Tag Archives: Mystery

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXECUTIVE KOALA (2005)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elli-Rose, Hironobu Nomura1

PLOT: A koala in a business suit who works for a Japanese pickle company is accused of killing his wife and girlfriend, and can’t defend himself because he’s got selective amnesia.

Still from Executive Koala (2005)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Consider this “Apocrypha Candidate” designation a placeholder for Minoru Kawasaki. This is the first of his movies we’ve seen, and we’re impressed with his manic-yet-deadpan sense of absurdity;  it suggests something of his will be worthy of an honorable mention designation on our weird movie canon. Is Executive Koala the one, though? Or should Calimari Wrestler or Rug Cop occupy that slot?

COMMENTS: There’s a point in Executive Koala where a pretty woman (Japanese singer Shôko Nakagawa, making her first movie appearance) sees our hero Tamura buy a sack of groceries from a frog-headed convenience store clerk and quizzically comments, “A koala? A frog?”  Aside from the occasional background double-take from a passerby in the street (suggesting scenes shot guerilla-style in the wild), this is the only time anyone notices anything odd about the man in the business suit with a giant round fuzzy head and claws, or the frog, or the bunny rabbit president of Rabource Pickling Co., Ltd. It’s a kind of fourth-wall breaking moment: Nakagawa addresses the audience indirectly, acknowledging the absurdity of a world that apparently contains a total of three anthropomorphic animals whose existence otherwise surprises no one.

Aside from one montage of paintings depicting a surreal Australian koala massacre, complete with crucified marsupials, little is made of the fact that Tamura’s a koala; he might as well be Korean. So, viewed from one angle, Tamura’s koalaness adds little to the script: Koala could have been a competent psychological thriller without the gimmick (at least, until the story devolves into complete goofy chaos at the climax). The resulting film would have been serviceable, but forgettable, parody riff on American Psycho.

But there’s just something about casting a cute fuzzy mammal as the lead in your serial killer thriller that lets the audience know not to take anything too seriously, you know? The casting ensures that every frame of film is stained with absurdity that can’t be scrubbed off. Considering the fact that the only part of Tamura’s face that moves (and sometimes light up) are his eyes, the actors that wear the koala suit do a remarkable job in bringing the executive to life through head shakes, claw gesticulations, and simple props like a handkerchief used to mop his furry brow when he’s nervous. Tamura’s uncredited voiceover actor deserves praise, too, because we quickly come to accept this character’s reality (within his world). At times, we too forget that he’s of another species, and simply see him as a harried salaryman fretting about putting together a deal with a Korean kimchi magnate while under investigation for the murder of his wife and girlfriend.

Although the acting is deadpan, the film doesn’t simply play its premise as a straightforward thriller that happens to star a koala. Although it builds its absurdity slowly, it gradually accrues dream sequences, a martial arts demonstration against a bacon backdrop, more fakeout dream sequences and false memories, behind-the-scenes footage hidden inside the actual movie, a musical trial, and extensive koala kung fu. Oh, and believe it or not, there might be a few plot holes and loose ends flying around, too—like just who the hell was the frog? It may not all add up, but all in all, you get your entertainment dollar’s worth from Executive Koala. He may even deserve a raise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While funny in the ‘boy, that’s odd’ sense more than the ‘laugh ’til you ache’ sense, the film is fast-paced and freewheeling… This is a director who makes movies designed to leave audiences saying, ‘I watched the weirdest thing last night.'”–Noel Murray, The A.V. Club (DVD box set)

(This movie was nominated for review by AlgusUnderdunk, who described it as “a strange Japanese film I still can’t quite describe…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Albert Shin

FEATURING: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson,

PLOT: Returning home to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death, a woman remembers a childhood incident that haunted her—witnessing a one-eyed boy being abducted in the woods—and decides to investigate.

