Tag Archives: Must see

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POOR THINGS (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Ramy Youssef

PLOT: Bella, a mad scientist’s creation with the mind of a child (literally), runs off with a rakish attorney to explore the world.

Still from Poor Things (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA:  A bizarre reanimation of Frankenstein played as a sexually-charged, surreal social satire, Poor Things is packed with mad science and madder art. There’s even a crazy dance scene that trumps the one from Dogtooth.

COMMENTS: In Poor Things, Emma Stone embodies Bella, an experiment of the Frankensteinish Dr. Godwin (whom she calls “God”). She begins the tale with the mind of a child, for extraordinary reasons that may already have been spoiled for you by the online conversation (I won’t spoil things further, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid them). Since this is a darkly whimsical fantasy/science fiction hybrid, her mind races towards adulthood at an allegorical pace: she goes from throwing tantrums and delighting in the sponginess of a squished frog to sipping gin and studying for anatomy exams in mere months. She begins the film clunking humorously around Godwin’s estate, cared for by the beyond-eccentric doctor and his meek assistant Max, who becomes smitten with the “very pretty retard”; but as she gains self-awareness (including, crucially, awareness of her clitoris), she demands to see the outside world. In the company of hedonistic playboy (a brilliantly foppish and comic Ruffalo), she adventures through a steampunk 19th-century Lisbon, takes a trip on a cruise ship, and interns at Parisian brothel before returning to London a wiser woman, ready to face what she is and to wrap up the first act’s carefully planted plot points.

It’s easy to see why the three supporting males are all mesmerized by Bella in their own ways: she is an utterly unique creation, unburdened by society’s expectations of proper behavior— especially in regards to sex, which she refers to as “furious jumping.” She journeys from childlike innocence to an outsider’s adulthood in the course of two-an-a-half hours. Joining her on her quest of self-discovery are the aforementioned Ruffalo (who will likely earn a best supporting actor nod), Max (Youssef, likable if largely inefficacious, he’s the character using a conventional moral lens to examine the questionable ethics of the entire scenario), and the astoundingly conceived Godwin (Dafoe). The good (?) doctor sports a face crisscrossed with a lattice of scars that makes him look like a mad surgeon gave up trying to make his head into a jigsaw puzzle halfway through, has a gastric disorder that makes him belch large bubbles after eating, and reveals a fancifully cruel backstory that explains his bizarrely empirical outlook on life. Stone, Ruffalo and Dafoe are all great; Youssef is more than adequate; and while a few of the supporting performers have difficulty striking the odd comic tone Lanthimos is going for, the acting in general is astonishingly good. Based on Alasdair Grey’s novel, the script mixes overly-elaborate locutions (“Hence, I seek employment at your musty-smelling establishment of good-time fornication”) with punchy one-liners (like, “I must go punch that baby,”) mostly delivered by Stone—although the increasingly frustrated Ruffalo gets off some fine obscenity-laced tirades.

The production design keeps pace with the acting quality, capturing the insanity of the scenario. Godwin’s mansion is a Victorian cabinet of curiosities (including such curiosities as a chicken-dog); Lisbon has a touch of steampunk with cable cars in the sky; the snowy streets of Paris house brothels with facades like cathedrals. Sets are elaborate, with yellow and blue trompe l’oeil clouds blanketing the sky. The short intertitles separating the chapters are minature works of art. Lanthimos continues to indulge the cinematographic experiments he began in 2018’s The Favourite. Some are purposeful: the film is in black and white while Bella is protected in Godwin’s care, and turns to vivid color once she seizes her independence. Others seem arbitrary: we sometimes view the action through a peephole matte (which sometimes signals imprisonment, but not always), or through an ultra-wide fisheye lens (used for panoramas—I think this look has become part of Lanthimos’ standard toolkit at this point). The visual switches suggest Bella’s disorientation in a world that’s entirely new to her, but I confess I found them sometimes distracting. Jerskin Fendrix’s nearly-atonal score, which sounding like classical snippets designed by avant-garde A.I., played by automatons on faulty pump organs or badly-tuned guitars, accomplishes the same distancing feat more efficiently.

Poor Things is a meticulously-created world, a twisted Victorian fairy tale set inside a fanciful snow globe. Gleefully disdaining polite manners and amoral on its surface, it gradually develops empathy and posits one value as supreme above all: freedom of choice. Like the Portuguese custard tarts Bella learns to scarf in one bite, Poor Things is incredibly rich.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ve heard a few people say that, based on the trailer, Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, Poor Things, looks too weird for their tastes. To be honest, the trailer made me think this ‘gender-bending Frankenstein’, as it’s being sold, looked too weird for my tastes… It is weird, no doubt. But it is the sort of weird we can do. And not so weird that I had to Google it afterwards.”–Deborah Ross, The Spectator (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LA CABINA [THE TELEPHONE BOX] (1972)

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“La Cabina” is officially available on YouTube from the Spanish Radio and Television Organization (rtve)

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Mercero

FEATURING: José Luis López Vázquez

PLOT: A man becomes trapped inside a telephone booth, with no prospects for escape.

