All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that “366weirdmovies” is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as “hetero” and his relationship status as “single,” but Mr. Smalley’s “turn-ons” and “favorite Michael Bay movie” were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”–Matthew 10:34-36

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Laurent Terzieff, Bernard Verley, Edith Scob, ,

PLOT:  Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred.  Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion.  Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.

milky_way_coie_lactee

BACKGROUND:

  • In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
  • The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
  • Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church.  According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
  • Although the film is often blasphemous on it’s surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film.  This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
  • With it’s large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a

Original trailer for La Voie Lactée

strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.

COMMENTS:  Of all the great directors, Luis Buñuel was the greatest prankster.  His son, Continue reading 26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER PART III: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Apocalypse Inc. and their literally diabolic CEO dupe New Jersey superhero Toxie into working for them as a spokesman/executive so he can earn money for an operation to restore his fiancée’s sight.

Still from Toxic Avenger 3: The Last Temptation of Toxie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  For the same reasons that The Toxic Avenger, Part II won’t make it.  The Last Temptation of Toxie is actually a bit weirder than the previous sequel; unfortunately, it’s also quite a bit worse.

COMMENTS:  There are two huge problems with this third installment in this mediocre series.  The first is that there is way too much plot: Toxie doesn’t kick ass from start to finish.  Instead, having completely rid the town of Tromaville of evil in the first two movies, he’s put himself out of work and has to find odd jobs to make ends meet.  He worries about financing a sight-restoring operation for Claire, hires on with Apocalypse, betrays his core values and becomes a soulless corporate suit… and it takes forever for the mutated avenger to find his moral compass again and get back to tearing off transvestite punk gangsters’ limbs.  This leads to the even more devastating second problem: the reason the movie seems so interminable is that, with no action sequences for most of the way, Temptation is forced to rely on it’s sense of humor to keep the audience from tuning out.  Although Toxic Avenger movies always get off a memorable one-liner or two (there’s a quotable and unexpected shot here at the Chevy Nova), the series isn’t capable of sustaining long stretches of comedy without resorting to gory sight gags.  Desperate to manufacture yuks, the producers resort to a “comic” trick they also used in Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: they insert cartoon sound effects to accompany mundane actions (there’s a sound effect when Claire scratches her head, Toxie points his finger and we hear a bullet ricochet, etc).  The script also makes multiple self-aware references, e.g. “I’ll mop up Tromaville and make room for The Toxic Avenger 4!,” that suggest the writers were running out of gags fast.  All of this is a shame, because the two “temptation” fantasy sequences in Part III are actually well done, with nice budget art direction and memorable costuming: the dog-faced demon and the dancing girl in lurid blue body paint are suitably cheap demonic denizens of a bargain-basement Hell.  There’s also a nice transformation scene where the devil pops out of an executive, which is effective rather than campy, and a live action video game finale that’s just crazy enough to work.  It’s too bad that these few promising sequences are wrapped up in a uninvolving plot with lame humor substituting for the missing action. Also of note to some (you know who you are!) is the fact that this is the only Toxic Avenger entry without abundant nudity. It seems that, even though Phoebe Legere was signed for the back-to-back sequels, the contract with her breasts expired sometime between Part II and Part III, making this third entry a shockingly hooter-lite affair.

The Toxic Avenger Parts 2 & 3 were filmed back to back in 1989 with the same cast; there was enough extra footage from Part 2 that the studio decided to cobble together a third Avenger film from the leftovers.  Last Temptation is so badly conceived that it suggests that, even though Troma specializes in low budget guerrilla filmmaking, they can’t just go out into left field and wing it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… this one doesn’t make any sense either. I loved it!–Joe Bob Briggs, Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART II (1989)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: John Altamura, Phoebe Legere, Rick Collins, Ron Fazio

PLOT:  Evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc., wanting to turn Tromaville into a toxic waste

Still from The Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989)

dump, lures the mutant superhero Toxie away to Japan to search for his father.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Films churned out by Troma Studios are low-budget affairs heavy on sex, violence and absurd comedy; they are weird compared to typical Hollywood fare, but they’re all similar compared to each other.  With the above-average effort Tromeo and Juliet representing the studio on the List of 366, it’s unlikely that any other Troma films will make it.

