All posts by Alex Kittle

I like ambiguous video and installation art, experimental comic books, screaming lady bands, and of course, delightfully strange and surreal films. I dig regular stuff, like pizza and The Kinks, too. I also make and sell film-inspired art: http://www.etsy.com/shop/guiltycubicle

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

Recommended

“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

305. THE LURE (2015)

Córki Dancingu

“Our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney.” –Agnieszka Smoczyńska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal

PLOT: Two mermaid sisters, Silver and Golden, wash up on the shores of Warsaw. They hook up with a family synth-pop band, joining their act in a seedy nightclub. Their voices bewitch everyone around them, but Golden’s carnivorous appetite and Silver’s infatuation with a young bass player lead to horror and heartbreak.

Still from The Lure (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Robert Bolesto was inspired by his friends Zuzia and Basia Wrońska and their childhood growing up around a nightclub in the 1980s. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska had had a similar childhood experience, and decided to create a horror-fantasy allegory with that setting. The script was initially conceived as a straightforward biography of the sisters, but both the Wrońskas and Smoczyńska felt it was too personal, so the characters were changed to mermaids. Because mermaids are known for singing and the setting was a nightclub, the film easily evolved into a musical.
  • The Wrońska sisters form the Polish-language synth pop band Ballady i Romanse. They composed the music for The Lure. They appear at the end of the film in the wedding scene.
  • Much of the visual style pulls from the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints twisted, adult fairy tale scenes, as well as photographer Nan Goldin, known for her seedy images of the New York club scene and queer subculture in the 80s.
  • Though it was praised at its Sundance debut, in its native Poland the film received a mixed response. According to Smoczyńska, Poland doesn’t have a tradition of musicals (The Lure has been called Poland’s first musical) or horror. Those elements weren’t advertised at all, so incoming audiences did not realize what they were in for.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Smoczyńsky addresses the reality of mer-people anatomy by showing a mermaid-human transplant. Shot from above, a mermaid lies on ice in a long metal gurney and sings sadly, while a surgeon saws through her torso and then stitches on a pair of human legs (taken from an anonymous woman lying on ice next to her). It is at once clinical, tragic, and sweet, made all the more memorable for being part of a low-key musical number.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Merman punk rocker; breastfeeding mermaids; fish labia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though working with some familiar source material, the film manages to feel fresh and strange. The visceral effects and gore matched against the upbeat synth tunes; the fantasy characters in a grimy, all-too-real world; the loss of chronology in the narrative; the sense that nothing is quite what it seems, that there is something under the surface of it all: no single element makes it weird, but rather a host of assorted factors.


Brief musical scene from The Lure

COMMENTS: A simple description of The Lure seems impossible. It’s Continue reading 305. THE LURE (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith

FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil

PLOT: A mysterious loner living in isolation in the mountains survives off the food and shelter of unused vacation homes; through flashbacks we see how his life unraveled after meeting a doomsday-prophesying computer engineer.

Still from Buster's Mal Heart (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its nonlinear style and a few nearly incomprehensible plot elements, this is definitely weird. But it also throws in a by-now familiar twist that makes it feel less special.

COMMENTS: For years, a man (Rami Malek) known only as “Buster” has been haunting the woods where a number of high-end vacation homes lie empty the majority of the year. He breaks into these homes and stays for a few days at a time, neatly tidying up after himself but often leaving some memento of his visit behind for the owners to find. The only interactions we see him engage in are periodic phone calls to radio DJ’s and phone sex workers, warning them of some impending doom called “the Inversion.” In an alternate vision of his life, he is lost at sea, waiting out his own death on a small rowboat, alternating between English and Spanish as he shouts at the sky. With the third version of Buster, we learn his history. He was once named “Jonah,” a hard-working young family man who had overcome drug addiction and homelessness and found salvation (and a wife) in the church. He works the night shift at a quiet airport hotel, and dreams of whisking his family away from the toil of working-class suburban life to their very own plot of land in the mountains, where they can live on their own terms. Jonah’s chance encounter with an unnamed drifter (DJ Qualls) who foretells the end of the world sets a chain of events in motion that leads to drastic changes in his lifestyle and worldview.

Buster’s Mal Heart is an exercise in nonlinear, enigmatic storytelling. Each scene is a flashback, a flash forward, or a flash-sideways, with seeming revelations about the protagonist often resulting in more questions, wrong turns, or dead ends. But writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (known for her stunning, secretive debut The Midnight Swim) throws viewers some bread crumbs, hinting at overarching themes. It seems that all of Jonah’s life as we know it is a constant push-pull between a “normal,” responsible, social existence and a completely free, independent one. He works in the hospitality industry, but due to his hours he spends most of his shifts alone, cleaning up the barren spaces of the hotel or sitting at the front desk staring blankly at the empty lobby. He loves his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter, but refuses to imagine a buttoned-up suburban life for them, instead saving all of his money to build them a cabin on a lake. He is an active member of an unspecific Christian church, but not actually invested in religion, likely remaining only because it is so Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

