Tag Archives: Must see

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

FEATURING: André Heller, Peter Kern, Heinz Schubert, Hellmut Lange, narrated by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

PLOT: Hitler’s youth, rise, fall, and aftermath are all explored via inter-related vignettes, monologues, stage props, and puppets.

Still from Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Syberberg’s epic is a documentary with an impossible task: capturing the full scope and legacy of the 20th-century’s most dangerous maniac. Eschewing the standard “narrated historical footage interspersed with talking heads,” the film instead aims to recreate the febrile mindset inspired by Adolf Hitler by dabbling in surrealism, cosmic imagery, mundane detail, historical cinematic allusions, and ironic counterpoint. There are also puppet facsimiles of all the Reich’s leading men.

COMMENTS: This film from Germany is, on the surface, very simple. It has no elaborate special effects. Its main set is a theater strewn with props. It uses widely available historic footage and broadcasts. It states from the start that its mission is impossible. The events leading up to Hitler’s rise, and the fallout from his catastrophic machinations, cannot be recreated in any conventional way. So Syberberg takes advantage of both his limited budget (some half-a-million dollars) and his task’s inherent difficulties to craft a reverie that fuses cosmic grandeur with the tedium of minutiae. In doing so, he has created not so much a documentary of events as a dreamscape that lands the viewer face to face with the 20th century’s greatest evil.

A ring master invites the viewer to the forthcoming spectacle, encouraging us to take part at home. Barking through a megaphone, he promises outlandish sights and sounds. Entertainment, through sketch, monologue, and marionettes, awaits. Vintage radio broadcasts blast breathtaking news of conquest and hate, while a young girl clad in a celluloid headdress wanders amidst symbolic props and across idyllic rear-projected landscapes. Academics chime in, typically directly at the camera, other times in conversation with a carved wooden Führer. Various actors play various iterations of Himmler. Hitler’s valet leads us on of his bunker and explains the Führer’s exasperating disinclination to wear the correct shoes. A likeness of Doctor Caligari presents his own side-show of esoteric relics, from the historical spear that stabbed Jesus Christ to the bottle of Hitler’s semen—not the real thing, mind you, as that has been preserved in a capsule frozen in an alpine glacier and protected by elite guards. For over seven hours, Syberberg builds a mindscape from snippets of Wagner, snatches of Goethe, and reams of autobiographical testimony from those closest to the Führer.

There is a climactic scene of sorts, involving a conversation between a scholar and the little Hitler perched upon his knee. The academic argues that, despite all Hitler’s ambitions, and with all the idiotic mistakes he made (for example, rallying against the Jews instead of co-opting them), he failed. During Hitler’s lengthy rejoinder, in which he expounds upon the reality he established even upon his death, the academic removes coat after coat from the doll, taking its garb backward further and further along Hitler’s historical sartorial path. This contrast of contemporary and future with historical delving is Syberberg’s primary tool. Despite virtually all the facts available to us—the thousands of hours of film, the unending radio transmissions, the millions of words written by observers from all sides—there is a disconnect, as if the catalyst is missing. There was a time before Hitler, there was a time after Hitler.

By the end, I was well and truly transported. Watching Hitler: a Film from Germany is, despite the bare-bones production, a transcendental experience. Each of the four acts is the length of any one standard feature film, but Syberberg had his hooks in me—so much so that I watched it all in one sitting. The art-house speeches, effective in their matter-of-fact tones and melancholy delivery; the fusion of man and doll when the Reich’s ministers expound on their greatness; the conventional drama of the scenes that still subvert with their dissonant aural cues or ironic back-projection; this all adds up to a heady experience that should be mandatory viewing for any student of history, contemporary politics, psychology, or cinema. Hitler: a Film from Germany deftly and thoroughly examines how one man’s dream of destroying the world order succeeded despite his own downfall.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism.” -Susan Sontag, The New York Review (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HAPPINESS (1998)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dylan Baker, , Cynthia Stevenson, , , , Louise Lasser

PLOT: An examination of the lives of three sisters, their extended families, and their neighbors reveals an elaborate network of secrets, sickness, perversion, and chronic unhappiness.

Still from Happiness (1998)

COMMENTS: Happiness presents a challenge to reviewers, but as difficult as is to write about, it’s not half as hard as it is to watch. Filled with reference to rape and pedophilia, along with near-constant mental cruelty and depression, the movie is one long trigger warning. Happiness doesn’t hold back; it always “goes there.” Side characters who initially seem like they might be oases of sanity and kindness turn out to be just as rotten inside as the principals. It is, technically, a black comedy, but the few grim jokes only highlight the nightmarishness of the character’s existence. The ironies only start with the title, a main character named “Joy,” and a soundtrack of schmaltzy soft-rock including Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and a version of “You Light Up My Life” performed by a Russian cabbie on the make. This is one dark movie.

With those warnings out of the way, the “must see” rating is warranted, for those with just a little bit of courage. Happiness is masterfully manipulative, totally assured in its execution, and totally ruthless in its worldview. The script is wicked and nuanced, the actors expert in nailing the difficult tone. It is a triumph of fearless cynicism; and yet, while it clearly hates its characters, it also oddly empathizes with them. They are allowed to feel guilt, suffering for their sins, while simultaneously being powerless to change their own destructive behaviors. This makes the movie as sad as it is scathing.

