Tag Archives: Drama

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

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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.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Günter Lamprecht, , , Barbara Sukowa

PLOT: After four years in prison, wife-murderer Franz Bieberkopf is released into Weimar Germany; he tries to go straight, but with no means of employment, he soon returns to the criminal underworld, with tragic results.

Still from Berlin Alexanderplatz (epilogue) (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ve toyed with the idea of considering self-contained TV miniseries as “movies” for classification purposes before; Berlin Alexanderplatz, a celebrated masterpiece of world cinema from an auteur with eccentric tendencies but nothing on the List, makes perhaps the best case for loosening our criteria—especially since the result would be classified as “apocrypha” rather than canon. A miniseries adapting Alfred Döblin’s modernist novel, first broadcast on German television, Alexanderplatz is a fifteen hour dive into an enigmatic character told through a fluid mix of straight drama, melodrama, poetic monologue, and surrealism. The two-hour capstone installment, a frenzied passage dubbed “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue,” could well stand alone as a weird movie classic—but it can’t be appreciated without first seeing the thirteen hours that came before.

COMMENTS: Oddly, it was the second episode that sold me on Berlin Alexanderplatz. The first introduced our protagonist, Franz, newly released from prison after a four year stay, briefly suffering from disabling agoraphobia until a friendly Jew tells him an obscure parable, visiting—and raping—an old acquaintance, and finally swearing an oath to go strait. It was strange stuff, setting up intriguing possibilities, but I was not all-in just yet.

That second episode was, in a way, comparatively ordinary. Desperate for a job, with legitimate employment in 1920s Berlin rare in even for non-felons, Franz agrees to put on a swastika armband—reluctantly—and sell newspapers for the newly-formed Nazi party. This decision causes him trouble when a fellow vendor, who happens to be Jewish, confronts him, followed by an old friend who’s now a dedicated Marxist. Franz, who is proud to be German but has nothing against the Jews (or anyone), eventually quits the job, but not before the gang of Communists accost him in a bar. He almost smooth talks his way out of the confrontation, but can’t resist responding to their taunts by singing a Nationalist song as a response to their chorus of the “Internationale.” Angered, they back him into a corner. In a frightened fury, one man against a gang, he is forced to raise a chair to defend himself.

It was at this point that I realized that I’d gone from simply following Franz’s story to rooting for the poor reprobate. Fassbinder brought me, slowly, to sympathize with a killer, a rapist, a pimp, and a Nazi Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980)

CAPSULE: DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964)

Démanty noci 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ladislav Jánsky, Antonín Kumbera

PLOT: Two Jewish boys escape from the Nazis and flee through the German countryside.

Still from Diamonds of the Night (1964)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A minimalist mix of almost-documentary realism with disorienting fantasies and flashbacks, there are rewards to be had in digging up the buried narrative gems in Diamonds of the Night. But despite its impressive pathos, it’s easy to see why this dour, low-budget sleeper wasn’t one of the enduring international breakout titles of the . Nemec would deliver better films.

COMMENTS:We open on two boys running into the woods with a train clacking in the background. They ditch overcoats painted with the letters “KL” (for “konzentrationslager,” indicating they are bound for Nazi concentration camps) as they flee the sound of gunfire and cries of “halt!”

This thrilling opening soon loses steam, however, as the boys continue to run, then slow to a walk, then walk, and walk, and walk, occasionally pausing to lap water from a stream like dogs or take off their boots to check on their spreading blisters. It’s all shot with documentary-style shaky handheld cameras. There is no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes (and little thereafter).

The drudging pace and gray tedium of this opening will lose many viewers. The increasing confusion of the story will lose even more; but it is here is where Diamonds of the Night starts to get interesting. A few mysterious flashbacks—one of the boys climbing through cars in an empty passenger trolley, random scenes of the two trekking through almost deserted cities—are spread throughout the film’s first half. These increase in frequency as the movie progresses, and start to overlap with fantasy scenes, creating layers of memory, dreams and reality that blend together. When one of the boys barges in on a farm wife as she prepares lunch, for a while it’s unclear what really happens. We see alternative scenarios, one in which she silently hands him bread to eat, and one in which he kills her and takes the loaf. It’s immaterial whether he really strikes her down or not; he’s hungry and desperate enough to kill, and it’s only a question of fate whether he raises his hand or not.

