PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.
Miyazaki had retired from directing feature films after 2001′s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like a replica of Baba Yaga’s hut invented by a mad steampunk billionaire.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.
Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle
PLOT: A nameless man is released from prison and hitchhikes across the West heading for a job at his brother’s ranch, meeting absurd characters along the way.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a defiantly weird and dryly funny mix of dusty movie clichés and arthouse surrealism, set in that timeless, existential American movie desert where the cowboys and hobos of myth once roamed.
COMMENTS: The Rambler is sure to be marketed as a surrealistic horror film, which is a shame. I think people will enjoy this druggy road trip through the Weird West more if they go in with the mindset that they are attending a black comedy with horror bits. The title character—who is almost never seen without his rumpled cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a cigarette dangling from his lip—is a parody of every ultra-macho B-movie man-with-no-name existential outlaw since Clint Eastwood. When he briefly takes a job as a hobo boxer, he’s about to whip his shades off to fight his opponent (who, rather unfairly, has a nasty hook for a hand), but his promoter advises him to keep them on because they “look cool.” He’s so unflappable that when someone tosses a severed limb into his lap he brushes it away and shrugs nonchalantly. He’s a man of few words—mostly the word “no”—and at one point, when “the girl” presses him on his feelings, we see why, as he stumbles to put together a coherent sentence. His blank stoicism as he slouches his way through a world of redneck nightmares is a running joke; the only character who gets much of a reaction from him is the living corpse who pukes a gallon of yellow bile onto his face while he’s handcuffed to a bedpost, and even then the Rambler registers only mild annoyance (he also forgets to clean the crusty vomit off his face before he resumes hitchhiking, and wonders why no one will pick him up). The movie is so deadpan in its absurdity that it’s the sincerely intended horror sequences, like a trip to a family home that resembles a hallucinatory funeral parlor, that seem out of place. The movie’s final sequence grows from an effectively sick and squeamish nightmare notion, but arguably overplays it a bit, with the incessant screaming becoming annoying rather than horrific. The knockout oddball character is a mummy-toting professor who records dreams onto VHS, although he hasn’t quite perfected the technology yet. Lindsay Pulsipher is the sunshiny femme fatale (and horrific specter of commitment) who won’t stay dead and who haunts the Rambler throughout his psychedelic odyssey. Mulroney inhabits the title role like a suit of clothes that haven’t been changed for weeks. Given the picaresque, incident-to-incident nature of the movie, it’s necessarily hit-and-miss, but the road movie architecture serves the surreal format—there is just enough loose structure to keep us grounded, as we know the Rambler is on a journey with a clear destination in mind, even if we suspect it’s a mirage and settling down into a steady job as a cowhand goes against his rambling nature. When I attended Reeder’s debut movie, The Oregonian, almost a fourth of the midnight audience walked out before the ending. For The Rambler I only spotted a single early exit. With The Rambler‘s exploding heads, severed limbs, and corpse-eating dogs, the lack of flight into the aisles wasn’t because the material was less grotesque or shocking than the prior film’s notorious “rainbow pee” sequence. Perhaps it was because word of The Rambler‘s eccentricities had gotten around and the audience was better prepared this time, or maybe I simply saw the movie with a tougher-minded, more weird-friendly audience. I think the answer to the conundrum is simpler, though: The Rambler is a better and more watchable movie than The Oregonian, largely due to the abundant humor. If Reeder keeps improving his craft at this rate, he’ll have to abdicate his title as “the walkout king of Sundance.”
Throughout the movie the Rambler carries a guitar, although he rarely plays it, because, as he says, “I haven’t found a song yet.” Per Reeder’s post-screening statements, he based the character on the wandering hobo folksinger archetype, a la Woody Guthrie (the title itself might have been suggested by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who always wore a cowboy hat). The Rambler has been picked up for distribution by Anchor Bay and is currently available on video-on-demand; it releases on DVD June 25.
PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from Jonathan Miller‘s dreamlike 1966 version to Jan Svankmajer‘s stop-motion nightmare interpretation—that seeing an authentic retelling of this Victorian fairy tale aimed at kids is almost a shock to the system. It serves as a reminder that, as much as Surrealists love to appropriate Carroll for their own nefarious ends, the prototypical “Alice” is kiddie fare, not entertainment for grown up weirdophiles.
COMMENTS: With so many competing interpretations of Alice in Wonderland out there, it’s difficult to find a compelling reason to recommend this straightforward adaptation that originally aired as four separate episodes on British television. On the plus side, it is one of the most accurate filmed versions of the story, staying true to Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue and neither omitting any major episodes nor (as is often done) folding in popular incidents and/or characters from the Wonderland sequel “Through the Looking Glass.” This production attempts to breathe new life into the old story by setting some of Carroll’s nonsense poems to music; but, although the classical-styled compositions are competently rendered, they’re hardly memorable and, like much of the show, feel a little stodgy. Each episode is framed by a sepia-toned introduction featuring Carroll at a picnic making up the story for the historical Alice and her sisters; this ploy is fairly neutral, though some may appreciate the attention to the backstory. Cast as Alice, Kate Dorning is appropriately wide-eyed, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s not a little girl. I can’t find the actress’ date of birth, but she is clearly in her teens here, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she had already entered her second decade when she played the role. Her performance sometimes reminds me of those children’s shows where adults play childlike characters and talk directly to the camera, which brings us to the main issue with this production: the children’s’ TV-show budget. Although I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had available, there is inevitably a blasé “good enough for kids” sort of vibe to the proceedings. The presence of the green screen is often frightfully obvious: Alice’s stiff tumble down the rabbit hole and the Cheshire cat’s dissolve to a smile are particularly cringe-inducing. Tthe animal characters (White Rabbit, Dodo, Frog and Fish footman, etc.) wear masks that, while well designed, are stiff and rubbery. A few of the setups do manage to find ways around the budgetary limitations, as when the poem/song “Father William” is dramatized as a shadow play performed by acrobats. In general, however, the filmmakers don’t have the means to recreate Wonderland, and they are too dedicated to literally showing actual hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on toadstools to devise a stylized rendition that could come in under budget. If you can overlook the unspecial effects, and tolerate the songs, this Alice is worthwhile as an authentic rendition of the text that will probably hold the interest of younger children. Of course, Disney’s animated offering, while less accurate, is far more enchanting for youngsters, who aren’t interested in scholarly fidelity to the text anyway. It almost seems that the BBC felt obligated to produce a straightforward, canonical Alice to atone for the fact that Jonathan Miller’s experimental 1966 adaptation was their lone take on this national classic. This rendition is more respectable, but less magical; and that hardly seems in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.
Director Barry Letts and producer Terrance Dicks were mainly known for their involvement with “Dr. Who,” and several actors from the Who troupe show up here. In fact, a survey of the blogosphere suggests this release may garner as much attention from curious “Who” fans as from “Alice” devotees.
Don’t forget to vote in the fourth reader’s choice poll to select two movies to put on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. At this writing, Sweet Movie and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are fighting it out in Group A, while Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me has a substantial lead over Beyond the Black Rainbow in Group B. We’ve also seen That Obscure Object of Desire moving out ahead of early frontrunner The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the “rescue” category. With a week to go things can change significantly, so keep voting! (You can vote once per day).
On to regularly scheduled business, i.e. the announcement of next week’s review slate. As lovers of everything Alice, we’ll start the week with a look at the BBC’s 1986 miniseries production of Alice in Wonderland. We’ll then treat you to an early peek at Calvin Reeder‘s sophomore effort, the road movie/black comedy/horror feature The Rambler, then check out another Hayao Miyazaki fantasy in Howl’s Moving Castle (recently released on Blu-ray). There may be a surprise new release review thrown in there as well. You’ll just have to check in to find out.
