Tag Archives: Drama

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)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I LOST MY BODY (2019)

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Recommended

AKA J’ai perdu mon corps

DIRECTED BY: Jérémy Clapin

FEATURING: Voices of Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois

PLOT: A right hand, severed from its host body, goes on a harrowing journey in hopes of a reunion.

Still from I Lost My Body (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If the logline, “It’s like The Incredible Journey, but it’s a hand” doesn’t immediately raise an eyebrow, then you are impervious to surprise. But while an adventure tale of a persistent hand would be intriguing enough, the determination to tell the tale with such bittersweet affection and lyricism is a bold and ultimately rewarding choice.

COMMENTS: The five-fingered human hand is probably among the most difficult things to draw. There are many reasons that most cartoon movies opt for a four-fingered variety, including time, expense, and appearance. So an animated feature in which the leading character is a disembodied, fully humanoid five-fingered hand would seem to reach peak hubris. Yet here we are with the earnestly told, irony-free tale of a hand that is violently amputated, and struggles mightily to be reunited with its body. It’s an idea so crazy, and an undertaking so destined to end disastrously, that it just has to work.

Director Clapin does himself no favors by balancing multiple narratives in time. We have to keep up with the present-day Naoufel, an orphaned immigrant who happens to be missing a hand; his backstory as a boy aspiring to be both a concert pianist and an astronaut (complete with lingering closeups of an extremity that is destined to go AWOL); the story our protagonist as an aimless young man hoping to win the affection of a pretty young woman through techniques straight out of a wacky Hollywood rom-com; and, of course, the adventures of a hand loose in the city.

The hand is a riveting character: navigating the Parisian streets like a wily insect, triumphing in battles with the city’s wildlife, and generally overcoming very long odds. It’s worth noting that the title clearly identifies the hand as the star of the show, so when we see flashbacks to Naoufel’s youth, it’s tempting to see the loving closeups as ironic, dryly foreshadowing, manufacturing suspense for the violent event that is sure to come. And it does work that way, sure. But the real point is that this is the hand’s story. Of course, we’re constantly focused on the hand; it’s the hero of its own tale.

It is sometimes said that it is harder for animated movies to seem weird because they are already a step removed from reality. But Clapin utilizes a surprising array of techniques to keep us off balance, and only some of them have anything to do with animation. Some of them are actually anti-animation, like the long, static, dialogue-focused meet-cute that takes place in an apartment building lobby as Naoufel chats with the future object of his affection entirely over an intercom. This is animated! And yet, the details are so lovingly captured—the boy’s hangdog embarrassment, his resigned eating of a piece of mushed-up pizza—that the format becomes completely irrelevant.

I Lost My Body challenges our willingness to take it seriously, as more than some cartoon Thing loose on the streets of Paris. Perhaps that’s what makes a fairly straightforward quest feel so odd. Indeed, sometimes weird is spectacular, with viewers wondering in awe about the kind of mind that could have dreamed up something so fantastical/disturbing. But sometimes weird is a subtle turn of the prism that casts a familiar tale in an entirely new light. I Lost My Body is just such a movie. Instead of asking “What happened to that boy who lost his hand?’ it has the courage to ask, “What happened to that hand?” The answer turns out to be even more affecting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In its finished form, director Jérémy Clapin’s peculiar undertaking (adapted from the novel “Happy Hand,” by Guillaume Laurant) is even stranger than it sounded to me half a decade earlier, and yet, there’s no question he’s pulled it off. In fact, I’d hazard to say it’s one of the most original and creative animated features I’ve ever seen: macabre, of course — how could it be otherwise, given the premise? — but remarkably captivating and unexpectedly poetic in the process.” – Peter DeBruge, Variety

(Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BUNUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Salvador Simó Busom

FEATURING: Voices of Jorge Usón, Fernando Ramos

PLOT: Animated film chronicling the making of Luis Buñuel’s third movie, the Surrealist documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (“Land Without Bread”) (1933), about a poverty-stricken region of Spain.

Still from Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018)

COMMENTS: It’s surprising that there are (to my knowledge) no biopics devoted exclusively to the explosive artist . He makes a brief appearance in ’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and plays third wheel to and Federico García Lorca in the regrettable Little Ashes (2008), but Labyrinth of the Turtles is the only movie to make the father of cinematic Surrealism the central character. That fact would make this film notable even if it wasn’t good; fortunately, it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

Labyrinth of the Turtles is based on a graphic novel, and the animation is stiff and delivered at a low frame rate. Given that this is an adult film about ideas rather than a kid’s cartoon about chase scenes, this isn’t a problem. Actual scenes from Land Without Bread are cleverly embedded within the animation. The choice to film in hand-drawn animation allows for inclusion of some dream sequences that would be expensive to render in live-action: elephants with stilt legs stomping through the streets of Paris, and Buñuel groping the Virgin Mary, who then shows him a vision of a giraffe with a cabinet in its torso.

