All posts by Shane Wilson

LIST CANDIDATE: WILD IN THE STREETS (1968)

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.” – Jerry Rubin

DIRECTED BY: Barry Shear

FEATURING: Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook, , Diane Varsi, Ed Begley

PLOT: A rock star parlays his immense popularity and the ascendant power of the youth vote into the Presidency, which he then uses to marginalize the country’s adults, banishing them to concentration camps and dosing them with LSD.

Still from Wild in the Streets (1968)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  A true document of its time, Wild in the Streets takes its premise of a counterculture gone mad with power to its outrageous extreme. Viewed half-a-century later, the sheer 60s-ness of the thing makes it feel strange and even absurd. But strip away the hippie affectations and what remains is a straightforward sociological horror film, revealing the dangers of demagoguery that lurk in every generation.

COMMENTSWild in the Streets is the tale of a temperamental, rich celebrity with parental issues and no political experience who capitalizes on the support of an angry and marginalized electorate, co-opts a group of venal, self-interested politicians who think they can control him, and proceeds to undermine the very core of American democracy for his own corrupt ends. Any similarities to current events are entirely coincidental, of course.

If the plot of Wild in the Streets seems to echo today’s tango with a tangerine-tinted tyrant, rest assured it’s because these provocateurs seem to pop up throughout history in similar ways. In truth, the film sometimes plays like a psychedelic cover version of It Can’t Happen Here. We’ve seen the celebrity-driven, public-aided rise of fascism in other films, from A Face in the Crowd to Bob Roberts, to say nothing of the history books.

Wild in the Streets is so very, very Sixties, though. The vivid costumes, the perpetual drug use, the liberal use of groovy lingo…they all root the film firmly in its time. Providing an additional anchor are the rock songs performed by aspiring dictator Max Frost and his band, the Troopers. It may stretch the imagination to think that these songs represent the sound of a revolutionary generation; to these ears, they sound like The Animals. (Their best song, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a genuine hit, and re-emerged nearly 40 years later in a Target ad; the revolution will be commercialized.) But Wild in the Streets isn’t quite as concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what comes next.”

Legendary schlockmeister producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff backed the film with one of the biggest budgets they had ever laid out on a single picture, and it shows. Editors Fred R. Feitshans, Jr. and Eve Newman earned an Oscar nomination for capturing the feel of Max’s unsettled mind, the production design is bold and colorful, and the movie boasts an unusually strong cast for what was essentially an exploitation picture. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor, underused in a non-comedic role as Max’s black-power drummer). This is still an American International Picture, however, with carefully chosen stock footage, heavy-handed narration by Paul Frees, and all topped off by Shelley Winters, so over-the-top as Max’s horrible mother that one longs for the relative calm and dignity of The Poseidon Adventure. Her awfulness is absolute (the moment she gets behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, she runs over a child), but as the root cause of Max Frost’s lust for power, it’s oddly appropriate. Mixing high production values with low satire, the film has a tendency to feel like an extended riff on the famous “Blue Boy” episode of “Dragnet.”

At times, the strident tone of the movie threatens to dull the impact of its message, but the threat posed by fascism and a failure to take responsibility seriously is never far away. Consider Max’s girlfriend Sally, a zonked-out former child star whom he conspires to get elected to Congress. The realization that this glassy-eyed burnout is the linchpin of Max’s strategy is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but when Sally takes her place in the House of Representatives and manages to push away the drug haze long enough to set Max’s plan in motion, the funny quickly drains away, and the mood shifts first to deeply uncomfortable, and then to outright horror. The idea that politics is a joke isn’t so funny once you start to treat it like one.

