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Cemetry of Splendour (2015): Freedom Is in My Body

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)

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I am large, I contain multitudes. photo credit: moviepilot.de

Japan has Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto. America has Julian Schnabel and Elias Merhige. France has Claire Denis. Australia has Jane Campion. Iran has Abbas Kiarostami. Norway has Tomas Alferdson. The UK has Peter Strickland.  Czechoslovakia has Jan Svankmajer. Thailand has Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They are, arguably, the world’s ten greatest currently-working directors, and a new film from any of them is worth celebration. While most of the directors named above have in common that their films are often dreamlike (or nightmarish), Weerasethakul has always struck me as the one who works in the waking-dream vein most natively; everything about his films seems to be deeply connected straight back to the Brothers Lumiere and other fin de siecle avant-garde filmmakers. To experience a Weerasethakul film is to wander through a landscape that is at once entirely alien and constantly familiar.

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So tell me, doc, is it terminal? photo credit: thefilmstage.com

As is always the case, Weerasethakul’s protagonists are the broken and the marginalized. In this case, we have the trio of Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner, a Weerasethakul regular), a volunteer at a rural Thai hospital with a lame leg; Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram in her screen debut), a psychic whose gift keeps her in poverty; and Itt (Tropical Malady‘s Banlop Longmoi), one of the patients at the hospital–a group of soldiers who have been struck by a mysterious illness that puts them to sleep. Jen, who attended elementary school in the building where the hospital now resides, develops a bond with the comatose Itt, whose bed is in the same place her desk was back in the day. The two of them get to know one another during Itt’s infrequent periods of wakefulness. Or at least that’s what we see. Is that what’s happening, or is Jen dreaming all this, with Itt being channeled by Kang?

Weerasethakul’s canvas is full of shots that are pregnant with symbolism, and it becomes obvious relatively early on that all is not as it seems. And yet he keeps things grounded by casting this fantastical story in the most mundane setting possible. As we are experiencing this dreamlike plot, where deities take on human form, soldiers are put to sleep by ghostly kings, and everything is lit by these odd fluorescent towers standing beside each bed, the movie is riddled with shots that look like anything you’d see in your daily life. A patient naps in a wheelchair outside the hospital. A TV infomercial host visits a nearby park to hock a ridiculous product in person. In the movie’s opening shot, a mini-excavator is digging a hole just outside the hospital, and it is a constant presence in the film. Why is it out there digging holes? We have no idea (a few hypotheses are advanced by various characters, but they don’t know any more than we do). Kids play soccer. Jen and Itt go to the movies (and whatever trailer we see them watching, I desperately hope that movie really exists, because I’m dying to see it). It should go without saying, after fifteen years of gorgeously-shot Weerasethakul films, that both the outrageous and the quotidian are presented in such a way that it’s hard to imagine them any more beautiful than they are here. And as good as Weerasethakul’s first film, The Mysterious Object at Noon, is, it still seems to me that this director, who was already head and shoulders above the vast majority of his contemporaries fifteen years ago, gets better with every movie.

If there is a criticism to be leveled here, and it is minor in the extreme, it’s that some of the shots feel just a touch too long. And that’s the only nit I can even think about picking here.

The key to experiencing (one cannot just call it “watching”; Itt says at one point in the film that he is capable of smelling the flowers in his dream, and it makes perfect

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The sheer beauty of the Thai landscape is as much a character in the film as the actual characters are. photo credit: lux-nijmegen.nl

sense, because I practically felt the oppressive heat and humidity in some of those jungle shots) a Weerasethakul film is to avoid trying to parse it at all. Leave your cognitive function at the door and just let the images wash over you. Pieces of this movie are so intimate they’re deeply uncomfortable to watch, while others are lighter than air. Every time I see a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I’m convinced he’s hit the pinnacle not only of his talent, but of what film can do. And every time he puts out another one, he proves me wrong. I can’t wait to see what he does next. **** 1/2

 

Trailer.

The Devils (1991): You Have Been Found Guilty of Covenants with the Devil

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

The movie poster.

I feel as though my heart has been touched by Christ. photo credit: moviescreenshots.blogspot.com

N.B.: This is more of an essay than a review, and as such, some of what is contained herein could be considered spoilers. If that sort of thing offends you, enter at your own risk.

Spoiler Alert!