Still from Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019)

COMMENTS: Clifton Hill is a tourist trap street in Niagara Falls, Canada. Although a memorable scene in Disappearance at Clifton Hill occurs at Clifton Hill, the titular disappearance doesn’t occur there. Make of that bit of misdirection what you will.

The disappearance we’re concerned with occurs upriver, and about twenty-five years before Abby returns to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death. Abby wants to preserve Rainbow Inn, the old family business which has fallen into disrepair, from being bought up by the Charles Lake corporation; her sister wants to sell and move on with life. Browsing through mom’s old photographs turns up a picture that sparks Abby’s memory of the day she saw the boy abducted, and she begins investigating. Her followups bring her into contact with a podcaster and local historian who operates out of a UFO-shaped cafe and who knows where the bodies aren’t buried, a husband and wife magic act modeled on Siegfried and Roy, and the dashing Charles Lake III. Evidence of what might have happened to the boy builds slowly, while a series of glitchy, tiger-infected dreams that look like bad montages edited on third-generation VHS tapes liven things up (and provide the film’s sole weird moments).

The ultimate mystery has as much to do with Abby’s past, slowly revealed through her interactions with her sister and others, as it does with the disappearance she’s investigating. Abby’s backstory isn’t a twist, exactly; it’s more of a change of focus that turns Disappearance from a thriller into a character study. The movie’s eventual revelations about Abby do, however, illuminate a couple of incidents that might not have made complete sense otherwise (for example, why Abby’s parents never contacted the police after the incident in the woods). The switch of emphasis works; the script slowly (and purposefully) undermines its own narrative.

Full of psychological unease rather than jump scares, Clifton Hill plays well within its budget. Superior writing elevates it from merely a “modest thriller” to a “modest-but-clever thriller.” An ace performance from lead Tuppence Middleton carries the film, aided by an unnerving woodwind and synth score.

In some quarters, much is being made of David Cronenberg‘s small role as a podcaster (first seen in a wetsuit). While Old Croney holds his own against the more established actors, there’s nothing revelatory in his performance. The significance of his presence has more to do with his endorsement of the film, which is a major marketing point for a not-flashy indie that relies on a slow-burn to pull you in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Shin isn’t shy about laying on quirky details and liberal oddball splashes to make his third film swing from bizarrely entertaining  to dark (helped by an excellent moody score from instrumental group BadBadNotGood).”–Linda Barnard, Original Cin (contemporaneous)

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)

CAPSULE: KNIFE + HEART (2018)

Un couteau dans le coeur

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vanessa Paradis, , , Jonathan Genet

PLOT: A troubled director tries to figure out who’s killing off the actors in her gay porn troupe.

Still from knife + heart (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are a few odd touches, Knife + Heart essentially rehashes familiar old giallo territory, but with a new queer slant.

COMMENTS: Knife + Heart (the French title translates to the more euphonious A Knife in the Heart) is basically a modern, queer giallo that plays out in the unique setting of the 1970s French gay porn industry. Gruesomely, it features a killer who strikes with a knife sheathed in a dildo. The protagonist is Anne, an alcoholic lesbian still hopelessly in love with Lois, her film editor, long after the latter has rejected her for her wine-sodden unpredictability. When the cast and crew of her latest pornographic opus start turning up dead, Anne develops a new obsession. She makes a tasteless porno adaptation of the real life crimes, including an interrogation scene that echoes her actual interview with the police, but this time with typewriter boffing. (After considering a couple of titles, she settles on Homocidal.) An accidentally discovered clue leads her to a remote French village where a mysterious bird is said to live, and then indirectly to the actual killer.

Knife + Heart stays true to the giallo form, with fetishistic shots of phallic knives in black-gloved hands and an obvious tribute to Suspiria’s colorful rainstorm driving scene. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly convincing,—which is also true to the genre. Although there are a few mildly surreal bits—including a surprise bird claw you won’t forget—the main novelty here is the transposition of the erotic locus from the hetero- to the homo-sexual world. The sex is graphic, but not actually hardcore (although it comes close enough to rate this as an 18+ production).

