children either try to defuse family tensions or are absorbed in their own worlds. Marlene, the reluctant interloper, wants to ingratiate herself into her boyfriend’s family.

In the beginning, at least, we learn more about Diana from her relations with others than from herself, which may be the key to her character. The first act sets up the characters. When Diana and Marlene embark on a journey, Diana slowly comes more into focus. When the pair arrive at the home of a couple of old ladies who are both spooky and wise, the movie launches into full surrealist mode, as Diana’s dreams become her reality.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a short movie, only 75 minutes long. But like a particularly dense poem, its brevity belies an entire world of thematic and intertextual references. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Mina Loy (the relevant stanza of which is read over the credits) and there are references to Homer. The characters monologues are draped in metaphor. A number of motifs recur: naming people, twins, trains and journeys, damaged artworks. The dreamlike ending is not explicitly explained, but these themes give you a lot to think about. Enigma is the dominant tone. It’s an intelligent, and even poetic debut film from Theodore Schaefer, but it’s not always an engaging one. But its short runtime may make it worth a gamble if you find the idea of a Sundance-style dramedy with a surreal twist at the end appealing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dream-like experience with relatable themes, but the surrealist drama plays more like a philosophy lecture than a film. Feeling like a co-production between Kelly Reichardt and David Lynch, Schaefer’s directorial debut shows promise as a filmmaker, but the film never concretely comes together.”–Jon Medelsohn, CBR.com (festival screening)

Short promotional clip from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: AGNES (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Molly C. Quinn, , , Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn

PLOT: A demon possesses a sister at a conservative Carmelite nunnery, causing a crisis of faith for one of the nuns.

Still from Agnes (2021)

COMMENTS: Perhaps it would be better to go into Agnes knowing nothing about it beforehand; I won’t give major spoilers, but if you’d prefer to be surprised, stop reading now. OK, for the rest of you, all I will really say is: be prepared for a drastic tonal shift around the middle of the film. Agnes‘ most important characters will not be those you initially assume, and some questions may go unanswered. What appears to be a rambunctious exorcism spoof evolves into something far more thoughtful. Agnes gets crazier and crazier, then gets less and less crazy, until it ends on a note of pure emotional earnestness. Although it flows from a single incident, the film is split into two parts; this procedure will frustrate some. But I found looking at the connections between the two halves, and thinking of reasons why the material might be handled with such stylistic polarity, to be a fascinating exercise.

With that said, I think it’s safer to describe the film’s “fun” first half, and leave the viewer to experience the more serious back nine on their own—except to advise you to stick with it all the way to the final scene. The first thing to note is that, although it plays its humor pretty close to the vest, Agnes is never really a scary demonic possession movie; it’s a comic take on the genre. The Church here is so riddled with clichés—hints of pedophilia, scheming monsignors concerned with public relations, an institution embarrassed by its own exorcism rites, a crusty old priest undergoing a crisis of faith contrasted with a pious young initiate, a sexually repressed nunnery—-that Agnes could almost function as a satire of movies about Catholicism. Then there are the plentiful campy bits sprinkled throughout: too-thick horror music cues at inappropriate times. An action-movie style montage of determined priests and nuns marching to exorcism. A nun named Sister Honey (!) It all seems to be heading into territory with a renegade cowboy priest who comes complete with a chain-smoking groupie in a beehive hairdo and too much bronzer. And then… well, I leave it for you to discover the rest for yourself.

Agnes is so unique, I can’t really decide if it’s firmly within the weird genre, or not. The film’s hemispheres are aimed at different audiences: the first half at a savvy genre crowd, the second at the arthouse set. It will probably appeal most to those with a religious mindset. I don’t mean people of any particular faith—I believe atheists can get as much out of it as devout Christians—but people who are concerned with and interested in the questions that religion seeks to address, questions about meaning and suffering. Seen in that light, the movie’s movement from ironic caricature to clear-headed sincerity feels like a legitimate spiritual journey. Agnes is justified by faith.

Giles Edwards adds: Agnes makes a promise to go full Ken Russell on the viewer, as Greg remarks. Of particular note is the rogue exorcist, one of those mystifying characters that I hope is based on a real-life person, but is more likely a bold combination of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart. The sleek cinematographical maneuverings of the first act could have built into something wonderfully nuthouse, but the thrill of exploitation gets cut off at the bite of the face and an almost mystical exhalation of smoke. The second act—very nearly its own second movie—is slowly paced, and dwells on kitchen-table dramatic musings of identity, financial solvency, and relationship power dynamics. The bombast of the foundation kept me on the edge of a chuckle throughout, with its repressed mother superior, sketchy-swain mentor priest, and the excommunicated demon specialist; the melodrama built on that foundation wasn’t nearly as entertaining in my view, but it was much more respectable as a cinematic outing. It’s as if the director had designed a bondage fun-house basement and felt oddly compelled to hide it from the world with a factory line split-level ranch above ground level.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as specific as it is almost uncategorizable… while the first half of Agnes takes place in the hermetic, often bizarrely humorous world of the convent, it’s the second half that gives the film its resonance.”–Matt Lynch, In Review Online (festival screening)

CAPSULE: USED AND BORROWED TIME (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Sophia Romma

FEATURING: Cam Kornman, Emily Seibert, Clas Duncan, Alice Bahlke, Grant Morenz, Gavin Roher, Maureen O’Connor

PLOT: A blind old Jewish woman eats a mystic pie served up by a racist at an Alabama fair and goes back in time to relive her experiences in an interracial romance during the civil rights struggle.