Still from "La Cabina" (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “La Cabina” is distilled horror, a bizarre situation boiled down to its most basic elements, unfolding briskly but methodically as it approaches a surprising but inevitable climax. You’ll never really understand what’s going on, but you can utterly empathize with the threatened protagonist and the way his plight only grows more alarming. 

COMMENTS: The fifth and final season of “The Twilight Zone” was noteworthy for giving one of its episodes over to a French short film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s darkly cruel “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” With potent visuals and a classically unsettling twist ending, “Occurrence” was a perfect fit for the show, and also went on to nab that year’s Oscar for Best Short Film. It’s fun to imagine an alternate universe where the show continued for years, because “La Cabina” would have been the absolute highlight of a prospective Twilight Zone Season 13. The Spanish short contains all the elements that make for a great episode of the show, right down to a shocking twist that rivals those found in such classic installments as “Time Enough At Last” or “To Serve Man.”

The setup for “La Cabina” is devilishly simple. In the space of a couple minutes, we meet our hero as he sends his son off to school, and then watch him enter the telephone box that we’ve seen a team of workers construct. From there, the film rests on the shoulders of López as he watches helplessly from his Plexiglas cocoon while onlookers laugh at his predicament, good-naturedly try to help, then surrender and lose interest as their efforts bear no fruit. Known in his home country as a comic actor, López adroitly conveys the poor man’s journey from irritation to fear to despair without a word of dialogue. His distress is especially acute as those same construction workers return—not to extricate him but to hoist the box onto a flatbed truck for a long journey to points unknown. Even as he tries to communicate with a similarly trapped traveler or exchanges pitiful looks with a collection of circus freaks who have now found someone they can pity, López never lets you forget that he’s a decent fellow who has found himself in an especially bad spot, which helps to sell the story’s final transformation into surreal horror.

There are theories about what it all means. It could be an allegory for life under the regime of Francisco Franco, when people could be snatched off the street, never to be seen again. Or it might be a metaphor for the uncertainties of life, as a normal day can easily take an unexpected and even tragic turn. It could also be read as an “Everyman”-type tale expressing the notion that when fate comes, nothing can save us. That a very basic tale about a guy who gets stuck in a telephone booth can carry the weight of such interpretations is a testament to the sturdiness of Mercero’s storytelling. “La Cabina” is truly remarkable, though, for the wonderful outlandishness of its “what-if” premise. 

“La Cabina” left an impression in Spanish pop culture, so much so that López could reprise his role in a commercial for a telecommunications company more than two decades later. It’s not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, but for aficionados of the horrifying twist, it’s a can’t-miss look at the shocks that can arise out of the most banal moments in life. Sure, you can learn the lesson about keeping an extra pair of glasses for after the nuclear armageddon. But the dangers of making a phone call? “The Twilight Zone” can hardly compete. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…La cabina continues to be no less entertaining when simultaneously becoming more and more weird and shocking… If you see the film for the first time, at the end, you may not be excessively surprised but you’ll be most likely wondering how it’s happened you haven’t seen La cabina before.” – John Moscow, Review Maze

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Atlas Obscura – Surely one of the only short films in history to earn a public monument, the city of Madrid commemorated the 50th anniversary of “La Cabina” by constructing a replica of the title box a stone’s throw away from the original shooting location.

(This movie was nominated for review by marc. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

41*. THE SERVANT (1963)

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“The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the servant… being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change around into the real and true independence.”–G.W.F. Hegel, “The Master-Slave Dialectic”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Wendy Craig,

PLOT: Hard-drinking playboy and would-be colonialist Tony hires the solicitous Barret as a manservant, despite the fact that his fiancée takes a dislike to the new employee. Barret convinces Tony to hire his sister as a maid, which sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the master dismissing both servants. Tony’s drinking intensifies, however, and he invites his servant to return to the house; gradually, the roles of master and servant are reversed.