“Usually you can fall back on a genre or something and go, ‘It’ll be great!’ With us, we were like, ‘I don’t know man, we’re making something crazy, it might not turn out well…’” – Daniel Kwan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: Paul Dano,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washed ashore. Investigating, he finds it is endowed with many with life-saving powers, and eventually develops the power of speech. Naming the corpse “Manny,” the two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries to find his way home and Manny tries to remember what it’s like to be alive.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is the first feature from writing/directing team “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They met at Emerson College in 2008, and soon collaborated on short films and music videos that combined Kwan’s background in design and animation with Scheinert’s background in comedy and theater.
  • Kwan came up with the idea as a joke, and the two aspiring filmmakers would pitch it during studio meetings for fun until they were eventually encouraged to actually develop it into something. The script came together in 2014 at the Sundance Labs, where was one of their advisors. (According to Scheinert, he wanted them to somehow incorporate the Gilligan’s Island theme song.)
  • Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were the first actors to whom they sent the script. Both agreed immediately, after which Daniels rewrote the parts to be more suited to the actors.
  • Daniel Radcliffe insisted on performing most of his own stunts.
  • Daniels’ Grammy-nominated music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” single was a testing ground for the idea of an independent-minded penis later used in Swiss Army Man. Daniel Kwan himself is the main dancer in the video.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hank’s descriptions of women and sex (along with help from an alluring advertisement) provoke a sudden erection in Manny, but it soon becomes clear that his penis is actually pointing their way home. The erratic movements of Daniel Radcliffe’s member as it jerks within his pants towards a nearby pathway create an image I certainly won’t forget any time soon.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Corpse jet ski; DIY bus ride; fiery (and propulsive) bear escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With a farting, hacking, spewing, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the film’s complete sincerity, which despite all its high-concept groundwork makes its audience care deeply about its central characters.


Trailer for Swiss Army Man

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are Continue reading 257. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

CAPSULE: THE FITS (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Anna Rose Holmer

FEATURING: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett

PLOT: A preteen tomboy finds herself drawn into the dance classes at her local recreation center, but soon after she joins the group the older girls begin suffering mysterious seizures.

The Fits (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While definitely of interest to aficionados of weirdness, and a highly recommended film overall, it just doesn’t reach the levels of  bizarre we aim for with the List.

COMMENTS: Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a quiet, athletic 11-year-old girl who spends her afternoons at the local rec center with her older brother, training in the boxing gym with a group of teen boys. She finds herself compelled to join the dance drill team that rehearses down the hall, feeling shy around the girls but determined to show off her moves. Though she doesn’t appear to be naturally gifted at dance, she sticks with it and befriends some of the other new recruits, observing the older girls who lead the troupe with the curiosity of a child and the growing understanding of a young adult. When the seizures start, Toni and her friends are more intrigued than scared, and they watch from afar as more and more of the older girls are affected by this unexplained malady. Toni begins to suspect that it’s intentional, that they want it, and it becomes a kind of calling card for a cool inner circle.

Based on plot alone, The Fits sounds like a fairly standard coming-of-age drama, and in some ways it is: a shy and intelligent girl finds community within a larger group, learns about new adult realities, maintains her independence, etc. The parallels between the girls’s seizures and female puberty are obvious, as Toni feels the kind of ostracization and curiosity that preteen girls might experience as their friends start getting (and discussing) their periods. Along with fear of the unknown there is a pride attached to the phenomenon, a feeling of special knowledge and maturity. Throughout the film, we see our tomboy protagonist slowly acquiring visual markers coded as “girly,” including glitter nail polish and pierced ears, which help her fit in with her friends. But she slowly sheds them all, retaining her sense of difference. Eventually, Toni (and the audience) senses that there is a kind of freedom attached to the seizures—the precise, fluid movements of the drill team are liberally flung out the window in the sudden and erratic fits the girls exhibit. There is a beauty to letting go, to giving in to being a girl, to finding acceptance in her changing, awkward preteen body.

With a keen observational eye and resourceful use of a single location (the town recreational center), first-time director Anna Rose Holmer fully engages with the perspective of her central character. We see everything through Toni’s eyes, and the subtle, powerful performance of Royalty Hightower communicates a world of experience with little expository dialogue. But the most intriguing stylistic element of The Fits is its sound. While one might realistically expect a soundtrack of dance music, specifically pop or hip hop, to go with the performances of the drill team, the music rarely matches the action onscreen. Instead we are treated to bizarre, somewhat abstract soundscapes that create a sense of intrinsic eeriness, hinting that something must be wrong here. The surreal music serves to pick apart the weirdness of adolescence, and to heighten the anxiety and uncertainty Toni feels every day behind her stony exterior as she maneuvers the muddy waters between childhood and adulthood. Without it, the events of the film would be dramatic, but not necessarily extraordinary. With it, we are left with a distinct but ambiguous sense of strangeness, an itch we can’t quite scratch, a mystery never to be solved. And yet, thanks to an exuberant final dance number, there’s a contentment that goes along with it, suggesting the power of sisterhood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale.”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

