Tag Archives: Recommended

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

CAPSULE: A PURE FORMALITY (1994)

Una pura formalità

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DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for1.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.

Still from "World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime"

COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.

The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering  provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.

“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”

“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).

“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.

“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Mancino

PLOT: Gilderoy, an English foley artist, takes on a job at an Italian studio to work on a horror film, and his mind begins unspooling.

COMMENTS: My dear Mr Strickland—I so very much wish that you could keep focused! Having now seen half of his feature-length output, it is clear that he’s a man with many, many ideas. Too many, perhaps? More likely, he suffers from too little discipline. Berberian Sound Studio is a fascinating movie, with a creepy vibe that fills like a soap bubble slowly ballooning until it pops two-thirds the way through, leaving a splattered mess of shiny viscosity on the eyes (and ears) of the viewer. Ground this film all you like with a shy, affable performance from Toby Jones; the moment you turn him into a sadistic Italian, all bets are off.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an awkward Englishman with an awkward name who arrives at an Italian sound studio both ready to work and to receive compensation for his flight expenses. The work ahead of him is ample; the reimbursement, less so. Never mind; under the alternately conciliatory and remonstrative guidance of producer Francesco Coraggio, Gilderoy dives into the project. The brainchild of giallo director Giancarlo Santini, The Equestrian Vortex is, from the sound of it, a hyper-violent, hyper-stylized film involving a witch’s academy, featuring plenty of flashes back to horrible (and “historically accurate”) interrogations of suspected witches. Gilderoy finds the on-screen violence increasingly hard to handle.

The “on-screen violence” is never actually displayed. In fact, other than the opening credits for The Equestrian Vortex (its score composed by a “Goblin”-esque band called “Hymenoptera”), we see none of Santini’s opus. But we hear so very much. The droning introduction of the scenes for post-production dubbing almost always involves the phrase “flashback to witch’s interrogation.” Countless fruits and vegetables, both large (chopped watermelon) and small (plucked radish stems), act as the aural stand-ins for violent stabbings, hair-tearing, and everything in between. (The sound effect method for red-hot poker inserted vaginally is almost comically mundane.) Gilderoy’s practical effects team, two gents by the name of Massimo and Massimo, perform their slices, bubble-blowing, and wrenchings with deadpan professionalism.

The “behind the curtains” view of foley in the 1970s is by far the most interesting aspect of Berberian Sound Studio. There are plenty of sinisterly odd characters: aside from Massimo and Massimo, there’s the secretary from hell, the creepily congenial director, and the tragi-cryptic leading lady. But while this homage to giallo and sound becomes rather confusing, this never translates into weird—the sudden onset of head-scratchers undermines the atmosphere at the same time as it blasts a hole in the plot’s coherence.

As in his latest movie, In Fabric, Strickland (who also wrote both films) cannot keep himself from branching out to the point of muddying otherwise compelling experiences. These captivating messes are done with some kind of precision, I have no doubt, but I wish he could turn down the background noise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly distinctive and all but unclassifiable, a musique concrète nightmare, a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety, with strange-tasting traces of black comedy and movie-buff riffs. It is seriously weird and seriously good.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: POSSESSOR (2020)

AKA Possessor Uncut

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , ,

PLOT: In the near future, secret elite assassins carry out their work by possessing the bodies of innocent parties through a neural implant; Taysa, a top Possessor, has trouble on her latest assignment when the subject proves capable of sporadically suppressing her control.

Still from Possessor (2020)

COMMENTS: “This film has not been modified from its original version” is an odd notice to see on a movie in its first run. Releasing Possessor as Possessor Uncut is meant to play on the fact that Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature was refused an “R” rating, and the director declined to make the cuts (involving both sex and violence) required for the “restricted” rating. Thirty years ago that would have been a big deal, meaning no advertising in newspapers and boycotts by mainstream theaters (and Blockbuster Video). Nowadays, unrated movies—especially provocative art-house pictures and sordid genre films (Possessor fits both categories)—get theatrical releases all the time with little hoo-ha. Still, after watching a possessed hostess plunge and twist a knife repeatedly into her privileged white male target in Possessor‘s opening sequence, you will understand why they are making a big deal out of the “uncut” nature of this project. Possessor‘s violence is graphic, well-done, and fits the film’s disturbingly sociopathic tone.

Specifics of the technology that allows Possessor‘s assassins to ply their gruesome trade are left largely to our imagination. Some details are plot-important, however: possessors are psychologically tested to make sure their individual memories remain intact after a job, and technicians warn that it’s safe to inhabit the host bodies for only about 72 hours. Storywise, there is actually not a lot to follow: top hitwoman Taysa Vos (Risenborough, looking like she’s inhabiting the body of a young ) is feeling the stress of her lifestyle, spontaneously recalling scenes from her work life as she’s trying to re-establish her bond with her estranged husband and son. Her chillingly businesslike boss (Jason Leigh) calls her in for a lucrative job that involves possessing a man to murder his CEO father-in-law-to be as part of an extremely hostile takeover scheme. Things go badly, naturally, as Taysa finds that her neural connection with target Colin (Abbot) isn’t as steadfast as usual. The subject regains some measure of free will, complicating the job.

Like his father, Cronenberg fils knows when to ratchet up the unease with subtle touches (an establishing shot of skyscraper slowly spinning along the frame’s axis) and when to unleash the hounds. One of the odd features of this film is that our putative protagonist is, by necessity, off screen for most of the action. Her psychological motivations are equally absent; we don’t get any overt explanation as to why she does what she does, what makes her good at it, and why she’s willing to risk her family—and her sanity—for her distasteful job. This blankness makes her seem all the more of a monster, a perfect psychological parasite. The trippy sequences where she and her target battle for control of the body’s will feature images of molded mannequin heads melting and reassembling, and of Risenborough trapped in an ill-fitting mask. The imagery suggests not so much a Persona-styled existential crisis as it does a metaphor for a character battling for her own humanity. While not as aggressively weird as his unsettling debut film Antiviral (no celebrity steaks on offer here), Possessor is dark in the best/worst way, and will satisfy your desire for soul-freezing chills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This Cronenberg’s work is just as odd, bloody and twisted as that of his old man, but he’s not imitating the twistedness… whatever else it is, ‘Possessor’ feels authentically weird.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

9*. GEMINI (1999)

Sôseiji

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Masahiro Motoki, Ryô

PLOT: Yukio is a successful doctor, decorated for his service in the war. His wife Rin is an amnesiac. Yukio discovers he has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth—a resentful and savage twin, bent on revenge.

Still from Gemini (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tsukamoto adapted the story from a 1924 short story by Edogawa Rampo (“the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe”).
  • In an unusual move, fellow director assembled a 15-minute “making of” featurette to accompany the film on DVD.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first glimpse of the twin in the shadows. He looks just like Yukio, but wears ragged robes and a bizarre fur earmuff that covers half of his face. He shakes like he’s having a fit, then approaches the camera by doing cartwheels. It’s scary enough to give someone a heart attack.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyebrowless clan; somersaulting doppelganger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pulling back from the unbridled mania of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and similar body-horror experiments, Shinya Tsukamoto proves that he can generate cold sweats with a more subtle, purely psychological approach. With its deep shadows and determined pace, Gemini generates an uncanny horror that seeps into your bones.

The opening minutes of “The Making of Gemini

COMMENTS: Gemini begins with an abstract, ominous prologue. It Continue reading 9*. GEMINI (1999)