Although Knife + Heart is a stylish and more-than-competent homage, I wondered about the purpose of the whole experiment. It’s an entertaining throwback, but besides queer inclusiveness, it doesn’t add much to the genre. The film has a superficial artiness—check out that post-credits Roman orgy!—that primes you for something deeper than a mere thriller; yet, disappointingly, it never really dives beneath its pretty surface.

This is Yann Gonzalez’s second feature film after 2013’s even more explicitly erotic (and even more surreal) You and the Night [Les Rencontres d’après minuit]. Both films screened at Cannes to generally positive receptions. Americans can catch them on physical media or streaming services (both are on Kanopy). Both are also scored by Yann’s brother Anthony, a popular electronic musician with the band M83.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a giallo take on ‘Phantom of the Paradise,’ with heavy influences from ‘Peeping Tom’ and Todd Haynes’ 1991 feature debut, ‘Poison.’ This magical, erotic, disco-tinged horror-thriller is like cinematic candy.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ODISSEA DELLA MORTE (2018)

AKA Valley of the Rats; Odyssey of Death

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Vince D’Amato

FEATURING: Jesse Onocalla, Momona Komagata, Lynne Lowry,  Tristan Risk

PLOT: A man has rented a limousine and travels around town talking with his associates as he tries to figure out who killed his girlfriend.

Still from Odissea Della Morte (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Amidst all the random shots of walking around, limo-bound conversations, and pseudo-BDSM, there is a quiet aura of nothingness going on. As there is virtually nothing doing in this movie, there is virtually nothing weird about it.

COMMENTS: With money, generally, comes a modicum of competence when it comes to filmmaking. The middle-to-big-budget movie you watch may not be particularly entertaining, but it’s at least technically well done. But low budget films are odd beasts. Some cost as much as a used economy car, and are unceasingly entertaining. Others, costing as much as a higher-end mid-budget sedan, are unceasingly tedious. To what end do I type all this garbled verbiage? My reason is twofold. First, I am somewhat frantically trying to think of what to write about Vince D’Amato’s Odissea Della Morte (translation probably not needed). Second, having begun the review in this stylistic manner, it occurs to me that it’s a fairly decent textual translation of Odissea‘s cinematic style.

Jesse (Jesse Onocalla) rides around in a limo, much to his friends’ bemusement, going on a bender while interviewing various people who saw his girlfriend (I don’t remember her name, it doesn’t matter) before she was murdered. While chewing over various evils of modern society in this mobile backdrop, various nonentities enter and exit the vehicle and make various unimportant observations. Intercutting these vignettes are shots of largely naked, occasionally gothed-out women doing ambiguously sexy things and photographing each other until the whole movie becomes this weird (!) and tedious dream thing that culminates in what is perhaps a twist.

I hope my record of reviews can attest to the fact that I am generally a very patient viewer who is eager to give every movie the fairest shake possible. The closest I’ve ever gotten to “cheating” for this website is with this movie. I did watch it, all of it, and even have some notes to prove I paid attention for portions of it. However, when your film’s two highlights are a brief conversation with an affable limo driver and some blandly cryptic remarks from an actress most famous for a small part in a movie known mostly for its theme song by David Bowie, your film is probably doomed, and no amount of T&A, canted angles, and color-to-black-and-white shifts can obscure that.

Forgive me, there was a third highlight: an aura of menace, a tied up woman threatened with a knife, and some beardo shouting, “I AM THE CITY!” in a way that made Jack Skellington‘s declaration of pumpkin-kingship seem altogether Shakespearean by comparison. That gave me a chuckle.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a love letter to the works of David Cronenberg and Jess Franco set to [D’Amato’s] unique take on the giallo film.”–Film Bizarro

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (2019)

What the hell can I say?  When I saw that 366 Weird Movies’ readers had topped themselves in sadism with this year’s summer blockbuster picks (a video game, a Disney, AND a comic book movie) you can understand why I, quite frankly, forgot the lot of you. The only possible reprieve is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,  which is why I’m here belatedly for the video game entry and did not bail entirely (or get my revenge by making Greg go in my place).

