All posts by Shane Wilson

CAPSULE: TIME MASTERS [LES MAÎTRES DU TEMPS] (1982)

AKA The Masters of Time

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DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Voices of , Michel Elias, Frédéric Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry

PLOT: A boy is marooned on an alien world, and a space mercenary encounters many obstacles in his rescue attempt.

Still from Time Masters (1982)

COMMENTS: Like the younger brother of an overachiever, Time Masters has to live up to a mighty pedigree. Director Rene Laloux is already enshrined in these halls for Fantastic Planet, another Stefan Wul adaptation renowned for its trippy visuals and detailed alien worlds. Add in that Laloux’s collaborator this time around is the famed artist Jean Giraud—better known as Moebius—and it’s only natural to assume that the result will hit similarly mind-blowing heights. Alas, the comparison does the newer film no favors. Hamstrung by a plot stretched too thin and production levels of sharply varying quality, Time Masters plays like the Filmation version of its predecessor.

The film’s production seems to be part of the problem. Originally conceived for television, satisfaction with early work convinced Laloux to expand it into a feature film. Unfortunately, the budget did not expand in proportion, and a large percentage of the movie was outsourced to animators in Hungary. (So many co-producers were brought in that it can legitimately be called a Franco-West German-Swiss-British-Hungarian production.) It’s not hard to figure out which parts of the film were animated where; the adventures of Piel on the surface of the untamed world of Perdide are charming and delicate, with the boy interacting with fascinating creatures both friendly and vicious. Meanwhile, the crew on its way to rescue him is flat and inert, completely incapable of demonstrating any emotion, let alone matching the tenor of the vocal performances. Time Masters becomes a tale of two films.

The story isn’t helping matters, as it betrays the effort that goes into delaying the central goal. Having received a subspace message that a small child is all alone on a dangerous planet and in need of rescue, the response of the would-be heroes is to take their sweet time. Stopping to pick up a sage advisor, they go for an extended swim. An attempted mutiny by a deposed royal leads to a suspense-free prison break. The threat of interference by space cops is met with the breathless excitement of a board meeting. (That’s not a metaphor. They all go into an auditorium and talk it out.) You can almost feel the screenwriters making the “stall for time” gesture.

Time Masters is not without its charms. In fact, the cuter the creature, the more interesting they seem to be. Piel and his planetary menagerie are sweet and occasionally even adorable, although they are far outdone by a pair of faceless gremlins named Yula and Jad who offer a running commentary on the foolishness of those around them. They are the Threepio and Artoo of the piece, but they bring more punch than most of the humans do at their most emotive.

Time Masters is commendable as something original, featuring some dramatic visuals and culminating in an ending that is certainly bold, even if it doesn’t really pay off the story in any meaningful way. But there just isn’t a whole lot that happens, and what does happen isn’t compelling enough to be more than a passing fancy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it’s just that until that point there’s a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy – basically, it looks like a kids’ film… It weaves a spell if you’re indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by Nickholas P Michell. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BUDDY BOY (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Hanlon

FEATURING: Aiden Gillen, Emmanuelle Seigner, , Mark Boone Junior

PLOT: Francis, a lonely, emotionally stunted man living with his stepmother, begins spying on Gloria; after a chance encounter on the street, they strike up a romantic relationship, but Francis becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

Still from Buddy Boy (1999)

COMMENTS: Like the hybrid the world was waiting for, Buddy Boy arrives with a healthy blend of paranoia and violence, neatly planting the man-against-the-world narrative inside a milieu of seediness, squalor, and surrealism. It’s a heady brew, and the success of the whole thing rests on the shoulders of our central character, a simple man who may be deeply mentally disturbed.

Francis’ unreliability is clear from the outset. Coming home to his apartment, he finds his stepmother laid out on the floor dead, an empty bottle of cleaning fluid at her side. He lays the old woman in her bed as if unsure of what to do. But by the next morning, she is quite evidently back among the living with no explanation. Did she ever die? Did any of what we’ve seen actually happen?

This uncertainty is central to the dilemma of Francis. When he watches Gloria through his peephole, he sees her heartlessly chopping up bloody cuts of meat in direct defiance of her professed veganism. And yet, when he confronts her, only vegetables are to be found. He’s understandably confused, and his uncertainty transitions steadily into horror. He scrubs his bloody hands raw with Ajax. He wears gloves and a mask to keep out the germs he imagines are everywhere (more than two decades ahead of schedule). He sees his own head served up as the main course at a dinner party. And at no point does he ever seem to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with him. He’s that most terrifying of victims, the one who is certain he’s the only one who is sane.

