Tag Archives: Recommended

SLAMDANCE 2023: A PERFECT DAY FOR CARIBOU (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Jeff Rutherford

FEATURING: Charlie Plummer, Jeb Berrier, Oellis Levine

PLOT: Before committing suicide, Herman gets a call from his estranged son Nathaniel; meeting at a cemetery, Nathaniel brings his own son—who goes missing.

Still from A Perfect Day for Caribou (2022)

COMMENTSMuch as the film’s father and son teeter along the edge between acquiescence and despair in this ambling dialogue of a movie, Jeff Rutherford teeters along the edge between “indie” and “weird” with A Perfect Day for Caribou, his feature debut. While we generally prefer to bring attention to stranger films, if we can take the time to highlight slow-core tedium, we can take a moment here to talk about something melancholy, oddly humorous, and quietly hopeful.

Against the back-drop of close-knit upholstery, the movie begins with Herman (Jeb Berrier) dictating a final message to his son Nate (Charlie Plummer). From his scattershot remarks, it’s clear Herman’s anecdotes, pre-apologies, and side notes seem much like his life: unfocused, lacking purpose, and a bit sad. He’s prepared for his final moment, much as he’s prepared for his son to not care much what he has to say; despite this, he’s recording this rambling confession of sorts because even though he’s grasping at straws, “…the straws you grasp at—you should grasp them.” His would-be final words are interrupted when Nate calls him on his mobile phone, and the father and son meet up at a nearby cemetery, Nate’s autistic son Ralph in tow.

Thoreau said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; and Herman and Nate quietly face the mindless and unavoidable sadness they have endured throughout their lives, with ample cigarettes. We watch two men travel the Oregonian countryside in search of young Ralph, interrupted only be surreal memories and hopeful imaginings. Herman spends most of the film carrying a sealed parcel his ex-wife, Nate’s mother, left behind. The men meet another lonely soul on their hushed, unhurried quest: a woman who accidentally shoots at Nate followed by the immediate heartfelt shout of, “Sorry!” No big deal. They all chat, share some water, and part ways.

As a general rule, I eschew anything so overtly art-house, but there is an odd satisfaction in watching these two broken men attempt to makes peace with themselves and each other. The sweeping vistas contrast their tiny existence. Nate is wise, either in the face of or because of his fractured background. His anguish is captured by his wish for his own son: “I don’t know if these type of people exist,” he says, “but I want Ralph to feel very limited hurt.” The best he can imagine is less pain.

Nate and Herman pursue the lost boy, who leaves clues behind for them to follow: a soccer ball, a toy truck, a plastic bag; the strange—and defiant—undercurrent is underscored by Herman’s closing scene. He’s opened the box, donned a pair of novelty reindeer antlers, and can’t quite find the right position for the gun barrel on his body. Everything’s wrong, nothing fits into place, so you’ve got to keep trying, I suppose, and maybe something will eventually click.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in its best moments, [Rutherford’s] debut reaches for the mournful everyday poetry of Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris, Texas’ or Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Old Joy.’ Elsewhere, the film feels a little determined in its minimalism, a little too cute in its brushes of absurdism. Still, it promises significant things from its young writer-director, who shows more formal nous and rigor than many neophyte directors of comparable U.S. indies.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: BEAUTIFUL BEINGS (2022)

Berdreymi

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DIRECTED BY: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson

FEATURING: Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Áskell Einar Pálmason, Viktor Benóný Benediktsson, Anita Briem, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson

PLOT: A pack of violent misfits take a bullied boy into their gang on the rough streets of Reykjavik.

Still from Beautiful Beings (2022)

COMMENTS: When you grow old and think back on your childhood bullies, you realize that they were bullied themselves, most likely by their own parents or siblings. The hate and scorn was nothing personal; they were only transferring their own pain onto someone conveniently weaker than them. Of course, that idea never crosses your mind when you’re a victim of bullying, and wouldn’t comfort you if it did. Because the foursome in Beautiful Beings are, for the most part, both bullies and victims, we can sympathize with them and forgive them as they indulge in childish cruelties.