Because ultimately, Wild in the Streets isn’t a joke at all. It’s a nightmare. Go beyond the surface conflict of unruly youth declaring war on intransigent adults, and you find the story of a fascist who rises to power on the backs of an outspoken movement which he never truly intends to appease. It’s telling that, in the movie’s Twilight Zone”-ish finale, Max discovers the one true downside to absolute power: when you’re king of the hill, someone’s always waiting to knock you off. Again, any similarity to your power at the ballot box in November is entirely coincidental, of course.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Shelley Winters, as George’s mother, gives the most tasteless performance of her career, while Barry Shear directs as if he’d seen Dr. Strangelove a few too many times.”–Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: SUTURE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

FEATURING: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono, Michael Harris

PLOT: A poor man discovers he has a wealthy brother, who subsequently tries to kill him as part of a criminal scheme. Surviving the attempt but with his memory wiped out, he assumes his brother’s identity, begins a romantic relationship with his doctor, and finds himself the target of the would-be assassin’s effort to finish the job.

Still from Suture (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A full-length tribute to the concept of nontraditional casting, Suture attempts to answer the question, “if you cast someone who absolutely does not fit the character description in a film where that character’s appearance is the crux of the film’s plot, does it make a difference?” Casting is the raison d’être of Suture, and the film knows it, letting its odd gimmick overwhelm every other element of the movie.

COMMENTS: So let’s get right to the twist: Brothers Clay and Vincent are repeatedly described as being near lookalikes, and marvel at their resemblance to each other. But they don’t look alike. Not even a little. They are completely different. And not in a “Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick play three generations in the same family” way. No, they are entirely different, especially in the sense that Michael Harris is a thin, slick white man, and Dennis Haysbert (later on TV’s “24”) is…not. So every mention—and there are many—of how strikingly similar the two men look is either calculated to generate a massive case of cognitive dissonance, or is an example of the most colorblind casting ever committed to film.

It’s very easy to look at this decision as an enormous joke. After all, directors McGehee and Siegel (who also penned the screenplay) demonstrate a quirky sense of humor, from placing a rich Phoenix businessman’s home inside what appears to be an abandoned bank building to scoring an attempted car-bomb-assassination to Tom Jones’ rendition of “Ring of Fire.” But any question as to whether this is a deliberate choice is erased by the dialogue that is used to describe Haysbert’s Clay: “Greco-Roman nose.” “Fine, straight hair.” This is the “Allstate” commercial guy we’re talking about. Haysbert is absolutely not the man the film says he is. So what does that mean?

One possible answer lies in McGehee and Siegel’s backgrounds as an academic and an artist, respectively. While the choice of a black actor to play a white man (coupled with stark black and white photography to reinforce the point) might seem to point to a discussion of race, they seem far more interested in exploring the nature of reality vs. representation. In her book “Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race,” Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks observes of Suture, “What we are confronted with is a screen that behaves like a Magritte canvas. ‘This is not a black man,’ it seems to say.” The filmmakers, she suggests, are actively denying that which we are seeing with our own eyes, in contrast to the manner in which cinema traditionally co-opts the audience’s willingness to accept the visual as truth. Is Dennis Haysbert as a Caucasian anymore absurd than a Transformer? McGehee and Siegel don’t think so, but they also know that, as moviegoers, we are far more willing to accept the latter.

As a metatextual analysis of the fungible nature of reality, Suture is a tremendous success. As a movie, it’s kind of sloppy. Not very much happens in the film. The plot itself is a straightforward play on the country mouse coming to the city. Mel Harris plays less a character than a collection of whatever character traits are needed in the moment: brilliant surgeon, then opera devotee, then skilled skeet shooter. A subplot about the police’s pursuit of Vincent feels more like padding than a suspense-building MacGuffin. More problematic, though, is the film’s outsized sense of self-importance. Characters frequently speak in a slow, affectless manner. They are surrounded by signifiers of their work. (The surgeon has walls of head X-rays, the psychiatrist decorates in mammoth Rorschach blots). Clay’s dreams are blatant symbols of a truth we already know, as if Gregory Peck’s hallucinations in Spellbound only came after Ingrid Bergman cracked the case. Perhaps most gallingly, the love interest is named, without a trace of irony (or payoff), Renée Descartes. The unheard soundtrack of Suture is crashing anvils.

