Tag Archives: Drama

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: TIME OF MOULTING (2020)

Fellwechselzeit

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Sabrina Mertens

FEATURING: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam

PLOT: Stephanie grows up with her eccentric, sickly mother and her “present-but-absent” father, becoming a troubled teenager.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Teutonic-degrees of mise-en-scène fastidious, tormentingly oblique dialogue, and an unflinching obsession with medium shots make Time of Moulting far too enigmatic and unnerving to fall into mere “arthouse”-levels of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The stifling warmth in this room and the ominous thunder and lightning outside is an appropriate environment for writing this review of Sabrina Mertens’ directorial debut. Time of Moulting is dark, oppressive, and ominous. It’s a slender movie, merely eighty minutes long, but every slice of it—dozens of fixed-camera, “photograph”-style cuts—drip a slow build of tension, like a viscous ooze that is gradually filling a dust-covered bottle. By the finish, I was torn between scratching my head in confusion and hugging myself in despair.

Stephanie (played by a charming Zelda Espenschied as a young child, and a surly Miriam Schiweck “tens years later”) is raised by two parents who have no business having children. The mother (Freya Kreutzkam, never far from despair-induced collapse) suffers from an unspecified medical condition—one both mental and physical, probably. The father makes it clear early on he has no patience for his daughter. Young Stephanie takes solace in exploring the mysteries hidden away in the increasingly untidy house, particularly the trunk full of her grandfather’s butcher’s equipment; older Stephanie takes far more sinister “comfort” in the tools found therein.

By IMDb’s count, there are 57 vignettes adding up to a cryptic whole. By my count, there are only two close-ups: one shot of false teeth creepily snapping shut, and one of liver curling while being fried upon a skillet. The recurrence of meat—always raw—is never a good sign in movies. In Time of Moulting it takes on a more abstract but equally sinister imagery. Young Stephanie arranges two slices of something almost origami-like on a plate; later in life she takes to drawing some truly grisly scenes of death, and even cannibalism.

But Time of Moulting’s horror elements take a back seat to the oppressive formalism of the whole affair, lingering in the many shadows with a quietly sadistic grin. I have never felt so unnerved by medium shots. You see everything going on in the scene, but that only makes the goings-on eerily detached. By this point in the review, I’ve realized that I am not communicating the movie’s aura as well as I would like; but that just reaffirms my position that Time of Moulting is a truly strange take on horror, art-house, and melodrama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale..” -Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SHE DIES TOMORROW (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jane Adams,

PLOT: Amy is convinced that she will die tomorrow.

Still from She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

COMMENTS: Amy plays an LP of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” over and over. She calls her friend Jane, who can’t come over because she has to go to a birthday party, but sounds worried about her. Amy drinks a bottle of wine, slithers on a cocktail dress, and climbs up on the neighbor’s wall with a leaf-blower—never a sign of good mental health. Jane finally arrives, and Amy tells her that she’s going to die tomorrow, and asks if Jane will ensure that her body is made into a leather jacket after she’s gone.

Kate Lyn Sheil carries the opening act of the film, mostly alone and silent, conveying a despair that builds to resigned madness. The opening features a lot of extreme close-ups of tear-filled eyes, a half-full wine glass, red blood cells; shots that suggest both loneliness, and an uncomfortable intimacy. This solitary mood is sustained about as long as it can be before Jane (Jane Adams) shows up to introduce a more dynamic note. Jane, an artist, dismisses Amy’s premonition of death as a self-pitying drunken ramble; but when she leaves, she begins thinking about mortality… and convinces herself that she, too, will die tomorrow. Jane then hauls herself to the birthday party, with predictably dire results.

If I were to assign a genre to She Dies Tomorrow, it would be “macabre drama.” Writer/director Amy Seimetz takes a simple irrational conceit—what if we were inalterably convinced that we would die tomorrow?—then it fully explores the dramatic ramifications through multiple characters. It’s the sort of idea that would have turned into a satire, but the tone here is forlorn. There is humor, to be sure—a conversation about dolphin sex, Jane’s panicky visit to an emergency room physician, Amy’s desire to be turned into a post-mortem apparel—but black comedy is not the predominant mood.

Neither is it a science fictional, “Twilight Zone” conceit; there are no firm answers given to why Amy is struck with a paralyzing consciousness of death. Scenes of rainbow-colored flashing strobe lights accompanied by the sound of garbled radio transmissions only confuse matters. The crucial fact that Amy’s morbid thinking is contagious converges with 2020’s pandemic, creating a layer of accidental relevance to contemporary times—one that you may find too relevant for comfort. A crowd-pleaser, She Dies Tomorrow is not; a worthwhile challenge for the brave and introspective, it is.