Still from The Servant (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Joseph Losey moved to the UK after receiving a summons to appear before Joseph McCarthy’s House  Un-American Activities committee.
  • The screenplay was written by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who adapted  Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella. It was the first of three collaborations between Losey and Pinter.
  • In 1999, a panel of movie professionals voted The Servant the 22nd best British film of all time.
  • Dirk Bogarde, a closeted gay man, had played a closeted gay man in 1961’s The Victim, one of the first films to deal openly and sympathetically with homosexuality. His agent (with whom the actor was secretly involved) was nervous about Bogarde taking this role, fearing he might acquire a “homosexual image.”
  • When Losey came down with pneumonia during the shoot, Bogarde stepped in to direct for ten days, with Losey providing instructions via telephone from the hospital.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mirrors, devices which reverse and sometimes warp images, but which also serve to reveal the selves we cannot see. Tony’s townhouse is littered with mirrors on seemingly every wall, and Losey takes advantage of them throughout the film, using mirrors to reflect the underlying truth of a situation. In one shot, Tony and Susan face Barret accusingly. In the convex mirror image, Barret can be seen clearly, standing calmly with a robe and a cigarette, while only the back of Tony’s head is visible, and Susan isn’t there at all. The mirror shows us the relative power and importance of the three characters in the scene more profoundly than the head-on camera shot does.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Upside-down orgy; kissing the servant

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Servant emits the subtlest whiff of dignified strangeness, all emanating from the mysterious Bogarde: an unassuming Trojan horse of malice and perversion without a clear motive or objective other than raw power.

2021 Restoration trailer for The Servant

COMMENTS: Led by a dominating career performance from Dirk Continue reading 41*. THE SERVANT (1963)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS (2022)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Olivia Graves, Wes Tank, Doug Mancheski, Luis Rico

PLOT: Somewhere in the Frozen Northland, successful Applejack salesman and functioning alcoholic Jean Kayak loses his business in a tragic disaster and rebuilds his life to become legendary fur-trapper Jean Kayak, ultimate foe to… hundreds of beavers!

Still from Hundreds of Beavers (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like its predecessor Lake Michigan Monster (2019), Hundreds of Beavers is wildly inventive visually. But Beavers surpasses Monster storywise, layering multiple influences and keeping the gags flowing, all supporting the plot while remaining funny from start to end credits.

COMMENTS: When Hundreds of Beavers screened at the Kansas City FilmFest International, my initial reaction, posted to my Facebook page just after watching, was basically three words. I’ll only put in initials here. They won’t be too hard to figure out:

H. F. S. !!

Since it won the honor of Best Narrative Feature at KCFF, it appears there were at least several others who agreed with that assessment.

The new film from the drunks who brought us Lake Michigan Monster, Beavers is 10x better than it’s predecessor—and that was already pretty damn good. It utilizes the same basic aesthetic, but leans hard into silent film (though there are sound effects, and a rousing musical number that kicks things off at the start).

After that musical number (written by Chris Ryan & Wayne Tews) protagonist Jean Kayak loses everything, and starts over. He learns (the hard way, of course) to hunt local critters for food, and to trade with “the Merchant” (Doug Mancheski), who has a lovely daughter (“the Furrier,” Olivia Graves). But the Merchant will not be satisfied with poor white trash taking his daughter’s hand; he prefers the successful “Trapper” (Wes Tank). But the Furrier has eyes for Jean, of course. The Trapper takes Jean under his wing and teaches him the skills to pay the bills; but then the Merchant sets a price for his daughter’s hand…

Three guesses as to what it is.

Guy Maddin gets mentioned quite a lot when discussing this crew, since his work also utilizes most of the conventions of silent film, and describing the movie(s) as “Guy Maddin on a serious bender” is cute shorthand. But the influences here are numerous: not only Maddin, but The American Astronaut, 30s and 40s animation (Fleischer Brothers and Looney Tunes, especially the Roadrunner cartoons), Abbott and Costello, and Matt Stone (though not as smutty as “South Park”; more in line with Cannibal: The Musical), Czech artists like and (also heavily influenced by silents), and old school video games. But the defining touch is having every animal depicted in the film played by costumed actors in oversized heads, adding a mascot/furry vibe to the action.

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews as Jean Kayak gives a performance that’s equal parts and , with esque elements (a short sequence of Jean and a box falling down a snowy hill with Jean occasionally falling in and out of the box amidst a lot of snow). The rest of the cast is equally game. The unsung heroes are the animal performers.

It’s a goofy, endless amount of silliness, backed by hi-tech with a low-fi feel that feels fresher than any other comedy seen since… well, since Lake Michigan Monster. Just when you think it couldn’t get more absurd and entertaining, it adds another layer. Not to spoil the surprises here, but amidst a 19th century winter survival tale, I would have never expected a gag based on Bond movies, or for it to work as well as it does.

I laughed my ass off loudly throughout the run of the film. You can ask the filmmakers.

As I stated earlier: H. F. S. !!

