Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, , Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Brian Glover

PLOT: Franz Kafka is a mid-level functionary at an accident insurance firm whose minor involvement with a group of revolutionaries leads to an unsettling discovery.

Still from Kafka (1991)

COMMENTS: Franz Kafka doesn’t deal in protagonists, technically. The term “Kafkaesque” suggests a main character who moves the action forward. Kafka’s oeuvre is populated almost solely by entities—from men to cockroaches—who shuffle through their environments without adequate comprehension, and without any ability to alter their fate. Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” wiggles back and forth literally on his bed at the start of the tale, then squirms metaphorically as he tries to maneuver through his new circumstances; Josef K. in The Trial (the better translation is “The Process) proceeds from start to finish never learning anything substantial about the nature of his charges. Franz Kafka in Kafka starts out as a mid-level insurance functionary and finishes one pay-grade above where he began. The intervening narrative never quite rises above an elaborate shaggy dog story.1

In this way, Sorederbergh’s Kafka is like its literary inspiration. Beautiful Prague, in beautiful black and white, is a maze of courtyards and corridors. Kafka himself (deftly played by Jeremy Irons) is merely a face in the crowd, albeit striking in his bland way. Kafka’s work chum, Edward, goes missing, is found dead—suicide, suggests an incongruously-accented police detective, one of the film’s only smiling characters—and Kafka makes the acquaintance of some revolutionaries. Ominous rumors abound concerning “the Castle,” seemingly the seat of government, at the very least the seat of bureaucracy. The ostensible doings of the mysterious administrators situated there vex this gaggle of bomb-crafting anarchists.

Kafka succeeds in capturing omnipresent but ill-defined menace, while simultaneously eliciting a shrug both on the part of the audience and the main character. Soderbergh does his best, though, and the whole semi-nightmare feels stylish and important as it briskly shuffles along as if carrying a very important missive for middle-management.

The film’s climax is strange, but it is more thought-provoking than anything else. Kafka travels to “the Castle” by way of a passageway in a false-bottomed tomb, and the film switches from black and white to color. This suggests at least three intriguing interpretative possibilities. Is Kafka (the character) seeing the world as it truly is for the first time? Or is the whole (comparatively) dazzling sequence merely a fantastic dream on the part of the hero?

My preferred view is the most abstract. At the end of the graveyard entrance is a file storage room. The hero emerges from one of its drawers. Is he—and by extension, the viewer—merely an archived history of a failed experiment?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly borrowing from the bravado visual style of Orson Welles’ breath-taking version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), Kafka is a less intense, more entertaining affair than the former film. Kafka‘s surreal yet strangely familiar fictional worlds have been given a dash of Frankenstein by [screenwriter] Dobbs, which makes for a more immediately enjoyable experience but somewhat diminishes the power of the calculated atmosphere expertly borrowed by Soderbergh from Kafka’s prose.”–Niall McCallum, Eye for Film

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

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MEMORIA (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A Scottish woman traveling in Colombia thinks she’s losing her mind when she intermittently hears a mysterious thumping sound.

Still from Memoria (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Memoria is a deliberately-paced accumulation of subtly odd incidents, with one big weird reveal.

COMMENTS: Memoria has a lot on its mind, but Weerasethakul’s philosophy, if not his film’s purpose, is summed up in a discussion in a doctor’s office (a conversation that Pfizer might not appreciate). Jessica has come to see a physician in a small Amazonian town seeking relief from her increasing auditory hallucinations and concomitant insomnia. She hints about pills. Tranquilizers, the non-prescribing physician advises, “will make you lose empathy. You will no longer be moved by the beauty of this world. Or the sadness of this world. Do you know Salvador Dalí? Salvador Dalí understood the beauty of this world.”

With all of the potential themes weaving their way through this movie, and through all of Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, the simple directive of not overlooking the beauty of this world is a constant. As with other minimalist filmmakers, Weerasethakul pauses on scenes like a shot of a woman silhouetted in the silvery night, or an quietly teeming Amazonian jungle seen from a balcony, long enough so that you can absorb all the detail, all the beauty. Though she seeks a brief relief from the pressures of her world with Xanax, Jessica is not alien to this insight: on an errand at a music studio, she stops in a doorway to listen to a spirited jam session from a jazz quartet. Not many movies take time out in the middle of the story for a brief and totally superfluous recital—but for Weerasethakul, beauty pops up unexpectedly, and we must take time to savor it when it arrives.