COMMENTS:  I am a contrarian.  I believe that The Toxic Avenger, Part II is actually a slightly better film than the original The Toxic Avenger.  The reason is the shift in tone from malicious teen revenge fantasy/comedy to pure comic spoof.   This sequel purges much of the mean-spiritedness from the original–such as the scenes where the audience is expected to identify with the Avenger as he stalks and kills half-naked girls from the upper crust of teen society–while still retaining it’s politically incorrect edge.  The original over-impressed viewers in 1984 due to its novelty and outrageousness, but viewed retrospectively, this sequel is just as bizarre and humorous (which is to say, very bizarre and mildly humorous).  The centerpiece fight scene comes early on, with Toxie dispatching and dismembering a seemingly endless variety of bizarrely costumed goons–a dog boy, a transvestite, a midget, and a number of rejected Village People characters–to the tune of “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.”   The scene is more extended and over-the-top than the restaurant holdup sequence in the original Avenger, and should satisfy fans of absurdist violence.  Once Toxie reaches Tokyo, he meets even more strange characters, including briefcase carrying, mohawk-wearing Japanese businessmen, and fights ninja duels with ridiculous props, including “throwing starfish” and a swordfish-like creature with a functioning chainsaw in place of the horn.  The jokes are aggressively lowbrow, but every now and then the Troma writers throw in something clever to remind you they’re not as stupid as some of the shamelessly lame slapstick gags might suggest–there’s a sly insertion of a David Mamet “quote” that’s laugh-out-loud funny.

The producers shot more footage for this sequel than they could use, so the assembled cast quickly finished off a second sequel, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and released it the same year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What happens when you take a movie that’s good stupid fun and take out the good fun?  Usually, you get a sequel…  Other Troma Inc., films, including the original ‘Avenger’ and ‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High,’ worked partly because there was a silly, surreal energy coursing through them. This sequel seems less inspired than calculated.”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (Toxic Avenger 2, contemporaneous)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.

Video trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

CAPSULE: THE LAND OF THE LOST (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny McBride

PLOT:  Obnoxious scientist Rick Marshall discovers a way to go “sideways” in time to a world of dinosaurs, ape men, and lizard-like sleestaks in this science fantasy comedy.

landofthelost
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s quite a challenge to adapt a 1970s television show about a family lost in a world of dinosaurs and alien creatures and not make it come off as too weird for mainstream audiences, but Brad Siberling managed this feat.  Other than a narcotic-induced group hallucination involving an exploding crab, the only truly weird thing about this critical flop is that the producers chose to reimagine a crazy cult kids’ show as a standard comedy to accommodate the talents of star Will Ferrell, thereby thumbing their noses at the potentially lucrative nostalgia market.

COMMENTSThe Land of the Lost is a sloppily crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment.  The jokes, frequently involving dinosaur pee and poop, are unimaginative and clearly aimed at middle school boys.  The plot is too episodic, with the stranded travelers wandering from set piece to set piece instead of creating tension and forward momentum in their quest to find the lost “tachyon amplifier” and return to their own world.  The script is awful, with minimal regard for logic or internal consistency: we get a doctoral candidate who is inexplicably able to translate alien ape tongues simply because it’s easier than thinking up a clever way to communicate by pantomime.  Antagonists disappear, without being dispatched, when they’re no longer needed.  It’s lazy screenwriting that screams “Will Ferrell’s signed, we’ve already made a fortune off this thing.  Let’s just grind out five acceptable punchlines for the trailer, knock off early and get this check deposited.”  The supporting characters are bland, but the biggest problem with the movie is with Will Ferrell’s Dr. Marshall.  He’s arrogant, dim, easily annoyed, weak-willed and vindictive, and there’s no reason for the audience to root for him.  Of course, by the middle of the film he undergoes standard-issue “character growth,” consisting of a speech on how he’s decided to mend his ways.  Now, we are now supposed to approve when he gets the girl, even though he’s still the same jerk he always was.  Yet, despite all these faults, Land of the Lost is actually not an irredeemably terrible movie.  It’s tolerable, in that insidious way Hollywood has of taking mediocre ingredients and making them palatable by pumping up the pace, throwing in a little spectacle, and focusing on pretty faces roaming around in pretty places.  The sets are imaginative and interesting, often consisting of stray junk (like an ice cream truck and a filled motel pool) that’s been sucked through a wormhole and plopped into the wilderness.  The action sequences are kinetic, if nonsensical at times.  Ferrell’s character and the script’s disregard for logic are annoying—the movie seems to taunt you with its lack of craftsmanship—but Land of the Lost is never boring, and it will play fine for its intended audience of tween boys.