At every turn, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Francis has seen the lie he wants to see, proof the world’s mendacity and his own unworthiness. As a result, you start to doubt everything onscreen. Just how likely is his relationship with Gloria? What does she see in him, and why is it enough to overcome his own self-loathing? Is his hideous stepmother (Susan Tyrell, in a performance that starts in fourth gear and accelerates from there) anything like the monster we witness, or is this just his frustration running wild? Meanwhile, the visions compound: he’s positive he’s seen a missing girl in the photographs he develops at a grungy photo processing shop. Guests at a dinner party are openly hostile to his faith, while his own priest seems to be a charlatan. People on the bus seem to be getting sicker and sicker. And what is wrong with the bathtub, anyway?

Trapped as we are inside Francis’ head, it’s ultimately impossible to trust anything we see. That’s damaging to Hanlon’s story, because once we lose the find reality in the things Francis experiences, there’s no suspense or surprise. Aiden Gillen’s central performance goes a long way toward holding the whole thing together; he’s enormously sympathetic, even as he makes choices that are increasingly worrisome. As the stakes heighten, though, it starts to feel artificial. Sure, Francis’ world is driving him mad. But in a life this hollow, a world this grim, any other outcome seems impossible.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fans of serious decadence (you know who you are) are vigorously advised to check out a curious, unsettling, darkly conceived and absolutely fascinating little film opening in a shroud of silence, called Buddy Boy. Not since Roman Polanski at the pinnacle of his European weirdness have I seen a film this strange and riveting leaves you shaken, with a penetrating vision as poisonous as gangrene.” – Rex Reed, New York Observer (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who called it “very weird, very compelling, very memorable.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: Fred F. Sears

FEATURING: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Edgar Barrier

PLOT: When an unidentified flying object terrorizing the globe is discovered to be an enormous, grotesque bird, the planet’s collective scientific brainpower and military might are brought to bear against the winged menace.

Still from The Giant Claw (1957)

COMMENTS: One of the great stories of cinema is the tale surrounding the production of Jaws. It seems the robotic shark that was built to terrorize the citizens of Amity was temperamental at best, unusable at worst. Accordingly, director Steven Spielberg was forced to scrap many of the intended scenes featuring the automated predator, instead resorting to obfuscatory tricks to keep the villain hidden until the last possible moment. This ended up working to the film’s benefit, as the star’s delayed entrance only served to magnify the tension. Spielberg had stumbled backwards into brilliance.

Of course, it’s questionable how much his tactics would have worked had the ultimate reveal of the shark not paid off the suspense. Once the chum-shoveling Roy Scheider comes face-to-face with Bruce the animatronic carcharodon, then we’re off to the races, because the reveal has justified the withholding. You can believe your eyes. It is the black-eyed, remorseless killing machine we were promised.

In some respects, The Giant Claw faces precisely the same dilemma. The filmmakers want to hold back the full and awesome power of their beast for as long as possible. We get hints, of course: blurry visions of an airborne foe, evocative descriptions of a flying creature “the size of a battleship,” an enormous footprint indicating the immensity of the monster, and many Spielbergian stares into the unseen maw of a force to terrible to behold. But at some point, the monster has to be revealed. And when at last it is… my goodness, how can I do this justice? Can it even be conveyed? I mean, here are just a few examples of my peers attempting to reckon with this thing:

All true, and that last one probably comes closest to illustrating just Continue reading CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman                  

FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, voice of Jon Hamm

PLOT: Film actress Robin Wright agrees to sell the rights to her image to a studio which will use the captured data to showcase an eternally young avatar in their productions. After 20 years, the producers invite her to extend the contract, and she travels to the meeting of a futuristic congress where all the participants ingest a chemical that allows them to invent their own reality and become anyone. When the congress proposes sharing this drug with the masses, Wright rebels, but her resistance is put down, and another 20 years on, she surveys the world that has resulted.

