Tag Archives: Recommended

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: IN THE EARTH (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, ,

PLOT: During a pandemic, a park ranger guides a young scientist to join up with a lone biologist conducting an experiment deep in the forest, but an ancient spirit may be stirring.

Still from In the Earth (2021)COMMENTS: It seems that a forest has grown over that old Field in England through the centuries, but ancient necromantic and alchemical evils still have their roots deeply embedded there. Locals talk of the legend of the pagan demigod “Parnang Fegg,” who may haunt the woods into which Martin and Alma venture in search of the reclusive Dr. Wendle. As they penetrate deeper into the forest, the scary-enough realities of their pandemic-ridden civilization are overrun by cthonic horrors. Is the evil caused by the vengeful forest deity; by a misunderstood alien biology, as Dr. Wendle suggests; or is it merely a group madness stemming from the local fungi that jet their spores into the atmosphere?

“I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it,” cautions Dr. Wendle. Indeed, In the Earth isn’t built around logical explanations, or even around its characters. Instead, everything exists for the sake of three intense and immersive psychedelic montages—all flash and bang, sound and light—evoking horrors both ancient and current. Protagonist Martin grounds the film in bodily insecurity; he’s out-of-shape due to lack of exercise during quarantine, and  suffering from a nasty recurrent case of ringworm, too. As the film goes on, characters will suffer gruesome injuries, dwelt on in sickening closeups—anyone with a foot trauma phobia may want to avoid this one. But when the spore mist fills the air, the horrors migrate from the body to the mind.

Despite the minimalist four-characters-in-a-forest setup, In the Earth will play best in theaters; you need that big screen and surround sound for the complete experience. It all starts with the sound design, embedded in the rustling forest and anchored by another superb Clint Mansell score, all highlighted by a disturbing electronic cacophony played from the speakers hooked up to the trees. (The soundtrack can get startlingly abrasive, but it always puts you right in the middle of the film’s nightmares: it can be hard to distinguish the diegetic effects from sonic hallucinations added in post-production.) Then the visuals come on: fast cuts of experimental effects, mushrooms and dandelions bent by fish-eye lenses, red dyes spreading through oil, shots that look like you’re staring right through the floaters in your retina and the veins in your eyelids as bright light penetrates your eyeballs. Shadowy figures flash for milliseconds in the strobe lights. They aren’t being overcautious with that epilepsy warning, folks. I’d predict this one will end up as a minor drug culture favorite.

Wheatley conceived and wrote In the Earth soon after the pandemic hit, and shot it even faster (a fifteen day shooting schedule was all that was required). Still, it doesn’t feel rushed so much as in-the-moment. There is a certain refreshing humility to In the Earth—this is not a lavish, elaborately-planned-out multi-million dollar spectacle, but something the director has made out of necessity, adapting to circumstance. He made it because he has to make movies with whatever resources are available; if Covid-19 has temporarily shut down the studios, he’ll take his camera and a skeleton crew out to the woods. Good for him.

My only reservation is that In the Earth feels a little too much like an update of A Field in England, with flashier color trips and an overlay of pandemic anxiety, but minus the eccentric feel and esoteric setting. In the Earth isn’t entirely new ground for Ben Wheatley, but it taps into the zeitgeist and delivers its hefty payload of cosmic/folk/body/WTF horror with spiffy efficiency. If you’re a reader of this site, there’s an excellent chance that it’s right in your wheelhouse. After all, check out a small but representative sample of negative IMDB reviews: “Beyond weird and horrible”; “i have no idea what it was about”; “makes me feel like I should’ve taken acid before going to the film so I could understand what was going on.” If those quotes don’t get you excited to check this one out, I don’t know what will.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wheatley’s always been most effective prowling around in the murky depths of the subconscious, and ‘In the Earth’ — which is raw and weird and deeply unsettling, like a fungus found growing in some long-ignored abscess — well, this piece of work has his fingerprints all over it.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: 5000 SPACE ALIENS (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Scott Bateman

FEATURING: 5,000 individuals, new and old

PLOT: None.

COMMENTS: Before diving into a brief review, let me say that this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen this year.

Wow.

Now, removing my fanboy hat, let me don my critical reviewer cap. Expanding on his 600 Space Aliens short from 2016, Scott Batemen enters “feature length” territory with this barrage of rotoscoped, scrapbooked, distorted, pigmented, animated images of 5,000 individuals1. According to the brief introduction, all entities on display have been determined to be “space aliens” according to the “Space Alien Commission” (which receives a special thank-you in the closing credits). Bateman advises us to “[w]atch carefully. Memorize all 5000 space aliens. After viewing, please dispose of this film by eating it.”

