TURKEY DAY: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 MARATHON

This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful that Shout! Factory has allowed embedding of their 2nd Annual “Turkey Day” MST3K marathon, giving us free fill-in content so we can focus on what’s important this holiday season–stuffing our gullets with dead fowl.

First up is a weird one: The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, which is actually the Russian fairytale Sadko redubbed to make it appear the hero is the more familiar Sinbad. The rest of the episodes are a surprise, so you’ll just have to watch.

CAPSULE: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour

FEATURING: Arash Marandi, Sheila Vand, Marshall Manesh

PLOT: A young man romances a mysterious woman in the sparsely-inhabited town known as “Bad City.”

Still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With no real plot to speak of, Girl is a bit of a tease, although the film’s exotic originality is seductive.

COMMENTS: The town of “Bad City” is so sparsely inhabited it only has one little boy, one junkie, one prostitute, one sexy socialite, one vice lord… and one vampire. The setting is the story in this plot-thin exercise, and it’s to Girl‘s credit that its atmosphere intoxicates even though the film does not have much to say. Leaning against a fence smoking, looking like a Persian James Dean in his shades and wife beater, protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) begins the movie by rescuing a cat, then walking past a hooker in a headscarf and what looks to be a gully full of corpses. Arash’s dad, we soon learn, single-handedly keeps the local skag dealer in business. At night, the nearly deserted town is haunted by a silent female vampire in a striped shirt and a hijab who rides a skateboard (!) One night, dressed as Dracula and lost in a post-costume party stupor, Arash not only encounters the mysterious woman, but survives; not only survives, but is enthralled by her. The vampiress, who radiates loneliness and may be growing tired of her self-appointed role as Bad City’s judge and executioner, may be tempted by Arash as well.

There are some victims along the way, but that is pretty much the plot. What is fascinating about the movie is its evocation of a nowheresville hellscape: the nearly deserted suburban streets lensed in stark black and white, the long silences broken by ethereal music (everything from faux-Morricone to 80s angst-pop). The fact that the actors speak Persian and the women cover their hair implies that Bad City is located in Iran, but the movie was actually shot in and around Bakersfield, California, and the film’s sensibility is an odd mix of east and west, austerity and decadence. It’s like a second-generation Iranian-American distorted dream of a homeland never seen. The movie’s capacity to blend the bleak and the sensual sets it apart from run of the mill arthouse indies.

Writer/director Amirpour professes admiration for and Sergio Leone, but seems like the heaviest influence here, and not just because Girl would make a perfect languid-fang double feature with Only Lovers Left Alive.  The minimalism (there are some very drawn out sequences in Girl), gift for framing urban decay, and eclectic use of pop music all suggest early Jarmusch. I would usually use “style-over-substance” as a compliment rather than an insult, but in this case I do believe that Girl would benefit from a little more meat on its aesthetic bones, a little more blood in its beautiful veins. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is an exciting movie, one that suggests that its director might have a masterpiece in her somewhere down the line.

The film might not have ever been made without the support of , who signed on as a producer after falling in love with the script.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all… along comes something completely new, or at least something so intriguingly bizarre as to seem completely new.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BUSHIDO MAN (2013)

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles

DIRECTED BY: Takanori Tsujimoto

FEATURING: Mitsuki Koga, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi

PLOT: A martial arts master eats meals based on the diet of his next opponent so he can better understand and defeat them.

Still from Bushido Man (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The fights are good, but it’s annoying that the movie has no hunger to pursue its kung foodie premise, giving us instead six courses of contextless seriocomic battles and a meaningless final boss for desert.

COMMENTS: “Plot” is too strong a word to describe Bushido Man‘s story. The film is just a series of incidents connected by the thinnest noodle of a premise, almost an anthology of fight scenes. The bouts themselves are energetic mini-stories that should entertain fight fans. The comedy, not so much—although the campy English dubbing adds a level of humor that would not be present in the original, and I did like the gag with the Master’s obviously fake mustache. Toramaru, our putative hero, is touring Japan, battling the paragons of six different martial styles: kung fu, stick fighting, nunchaku, swordfighting, yakuza knife fighting, and pistol. According to the movie’s premise, before each battle he eats a meal to better understand his enemy, but this unsustainable idea quickly breaks down: by the second battle, the meal is already nothing but an excuse a dumb pun (munching on cheesesticks = upcoming stick fight). Why we should care about this unofficial tournament is anyone’s guess; the movie is disinterested in exploring characters’ motivations or generating sympathy for them.

Each of the fights, on the other hand, offers an extra tidbit of interest, whether it’s an interloping turtle or a Zatoichi tribute. Things get weirder after the hero defeats the pistol master (who dresses as a Hollywood cowboy) and a side plot develops. Toramaru decides to go after a legendary weapon: wristbands rigged to fire bullets when you throw a punch. The original footage with the fist-guns, featuring a female fighter who is not one of Toramaru’s opponents, looks like it was taken from a different (unfinished?) movie. Koga wears a Van Dyke in the scenes before and after this one, but he’s mysteriously clean-shaven when he watches her dispatch a gang of generic badies. His customary facial hair returns for the rest of the movie. That’s an indication of the careless way Bushido Man is assembled from leftovers, which might strike you either as insultingly shoddy, or endearingly unpretentious, depending on your mood. The acquisition of these pugilistic firearms sets up a truly crazy, bloody finale, however, which “ends” with a closing credits gag that’s sure to catch you off guard.

Bushido Man lured me in with the promise that it would mix food porn with classic kung fu fights, sort of “Iron Chef” meets The Man with the Iron Fists. The actual experience was more like watching MMA bouts interrupted by Ramen noodle commercials.  Of course, sometimes you’re in the mood for junk food entertainment, and Bushido is heavily salted with absurdity. Just expect that you’ll be hungry for something a little more substantial a few hours after downing this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film as a whole tosses in enough ‘off the wall’ ideas that stick, producing a rousing good time. Inventiveness,  even when the concepts are at their most absurd, add a lot of character to the picture and keeps the viewers constantly guessing what might happen next.”–Edgar Chaput, Sound on Sight (festival screening)

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)

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