With it’s crushing sadness and lack of answers—much less solace—She Dies Tomorrow will frustrate the hell out of some viewers, which is a compliment. Seimetz is onto something desperately human here, a truth we’d rather avoid. We like to imagine that if we knew the date of our own deaths, we’d be freed to truly live life, not worrying about next month’s rent, pursuing our bucket list, renting a dune buggy. But Seimetz’s characters are instead paralyzed by knowledge of their impermanence, unable to enjoy their last moments on Earth or appreciate the simple beauty of a sunrise. The movie is an elegy for us all. True to its own despair, She Dies Tomorrow offers not a ray of hope.

She Dies Tomorrow counts and among its producers. Our readers will remember Amy Seimetz best for her performance in front of the camera in Upstream Color. This is her second feature film as director, and it’s a great leap forward from 2012’s promising but incomplete Sun Don’t Shine (which also featured Sheil as lead). Seimetz continues to act and direct TV projects, but she’s paid her dues, and let’s hope she doesn’t have to wait another eight years between features. She might die tomorrow, and that would be a great loss to the film world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a gripping seriocomic apocalyptic thriller that combines classic David Cronenberg body horror and with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel.”–Eric Kohn, Indiewire (remote festival screening)

CAPSULE: A SHIP OF HUMAN SKIN (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, Ike Duncan, Cameron McElyea

PLOT: Jeanie, an aimless young woman, is arrested after she murders a man with an axe; a cult of personality forms around her after a prison guard claims to see her levitating.

Still from A Ship of Human Skin (2019)

COMMENTS: I always appreciate it when an independent film is aware of the limitations of its budget, and opts to make use of those limitations to enhance its atmosphere and themes.

Such is, for the most part, the case with Richard Bailey’s A Ship of Human Skin. The film is very minimalist in its presentation; the cast is small, and the sets are limited (the film gets a great deal of mileage out of some gorgeous shots of the Texas landscape, and a fifteen-minute sequence that covers several months of Jeannie’s life is shot entirely in a single room). However, this minimalism lines up well with the narrative, which follows a pair of young women who feel isolated and frustrated by their monotonous lives in “the boonies.” By confining these characters to a sparse handful of backdrops and surrounding them with only a small group of people, the film directly evokes the protagonists’ sense of seclusion, and of having been “handed over from birth into emptiness.”

Of course, thanks to its constrained budget, there are also aspects of the film that feel underdeveloped. Ship suggests that Jeannie has amassed a cult-like following. However, its limited resources mean that it can only convey this mass fascination through a few scenes of a small number of secondary characters discussing her supposedly mystical nature. While we’re frequently told that Jeannie is as a messianic figure, it’s an element which doesn’t feel substantial. Instead, the central focus is on studying Jeannie as a character, as well as the environment in which the murder she commits takes place. We examine her dispassionate attitude to societal convention that ultimately leads her to an unhappy life of prostitution and dope-dealing; and we’re shown how, despite her lack of education, she is sharp-minded in her own way, with opinions on such matters as personal identity and the internalized significance of particular words. It’s an overall engaging look at a character who, neglected by society, is forced to channel her considerable intelligence into seeking meaning in abstract concepts and alternative belief systems, which leads her down a path of paranoia that ultimately drives her to violence.

Of course, a character-driven film depends upon a strong cast; but A Ship of Human Skin is middling in that regard. The cast consists mostly of unknowns, and a good number of them carry their roles well (Hannah Weir, in particular, does a largely excellent job of bringing out the meek and rather simple, yet fiercely loyal personality of Jeannie’s close friend Saribeth). However, Hilly Holsonback, who plays Jeannie—while not a bad actress by any means—does not quite exude the fierce charisma and conviction that Jeannie is treated as possessing. Nevertheless, she bears through the film’s emotional climaxes relatively well, and manages to convey the character in her more subdued moments.

The film plays fast and loose with its presentation, alternating between styles of a documentary and a theatrical narrative. All the way through, however, it maintains a deliberately slow pace and dreamlike atmosphere, further emphasizing the slow and monotonous existence that the main characters endure—which, in turn, inspires their drug-fueled search for significance in the abstract philosophies that they create for themselves. Much like the secondary characters who introduce us to Jeannie, we are made to feel very much like curious outsiders looking in on Jeannie’s life, knowing only vague details at first, and slowly piecing together the mindset and circumstances that drove her to violence. Truth be told, the ultimate explanation for Jeannie’s actions ends up anticlimactic and mundane in comparison with the strong air of mystery that the film builds around it; but nonetheless, it is set up well, lending the film an unusual combination of surrealism and logical progression.