Happiness‘ alchemical majesty comes from successfully mixing strong emotions that should be incompatible. It’s not just the paring of comedy with dark situations. In truth, the movie isn’t all that funny, although it has a couple of conventional comedy moments (such as the psychiatrist zoning out while his patient complains that people find him boring, or Joy becoming a “scab” at an ESL program). Happiness‘ brand of bone-dry humor is really a precursor to contemporary anti-comedy, exemplified by an exchange between sisters Helen (Boyle) and Joy (Adams) that could be the movie’s comic manifesto. After Joy makes an innocent comment that Helen thinks is stupid, the elder sister bursts out in mock laughter, then consoles the younger: “Don’t worry,” she hisses, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you.” Her sister’s confused response: “But I’m not laughing.”

Even more than its juxtaposition of humor and horror, the film succeeds by mixing its meanness with sorrow: Dylan Baker’s climactic tear-stained confession is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartrending. (The performances are uniformly excellent, but it seems odd that standout Baker never landed another major role: playing a child molester must be career suicide in Hollywood.) Happiness is, as noted, a very sad movie.

Is it a weird movie? I’d say no, although it is a unique one. Its unflinchingly downbeat, relentlessly derisive tone puts it well outside of mainstream entertainment. To the extent that we might claim it for the weird, it’s only due to its often exaggerated nature. Scenes play as the tiniest bit unreal: Bill’s conversations with his pre-adolescent son are perverted parodies of “Leave it to Beaver” chats. Catty conversations between the sisters are franker and more biting than they would be in reality. Horrible things are said in deadpan, and received with ambiguous expressions suggesting a mixture of alarm and bamboozlement. Detached artifice is pierced by real human emotion. That is not, in my mind, enough to get Happiness all the way to “weird” (though it certainly passes the “offbeat” marker); but at least I can see what the movie’s proponents are talking about.

Strangely, although it’s remembered by everyone who saw it and critically acclaimed, at the present time Happiness is nearly unobtainable. No streamer seems brave enough to take it on, the DVD has gone out of print, and it has never been issued on Blu-ray. I wouldn’t expect this sad situation to last forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine, 2016 reassessment

(This movie was nominated for review by “CheapSwillBill” who commented “A list of weird movies that doesn’t mention Happiness? That’s weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background Continue reading 11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, , , Guy Boyd

PLOT: A young woman goes on a trip to meet her new boyfriend’s parents at their farmhouse on a night when a blizzard is brewing; the night grows increasingly strange and unsettling as it becomes unclear what is real and what is imaginary.

Still from I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: By the time the pig shows up at Jake’s old high school, it becomes apparent that this maze of awkward interactions, faulty memories, and uncertain identities may just be Charlie Kaufman’s most surreal film.

COMMENTS: The first inkling that something is not quite right in I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes when the young woman (who is first introduced as “Lucy,” although it turns out that may not be her real name) thinks to herself, “I’m thinking of ending things.” “Huh?,” says Jake (that is his real name), from the driver’s seat. Can he hear her thoughts? She denies speaking. “Weird,” says Jake. “Yeah,” she answers.

Things will get weirder. She’s unsure why she wants to break up with him. Her backstory doesn’t add up. And she’s getting a lot of phone calls, which she’s not answering. When they arrive to meet Jake’s parents at their remote farmhouse, things get even stranger. As it turns out, Jake’s parents would creep out Henry Spencer‘s in-laws. Dinner is uncomfortable, full of small talk that often sounds like hidden accusations, and—once more—competing backstories that contradict each other. Jake’s parents age, almost before her eyes… Nothing explicitly supernatural or menacing happens, but the creaky farmhouse emanates a horror movie vibe, intensified by Jake’s passive-aggressive insistence that his girlfriend stay out of the basement. Meanwhile, Lucy—or whatever her name is—anxiously suggests that Jake take her home before the coming blizzard snows them in and traps her there.

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest mind-massager is another intensely subjective and literate tour of the lonely corridors of the mind, where nothing is as it seems. It’s one of his strangest offerings— particularly when it reaches an irrational finale that departs from the source novel—but perhaps what distinguishes it the most is the exceptional ensemble acting, best seen in the four-way sparring at the dinner table. Their expressions are priceless: Collette smiling to herself at private jokes only she can hear, Thewlis aggressively incredulous at the idea that a landscape could appear sad, Plemmons understandably embarrassed by his parent’s odd behavior, and trying to coax his girlfriend into revealing the correct details about how they met. We expect accomplished performances from those three celebrated actors, but relative newcomer Jessie Buckley is a revelation. She mutates throughout the film, portraying everything from a nervous recalcitrant girlfriend to an angry feminist to an apparent victim of very early-onset Alzheimer’s. She even slips into a Pauline Kael impression. Remarkable.