What Suture has going for it, though, is staying power. Long after the film’s end, the scope of its oddity still bounces around in the brain pan. The film’s ending montage—the psychiatrist outlines in great detail how impossible it will be for Clay to ever find happiness in his new identity, while a slideshow clearly demonstrates Clay doing exactly that—is emblematic of the movie’s only goal: to watch the battle for dominance between what we know and what we see. Suture has one weird card to play, but it’s a doozy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exceedingly smart and elegant American indie in an unusual vein. Part mystery thriller, part psychological investigation and part avant-garde experiment…”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

Die Unendliche Geschichte

“I was doing a tattoo in Seattle, and a girl came in and had the whole side of her buttcheek was the Auryn. So she pulled her pants off and asked if she could get a picture with me next to the Auryn, so I stuck my head right next to her butt.”–Noah Hathaway, star of The NeverEnding Story and tattoo artist, on the nexus of his past and current lives

DIRECTED BY: Wolfgang Petersen

FEATURING: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, voice of Alan Oppenheimer

PLOT: An orphaned boy discovers an epic story about a young hero’s quest to find the cure for a mysterious force that is destroying the kingdom and killing a princess, only to discover that he is more integral to the story’s outcome than he had imagined.

Still from The Neverending Story (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A fantastical milieu is always good for unusual characters and settings, and the story’s propensity for bleak and even nihilistic ideas goes well beyond the usual expectations for “children’s fare.” However, the weirdness is mostly concentrated in the Mobius strip plot (which inspires the title), making the film primarily weird for the sake of itself.

COMMENTS: Director Wolfgang Petersen parlayed his success directing the global smash Das Boot into a seat at the helm of this movie, which would wrap as the most expensive film in German history. As regards what’s up on the screen, it shows. In our CGI-rich present, the effects may appear dated, but they are surprisingly effective and charming. Petersen creates a fully-realized fantasy world, from the crystalline castle of Fantasia to the dour Swamp of Sadness. The stop-motion, animatronic, and puppeteered creatures are also quite spectacular, with the fatalistic Rockbiter and the treacherous Gmork coming across as especially believable.

All those expensive special effects mean that the burden of acting falls almost entirely upon the two child leads. Noah Hathaway (previously sighted as Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica series) is particularly strong, doing his best hero’s quest despite being prepubescent. Barret Oliver (soon to be seen as D.A.R.Y.L.) has a harder time, since so much of his role involves reacting to reading. He’s acting by himself opposite events happening to other people, which turns out to be at the heart of the movie’s bait-and-switch.

The true weirdness of The NeverEnding Story lies in this ultimate twist: the Nothing, an encroaching void that is destroying the world of Fantasia, is the personification of the apathy of a disinterested human readership, and the world can only be saved by the imagination of Bastian, the boy who stole and is now reading this very story about how the world is dying because he’s not imagining the story. It’s hardly a coincidence that the hero’s amulet, the Auryn, is a double ourobouros. The movie itself tells us that there is no real world/fantasy world dichotomy to unpack; it’s all fantasy, feeding upon itself. Which certainly goes a long way to explaining some of the story’s more puzzling mysteries, such as why Bastian’s unsympathetic, egg-swilling father (a very grim cameo by future Major Dad Gerald McRaney) isn’t out scouring the city looking for his son in the midst of a storm hours after he should have come home from school.

(Evidently, that metatextual mindplay is an even greater component in the source material. The movie draws on roughly the first half of Michael Ende’s novel, and the author was so incensed by the adaptation that he sued twice: first to stop the production, and then to have his name removed).

