Tag Archives: Grief

CAPSULE: OZMA (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Keith John Adams

FEATURING: Ferdy Roberts, Victoria Moseley, Jun Noh, Gemma Saunders, Alice Margaroli, voice of Éva Magyar

PLOT: An insomniac widower spends the night toting around an on-the-run telepathic jellyfish creature.

Still from Ozma (2023)

COMMENTS: Jeff attributes his only slightly startled reaction to finding telepathic jellyfish Ozma abandoned in his garden to having been “well rehearsed” to accept strangeness through a lifetime of dreaming. If this film had been merely about that telepathic blob with the blinking lights and nothing else, he would have needed less rehearsal. But Ozma is entirely built on dream logic. There’s the pair of squabbling pursuers disguised as cops who use vegetables as truncheons. A woman who illustrates the story of the journey of Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to London through very crude cutout animation. Rifles whose bullets have effects far from what we expect. And that’s not to mention the tiny touches, like Jeff’s unusually large bed.

And there’s one more weird thing. When Jeff begins his opening narration, he’s lying in bed, complaining of insomnia. A walking bass line accompanies his fretting, soon joined by the complaints of a muted trombone. It’s an effective accompaniment, but more noteworthy is the fact that we can see the bassist and trombonist, apparently vamping right there in Jeff’s bedroom as he tosses and turns. Throughout the movie, musicians show up in the frame with the characters, never acknowledged. The use of musicians onscreen—playing nondiegetic accompaniment, yet visible, like materialized ghosts—is unique. It’s a simple idea, but I can’t recall any movie that uses this technique in exactly this way, and none that’s so dedicated to the concept. And it’s a great idea, because the sounds here are outstanding—ranging from multiple jazz combos to a tabla, a dulcimer, and even more exotic instruments like the Ethiopian krar (harp) and the Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute).

It’s all pleasantly eccentric, which is much of the appeal. Ozma does, however, also explore a serious topic: the widower’s pathological, insomnia-inducing grief, which has mellowed from traumatic sadness into a permanent personality feature. Jeff’s entire story, frequently told in voiceover, is addressed to his absent wife. His journey to take the telepathic jellyfish to its appointed rendezvous reflects his adoption of a healthier relationship to his memories. Ozma is modest in means—in its household props and London public street locations, in Ferdy Roberts’s calm portrayal of Jeff, in its reliance on monochrome —but ambitious in its ideas. Ozma is musical, original and inventive: it’s not just the same old tired story about an insomniac toting a telepathic jellyfish around London.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a surreal mission… all at once city symphony, Egyptological noir, oneiric odyssey and heady tale of psychic healing,”–Anton Bitel, SciFiNow (festival screening)

42.* VINYAN (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Fabrice du Welz

FEATURING: Emmanuelle Béart, , Petch Osathanugrah, Julie Dreyfus

PLOT: Months after their son was lost in the tsunami that devastated Phuket, Jeanne and Paul see a video that suggests the boy might be alive deep in the Burmese jungle. They undertake a perilous voyage into Myanmar to find him, but encounter increasing danger and incomprehensible conditions. As their guides continue to make demands and lead them deeper into unfamiliar territory, Paul becomes more and more skeptical, but Jeanne remains resolved to find her child.

Still from Vinyan (2008)

BACKGROUND

  • The title is a term defined within the film as a spirit that has died a horrible death, becoming confused and angry and haunting the living world. The word may have been invented for this movie.
  • Du Welz’s second feature film, following Calvaire.
  • Filmed on location in Thailand, where in 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami killed nearly 5,400 people, including 2,000 foreign tourists.
  • Petch Osathanugrah passed away in August 2023 after living a remarkably varied life. Vinyan is his only credited acting role, but he was also a pop singer, art collector, president of Bangkok University, and CEO of the Osotspa beverage company, which manufactures the M-150 energy drink.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shot of the movie features despairing mother Jeanne giving herself over to the angry spirits of the region’s lost children, smiling deliriously while the white-painted boys caress and smear mud on her naked body. Immediately following a shocking burst of violence, the scene is a potent vision of both her psychological state and the primal landscape that has subsumed her.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hungry old white people are funny; an ancient temple appears

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An unexpected blend of Don’t Look Now and Apocalypse Now, Vinyan builds horror out of unrelenting grief in a violently hostile world. The deeper we go into both the wilds of the Burmese coast and into the heroine’s desperation, the more disturbing the setting becomes, and the more inevitably tragic the characters’ fate.

