Tag Archives: Drama

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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Recommended

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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Recommended

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)

 

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: KOTOKO (2011)

コトコ

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Cocco, Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: A young mother suffering from violent hallucinations loses custody of her son before a mild-mannered novelist enters her life.

COMMENTS: As my trip through Shinya Tsukamoto’s back-catalogue continues, my appreciation for his genius grows. Kotoko manages to be the most straightforward of his films while also being the most disturbing. There is no metal grafting, no superhuman violence, and, despite the narrator’s unreliability, the action is grounded in the mundane. The dark, harrowing side of the mundane. Perhaps not “weird” for our purposes (though it comes close), Kotoko stands out among the auteur’s typical work—and proves that Tuskamoto’s toolkit of perturbation extends far beyond his “typical” mechano-nihilistic visions.

We first meet Kotoko (J-Pop star “Cocco”) as she narrates how she sees “double”. At any moment Kotoko, may witness someone doing one thing—reading along with a toddler, say—only to see that person’s double as well, typically acting as a raging, violent id. She is aware of her condition, an affliction she can only ward off through song. Her sole motivation for enduring is her infant son. After a dramatic breakdown spurred by a child’s screams and spilled stir-fry, the boy is taken into her sister’s custody. Kotoko’s latent self-destructive tendencies worsen until she meets a quiet writer (Shinya Tuskamoto), who overhears her singing on a bus and decides to stalk her.

The first act is unsettling, the third act is nigh-on devastating. But the second—that’s where Kotoko is most bizarre. “What madness ensues?,” you ask. Amazingly, none. The film’s middle tranche is the “romantic comedy” filling of an otherwise dispiriting donut of a story. Cocco and Tsukamoto have a magical, socially inept chemistry. As a shy and somewhat bumbling literary celebrity, Tuskamoto adds “awkward romantic interest” to his acting arsenal (previously limited to “metal fetishist” and “emotionally benumbed salaryman”). During one of his stalking-visits, he fears the worst when Kotoko doesn’t answer her door, so he breaks in and finds her bleeding on her bathroom floor. Kotoko reaches almost mad-cap levels of silly dialogue and physical comedy as he charges back and forth between the bathroom and the place where she keeps the towels, always grabbing the wrong piece of fabric, while Kotoko patiently and bleedingly gestures and corrects him.

Had this continued, Kotoko would deserve a place amongst our esteemed, weird titles. That it does not isn’t a failure in filmmaking, of course, but a testament to the versatility of Tsukamoto. Instead, the rom-com provides the audience a much-needed breather between the setting up and knocking down of the titular heroine. Kotoko is something of a vanity project for the famous J-Pop star, but it is one of the oddest celebrity vehicles I’ve ever seen. Whether teary-eyed, widely smiling, writhing, singing, or dancing, Cocco exhibits a violent vulnerability not typically associated with mega-stars. With Tsukamoto, she finds the perfect technician to bring her vision to life; with Cocco, Tsukamoto gets to prove that whatever the story is, he can tell it–even if there aren’t any gears, cogs, or drill-bits.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…few films can claim to give such an uncompromising view of what it must be like to be crazy, as seen from the inside. Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ comes to mind, or Polanski’s ‘Repulsion.’ Both of these films are not the easiest to watch, especially when seen for the first time, and ‘Kotoko’ is a lot like that.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TOKYO FIST (1995)

東京フィスト

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Kôji Tsukamoto

PLOT: Tsuda Yoshiharu is a mild-mannered salaryman whose engagement winds up on the rocks after an old high school friend suddenly reappears in his life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Tsukamoto’s take on the boxing melodrama is, for the most part, “only” as strange as one might expect from the auteur of body-mechanics. However, the explosive triple-climax of sports violence, body horror, and metallo-spiritual fervor wrenches Tokyo Fist from the realm of the merely eccentric and slams it squarely into the pulsing weird sensors of the viewer’s brainpan.

COMMENTS: With its jerky camera work and dissonant soundscape, Tetsuo: the Iron Man would seem like lightning captured in a bottle—a one-time occurrence. Heaven knows its spiritual sequel never quite managed to capture the frenetic discomfort of Tsukamoto’s paean to corporeal mechanization. Perhaps it was filming in color, perhaps it was the attempt to graft an actual story on to the madness—whatever it was, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer feels like a softer cousin of the original man of iron. In Tokyo Fist, Tuskamoto reclaims that lightning he captured that first time around, somehow harnessing its electricity to transform a simple tale of romantic betrayal and depression into a jolting and exhausting treatise on violence and revenge.

Tsuda Yoshiharu (Shinya Tsukamoto) represents any black-tied, white-shirted salaryman in greater Tokyo. He sells insurance packages. He apologizes obsequiously. And he’s constantly worn out and perspiring. It’s been so long since he’s had sex with his fiancée Hizuru (Kahoro Fujii) that neither can remember when they last thus exerted themselves. A colleague browbeats him into passing along a “gift” of cash to professional boxer Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto, Shinya’s real-life brother). As fate would have it, Kojima is an old high school buddy of Tsuda’s. It’s no happy reunion, though, when the boxer starts showing up uninvited, and seduces the good salaryman’s lady.

So what happens next? Tsuda joins the boxing club that Kojima belongs to—pursuing a more traditional variety of “body alteration” than in Tetsuo—and things get violent. This is all to be expected in a boxing/romance/revenge/redemption movie. However, each of those four genre flag-posts is subverted here. Starting with redemption: Tsuda’s quest to buff up and out box his rival turns into something on the spiritual side of suicidal. His revenge becomes moot when Hizuru shows strange signs of her own personal change: what begins with a tattoo escalates to the self-installation of increasingly large piercings in increasingly deep chunks of her flesh. The romance between Tsuda and Hizuru seems almost non-existent, just a cutesy momentum that is instantly derailed by the intrusion of the (occasionally feral) Kojima.

And then there’s the boxing. It’s worth mentioning the “reality” of Tokyo Fist and how it’s captured before elaborating. At the start, everything’s traditionally lit: the “salaryman introduction” drives home a hyper-normality. Increasingly, though, Tsukamoto takes his lighting cues from silent films. Nighttime is always a lush blue tone; the daytime becomes harsh. Eventually the only realism appears during boxing matches. And as expected, Tsukamoto doesn’t shy away from jarring sound. There’s always the risk of an earful of grinding rivets to ruin one’s complacency as the training room montages begin writhing staccato-style on top of each other. Slam editing, slam sound, slamming faces, slamming flesh, culminating in a mystical blood spout finale. This ain’t no Rocky.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a film about sex and violence, and viewed as such it approaches the level of a masterpiece, albeit a distinctly surreal one.”–Marv Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)