It begins with Buñuel as persona non grata in the French filmmaking community, blackballed by bishops after the blasphemy of his second film, L’Age d’Or. He only raises enough money for his planned documentary when his friend Ramón Acín wins the lottery. Although an avant-garde writer and sculptor by vocation, it falls upon Ramón to be both the voice of financial reason and the comic foil, fretting about Buñuel’s extravagant purchase of an automobile and his erratic methods.

Labyrinth of the Turtles presumes that the viewer has a passing familiarity with its subject, and although novices should be able to follow along, it will be more rewarding to Buñuel enthusiasts. For example, Turtles references Buñuel’s habit (hee-hee) of dressing as a nun to shock the bourgeois. It also cites the director’s rocky rivalry with painter and former collaborator Dalí: the movie’s biggest set piece, the anxious nightmare where Luis sees Dalían pachyderms marching through the streets of Paris, suggests that his comrade’s greater recognition deeply rankled and motivated Buñuel. The movie doesn’t shy away from the director’s cruelty towards animals, either: he arranges for the killings of a rooster, a goat, and (most disturbingly) a donkey, as part of his obsession with the ever-present specter of death. He can also be tender towards the children of Las Hurdes, however, and seems to genuinely respect and suffer along with the poor of the region (going so far as to plan not to eat in front of them). All in all, The Labyrinth of Turtles is a significant, imaginative document of an important but neglected bit of cinema’s history, delivered in a paradoxical spirit its master would approve of.

This Spanish production was picked up by animation specialist GKids as a prestige picture and briefly released to theaters in 2019.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Simo] regularly returns to dreamscapes that Buñuel would admire, very rarely in a way that underlines the internal struggles of the filmmaker at the time but that highlight how his visions co-existed with his reality. At its best, ‘Buñuel and the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ is as caught between dream and reality as the film that Buñuel made in the mountains of Spain.”–Brian Tallerico, RoberEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SICILIAN GHOST STORY (2017)

O Fantasma da Sicília

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

FEATURING: Julia Jedlikowska, Gaetano Fernandez

PLOT: A dreamy 12-year old Sicilian girl loses her grip when her young beau disappears without explanation.

Still from Sicilian Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sicilian Ghost Story has drawn comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth for its young protagonist using imagination to cope with harsh reality. It can’t live up to that (perhaps unfair) comparison, however.

COMMENTS: The sense of being in an ancient land where myth and magic, though gone fallow, might spring into life again at any time is an animating spirit of Sicilian Ghost Story. An adolescent character even fantasizes about modernity fading away so he could see the frolicking nymphs and hear the notes from Pan’s flute from the Sicily of yore. Ruins of Roman temples on an outcropping over the beach where the teens play in the surf remind us that all traces of ancient world have not yet passed away.

But ancient gods are not the only spirits around. The mafia also haunts this Sicilian town. No one speaks of them directly, but Luna’s parents forbid the girl from seeing Giuseppe, who seems like a fine boy, because of dark hints about his father. When the boy stops coming to school, no one besides Luna brings it up. She hands out fliers with the Giuseppe’s face on them; tight-lipped, no one offers a lead.

So far, the movie has been a straight drama, a chaste tween love story with a hint of mystery, but then Luna’s visions kick in. As if touched by a prophecy sent from one of those ancient gods, Luna sees the vanished Giuseppe; later, she has a visions of a house, partially underwater. Some of her dreams may be actual clues to the boy’s whereabouts. Queasy pans, blurry screens, and confusion between what is happening inside and outside of Luna’s mind add a fog of disorientation.

The two young leads do an admirable job. The movie’s overall tone is low-key, elegiac, and more than a little depressing. It ultimately shoots for a sense of hope, although the best it can come up with is a life-goes-on shrug coupled with an imperative to not forget. Appropriately so, because, magical realist love story aside, Sicilian Ghost Story is based on a real-life kidnapping that scandalized Sicily in the 1990s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the strangest and most creative films released so far this year… a dreamlike, sometimes downright disorientating experience sustained by a tender heart beating beneath harsh realism.”–Ross Miller, The National (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.