Tag Archives: Supernatural

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LAST WAVE (1977)

aka Black Rain

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Note: As this review discusses a film featuring Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal actors, we wish to inform any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers that this article contains the names and images of individuals who have died. No disrespect is intended. (Guidance taken from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Weir

FEATURING: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil, Nandjiwarra Amagula, Olivia Hamnett

PLOT: An Australian tax attorney takes defends a group of Aborigines accused of murder, and begins to recognize his dreams as apocalyptic visions; his clients confront him with his role in the coming cataclysm. 

Still from The Last Wave (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The Last Wave takes the already-mysterious and disorienting world of dreams and infuses them with Aboriginal mysticism, virtually guaranteeing dissociation and confusion in an audience which the filmmakers know will be predominantly made up of Western-thinking white people. If you find yourself struggling to understand what one man’s cryptic nightmares have to do with the historically unbalanced relationship between Australia’s native population and the Europeans who colonized the continent, then everything is going precisely according to plan.

COMMENTS: Peter Weir tells the story of a screening of his 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, at which one prospective distributor reportedly threw his coffee cup at the screen in fury at having wasted two hours of his life on “a mystery without a goddamn solution!” The moment clearly stuck with Weir, and I suspect it was bouncing around in his mind as he began to conceive The Last Wave. It didn’t exactly persuade him to be more explicit about his intentions, but the film feels like it’s actually delving into the passions that fuel the rage over What Art Means.

Richard Chamberlain’s comfortable solicitor, David Burton, could very well be standing in for that cup-slinging critic. A white man in Australia, and a lawyer to boot, he is the very picture of upright, unquestioning conformity. With his wife, two kids, and backyard tennis court, he would seemingly have everything he could want in life. The last thing he needs are questions without answers. So all the strange dreams he’s been having about water, a mysterious Aboriginal man, and the end of the world are most unwelcome.

What follows is a chronicle of one man’s effort to provide an explanation for what seems inexplicable. He interprets the request to serve as counsel for a group of Aborigine defendants as a quest for a deeper truth. As David learns more about the cultural standards of the community that underlie the killing, he becomes increasingly determined to present the mystical elements as a solid defense. He instinctively knows he is expected to let these things go, but his desperate need for order and explanation override his sense of his place Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE LAST WAVE (1977)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: WHITE TIGER (2012)

Belyy tigr

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko, Valeriy Grishko

PLOT: In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet army is confronted by a fearsome opponent in the form of a single, unnaturally deadly tank; the best hope for victory lies with the only man to survive an attack by the armored vehicle, a soldier with retrograde amnesia who survived extensive burns and now possesses an uncanny ability to out-think the machine.

Still from White Tiger (2012)

COMMENTS: They call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov.” The last word literally means “found,” and the name is the Russian equivalent of “John Doe.” He is discovered in the charred remains of a wrecked tank, covered with burns over nearly his entire body. He is nearly given up for dead, but he recovers with astonishing speed. How he could be alive is a terrific mystery, but there’s a war on, with no time for such diversions. He remembers nothing before being found except for the ability to drive a tank, so they call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov” and do the only thing they can do: put him in uniform and throw him back into the battle against the Nazis. 

But World War II is really beside the point, because the real battle is a timeless struggle between two archetypal foes: the soulless killing machine and the pure knight sent to vanquish it. Naydenov and the White Tiger are purposely stripped of identity; the soldier has no past while the tank has no crew. We see the tank wipe out an entire squadron of Soviet vehicles, and it becomes clear why the Russians and Germans alike are terrified of the mechanized death-dealer. Only Naydenov is undeterred; he is able to outwit the tank as no one else can, but they are too perfectly matched for either to triumph.

Presenting the White Tiger as a legitimate threat is a significant task. Other films have tried to depict the malign power of inanimate vehicles, some more successfully than others. The filmmakers use a crafty blend of camera framing, sound design (including a wonderfully unnatural thwoomping sound for the beast’s cannon), and practical effects to give the White Tiger its power. Meanwhile, the character of Naydenov (an evangelically determined Vertkov) has been stripped down to the most basic elements needed to defeat a tank. He has an innate sense of tactics, a prognosticator’s insight into the tank’s next moves, and a zealot’s indefatigable passion for the chase. When Naydenov tells his superior officer that he will pursue his adversary forever, it seems like that’s exactly how long it will take. 