A Ship of Human Skin is first and foremost a character study. It does an admirable job of balancing a haunting atmosphere of dreamlike minimalism with a refreshing look at the path that intelligent but disaffected young women like Jeannie can be forced down. There are aspects that could have been built up or ironed out; but overall, Richard Bailey’s feature-length directorial debut shows a resourcefulness and a talent for evoking a strong atmosphere that will surely serve him well in any future forays into weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Problem is, these girls cannot act and it comes off as unintended comedy… Before we get to them, the film starts off in cheesy poetry done by a weird G-Man impersonation…  if you are a fan of fun-bad movies like The Room, or more closely, Fateful Findings, you will have ‘Decent’ enjoyment with A Ship of Human Skin. For everyone who wants to watch a good thriller about drug abuse, there’s a million better options out there, trust me!”–Pond’s Press (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MY HINDU FRIEND (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Hector Babenco

FEATURING: Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Guilherme Weber, Rio Adlakha, Selton Mello

PLOT: Diego Fairman is an Argentinian filmmaker of modest fame whose apparently terminal cancer has prompted him to be a jerk to all of those around him; then again, he’s always been a jerk to those around him.

COMMENTS: Like most of you, I’m a fan of the musician Taco Ockerse and his gold-certified album, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The plucky Western German had a smooth crooner’s voice and used his musical talents to drag hits from the mid-20th century into the 1980s’ New Wave. Three such songs featured in Hector Babenco’s My Hindu Friend. That’s not to say they used Taco’s versions, but “Ma Vie En Rose,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” and Singin’ in the Rain form a trifecta of “Why is this song here, now, doing this?” in a movie ripped straight from The Hallmark Channel Presents: Fellini‘s Night of Melodrama.

Babenco presents film a variant of himself, like Fellini did.  Babenco revels in whimsical dream interludes, like Fellini did. Babenco’s movie just sort of trails off at the end, like Fellini’s… (I’ll stop myself before completing that sentence so as to keep the comment hounds at bay.) Suffice it to say, My Hindu Friend is intensely personal: the upshot of which is that those of us who aren’t actually in the movie can merely try to enjoy Willem Dafoe moping around a hospital, moping around a Seattle mansion, and moping around his trendy home in Argentina.

It took over half an hour for me to find what could have possibly brought this on to 366’s radar. After untold days/weeks/months in hospital undergoing a bone-marrow transplant (and a similarly-feeling number of minutes), Diego starts hallucinating Death—who, in a refreshing twist, is just a work-a-day guy who’s having problems with his wife. There’s talk of the afterlife, but no secrets are  revealed; apparently such revelations are above Death’s pay grade. There are discussions about cinema. And, of course, there’s a game of chess—’cause that’s something a film fanatic might hallucinate while weakened to the core and dosed up on morphine.

Morphine. Yes, I would have preferred more morphine shots, as that not only brought forth the affable Death character, but also the only show-stopping scene in My Hindu Friend. In the middle of the night, the heavily-drugged Diego awakens singing a song through his breathing apparatus before removing it and, wonderfully, crooning into it as if it were a microphone. The song going through the dope-addled director’s mind? “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.”

And that titular Hindu friend? A young boy he meets in the infusion room at the hospital during his cancer treatment. The ailing director tells this narrative crutch anecdotes, ultimately living through fantasy stories as he does his best to comfort the eight-year-old whom the cosmos considered deserving of such a terrible fate. I’m rambling at this point, but I blame the movie. Touching, certainly; well-produced, without a doubt; but—well, I think I’m just going to trail off here…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…told from [Diego’s] perspective, in an alternately surreal, reflective (though never sentimental) fashion with Fellini-esque flights of frank sexuality, eroticism and existential whimsy…”–Jarrod Walker, FilmInc (streaming)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Makoto Nagahisa

FEATURING: Keita Ninomiya, Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura

PLOT: After meeting at a funeral parlor, four emotionless orphaned children run away and form a pop band.

Still from We Are Little Zombies (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Carnivalesque pop-psychedelics enliven Nagahisa’s genre-bending tale of four emotion-deprived orphans wending their way through modern Japan. The final act, which sees the quartet piloting a stolen garbage truck into a black and white ocean of giant amoebas and pulsating anenomes before emerging for a (posthumous?) coda, gives it a chance of crashing our supplemental list of weird cinema.