Still from The Congress (2013)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The trip through the animated landscape of Abrahama City is rife with psychedelic visions and eye-catching creations. The scenes within the animated universe are densely populated with caricatures of the famous and celebrated, representing alternative identities whom a disaffected humanity have chosen to take on in place of their own. Naming them all would be impossible, but I’d like to offer a particular shout-out to the person who decided to become Magritte’s apple-faced businessman. But the image that stays with you is a lonely and scared Robin Wright standing alone in the middle of a large and inhuman motion-capture dome, presenting a prism of emotions as the computers capture her every nuance. It’s an ironic manifesto for the value of human acting, as Wright the actress manifests the uncontrolled feelings of Wright the character.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Entrance to Abrahama City, Robin grows wings

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Animation has always reveled in its power to bend reality, making it an ideal medium for fantastical visions and deep dives into the imagination. The high-wire act that The Congress has to walk is literalizing animation’s attempt to slip the surly bonds of the real world. It’s not enough for this fantasy landscape to be trippy; it has to be a logical extension of the very real world being abandoned. It’s only appropriate that a movie star, the very avatar of a flesh-and-blood figure creating something artificial for our amusement, would be our guide. The film deftly juxtaposes the two worlds, each commenting upon the other and dramatizing the wonders and perils of our ongoing quest for escapism.

Original trailer for The Congress

COMMENTS: The most recent episode of the excellent podcast Continue reading 30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

CAPSULE: MOEBIUS (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Gustavo Mosquera

FEATURING: Guillermo Angelelli, Roberto Carnaghi, Anabella Levy, Jorge Petraglia

PLOT: A train vanishes within a vast subway system, and a topologist who happens to be a former student of the man who designed the transit line is tasked with tracking down the missing transport.

Still from Moebius (1996)

COMMENTS: For roughly a decade following a coup in 1976, the military junta that led Argentina waged a so-called “Dirty War” against suspected dissidents and opponents. The campaign amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, typified by widespread arrests without charge or trial, death camps, and even the taking of newborn infants to be raised by the families of favored families. (For what it’s worth, the Argentinian dictators had help.) The campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder was widespread, and the suspected number of 30,000 people disappeared without a trace during the junta’s reign may be low.

So perhaps you can understand why a short science fiction story about a subway train that mysteriously goes missing might have some resonance to Argentine audiences. The hidden parts of history are an ever-present threat to those in power, so the questions the characters in Moebius confront go far beyond what happened to the train, and reach into the puzzles of why can’t we find out and who doesn’t want us to know.

That’s why the way the mystery within Moebius unfolds is surprisingly satisfying: via the turning of the wheels of bureaucracy. As the alarm of a missing train works its way up the chain, we see ever-higher levels of managers and functionaries confronted with the baffling report, with no dialogue necessary to convey their confusion. Ultimately, these same bureaucrats will be looking for a way to make the whole thing go away, because the only thing more dangerous to the powerful than an unknown is a bad known.

As the equivalent of a locked-door mystery, Moebius relies heavily on mood to do the bulk of the work. After all, our hero is a topologist, a mathematician who studies the malleability of surfaces. This turns out to be a canny choice for an investigator, given the metaphysical nature of the train’s disappearance, but it also means we shouldn’t expect a lot of riveting action.

At least as interesting as Moebius’ plot is its production: director Mosquera enlisted a crew of 45 students from the newly established Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. Despite their nascent skills, the film is a very polished product. In particular, antique cameras and analog editing bring an unusual sheen to the various clips of trains in motion, giving the Underground the feel of the underworld.

Ultimately, what makes Moebius strange is its reliance upon metaphor. It’s no coincidence that the final sequence begins in a subway station named for Argentina’s premier magical realist, Jorge Luis Borges. For as much as it may seem to be about a man looking for a train, Moebius never ceases to be about a nation confronting hidden truths that stubbornly resist the sunlight. The movie is effective as a tight little science-fiction tale, but the ghosts of the desaparecidos have another story they insist upon telling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pop culture’s given us glory trains, cocaine trains, trains to nowhere, and hellbound trains, but Argentinian director Gustavo Mosquera manages to wrap them all into one in this masterful mind-fuck.”– Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

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

CAPSULE: BLONDE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Andrew Dominik

FEATURING: , , Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, , Evan Williams

PLOT: Aspiring actress and model Norma Jeane Mortenson grows from an abused child to become the internationally famous star Marilyn Monroe, but her past demons, the heartless churn of the Hollywood system, a world of institutionalized and violent sexism, and the pressures of toxic notoriety collectively push her psyche to the brink.

Still from Blonde (2022)

COMMENTS: Shakespeare was a liar. His historical plays took extensive liberties for the sake of drama: Richard III likely didn’t kill Edward IV, the real Macbeth didn’t consult with a triumvirate of witches, and Julius Caesar never said, “Et tu, Brute?” But we’re okay with that, because they’re not intended to be rigorous historical accounts. Shakespeare used real people as a means to understand the depths of human nature, as a launching pad towards a larger truth. (To say nothing of putting a persuasive slant on history to indulge the egos of the playwright’s royal patrons.) So can we begrudge a biography of Marilyn Monroe that invents stories? That creates relationships that didn’t exist and manufactures situations based on speculation and correlation? I mean… larger truth.

