CAPSULE: MR. JONES (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Karl Mueller

FEATURING: Jon Foster, Sarah Jones

PLOT: Deep in the woods, a documentary filmmaker stumbles on the residence of “Mr. Jones”, a legendary builder of scarecrows whose works are rumored to cause madness.

Still from Mr. Jones (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mr. Jones isn’t nearly as bad as you might have heard. It took something of a pummeling because its last act is so weird that it confused and alienated many viewers. That said, although the movie may be worth a rental or Netflix stream for weird horror fans on a slow night, it’s not the kind of game-changer it would need to be to make the List of the Best Weird Movies of All Time.

COMMENTS: The filmmaker has stopped taking his meds and has “no idea what this movie is about in the first place.” That’s not a confession from the director’s statement to Mr. Jones; it refers to the nature-doc movie-within-the-movie that would-be auteur Scott has retired to the country to make. Scott and wife Penny decide to change the focus of their unfocused documentary in midstream when appears they have stumbled upon the hideout of the celebrated reclusive scarecrow-maker (?!) known only as “Mr. Jones.” That setup covers the first half to two-thirds of Mr. Jones, with the Scott and Penny’s descent into madness constituting the film’s final act.

As far as horror icons go, the shambling, hooded Mr. Jones doesn’t do much—oh, except for bring insanity in his wake. The movie’s early scenes are effective at creating unease and tension, from the unexpected appearance of a cloaked figure in the background of certain shots to a nerve-wracking moment when Scott gets lost while exploring a strange labyrinth underneath Mr. Jones’ shack. The final act, which traps the couple in what seems to be an eternal midnight filled with nightmares inside of nightmares, is where the movie tends to lose its audience.

Unlikely as it might seem for a guy who’s setting out to make a nature documentary, Scott films himself and his wife sleeping, and having sex. The “found” footage that composes Mr. Jones is also, at times, heavily edited, including addition of a voiceover and soundtrack song, along with one heavily manipulated travel montage. There are even moments (especially late) when the movie appears to shift viewpoints within a scene, or move from a first-person to a conventional third person point of view. The fact that the film we’re watching has clearly been through extensive post-production breaks the Blair Witch vérité spell. Many people point to the movie’s seemingly inconsistent use of the found-footage format as a flaw, and perhaps it is. Perhaps the perspective shifts are less arbitrary than they appear, however. The question, I suppose, is whether Mr. Jones‘ ramshackle construction is the result of sloppy craftsmanship, or a reflection of an unreliable, unstable narrator. Related question: if sloppy craftsmanship inadvertently conveys a psychotic state of mind that is appropriate to the subject matter, is that a bad thing, or a happy accident?

Mr. Jones got a raw deal with both audiences and critics. I think this is a result of difficult market positioning. The film is too thoughtful, ambitious and surreal—and too PG-13—for the average horror fan. At the same time, it’s not polished enough and too genre-y to make much headway in the arthouse press. In other words, it’s too smart to be a popular success, but not smart enough to be a critical hit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You can’t really dip into dream logic if you have nary a single eye-popping visual, and in doing so, Mueller completely wastes a unique, potentially durable concept…”–Gabe Toro, Indiewire (festival screening)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

It’s that time of year when we begin the rush to get out reviews of 2014 movies before 2015 dawns. With that in mind, here’s next week’s lineup of recent releases: Mr. Jones, which casts an outsider artist as a horror icon; Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles, about a martial artist and his pre-fight meals; and the Iranian arthouse vampire sensation A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. On Thursday, you’ll be thankful for whatever you get from us (we’re thankful you’re reading, by the way); and on “Black Friday,” we’d be especially thankful if you’d buy something for a loved one from our new release list, using our referral code, of course.