It should be noted that much of the beauty he arranges for us is strange beauty, the beauty of the inexplicable and the supernatural. The movie’s second scene is a symphony arranged for car alarms, whose various honks and sirens, set off by some poltergeist, perform an aleatory rhythmic concert. Another early scene involves Jessica talking to sound engineer Hernán, who takes time out of his schedule to help her recreate the sound she’s hearing in her head in the studio, working from a library of movie effects, sculpting waveforms to create a “more earthy,” “rounder” sound at Jessica’s direction. This is an unusual scenario, to say the least. From this meeting Hernán takes a strong and peculiar interest in the older woman—that is, until he suddenly disappears from the story. Then, oddly enough, in a remote village Jessica meets a fish-scaler and mystic who just happens to also be named Hernán. This second Hernán understands the language of howler monkeys, does not dream, and holds the answer to the source of the thumping sound Jessica has been hearing… a rather astounding answer, it turns out.

Swinton is reserved here. She is quietly lost in the world, never raising her voice, reacting with widening eyes and tightening lips to the alarming noises echoing in her head. She is the perfect  Weerasethakul heroine, reacting just enough to these beautiful mysteries to guide us towards absorbing and savoring them. Memoria is a wispy piece of poetry that rewards concentration, but doesn’t demand it. If your mind drifts, you won’t miss anything. You see what is there to be seen, and hear what is there to be heard.

The screener copy I received on DVD was preceded by an short apologia from Weerasethakul and Swinton reminding us to “respect that this film was intended for a very, very much larger screen than the one you’re probably viewing it on now, and to keep that sacrosanct.” I didn’t get it at the time–I thought it was an unnecessary plea to not pirate the film, or simply to take into account that this was a sub-optimal presentation. But it turns out that these critics’ screener copies are reluctantly granted exceptions to the film’s rule: Weerasethakul intends for the movie to be shown only in theaters, with no home video or streaming release. (I imagine they will relent on that restriction after a few years pass, but then again, never has.) In the U.S., it begins its release on December 26, traveling from town to town, one engagement at a time. We’ll post a schedule when we can. If you want to see Memoria, you’ll have to make a point to seek it out; it won’t come to you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…watching Memoria is like sleepwalking through an unfamiliar territory. It’s like a lucid dream; you are not quite sure if you are awake or dreaming… Memoria, with languid long takes and tranquil setting, is a deeply contemplative film that offers you to experience a dreamscape in a place strange yet familiar, where you can embrace the mysteries of life.”–Dustin Chang, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020)

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie

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DIRECTED BY: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert

FEATURING: Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Krzysztof Czeczot, Andrzej Chyra

PLOT: Residents of a gated community in Poland believe a mysterious Ukrainian masseur has special powers.

Still from Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)

COMMENTS: Mystery masseur Zhenia was born in Pripyat, the closest town to Chernobyl, seven years before the reactor melted down and exploded. That event was in 1986, which means that Zhenia was born in 1979. Stalker was released in 1979.

Of course, those dates could be coincidences, but its worth mentioning that later Never Gonna Snow Again will directly quote a scene from Stalker, and the ghost of (alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, by way of Teorema) haunts the production. This movie is thick with allusions, feints, and mysterious possible connections that never quite cohere. The premise is simple enough: Zhenia begins peddling his massage services to residents of a wealthy Polish gated community. Everyone feels incredible and energized after a session, and the neighborhood comes to believe his hands have extraordinary healing powers. It also turns out that he is a gifted amateur hypnotist whose techniques can give their psyches the equivalent of a deep tissue massage. He becomes a central figure in the lives of a number of the families living in this tract of luxurious but nearly identical suburban homes, most notably an alcoholic woman, a man fighting cancer, an aging bohemian and her drug-chemist son, a woman obsessed with her three dogs, and an ex-soldier with a nasty temper.