COMMENTS: We Are Little Zombies takes its aesthetic inspiration from Nintendo NES video game systems: a chiptune-based theme song, 8-bit credits and bumpers. It’s structured as a series of challenges, with four orphans collecting four quest items (in four flashbacks), and with grief as the final boss. It wrings a surprising amount of depth from its short attention span style, and a surprising amount of empathy from its tale of children whose defining characteristic is that they have no emotions.

Little Zombies bursts with energy and ideas that vibrantly contrast with the enervated performances of its living dead heroes. Surreal touches sprout through the early reels, including a giant goldfish swimming outside an apartment window, a hobo orchestra, and a talk show hosted by a lime green centaur and co-hosted by an enthusiastic eyeball. The film features multiple, mostly upbeat musical numbers: not just the “Little Zombies” performances, but also improvised drunken karaoke lyrics about the comparative intellectual capacities of an octopus and a three-year-old. The luminous images and digressive fantasies imply a sense of wonder about life—one that the children are incapable of seeing and appreciating, even as it envelops them.

There is an open question of whether the kids are really emotional zombies, or whether they’re just temporarily numbed as a way to cope with tragedy. Before being accidentally emancipated, main character Hikari was a hōchigo, literally “left-alone child,” the Japanese analog to America’s “latchkey kid.” From his perspective, at least, mom and dad were more concerned with their careers and affairs than with raising their offspring. Brash kleptomaniac Ikuko was physically abused by his father and brother. Overweight Takemura, whose parents owned a restaurant, comes from a relatively normal background. Ishi, the only female in the quartet, has the most complex backstory: her mother calls her a femme fatale, and she draws creepy attention from older men. She’s victimized more by her sex than anything. There doesn’t appear to be much of a common thread generating the zombies’ juvenile anomie; and yet, it feels like Nagahisa is onto a real social issue, something he can diagnose but not cure. The only prescription he can offer is this rebellious declaration: “despair is uncool.”

We Are Little Zombies will be coming to select theaters (and online theaters) July 10. More details (and a Little Zombies digital coloring book) can be found at American distributor Oscilloscope’s official site. Seek it out when you have the chance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre quasi-existential adventure about loss and grieving… a visual funhouse, full of surrealistic images…”–Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON (1995)

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DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING: , Ashley Judd, Viggo Mortensen

PLOT: Darkly Noon, a young member of a fringe religious sect, barely escapes a massacre and stumbles through the nearby woods to find an isolated woman in an isolated home; his confusion—and rumors that the woman is a witch—causes his fragile mind to unravel.

Still from The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Depending upon how you sliced this one, it could have turned out normal. But Philip Ridley (who both wrote and directed) slices it so that The Passion of Darkly Noon is an ambiguous morality tale, a “Lifetime”-style melodrama, and a hellfire vengeance tract. Seeing a young Viggo Mortensen as a mute carpenter is odd; seeing a young Brendan Fraser as a meek religious zealot is odder; but by the time I saw the magical silver shoe encore at the finale, it was a done deal.

COMMENTS: A word of warning about this review: as I type this, I am not sure where I’m headed. This handily conveys the feelings I had throughout The Passion of Darkly Noon, which defies any easy categorization other than it could only have been made in the 1990s. I grew up with ’90s cinema on rented VHS cassettes, and there is a tone that’s there, if you’re looking for it: the inarticulate subversion of the 1980s morphed into something with a strange sheen that, while smoothing the effect, somehow also made it much more exaggerated. By the time the ’00s rolled around, the modern B- and cult-film visual vocabulary had been sorted out. Philip Ridley’s religious thriller is smooth and polished, but there’s a primordial heart beating savagely through the veneer.

The Passion of Darkly Noon concerns the titular character, “Darkly Noon” (Brendan Fraser), and his spiritual trials after escaping an implied massacre. From the few details provided, his family, and the other members of the sect, had their compound raided by the FBI, National Guard, or some such outfit, with the young man barely escaping, and then nearly being run over. Like many of the film’s lines, its opening one is portentous: “God, help me!,” Darkly mutters, before being carried off to a nearby homestead. What follows, over the course of twelve days, is best captured by Darkly’s confession to his dead parents, “…it’s just that it’s very difficult here. And there are a lot of things I don’t understand.”

This passion play is populated by a small group of allegorical characters. The man who finds Darkly, and who ultimately betrays him, is “Jude” (bringing to mind either Judas, or, also appropriately, the patron saint of hopeless causes). The woman who inadvertently seduces Darkly—and who is dubbed a “witch” by an embittered neighbor—is named “Callie,” traditionally short for “Caroline”, a name meaning free or happy; she represents the unreserved pursuit of joy that Darkly has been denied his entire life.