As with all the best trips, it’s the journey that’s most memorable, not the destination. There is a reveal at the end, but the twist, while satisfying, is hardly the point. Each scene is structured as an individually confounding moment: on the long ride there and back, Jake and his girlfriend discuss everything from the human experience of time, bad movies as viruses, with citations to Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, and musical theater (familiarity with “Oklahoma!” will enrich your experience). Jake says he like road trips because “it’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head”—but does the movie believe this thesis? As they travel, the couple learn less about each other, and more about the slipperiness of human memory, fantasy, and identity.  It’s Kaufman’s favorite theme: the loneliness of our inherent interiority. The paradox is that our inescapable subjectivity is the one thing we all share and bond over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience… There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.”–David Sims, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; the vulture the very creature he creates.”–Moby Dick

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Wilson attempts to escape his troubled past by seeking employ with the Maine Lighthouse Company. His four weeks of labor, under the supervision of the often tyrannical and always erratic Thomas Wake, stretch out indefinitely when the relief crew fails to retrieve them. Trapped on the lonely island, they both find each other to be increasingly vexing company.

Still from The Lighthouse (2019)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally a ghost story (and, to a lesser extent, an adaptation of an unfinished Edgar Allan Poe tale), Robert Eggers and his brother Max, who co-wrote the screenplay, changed tack when Robert read a history of a pair of “wickie” Thomases trapped in a lighthouse off the coast of Wales in 1801.
  • The distinct visual texture was achieved through a combination of custom filters and the use of early 20-century lenses. Lighting was also a challenge, with so many lumens required for the exposure that the actors were practically blinded during shoots of some of the close-up scenes.
  • The Lighthouse‘s soundscape evolved from field recordings of actual weather and tidal events, later mixed in analog in the studio for a heightened, gritty effect.
  • To sexualize what otherwise would have been a prudish Victorian-style mermaid, Eggers and company drew design ideas by studying shark genitalia.
  • During production, there was no shortage of seagulls flitting and honking in the background—something appreciated by the filmmakers considerably more during the editing process than during the shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are dozens of water-logged shots and scenes of mental deterioration, but the climax of The Lighthouse‘s frenzied, feverish collapse of sanity occurs in the penultimate scene, when the assistant wickie finally slays his demons and achieves his dream of witnessing, first-hand, the mysteries of the light atop the spiral tower.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Vindictive one-eyed seagull; visions of Neptune

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eggers made his name with The Witch, exploring madness in an isolated community. With The Lighthouse he elevates the isolation and cranks up the corporeal unpleasantness in a story drained of color, drenched in water, and cramped by pared-down screen edges. The narrative perspective is unreliable, the psychology is toxic, and the obfuscation of water, liquor, sweat, urine, and more saturates both story and image. An ending that demands both a classical education and a willingness to shut up and run with it tops it all off.


Official trailer for The Lighthouse

COMMENTS: The Lighthouse is a considerable achievement in many Continue reading 7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

CAPSULE: BRICK (2005)

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DIRECTED BY: Rian Johnson

FEATURING: , Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Meagan Good, Richard Roundtree

PLOT: A disaffected teenager investigates the mysterious disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, confronting untrustworthy allies and vicious enemies to uncover the truth.

Still from Brick (2005)

COMMENTS: For reasons that can only be attributed to a breathtaking lack of imagination, a surprisingly large number of contemporary reviewers of Brick made a direct comparison not to the large number of noir classics from which Rian Johnson’s debut feature clearly takes its inspiration, but instead go all the way back to 1976 for the cult oddity Bugsy Malone, a gangster pastiche in which all the parts are played by minors (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) wielding Tommy guns that shoot whipped cream. The thinking, one imagines, is that just as one film mocked the conventions of the gangster picture by populating it with children, so does the other diminish the power of noir by setting it in a high school.

The comparison is stunningly short-sighted and backwards. Johnson’s high school noir draws its power not from the dissonance of substance and style but from their harmony. It’s often said that everything in high school feels like a life-and-death situation, when in reality things couldn’t be less serious. But the stakes in Brick are no joke at all. Blood is spilled, bodies drop, and nearly everyone is laden with secrets and lies. Those feelings you had as a teenager? Brick makes them all very real.

Famously edited on a Macintosh back when that was a symbol of scrappiness and indie cred, Brick is a debut of astonishing power and confidence. Johnson is not necessarily a visual stylist. (By way of illustration, this parody pinches his entire shot list while placing a discussion of the fallout over the filmmaker’s foray into  the Star Wars universe into all of Brick‘s locations.) But his vision is so self-assured, it’s absolutely easy to see the rich career that lay ahead of him.

Someone who must have spied Johnson’s talent even earlier is lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had to have recognized that he had been gifted with the role of his dreams (and he has been appropriately grateful, taking a starring role in Looper and offering voice cameos to The Last Jedi and Knives Out). He manages to walk the line between embodying a hard-bitten detective while looking like a bookish 17-year-old. His perfectly weathered burgundy shoes and increasingly bruised face make him a worthy successor to Sam Spade, which makes him a natural focal point for the film’s rich and quirky cast of characters. In particular, he gives tremendous power to Zehetner, a Continue reading CAPSULE: BRICK (2005)