In the second half of the film, the fugitives are hunted by a posse of German men too old to serve at the front; it’s grimly amusing to see the aged squad arthritically stalk them through the forest. An extended, chopped-up sequence of flashbacks shows one of the pair strolling through Prague streets that were deserted in previous flashbacks, wearing the coat that destines him for the death camps, running through the trolley once more, thinking of a dark-haired girl, pressing a doorbell and getting no answer; impressions of a life just before the Nazis seized him that conveys a sense of oppression without telling a coherent story. They are caught by their doddering pursuers when one of the boys can no longer run on his injured foot and the other stops to help him; a flashback shows the healthy one trading his boot to the injured one for food on the concentration camp train.

Matching the nonlinear storyline, the film is also out of phase aurally: sometimes the sounds of memories will lap over into the current times, and sometimes the opposite happens, further blurring the boundary between past and present, fantasy and reality.

Diamonds was adapted from Arnošt Lustig’s autobiographical novel; Nemec’s student graduation thesis film (1960’s “A Loaf of Bread,” included on the Criterion disc) was also a Lustig adaptation. As a first narrative feature, Diamonds of the Night plays like a very advanced student film; even it’s padded-yet-barely-over-an-hour runtime fits the bill. There are fascinating moments, but probably only a half and hour of truly interesting material here, interspersed with long stretches of the boys trudging joylessly through the woods. The 2019 Criterion release supplements the film’s short running time with two short documentaries featuring Nemec, a visual essay, Czech New Wave expert Irena Kovaroa, the aforementioned student short, and of course a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a realistic Czechoslovak film about two escapees from a German concentration camp; it makes one realize just how valid and necessary absurdism, particularly the austere absurdism of great dramatists like Beckett or even Pinter, is.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLUE MY MIND (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lisa Brühlmann

FEATURING: Luna Wedler, Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen

PLOT: A teenage girl finds her body is going through a strange transformation.

Still Blue My Mind (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s explored fully, the puberty/body image metaphor here is too obvious to create a mood of mystery.

COMMENTS: Mia is basically a normal 15-year old girl, dealing with normal 15-year old girl problems: trying to make friends with the cool crowd at a new school, worrying that her parents understand her so little that she must be adopted, and stressing about the strange changes her body is going through.

And fighting her compulsion to snack on goldfish straight out of the tank, a habit which is constantly getting her grounded.

Aside from the movie’s fantasy element (an intended surprise that’s likely been spoiled for you already if you’ve seen any of the marketing surrounding the movie), there’s another mild issue which inhibits your suspension of disbelief. Mia is supposed to be 15 years old, which is a little late to be getting her first period—especially when she looks like a fully developed young woman (Wedler was 17 or 18 years old during filming). It seems like the script compresses and crams in the entire range of problems faced by girls from 12 to 18 into 90 minutes: Mia simultaneously deals with the hormonal stress of oncoming adolescence, and with the rebellious delinquency typical of older teens.

Nevertheless, if you can accept that Mia’s experiencing an uneven, delayed puberty—possibly related to her biological “specialness”—her travails are believable. Perhaps too believable, in fact: large stretches of segments dealing with unsatisfactory crushes and awkward sexual encounters, getting buzzed on Saturday night, experimenting with asphyxiation or shoplifting on a dare, girlfriends who are carelessly and causally mean to each other at one moment and fiercely loyal the next, and so forth all start to feel routine, like incidents we’ve seen in dozens of teen-development dramas.

When Mia’s slow-gestating transformation finally blossoms, however, it breaks through all of the sudden. In a hazy, dreamlike trance, she freshens up her makeup with a brighter shade of red, takes a swig of vodka, and wanders out to the party she just excused herself from to dance seductively for a group of college-age boys, who invite her into the back bedroom for an “erotic” encounter sure to make you squirm in your seat. This peak of teenage peril is followed by a disappointing reveal and an inevitable denouement.

Although Blue My Mind isn’t exceptional, as a low-budget debut feature from a director fresh out of film school, it is remarkably assured. Freckle-faced Luna Wedler’s on-key performance helps a lot, and the rest of the cast assists ably. Other than an attempt at a beyond-her-means special effect, the technical aspects are all professional, and writer/director Brühlmann handles her actors well. She has talent, and with a different script and a few more Euros she could make something that will really blow your mind.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Up to a point, the central analogy works rather brilliantly. The menacing yet dreamlike tone grounds the film’s dark-fairytale transformation… But at some point the allegory slithers out of Brühlmann’s grasp, and grows too large for its tank.”–Jessica Kiang, Variety (festival screening)

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