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

REPORT: BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016

The final weekend in March saw a sudden influx of weirdness to the Boston area with the arrival of the 18th annual Boston Underground Film Festival, the region’s primary hub for new independent genre fare. Ever concerned with keeping the 366 Weird Movies community up to date with the latest in the bizarre, I took in a few of the weirder-looking titles (minus the special Belladonna of Sadness screening, which I reported on from Fantastic Fest).

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The Lure (dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)

In her first feature, Agnieszka Smoczynska brings to life a delightfully strange genre mash-up that combines elements of fairy tale, horror, romance, coming-of-age drama,  and dark comedy, played out in catchy new wave musical numbers and set against a slightly surreal Soviet backdrop. With a loose, dreamy narrative structure, the story follows the adventures of mermaid sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) as they come ashore in Warsaw and establish themselves as a musical act at a seedy nightclub, shacking up with the house band, an eccentric mother/father/son trio. The sweet-natured Silver begins dating the son, a hunky but noncommittal bassist, though Golden warns her against the consequences of falling in love with a human. The sisters experience the ups and downs of life in show business (drugs, sex, betrayal, etc) while also occasionally feeding their lust for human blood.

Yes, The Lure has a lot going on, and yes, it is overly ambiguous at times, but if you aren’t completely entranced by a lush, synth-driven musical about killer mermaids then I don’t know how to help you. The film is at times funny, at others tragic, and frequently strange and viscerally gross. The locations pair dingy interiors and rain-soaked streets with neon lights and sequined costumes, with subtle reminders of the Soviet regime peppered throughout. The soundtrack, composed by Ballady i Romanse (a real-life sister act who partially inspired the film’s premise), is absolutely stellar, emotionally varied but generally sticking to the 80s discotheque vibe. While it offers weirdness in spades with its many genre oscillations, perhaps what is most notable about the film is how it subverts tropes relating to gender and sexuality. Silver and Golden are introduced as the typical seductive sirens many myths associate with mermaids, but their naiveté is soon made clear. They are viewed as sex objects from the beginning, but also treated as children due to their lack of understanding of the human world, a sly commentary on the sexualization of young girls so dominant in the media. A cult-friendly oddity with a feminist slant, The Lure is the first List-worthy release I’ve seen this year.

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Chasing Banksy (dir. Frank Henenlotter)

Largely based on a true story, indie horror favorite Frank Henenlotter‘s latest film focuses on Anthony (Anthony Sneed, playing a version of himself), a street artist struggling to make it in New York, who hatches a wild scheme to steal one of the Banksy artworks that popped up in the American South a few years after Hurricane Katrina. He enlists a few artist friends to help him out for a share of the Continue reading REPORT: BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016

CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan

PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.

COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.

Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and Continue reading CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

TOP 5 WEIRD MOVIES OF FANTASTIC FEST 2015

See also: Alex Kittle’s Report from Fantastic Fest 2015

Dedicated to films from all over the world of the horror, thriller, sci-fi, action, experimental, and/or mash-up persuasions, Fantastic Fest is the perfect place to discover all-new weird movies of various origins. I tried to take in a little bit of everything, and I’ve come out with a list of the Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest for 2015. Note: Due to scheduling conflicts I missed ‘s Yakuza Apocalypse, which I suspect would have made this list. Oh well.

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5) Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Japan)
This was the most significant repertory screening for weird-movie lovers: a long-lost anime acid trip directed by Eiichi Yamamoto that never received a proper release in the US, but has been restored and re-released by Cinelicious Pics for 2015. Known to some for its use as a backdrop for musicians, the film’s visuals are without par, composed primarily of sprawling watercolor paintings that the camera pans across like an unraveling scroll. The art style is complex and elegant, with detailed linework and selective color, a kind of animated Art Nouveau, and the soundtrack is a thumping psychedelic score that pairs perfectly with the hallucinogenic imagery onscreen. As a purely sensory experience, the film is remarkable. The script and themes are less so. Hailed by some as a feminist statement, the story (inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th-century nonfiction book Satanism and Witchcraft) follows Jeanne, a peasant woman in feudal France who is publicly raped on her wedding night by a skeletal baron and his courtiers. Physically and emotionally shattered, she turns to a demon spirit who offers her revenge in exchange for sexual devotion, and eventually she becomes a powerful sorceress who controls her whole town. On paper it sounds empowering, but in action it tends to stray far more into pornographic objectification of Jeanne, and the script is so bare-bones it would be about half the length without all the sex scenes. Narrative issues aside, this is definitely a must-see for anyone interested in experimental animation or weird stuff from Japan.

