Tag Archives: Magical Realism

CAPSULE: SICILIAN GHOST STORY (2017)

O Fantasma da Sicília

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

FEATURING: Julia Jedlikowska, Gaetano Fernandez

PLOT: A dreamy 12-year old Sicilian girl loses her grip when her young beau disappears without explanation.

Still from Sicilian Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sicilian Ghost Story has drawn comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth for its young protagonist using imagination to cope with harsh reality. It can’t live up to that (perhaps unfair) comparison, however.

COMMENTS: The sense of being in an ancient land where myth and magic, though gone fallow, might spring into life again at any time is an animating spirit of Sicilian Ghost Story. An adolescent character even fantasizes about modernity fading away so he could see the frolicking nymphs and hear the notes from Pan’s flute from the Sicily of yore. Ruins of Roman temples on an outcropping over the beach where the teens play in the surf remind us that all traces of ancient world have not yet passed away.

But ancient gods are not the only spirits around. The mafia also haunts this Sicilian town. No one speaks of them directly, but Luna’s parents forbid the girl from seeing Giuseppe, who seems like a fine boy, because of dark hints about his father. When the boy stops coming to school, no one besides Luna brings it up. She hands out fliers with the Giuseppe’s face on them; tight-lipped, no one offers a lead.

So far, the movie has been a straight drama, a chaste tween love story with a hint of mystery, but then Luna’s visions kick in. As if touched by a prophecy sent from one of those ancient gods, Luna sees the vanished Giuseppe; later, she has a visions of a house, partially underwater. Some of her dreams may be actual clues to the boy’s whereabouts. Queasy pans, blurry screens, and confusion between what is happening inside and outside of Luna’s mind add a fog of disorientation.

The two young leads do an admirable job. The movie’s overall tone is low-key, elegiac, and more than a little depressing. It ultimately shoots for a sense of hope, although the best it can come up with is a life-goes-on shrug coupled with an imperative to not forget. Appropriately so, because, magical realist love story aside, Sicilian Ghost Story is based on a real-life kidnapping that scandalized Sicily in the 1990s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the strangest and most creative films released so far this year… a dreamlike, sometimes downright disorientating experience sustained by a tender heart beating beneath harsh realism.”–Ross Miller, The National (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

FEATURING: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Rikki Gagne, C.J. Wallis, Loyd Bateman

PLOT: Two young druggies and two young churchies find a dead hooker in their trunk and set out to dispose of the body while pursued by a serial killer and other slimeballs.

Still from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not one of the all-time strangest movies out there, though it’s OK as a first timers’ take on a low budget exploitation movie with a feminist slant—one that is weirder than it had to be.

COMMENTS: Absolutely faithful to the exploitative promise of the title, but still not exactly what you’d expect, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a nihilistic feminist punk black comedy with an absurd script and experimental tendencies. It plays out in a comic book reality that’s halfway between a modern Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and a film. It may also take place, as the character known only as “Junkie” suggests, in Purgatory (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Vancouver).

En route to scoring some “shit” for her bestie the Junkie, the Badass agrees to pick up Goody Two Shoes from his church youth group at the request of her sister, The Geek. Leaving the church, they immediately smell the dead hooker in their trunk, and after minimal debate about calling the cops, they decide instead to dispose of the evidence. So the quartet goes on the lam, checks into a sleazy motel, and has to deal with cops, drug gangs, a serial killer, and a cowboy pimp. Along the way they encourage necrophilia and meet God (in a cameo); characters lose eyeballs and arms, but emerge little the worse for wear. They also engage in a gruesome and fatal tooth-pulling torture session, lest you think this is all just innocent fun and games.

The Soska sisters indulge in some experimental aesthetics: for example, flashback scenes have dark lighting and rounded shadowy edges around the frame (sometimes with the sound of a projector running in the background). Most of the film is vérité style shot-on-video, particularly obvious during action scenes where the camera swerves around to catch the action, as if a documentary crew is filming the carnage live. Some people seem to enjoy the indie/punk soundtrack, which features several original songs, although I found it merely functional. I must say, however, that the filmmakers did a great job with makeup, and not just with the corny gore effects. Besides one symbolic moment where a teardrop tattoo appears and disappears, you never get confused as to which of the identical twin sisters is the Geek and which is the Badass; in fact, you might not even guess that the actresses were related.