 

The Devils is one of those films that is much talked about in critical circles, but very rarely seen. So, when I got a chance to see it–even the US theatrical cut, without any of the censored footage added–I jumped. I mean, if for no other reason, who’s going to pass up a chance to see Oliver Reed on the big screen? Truth be told, with the exception of Altered States and his piece of Aria, I’ve never been a huge fan of Russell’s work, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I mean, Oliver Reed.

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Vanessa Redgrave gives “ministrations” an entirely new meaning. photo credit: bfi.org.uk

And The Devils is not without its flaws. To be fair to it, though, I prepped with a quick viewing of the BBC special Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils, which features a great deal of talk about all that censored material (as well as documenting the discovery of it all in the early 2000s), and so not seeing all that stuff, which is a lot of what gets talked about in said critical circles, was kind of a bummer. Especially when so much of it was either described, or shown piecemeal, during the documentary. (You can’t hear about a ten-minute sequence referred to repeatedly as “the rape of Christ” without wanting to see it. At least, not if you’re me. And there’s one scene that was cut out–bluntly, as if the editors wanted you to know there was more to it–during the film’s penultimate sequence that I’m not actually sure I could have kept my eyes open for, but knowing it should have been there and wasn’t, well….) And it is a far, far better thing than, say, The Lair of the White Worm. But then, what isn’t?

Picture it: 1600s France, the town of Loudun. King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage, returning from Russell’s previous film The Music Lovers), to whom we’re introduced in the film’s quite ridiculous opening scene, is an impotent fop, possibly mentally challenged, who has rapidly become the pawn of scheming Cardinal Richelieu (The Affair of the Necklace‘s Christopher Logue). France has long been at war with itself, the Catholics against the Protestants. Loudun, thanks to its governor (who, just before the movie starts, has succumbed to the Black Plague) and its charismatic priest Father Grandier (Reed), has been an exception to this rule; Catholics and Protestants live in harmony behind Loudun’s strong walls. But the walled cities of France have been falling one by one to proclamations, written by Richelieu and blessed by the King. All, that is, save Loudun; the governor was a close friend of the King’s, and extracted a promise before his death that the King would never touch Loudun’s walls. Meanwhile, Grandier may be a bit too charismatic for his own good, and a little too weak of will when it comes to sins of the flesh. He’s recently gotten the daughter of a local magistrate pregnant, and is lusted after not only by the townswomen, but by all the nuns at a local Ursuline convent, including Sister Jeanne, the Mother Superior (Vanessa Redgrave). All of these strands are brought together by the arrival of Baron de Laubardemont (Orlando‘s Dudley Sutton), a toady of Richelieu’s whose orders are to bring Grandier–and Loudun’s walls–down by any means necessary. With the help of exorcist Father Barre (For Your Eyes Only‘s Michael Gothard), he convinces Sister Jeanne that Grandier is actually in concert with the Devil, and has possessed her. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

As you might have figured by a plot synopsis about three times as long as I normally write, The Devils has a lot going on–and this alone makes it a far cry from many of Russell’s later films. It’s a movie that spits on politics and spits on religion, and as time has gone on, it’s gotten ever more topical. They thought it was seditious in 1971? As well, there are some fine performances on display. Reed shines, needless to say, as does Gemma Jones in her first screen role. Gothard plays his role as over the top as he can, and it works tremendously. In fact, there’s hardly a role here that isn’t performed in perfect service to the film’s excess. Speaking of excess, those sets by Derek Jarman? Beautifully profane.

The film’s major drawbacks are all down to its script. The central romance of it is treated with such shortness that, aside from advancing the plot, it might as well have not existed.

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Well, THAT seems to have struck a nerve. photo credit: iainfisher.com

The Black Plague features prominently in the first half of the film, and then disappears without a trace. I know some of the continuity problems have to do with the censors, but major pieces of the plot disappearing? That’s just down to a lack of editing. And the movie suffers for it, though everyone involved does the best they can with what they were given.

Overall, it’s a movie that should certainly be seen, and widely, given its cult status and its strong points. It is a good film, indeed, but not a great one. *** 1/2

 

Trailer.

Emelie (2015): When a Stranger Traumatizes

Emelie (Michael Thelin, 2015)

Emelie (Sarah Bolger)'s face dominates the top half of the white poster, with the children underneath, much smaller.