Still from Used and Borrowed Time (2020)

COMMENTS: According to the protagonist’s own words, time is not the commodity that’s been used and borrowed in Used and Borrowed Time. That conundrum is far from the strangest thing in this avant-garde1  production, though. The time-travel plot alone is a little bit strange, since the core story about a doomed interracial love affair in the Deep South in the early Sixties would normally be treated with “respectful” realism. It’s even odder, though, that the impetus for the journey is supplied via psychedelic pies sold at an Alabama fair by rabid anti-Semites who drawl their way though a series of MAGA taking points that would make Richard Spencer complain “geez, these guys sound a little bit racist.” Add to the mix the fact that the dialogue inconsistently adopts a loose, rap-inspired rhyme scheme (“You are so uptight. And you look afright. How’s a lost soul like you supposed to make it home alright?”), is decorated with cheap out-of-the-box CGI effects, and is enacted with the passion and talent of a community theater troupe, and you have an oddity ready made for raising eyebrows. And, it’s nearly four hours long! (Thankfully, it’s split into two parts on Amazon Prime).

Now, I can’t say that Used and Borrowed Time is actually worth your time, all the time. The project desperately needed a good editor to salvage a halfway decent, very weird 90-minute feature out of this well-intentioned but epically overlong jumble of platitudes. There are a few good things to highlight: the musical interludes from a soulful R&B chanteuse, for example. The effects occasionally work, like when a pair of glowing red cats eyes fade in and out like glowing embers from a wire crate in the background as the young couple prepare to make surreptitious love in a barn. And there are a lot of funny moments and bits of dialogue, some of which may be intentional. When the old lady steals a piece of apple pie which makes her all green and sparkly and throws her into a void, she laments “I should never have indulged in that voodoo pie bliss.” When a romantic liaison is interrupted by the withered old green-glowing time traveler replacing Steadroy’s nubile sweetheart in his arms, his reaction is a deadpan, “What’s going on? I was just about to shag Eva in the shed!” It takes a family of hicks five minutes to recite grace on Christmas Eve dinner, because they keep interrupting the prayer with digressions, blasphemies, and threats to murder each other. And you have to give some bonus points to any script that attempts to rhyme “cracker” with “pecker.”

Having said that, the negatives here far outweigh the positives; and if the negatives weren’t frequently softened by being so darn strange, the movie would be unwatchable. Apart from the distracting cheapness of the production (amateurish acting, threadbare sets, a Halloween wig used as a major costuming choice), Used and Borrowed Time is far too infatuated with it’s own nobility and cleverness. More devastatingly, it’s far too long. The family of white villains is composed of a timid young adult, a bitter and vindictive matron, a weak-willed sister who was educated in righteousness when she married a senator from above the Mason-Dixon line, along with one interesting character, a heretical gay uncle who’s just as hateful and bigoted as the others, but whose constant perverse and sacrilegious utterances everyone accepts with a shrug. Their endless dialogues go over and over the same territory time and time again, establishing that they are, indeed, irredeemable racists and all-around awful specimens of humanity. The young lovers’ attempts to get it on are repetitively interrupted by the sparkly time-traveling woman (whose charming Southern accent, by the way, has changed over entirely to a grating New York Jewish one over the decades). When the couple are captured by the redneck family, they are, once again, locked up and threatened in various ways over and over, and despite the time-traveler constantly undoing the ropes that bind them, they always get caught again, sometimes without explanation. Quite simply, the script keeps repeating itself like its caught in a time loop, until the drama of the situation yields to cries from the audience to “get on with it!”

It’s difficult to criticize a film whose heart—both ethically and aesthetically—is generally in the right place (although residents of Alabama might disagree), but the result here leaves much to be desired. Used and Borrowed Time will find probably draw most of its audience from a woke anti-racism crowd looking to feel smart and self-congratulatory while looking down their noses at some admittedly despicable racist strawmen. But I think it’s more of a find for for those of us who seek out the oddest ideas committed to celluloid—whether they be executed well or badly.

Used and Borrowed Time is currently streaming free for Amazon Prime members.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film manages to beautifully deliver an important message while remaining artistic and unique.”–Adva Reichman, Cult Critic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAM ON RYE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tyler Taormina

FEATURING: Haley Bodell, Cole Devine

PLOT: A large group of teenagers gather together at a restaurant for an assembly to determine their future.

Still from Ham on Rye (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ham on Rye is essentially a “coming of age” drama, but the fact that it never reveals what exactly is going on makes this uncomfortable viewing for many, and deliciously odd for those who have a stomach for ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Tyler Taormina kicks off Ham on Rye with a simple visual hook: a cigarette lighter refusing to ignite. For minutes. Until it does, and the tension is released as it lights up a firework. Throughout, there are shots of birthday party attendees waiting for the release. The sun shines brightly, the gifts are stacked high, and we wait, and wait, and wait. While we do get the satisfying resolve of the party pyrotechnics, in the narrative itself there is no resolution to speak of; at least, not for most of the characters—and certainly not for us.

