Tag Archives: Existential

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STANLEYVILLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

FEATURING: Susanne Wuest, , Cara Ricketts, Christian Serritiello, George Tchortov, Adam Brown

PLOT: Maria is selected for a contest that promises to “probe the very essence of your mind-body articulation”—and to present the winner with a brand new SUV.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHAStanleyville‘s DIY-feel is paralleled within the narrative as candidates partake in a series of increasingly unhinged, but always ramshackle, challenges (two favorites: “Lobe of Ear” and “Diogenes Nose-Peg”). Trapping five bizarre specimens of humanity in a pavilion, McCabe-Lokos lets his unwieldy absurdist-reality-chamber-drama creak and crash as it lurches toward a gracefully symbolic climax.

COMMENTS: Until watching Stanleyville, I had never heard a ravenously pro-capitalistic screed in folk song form. This was among a number of “firsts” for me, as a pentad of archetypes squared off against one-another over the course of two days. This group is gathered together by an out-of-sync master of ceremonies named Homonculus, and “the heat heats up” as irregular time intervals count down, minds get stretched to snapping point, and bodies pile up in the food pantry.

Stanleyville‘s framework is not ground-breaking: apply pressure to some weirdos in a confined space and see what happens. Marat/Sade did it way back in the 1960s. (In fact, Stanleyville‘s setup makes me wonder if this was a stage play; and if not, when can I expect it to be?) The ingredients are fresh, however, particularly the mysteriously European (and Europeanly mysterious) Homonculus, who finds our heroine Maria sitting in a shopping mall massage chair and promises to change her life. She’s recently finished a shift at her dead-end job, left her dead-end home life, and discarded her purse, along with its contents, in a trash can. An earlier encounter at the office, witnessing a majestic, soaring bird unceremoniously thwack into her window, has left her aware that something is missing in life. She eagerly accepts Homonculus’ offer; not for the brand new habañero-orange compact SUV (a prize description mentioned often, with quiet enthusiasm), but because she feels that fate may have finally gotten up off its ass to give her some purpose.

Her contest competitors are a hyper-affable beefcake who’s neck-deep in a protein-powder Ponzi scheme; a jaded nihilist who incongruously lusts after the SUV; a hedge fund fellow sitting atop a mountain of privilege and self-loathing; and an actor/junkie/musician who never found a failure he didn’t have an excuse for. The four ancillary stereotypes lack depth (as is their wont), but they are merely background distraction (ironic, being the loudest characters in the piece), pushing Maria and her pensive wonderment to the fore.

The fourth stage of the contest (after the balloon-blowing, item sequencing, and the “write a national anthem for everybody everywhere through all time” trials) is when Stanleyville slips from ominously silly into philosophical. If I asked you, “Who is Xiphosura?”, you might not guess an entity who transmits crypticisms through a conch shell —but that’s as much as we learn about him. This is the kind of mystery found in Stanleyville; just enough is explained to keep you going, right up through the (off-screen) final event. Like Homonculus, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos may seem like he’s just making it up as he’s going along. He isn’t; he’s deliberately constructed the pathway toward new modes of mind-body articulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The persistent failure, however, to conceive of connective tissue between the elements it engages with (either through some development of narrative or in formal playfulness) ensures that the thematically derivative interests and pedestrian existential angsts of Stanleyville on the whole amount to little more than nothing at all…”–Zachary Goldkind, In Review Online (festival screening)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, , , Guy Boyd

PLOT: A young woman goes on a trip to meet her new boyfriend’s parents at their farmhouse on a night when a blizzard is brewing; the night grows increasingly strange and unsettling as it becomes unclear what is real and what is imaginary.

Still from I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: By the time the pig shows up at Jake’s old high school, it becomes apparent that this maze of awkward interactions, faulty memories, and uncertain identities may just be Charlie Kaufman’s most surreal film.

COMMENTS: The first inkling that something is not quite right in I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes when the young woman (who is first introduced as “Lucy,” although it turns out that may not be her real name) thinks to herself, “I’m thinking of ending things.” “Huh?,” says Jake (that is his real name), from the driver’s seat. Can he hear her thoughts? She denies speaking. “Weird,” says Jake. “Yeah,” she answers.

Things will get weirder. She’s unsure why she wants to break up with him. Her backstory doesn’t add up. And she’s getting a lot of phone calls, which she’s not answering. When they arrive to meet Jake’s parents at their remote farmhouse, things get even stranger. As it turns out, Jake’s parents would creep out Henry Spencer‘s in-laws. Dinner is uncomfortable, full of small talk that often sounds like hidden accusations, and—once more—competing backstories that contradict each other. Jake’s parents age, almost before her eyes… Nothing explicitly supernatural or menacing happens, but the creaky farmhouse emanates a horror movie vibe, intensified by Jake’s passive-aggressive insistence that his girlfriend stay out of the basement. Meanwhile, Lucy—or whatever her name is—anxiously suggests that Jake take her home before the coming blizzard snows them in and traps her there.