We’ll start off our weekly countdown of the Weirdest Search Terms of the Week by mentioning the search for “weird porn mosquitos,” not because it’s bizarre enough to win the week, but because we’re proud to announce that we’re currently ranked #2 on Google for that search string! (We hope that you mosquito porn fetishists are finding something to interest you on this site). Weirder yet, however, is the search for “weirdwomentwobodyshavingsexstucktogether,” which would make for a very strange request even if the searcher’s space bar wasn’t broken. An extra point for the way the query is formed to reflect the desired “stucktogether” subject matter. Still, sometimes it’s the simplest searches that stand out as our favorites, and that’s the case with this week’s winner, “naked nypho lesbian sex slaves on acid.” Who here can honestly say that, at one time or another, they have not felt the need to search the internet for information on naked nympho lesbian sex slaves? This Googler’s particular weird genius is to seek out only such slaves who’ve taken the hallucinogen LSD.
Here’s how the ridiculously-long-and-ever-growing reader-suggested review queue stands: Liquid Sky (re-review); Society (official review); The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao; Allegro Non Troppo; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus; Celine and Julie Go Boating; “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life;” Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE
Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…
Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.
IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):
Berberian Sound Studio(2012): A neurotic British sound engineer used to working on quiet nature documentaries goes mad when he takes an assignment designing the audio for a 1970s Italian horror film. This is already out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, but it’s just hitting American shores for a limited theatrical run now. Berberian Sound Studio official site.
FILM FESTIVALS – Flyover Film Festival (Louisville, KY, Jun. 12-16):
You have to admire the self-deprecating honesty embedded in the title of Louisville’s premier film festival: this is a destination that filmmakers usually “fly over” while traveling from the East Coast to the West. Once a year, a few of them will stop here, and occasionally something weird will screen. That’s the case this year, as there is a single truly offbeat offering in the lineup—but it’s very offbeat.
The Rambler: Calvin Reeder‘s followup to his utterly surreal The Oregonian looks like basically more of the same, with an aggressive male wandering protagonist (Dermot Mulroney) instead of a passive female one.
The Manson Family (2003): A notoriously raw underground exploitation movie reconstruction of the Manson murders. This trippy, transgressive filth took director Jim Van Bebber 15 years to complete. This is a DVD/Blu-ray combo set. Buy The Manson Family [Blu-ray/DVD].
Nine Miles Down (2009): A scientist investigates a cavern discovered nine miles under the earth. Did the oil company accidentally drill into Hell? If so, which is worse: unleashing a horde of demons on the Earth, or fracking? Buy 9 Miles Down.
Wrong (2012): A man looking for his lost dog encounters bizarre characters and risks losing his sanity. This is director Quentin Dupieux ‘s followup to his weird hit Rubber, and per the synopsis this one is “equally bizarre.” Buy Wrong.
Wild Strawberries (1957): On his way to accept an honorary degree, an emotionally dead 78-year old professor reminisces about his life and impending demise in a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. This Ingmar Bergman classic is the latest Criterion collection Blu-ray upgrade. Buy Wild Strawberries [Criterion Collection Blu-ray].
After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem (1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang).
Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first of an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat(1934, d. Edgar G.Ulmer) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934).
A lurid, ludicrous plot is made worse by excessive babbling from a wretched supporting cast. Lugosi supplies an essential touch of rudimentary European mystery through non-acting tricks and his bewitching deconstruction of the English language. A Cabinet of Dr. Calagri-eque chase scene across the Paris rooftops and a brutal knife fight over a prostitute (with the startling visage of a voyeuristic Mirakle descending from the fog) are stylishly executed. Florey lacked James Whale‘s narrative rhythm and Tod Browning‘s authentic empathy. The result is a case of style over substance, with the style supplied by others.
Meanwhile, Karl Freund was finally given the chance to direct. His The Mummy (1932) is saddled with an almost equally silly plot, but in Freund’s hands, it comes across as pure grand-guignol poetry. It was made by most of the same team who worked on Dracula, and is, essentially, a reworking of that story by the same writer, John L. Balderstein. Crusty Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) and chiseled David Manners (Harker) virtually reprise their roles. Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy opens with Dracula‘s curious theme music: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
Freund creates an ominous, ambiguous, and static mood, which is refreshingly anti-commercial. Universal thought so as well. This was his first and last directorial assignment for them. Karloff’s Imhotep exudes eroticism, even through 3,000 years of masterfully stretched flesh courtesy of makeup genius Jack Pierce, perfectly caught in the film’s gorgeously lit black and white. The actor’s performance is nuanced, menacing and simultaneously sympathetic. His yearning for the tenebrous, commanding Zita Johann is entirely convincing.