The introduction’s playful tone is maintained throughout the eighty-three-and-a-half minute run-time. (For our “physical and mental safety, each alien is shown for only one second.”) Each clip is altered in one way or another, sometimes simply (blurry black-and-white), sometimes elaborately (intricate underlays behind a stylized rotoscoping of the “alien” in the foreground). Random textual blurbs are scattered throughout in the form of three-to-six word phrases cropping up somewhere on the screen (a couple of my favorites being, “give thanks to our fetishes” and “science brain parts”).  A pulsing, power-pop synth score composed by the filmmaker drives the whole shebang, making 5000 Space Aliens an absolute must for your post-COVID art-dance house party.

Of the dozens (hundreds?) of word blasts, the most pertinent may be “text book on embalming.” I feel it distills the nature of this smilingly cryptic project. The torrent of humanity and movement Bateman captured is hypnotic; it isn’t often that I happily sit through over an hour of random images. The effect was pleasantly disorienting, so much so that when an un-doctored image of a young woman appeared, I was seriously thrown for a loop. (Mind you, the solid blocks of vermilion red streaming up from her coffee mug were probably added in post-production).

And on the topic of post-production, I shudder to think how long that took Scott (mind if I call you “Scott”?) to compile this. Every single second is bursting with life from his augmentations, be it kinetic line-o-grams or the overtly -esque animations utilizing black-and-white photographs of older “space aliens.” The second thank-you in the credits went to his cowdfunding backers, and with my brain joyfully glazed over by his efforts, I wish I could have helped him out myself. When you next have five-thousand seconds to kill, I advise you take up the challenge of observing and memorizing this barrage of human space-alien cinematographical wonderment.

OFFICIAL SITE:

5,000 Space Aliens – Official website providing plenty of  information (screening times, contact links, “About the Filmmakers”, etc.) as well as a sample from the soundtrack

12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

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“I think we’re living in a world that in fifty years we’re not going to recognize, because now we produce real objects. But with augmented reality… we’re going to transform the world.” -Miguel Llansó

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Llansó

FEATURING: Daniel Tadesse, Guillermo Llansó, Gerda-Annette Allikas, Solomon Tashe,  Lauri Lagle

PLOT: Agents D.T. Gagano and Palmer Eldritch must enter the CIA-created alternate reality, “PsychoBook”, in order to investigate a sentient computer virus, Soviet Union. Abandoned within the virtual reality, Gagano finds himself in _Beta Ethiopia, where strongman/president/superhero-villain BatFro conspires with Soviet Union to distribute a VR byproduct known as “the substance.” Gagano’s reality-side fiancée, who hopes to open a kick-boxing academy, must now live with the prospect of him being trapped in a portable television display.

BACKGROUND:

  • An Estonian computer museum provided inspiration for the hardware aethestic in Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, but the machines on screen were mostly Apple products from the early 1990s.
  • Solomon Tashe,  who plays the African strongman dictator “Batfro,” , is a much-loved Ethiopian media personality.
  • The unusual name “Mister Sophistication” was lifted from John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. However, like other characters in Llansó’s films, he was based on a regular at the Club Juventus, a gathering spot in Addis Ababa for Italian ex-pats and other larger-than-life clientèle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Take your pick. Perhaps it’s stop-motion Richard Pryor and Robert Redford investigating a house infiltrated by a computer virus assassin. Perhaps it’s the “Jiminy Cricket” CIA AI spouting knee-high advice to Agents Gagano and Eldritch. And perhaps it’s the melodramatic conversation between a super-sweetie BBW kick-boxer and her television-bound lover. For the record, however, the official “Indelible Image” is cross-dressing super-spy, Captain Lagucci, sprinting off a roof to save a portable television. Much like Miguel Llansó, Lagucci just… runs with it.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coked-up Batfro to the rescue!; CIA Man trapped in a TV

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Llansó manages to make an “anything and everything” approach to imagery, symbolism, dialogue, and scenario gel into a unified whole. Obviously the plot for JSYtWttH is bonkers, and that’d be enough, but its mountain of antiquated tech, dizzying opening credits, vibrant colors, bug aliens, MIT conspiracizing, Cold War derring-do, and… You get the picture; just about everything in this movie makes it weird.

Trailer for Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

COMMENTS: “Loading. Please wait.” Not a typical beginning for a Continue reading 12*. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HAM ON RYE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tyler Taormina

FEATURING: Haley Bodell, Cole Devine

PLOT: A large group of teenagers gather together at a restaurant for an assembly to determine their future.

Still from Ham on Rye (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ham on Rye is essentially a “coming of age” drama, but the fact that it never reveals what exactly is going on makes this uncomfortable viewing for many, and deliciously odd for those who have a stomach for ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Tyler Taormina kicks off Ham on Rye with a simple visual hook: a cigarette lighter refusing to ignite. For minutes. Until it does, and the tension is released as it lights up a firework. Throughout, there are shots of birthday party attendees waiting for the release. The sun shines brightly, the gifts are stacked high, and we wait, and wait, and wait. While we do get the satisfying resolve of the party pyrotechnics, in the narrative itself there is no resolution to speak of; at least, not for most of the characters—and certainly not for us.