Ham on Rye‘s first half shows us a little bit about everyone as they head to “Monty’s,” a diner which we are informed “recently painted the hand on their sign green.” As the teenagers, all dressed to the nines (in a sartorially inept high school kind of way), enter the restaurant, they each in turn press their hand against the painted hand on the window, and brace themselves for their fate. After a meal, they awkwardly dance along to songs playing on the jukebox. Then, when “Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again” cues up, they immediately snap to attention and a bizarre ritual begins. Some are lucky, partner up, and then disappear from the film; the rest are left to an ambiguous doom.

Taormina plays the premise straight, and only reveals modest details through snatches of conversations. Something important is going to happen to these young adults: after the tension-lighter introduction there follows an extensive montage of the youths getting dressed and ready, followed by dropped hints about impending risk and efforts by each group to pump themselves up. When a father sees off his boy in a carpool heading to Monty’s, he begins all gratitude and reminiscence, but as the car pulls away, he incongruously shouts after it, “DON’T MESS IT UP! DON’T MESS IT UP!” until he’s out of earshot. What shouldn’t be “messed up”? It is is never made entirely clear.

Ham on Rye‘s second half follows the leftovers from the ritual. Night has fallen on the city, and aimless depression has sunken in. One kid, who works at Monty’s, is reassured, as it were, by a friend, “Look, man, it sucks, right? And you can let it suck… or not let it suck. Or something.” We see the world they’re in no differently. Humdrum suburban life. Backyard barbecues. Drinking. Games of Uno. But the lucky ones have disappeared. So are they living a fate worse than death? Taormina refuses to tell us. He discourages us from even trying to understand. At a post-Monty’s party, one of the lads who didn’t get lucky remarks (about something, also left unspecificied), “You can’t see it. But if you get a really good microscope and look really hard… You still can’t see it.” This movie will confound anyone seeking narrative clarity, but its absence is exactly what makes Ham on Rye such an appetizing enigma.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s ‘Ham on Rye’ plays like ‘Dazed and Confused’ with more poetry and less connective tissue, or ‘Eighth Grade’ with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird…  a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism…”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russ Joyner, who called it “an utterly unique film — come for the American Graffiti-through-a-Lynchian-lens aesthetic, stay for the surrealistic soul-crushing aftermath of snuffed out dreams — but with the faintest whiff of optimism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FATHER (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Florian Zeller

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Anthony, an old man with dementia, has difficulty recognizing the people around him, or remembering where he is.

Still from The Father (2020)

COMMENTS: The Father delivers exactly what its synopsis and trailer promise it will: a movie with the shape of a psychological thriller and the emotional punch of a heartrending drama. And, of course, a performance for the ages (and the aged) by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Directing from his own play, first time filmmaker Florian Zeller delivers a tight screenplay that disorients viewers, purposefully. We follow (loosely speaking) the story of Anthony and his daughter Anne, as the old man tries to retain first his independence, and then his simple dignity, as his mind slips away into dotage. There are temporal incongruities; Anthony thinks things that actually happened a decade ago occurred just yesterday, and script’s timeline mimics this dislocation by jumping forward and back (and in one memorable scene, forming a perfect circle). Anthony’s daughter and son-in-law are sometimes played by different actors—not to mention the numerous aides he cycles through—we can never be sure if they’re new hires, or old ones Anthony simply doesn’t recognize. Locations also change, and mysteries emerge: why doesn’t Anthony’s other daughter visit him? Is Anne moving to Paris, or not? The few scenes without Hopkins in them seem to reflect a canonical reality, but even then we can’t be 100% sure; one scene in particular seems to reflect Anne’s dark fantasy.

Ironically, although we come to identify with him, we do not learn a lot about Anthony as a person. Anne drops hints as to his previous career—which was not a tap dancer—and we know he loves opera. But much of his personality is disappearing into the murk of Alzheimers; Anthony is headed towards a generic senility, in the process of becoming less and less of a individual. This, of course, is the tragedy that Hopkins is capturing as his weathered face registers irritation, confusion, and dawning fear. The loss of individual memories suggests the loss of everything that makes us unique. The big final emotional breakdown scene may be the tiniest bit overdone, but Hopkins sells it—and at any rate, the movie has banked enough empathy by this point that it could get away with almost anything.

Olivia Colman’s supporting work as the stressed-out daughter is great, but this is understandably Hopkins’ showcase. Although he’s not slowing down, it’s almost a shame for the octogenarian to act again; he could not hope for a better role than this to end his career.

Although eligible for the 2020 Oscars, The Father did not show up in theaters until 2021; had it debuted earlier, it would have crashed my top 10 mainstream films list for the past year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… very little is what it seems in this meticulously constructed jewel box of a film… Not since ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ has a filmmaker so thoroughly put the audience inside the experience of a protagonist, to such shattering emotional effect.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)