At 145 of an eventual 366 movies approved, we’re about 40% of the way through the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made. Along the way, some movies got onto the List on a first screening, but we nominated many others as “List Candidates.” Sometimes they’re lovable classics with powerful imagery, but they’re only a little bit weird. Sometimes they’re amazingly bizarre, but utter crap. Sometimes the reviewer was in a bad mood when they screened it and didn’t give it a fair chance. And, although we’d never admit it, sometimes a movie was good enough to make the List on the first ballot, but we were too busy to write up a full Certified Entry that week and dashed off a List Candidate review instead. The end result is that any of the films listed below could have been placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, but we chickened out and made each of them “List Candidates” instead.
Although these movies arrived at this point by different routes, they’re all in the same boat now. They all need your help to ensure their rightful spot on the List! Please select one candidate from Group A (pre-1990 films) and one from Group B (movies from 1990-present). You can vote once per day. Voting closes at midnight (EST) on August 8, 2012.
You can also choose to “rescue” one film that we so overlooked so blatantly we didn’t even make it a List Candidate. We’ll make that movie an official Candidate and add it to our next contest. So remember to scroll down for that third poll!
PLOT: A woman goes to the post office to mail a package, but the clerk is unresponsive.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Weird? Yes. Unfortunately, that’s all that can be said in this failed experiment’s favor.
COMMENTS: Your movie is in trouble when after watching it for five minutes, the reviewer’s primary thought is “how in the world am I going to review this honestly without sounding insulting?” Although A Noisy Delivery is not a bad movie, in the sense that I don’t believe it actively sets out to hurt the viewer, I can’t imagine anyone I know who would want to watch it. I even have to stretch my powers of imagination to come up with a hypothetical viewer who might enjoy it. Essentially, the movie is a series of very long takes of people sitting around, not moving, usually with no expression. Occasionally the onscreen actors check their watches (never a good sign). The next-to-last shot is about eight minutes long and completely static; long-take specialist Andrei Tarkovsky would have walked out on it. Very rarely, the characters will speak: one gives a discourse on ZIP codes, one speaks in untranslated German, and a third is vaguely threatening, in a disturbed-loner-ranting-about-government-implanted-computer-chips sort of way (in between obscenities he drops lines like “the truth comes out as the truth, but, you never know”). Much of the infrequent dialogue is directed at the postal clerk who sits behind bars and blinks, I think, once. Forty-five minutes into the movie a woman silently eats a piece of notebook paper in real time, tearing off strips and chewing it to a pulp, which is a welcome change of pace from nothing at all happening. I suppose the main appeal is meant to be the industrial noise soundtrack; it’s an hour of someone randomly plunking away on a toy piano, mixed with an coarse background drone (the “noisy” part of A Noisy Delivery). Maybe noise music aficionados will dig it, but the score is even more minimalist than the visuals, which at least change every couples of minutes. The soundscape never varies much or shows musical development except for adjustments to the volume levels between the piano and the industrial hum. It’s definitely an acquired taste. A Noisy Delivery looks like a labor of love that got a little carried away and bloated: the entire package could have easily been compressed into fifteen minutes. Chances of any readers out there actually seeing this are, of course, very slim; but you should realize that this kind of thing is out there, playing at small experimental film festivals and screening in arty bars in college towns.
Speaking of college towns, A Noisy Delivery is screening tomorrow (Wednesday, June 12, 2013) at House of Caca in Austin, Texas, (some time between 6 and 10 P.M.) along with noise acts and art displays. The IMDB lists A Noisy Delivery as GX Jupitter-Larsen’s first movie, but his Wikipedia article lists two prior shorts: one called “Black Banner” and a lesbian vampire movie set at a garlic farm entitled “Holes in the Neck.”
DISCLAIMER: A copy of this movie was provided by the producer for review.
