Tag Archives: Ghost

CAPSULE: PITFALL (1962)

Otoshiana

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Kunie Tanaka

PLOT: A miner in search for work is led to a ghost town where he’ll become embroiled in a plot involving manipulation, trade unions, and doppelgangers.

Pitfall (1962)

COMMENTS: Pitfall was the first of a series of collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), author Kobo Abe (screenwriter), and Toru Takemitsu (composer); the trio would later produce works like The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Although an interesting piece on its own, Pitfall feels more like a prelude to greater works to come.

The beginning of the film establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as well as looming menace and disquiet (to which Takemitsu’s experimental score proves indispensable). Our main character is a miner traveling with his son in search of a job; he receives a map and instructions to go to a certain town where work awaits him. Upon arrival, the place is revealed to be practically deserted, save for a woman living in a house on its outer edges. After a brief interaction with her, the miner finds himself pursued by a figure in a white suit who eventually stabs him to death.

The Kafkaesque setup (and tone) only paves the way for further strangeness. A few scenes later the miner returns as a befuddled ghost helplessly wandering around the town, unable to interact with the living but trying to uncover the reason for his assassination. The remainder of the film maintains this dynamic: an unfolding drama in the realm of the living, with commentary of ghosts who can do nothing but passively observe.

Even before being reduced to a ghost, the main character is already caught in a web of mysterious causes and effects, moved by an ineffable logic not unlike the inscrutable bureaucratic machinations of  The Trial. Once the plot turns its focus on the investigation of the miner’s murder, the drama thickens (along with the confusion and weirdness), and stretches to a conspiracy involving the leaders of separate factions of a trade union.

More so than in the other films by the trio, the political dimension is particularly evident in Pitfall. The well-dressed figure in white, a symbol of the upper class or even capital itself, orchestrates the events like a demiurge, leading the working class to destruction. They persist only as powerless ghosts who can only witness their own oppression, and comment on it without ever being heard. This is but one of the levels of analysis, and we should not ignore the aura of alienation that the film communicates on a purely existential level.

For a first excursion, Teshigahara’s direction is surprisingly assured. As is usually the case with early efforts by masters, the seeds of what he would go on to accomplish are fully on display in Pitfall. Even if the story does not play out as elegantly and concisely as future offerings by the same team, the film is an assured recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classic ‘first film,’ full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It’s doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.”–Noel Murray, AV Club (Criterion DVD box set)

CAPSULE: ON OUR WAY (2021)

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On Our Way is currently available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Lane Curtis

FEATURING: Micheál Richardson, Sophie Lane Curtis, Keith Powers, Paul Ben-Victor, Adam G. Simon

PLOT: A first-time filmmaker’s movie dreams are crushed when tragedy strikes; a ghost helps him complete his script.

Still from On Our Way (2021)

COMMENTS: “People don’t want to see his hopeful ending,” says financier Adler as On Our Way‘s first act comes to a close. “They want to see dark, twisted, freaky, gritty, bizarre weird shit.” That statement, delivered at the close of the first act, makes me question the supposedly savvy Adler’s appraisal of public taste. It also leads me to believe that this movie will definitely have a happy ending. I won’t spoil whether that expectation is met or not.

To the small extent that On Our Way is weird, it’s weird in an expectedly indie way: a somewhat fragmented storyline with editing to match, the occasional arty shot from an unexpected angle, mildly surrealistic imagery like the bank of televisions on the beach or a tunnel of bedsheets, and flirtations with meta-movie shenanigans that nevertheless keep the line between fantasy and reality clear. It deviates slightly from Hollywood formulas, but never approaches the “bizarre weird shit” that the public is supposedly clamoring for.

The plot is ambitious for many reasons, not in the least for daring the pitfall-laden “struggling filmmaker makes a first film” scenario. Starting from what appears to be novice filmmaker Henry’s suicide attempt, the script incorporates numerous flashbacks as it jumps back and forth in time between his romance with the leading lady in his autobiographical film and his relationship with his father, a disreputable but kindly drunk given to wearing layers of gold chains while dancing around shirtless with a joint in one hand and a whiskey in the other. The details of this both tragic relationships are slowly revealed alongside the gradual sabotaging of the film-within-the-film by the heavy-handed producer. The storytelling is handled cleanly enough that we never get confused by all the shuttling about, although the dialogue is sometimes a bit cringeworthy (“you know that feeling when you’re like ‘how the hell did I get here?’ There ought to be a word for that.”). It’s also not an extraordinarily fresh or engaging tale, although it has just enough narrative and emotional heft to it keep you watching. Technical details (sound, cinematography, editing, etc.) are all handled with competence. The acting, on the other hand, can be uneven, with (unfortunately) Curtis’ performance as love interest Rosemary the low ebb.