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4) Men & Chicken (2015, Denmark/Germany)
My first foray into the wacky world of Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, Men & Chicken is a sick, strange, and funny family drama about 5 brothers and their enigmatic scientist father. plays Elias, a chronic masturbator who, upon his father’s death, discovers that he and his brother were both adopted, and that they come from different mothers. The two go on a quest to find their biological dad and end up gaining three more brothers they never knew existed, all with odd habits and a decidedly anti-social bent. The five men try to make it as a family, to mixed success and much hilarity, while digging into the mystery of their brilliant-but-abusive father’s experiments. The narrative is meandering to say the least, but so incredibly enjoyable it doesn’t matter, with a perfect comedic cast, ridiculous dialogue, downright silly situational Continue reading TOP 5 WEIRD MOVIES OF FANTASTIC FEST 2015

REPORT FROM FANTASTIC FEST 2015

See also: Alex Kittle’s Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest 2015

Fantastic Fest is an experience like no other. I say that not to shill, just to state a simple fact. This was my first time attending the now-storied genre film festival, hosted by the famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and it’s safe to describe the event as “something else.” Over the course of eight days I saw over 30 films—primarily new releases but also repertory screenings of Turkish pop-cinema, Shaw Brothers classics, 80s horror, and two secret screenings—and attended karaoke performances, video game demonstrations, and a Wild West-themed party. I missed some of the night-time shenanigans either because of exhaustion or conflict with screenings, but I do know that the hardest question in the Fantastic Feud game was (to me) a no-brainer concerning the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy. I made friends with locals and critics while waiting for my films to start. I ate a decidedly inappropriate amount of fried food. I danced the chicken dance along with Alamo director Tim League. I watched DJs in animal costumes rap about reincarnation. I learned all about the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s from authors who were connected to it. I bumped elbows with festival attendees , Kumail Nanjiani, and Karyn Kusama (but was too shy to talk to any of them). I had, for lack of a better word, a fantastic time.

Fantastic Fest 2015Throughout the week I saw almost everything I wanted see, including recent festival hits like The Lobster, The Witch, and Victoria, as well as new efforts from filmmakers I admire such as Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, and Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast. From the documentary Remake, Remix, Rip-Off, I learned about the remarkably resourceful filmmakers working in Turkey during the 1970s-80s, who took advantage of the country’s lax copyright laws and created hundreds of weird, pastiche remakes. And while I missed The Man Who Saves the World (aka “Turkish Star Wars”), I did catch The Deathless Devil, a highly enjoyable caper that combines elements of superhero serials, James Bond, and killer robots—plus the star of the film was there to tell us silly behind-the-scenes stories. After joking that I wished the secret screening would be Crimson Peak, I was elated to discover it in fact WAS Crimson Peak and I just about lost it when walked out on stage! Everyone received a complimentary pint glass and I’m still riding kind of high from the whole experience. The second secret screening was one of Drafthouse’s “unearthed” cult films, a haphazard action movie called Dangerous Men that doesn’t quite reach the enjoyably campy heights of personal favorites like Miami Connection or Hard Ticket to Hawaii, but certainly had its ridiculous moments. The most-hyped film was Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which I saw only after hearing nearly every single fest attendee sing its praises, and while it is a very good, brutal thriller, it is, in fact, not the greatest thing ever, Continue reading REPORT FROM FANTASTIC FEST 2015

CAPSULE: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julianne Moore, , , Evan Bird,

PLOT: The lives of several Hollywood insiders intertwine unexpectedly after the arrival of Agatha, a mysterious young woman who intrudes upon the lives of a wannabe screenwriter, a popular teen heartthrob, a self-help TV guru, and a successful but aging actress.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its combination of Hollywood satire, ghostly apparitions, homicidal sensationalism, and heaps of incest does hit a few marks on the Weird-o-Meter, but Maps to the Stars doesn’t plunge into the depths of weirdness achieved in Cronenberg’s earlier, body horror-centric features like Dead Ringers and Videodrome.

COMMENTS: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) has been around show business all her life. Her mother was a popular actress made more notable when she died tragically in a fire while still in the prime of youth, and now a prominent director is re-imagining her most famous film, with Havana gunning for a supporting role as her mother’s imaginary grown self. At a crossroads in her career and still coming to terms with sexual abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand, Havana sees the sudden arrival of new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as a sign and instantly takes her in. Meanwhile, teen sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird)—only 13 and just out of rehab—is filming the sequel to his hit comedy Bad Babysitter, but finds himself upstaged by his child costar. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a New Age self-help therapist with a talk show and a sea of celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

In that unsurprising cinematic way, these and many other lives are intricately connected through family and work, and Agatha becomes both the glue that binds them and the catastrophe that unsettles them. The incestuous nature of mainstream filmmaking is thus satirized, but with a heavy dose of actual incest. It is never outwardly explained or analyzed, it’s just there, a stated and very present fact looming over every interaction. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner packs in every ounce of sensationalism worthy of a Star headline, from sex and abuse to drug addiction and murder, bluntly illustrating the complete breakdown of this family beset by mental illness but unable to cope with it while in the public eye. It’s all done with a slight sense of distance, with each character playing exaggerated versions of real people and the whole observed with a cool eye, so that we won’t feel guilty laughing. Much has been made of Maps to the Stars being Cronenberg’s “first comedy” (though the director himself claims he’s never made anything but comedies), and it is for the most part quite funny. Between Moore’s exaggerated California accent, Cusack’s self-help b.s., Agatha’s tall tales, snarky movie references, and the winking celebrity self-obsession, there is a lot to laugh about.