You may never want to leave the house again. Photo credit: flickeringmyth.com

In the interests of full disclosure: while I tries not to let my personal feelings about certain aspects of the film influence what I thought of it (believe me, I have more than enough empirical reasons to give it the rating it got), there is no way I could have walked out of this film unbiased. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it at all had I realized some of the details that fit portions of my life that are, shall we say, in a state of disintegration. I found a great deal of this movie painful to watch for reasons that very few other people will. But don’t worry, if you decide to subject yourself to this sleazy, hateful excuse for celluloid, you’ll probably find your own reasons to walk out of the theater horrified that anyone would have greenlit, much less produced, this movie.

Emelie (Bolger) and the kids say goodbye to the parents in a still from the film.

These kids think they’re in for a night of doing puzzles while the babysitter does homework… photo credit: joblo.com

Plot (normally I’d have considered much of this spoilers, but, well, THE NAME OF THE MOVIE): we open with a black car coming up to a young woman walking home from school. The driver asks for directions, and because said young girl has never attended any sort of school assembly about stranger danger, she’s more than happy to attempt to offer help, only to get herself abducted. Fast-forward to that evening, as the parents (Black Hawk Down‘s Chris Beteem and An American Affair‘s Randi Langdon) of a trio of rambunctious youngsters are getting ready to go out and celebrate their thirteenth wedding anniversary. Dad heads off to pick up the sitter, Anna, a sub for their normal child-herder; he’s never met Anna before. Thanks to the dialogue in the first scene, we can pretty easily guess what happened to Anna, and we know that the woman sitting on Anna’s front stoop is, indeed, not her. (Different hair color.) You’re probably thinking “well, this must be Emelie (The Lazarus Effect‘s Sarah Bolger).” And you’d be right. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that there’s something off about Emelie/Anna, but she seems to have some sort of atavistic-pheromone thing going on that immediately attracts Dad to her despite her being just plain weird. The parents head off, not suspecting for a moment that they’re leaving 11-year-old Jacob (Break Point‘s Josua Rush), seven-year-old Sally (Carly Adams in her screen debut), and four-year-old Christopher (Thomas Baer, also a screen newbie) in the hands of a woman with ulterior motives they wouldn’t believe.

But you will, because the first drawback to this movie is that it’s so predictable. The Big Reveal scene comes about 2/3 of the way through the movie, and man, how many times

Christopher (Michael Thelin) holds a cocked pistol to Emelie's head in a still from the film.

If you’re not rooting for the kid to pull the trigger by this point in the movie, you might want to consult a psychologist. photo credit: vimooz.com

have you seen it before? (Telling you where would give the game away, and I’m trying not to be spoilery, but I can think of at least two horror movies in the past thirty years with the exact same Big Reveal–oddly, both are French.) Every plot twist and turn, right up until the inevitable last shot, is writ large from moment one. Especially if you’ve seen the trailers. Predictability in a horror movie doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s tiresome here. Far more disturbing is that the filmmakers chose to try and catch the audience off guard with the “games” Emelie plays with the children. Things start off with a mix of the relatively innocuous (teaching the kids that “sometimes destroying things for fun is good”, doing artwork on the walls) and the flat-out nasty. While the younger children are easily moldable at the beginning, she starts off going full-tilt at seducing Jacob. As repulsive as it may be, it’s also the best part of the movie; Joshua Rush handles everything with aplomb, and he comes off as confused and awkward as an eleven-year-old would be were such a thing to happen. And then… that plotline just vanishes into thin air for reasons that, again, would be getting into spoiler territory. Now, I’m the first person in line to tell you that when it comes to trauma, kids are a lot more resilient than adults, but Rich Herbeck’s script, adapted from a story by director Thelis, seems to have gone out of its way to dredge up things that would specifically traumatize kids. If you walk out of this movie thinking that anyone involved will not be spending a lifetime in therapy, well, you may not have a pulse yourself.

That, ultimately, was what offended me enough about this movie to drag out the rarely-given zero-star rating; it’s a movie that has all the grindhouse sensibilities of a Roberta Findlay flick from the mid-seventies, but without the heavy-handed moralizing that, arguably, give one or two of Findlay’s movies a breath of something like a redeeming quality. Easily the worst movie I’ve seen so far in 2016. (zero)

The trailer, if for some reason you are still even remotely interested in this dog.

Queen of Hell: I’m a Sucker for the Witch

Jeff O’Brien, Queen of Hell (Riot Forge Studios, 2016)

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Jeff O’Brien pulls a trunk-novel move: he’s taken one of his earliest works (“Devil Rain”) and done some heavy revise-and-extend to turn it into a 120-ish page novella. And, as usual, for those of you who don’t want to stick around for the thousand-word breakdown, I’ll give you the tl;dr right up front: if you’re a fan of horror-comedy with a decidedly sexy (but surprisingly non-graphic) bent, then Queen of Hell should be right up your alley. It is not without its flaws, but it’s still one hell of a good time.