Dead Hooker‘s rowdy screenplay emits a theme of female empowerment, in that the women (particularly the Badass) triumph over men who are driven to violence by sexual inadequacy. The main problem I had with the film, however, is that I never liked the characters the way the script wanted me to. The two “good” characters put up only token resistance to the criminality of the two “bad” characters. Although the foursome bonds with each other through their trials, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them. The group makes an appeal for sympathy with the adoption of an abandoned dog, but then they blow all that goodwill with the tone-deaf torture/revenge scene. Getting audiences to root for reprobates is always a hard sell; it’s only the pitiless antiheroes who never show any sign of remorse or goodness (like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat) that come off best. By not caring whether we like them, they make us love them, whereas Dead Hooker‘s antiheroines can come across as too desperate for our approval.

The Soska sisters moved on to bigger budgets after making this debut film for a reported $2,500 (!) Dead Hooker was re-released on a limited edition Blu-ray in 2019, although given its low-fi origins, it’s hard to imagine the picture benefits much from a high definition presentation. The disc does contain a commentary track from the sisters, not available on previous releases. Next up for the twins: a remake of fellow Canadian ‘s Rabid, due out in late 2019 or early 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As cheap, meretricious and disposable as its titular character, this countercultural road movie may be a puerile mishmash of low-rent clichés and in-your-face transgression (with just a smattering of Weekend at Bernie’s), but it is just about knowing enough to get away with it – as long as you approach it with the right (which is to say lowered) kind of expectation.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

CAPSULE: THE BURIAL OF KOJO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sam Blitz Bazawule

FEATURING: Cynthia Dankwa, Joseph Otisiman, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Mamley Djangmah, Ama Abebrese

PLOT: With the help of a sacred bird, Esi  races to free her father Kojo after a suspicious fall into a mineshaft.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Burial of Kojo seamlessly combines elements of cinematic neo-realism and narrative magical realism: it’s a fantastical story that isn’t weird so much as beautifully told.

COMMENTS: The Burial of Kujo is an allegorical tale told as a meta-meta-narrative: a story delivered as a story about a storyteller. Sam “Blitz” Bazawule weaves together disparate stylistic threads to craft an inspiring vision about loss, of both family and of history, and wonder. Its simple cinematic magic pins the action in a realm that is both of this world, and of the next; as explained by the story-teller, “where the earth meets the sky and everyone stands upside-down.” It is like a reflection in a lake: what you see is not so much real as an undulating facsimile of gritty reality in the distorting purity of clear water.

Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) is a dreamer, and a man on the run from his own guilt. Having moved from the city to a mystical lake-town on stilts, he meets his new love Ama (Mamley Djangmah), but cannot find consistent happiness with her. His daughter, Esi (Cynthia Dankwa), is an enchanting girl born in the lake-enclosed town. But something haunts Kojo, and that something starts haunting Esi’s dreams. In Esi’s visions, a sinister crow pursues a blessed bird that is left with her for safekeeping by a blind visitor. When Kojo is pulled back into the city by a visitation from his brother, his destiny begins to unfold as the tragedy he fled comes back to the fore.

Using magical realism as the film’s lens is a perfect way to frame this uplifting tragedy, a tale told through the eyes of a young girl. Lyrical camera work, with simple tricks like picture inversion over moving water or “realist dream” sequences, adds a desirable degree of separation between what is seen and what is real. Esi’s encounter with the blind visitor, who inexplicably finds his way by boat to the island town, anchors the film’s pervading mysticism, and in so doing gives the girl the power she needs to navigate her way through what is in essence a sorrowful story about the death of a broken man who is touched by nature’s spirits and his people’s mythology.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Kojo is fated to die from the outset: that reveal is provided right in the title. The narrator is a obviously a grown woman looking back on her early childhood memories. But The Burial of Kojo continues to surprise at every turn. Using the style of traditional African legends, Buzawule imparts bitter-sweet wonders through his young protagonist. And throughout the film he pulls off the impressive stunt of including social commentary without brazen moralizing. The Burial of Kojo is one of the better movies to denied an official space on the list: its exclusion should not be interpreted as a reason to forego its wondrousness.

The Burial of Kojo is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a visionary fable drenched with vibrancy and lyricism… As grounded in reality as it is informed by outright fantasy, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ is deceptively simple, unfolding in the soothing, singsong manner of a child’s fragmentary dream, but containing within it myriad truths about an Africa where economic exploitation and co­lo­ni­al­ism have taken on new forms and accents.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BORDER (2018)

Gräns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ali Abbasi

FEATURING: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren

PLOT: Tina is a Swedish customs officer with a super-human ability to detect when travelers are hiding something; her monotonous existence is upended when she meets Vore, who is hiding something far stranger than mere contraband.