Of course, Hollywood satire is nothing new, but Cronenberg  gives it his own sick, twisted take, fusing Greek melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humor with inescapable darkness. The story is populated with ghostly apparitions that haunt Havana and Benjie, gradually moving in on their already-fragile psyches. The egoism and lack of empathy so many associate with the movie industry are made manifest in these people, and their punishment is poetic. Though removed from the body horror aesthetic for which he is perhaps still most known, the film is visually striking in its very deliberate framing of characters, its stark, modern interiors, its costumes-as-uniforms, and its jarring juxtapositions. (There is, however, one major visual hiccup in a self-immolation scene towards the end that I hope was a self-aware commentary on cinematic artificiality because the CGI was terrible.) The vicious but contained acts of violence are brutal and chilling, escalating quickly until it becomes clear there can be no easy way out for anyone, every character has essentially been digging their own grave from the beginning. The abrupt changes in tone and focus could be distracting, but the very talented cast takes it all in stride and manages to make it work, moved along by the thoughtful direction. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to a Cronenberg film expecting a nice, neat little package where everything works out in the end, right?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s something bizarrely funny as well as truly sad in the director’s vision of Rodeo Drive denizens and their heavily medicated affects.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso

PLOT: An entomology professor and her student are very much in love, but their romance is threatened by the latter’s preference for BDSM practices in the bedroom.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the subject matter might seem strange or unusual to some viewers, the film itself is simply an examination of two women who are going through a trial in their relationship. There is some bizarre dream imagery and a choppy narrative style, but nothing truly Weird.

COMMENTS: The Duke of Burgundy opens with a drawn-out sexual role play as the wide-eyed Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) enters the house of domineering mistress Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to act as housekeeper. Evelyn scrubs and shines and soaks as Cynthia thinks of more demeaning tasks for her to do, ending the day with punishment for unsatisfactory work in the form of urination into Evelyn’s mouth. This scene returns in multiple forms later, as we see different perspectives and points in time, serving as an anchor for our understanding of their relationship. The film unfolds over a semester at the isolated women’s school where Cynthia lectures and Evelyn studies, but most of the focus is on their private moments at home. As the persistent Evelyn comes up with new ways to be dominated, she believes she’s found the perfect partner in Cynthia, who is willing to act the dominatrix if it makes her lover happy. However, it soon becomes clear that the older woman is uncomfortable with the parts Evelyn creates for her, struggling to emotionally and physically abuse her lover even in the context of role playing, and then growing to resent her for her increasing demands.

Strickland made waves two years ago with his stunning, unnerving ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio, in which a British sound technician sinks into a paranoid fever dream while shooting a gory horror in Italy. Here, the director again treats the eyes to a sultry palette, ornate settings, and thoughtful camerawork, matched by an effective soundtrack that pairs fuzzy synths with the hum of insects. The opening credits use freeze-frame and oversaturation to reference vintage softcore film, but thanks to the soundtrack and visceral color choices, other moments are more reminiscent of a slasher. The retro vibe is heightened by the somewhat ambiguous setting and time period. Fashions and hairstyles suggest the 1950s or 60s, the aesthetic is more 70s, the landscape and architecture is classical, evoking rural Italy (though filmed in Hungary), and everyone speaks English with different European accents. He clearly devotes much of his time to mixing and matching different film references, from art house to grindhouse, but ultimately the focus is on the characters. Even the weirder touches, including frequent close-ups of insects and stark shots of architecture, are meant to communicate the sense of dread that is hanging over Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship as they move into darker sexual territory. There is a palpable feeling of intimacy in Strickland’s approach, utilizing close-ups and lingering shots to effect a kind of quietude over most of the proceedings. It is easily to believe in this relationship, though the world around them is often hazy.

