Tag Archives: Ghost

CAPSULE: WAR WITCH (2012)

Rebelle

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DIRECTED BY: Kim Nguyen

FEATURING: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda

PLOT: Rebels abduct a 12-year old girl from her African village and force her to become a soldier; when her military commanders decide she has magical powers, she is declared the army’s “war witch.”

Still from War Witch (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The tiny dash of magic realism that’s added to soften the blow of the tragic realism isn’t enough to turn this all-too-believable drama into a weird movie.

COMMENTS: The blank-faced girl begins narrating her story to her unborn baby, in the process praying, “I hope God will give me the strength to love you.” It’s a harsh opening for a hard movie, but despite the themes of war, cruelty, and child slavery, War Witch finds ways to not be a complete downer. The plot has three clearly defined acts, each tracking a year of Komona’s life. It begins at the age of 12, when armed men in canoes storm the riverside shantytown she lives in, killing most of the residents and carrying her off as a slave. By 13 she has found a beau and hope for the future in the person of a young albino magician (named “Magician”) who courts her according to folk traditions, and by age 14 she is a woman of the world, having suffered enough pain and heartbreak for two lifetimes. Writer/director Kim Nguyen delivers plenty of gruesome and cruel moments but chooses not to linger over them, and lets beams of light pierce the darkness. The sunny Congolese locations, from the mysterious forest full of ghosts to the field of boulders (also full of ghosts) can be sublime. Komona and Magician (first time actors Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) both do well and share a touchingly naïve romance, especially in light of the awful things they have suffered and the awful things they have been forced to do. There is a minor fairytale ambiance to the proceedings, what with the child witches and wizards, accusatory ghosts, and an evil warlord (known by the sobriquet “the Great Tiger”) ensconced in an improbably grand tower in the middle of the jungle. A visit to a hidden albino village to find a semi-mythological creature provides another fable-like moment. The movie accepts the existence of magic and never questions local superstitions; for example, a man casually asks for a gris-gris to protect him against war as payment for helping the children. After drinking “magic milk” (the hallucinogenic sap of a local tree), Komona gains the ability to see ghosts. The apparitions, corpses caked in white clay with blank eyes, are simple and effective, and they begin to haunt the girl everywhere. They warn her of an ambush set by government soldiers, allowing her alone to escape and giving her the reputation of a witch. The movie never gives us any reason to question the accuracy of Komona’s visions, which in the end take on a crucial psychological importance for the girl. Nguyen mixes childish imagination and voodoo practices with military reality to brew up a unique world we have not seen on film before. Unfortunately, with the fantasy elements stripped away, this world is far too recognizable from cable news broadcasts. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mourned Rachel Cooper in Depression-era Appalachia in Night of the Hunter; on another continent, in another millennium, her pronouncement still rings sadly true in War Witch.

At no point in War Witch does the movie explain what country it is set in, or who the rebels are or what they are supposedly fighting for. The movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), however, and clues suggest that the action is set there, including the fact that the rebels fund their insurgency by mining coltan, an exotic mineral found mostly in the Congo. The Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2003, still lingers on with outbreaks of ethnic violence and warlordism to this day; it has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some 30,000 children have been conscripted to shed blood for both sides. The notorious Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has operated out of the DRC, and may be the model for War Witch‘s Great Tiger.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] gripping, surreal African child soldier drama…”-Ky N. Ngyuen, Washington Diplomat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RESTLESS (2011)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Henry Hopper,

PLOT: A moody boy with the ghost of a kamikaze pilot for a best friend and a hobby of attending funerals falls in love with a girl who’s dying of cancer.

Still from Restless (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Remaking Harold and Maude as a teen romance with a hot Maude and a ghost sidekick sounds like a bad idea, but Restless is even worse than you might imagine.