Still from Border (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Ali Abbasi’s film unflinchingly depicts “the other” in a low-key manner that forces the viewer to constantly question how well they can handle those who are very different from them. The mounting discomfort breaks mid-way through a reveal that is as surprising as it is relieving.

COMMENTS: Working for a site such as this, one often (and, indeed, hopefully) stumbles across strange and unsettling things that one cannot un-see. The carnage of Greenaway’s chamber drama; the nightmare of Lynch’s take on parenthood; or the sheer unpleasantness of von Trier’s rumination on couples going through a rough patch: all grab the viewer with an aural and visual assault through a strange, strange lens. With Border, director Ali Abbasi joins this crew of unrelenting visionaries. For its first half, his film defies categorization; for its second half, it pulls the viewer into a fairy-tale macabre whose supernatural elements are belied by their matter-of-fact depiction.

Tina (Eva Melander) is ugly, anti-social, awkward, but undeniably skilled at her job. With an almost feral sniff at passersby, she is able to determine if they are carrying something dangerous or illegal across the border into Sweden. Being able to sense shame, guilt, and a gamut of other emotions, she spots underage boozers, would-be traffickers, and even a well-heeled traveler with something dreadful on a hidden memory card. When a comparably ugly, antisocial, and awkward man (Eero Milonoff) passes her post, she knows something is “wrong” about him, but a thorough search of his luggage (and his person) reveals nothing. She’s never failed before, and feels compelled to learn more about this mysterious man. While aiding the authorities in breaking up a child pornography ring, she bonds with this stranger and ultimately learns two unsettling truths.

Without giving much more away, I felt a very strange sense of relief after the big reveal. The first hour of Border goes by without any explanation for the uncomfortable goings-on: uncomfortable for someone like me, at least. The continuous kind of “normalcy” on display became very trying, and my sense of comparative ease when Abbasi finally showed his hand made me wonder: would this movie have been better without that release valve? As it stands, it is a very good, and very strange, viewing experience. Had he gone completely without explanation, it would have been a much more difficult movie to watch, but perhaps a much more salient one. Having been pushed to the edge of an uncomfortable frisson, the pull-back allowed me to think of it more cinematically; and I was able to then better view it for its narrative and thematic merits. In the end, Border‘s greatest achievement is providing the viewer with a believable, optimistic finish to its strange tale of deformity, love, and human cruelty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (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: THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sally Hawkins, , , Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer,

PLOT: Against a Cold War backdrop, a mute cleaning woman forms a relationship with an aquatic creature she finds imprisoned in a military facility.

Still from The Shape of Water (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Water gets points for its bizarre premise—which is just enough to get it onto our radar screen—the execution is almost unfailingly conventional. It does feature 2017’s weirdest musical number outside of The Lure, however.

COMMENTS: Give Guillermo del Toro great actors,  cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and the right script, and magic is assured. After an over-extended stay in Hobbiton and some near-misses (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) the pop-fabulist is back on track with a unique vision that draws on the auteur’s twin loves of classic horror and fairy tales (the high-concept tagline is “Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Beauty and the Beast“).

It’s a nice role, done nicely, for Sally Hawkins, who conquers the challenge of playing dowdy, mute cleaning woman Elisa while showing moments of passion and even sexiness—all while acting across from a guy in a fish suit. Michael Shannon doesn’t stretch in his role as a sadistic army colonel and vivisectionist, but his innate unhingedness is well-suited to villainy. Richard Jenkins, as Hawkins’ closeted next door neighbor, has his own solid subplot, while Octavia Spencer rounds out the main cast with a bit of light comic relief. Del Toro perhaps humanizes his amphibious monster a bit too much in order to make the inter-species relationship palatable to general audiences, although he does play up the ick (or “ich”) factor every now and then with girl talk discussions of the gill-man’s genital quirks. The Cold War setting adds a tension and texture that would be missing if the story were set in the present day.

Water may not be terribly deep—it’s little more than an ode to unconventionality, and maybe a disguised metaphor for the love that dare not speak its name—but it’s delivered with elegance and panache. It isn’t weird, except perhaps by Academy Award nominee standards. Its thirteen nominations virtually assure it will nab something, with Original Score and Production Design seeming the most likely to this observer. Among the major categories, only a Best Director award seems likely for Del Toro, as a reflection the general level of excellence spread across the film—although there are a surprising number of pundits who consider this bestiality-themed fantasy the “safe, if a little boring” choice. A last-minute, low-merit plagiarism lawsuit may effect Best Picture/Original Screenplay voters, consciously or unconsciously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with someone as strange and singular as del Toro, each film is something to anticipate and savor like a four-star feast. The good news is, The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint. It’s both weird and wonderful.”–Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

 

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)