On paper The Duke of Burgundy sounds like it should be a sleazy straight male fantasy about lesbian kink, and yet Strickland forgoes all sensationalism—there isn’t that much (explicit) sex or even nudity shown. Evelyn’s mental stimulation is highlighted, as she derives pleasure from being locked in a chest, verbally berated, and sat on by Cynthia. The BDSM scenes are often treated with humor, not to make fun of those practices but to reveal the kind of goofy accidents or strange conversations that might come with it, and to break the tension for an unfamiliar audience. At other times they are presented in a cold, almost sterile manner, with Cynthia eventually injecting a form of revenge into their role play. What is both wonderful and striking about this film is its undertone of normalcy, its relatable and honestly touching portrayal of a romantic struggle, despite its apparently sexploitative premise. The basic story could easily be rewritten with different conflicts, with different genders, with different settings; the BDSM elements are both central to the narrative and secondary to the overarching theme. The film asks if sexual preferences can damage an otherwise strong relationship, and if personal contentment can exist without complete sexual fulfillment. It allows us to peek into something extremely personal, but universal, intermingling with our own insights and experiences, with a dreamlike style so lush and distinctive we still walk away feeling like we’ve left behind a world of fantasy. It might not be List-worthy, but it is certainly worth seeing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the question of who’s really in charge of these scenarios is complicated. Exactly the same deceptive quality can be found in the dreamlike artifice of Strickland’s film itself, set in a lush and aristocratic European fantasyland that’s entirely nonspecific as to geography and chronology… But while Strickland’s films already aren’t like anyone else’s, his real secret is that even in this strange constructed world, his characters feel like real people struggling with issues that aren’t exotic at all.”–Andrew O’Hehir, “Salon” (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Glazer

FEATURING: , Adam Pearson

PLOT: An alien in the form of a beautiful woman skulks around Glasgow in a white van hunting for single men, whom she collects for some unknown but supposedly nefarious purpose. Eventually she becomes confused by her own temporary humanity, and her physical body starts to shut down.

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WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With an acute vision and a puzzling but highly rewarding plot, Under the Skin is easily among the best of 2014, and may well turn out to be the weirdest. The action moves slowly, but is filled with wonderfully bizarre imagery and powerful space-y scoundscapes. Its storytelling is inventive, and nothing is obvious.

COMMENTS: Under the Skin opens with abstract images of space and birth, with the sounds of a woman learning to talk played over the ambient score. An unnamed biker pulls a dead woman into a van, in which a naked Scarlett Johansson takes on her appearance, and her clothing. The next day, she begins her unexplained quest for bodies, driving around and innocently asking for directions while slyly prying into her prey’s background. If they have girlfriends or family, or are on their way to meet friends, she leaves, but if she determines them to be alone and single, she invites them back to her weird abandoned-looking house. Entranced by her beauty, they follow her blindly until they are absorbed into the floor, sinking into black goo. When she comes upon a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson), she falters in her single-minded mission, and begins to look for human experiences, though she is generally unable to understand them.

Adamantly maintaining a “show, don’t tell” attitude, Jonathan Glazer teases his audience with nibbles of information, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle pieces ourselves. This type of storytelling forces us to carefully consider every image presented, questioning characters’ unstated motives and giving a close reading to each scene. The movie is almost palpably quiet, relying little on dialogue and offering a mix of natural background noise and unearthly music, leaving a lot of room for inner thought to fill in the stillness. We must connect how the silent biker is related to Scarlett Johansson’s character, what purpose the abducted men serve, what prompts the protagonist to abandon her hunt, and why she seems to be struggling with her alien body. All of this information is made available to us, if we pay attention. Every shot is precise and deliberate, with many scenes carefully constructed through the use of hidden cameras—so many of the men interacting with Johansson are at first unaware that they are in a movie. There is an intriguing combination of gritty, rainy urban areas, dark but lush forests, and weird alien spaces, plus the juxtaposition of hidden-camera verism and sci-fi unreality. It is at once unsettling, confusing, exciting, and utterly compelling.

This is, for the most part, understated weirdness. Glazer’s non-expository, matter-of-fact style belies how inventive the film’s approach really is. He reveals an alien’s view of our world, and often makes humanity as strange to his audience as it is to his protagonist. The men’s thickly-accented, slang-ridden speech is often confusing (to this American viewer, that is), and common human rituals are made to appear odd. Why do we wear make-up? Or eat chocolate cake? Or have sex? An extended sequence shows a family spending time on a rocky beach, but the parents leave their toddler on the shore as they swim out to save their drowning dog. The protagonist watches this dramatic scene from afar, a nonpartisan observer, not so much uncaring as she is disengaged, never moved to help or hinder because their plight just isn’t related to her. Even the considerable nudity is approached with a sense of detachment, and made to be completely nonsexual despite the context. Though her origins are never actually mentioned, there is no doubt she is an alien creature, a hunter given human form but never made to understand the person she inhabits. The sick joke is that while visually she embodies the human equivalent of prey—female, beautiful, small, alone—inwardly she is a powerful predator. Under the Skin is a strange and dark thriller that manages to wryly comment on gender stereotyping and (straight) sexual relations without actually delivering any kind of message. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it simply is.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Under the Skin sometimes feels like it should be more elusive, but the moment you try and lock it down it slips away from you, going off into weirder territory.” –Matt Prigge, Metro