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest mind-massager is another intensely subjective and literate tour of the lonely corridors of the mind, where nothing is as it seems. It’s one of his strangest offerings— particularly when it reaches an irrational finale that departs from the source novel—but perhaps what distinguishes it the most is the exceptional ensemble acting, best seen in the four-way sparring at the dinner table. Their expressions are priceless: Collette smiling to herself at private jokes only she can hear, Thewlis aggressively incredulous at the idea that a landscape could appear sad, Plemmons understandably embarrassed by his parent’s odd behavior, and trying to coax his girlfriend into revealing the correct details about how they met. We expect accomplished performances from those three celebrated actors, but relative newcomer Jessie Buckley is a revelation. She mutates throughout the film, portraying everything from a nervous recalcitrant girlfriend to an angry feminist to an apparent victim of very early-onset Alzheimer’s. She even slips into a Pauline Kael impression. Remarkable.

As with all the best trips, it’s the journey that’s most memorable, not the destination. There is a reveal at the end, but the twist, while satisfying, is hardly the point. Each scene is structured as an individually confounding moment: on the long ride there and back, Jake and his girlfriend discuss everything from the human experience of time, bad movies as viruses, with citations to Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, and musical theater (familiarity with “Oklahoma!” will enrich your experience). Jake says he like road trips because “it’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head”—but does the movie believe this thesis? As they travel, the couple learn less about each other, and more about the slipperiness of human memory, fantasy, and identity.  It’s Kaufman’s favorite theme: the loneliness of our inherent interiority. The paradox is that our inescapable subjectivity is the one thing we all share and bond over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience… There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.”–David Sims, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

353. TEOREMA (1968)

AKA Theorem

“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea

DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini

FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette,

PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.

Still from Teorema (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
  • Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
  • As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
  • Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
  • Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.


British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema

COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most Continue reading 353. TEOREMA (1968)

CAPSULE: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Peckinpah

FEATURING: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández

PLOT: Bennie enjoys a low-key existence as a pianist in Mexico City until he seeks a reward for proof of Alfredo Garcia’s death; Garcia’s head causes unimaginable trouble for Bennie and his friends as thugs converge on it to collect the bounty.

Still from Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The ubiquitous South-of-the-Border heat eventually saturates the addled brains of the characters and filmmakers, but Peckinpah’s gritty classic is very much “just” a film noir entry from some decades after their heyday. Still, casual conversations about culpability and forgiveness with a rotting head in a sack isn’t something you see every day.

COMMENTS: Sam Peckinpah is regarded by many as the ultimate “bad boy” director. Held in awe by people ranging from comedian Denis Leary, film critic Roger Ebert, and even neophyte director Ryan Prows, Peckinpah’s films have a merited reputation for gritty intensity. While he won’t become a member of the esteemed 366 canon of directors, Peckinpah should be regarded as a dear friend. His scorched, nihilistic, and impressively grisly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes up trumps in its genre (Post-Western-Neo-Noir?), but also veers enough into pathos-filled idiosyncrasy to warrant a good look.

The succinct plot provided above doesn’t quite do justice to the proceedings. Things start brutally enough with a dressing down (literally?) of a defiant daughter by her tyrannical father—a powerful Mexican plutocrat, complete with posse and compound. The daughter has become pregnant from relations with—you guessed it—Alfredo Garcia. His dalliance was his death warrant, and a swarm of hit-men (all eager to claim the one-million-dollars on offer) surge out of the compound to hunt him down. Two such assassins encounter our friendly neighborhood barman, Bennie (Warren Oates), and this initially bloodless series of events quickly starts to steadily ratchet up the death count as Bennie and his girl (Isela Vega) look for Garcia. The third act is, well, a series of violent punctuations punctuated themselves by little bits of philosophical musing.

As Bennie’s journey inexorably leads him to a head in a bag, so to does the flow of this review. Between a couple of dramatic scenes (a truly tragic death and a comparably tragic mass murder) we enjoy a conversation that, had it continued, might have let Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia butt its way onto the list. I don’t know if it was the film stock used or the mediocrity of the Blu-Ray transfer, but the film’s atmosphere—which was already teetering on the verge of collapse from sun stroke—becomes truly hellish. Flies fill Bennie’s beat-up Impala as a stench permeates the vehicle (almost wafting to the viewer), and through this fog of death and heat, Bennie has exchanges with the million-dollar head. Bennie chastises Alfredo, shouts at Alfredo, and bargains with Alfredo. At a roadside cantina, we wonder if the jig is up when a small boy cleaning his filthy car windows inquires about it. Bennie, cool despite it all, explains, “Cat. Dead cat. Used to belong to a friend of mine.” Ultimately, Bennie even forgives Alfredo.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is so infused with violence that most contemporary genre pictures pale in comparison. Peckinpah captures almost every slaughter with the greatest impact possible. We don’t ever see the titular character (not alive, at any rate), and his head is merely a plot device which forces us to bear witness to the lives of men and women at the bottom of the food chain and at the end of their tether. Pathos borders on bathos as Peckinpah turns the screws on the initially carefree and affable Bennie. Even in the company of its peers, it is surprising to see a movie so relentlessly cynical, particularly when this cynicism is only ever interrupted by one man’s conversation with a decomposing head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, sometimes becomes a psychic ballet.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

318. CUBE (1997)

“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller

PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.

Still from Cube (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
  • Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
  • If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
  • Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
  • A remake, to be directed by , was announced in 2015.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.


Original trailer for Cube

COMMENTS: Are you an aspiring filmmaker with limited resources Continue reading 318. CUBE (1997)