The odd thing about On Our Way is that, for her first film, writer Curtis casts herself not as the struggling artist, but as the struggling artist’s stand-by-your-man muse. This might come across as humility, but the problem is that she under-writes a role she created for herself. Curtis provides Henry a wealth of personal history, while Rose is… beautiful and self-sacrificing, with no backstory or motivation of her own. She exists merely to love and be lost; a manic pixie dream girl without the pixyish mania. But Curtis was only 26 when this was completed, and probably younger when it was conceived and written. Her direction is solid, her plotting is decent, and while she might be fine in some more limited roles, I think her future may lie more behind the camera than in front of it.

and Franco Nero are prominently mentioned on the poster, but their actual cameo makes an eye blink seem like an eternity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… too interesting to dismiss, if entirely too slight, too repetitive, self-absorbed, pretentious and wandering to endorse.”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BROOKLYN 45 (2023)

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Brooklyn 45 releases on Friday, June 9, exclusively on Shudder and AMC+.

DIRECTED BY: Ted Geoghegan

FEATURING: Anne Ramsay, Ezra Buzzington, Archibald Stanton, Kristina Klebe, , Ron E. Rains, Jeremy Holm

PLOT: Following the close of the Second World War, Colonel Hockstatter invites his friends over for a séance in the hopes of contacting his dead wife; the evening turns out to be far more illuminating than any of the attendants would have hoped for.

Still from Brooklyn 45 (2023)

COMMENTS: One could, theoretically, craft a languid melodrama in which old friends with unspeakable pasts gather one evening at Yuletide, weighed down by the tension of physical proximity and psychological burdens, until revelations crash through the civil veneer. But, thank goodness, Ted Geoghegan said, “Nuts to that.” Brooklyn 45 is a ghost story, thriller, chamber drama—and I emphasize the singularity of “chamber” here—and contemplation on the horrors of war. Brooklyn 45 makes its zippy pacing believable by taking full advantage of its catalyst: a séance.  A communication with the dead. The past. And there are few groups of five characters with as messy a shared history as Marla, a former interrogator; Bob, a Pentagon desk-jockey; Archie, a real Yankee doodle dandy; Paul, an all-brass veteran; and Clive, a broken widower.

Brooklyn 45 is a period piece that plays out like a period production. It would be at home as a TV special from the 1970s, with its faded-candy-colored sets, props, and costumes. The dialogue isn’t stilted, but echoes vintage radio. The action (so to speak) rests at the intersection of Clue! and Twelve Angry Men. It even features a delightfully subtle opening of a curtain, as we see three people arrive at their place of judgement, and then later closing on three of the players exiting the bloody drama. We are watching performances; we are listening to reminiscences; we are being told a story.

This story is, at least, five stories. And while a keen attention to period detail anchors the viewer (I particularly enjoyed the empty packet of “Westerfields”), that doesn’t mean we’ve been abandoned in a do-nothing room. Various punctuations act as triggers: a door is sealed; a light switch turned off; the radio is silenced; and, before expected, a gun is fired. Geoghegan’s self-assurance is apparent here, as he does not shy away from the tools a contemporary teller of tales has on-hand. Time is of the essence, and there is much to learn as we are locked in a room with war criminals, spies, torturers, and ghosts.

We’re also in this room with Bob, the milquetoast bureaucrat. His wife, Marla, moving so assuredly with cane in hand and firm tone on her lips, intrigues from the start. Archie alternately charms and disappoints (morally speaking) as a semi-closeted homosexual awaiting a war crimes trial. Major DiFranco hits all the right notes;  a highly moral military man with some serious regrets. And Colonel Hockstetter evinces confusion and pity. But Bob, whose mild-manner immediately telegraphs he is doomed to a radical shift, is introduced as, and remains, a cipher. Brooklyn 45 is about the past, and the weight it bears down on the present. With this cryptic character, Geoghegan demonstrates that, even though he plays many cards in this film, he’s still keeping a few close to his chest. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

” I was very pleasantly surprised to find a film so very oddly tender and tragic at the heart of a story that also features ectoplasmic seances and Geoghegan’s trademark pension for schlocky gore…”—Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (contemporaneous)

B’TWIXT NOW AND SUNRISE: THE AUTHENTIC CUT (2011/2022)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco,

PLOT: A struggling writer’s book tour lands him in a mysterious small town, where the sheriff invites him to help investigate a serial killer and guides him through a dreamworld of ghosts, vampires, and murderers.

Still from B'Twixt Now and Sunrise (2011/2022)

COMMENTS: In 2011, Francis Ford Coppola released a movie called Twixt, a vampire/ghost story starring Val Kilmer as a low-rent horror writer, Elle Fanning as a pixie-esque dead girl, and Bruce Dern as the town sheriff/aspiring writer. Not many people remember it, which makes Coppola’s decision to re-release it, calling it B’Twixt Now and Sunrise: The Authentic Cut (2022), slightly baffling. Only slightly so, though, given both how much the man likes director’s cuts and the special significance this film has to him.

Its first time out, Twixt was roundly panned. The writing (by Coppola) is unfortunate, the look of the dreamworld—where Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is guided through the story of a mass child murder by Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin)—is overly crisp, background characters are either wooden or overwrought, and so on. There are odd choices throughout, and the overall effect is that Twixt is a bad movie—a very entertaining bad movie.

For The Authentic Cut, Coppola removed eight minutes of runtime (four of them from the ending, which was already abrupt) and didn’t add any new footage. While the changes are understandable, such as patching scenes together, creating a twist ending, removing a homophobic joke, etc., the movie isn’t much better for them, and this is tragic.