This setup gives Never Gonna Snow Again ample space to explore many possible avenues, from the social to the personal to the existential. It’s a movie that begs for an allegorical interpretation, but I’m not sure it plays fair with the audience on that count. The story leaves a lot of loose thematic ends, with no hints on how to correctly tie them up. Is it a parable about immigrants? A social satire of the new Polish bourgeoisie? An environmental warning? A Christ allegory? Is the story actually about Zhenia’s childhood? Why the Stalker references? Why do the children believe it will never snow again? Why do the neighbors feel better after meeting with Zhenia, even though their lives don’t materially improve? What’s the meaning of Zhenia’s relationship with dogs? Why does Zhenia speak fluent Vietnamese?

That’s just a small sample of the movie’s unanswered questions. Ambiguity is a tricky thing. Wielded well, it can produce powerful intellectual and emotional effects. But a little bit can go a long way, and loose ends are easier to deal with if there is at least one strong central idea to latch onto. When nothing links up, you are left only to appreciate the aesthetics; a hit-or-miss affair that depends on your subjective preferences. Never Gonna Snow Again impressed art-house critics, which is why it has a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and will be Poland’s submission to this year’s Oscars. Many praised Alec Utgoff‘s performance, but I found him pleasantly bland, lacking the supernatural presence brought to Teorema (a tall order, admittedly, but almost a necessary element for a fable like this to work). The cinematography and sound design are outstanding, but they’re only pieces of the puzzle. You need to be attuned to slow cinema and the subtler shades of weirdness to fall for this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Desire and delirium in Eastern Europe, with an undertow of eco-anxiety, make for a bizarre hybrid, somewhere between Twin Peaks and Pasolini’s Theorem…heads all the way into the territory of surreal satire to eerie and intriguing effect.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival review)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TITANE (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After a car accident, a young girl has a titanium plate installed in her head; she grows up to be a sexy car-show dancer obsessed with automobiles, and then things get strange.

Still from titane (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The weirdness Julia Ducournau conceived in her cannibal debut Raw is delivered in the biomechanical horror Titane.

COMMENTS: We recommend avoiding spoilers in this case; fortunately, the trailer appears as baffled by Titane‘s action as most viewers were when the final credits rolled. Titane‘s grounded-yet-bizarre story goes in at least two directions you wouldn’t expect. It’s fair to say that it thoroughly addresses body horror—of multiple flavors—but there are also episodes of black comedy and dangerous eroticism, followed by a segue into grief drama and a delusional love story; all the while, in the background, the consequences of an inexplicable and strange assignation grow to an illogical conclusion. The synopsis suggested in the pressbook—“TITANE: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility”—may be as helpful as anything.

The two main performers rock. Agathe Rousselle comes out of nowhere, starting her feature film career with a bang. She starts as a seductive lingerie dancer with a violent side, then turns androgynous and mute. Vincent Lindon has one of those weathered faces that looks like it has absorbed a lifetime of beatings, physical and emotional. He’s as obsessed with his hyper-masculine physique as professional dancer Alexia is with her feminine curves; despite his impressive steroid-aided bulk, his inability to clear a high pull-up bar is the perfect illustration of the frustrated desire to conquer corporeality.

The cinematography and editing is top-notch. From the opening car-show debauchery to a homoerotic firefighter dance party, Ducournau shows an affinity for rave-type dance scenes, relishing the disorienting beauty of being lost in motion inside a beat. Arguably, the sound design is even better; there are moments where the sound of ripping flesh makes you cringe. The musical cues are well-chosen; this is perhaps the only film where you will see someone twerk to a cover of the bluegrass classic “Wayfaring Stranger.” All in all, Titane is a collection of incompatible parts that shouldn’t work, but somehow gear up to create a gruesome but movingly human head-scratcher nonpareil. After making two excellent movies, I’m convinced Ducournau has an unqualified masterpiece inside her somewhere, just about ready to tear itself out.

The fact that a horror movie as violent and transgressive as this one could win the Palme d’Or in 2021 suggests that Cannes has come a long way since it was scandalized and outraged by ‘s similarly-themed Crash (1996). What is it with the French and objectophilia at this moment in history? After this and Jumbo (2020), both of which incorporate motor oil as a bodily fluid, it’s like Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) had a French baby, and she’s all grown up now and ready to party.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Building a nightmarish dreamscape that Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would love, Ducournau puts Alexia on an increasingly weird journey… ‘Titane’ is so self-consciously transgressive and weird, that it’s difficult to discern who it’s for, besides fetishists, freak-flag fliers and fans of auteurism at its most hermetic and solipsistic.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)