DER INTERVIEW: NIKIAS CHRYSSOS ON “DER BUNKER”

366 Weird Movies’s Alex Kittle conducted the following interview with Der Bunker (review) director via email.

Alex Kittle, 366 Weird Movies: I was struck by the retro aesthetic, the mix of patterns and saturated lighting, and attention to detail in the set and costumes in Der Bunker. What made you decide to do a single location film? What were your inspirations for the look of the bunker? Did you face challenges with the limited space?

nikias chryssosNikias Chryssos: My grandparents had a holiday house in Switzerland. It had this big bunker room in the basement with a thick iron door as a shelter for wartime. I imagined it would be funny if someone wants to rent a room and he basically gets locked away. I wanted to build a story about a place like this. Initially, the film was set in a kind of fairytale house in the woods but when we found the entrance to this bunker during our location search, we decided to put the whole story underground. The limited setting gave us a lot of control but also provided us with specific challenges. My production designer Melanie Raab, the cinematographer Matthias Reisser, and I then did a lot of research and the main challenge was to make the setting interesting even though everything takes place in one house. We wanted to give the different rooms different colors and moods but still keep it coherent. We also worked with different lighting set-ups, like more contrast during the night scenes and softer light in the day, even though the light might not change that much underground. As the student, our main protagonist, is working on some big scientific work, it was also interesting to work with patterns and build little connections there, whether it is the wallpaper, the walls, his blanket, the door frames or Klaus’ pajamas. Sometimes, these patterns also give the feeling of a prison cell. Thanks to great production design team, I never had the feeling something I wanted wasn’t possible. Another challenge was to not go mad in such a claustrophobic set during the shoot.

366: Much of the film’s tension centers around Mother’s intense hold on her son, and fear of allowing him to grow up and leave her. What led you to approach the mother character with that angle? What about this theme resonates with you?

NC: I feel there is a big fear in today’s parents that their children might not make it, a fear they become a failure, and they don’t let them go. It may lead to a weird mixture of being overly demanding and over-protective at the same time, and I think that’s a hard situation for a child. Maybe it comes down to the old question of freedom versus security which we face again and again on different Continue reading DER INTERVIEW: NIKIAS CHRYSSOS ON “DER BUNKER”

LIST CANDIDATE: SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Swiss Army Man has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), a young man on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) with life-saving powers. The two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries find his way home.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With a farting, hacking, spewing, talking, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is probably bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But it’s the film’s kooky charm, black humor, and remarkable feeling that makes me recommend it.

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are alone, when there is no social pressure to be reasonable or logical, when we can allow ourselves to think, just for a second, that maybe that unexplained feeling or movement is a ghost drifting through our house or a glitch in the Matrix. Swiss Army Man, the debut feature from filmmaking team “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), revels in the idea that in isolation people are free to be as weird as they are, and that maybe that is a beautiful thing. Lost, alone, scared, unsure, Hank not only finds himself immediately opening up to a random corpse (known later as “Manny”), but he accepts his magical properties almost immediately because he has no reason not to. He doesn’t seem to care if this crazy experience is all in his head or not, so the audience doesn’t need to, either.

Hank discovers more and more uses for Manny as the story moves along—he starts fires with spark-inducing fingers, acts as a fountain after collecting rain water all night, moves across the water as a fart-powered motorboat, and points the way with his penis-compass (really), among other things. However, the surprise of the film is that it isn’t really about its titular character’s multi-purpose nature, but more about the strange, surprisingly moving relationship that develops between the two men. Manny is a blank slate, with no memory and no knowledge of the outside world, so much of the dialogue is Hank answering never-ending questions about life, love, work, and bodily functions. They begin to enact a strange love-story-once-removed, with Hank playing the part of a semi-fictional woman so that Manny can learn how male/female romance works, but as time goes on the fantasy blurs into reality. They rely on one another so completely that their symbiotic relationship mirrors a romantic one, and despite the impossibility of their situation it is utterly believable.

Ultimately, Swiss Army Man is an exercise in contradictions. It combines thoughtful, often elegant visuals—a cool blue/green/ color palette, engrossing camerawork, soft lighting—and pairs it with exceedingly low-brow visual and audio gags, with the ever-present fart and dick jokes driving a lot of the humor. It gives us an inventive, gorgeous score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell and overlays it with nonsense words and goofy lyrics sung by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. It reveals many of the terrifying realities of survival in the forest while eliciting comedy and wonder out of its fantasy elements. Much of its dialogue centers around a heterosexual love story, but it actually works better as a homosexual one. What makes the film work so well is that everyone involved accepts these contradictions wholeheartedly, knowing that something can be beautiful and disgusting and hilarious and strange and emotionally affecting all at once, because weirdness is okay, even after you’ve left the isolation of the woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie wears its weirdness as a badge of honor — as well it should.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (festival screening)