Deranged perverts are one of the lynchpins of our Weirdest Search Term of the Week contest, and this week they get a couple of column inches all to themselves.  We start with “allsexyfilm,” which sounds like the kind of search a horny Borat would make if his space bar was broken.  Nest up is “mad scientist kinapps and strips women and turn them into naked canabil girls,” which probably describes an actual movie, but is still a pretty darn weird thing to look for on the Internet.  Our weirdest search term of the week was the deceptively simple   “strange girl vill have sex.” “Strange girl will have sex” would have been weird enough, actually, but the fact that the searcher typed out his request with a German accent puts his submission over the top.

Here’s how the ridiculously-long reader-suggested review queue stands: The Real McCoy; Themroc; Candy (1968); The Fox Family; Angelus; Britannia Hospital; This Filthy Earth; Conspirators of Pleasure; Continue reading

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/21/2014

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):

The Frame: We respect ‘s desire to keep the details of this long-gestating fantasy followup to 2009’s Certified Weird Ink under wraps, so suffice it to say it involves a thief, a paramedic, and an alternate universe. Playing now in the Winan’s hometown of Denver, or it can be downloaded directly from the movie’s  homepage. Look for a review soon. The Frame official site.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: An Iranian vampire romance set in a depraved urban netherworld, stylistically influenced by Spaghetti westerns. Shocked, but delighted, that this Middle Eastern oddity is getting an actual release in the States (thanks to Vice Magazine’s venture into film distribution). Look for a review from us as soon as next week. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night official site.

The King and the Mockingbird (1980): A mockingbird takes it upon himself to thwart an evil king. This classic (and reportedly somewhat surreal) French animation was begun in 1948 and not completed until 1980; then, due to squabbles over the rights it was never released in the United States—until now. The King and the Mockingbird official site.

Story of My Death: The scenario is simply stated: it’s Casanova meets Count Dracula (literally). Another foreign vampire film we never thought we’d see on commercial U.S. screens (however limited, because as far as we know Anthology Film Archives in NYC is the only place it’s playing). Story of My Death at Anthology Film Archives.

NEW ON DVD:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): A traveling mesmerist and his somnamulist show up in a German town, and murder follows. Kino restores an all-time Expressionist classic, just like last year’s excellent Nosferatu release. Buy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Christmas Evil (1980): Read our review. Vinegar Syndrome brings the best and most unusual movie in the “killer Claus” subgenre back in time for the holidays with this lavish Blu-ray/DVD combo pack complete with three commentary tracks (including one from Evil champion ). Buy Christmas Evil [Blu-ray/DVD combo pack].

Mauvais Sang (1986): As a social disease is ravaging Paris, a young card shark becomes involved with a gangster’s daughter and her father’s plot to steal microbes. ‘ films just kept (keep) getting weirder, and he’s already pretty bizarre in this second outing. The second disc of the two discs contains Mr. X, is a documentary on the pseudonymous Carax. Buy Mauvais Sang.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014): Read our review. Forget all the negative press: if you liked the first one, you’ll like the sequel. Buy Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): See description in DVD above. At the time of this writing the Blu-ray edition was actually listing for $2.50 less than the DVD. Buy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Blu-ray].

Christmas Evil (1980): See description in DVD above. Buy Christmas Evil [Blu-ray/DVD combo pack].

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): A 13-year old witch starts a broomstick-based delivery service. One of ‘s more conventional outings, but his animations are always inspiring for fans of the weird. Buy Kiki’s Delivery Service [Blu-ray].

Mauvais Sang (1986): See description in DVD above. Buy Mauvais Sang [Blu-ray].

Princess Mononoke (1997): A young warrior tries to intercede in a war between humans and forest spirits in this fantasy parable. Disney is getting close to the end of their Miyazaki Blu-ray upgrades, though we’re still awaiting Spirited Away. Buy Princess Mononoke [Blu-ray].

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014): See description in DVD above. The Blu-ray pack includes a DVD and a 3D disc (that almost no one has the hardware to play). Buy Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For [Blu-ray].

