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Films I Neglected To Review:
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse," "Little Woods" and "Wild Nights with Emily."

''Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse,'' the debut feature from debuting filmmaker Lukas Feigegeld (in fact, it was his graduation project from film school) is being sold to audiences as a straight-up horror film and while it certainly does contain elements along those lines, it largely eschews the usual genre tropes for something altogether stranger and freakier--the kind of thing that might have resulted if Lars von Trier and David Lynch decided to team up reinvent themselves as the cinematic equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. Set in the 15th century in a remote region of the Alps stricken with both the plague and superstition, the locals have chosen to ostracize and isolate a little girl, Albrun (Celina Peter) and her mother, who struggle to keep their small farm going in the face of the always-punishing elements. Before long, the mother dies, leaving Albrun to evidently fend for herself, and when the story picks up roughly 20 years later, the adult Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is still living there with a newborn baby of her own. Continually harassed by her neighbors and the local priest, Albrun is clearly teetering on the edge of some kind of emotional collapse and is finally pushed over the edge by the actions of another villager (Tanja Petrovsky) who befriends her only to lure her into a horrible situation. From there, Album is plunged into a nightmarish situation filled with grotesque events and hideous visions but is she really experiencing all of these living nightmares or is she suffering from delusions?

Gorehounds looking for the usual array of jolts will most likely not get a lot out of ''Hagazussa''--it is an example of slow-burn cinema that isn't really interested in telling a conventional story as it is in creating and establishing a mood of unease and dread that viewers can almost literally feel in their bones throughout. In that regard, the film is an undeniable success. This is a dark and deeply despairing work that merges elements of ancient folklore with a decidedly offbeat visual style that is further enhanced by a creepy-as-hell score by avant-garde rock trio MMD. And while the film refuses to traffic in the kind of cheap jump scares that are seen far too often in horror films these days, that does not mean that Feigefeld is skimpy in regards to the shocks--there are some genuinely disturbing bits of imagery throughout and at least one scene that is so grotesque that anyone electing to go see it should not make any dinner plans for afterwards. Though some of it may be a little too stomach-churning for some viewers, ''Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse'' is a solid piece of filmmaking and announces Lukas Feigegeld as a name to keep an eye on in the future.

Set in a small town in North Dakota where the riches gained from the local oil wells have not quite made it to the people who actually live there, ''Little Woods'' opens with Ollie (Tessa Thompson) only a few days away from completing the probation that she received after being arrested for selling OxyContin on the black market and running inexpensive drugs from Canada. As she only committed these crimes in order to help pay for her adoptive mother’s medical bills while her sister, Deb (Lily James), was off making her own mistakes, Ollie is committed to completing her probation, getting a decent job out of state and starting a new life. Alas, when disaster falls--Deb has just learned she is pregnant with her second child and Ollie learns that the family home she was planning on leaving to Deb is about to be repossessed--Ollie finds that she has no choice but to reunite with her old partner (James Badge Dale), who is also the father of Deb's kids, to do just a little dealing in order to make the money necessary to save the house. Inevitably, this leads to her being forced to take bigger and bigger risks that eventually include a trip across the border to Canada that, for various reasons, Deb has to tag along on despite the danger for both of them if they get caught.

Nia DaCosta’s film is a hymn to the countless anguishes befalling the poor and desperate in the mode of such films as ''Frozen River,'' ''Winter's Bone'' and the Dardenne Brothers joint of your choice. While this film is certainly as depressing and foreboding as those films, there is something about the miseries that it doles out that come across as pure soap opera than neo-realism. The storyline never quite feels as authentic as it clearly wants to be and when the obstacles pop up during Ollie's path to start a new life, they feel like something that a screenwriter might throw into the mix than something borne out of real life. (With all of her conveniently ill-timed screw-ups, Deb in particular feels more like a contrivance than a character throughout.) The only aspect of the film that does come across as convincing is the performance by Tessa Thompson as Ollie. Her part is just as awkwardly written as everyone else's, especially in the contortions that it puts itself into so that Ollie can effortlessly slide back into her former life of crime without running the risk that the audience might think less of her as a result, but Thompson manages to ground it in enough of a sense of reality that viewers still have a rooting interest in her long after they have given up on the rest.

Anyone going to ''Wild Nights with Emily”'' expecting to see the usual depiction of poetess Emily Dickinson as a reclusive spinster who never tried to get her work published during her lifetime will no doubt be taken aback to see her shown her as a reasonably cheerful and lively sort embroiled in a longtime love affair with her best friend and eventual sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. According to this film, which has some of its assertions backed by recent research, the portrait of Dickinson that we have come to know in the years since her passing in 1886 was largely the creation of one Mabel Todd, a would-be writer who took her revenge on Dickinson for supposedly spurning her in life--largely because she was carrying on an affair with her brother--by shaping her identity in death, even going so far as to alter some erotically charged works written expressly about Sue in order to suggest they were meant for someone named Sam. Throughout the film, we witness Mabel delivering a long and entirely self-serving lecture about her good friend (a person whom she never actually met in real life) about key aspects of Emily's life and then we see the very different reality of the situation.

The concept of Madeline Olnek's film is intriguing enough and to see the juxtaposition between the familiar historical record and the reality behind it (while constantly reminding viewers that this corrective is not necessarily an exact depiction of these events either) is amusing for a little while. The trouble, however, is that once it establishes its conceit, the film doesn’t really have anyplace else to go and after a while, the whole thing plays like an episode of ''Drunk History'' that runs three times longer than usual while containing maybe half the normal number of laughs. As Emily Dickinson, Molly Shannon may not seem like the most obvious bit of casting but she does do a very good job of bringing this new take on the writer to life without letting it become merely a spoof and Susan Ziegler and Amy Seimetz are also good as, respectively, her lover in life and antagonist in death. These performances help but despite their efforts, the film never quite comes together as a whole and while I suppose I prefer its offbeat reality vs. fiction deconstruction than the usual stuffy biopic platitudes, ''Wild Nights with Emily'' doesn’t leave you with anything other than the desire to perhaps take another look at Dickinson's own work to see how it reads in the wake of these new revelations.

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originally posted: 04/20/19 00:31:57
last updated: 04/20/19 00:37:51
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