Iceland consistently ranks in the top ten in the World Happiness Report, but even paradise has an underclass. Violence is ever-present in the lives of these working-class children from broken families. The film begins by following the misadventures of pimply 14-year old Balli, much-abused by his peers and living with neglectful single mom in a what his friend calls “a bum house.” But the story soon changes focus to Addi, who has a modestly better life. He’s a member of a three-member gang under the erratic but benevolent leadership of Konni, nicknamed “the Animal” due to his fighting prowess and uncontrolled ferocity. Although he’s also from a single parent home, Addi’s mother is caring and stable, if a little embarrassing in her devotion to mystical rituals, yoga, and dream-interpretation. After Balli is beaten so badly he makes a local hand-wringing news broadcast about teen violence, Addi’s empathy is slowly and slyly roused. He convinces the others to let Balli into their clique—helped by the fact that they can use Balli’s half-abandoned home as a club house when the boy’s mother is away for days on end. The others gradually come to accept Balli, but their individual troubles start to pile up, all brought to a boil by the reappearances of absent (and unwanted) family members.

As the film progresses it flirts with the supernatural. Addi discovers that his mother’s precognitive gifts may not be all in her head—and that he’s inherited them as well. At about the midpoint of the film (with a push from magic mushrooms) his powers manifest themselves: he sees demonic shadows, finds his fingers drilling holes in his torso, and dreams of racing down a skyscraper with Konni. The visions are scarce, but set up the idea that Addi can see into the future, creating third act suspense whenever he gets a “bad feeling.” His precognitive abilities symbolize his superior intuition, setting him apart as the character who is in this world but not of it… the one who’s able to see what’s wrong with this picture and thus, perhaps, able to glimpse a different path. That’s not much to grasp onto as far as the film’s weird credentials go, but it’s just enough to get it into 366’s sights. (The movie also flirts with teenage homoeroticism—e.g. some casual sensuous hair caressing—without really exploring those feelings, making it  LGBTQ-adjacent as well as weird-adjacent).

Other critics have pointed out—and I can’t really argue—that Beautiful Beings breaks no new ground in the “coming of age” genre, and that its visionary aspect is mostly just window dressing. Nevertheless, I think the movie’s ample strengths outweigh a certain lack of originality. Technically, it’s nearly flawless. (It was Iceland’s submission to this year’s Oscars, although it was not shortlisted.) All the performances, especially from the young central quartet but including the extended families and the surrounding teenagers, are excellent. The cinematography plays with yellow sunlight and sepia shadows; perversely, the camera focuses on dirty fingernails, the dusty corners of Balli’s hovel, or an industrially bleak warehouse rooftop overlooking the harbor, only occasionally emerging onto a majestic beach to remind us of the beauty of the wider world these boys rarely have the chance to appreciate. The bottom line is I found myself engaged with these characters and empathizing with them through their travails, which is all you ask of a film of this sort.

Beautiful Beings is currently in theaters; we’ll update you when it’s more widely available.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Here, with a combination of drifty realism and jolts of the fantastic — Addi has strange dreams and visions, which add unfruitful mystery to the narrative — he persuasively conveys the feverish intimacy of adolescent friendship, with its vulnerabilities and inchoate desires.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: BIG TIME (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Blum

FEATURING: Tom Waits

PLOT: Tom Waits guides the viewer through a surreal concert experience.

Still from Big Time (1988)

COMMENTS: Geometric backdrops, sweat, a hook-light, and pocketsful of confetti litter the screen as a strange presence raspily sings through songs from a time out of time. Tom is a dust bowl mourner, a piano-side crooner, a cabaret djinni, and a gravel-hammer blues man. He swaps guises at the drop of a hat, instantaneously—because Tom waits for no man. A dreamy New Years Eve alternately thwacks in your ears through a pipe rig percussion solo, or floats gently like the bubbles popping up from an on-stage bathtub. All sunglasses, cigarettes, and watches, Waits in ’88 is an amalgam of decades, fashions, and sentiments, and must be seen to be believed.

Directed by Chris Blum (a man so niche he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page), Big Time kicks off with an alarm clock summoning Tom Waits to sleep. While Waits serenely tosses about on an onstage and rooftop bed, Waits greets us to the show, greasy-haired and hustling time-pieces, running up his arm and set to the trendy times of Paris, Tokyo, Ann Arbor, and Sudan. On stage with his band, Waits shucks to his own quirky performance of his undefinable songs. He charms the audience with stories and quips. “I feel like I can look right into those black little hearts of yours,” he suggests. Later he kicks off a tune with, “The question I get asked the most is, ‘Is it possible to get pregnant without intercourse?’ To answer that, we have to go allll the way back to the Civil War…” Waits operates his own spotlight, and even mans the ticket booth outside—occasionally receiving telephone calls from an unknown agent.