MISCELLANEOUS:

David Lynch/Patti Smith conversation: BBC’s “Newsnight” runs a series called “Encounters,” which I’ve never heard of before but which apparently involves bringing two celebrities/experts together for a conversation. The pairing of punk poet Patti Smith and neo-Surrealist icon David Lynch is inspired. They discuss creativity, Pussy Riot, Blue Velvet (the song and the movie), and “Twin Peaks,” and there are Eraserhead clips. Must see webcasting. Patti Smith and David Lynch talk Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Pussy Riot and BBC.co.uk.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

CAPSULE: YOU AND THE NIGHT (2013)

Les Rencontres d’Après Minuit

DIRECTED BY: Yann Gonzalez

FEATURING: Kate Moran, Niels Schneider, Nicolas Maury, Alain-Fabien Delon, Julie Brémond, Eric Cantona, Fabienne Babe, Béatrice Dalle

PLOT: A couple and their transvestite maid invite the Slut, the Stud, the Teen and the Star to an orgy at their swinging Paris pad.

Still from You and the Night (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s very weird, but it’s also super talky, super French… sadly, too talky and French to be enjoyable.

COMMENTS: You and the Night is one of those European arthouse sex films where people prefer talking about doing it to actually doing it. There’s not even any nudity until the thirty-minute mark, when a bit of male prosthetic business is pulled out as a reward for those who’ve stuck with it for this long. Instead, there is a lot of dialogue along the lines of “always follow the clues you see in dreams… especially when they’re terrifying” and a cross-dressing maid. The setup involves various sexual archetypes arriving at the scheduled orgy, then regaling the other guests with absurdist backstory. For example, in the most memorable flashback “the Stud” explains why he is late; his story starts when he was a six-year old poet and ends with him in a cell in his underwear being whipped by Béatrice Dalle.

About half way through, the structure shifts as we get a much longer fairy tale exposition explaining how our hosts came to be a threesome. This segment, which is the movie’s most interesting digression and might have made a good standalone short, involves a war, eternal vows, and a satanic prayer that must have been a blast for the translator to work on (“oh keeper of the schlong and wretched sepulchers…”). After this high point, however, Night dissolves into a trippy trickle of self-serious surrealism, with disconnected scenes set on a beach, in a cinema, and superimposed over the cosmos.

Visually, the film is geometric, cleanly modern and generally appealing, although Gonzalez loves the blue day-for-night filter a little too much for my tastes. Much better are the storybook mise-en-scene of the middle section, with painted suns and moons glowing over the spare desert and cemetery sets. The music is by an electronic band called M83; the tuneage sounds competent to these ears, but digital aficionados rate it highly. Overall, the languid Night didn’t have a strong enough sense of purpose appeal to me, nor does it strike me as the kind of work that’s notable enough to demand a spot on the List despite my personal lack of enthusiasm. But it’s not terribly offensive in any way, just tedious by the end. I do suspect it will appeal to some of our readers. It’s like a music video director’s conception of how a modern-day collaboration between the Marquis de Sade and Samuel Beckett would play out. If that sounds like a must-see to you, have at it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] chamber piece of sex, surreality and the absurd, like something by Luis Buñuel or Luigi Pirandello, or a sexed-up version of TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu

FEATURING: , Emma Stone, Edward Norton, , , Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

PLOT: Aging actor Riggan Thomas, who became a superstar anchoring a blockbuster superhero franchise in the 1990s, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist; unfortunately, he’s simultaneously battling the voices in his head, as his old alter-ego presses him to sign up to do “Birdman 4.”

Still from Birdman (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Birdman is a movie that adopts a weird methodology to tell its story, but it’s only weird by the diminished standard of movies that will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

COMMENTS: Birdman starts with a strange conceit. It’s about a former superstar actor, star of a superhero tentpole franchise, trying to be taken seriously as an artist by producing, writing, starring and directing a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. To throw a wrench into things, the actor is also insane, believing that he has telekinetic powers, and he hallucinates that his Birdman alter-ego is taunting him for his artistic pretensions. So, given that this is your story, why not sweeten the weirdness by scoring the film to solo jazz percussion and shooting the entire movie in what appears to be one unbroken take?

