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.
Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a Georges Melies 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
FEATURING:Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 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.
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)→
PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.
COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.
The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.
Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)
Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.
PLOT: After four years in prison, wife-murderer Franz Bieberkopf is released into Weimar Germany; he tries to go straight, but with no means of employment, he soon returns to the criminal underworld, with tragic results.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ve toyed with the idea of considering self-contained TV miniseries as “movies” for classification purposes before; Berlin Alexanderplatz, a celebrated masterpiece of world cinema from an auteur with eccentric tendencies but nothing on the List, makes perhaps the best case for loosening our criteria—especially since the result would be classified as “apocrypha” rather than canon. A miniseries adapting Alfred Döblin’s modernist novel, first broadcast on German television, Alexanderplatz is a fifteen hour dive into an enigmatic character told through a fluid mix of straight drama, melodrama, poetic monologue, and surrealism. The two-hour capstone installment, a frenzied passage dubbed “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue,” could well stand alone as a weird movie classic—but it can’t be appreciated without first seeing the thirteen hours that came before.
COMMENTS: Oddly, it was the second episode that sold me on Berlin Alexanderplatz. The first introduced our protagonist, Franz, newly released from prison after a four year stay, briefly suffering from disabling agoraphobia until a friendly Jew tells him an obscure parable, visiting—and raping—an old acquaintance, and finally swearing an oath to go strait. It was strange stuff, setting up intriguing possibilities, but I was not all-in just yet.
That second episode was, in a way, comparatively ordinary. Desperate for a job, with legitimate employment in 1920s Berlin rare in even for non-felons, Franz agrees to put on a swastika armband—reluctantly—and sell newspapers for the newly-formed Nazi party. This decision causes him trouble when a fellow vendor, who happens to be Jewish, confronts him, followed by an old friend who’s now a dedicated Marxist. Franz, who is proud to be German but has nothing against the Jews (or anyone), eventually quits the job, but not before the gang of Communists accost him in a bar. He almost smooth talks his way out of the confrontation, but can’t resist responding to their taunts by singing a Nationalist song as a response to their chorus of the “Internationale.” Angered, they back him into a corner. In a frightened fury, one man against a gang, he is forced to raise a chair to defend himself.
FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth
PLOT: A divine white mare gives birth to a son, the Tree-Shaker, who is destined to destroy three dragons in the Underworld who are holding captive three mythical princesses.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Marcell Jankovics puts the limitless possibilities of animation on display for this mythic tale. Abstraction and form combine to move the story along in a way that would be stylistically impossible with any other medium, all infused with the most vibrant palette I’ve ever seen in a movie. Son of the White Mare‘s epic nature and ancient roots are perfectly represented by the timeless feel of the nonstop delights to the eyes.
COMMENTS: This movie, I’ve been told, has been hovering around the site’s periphery for quite a while now, with us forebearing discussion until we could watch a high-quality, non-YouTube posting of Jankovics’ iconic masterpiece. With the 4K, re-mastered version from Arbelos Film which screened at the tail-end of this year’s Fantasia Festival, that time has come. Some quick research suggests that a disc release has not yet been determined, but considering the three years of work put into the project by a dedicated multi-national team (under the guidance of Marcell Jankovics himself), it’s bound to made available. Some day soon. Like in early 2020. Hopefully.
In the meantime, let me try to regale you with my poor words what Jankovics and his crew put together almost forty years ago. The film begins with a flash, as a pregnant white horse flees across the screen from a horde of nasty, jagged pursuers. Finding protection in the Earth Tree, she bears a human son, an eager boy who grows to become known as “Tree-Shaker.” He is told the story of his father’s downfall and, after finding his brothers (“Stone-Crumbler” and “Iron Temperer”), he looks for the entrance to the Underworld after outsmarting the Seven Colored Gnome by stealing his beard. With his brothers’ help he forges the beard into a mighty weapon that aids him as he seeks to free the kingdom’s princesses trapped in castles, guarded jealously by twisted versions of their former beaus.
It would be next to impossible to describe how magnificent the animation is. Much of its motion defies Euclidean geometry. To get the vibe, I recommend an image search. But even beyond its presentation, its narrative is well worth a mention. The time-tested methods of storytelling—tasks and goals in groups of three; heroes of impossible skill and origins; ultimate good fighting ultimate evil—are all present. This is not surprising; what took me aback (in a good way) was the fusion of this ancient technique with the interwoven warnings against modernity. Of the three multi-headed dragons fought by Tree-Shaker, two are manifestations of modern man: a seven-headed, dozen-gunned tank beast and a truly menacing, twelve-headed, ever-shifting skyscraper monster. Obviously there is a message here, one that slipped passed the well-practiced Communist censors of the day.
If you’ve patiently waited to watch this movie, please continue to do so. The impending release will be of a print that doesn’t look like it has aged at all. I know that I can get very excited about movies that others find ho-hum (or worse); but, for those of you who’ve seen some version of Son of the White Mare, and to those many others who have doubtless heard its praises sung on high, it lives up to whatever expectations of wonderment you could possibly harbor. Whoever gets the task of certifying this gem, I hope they’re up to it.