B’Twixt is a movie close to Coppola’s heart. This is because of a subplot wherein Baltimore’s daughter has been killed in a boating accident, and he comes to accept culpability. Coppola’s 22-year-old son was also killed in a boating accident, in the same way as shown in the film. So of course he would want this semi-confessional movie to be its best and not an embarrassment. But all that works in Twixt/B’Twixt is the stuff makes it funny and cheesy and bad, like Bruce Dern’s screwball sheriff. His over-the-top energy would be par for the course in an out-and-out comedy, but because this is not one, the question of whether certain things are intentionally funny is that much more fascinating.

There are cool moments, especially in the dreamworld when everything is black and gray and red, sometimes looking like an expressionist version of  Sin City (which was released 6 years earlier). These scenes are dominated by the leader of the evil, possibly vampiric goth kids, who has the gothiest makeup ever and reads Baudelaire in French. His name is Flamingo, and he broods under the full moon. Again, genius bleeds into the ridiculous, leaving us both chuckling and wondering about intentionality.

Coppola’s original vision for this film included performing it live, taking advantage of the digital nature of editing, and having the score performed along with a fluid cut—a groundbreaking undertaking,  which occurred only once, at Comic-Con. One can easily assume from this intention that Twixt was never meant to be the final version.

For people interested in (one of) the auteur’s vision(s), B’Twixt is here for you now. But if you want a low budget horror-comedy that is both intentionally and unintentionally funny, Twixt is a hidden gem.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shot on digital low-budget indie film was inspired by dreams Coppola had and, well, that’s what it feels like. Although this trimmed down version is more focused and less clunky than the original (especially with Hall’s character arc), it still feels like a mish mash of ideas more than a fleshed out story… plays like a poor man’s ‘Twin Peaks.'”–DVD corner (Blu-ray)

 

CAPSULE: THE LONG WALK (2019)

Bor Mi Vanh Chark

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mattie Do

FEATURING: Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy, Por Silatsa, Noutnapha Soydara, Vilouna Phetmany, Chanthamone Inoudome

PLOT: In the remote Laotian countryside, an old hermit and a young boy are united by the fact that only they can see the mute woman wandering the long dusty road to the nearest village.

Still from The Long Walk (2019)

COMMENTS: We recommend not reading the official synopsis for The Long Walk posted on the IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or the distributor’s own website, as it seems to carelessly give away major plot points. Perhaps the promoters thought there was no other way to get American viewers interested in a Laotian movie, most of which takes place on a barren dirt road, than by giving away the main twist. Regardless, this is a movie you will likely enjoy more the less you know going in.

The movie opens on an older man (a haunted Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) stripping motorbike parts in the jungle, just off the path. He leaves an orange at a roadside shrine, then checks the time on his wrist—not on his wristwatch, on his actual flesh, in one of the few indications that this movie takes place in the future. Selling his scrap in town, he learns that the local noodle shop owner is sick and demented and on her last legs. He lives alone in an elevated hut where he vapes, brews strange teas, and ritualistically tends items in a cabinet shrine, including a female figurine. The locals believe he can talk to the spirits of the dead.

The action then shifts to follow a young boy living on a farm. He prefers exploring the jungle to hoeing the fields; his mildly abusive father thinks he’s lazy and good for nothing, but he’s devoted to his mother, who sells the family’s vegetables at a roadside stand. The family is barely getting by, the mother is ill, and there is no money for medicine. The boy makes a macabre discovery in the woods, and soon after he begins seeing a pretty but mute woman standing in the road. The old hermit from the previous paragraph sees her, too; and soon she brings them together, as the nature of the old man’s shamanic practice comes clear.

The Long Walk is set in a world where government-issued microchips coexist with ghosts; a world like our own but with a touch of sci-fi shamanism. The movie slips into its liminal spaces—life and afterlife, past and present, and through genres like drama and horror—gracefully, but also sometimes perplexingly. As with all time travel tales, it traffics in paradox; the movie’s morality, too, is far from black and white. It takes some patience to tease out basic plot elements, but clues and new developments are laid out at regular enough intervals that my attention rarely wandered off the dusty path that winds its way through the decades. The third act takes a potentially controversial turn towards horror; it provides a resolution to a subplot about the daughter of the noodle shop owner, which was otherwise a welcome digression from the main plotline, but has the disadvantage of forcing our protagonist into a heel turn that feels a bit too arbitrary and severe. Still, this decision adds to the mystery and complexity of the story and feeds into its theme about the unpredictable effects of good intentions, as it leads us to an inflammatory ironic conclusion.

The background Buddhism, and the presence of the mundane and the mystical in the same frame, will put viewers in mind of Thailand’s , although Do’s work is a more plot-driven and less audaciously poetic. I found the ambiguously emotional payoff to be well worth the effort, but the impatient should beware: the title does not lie, it is indeed a long walk.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ghost stories — and especially those aimed at art house audiences — might benefit from a little ambiguity and a certain poetic strangeness. But it’s a problem when the story becomes nearly impossible to follow for long stretches of time.”–Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)