Ham on Rye‘s first half shows us a little bit about everyone as they head to “Monty’s,” a diner which we are informed “recently painted the hand on their sign green.” As the teenagers, all dressed to the nines (in a sartorially inept high school kind of way), enter the restaurant, they each in turn press their hand against the painted hand on the window, and brace themselves for their fate. After a meal, they awkwardly dance along to songs playing on the jukebox. Then, when “Tonight I’m Gonna Fall in Love Again” cues up, they immediately snap to attention and a bizarre ritual begins. Some are lucky, partner up, and then disappear from the film; the rest are left to an ambiguous doom.

Taormina plays the premise straight, and only reveals modest details through snatches of conversations. Something important is going to happen to these young adults: after the tension-lighter introduction there follows an extensive montage of the youths getting dressed and ready, followed by dropped hints about impending risk and efforts by each group to pump themselves up. When a father sees off his boy in a carpool heading to Monty’s, he begins all gratitude and reminiscence, but as the car pulls away, he incongruously shouts after it, “DON’T MESS IT UP! DON’T MESS IT UP!” until he’s out of earshot. What shouldn’t be “messed up”? It is is never made entirely clear.

Ham on Rye‘s second half follows the leftovers from the ritual. Night has fallen on the city, and aimless depression has sunken in. One kid, who works at Monty’s, is reassured, as it were, by a friend, “Look, man, it sucks, right? And you can let it suck… or not let it suck. Or something.” We see the world they’re in no differently. Humdrum suburban life. Backyard barbecues. Drinking. Games of Uno. But the lucky ones have disappeared. So are they living a fate worse than death? Taormina refuses to tell us. He discourages us from even trying to understand. At a post-Monty’s party, one of the lads who didn’t get lucky remarks (about something, also left unspecificied), “You can’t see it. But if you get a really good microscope and look really hard… You still can’t see it.” This movie will confound anyone seeking narrative clarity, but its absence is exactly what makes Ham on Rye such an appetizing enigma.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At first glance, Tyler Taormina’s ‘Ham on Rye’ plays like ‘Dazed and Confused’ with more poetry and less connective tissue, or ‘Eighth Grade’ with benevolence in place of cruelty. Then things get weird…  a work of gentle, genuine American surrealism…”–Ty Burr, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Russ Joyner, who called it “an utterly unique film — come for the American Graffiti-through-a-Lynchian-lens aesthetic, stay for the surrealistic soul-crushing aftermath of snuffed out dreams — but with the faintest whiff of optimism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FATHER (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Florian Zeller

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Anthony, an old man with dementia, has difficulty recognizing the people around him, or remembering where he is.

Still from The Father (2020)

COMMENTS: The Father delivers exactly what its synopsis and trailer promise it will: a movie with the shape of a psychological thriller and the emotional punch of a heartrending drama. And, of course, a performance for the ages (and the aged) by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Directing from his own play, first time filmmaker Florian Zeller delivers a tight screenplay that disorients viewers, purposefully. We follow (loosely speaking) the story of Anthony and his daughter Anne, as the old man tries to retain first his independence, and then his simple dignity, as his mind slips away into dotage. There are temporal incongruities; Anthony thinks things that actually happened a decade ago occurred just yesterday, and script’s timeline mimics this dislocation by jumping forward and back (and in one memorable scene, forming a perfect circle). Anthony’s daughter and son-in-law are sometimes played by different actors—not to mention the numerous aides he cycles through—we can never be sure if they’re new hires, or old ones Anthony simply doesn’t recognize. Locations also change, and mysteries emerge: why doesn’t Anthony’s other daughter visit him? Is Anne moving to Paris, or not? The few scenes without Hopkins in them seem to reflect a canonical reality, but even then we can’t be 100% sure; one scene in particular seems to reflect Anne’s dark fantasy.

Ironically, although we come to identify with him, we do not learn a lot about Anthony as a person. Anne drops hints as to his previous career—which was not a tap dancer—and we know he loves opera. But much of his personality is disappearing into the murk of Alzheimers; Anthony is headed towards a generic senility, in the process of becoming less and less of a individual. This, of course, is the tragedy that Hopkins is capturing as his weathered face registers irritation, confusion, and dawning fear. The loss of individual memories suggests the loss of everything that makes us unique. The big final emotional breakdown scene may be the tiniest bit overdone, but Hopkins sells it—and at any rate, the movie has banked enough empathy by this point that it could get away with almost anything.

Olivia Colman’s supporting work as the stressed-out daughter is great, but this is understandably Hopkins’ showcase. Although he’s not slowing down, it’s almost a shame for the octogenarian to act again; he could not hope for a better role than this to end his career.

Although eligible for the 2020 Oscars, The Father did not show up in theaters until 2021; had it debuted earlier, it would have crashed my top 10 mainstream films list for the past year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… very little is what it seems in this meticulously constructed jewel box of a film… Not since ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ has a filmmaker so thoroughly put the audience inside the experience of a protagonist, to such shattering emotional effect.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)