Going in to the movie, I knew it would be bad; I was hoping it would be a delightfully huge bomb, which can make for a fun time, rather than the forgettable attempt it turned out to be.  By design, summer blockbusters marketed to mass audiences have little weird potential, but I felt obliged to check it out due to sprinkled quotes like the one from Eric Snider (below) and these others: “surprisingly bizarre” (N.V. Cooper, “E” Online), “[a]lways weird” (Todd Maurstad, The Dallas Morning News), “[t]his is one very weird movie” (Joanna Langfield),  “aggressively weird” (Brian Juergens), “incredibly strange experience” (Edward Douglas),  “too damn bizarre to hate” (Luke Thompson).  That sounds like a lot of votes for weird, but to put things in perspective, out of dozens and dozens of reviews, about the same number of critics thought the film was “funny.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, what a weird movie this is… a wildly bizarre and frequently hilarious adventure that appears to be whacked-out by design, not out of sloppiness.”–Eric D. Snider, Film.com

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS:  On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope.  Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes.  Not that that’s a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead 2, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of Jaques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance.  Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film.  After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

CAPSULE: ONE MISSED CALL [CHAKUSHIN ARI] (2003)

DIRECTED BYTakashi Miike

FEATURING: ,

PLOT:  Students begin receiving phone calls from their own cell phones, dated three days in the future; the message is their own voice screaming, and they all end up dead at the appointed time.

Still from One Missed Call [Chakushin Ari] (2003)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Weird director Miike adds a few surreal style points at the end, but it’s too little, too late.  For most of the way, this is standard J-horror territory, and a bit dull to boot.

COMMENTSOne Missed Call begins by ripping off a riff from Ringu (1998), with cell phones replacing videocassettes as the technological bogeyman.  Heaping unoriginality on unoriginality, Miike adds recycled ideas from his own Audition (1999), including a slowly revealed child-abuse backstory and multiple false endings. It all eventual ends up as a standard entry in the supernatural Japanese horror (“J-horror”) genre.  The setup is fine, with the students discovering the mysterious, deadly calls from the future, then figuring out that the spirit that makes the calls selects a new target from the last victim’s stored phone numbers, putting them all at risk—even if they’re on the “Do Not Call” registry.  Anytime a ring tone sounds in the movie thereafter, it could be someone’s death sentence.  After the premise is established, however, the movie bogs down into talky exposition. The next target, psychology student Yumi, and man whose sister was one of the first victims try to trace the calls back to their source, where they presume they’ll find the ghost responsible for all this cellular slaughter.  Along the way there is an effective mixture of suspense and satire when a sensationalist television show broadcasts a live exorcism for one of the doomed souls at exactly the time the killer is supposed to strike, as well as a spooky trip through a haunted hospital.  But the needlessly confusing ending, where Miike suddenly decides to burn his personal weird brand onto a generic piece of genre livestock, is unsatisfying and even frustrating.  By the end—despite heaps and heaps of exposition along the way—the supernatural antagonist’s motives, origins, and perhaps even identity are left unclear.

In a time honored tradition of Japanese horror hit adaptations that stretches back all the way to 2003, One Missed Call was remade as a Hollywood flop (with Ed Burns and Shannyn Sossamon) in 2008.  This is a rare J-Horror the Americans could have actually improved with tighter editing and a streamlined storyline, but critical evidence (an amazing 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer!) indicates otherwise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in the final act, when the scene shifts to an abandoned hospital and evil comes out of its closet (or rather oozes out of its vat), we are suddenly in ‘Miike World’… Rationality takes a holiday as Miike sends the film hurling into a surreal universe. For Miike fans, all this will be familiar. For those expecting a generic horror flick, Miike’s imagination may be too out-there for comfort — or understanding.”–Mark Shilling, The Japan Times

CAPSULE: STAY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:  Marc Forster

FEATURING: Ewan McGregor, ,

PLOT:  A private practice psychiatrist takes over the case of a suicidal art student after his regular therapist takes a leave of absence due to stress, and discovers the case has metaphysical as well as psychological implications.

stay

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEStay gets a pretty weird vibe going through its trippy second act—not coincidentally, the part of the movie many mainstream critics complain grows tiresome—but ultimately this mindbending plot has been handled more elegantly before in more memorable films.