In case anyone here is unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Big Time is the ideal primer for Tom Waits. This “concert film” not only covers a broad range of his musical stylings, but also offers a window into the mind of a man who, by all rights, probably can’t exist. Imagine if the piano bar at the Black Lodge was infiltrated by a radiant imp, or a flare of genteel id rained down over Brecht’s favorite boozer. While many good films inspire you to sit and think, this one makes you want to leap up and create something—anything—so I urge you to watch Big Time, and then smash yourself into that creative project that’s been teasing the corners of your mind.

Right now.

Big Time has long been out-of-print on home video, but is currently available on scattered subscription services, including Paramount+ and Amazon Prime. For whatever reason, it’s still not available for purchase or rental anywhere else.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…elements of vaudeville, burlesque and soulful balladry are orchestrated by what is evidently, for all the downbeat, offbeat imagery, a fantastically energetic imagination.”–Time Out

(This movie was nominated for review by Jake H. McConnell, who argued “from performing on stage and telling odd stories to standing on a roof with an umbrella on fire this is a odd film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ORLANDO (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Sally Potter

FEATURING: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, John Wood, Lothaire Bluteau, Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville

PLOT: A young English nobleman looks for his place while exploring the vicissitudes of life over the course of several centuries, delving into love, politics, war, and poetry; eventually, he becomes a woman.

Still from Orlando (1992)

COMMENTS: Tilda Swinton is the Mona Lisa. Not “looks like.” I say she’s the genuine article, galvanized by the muse Melpomene and reveling in the mask of placidity that she uses to conceal any deep feeling she might harbor. With her narrow, skeptical eyes and lips that betray only the barest hint of her bemusement with the world, Swinton is truly the living embodiment of that icon of mystery. What a magnificent piece of luck, then, to secure her services in the leading role of a person who views the trappings of gender and power with a maximum level of detachment and disinterest. An actor perennially dismissive of the limitations of gender, she navigates between sexes with hardly a hesitation. Orlando proves to be an excellent launchpad not only for her talents but also for the way she likes to deploy them.  

We first meet Orlando in 1600 as an aimless boy who comes into the orbit of the Virgin Queen herself (played, in a piece of thematic foreshadowing, by the English raconteur Quentin Crisp). The Queen is eager to welcome this bare-faced boy into her orbit, but under one condition: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” A modest request to be sure, but he will spend the next four centuries honoring the Queen’s command, steadfastly bypassing death or even aging  in favor of a lengthy exploration of love, sex, and self.

If you didn’t know Orlando was adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel published 95 years ago, it might easily be branded as a fantasia of feminism or a revisionist history of transgenderism. As it stands, the film (like its source material) proves to be surprisingly prescient. The film is littered with historical examples of gender fluidity, from the songs performed by castrati to the stunning costumes of Sandy Powell, in which Restoration-era men are adorned with enough frills and artifice to make the patrons of the Met Ball look Amish, while women are sometimes indistinguishable from furniture that has been mothballed for the season. Orlando seeks to demonstrate that if you think androgyny and gender blurring are modern phenomena, well, crack open a history book.

Part of the film’s delight is that it is intensely interested in the strange, but the word is never applied to the things we find most unusual in it. “How strange,” the new-found Lady Orlando notes as she castigates the leading poets of the day for their indulgence in casual misogyny even as they extol the virtues of their feminine muses. “How strange,” she repeats as she apologizes for her failure to acquire the name of the fascinating man who arouses love in her for the first time. But the fact of her femaleness in spite of her previous masculinity? Not weird at all. The fact of the gender shift (which is portrayed less as a binary switch and more as a clarification) is the one thing Orlando seems entirely certain about. The moment where Orlando first lays eyes on her new form is immensely powerful, not for the shock of the change or for any eroticism attached to the nude, but rather for the gentle and pleasant surprise she finds in discovering that her sense of self is fully intact, completely divorced from language or attitude or anatomy.