It wasn’t until the last five minutes that I felt Darkly had a shot at being named one of the weirdest movies of all time. Of course, there was that giant, glittering, red-soled shoe floating incongruously down the river. And there was the up-tempo plague and pestilence preach-ifying undertaker who seemed lifted straight from a 19th-century Revival tent. And there was Viggo Mortensen’s mute carpenter, Callie’s bae, who can’t talk so instead has developed an impressive sleight-of-hand repertoire. A final oddity emerged in the closing credits when I learned that this was a German production. Obviously this is only a minor point, but I wondered: is The Passion of Darkly Noon a European view of American religious fanaticism colliding with rugged individualism, exploding in a Hell-sent electrical fire of extermination?

Arrow Video’s “Special Edition” marks the first time Darkly Noon has graced Blu-ray. It’s a director-approved 2K restoration and it includes a new commentary track from Ridley among its many special features. First-pressing orders come with a commemorative booklet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… 1990’s The Reflecting Skin [was] the oddest, most obsessive and morbid rural fantasia ever made, at least until The Passion of Darkly Noon…  As in The Reflecting Skin, Ridley keeps tight control[;] it’s never just weirdness for its own sake.”–Rob Gonsalves, EFilmCritic

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

CAPSULE: HORSE GIRL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Jeff Baena

FEATURING: Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler

PLOT: A young woman with a family history of mental illness becomes paranoid that aliens are affecting her behavior.

Still from Horse Girl (2020)

COMMENTS: The title Horse Girl conjures up a specific archetype: not merely a girl who’s interested in horses (many girls are), but a girly-girl so relentlessly feminine that she makes people uncomfortable and ends up relating to steeds better than humans. Sarah (Brie) works at an arts and crafts shop selling beads and yarn, and won’t stop hanging out at the stable decorating Willow’s mane with her homemade lanyards, even though the owners hint that she’s not really welcome anymore. Other than a kind older lady at the shop (Shannon), she has no real friends, and spends most of her time watching the supernatural TV soap “Purgatory.” Her roommate tries setting her up with a friend-of-a-friend who’s on the rebound from a failed relationship. But Sarah’s social awkwardness takes a turn for the worse after she starts having dreams about a glowing ramp hanging over the ocean and a white-on-white room where she sees sleeping people whom she kind of recognizes…

What are we to think of a character who asks her ear nose and throat doctor, “Is there a test to see if I’m a clone?” Sarah has proto-schizophrenic fantasies about alien abductions and time travel, but the script never offers serious evidence that her theories are more than the ravings of a madwoman. Rather than suspecting and hoping (as we do with Donnie Darko) that there might be an alternate, plausible, high-stakes sci-fi explanation for our protagonist’s inner turmoil, we’re left watching a character’s sad decline into madness. Sarah’s total psychotic break happens abruptly, and the last act of the film is essentially a long hallucination broken up by a few conversations with her caseworker. The scenes are weird, yes, but we never get the psychological depth in her backstory that would make her delusions meaningful. We aren’t even explicitly told why she’s so attached to her horse—it’s left to us to put two and two together. Without a close emotional connection to Sarah, and without a narrative investment in her crazy clone theory, we can’t identify with her; we’re left to pity the poor horse girl rather than empathize with her. We watch Brie move through glowing white rooms; we watch her wrap herself (and her horse) in a homemade anti-alien suit. But it’s a depiction of madness rather than a submersion in madness. Despite it’s best efforts, Horse Girl keeps us on the outside of Sarah’s head, looking in.

Brie is very good in the role, socially stunted during the first half and dazed and terrified when her psychic dam breaks. Horse Girl is clearly a passion project for her (she co-wrote the script, basing Sarah on her own personal history, since Brie’s grandmother was a paranoid schizophrenic). This makes it all the more tragic that, despite her fervent portrayal, the story isn’t as gripping as it might have been.

Horse Girl comes with a tiny bit of controversy. The film has been accused of ripping off plot elements and story beats, and even lifting entire shots, from an earlier low-budget indie: 2017’s The God Inside My Ear. 366 Weird Movies is neutral on the question.

Horse Girl is currently a Netflix exclusive movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a dark movie that gets weird for no good reason, and it feels like the project becomes a victim of writers (Baena and Alison Brie) who can’t figure out the ending to their story so they take the weird route.”–Louisa Moore,  Screen Zealots (festival screening)