COMMENTS: Stay is often a feast for the eyes and a masterpiece of meaningfully employed techniques. Shots are packed with subliminal detail, and everyone notices the amazing transitions that flow seamlessly from one scene into the next (a character gazes out the window to see the person they’re talking to sitting on a bench, having already started the next scene, or wanders out of an art department hallway that magically becomes an aquarium).  The artistic editing and camera tricks all lead up to a beautiful visual climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Sam (Ewan McGregor) and Henry (Ryan Gosling) deliver their “final” speeches while engulfed in a sea of waving strings, as if small filaments of cable have broken off the bridge and are drifting in the wind.  Unfortunately, the story, while clever at times, can’t justify the enormous care devoted to the production design.  Long time fans of psychological thrillers will guess the twist from the first shot, although through directorial sleight of hand and a shift of protagonists the film constantly suggests that it’s just about to head in a novel direction.  In the end, the story is both resolved and unresolved—the unresolved parts being those leftover scraps of the script that relate not to the mystery’s solution, but to the screenplay’s attempts to misdirect the viewer from that solution.  These questions wave around in the mind like those wavy filaments from the Brooklyn Bridge: not part of the supporting structure, just there to add atmosphere.  The end result is a series of admirable tricks strung together, without a huge narrative or emotional payoff.

A curious and disappointing feature of the DVD release is that the widescreen version of the film, with limited commentary by director Forster and star Gosling, is hidden on side B of the double-sided DVD, with a fullscreen version with no commentary taking up side A.  Renters who don’t have the opportunity to read the box cover or who miss the note on the disc’s label may view an inferior presentation of the movie by default.  Ironically, one of the B-side commentators advises, “Never watch this in 4:3.  You’ll miss too much.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sam can’t figure out why Henry wants to kill himself, but it probably has something to do with his inability to differentiate between his hallucinations and reality. Despite his professional training, Sam fails to come to the obvious conclusion: the movie around him has been hijacked by an overzealous D.O.P.”–Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Melissa.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008)

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY:  Rian Johnson

FEATURING: Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi

PLOT:  Bloom is the passive brother floating in the wake of his older sibling Stephen, a

Still from The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Dostoevsky among con-men, who devises one last elaborate grift to rip-off a pretty, rich and very eccentric widow.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTQuirky, not weird.  For the weird fiend, watching a film like this is the equivalent of taking cinematic methadone while waiting to score some big-screen bizarre.

COMMENTS:  Though supposedly set in Montenegro, Prague, Mexico, St. Petersburg, and on a luxury steamer crossing the Atlantic, the real action in The Brothers Bloom is set firmly in Hollywoodland, a mythical, ultra-sophisticated realm where con men dress in pinstripe suits and bowlers to keep a low profile.  Our guides through this wish-fulfillment landscape of daring capers and champagne breakfasts are as quaint a collection of quirks as one might expect to bump into outside of a wine and cheese party held inside Wes Anderson’s noggin: Stephen, a master grifter who writes real-life dramas for his marks designed not only to make him money, but to keep them happy by fulfilling their need for romance and adventure; Bloom, a mopey soul who has lost his own identity through playing out Stephen’s scripts since childhood; Penelope, the socially backward heiress with a prodigal talent for absorbing other people’s skills, whether juggling chainsaws or making cameras out of watermelons; and Bang Bang, the nearly mute Japanese munitions expert, the screenplay’s most original invention and the one character who leaves us wanting more.  The cast does well, especially Brody as Bloom and a bubbly Weisz as Penelope (though however eccentric and awkward she might be, one has to seriously suspend disbelief to imagine that this pretty and very wealthy young thing isn’t swamped with suitors and hangers-on).

The con game is one of the toughest scripts to write, depending on its ability to surprise viewers who’ve seen many a twist ending in their day, and Johnson makes the task even tougher on himself by raising expectations and promoting his guys as the best in the business. In the end the final execution of the game doesn’t surprise, but the alert viewer has lots of fun along the way playing the multiple angles in his head, imagining possible double crosses as new players come into the field. The film runs out of gas before the end and sputters through a disappointing and overly sentimental epilogue/fourth act, but it doesn’t erase the enchantment built up until that point. A whiskey drinking camel and some interesting live action puns round out the fun.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘The Brothers Bloom’ is set on a planet somewhat like our own, but far wackier… The movie is wonderfully weird.”–Kurt Loder, MTV