COMMENTS: An unquenchably perky dying woman convinces a boy with a morbid fascination for death that life is a precious gift not to be wasted. If you’re going to use a plot that’s so well-worn and sickly sweet, then by God you’d better find a pungent spice to add some flavor to the treacle. What if you made the love interest an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, and had the thanatophilic teen stage elaborate fake suicides? What, it’s been done before? Well, at least we could have them meet cute at a stranger’s funeral. You’re kidding, they already did that, too? Well, we’ll just do it anyway, and market it to teens who haven’t seen it before. Oh, and let’s throw in a ghost… make him a Japanese kamikaze pilot… they didn’t do that one yet, did they? Despite attempts to gussy up the doomed material with an infusion of quirk, if you’ve seen a dozen or so romantic movies, then Restless is one you’ve seen before. Henry (son of Dennis) Hopper puts on his best brood, but bad boy he ain’t; this pallid dreamboat is more Robert Pattison than James Dean. Despite being graced with a truly tragic backstory that gives him ample excuse for bitterness, Hopper still manages to come across as a whiny brat, and it doesn’t help matters that he’s scripted as kind of dumb, too. Ryo Kase (understandably) doesn’t appear to have a clue why his ghost character is in the story, so he hedges his acting bets and plays Hiroshi totally deadpan. (By far the film’s best—in fact, its only—joke is Hiroshi’s skill at the board game “Battleship.”) In 2011, Mia Wasikowska proved she had pro acting chops by taking the lead in Jane Eyre and an admirable supporting turn in Albert Nobbs; she comes off the best here, but there’s not much she can do to give grit or texture to such a perfect, unrealistic, idealized character. Annabel isn’t scared of dying, she’s always upbeat and positive, and she doesn’t get visibly upset even when her boyfriend dumps her on her deathbed. Chemo makes her hair look really darling, and even when she’s convulsing, she looks like a cutie-pie. Mia is pleasant and brings a life to the role, but her eternally sunny character makes no sense—shouldn’t the movie be about coming to grips with the reality of mortality, not glossing over the ugly facts of death? Mia never appears the least bit sickly, but the same can’t be said for Jason Lew’s anemic screenplay. This script is wired deep into teen paranoia. Why are all the adult authorities against the kids? Why does the funeral director care so much about Enoch respectfully attending memorial services of people he doesn’t know? Why do security guards tackle him when he’s leaving the hospital peacefully? Why does no one understand him? Despite, or rather because of, tailoring itself to teens’ distorted views of reality, this isn’t a good movie for teenagers. It’s pure pandering, and it’s either cynical, or incompetent. Restless isn’t reprehensible or badly made, but it’s worse than many movies that are, because it doesn’t really try: it merely spiffs up tired platitudes with a few quirks and fresh faces, and assumes its unsophisticated audience will eat up the result. The lack of effort or ambition is depressing. Why do so many movies that consciously set out to be life-affirming make smart people despair after watching them?

Gus van Sant is a director who’s hard to peg: he’s all over the map, making everything from gritty indies (Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant) to Oscar-bait (Good Will Hunting and Milk) to kinky would-be cult films (My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) to true WTF head-scratchers (a “shot-for-shot” remake of Psycho?) God knows what attracted him to this material, which seems tailored for a hack director. Directing Restless is like being the makeup guy at the funeral parlor—the best he can do is to make the lifeless script presentable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…they may be a little too weird for the rest of the world; they are the perfect kind of weird for each other… a movie that is as heartwarming as it is strange.”–Matthew DeKinder, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (contemporaneous)

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIXT (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco, Tom Waits

PLOT: Horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is in decline, hacking out formulaic product and going on book tours to nowhere places, like the town of Swan Valley. The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) tells him about an unsolved massacre that took place in the town years ago, suggesting a collaboration on a book, which Hall doesn’t take seriously—until he starts dreaming of a young girl, V (Elle Fanning), who may be connected with the murders, and may be either a ghost or a vampire; and of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who becomes a spiritual muse the deeper Hall delves into the mystery.

Still from Twixt (2011)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What gives the film an aura of weirdness is its visual style, elements of which recall earlier Coppola films (mainly the more experimental ones like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart), along with the elements of autobiography that thread through the film. While it may be a bit too early to declare this as Essential Coppola, there are rewards to be found here for the adventurous moviegoer.