While watching Orlando, there’s an inclination to feel that not very much is happening, and Swinton’s nonplussed vibe can feel at odds with the engagement you might expect as a viewer. But she’s a sly one, that Orlando, and her tale has a vivid afterlife in the brain as you consider the whole of their experiences and realize that nothing has lingered in quite the way you expect. You feel pity for the deluded Archduke Harry rather than anger at his effrontery. You find unexpected grace in the romantic overtures of Billy Zane. And most of all, you discover that the seemingly empty gaze of Tilda Swinton is in fact triumphant, because she knows so much that you never will. And to demonstrate it, all she needs is the hint of a smile.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sally Potter’s marvelous 1992 film of this undeniably strange, altogether wonderful book now makes its way back to theaters after a digital restoration, and in a bleak cinematic landscape, this oddball film feels especially vital.” – Chris Wisniewski, Reverse Shot (2010 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by wuzzyfuzzums, who describes it thusly: ” Based on an equally weird novel by Virginia Woolf, our hero/heroine is an immortal aristocrat who transforms half-way through the movie from a man into a woman, for no particular reason.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ADULT SWIM YULE LOG [AKA THE FIREPLACE] (2022)

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The Adult Swim Yule Log is currently available for VOD purchase.

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Andrea Laing, Justin Miles, Charles Green, Tordy Clark, Brendan Patrick Connor

PLOT: It begins as an ambient shot of a Yule log, but then the cleaning lady walks into the frame, and soon enough we’re dealing with serial killers, aliens, occultists, flashbacks, and the Little Man: is this log haunted, or are the edibles hitting early?

Still from adult swim yule log [AKA The Fireplace] (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Considering the source, this prank probably caught no one off guard, but it is utter madness in seasonal horror. Don’t believe us? Read some responses on the Twitter thread.

COMMENTS: It would have been amazing if The Adult Swim Yule Log had managed to remain in that tight closeup on the crackling log for it’s entire 90 minute run time—a one shot, static found footage film—but that challenge exceeds even Casper Kelly’s ingenuity. He’s eventually forced to pull back and resort to a conventional omniscient third-person camera. Excepting a few haunted flashbacks, however, he does manage to stay locked into that perspective (with a small adjustment) for the entire first act.

But don’t be disappointed if you were looking forward to Yule Log pushing its fixed-camera conceit to the limit. The movie has plenty of other tricks up its sleeve. After a few minutes of a lightly orchestrated carols over hypnotic flames, the cleaning lady comes in tovacuum. Then there’s a knock at the door, and a couple of strangers arrive complaining of car trouble. A bit later, the couple who’s rented the cabin for a romantic weekend come in, and the film briefly turns into a relationship drama. And then some other visitors arrive with a dire warning, And then a quartet of attractive young podcasters arrive. And then things get… odd. The movie follows several threads at once, exploring a tragic backstory hearkening to the antebellum South, while introducing multiple inconsistent antagonists: serial killers, aliens, and the log itself, who puts in an inanimate performance nearly worthy of Robert the tire. And of course, there’s the dapper Little Man, who adds a real element of supernatural horror (and probably has a great recipe for fried chicken). What comedy there is arises naturally from the absurdity of the situation. But what impresses more is Kelly’s ability to create genuine unease and suspense amidst all the kookiness: a bit where a killer feeds a victim pimento cheese from a jackknife during a psychological cat and mouse duel, while another, more mentally-challenged killer selects a victim in the next room, creates horror tension worthy of a chef’s kiss. Then, of course, the scene resolves in the only way possible: through completely ridiculous deus ex machina. The unknown cast all competently enact slasher movie stereotypes, without ever winking at the camera. So accept your time privilege, grab a Nurse Nutmeg, and sit down by the fire to enjoy the soothing chaos of Adult Swim’s Yule Log. Yule like it.

Casper Kelly caught the world by surprise with his interminable viral sitcom introduction spoof “Too Many Cooks” in 2014. That success encouraged Panos Cosmatos to subcontract Kelly to direct the memorable “Cheddar Goblin” sequence in Mandy. Still, although Kelly continued to work on short projects for the edgy/surreal “Adult Swim” block on the Cartoon Network, his feature film debut was kept secret, coming as even more of a surprise than the fact that Adult Swim’s version of a Yule Log would go terribly awry. Now that Kelly’s broken out of the TV short game, it will be interesting to follow his career and see if he indulges his imagination with more conventionally distributed—if never conventional—material. For those who missed the original broadcast, Adult Swim’s Yule Log can be seen on HBO Max or purchased VOD (it’s a true bargain at $2.99 to own—not just to rent for the usual 48 hours). Here’s hoping it also receives the physical media release it deserves.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Adult Swim’s first fright flick is in the vein of schlocky ‘80s midnighters, where chaos trumps coherency. Maybe burn this hallucinogenic strain after you already have the munchies?”–Matt Donato, IGN (contemporaneous)