You could have at least sent me to the Star Wars thingamajig so I could piss off both the lovers and haters (they’re still bellowing over The Last Jedi, which, let’s be honest, is the first Star Wars with any sense of surprise since 1980).  And you hit me first with a goddamned video game movie adaptation, which is about as low a bar as it gets.

First, let me tell you what annoys me about gamers. Now, mind you, I did play Pacman and Centipede once, in a Godfather’s Pizza, but I least I got to enjoy smoky treats while I got slaughtered (not that many of you would remember, but yeah, we used to smoke in public—restaurants, college, malls, airplanes—before all you annoying nonsmokers overbred and took over the entire world). But that was not when I decided that suicide would be preferable to the whole video game thing.  No, that realization came after I did a few years managing a video store (Do you remember these? that’s a Statler Brothers reference, by the way) when I had to deal with gamers. They would call the store and, to a man, they would rattle off game titles, most of which had some kind of X followed by a number. Those excitable boys would say the names at such a fast clip I always had to ask them to repeat that a tad slower. I remember one gamer coming in wearing a shirt which said something to the effect that Nintendo (or whatever) was better than girls. How would he even know?  And then their comedy is the cherry on the cake; you know, when they get defensive and claim they are  being productive and that video games are art and they are complex and… zzzzz.

Now you gaming twits have taken a swipe at me by sending me to Pikachu. Oh, how cute. Now it’s my turn.

Still from Pokemon Detective PikachuOK, first, is this yellow a guy a rabbit? He sort of looks like a rabbit, which might explain why this movie rips off Roger  Rabbit (and several other films). Except that director Rob Letterman is no Robert Zemeckis, Pikachu is no Roger, and Justice Smith is no (actually all the humans here are pretty lifeless, like that one Star Wars prequel where Yoda was the most animated person). Also, Roger Rabbit was actually a funny screwup. Pikachu does cutesy one-liners that are predictable and ingratiating.

I suppose we should get to the plot. Tim (Justice Smith) does not like Pokemons because his detective dad was supposedly killed by one (sound familiar?) Tim lives on the outskirts of Ryme City (visually, a cross between Blade Runner and Toon Town), where Pokemons and humans cohabitate, and now has to team with Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who was his dad’s partner. Insert Phillip Marlowe references. Repeat often for filler.

Of course, there’s a plethora of universe building. Am I the only one who does not give a hoot about all the extended universes of late (Marvel, DC, etc)? Someone in the popcorn line (you tightwads have never even sent me a damned AMC gift card for enduring these summers) referred to it as the “Pokeverse.” OK, I’m putting my foot down. I will not even include the next Pokefeature as a summer blockbuster poll option (and no doubt there will be many more to come as it has already made a zillion dollars. As the saying goes, you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence or taste of the American public.)

Anyway, the CGI excess is not a surprise. It becomes tediously hedonistic about the midway mark. What is surprising is that the plot gets complicated and sloppy. There’s the rub, so to speak. Pokemon wants to be taken seriously, but it wants to be entertaining, too, and tries this mostly through Pikachu’s sidekick, Psyduck (I’m not making this up), who has to be kept calm or he will implode (think of the tradition of bringing in a cantankerous duck when the protagonist toon gets too goody-goody dull.)

The Sherlock Holmes bit apes countless cop buddy movies, but suffers most from an outcome that is anything but a mystery. Some of the humor is a tad risqué—that’s clearly the reason for casting Deadpool‘s Reynolds—but even that can’t save Pokemon, once it ceases to be a movie in favor of product building.

For Pokefans only.

Next week: Aladdin.

I hate all of you.