Original trailer for Vinyan

COMMENTS: Vinyan begins as a horror story that has already concluded: a child has been lost in a terrible cataclysm. This would be Continue reading 42.* VINYAN (2008)

CAPSULE: ALCHEMY OF THE SPIRIT (2022)

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Alchemy of the Spirit is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Steve Balderson

FEATURING: Xander Berkeley, Sarah Clarke, Mink Stole

PLOT: Despite his wife having just passed away, Oliver agrees to create an art installation piece.

COMMENTS: There is a moment of raw delight near the end of Alchemy of the Spirit, when Oliver is explaining his artistic ambitions and process to his latest buyer, Mrs. Sonnenberg. Alex, his agent, stands behind the wealthy patron, fearing the worst. Oliver has been rambling for some time as he attempts to delay showing the new piece—and Alex seems to have been unable to breathe. Finally shown the work, Sonnenberg quietly remarks, “Oliver, it’s perfect.” And Alex’s gasp of relief punctures the scene.

As a general rule, it is poor form to reveal the ending. But the ending in Alchemy of the Spirit is incidental. And, as is so often the way in real life, the events leading up to Alex’s stertorous outburst, are what make Steve Balderson’s film the quiet, but satisfying, narrative artwork that it is. In fact, the film’s beginning is as much a punch as anything else in the film.

Oliver (Xander Berkely) wakes one morning to find that his wife, Heather (Sarah Clarke), has passed away. He cannot believe it; he cries at the tragedy; he refuses to accept it. And then he does something unlikely before laying his deceased wife in an ice-filled tub: he crafts a death mask for her. Over the coming days while she unhurriedly decomposes, Oliver works on a new project his agent agreed to for him. While working, he has long conversations with his wife.

The gauzy lens work, the orchestral score—brought right up in the sound mix—and the occasionally aphoristic lines all manage to gel beautifully, as if their clunky nature becomes softened, and functional. This is a sweet movie; a bittersweet chronicling of one man’s grieving process through art. It is always compelling, and spiked with enough odd mundanity (the plumbers’ visit becomes hilarious in its thriller-like execution, and Mink Stole’s performance as Oliver’s agent is a delight) to make what could have been a saccharine, melodramatic bit of blech into something endearing. Alchemy of the Spirit, like life, comes and goes in a flash; and like life, it’s worth taking a closer look at.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…there’s nothing traditional about Balderson’s Alchemy of the Spirit. From Xander Berkeley’s beautiful performance to the magical realism that floods every frame and the script itself. It’s a very weird and atypical depiction of grief. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t understandable.”–Federico Furzan, Movie-Blogger.com (contemporaneous)

SLAMDANCE 2023: NEW RELIGION (2022)

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New Religion can currently be rented on VOD (free on Screambox).

DIRECTED BY: Keishi Kondo

FEATURING: Kaho Seto, Satoshi Oka, Saionji Ryuseigun

PLOT: Still grieving from the accidental death of her daughter years ago, escort Miyabi’s dreary routine is shaken up when she meets a strange client who only wants to take pictures of her individual body parts.

Still from New Religion (2022)

COMMENTS: New Religion arrives at Slamdance with an assured style and polished look that belies its low budget. Using little more than colored filters, an evocative soundtrack, and some remarkable microphotography, Keishi Kondo delivers a crowdfunded wonder, shot mostly on weekends with a first-time cast, that most of the time looks like it could have come from a major Japanese studio.

New Religion relies heavily on atmosphere: its full of slow, portentous glances scored to ominous drones, hinting at horrors unseen. The sound design is a key element, so see the film with a good stereo system, if possible. The opening credits set a tone of mystery: scritching strings accompany a pan over a blood-red cityscape, which merges into a tinted tour of moth anatomy. This is followed by shots of abstract organ-like structures and a possible fetus that forms and melts before our eyes, as the music swells and resolves into a desperate drone. This moody experimental-film opening deserves comparison to the disquieting prologue of Under the Skin. We emerge from that brief storm into a quiet drama, with main character Miyabi recalling the loss of her daughter and remembering a photograph taken with the child on a beach. A scene of her and the girl staring out to sea, then slowly turning to face the camera, will recur a couple of times; its significance is eventually revealed—perhaps, although as her strange client Oka says, “memories can’t be trusted.” Miyabi moves through her life in a sad daze, obsessively watering the plants on her balcony or sitting in near silence in a grungy basement with two other prostitutes, waiting to be called up for a date. For most of the movie no one expresses much visible emotion, even when angry or frightened, which makes Seto’s desperation as her mind breaks down in the film’s second half stand out: her grief is set free, along with an irrational hope.