Hundreds of Beavers is currently on the festival circuit (the next screenings are July 28 and 31 at Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal). Plans for a Blu-ray release are already underway.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…further proof that Wisconsin produces the strangest independent movies in the country. Cheslik has created an unexpected visionary work that will rip you a new perspective on classic cinematic art. It is exciting in ways you cannot imagine and must be seen to be believed.”–Michael Talbot-Haynes, Film Threat (festival screening)

Hundreds of Beavers Facebook page

Mike Cheslik, Luis Rico, Wayne Tews @Kansas City FilmFest International, March 2023.

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY ( and )

FEATURING: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong

PLOT: Evelyn Wang is barely keeping it together, running a business and raising a family while the threat of an IRS audit hangs over her head; as if that wasn’t enough stress, just before a last-chance appointment with her stern auditor, a visitor from a parallel universe tells her the fate of the multiverse lies in her hands.

Still from Everything Everywhere all at Once (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Based on the trailer, I had originally assumed this was going to be Daniels’ mainstream popcorn movie: a sci-fi/action/comedy not likely to be significantly weirder than The Matrix or the latest Marvel Phase 4 offering. And while there were plenty of wisecracks, kung fu free -for-alls, sentimentality, and CGI frippery, the makers of Swiss Army Man  snuck enough genuine weirdness and unpredictability into the formula that, as the credits rolled, a young theater patron was moved to loudly announce “bizarre is the only word that describes that.”

COMMENTS: Evelyn is a hot mess: a hot mess in a quiet, middle-aged matron kind of way, but a hot mess nevertheless. Harried and constantly distracted, she vainly tries to balance running her laundry business with an overextended social life. She also has to deal with the family members constantly vying for her attention: neglected husband Waymond, lesbian daughter Joy and her new girlfriend, and disapproving, ailing father Gong Gong. It’s no wonder that Evelyn’s 1040 was selected for audit, and that she’s having enough trouble filling out the forms correctly and collecting the proper receipts and documentation that the business is in danger. And so it’s also little surprise that, when told by an interdimensional emissary that the fate of the entire multiverse depends on her, her response is an exasperated “Very busy today, no time to help you.”

But of course, help she reluctantly does. After the setup, the movie reveals its relatively complicated mechanics about infinite universes that branch off at individual’s decision points (i.e., marry Waymond or don’t marry Waymond creates a new universe, as does eating eggs for breakfast instead of noodles), all leading to a network of bubble universes that are visualized as nodes on a smartphone app. A helpful avatar of her husband from the “Alpha” universe explains the evil force threatening all existence (which involves a “bagel of everything”) and how Evelyn can access the skills and knowledge of versions of herself from parallel universes to counter it. So she does, with both badass successes and wacky failures along the way.

With its focus on branching realities, the Canonically Weird movie Everything Everywhere all at Once most resembles is Mr. Nobody (2009) rather than Swiss Army Man. In fact, it’s Nobody to the nth degree: where ‘s cult classic confined itself to three main alternate histories (with notable detours like the argyle universe), Everything attempts to live up to its title with dozens upon dozens of alternate realities, from simple ones where Evelyn is a martial arts expert or a movie star to bizarre worlds where she’s a piñata, a sentient rock, or (the audience’s favorite) a lesbian in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers. Adding to the eccentricity, the Daniels posit that it’s necessary to seed a jump to a new universe by performing an unpredictable action like eating an entire tube of ChapStick or—in another audience favorite scene—finding an unconventional use for a suggestively shaped IRS auditor’s award.

The script requires almost every actor to play multiple roles, and the ensemble acting is about as good as it gets. Everyone shines, although naturally it’s Yeoh who holds it all together with a performance that recalls (and references) her Hong Kong roots in wuxia films, as well as her recent turn to comedy with Crazy Rich Asians. And a special kudos have to be given to 93-year-old James Hong, for whom this would be an excellent cherry on the top of an incredible 450-role career (except that he still has more films coming out, and may be trying to hit 500 credits before he passes the century mark).

Ultimately, all the apocalyptic furor relates to events in Evelyn’s real universe—uh, the universe we started in, that is. My only slight reservation is with the ending, which gets a bit sappy in delivering its honorably intended “love yourself, faults and all” message. On the other hand, not everyone is a black-hearted cynic like me, and most audience members seemed as moved by the film’s pathos as they were invigorated by its action and amused by its comedy. In the end, this impressive feature comes pretty close to delivering Everything, with bizarre and imaginative conceits delivered at a hyper pace that does make it sometimes seem like they’re happening All at Once. Everything Everywhere all at Once is recommended for everyone everywhere as soon as you can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an explosion of creative weirdness that is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming…  It’s ground-breaking because it allows a new perspective, but it’s also just blatantly weird. It’s not glossy or careful; the film is an onslaught of visual and thematic ideas… In an era of sequels and remakes, something this outside the box is a welcome alternate reality.”–Emily Zemler, Observer (contemporaneous)