The fact that Blonde plays fast and loose with history isn’t where it goes wrong. The problem is that the film has a very narrow and unilluminating notion of Marilyn’s “larger truth”: Marilyn missed never having a father. Marilyn missed never becoming a mother. Marilyn was horribly abused by everyone around her. Marilyn was sad pretty much all the time. It’s a grim account, and at nearly three hours, a pretty relentless one.

Mind you, it’s fair to question to received wisdom of Hollywood history. The film industry is legendary for the brutality it serves up to its biggest stars, and it’s a mark of Marilyn Monroe’s unique personality that her legend endures six decades after her death, despite the travails she endured. But Blonde is having none of it. As far as the film is concerned, nearly every moment of her all-too-brief life was a dreadful slog, and the film hates you for having enjoyed any of it. Are you a fan of Some Like It Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time? You’re a jerk, it was a miserable grind. Think the fabled subway-grate scene from The Seven-Year Itch is an iconic moment in the history of the medium? It robbed her of her very soul, you heartless bastard.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik is certain that you can’t appreciate just how much pressure Marilyn felt, how oppressive the forces against her were, and that’s how this film ends up in our bailiwick. He dramatizes crucial moments in daring and shocking ways, gleefully tossing aside Hollywood conventions or even boring standards of good taste to illustrate Marilyn’s predicament. This leads to moments that are unquestionably outrageous, but simultaneously puerile and simplistic. A sex scene takes place atop a surging waterfall that happens to be in a movie trailer that those same participants are watching (and getting off to). A fateful abortion sets up not only a dialogue between Norma Jeane and her gestating fetus but culminates in a POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina. Most notoriously, when Norma Jeane is forced to fellate the President of the United States, she disassociates from the event by imagining herself on a movie screen, which we get to see in the company of hundreds of fellow moviegoers, who happily stare up at the flickering image of an icon trying desperately not to gag on JFK’s ejaculate while clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers depict the destruction of enormous phallic structures. It’s not a staid Hollywood biopic, that’s for sure.

When he’s not trying to be audacious, Dominik’s screenplay falls back on some of the worst cliches of the form. Joe DiMaggio is never named outright, but Bobby Cannavale introduces himself as if he was quoting from the ballplayer’s Wikipedia page. The Playwright (Adrien Brody channeling Arthur Miller in one of the film’s few understated performances) is rocked to his core by a casual observation by Norma Jeane about one of his characters. And the film ends with a twist that completely recontextualizes Norma Jeane’s relationship with her absent father in an uncommonly cruel manner.

All this frustration makes what Ana de Armas is doing considerably more impressive. She’s thoroughly invested in the take on Monroe as a wide-eyed innocent who pays dearly for her guilelessness, and she manages to imbue a slavish impersonation of the actress (every line is delivered in that trademark melodically breathy tone) with genuine pathos. But at times it feels like de Armas is as much a victim of Dominik’ storytelling as Monroe was of all her tormentors. A scene where she starts to complain about her co-star being paid more threatens to unleash the strength and willpower of both actress and subject, but the fire is quickly snuffed out. Most of the time, she is asked to be a spectacular victim. To her credit, she is that.

Back to the original point: if we’re not here to delve into who Marilyn was, then what are we going for here? Primarily, it’s to make you feel bad, as bad as this version of Marilyn Monroe must have felt on an hourly basis. It’s the equivalent of those infomercials for charities that guilt you into philanthropy by showing children wallowing in the most miserable conditions imaginable. It’s undoubtedly effective, but so cynical in its execution as to undercut your sympathy. Blonde wants you to know that Marilyn Monroe was horribly exploited in her lifetime. Blonde is equally exploitative in ours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reductive, ghoulish and surpassingly boring, Blonde might have invented a new cinematic genre: necro-fiction… even at its most gruesome and bizarre, Blonde might be most unforgivable in what it leaves out — not regarding Monroe’s short, unhappy life but her sublime gifts.” – Ann Hornaday, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HARPYA (1979) / APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BOBBY YEAH (2011)

Weirdest!(both films)

“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.

Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.

When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.

Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.

There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.

Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.

The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.

The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.

As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”

“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”

(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)