Plot: Byron is the middle-aged, somewhat befuddled owner of Mortal Threads, a small-town goth store that gets just about as much business as you’d expect a small-town goth store to get. As we open, Byron and Morticia, one of his employees, are out at a nightclub doing research when Byron meets the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Of course, it’s lust at first sight, and it seems to be mutual…until the woman disappears. And not just from the club; missing posters go up all over town, so Byron at least finds out her name: Mandy Fisher. It’s not long before she’s invading his dreams, then his waking hours, and he beings to wonder if her disappearance isn’t of the garden variety. It’s not a spoiler–we find out early enough in the novel–that it isn’t; Mandy has been chosen by the demoness Dralamyr for…something. (Okay, that WOULD be getting into spoiler territory.) Meanwhile, the townsfolk search, Byron dreams, and life goes on at Mortal Threads.

First, the good things about it: a pace that starts at “breakneck” and then just speeds up from there, a fine premise, some really fun characters. This is a book that knows how to have fun, and wants to take you along for the ride. Oddly, all of the book’s strengths are also its weaknesses. You’ve heard me say this half a hundred times about books written by authors who are affiliated with the bizarro movement, and I’m sure you’ll keep hearing it: this is a book that could easily have been twice as long as it is. There is a great deal more to explore in many facets of this story. There are also places where we get just enough character development to want a lot more–I could read an entire book about the trials and tribulations that brought Belinda to the sorry state in which we first encounter her here, for example. It’s odd to find a book whose strengths and shortcomings are so intimately intertwined, but there you have it.

It’s a fun little book, worth your time if you like your horror liberally spiced with comedy, and a quick read (it’s oddly taken me at least ten times as long to get round to finishing this review as it did for me to actually read the book). In other words, what have you got to lose? ***

The Witch (2015): It Goes Against My Catholic Upbringing, I Admit It…

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

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May God have mercy on my wicked soul.

I started hearing about The Witch almost a year ago. It’s not unheard of for a movie to get advance publicity, of course, but while it’s still in production? Then came the rave reviews from festivals. And trailers. And the more I heard about this movie, the more it sounded like the Second Coming itself. But, man, the more trailers we got, the more I found myself believing the hype. And then, finally, it popped up in wide release in the middle of February. This ain’t Oscar season, folks. At least, not usually. (This has been quite the February; Deadpool may still be stuck in people’s memories come the end of the year as well.)

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“Did I hear there’s a black goat somewhere out here who needs kissed?”

The movie starts out with enough crazy to let you know you’re in for quite the ride: in the opening sequence, William (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ralph Ineson) is getting thrown out of a Puritan plantation in 1630 for, basically, being too Puritanical. He and his family march proudly out of the meetinghouse and head off to start a new life on their own in the woods. Fast-forward to at least five years later; the previous four-person family has grown to seven. Along with William is his wife Katherine (Red Road‘s Kate Dickie); eldest son Caleb (Oranges and Sunshine‘s Harvey Scrimshaw) and eldest daughter Thomasin (the big-screen debut of Anya Taylor-Joy); a set of fraternal twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson, both in their big-screen debuts); and a new infant, Samuel. (We know it has to be at least five years later, as Jonas and Mercy don’t appear in the meetinghouse.) Things have not gone well for the homesteaders; their barn has never been completed. And things are going extra not-well this year, as their corn harvest has been hit with the blight. It doesn’t help that, during a game of peek-a-boo, Thomasin loses Samuel; he’s swiped, literally, out from under her nose, and in the few seconds it takes her to open her hands, all she can see of who or what took him is a bush rustling at the edge of the forest none of the children is allowed to go into. Can things get any worse? Well, William drafts Caleb into woods expeditions to try and trap food, keeping them a secret from the rest of the family. They continually find themselves confounded by a particular rabbit…

Horror fans expecting a bunch of jump scares are going to be disappointed by this film, but I think everyone else is going to be blown away by it. This slow-burner reads like Brian DePalma filtered through Ben Wheatley, but more subtle than the former and with more

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Watch this kid. He’s going places.