For much of the film’s running time, the movie is taken up with two questions: How will our heroes vanquish this opponent, and what is the mystery behind the two combatants’ hidden identities? Neither of these questions will be addressed in the slightest. Instead, White Tiger takes a truly strange turn in its final act, when it leaves the battlefield to depict Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union (and the other Allied powers, although they barely figure here). This sets up what appears to be the film’s true thesis statement: that the battle between good and evil cannot be confined to nationalities, and that evil only rises up when the will of the masses summons it. A reasonable sentiment, except that it is delivered by, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who suddenly comes to us from beyond the grave to explain to a faceless companion that the Nazis only waged their campaign of death against the Jews because the rest of Europe secretly wanted it but lacked his fortitude, and that the impulse will surely rise again. Not my fault, he insists. The rest of Europe made me do it.

What does this unsettling scene mean? Unfortunately, this question has a ready and alarming answer, and it lies in the fact that this Hitler’s threat and the implicit defense for warfare sounds strikingly similar to the language Russia used to justify its invasion of Ukraine a decade after the film’s release. This can no doubt be laid at the feet of Shakhnazarov, the movie’s director and an extremely vocal supporter of Vladimir Putin. As noted in a recent discussion of the earlier Shakhnazarov film Zerograd, the filmmaker has publicly warned that is Russia were to lose in its current incursion, “it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and will send all Russians there without mercy.” It’s an almost-exact recapitulation of the take on history that White Tiger’s Hitler provides, and reveals this otherwise intriguing ghost story to be odious propaganda. The weirdest thing about the movie turns out to be its interpretation of good and evil, and just who sits on which side. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, wondrous tale of an eerie white fascist tank that appears, attacks and vanishes, leaving smoldering Russian tanks and cremated corpses in its wake… luckily, Shakhnazarov’s powerful image-making largely subsumes the film’s many peculiarities.”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

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

White Tiger
  • DVD
  • Multiple Formats, NTSC, Widescreen
  • English (Subtitled), English (Dubbed), Russian (Original Language)
  • 1
  • 90

CAPSULE: BROOKLYN 45 (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Ted Geoghegan

FEATURING: Anne Ramsay, Ezra Buzzington, Archibald Stanton, Kristina Klebe, , Ron E. Rains, Jeremy Holm

PLOT: Following the close of the Second World War, Colonel Hockstatter invites his friends over for a séance in the hopes of contacting his dead wife; the evening turns out to be far more illuminating than any of the attendants would have hoped for.

Still from Brooklyn 45 (2023)

COMMENTS: One could, theoretically, craft a languid melodrama in which old friends with unspeakable pasts gather one evening at Yuletide, weighed down by the tension of physical proximity and psychological burdens, until revelations crash through the civil veneer. But, thank goodness, Ted Geoghegan said, “Nuts to that.” Brooklyn 45 is a ghost story, thriller, chamber drama—and I emphasize the singularity of “chamber” here—and contemplation on the horrors of war. Brooklyn 45 makes its zippy pacing believable by taking full advantage of its catalyst: a séance.  A communication with the dead. The past. And there are few groups of five characters with as messy a shared history as Marla, a former interrogator; Bob, a Pentagon desk-jockey; Archie, a real Yankee doodle dandy; Paul, an all-brass veteran; and Clive, a broken widower.

Brooklyn 45 is a period piece that plays out like a period production. It would be at home as a TV special from the 1970s, with its faded-candy-colored sets, props, and costumes. The dialogue isn’t stilted, but echoes vintage radio. The action (so to speak) rests at the intersection of Clue! and Twelve Angry Men. It even features a delightfully subtle opening of a curtain, as we see three people arrive at their place of judgement, and then later closing on three of the players exiting the bloody drama. We are watching performances; we are listening to reminiscences; we are being told a story.