Birdman is not like any other film you’re likely to see this year, or anytime soon. It is a movie that (on the surface) insists that plays are more authentic artistic expressions than movies. It’s an extremely theatrical movie, one that’s bursting with smart dialogue, numerous subplots, and memorable monologues. It’s no wonder that a top-notch cast was attracted to the project. Most notable is Edward Norton, in a flamboyant role as an arrogant an actor with so much talent he’s compelled to sabotage himself just to keep things interesting. Keeping pace is Emma Stone as Riggan’s wayward daughter, just out of rehab and more adept at spotting others’ b.s. than her own. Even Zach Galifianakis impresses in a rare straight-man turn as Riggan’s lawyer. Still, Keaton, willing to let the camera linger on his thinning hair and explore his deepening crow’s feet, carries an impressive load of the film’s ambition on his shoulders. Keaton, Norton and Stone will all be remembered come awards season.

The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off an Oscar for his work on Gravity) plays as big a role as any of the stars. Unlike long-take record-holder Russian Ark, Birdman is not really a one-take movie, since it has at least a couple of invisible edits (as did Rope). The extended tracking shots, which wander around the labyrinthine theater ducking into various dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces, are nonetheless highly impressive. The long-take gimmick is impeccably realized, but it isn’t really formally necessary. This would essentially be the same movie if it were conventionally edited. You could argue that the one-take technique gives the camera a “gliding” sensibility (like a bird), or that it mimics the dangerous unpredictability of live theater, but I think the real reason the filmmakers did it is simply because it was difficult to do. Like art itself, it’s very unnecessariness is its justification.

It’s hard to believe that many people will find Riggan Thomas’ struggle—whether to turn his back on his colossal financial success and create something meaningful, or just give the idiots the pabulum they crave—very relatable. The implied insults to fans of superhero movies are a bit much, as is the strawman of a snobby theater critic who plans to shut down the show—sight-unseen—simply because it has the stink of Hollywood about it. (Pre-emptive shots at critics are almost always cringeworthy, and Birdman really should be above such shenanigans).  Birdman is Hollywood insiders navel-gazing, hang-wringing, and soul-searching about how to be taken seriously as artists, sure. But it’s also the best Hollywood has to offer: it’s unpredictable, bold, and unapologetic, manned by a completely committed cast and crew working at their collective peaks. By doing so, they ensure that they are taken seriously as artists, even though their movie has exploding helicopters and a guy gliding through digital clouds in a molded plastic bird costume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.”–Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LA DOLCE VITA (1960)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Magali Noel, , Alain Cuny, Walter Santesso, Anita Ekberg

PLOT: Several episodes follow Marcello, a writer who has been seduced into gossip journalism and a world of endless parties and women, as he discovers the emptiness of his life.

Still from La Dolce Vita (1960)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: La Dolce Vita isn’t much of a “weird” movie on it’s own, but it’s a significant film in the weird canon because it marks the bridge between Felini’s early neorealist movies and the symbolist/Surrealist work that begins in earnest in 8 1/2 (1963).

COMMENTS: The very first image of La Dolce Vita is a statue of Jesus being flown by helicopter past crumbling Roman aqueducts. Fellini’s symbolism is shockingly direct, but clear: the old Classical world lies in ruins, and the Christian world that superseded it is now being replaced by a modern mechanical order. The helicopter flies past modern Roman skyscrapers and buzzes a rooftop where women in bikinis are sunbathing. The journalist Marcello, tailing the first helicopter in hopes of tracking down a good story, is distracted by the site of the excited women, who are waving at his own whirlybird; he tries to get their phone numbers, but can’t communicate over the hum of the rotors.

