Tag Archives: Historical

CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian Continue reading 356. NOVEMBER (2017)

CAPSULE: BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)

Le pacte des loups

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, , Émilie Dequenne,

PLOT: It’s 1764 and a vicious monster is terrorizing the French province of Gevaudan; the king sends his foremost naturalist, along with his Iroquois companion, to track down and slay the beast.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Convoluted plot and Matrix-style combat in a period drama do not a Weird Movie make, but darn it if it doesn’t come close.

COMMENTS: When contemplating this wondrously over-the-top film, I was struck (once more) with too many ways to open a review. Perhaps, “Wikipedia informs me that Brotherhood of the Wolf is a ‘French historical action horror film'”; or alternately, “Reader, be warned that along-side the ‘Recommended’ tag slapped at the top should be an as-prominent ‘Ridiculous’ tag.” I’ll settle, instead, on the following: “Baroque ’90s action hits its peak in Christophe Gans’ period drama, Brotherhood of the Wolf.” This movie crams in so many rehashed film techniques that it becomes a gloriously Bruckheimer-Woo-Ritchie-Besson-esque romp through mid-eighteenth century France.

The French Revolution is in full swing, but within minutes we careen back to half a century prior. Two horsemen in the rain approach a gaggle of thugs (dressed in drag) who are harassing an old man and his daughter. Down jumps Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior, and after a bit of slow-motion, quick-cut bandit-thrashing, he remounts and continues his journey with the other rider and soon the two arrive at the castle of Gévaudan’s local aristocrat. Who are these mysterious strangers? Along with Mani is the much-laureled Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a natural philosopher and some-time adventurer, who is determined to solve the mystery of the “Beast of Gévaudan.” What follows involves French-court courtship, martial-arts, French-court politics, a mess of cultists, and even some aristocratic incest. And of course there’s that big wolf monster cutting down the peasantry with impunity.

The stylistic approach Christophe Gans employs is apt for a narrative as convoluted as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Granted, he allows himself one-hundred and forty minutes to spin his yarn, but a miniseries’ worth of characters, events, and twists is jammed therein. The cinematic bombardment is pinned onto the plot bombardment: slo-mo combat set pieces, where one man (typically Iroquois) dispatches the baddies with an unchanging expression; staggered “pan and pause” shots setting things up for some not-so-subtle action foreshadowing; and even a few reverse chromatic effects for no reason other than, “Hey, you know what would look cool?”-ism. Having immersed myself during the ’90s in some of the best action movies the decade had to offer, I saw all their elements distilled in the service of an obscure eighteenth-century wolf legend1)Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.. I was overwhelmed with what could be best described as “smirking nostalgia.”

Alas, while Brotherhood of the Wolf stands as tour-de-force that attains considerable novelty through its impressive derivativeness, it is something of a “weekend warrior” in the realm of weird movies. Gans keeps the movie’s tone turned up throughout the run time, but despite being the director of the second (ever) Certified title, he seems more commercially inclined with this “French historical action horror” romp. But I have no complaints about that what-so-ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory… I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

“If you saw what I see for the future in Yugoslavia, it would scare you.”–Marshall Tito, 1971

“I think that this current conflict is the result of tectonic moves that last for a whole century. If there is anything good in this hell and horror, it is that the tectonic disturbance will result in absolute absurdity. And then a new quality will emerge from it.”–Emir Kusturica, circa 1995

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Predrag Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Ernst Stötzner, Slavko Stimac, Srdjan Todorovic

PLOT:Two Yugoslavian gangsters join the Communist Party to resist the invading Nazis. One tricks the other into hiding out in a large cellar, where he and a small tribe of partisans manufacture munitions he believes are going to the resistance but which are actually being sold on the black market for years after the war has ended. Decades later, the ruse falls apart, and the former friends meet on the battlefields of Kosovo.

BACKGROUND:

  • Kusturica adapted Underground from a play by Dušan Kovačević, although he only took the premise of people tricked into residing in a cellar under the pretense of a fake war from that source.
  • The movie was filmed in 1992 and 1993, while the Bosnian War was raging—and ethnic cleansing was going on.
  • Emir Kusturica’s original cut ran for 320 minutes, about the same length as the six part serialized television version released later.
  • Underground won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was not nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Despite its international success, Underground was controversial nearer to home. Kusturica was accused of taking money from the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, which would have been a violation of sanctions against the Serbian government. (The director countered that he had only accepted non-financial assistance, and won a lawsuit for libel against a playwright who accused him of taking money from the Serbs.) The film was also criticized for being too conciliatory by not blaming Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s regime directly for the Bosnian conflict. (Kusturica himself is ethnically Bosnian).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A burning wheelchair circling an inverted crucifix under its own power.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying bride; chimp in a tank; underwater brass band

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the third act, Underground plays as an absurd, Balkanized satire—a far wilder ride than the average moviegoer is accustomed to, but not a film that went all the way to “weird.” That final half-hour, however, pulls out all of reality’s stops, sending the film off into a nightmarishly surreal conclusion, then soldiering on to a more conciliatory mystical ending. It’s the perfect, weird way to cap off a world cinema masterpiece.


Original trailer for Underground

COMMENTS: Emir Kusturica considers himself Yugoslavian. “In my Continue reading 341. UNDERGROUND (1995)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

NOVEMBER (2017)

November has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Comments are closed on this review. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)