COMMENTS: Twixt has had a tortured time getting out to an audience; originally scheduled for release in late 2011 after several festival screenings and Comic Con hype, the movie has been released in France and England and only recently made its domestic premiere in San Francisco, with no concrete word (as of this writing) as to wider release in the U.S. Which is not that surprising, considering that most of the domestic reviews pretty much ripped the film to shreds. To a certain extent, they have a point—most of those reviews have commented on the murkiness of the narrative, which Coppola has stated had its origins in a dream. Most of those reviewers probably think that Coppola’s best creative days are behind him, or that he needs to return to more commercial fare to be ‘relevant’ again. It’s probably very telling that what North American distributors and critics have seen as a problem, Europe has eagerly embraced (especially France, where critics have acclaimed the film).

Twixt is a messy concoction, and for most audiences who are used to storylines where everything is clearly presented and all the twistedness will eventually be straightened out by the time the end credits roll, it won’t be a fun ride. Coppola describes it as “one part Gothic Romance, one part personal film and one part the kind of horror film I began my career with,” which is a pretty packed sandwich—not everything will fit neatly there. However, those concerned with neatness will conveniently overlook good performances by Kilmer, Dern and Chapin and some intriguing autobiographical references.

Twixt is available on R2 DVD and Blu-Ray. Again, no word as of yet when it will be available on R1 disc.

UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2013, Twixt was released on R1 Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox with excellent picture quality and sound. It’s light on extras, but what’s included is very interesting – a documentary on the making of the film shot by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, prior to her feature film debut with Palo Alto (2014).

Twixt official site

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily [Coppola’s] silliest work… a mishmash of absurd horror tropes with a gush of blood…”–Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)

AKA Uncle Boonmee

“Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise up before  me.”—Title card at the beginning of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

FEATURING: Thanapat Saisaymar, , Sakda Kaewbuadee, Kanokporn Tongaram

PLOT: On his plantation in rural Thailand, the dying Boonmee is visited by living relatives and the ghosts of his past. As they ease him into death, the story is interrupted through vignettes that may represent his memories of past lives.

BACKGROUND:

  • Apichatpong Weerasethakul considerately refers to himself as “Joe” when speaking to Western audiences.
  • Uncle Boonmee is loosely based on a 1983 book by Phra Sripariyattiweti, a monk from Apichatpong’s hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand.
  • The film is a feature-length component of Primitive, Apichatpong’s ongoing multimedia project, which also encompasses a number of video installations and the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua.
  • Received the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Jury president Tim Burton described it as “a beautiful, strange dream.”
  • Sakda, who plays Boonmee’s nephew Tong, and Kanokporn, who plays his nurse Roong, played characters of the same names in Apichatpong’s earlier films Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, respectively. In both cases, it’s unclear if they’re meant to be the same characters.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s chock-full of beguiling, whimsical imagery, the single most memorable sight in Uncle Boonmee is that of a princess in a lagoon, undulating with pleasure as she receives oral sex from a catfish. (Unsurprisingly, the words “catfish sex” became synonymous with Uncle Boonmee‘s brand of weirdness immediately following its Cannes premiere.)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Critics sometimes identify Apichatpong’s style as a mix of


Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

surrealism and neorealism, and this is a handy skeleton key for getting at Uncle Boonmee‘s weird nature. The film contains plenty of enigmatic images and seeming non sequiturs, but they’re framed as natural, even welcome steps in the cycle of life and death. The characters accept them nonchalantly, going along with the film’s dream logic and implicitly entreating viewers to do the same. No clear border separates the mystical from the mundane. And two hours in, when it feels like you should be totally inured to Uncle Boonmee‘s disorienting twists, along comes a denouement that renders everything else normal by comparison.

COMMENTS: An ox, having escaped its tether, strolls through the forest at twilight.  Eventually, Continue reading 100. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES [LOONG BOONMEE RALEUK CHAT] (2011)