Ultimately, the film has major problems articulating what is really important. Characters are introduced only to have no impact on the story at all. A major death is wrung out for every tear it can muster before we’ve ever had a chance to meet the character or understand his importance to the hero. And the ending is a borderline travesty. Given the awesome power to create worlds, the most Bastian can think to do is turn the tables on his bullies and torment them in return. It’s an ending that works (my son laughed uproariously), but it doesn’t fit the philosophical, high-minded tone of all that has come before. Which is perhaps why it’s best to assume that the story never really ended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… comes off as a Reading Rainbow episode covering existentialism… The NeverEnding Story’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

Where I come from
Nobody knows
And where I am going
Everyone goes.
– Young Jennie (Jennifer Jones)

DIRECTED BY: William Dieterle

FEATURING: , , Ethel Barrymore,

PLOT: A struggling painter has an artistic breakthrough when he meets a precocious girl whose very presence seems supernatural.

Still from Portrait of Jennie (1948)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jennie has unusually fantastic subject matter for its time, and uses novel visual techniques to set a mood. However, the supernatural twist is an end to itself, the tone is reverential to the point of pretentiousness, and ultimately its gimmicks are not enough to shake off the slow pace and lack of real heat.

COMMENTS: Many a romance has been driven by the efforts of a pair of lovers to overcome some major obstacle to their destined love. There’s a subset of said films where the obstacle is time itself, a group large enough to be recognized as its own subgenre. Portrait of Jennie is an early iteration of these tales, a story of an artist whose muse (and love interest) comes to him from across the boundaries of time.

Audiences today are well-versed in this kind of fantasy premise. Clearly, this was not the case in 1948, as the film carefully walks its protagonist through a full investigation into the mystery of Jennie, a young girl who magically appears one evening in Central Park to inspire the artist and returns several times, significantly older on each occasion. The script— five separate screenwriters were tasked with wrestling the story into cinematic form—takes great pains to explain how the charming young lady we meet could actually have come from decades in the past. (The movie is less concerned with why Jennie is making these occasional skips forward; it’s just simply where she’s supposed to be).

Portrait of Jennie’s flirtation with weirdness takes two forms. The first is in style, with director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August employing a number of tricks to create an unsettled, fantastic atmosphere. Establishing shots are often treated with a filter to create the impression of a painted canvas, alluding to both the hero’s profession and to the way in which art traps a moment in time. Jennie herself is frequently filmed emerging from or disappearing into bright light, accentuating her role as an angel from beyond. Most noteworthy are the filmmakers’ experiments with color. While mostly monochromatic, Jennie plays with tinting deep into the third act, bathing the screen in the angry green of a cataclysmic storm and a warm amber sepia for its aftermath. And of course, the final shot revealing the painter’s masterwork is presented in vibrant three-strip Technicolor.

But to what end? Seeing the portrait in full color puts an exclamation Continue reading CAPSULE: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

CAPSULE: VANILLA SKY (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe

FEATURING: , , , Jason Lee,

PLOT: A spoiled playboy finds hope in a sudden romance, but an encounter with a jilted ex leaves him scarred and facing surreal situations beyond his comprehension.

Still from Vanilla Sky (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vanilla Sky is effectively trippy, and by far the most ambitious visual experiment from a director best known for his way with words. But ultimately the film is weird only by Hollywood standards, and is too neat and tidy in wrapping up its mysteries.

COMMENTS: Cameron Crowe described his remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) as a “cover version”. It’s an appropriate metaphor, considering Crowe’s background as a rock journalist. In fact, Vanilla Sky hits all the same beats as its predecessor, but does so with considerably more panache. The A-list cast, liberal use of iconic New York City locations, and Crowe’s typical meticulously-crafted soundtrack (featuring Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Radiohead, among others) all point to a production that goes way beyond its modest origins. And in some respects, the grander touches actually do enhance the central mystery of what is going on in the mind of Cruise’s immature media heir. Whereas the Spanish iteration is a straightforward thriller, Crowe plays more with the metaphysical. The stakes seem higher, the stage bigger.