The icons of the old order that gave life meaning have been flown away, but what will replace them as society’s organizing principle? When people have overthrown their idols of old, Fellini suggests, they instead idolize idealized demigods: the beautiful, the debonair, the rich, the busty. Marcello (and his crony Paparazzo, whose character name came to signify a species of annoying celebrity photographer) are priests of the modern order, moving within the circles of the rich and famous and bringing tales of their exploits back to the masses hungry to live vicariously through them. Although he has talent and insight, Marcello himself is seduced by the shallow attractions of pretty people, embodied in the flighty Swedish bombshell portrayed by Anita Ekberg. Ekeberg’s nocturnal dip in Trevi fountain is the movie’s most treasured gift to cinephiles, but what’s sometimes forgotten is the magical realist moment when, as Marcello seems just about to kiss her and achieve his desire, the fountain stops flowing—Ekberg’s celebrity sex magic breaks it, or at least renders its ancient flow superfluous.

La Dolce Vita is not simply a critique of the pleasure-seeking upper classes in Rome at the dawn of the 1960s. The movie is an assault on modernity itself, on a world in which meaning has been flown away by helicopter, probably to make room for a new nightclub. It is not, as it might seem on the surface, simply that Marcello culpably fails to find fulfillment because he favors the shallow pleasures of the sweet life over serious artistic refection. The suggestion is rather that finding purpose in the depraved modern world is impossible. Fellini meticulously cuts off all avenues of escape from meaninglessness. With the spectacle of the two children who tow masses of eager reporters and pilgrims back and forth looking for the Virgin only they can see, modern religion is painted as a fraud and a sideshow that no longer feeds the spiritual hunger of the people. Marcello’s friend Steiner appears to be the apotheosis of modern man, a role model for the lost journalist. He lives apart from the madness of the crowds in the street, contemplating art and philosophy in his salon with his loving family and the circle of artists and intellectuals who attend dinner parties where they pass the evenings in witty conversation. But even Steiner is beaten down by the inescapable melancholy of modernity. He is only temporarily protecting himself from corruption by withdrawing from the tarnished world; he cannot find true fulfillment in it. “The most miserable life is better, believe me, than an existence protected by a society where everything’s organized and planned for and perfect,” he sighs with weary wisdom. Meanwhile, Marcello’s transvestite drinking buddy prophesies, “by 1965 there will be complete depravity. How squalid everything will be!”

La Dolce Vita can be criticized for overindulgence: some of the scenes go on for too long after their significance has been grasped. But there is so much to treasure in the performances, imagery, cinematography, the Roman scenery, and Nino Rota’s elegant score that the draggy passages are easily overlooked in hindsight. La Dolce Vita has gravitas. It is one of the few movies that takes a place not only in film history, but as a part of the great conversation of Western civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the stylish cinematography and Fellini’s bizarre, extravagant visuals are absolutely riveting. “–Time Out London (DVD)

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

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Here’s next week’s scheduled reviews: from the reader-suggested review queue, we’ll give our two cents on ‘s masterpiece La Dolce Vita. On the new release front, we’ll help you figure our whether Birdman is worth your time, as well as cluing you in on the obscure surreal French sex flick You and the Night [Les Rencontres d’Après Minuit]. You can also look for another exclusive Alfred Eaker short film as we embed “I Was Married to a Mermaid” (for a short time only).

As usual, our server logs were filled with lots of strange search requests last week, which is good because it allows us to continue our popular (?) mini-feature, “Weirdest Search Terms of the Week.” We’ve noticed that there are a lot of people out there whose space key doesn’t work, but who don’t let that handicap stop them from accessing Google for desperately needed information on  “obscurefilmwithvampiresanddinosaurs.” People with working space keys make some odd requests, too, like the guy looking for “gonzo sex kungfu movie lustfull tv.” And we must admit we’d never thought to ask “barbarella what happened to the stars on her nipples”? before (mainly because we have no idea what the hell the searcher is talking about). Still, weird as those searches were, we’ll go with “yiddish cinema, hobo,” as our weirdest search term of the week. We have no idea how those two concepts go together, but at least the searcher separated them with a comma to indicate that they were two separate thoughts (although “yiddish cinema hobo” would be admittedly an even weirder search).

Here’s how the ridiculously-long reader-suggested review queue stands: La Dolce Vita (next week!); The Real McCoy; Themroc; Candy (1968); The Fox Family; Angelus; Britannia Hospital; This Filthy Earth; Continue reading

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!