clarity–in the sense that no one ate any mushrooms they shouldn’t have been eatin’ (and there’s one throwaway-seeming line towards the end of the film that also rules out the other common cause of witch hysteria, ergot poisoning)–than the latter. The movie is phenomenally shot, with every camera angle designed either to show the bleakness of this family’s existence or the ever-present menace of the woods behind them. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect this movie of having been shot by Fred Kelemen, Bela Tarr’s cinematographer, which is about the highest compliment I can pay Jarin Blaschke. And to think, the best-known movie the guy had done before this was Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet. He’s come a long, long way in seven years. Running in perfect counterpoint to the cinematography is the movie’s stellar music, which is likely to put you in mind, if you’ve been reading the articles and listening to it on YouTube, of the rejected Exorcist score done by Lalo Schifrin. The score was done by Mark Korven (Cube), and he’s really outdone himself here. (Yes, you can get the score on Amazon. I’m stoked. And no, I’m not an Amazon affiliate, so I get nothing if you click that link.) Of course, you can have a whole lot of gorgeousness with cameras and sound and still have a crappy picture. But if you had told me before I just looked it up that Robert Eggers is normally an art/production designer, and that this is both his first full-length script and his first feature as a director, I’d have laughed in your face. But IMDB tells me it is so. (It also says his next movie, which he is also writing and directing, is a remake of Nosferatu. And if I read that on the page of almost any other director currently working today, I’d be disgusted. Instead, I’m salivating at the prospect.) And the cast. Good living Satan, the cast. Yeah, everyone here is good. Most of them are great. But the performance that blows this movie into the stratosphere is Harvey Scrimshaw’s. Don’t get me wrong, Taylor-Joy is perfect as the pre-Plymouth Carrie, Ineson plays the religious fervor warring with the hard times with as fine a hand as one could ask, and Dickie does “going slowly nuts” as well as I’ve seen anyone do in recent memory. But Scrimshaw? This kid is going places. When you get to that scene, the one where Scrimshaw goes from “part of an excellent ensemble cast” to “hey, suckas, I just stole this movie”, believe me, you’ll know it.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that the final sequence is unnecessary. The movie could have easily ended on the striking last shot of the penultimate sequence, and I doubt anyone in the audience I saw the movie with would not have come to the conclusion that said final sequence gave us. Granted, it allowed one of the film’s main actors (trying not to be spoilery here) a chance to do a but more real acting and show off some prodigious talent, but it still felt like overkill. This is, of course, the most minor of quibbles when one is dealing with a movie for which the word “transcendent” doesn’t feel like hyperbole. The Witch may be the best film of 2015. It’s certainly the best I’ve seen by a country mile. This is a movie you simply cannot miss. **** 1/2

The Forest (2016): The Girl Was Never There, It’s Always the Same

The Forest (Jason Zada, 2016)

The top half of Natalie Dormer's face disintegrates into a number of hangman's nooses on the film's poster.

No matter the quality of the movie, this poster is a minor work of genius. photo credit: film-book.com

The first thing you should know about The Forest is that Aokigahara Forest is absolutely a real place, the mythology surrounding it as depicted in the movie is spot-on, and it has been used as the basis of a number of Asian films (most notably for western viewers, Forest of Death, Danny Pang’s 2007 solo jaunt–though Pang relocated the forest to Thailand for the sake of his story). That may help this movie’s effectiveness for you. And to be fair to The Forest, it is a competently-made thriller with a couple of really good jump shots. However, there are a few things about the movie that left me, no pun intended, hanging.

Read the rest of this entry

The Revenant (2015): And On the Third Day He Rose Again, In Accordance with the Scriptures

Leonardo DiCaprio stares determinedly out of the movie's poster.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

For a while there, it seemed like Leonardo DiCaprio had lapsed back in time to the days when studios kept actors at their beck and call; if it wasn’t a Martin Scorsese picture, DiCaprio was nowhere to be found. He also seems to have overcome whatever malaise affected him after Titanic was such a smash, and has gotten back to the Leo we saw in films such as The Basketball Diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. Then, on the other hand, there’s Alejandro González Iñárritu. Iñárritu blasted out of the gate with Love’s a Bitch fifteen years ago, and a fine thing it was. Then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but the closest I can come to it is that he became a director of concept; his films were, while still somewhat enjoyable (with one notable exception that will be mentioned in passing later), more about The Grand Scheme of Things than they were about character. So here we are with The Revenant, and for those who don’t like to read below the fold, I’ll tell you that this is Iñárritu’s best movie in fifteen years, and for much the same reasons that made Love’s a Bitch such a good watch. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Read the rest of this entry

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