PLOT: After a nuclear apocalypse Sam Hell, one of the few remaining virile men on earth, goes into a town ruled by mutant frogs to rescue a harem of fertile women.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Frogtown‘s most memorable quote is “you are one weird dude!,” spoken by a frog man who is about to cut off a wastelander’s futuristic chastity belt with a chainsaw. It just goes to show that “weird” is subjective, based on what you’re used to encountering in daily life. Although this charmingly stupid post-apocalyptic flick has a goofy mutant premise, we’re so besotted in bizarre pictures that we can’t honestly say “this is one weird movie!”
COMMENTS: No matter what you think about Hell Comes to Frogtown‘s quality, you cannot deny that the film delivers exactly what the title promises: it’s about a man named Hell who goes to Frogtown, which, as the name implies, is a town populated by frogs. The absurd premise disguises a by-the-numbers action plot, but the script throws in a few additional entertaining eccentricities. The first is Sam Hell himself, played by the affable “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in his debut film. Piper plays the archetypal reluctant hero more as a frat boy jonesin’ for a kegger than a dangerous rogue. Until the final act, the filmmakers don’t take advantage of his wrestler’s physique or athleticism; through the first half of the movie he keeps his shirt on and does nothing at all that’s remotely heroic or even physically imposing. He doesn’t even get into his first scrape until the 45 minute mark, when he’s coldcocked by a single punch—to the breadbasket. Further, Frogtown‘s biggest running joke is that studly Hell, the world’s most fertile man alive who can sleep with any woman in the wasteland, is never in the mood for love because his potential mates are either too aggressive, or too amphibious. There is a surprising amount of bondage imagery: Hell is outfitted with an electroshock chastity belt, to control his behavior and protect his precious seed. He gets to turn the tables on his at captor and putative love interest, voluptuous Spangle (Sandahl Bergman), in a role-playing session where she goes undercover as his slave girl, dressed in trashy black lingerie and a dog collar. Never has the mutual bondage inherent in romance been so elegantly allegorized in a mutant frog movie. As outlaws go, Hell is as nonthreatening a regular guy as you could imagine. But so much for Hell; what about the movie’s star attraction: Frogtown? It as, as stated, a town (actually an abandoned oil refinery, with all the action taking place inside warehouse-like interiors) inhabited entirely by mutant frog people. There are sexy stripper frogs, trader frogs in fezzes, chainsaw-wielding frogs. The toad masks are inevitably silly-looking, but actually effective; in the murky interiors, where we can’t really study their latex textures, they appear genuinely slimy. Kudos to the makeup department for just barely putting this over, using obviously limited resources. The rest follows standard action movie tropes, with (for the most part) reasonable budget execution of stock fight scenes. Of course, the entire rescue mission makes no sense on multiple levels: Hell and Spangle simply march into Frogtown with no obvious plan to rescue the captive women; and, if the world’s studliest remaining man is so valuable, why would you risk him on a dangerous infiltration? Don’t think twice about these things, though, as the script clearly doesn’t. What makes Frogtown work is that it toes a fine line of camp. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but neither does it apologize for asking us suspend our disbelief on something so ridiculous. It plays out its post-apocalyptic harem scenario as if it took place in a real alternate world, keeping the fourth wall intact. Frogtown is every thirteen-year-old boy’s ultimate fantasy: it’s like a summer vacation full of adventures, girls, and occasional frog-gigging. If you’re a thirteen-year-old boy, it’s the awesomest movie ever made; if you’re not, you may still find enough good-natured ridiculousness to keep you watching until the happy ending.
Donald G. Jackson made Roller Blade (an even more bizarre flick about futuristic roller skating nuns) in 1986 for under $100,000, and it grossed over $1 million at drive-ins. This success convinced New World Pictures to allow Jackson to tackle a more ambitious project, but they were nervous about handing the neophyte auteur a million dollar budget, and insisted on a co-director for insurance purposes. R.J. Kizer came from a sound design background and had shot some second-unit footage for Godzilla 1985. According to Jackson on the DVD commentary, Kizer had little creative input in the production.
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