This story is, at least, five stories. And while a keen attention to period detail anchors the viewer (I particularly enjoyed the empty packet of “Westerfields”), that doesn’t mean we’ve been abandoned in a do-nothing room. Various punctuations act as triggers: a door is sealed; a light switch turned off; the radio is silenced; and, before expected, a gun is fired. Geoghegan’s self-assurance is apparent here, as he does not shy away from the tools a contemporary teller of tales has on-hand. Time is of the essence, and there is much to learn as we are locked in a room with war criminals, spies, torturers, and ghosts.

We’re also in this room with Bob, the milquetoast bureaucrat. His wife, Marla, moving so assuredly with cane in hand and firm tone on her lips, intrigues from the start. Archie alternately charms and disappoints (morally speaking) as a semi-closeted homosexual awaiting a war crimes trial. Major DiFranco hits all the right notes;  a highly moral military man with some serious regrets. And Colonel Hockstetter evinces confusion and pity. But Bob, whose mild-manner immediately telegraphs he is doomed to a radical shift, is introduced as, and remains, a cipher. Brooklyn 45 is about the past, and the weight it bears down on the present. With this cryptic character, Geoghegan demonstrates that, even though he plays many cards in this film, he’s still keeping a few close to his chest. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

” I was very pleasantly surprised to find a film so very oddly tender and tragic at the heart of a story that also features ectoplasmic seances and Geoghegan’s trademark pension for schlocky gore…”—Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (contemporaneous)

Brooklyn 45 [Blu-ray]
  • Feature length audio commentary by writer/director Ted Geoghegan

CHANNEL 366: COPENHAGEN COWBOY (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angela Bundalovic, Andreas Lykke Jørgensen, Li Ii Zhang, Jason Hendil-Forssell

PLOT: Miu, an 18-year-old girl with mysterious powers, becomes involved in the Copenhagen crime scene after being sold to a pimp’s sister as a “lucky coin.”

Still from Copenhagen Cowboy, Season 1 (2023)
Copenhagen Cowboys. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2022

COMMENTS: If any Refnheads are somehow unaware of the quiet debut of six episodes of slow, stylized, depravity from Denmark, well… you’re about to be thrilled. Refn continues the style he’s honed through Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), and The Neon Demon (2016): minimalist plot development spiked with bouts of brutal violence, glowing primary color lighting, and noirish criminality, adding a stronger-than-usual dose of stylish conceptual weirdness.

Angela Bundalovic, in a performance that can only be described as “restrained,” centers the movie in an inscrutable charisma. Rail-thin and clad in baggy clothes, Miu begins as an androgynous figure, opening with a scene where a gaggle of Eastern European women take snips off of her bowl haircut for luck. (It’s surprising to learn waifish Bundalovic is actually 27-years-old; she almost looks too young to be Miu’s professed 18.) Later attempts to sexualize Miu will fail; she’s neither feminine nor masculine, but (perhaps literally) alien. Standing quietly and staring with an unreadable expression is her signature move. Circumstances will force her hand and, through clever editing and choreography, reveal her to be a deadly hand-to-hand fighter. That it’s believable that this stick of a chick could pulverize manly men in single combat is a testament to the quiet confidence she exudes. By the time a corrupt criminal lawyer who knew her from before she was sold to the brothel encounters her again, we aren’t surprised that his face betrays more than a tinge of fear. Miu is one badass lady, and season one does not approach the limits of whatever power she possesses.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” languorously makes its way through various red-and-blue-neon-lit chambers, as Miu migrates from the hellish brothel to a Chinese restaurant, with a stopover at a pig farm. The series indirectly explores immigrant experience in the EU, as nearly all the main characters, whether Eastern European or Asian, are undocumented and driven into a common underground criminal counterculture. As the series goes on, a worthy adversary for Miu emerges: a decadent, lily-white, aristocratic moneyed family. They have closets full of perversions: ritual sadism, a phallic sex cult, and strong hints of incest. Are they the indigenous Danish elite, feeding on the underclass? Perhaps, but it turns out that they, like Miu, may be alien to this world, products of witchcraft—or worse. That sounds like a lot of plot development—and we haven’t even mentioned the Chinese gang, or Miu’s brief stint as a drug dealer—but everything spreads sparely across the series’ six-hour runtime, with reveals coming in drips. And fear not, there are plenty of weird adornments to Refn’s moody backgrounds: a man who only communicates in pig squeals, a dead sister resurrected, Miu’s face flowerized.