The film works as a melancholy drama, but contains eerie notes which are not fully expressed, haunting the story like fleeting memories. Oka, a purported survivor of throat cancer, speaks only through an otherworldly electrolarynx. He is obsessed with moths, and might be indirectly linked to a series of homicidal rampages and terrorist bombings. Who Oka actually is isn’t made completely clear, but he is a catalyst for an inhuman transformation, and he feeds on women like Miyabi whose deep emotional traumas make them receptive to whatever voodoo he performs through his photographic project. Oka’s motives are as murky as Miyabi’s grief is vivid. In the end, what he offers seems to be voluntarily entanglement in a web of dreams: dreams where the dreamer dreams of another dreamer, while simultaneously being dreamed themselves.

Kondo’s curious concoction will mesmerize and enthrall many art-horror fans. Others will find the deliberate pacing more of a chore—while still being intermittently mesmerized and enthralled. But there’s no doubt that this is a promising debut, and we salivate thinking what Kondo could do with a bigger budget—if he is able to maintain his independent sensibilities. It would not shock us to look back years from now and realize that New Religion founded a cult of Kondo.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the strangest, most refreshing edge-of-genre films in recent years.”–Kim Newman, The Kim Newman Website (festival screening)

29*. TITANE (2021)

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WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Recommended

“I wanted to create a new world that was the equivalent of the birth of the Titans after Uranus and Gaia mated. The sky and the Earth. That’s where it comes from. The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around. Monstrosity, for me, is always positive.”–Julia Ducournau

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Agathe Rouselle, Vincent Lindon

PLOT: After having a metal plate inserted into her skull following a car accident, young Alexia develops an empathic relationship with cars. She grows up to inhabit two careers—modeling at car shows and murder—and ends up impregnated after a one-night stand with a muscle car, and on the run from authorities who suspect her in a series of killings. Alexia assumes the identity of Adrien, the long-missing son of fire chief Vincent, and forms a relationship with him.

Still from titane (2021)

BACKGROUND:

  • In winning the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau became only the second female director to claim the festival’s top prize, and the first to win the award outright (Jane Campion won for the Piano in 1993, but shared the award with Chen Kaige/Farewell My Concubine.)
  • Titane received four Cesar nominations, including for Ducournau as director and Rouselle as Most Promising Actress. Ducournau also earned a Best Director nomination at the BAFTA Awards. (Rouselle also won “Best Actress in a Weird Movie” in the 2021 Weirdcademy Awards, where readers also selected Titane Weirdest Movie.)
  • The title is French for titanium, the material of which the plate in Alexia’s skull is composed and which seems to be part of the body of her newborn. The epigram above, from an interview with Ducournau about the goals of her film, hints at another meaning.
  • Three of Titane’s characters share names with the leads in Ducournau’s previous film, Raw.
  • The fiery vehicle with which Alexia has carnal relations is a 1984 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pregnancy can wreak havoc on a woman’s body, but the changes Alexia undergoes are especially acute. The rips in her skin revealing a metallic womb are quite unnerving, but nothing quite exemplifies Titane’s particular brand of maternal body horror as when she finds herself expressing motor oil through her breasts. Writhing in pain and oozing engine lubricant, her transformation is both disturbing and completely logical.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Seduced by a Cadillac, bluegrass twerking

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For its first half-hour, Titane is a perfectly unsettling account of a serial killer who has sex with cars. This would be game-set-match for many films hoping to earn a spot on our List, but the movie soon transforms into a meditation on gender identity, faith, and the ineffable pull of family. The sheer intensity of the characters’ pain and emotional burden is overwhelming, and Ducournau’s choice to filter these themes through outrageous story beats lends the film an operatic quality that heightens the entire tale.


Official English Language trailer for Titane

COMMENTS: For Vincent, the mere idea of a DNA test is absurd. Continue reading 29*. TITANE (2021)