Probably the biggest issue with the series is its incomplete nature. Episode 6, “The Heavens Will Fall,” hints at answers to Miu’s origin while leaving the actual nature of her newest occult antagonist up in the air. Refn has some pull with a small audience, and brings Netflix a niche prestige they enjoy, but his following isn’t big enough to make a second season a sure bet (about two-thirds of the streamer’s series get picked up for round two, with prospects dropping significantly for a third go). Ending “Copenhagen” on what is, by Refn standards, a cliffhanger is a gamble. It would be disappointing if we didn’t get to see where Miu’s winding path takes her next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…so weird, it’s shocking Netflix took a risk on it… fans of the unpredictable, the bizarre, and the deviant will be delighted to see the streamer investing so heavily in the auteur’s flights of phantasmagoric fancy.”–Nick Schager, The Daily Beast (contemporaneous)

(This series was nominated for review by Parmesan74 (letterboxd). Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

PLOT: A bartender and a divorcee witness supernatural phenomena and fall into an increasingly disturbing—and increasingly compromised—investigation into patterns, aliens, multiple dimensions, and secret societies as they try to come to terms with their own reality.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Returning to their Endless musings, this filmmaking duo once again fuse unsettling metaphysics with comedy-tinged chamber drama, creating a fantasy which straddles the cosmically significant and the piercingly mundane.

COMMENTS: Levi has the aura of a past-his-prime surfer bro, crashing through life as he tries to stay ahead of an unfortunate criminal past. He awakens in a spartan apartment, crummy even by dirt-cheap Los Angeles standards, and encounters another tenant in the side alley. Bumming a cigarette, Levi learns in brief that this is John, who recently separated from his husband—and so is new to the whole “smoking” thing. They hit it off, more or less, despite John being a bit stilted and over-eager and Levi being disconcertingly cryptic; is Levi actually a bartender? And what’s this “charity” work he mentions? After John drops off some old furniture in a neighborly gesture, the trap is sprung for their strange investigation: there’s a play of light through a crystal ashtray, and as Levi enters from the kitchen, both men witness it hovering.

The LA setting and pervasive mystery-cum-layered-conspiracies brings to mind Under the Silver Lake, but this digs more deeply through time and space while achieving a personal, claustrophobic tone. Nearly all the action—supernatural and otherwise—occurs in the two-room apartment. (Well, three-room, I suppose, but we never see an oft-mentioned bedroom.) While John and Levi pursue answers to the localized irregularities (suspects come to include an ancient Pythagorean Society, pre-historic alien visitors, and brain maggots from cats), the pair attempt to document their findings. However, both are prone to lying and to showmanship. What is on-screen is unreliable, and there may be nothing really going on outside the norm.

But that’s the point. This is actually a film about two men, reaching middle age, having achieved nothing. John is professionally washed-up and a member of an evangelical apocalypse cult, Levi is a registered sex offender (for reasons both amusing and tragically bureaucratic), burdened by guilt over his responsibility for his sister’s unfortunate downfall. The exploration of the mystery around them acts as a vehicle for their own self-revelation. A poignant scene near the finale has the pair of them recording the other, going blow-by-blow about how they’re both losers who have either destroyed their lives or never built one in the first place; as they exchange accusations, every item in the apartment floats around ominously.

The cinematic world of Something in the Dirt exists within The Endless‘ troubling confines, and the ultimate fate that Levi faces echoes that risked by the two brothers in their earlier film (itself an expansion of the vision first laid out in Resolution). The implication is that the inscrutable entity which is playing with time and space is now broadening its grip. The nonsensical conspiracy-fluff behind the rabbit holes within rabbit holes is interesting (“We’re not going into Dan Brown territory, are we?” a skeptical Levi inquires of John early on), but the meat of Benson and Moorhead’s message is closer to the philosophy found in Steppenwolf. We are doomed to repeat and re-digest this farce that is our life; but this condemnation brings with it our hope for salvation. Eventually, we might figure out the true pattern, and everything will make sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once again, Benson and Moorhead prove that they can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.”–Chris Evangelista, Slash Film (festical screening)