Crowe has to be flashier, though, to hold off the reveal of the Shyamalan-esque twist at the heart of Vanilla Sky, one that might be all-too-obvious to an audience born on The Twilight Zone and raised on surprise reveals that make you question all that comes before. A re-watch of the film confirms that Crowe doesn’t cheat, but accomplishes the feat by distraction. Red herrings and visual allusions (many of which are revealed in a detailed wrap-up montage in the final act) all strive to get the audience looking in the wrong direction, and they are aided by some unusually baroque acting performances. Foremost among these are the gleefully unhinged Cameron Diaz, a dryly obtuse Noah Taylor, and , who brings to her cameo the full arsenal of weirdness that comes with being Tilda Swinton. Oddly, the only actor who seems out of place in the film is Penélope Cruz, the only carry-over from the source material. Cruz is beautiful but disengaged, possibly owing to her relative unfamiliarity with English at this point in her career, and she never displays any of the fire associated with later performances.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Tom Cruise. Present in nearly every scene, he uses his familiar livewire intensity to walk along the edge of madness. Interestingly, he also indulges in a strangely masochistic duel with his own image, at times trading his solid reputation as handsome leading man for both disfiguring facial makeup and a full-face mask obscuring his renowned visage entirely. (His interaction with a group of doctors proffering the mask results in probably the funniest line delivery of his career.) It’s a bold performance, but also quintessentially Cruise.

In the long run, the greatest contribution Vanilla Sky makes is as a central pillar in the ongoing meta-conversation that is Tom Cruise’s career. We conceive of the star as a man whose intense stare and tone betray an insanity barely being kept in check. His character here sits comfortably alongside other entries in the Cruise oeuvre, such as the righteous avenger of the Mission: Impossible movies, the clueless dilettante of Eyes Wide Shut, the angry manipulator from Magnolia, the determined martyr of Valkyrie, and the repeatedly-murdered hero of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether Cruise knows this and can’t resist tweaking the audience by exploiting what we already think we know about him, or if he simply can’t help steering toward projects that provide a glimpse of a troubled psyche. Either way, Vanilla Sky does make viewers feel like they’re getting a choice look into the soul of Hollywood’s brashest-yet-most-mysterious celebrity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps realizing that to begin reshuffling Amenabar’s complicated structure would bring down the whole deck of cards, Crowe scarcely touched it, changing only minor details, retaining important key dialogue and making his most significant contribution by moving the mood away from dark weirdness to one drenched in modern mores and rock ‘n’ roll. Plotwise, if you’ve seen ‘Open Your Eyes,’ you’ve seen ‘Vanilla Sky.'”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

118. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE [LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE] (2003)

AKA Belleville Rendez-vous (UK theatrical release)

Must See

“Don’t want to end my days in Acapulco
Stiff as a board, dancing the tango.
I’d love to be twisted, utterly twisted,
Twisted like a triplet from Belleville.

Swinging Belleville rendez-vous,
Marathon dancing doop dee doo.
Voodoo can can, balais taboo,
Au Belleville swinging rendez-vous…”
–English lyrics from “The Triplets of Belleville”

DIRECTED BY: Sylvain Chomet

FEATURING: There are voice actors, but the film is nearly silent

PLOT: An indefatigable old woman tries to rescue her cyclist grandson from the clutches of the mafia, with the help of her train-hating dog and a long-forgotten, frog-eating trio of Depression-era superstar singing sisters.

Still from The Triplets of Belleville

BACKGROUND:

  • Nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature (the first PG-13-rated movie ever nominated in the category, it lost to Finding Nemo) and Best Song (which fell victim to that year’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King juggernaut).
  • Writer-director Chomet began his career as a comic strip artist. His first animated film, The Old Lady and the Pigeons, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The stars of that film make a cameo appearance here.
  • Composer Benoit Charest’s score actually utilizes some of the fanciful instruments that appear onscreen, such as newspaper, refrigerator shelves, and a canister vacuum cleaner.
  • Although mostly animated traditionally, Chomet used 3-D computer animation for machines, such as cars and bicycles, which he argued would be too boring to animate properly by hand.
  • Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (an obvious inspiration for the music who has an animated cameo in the film’s first scene) recorded a song titled “Belleville” in 1942. The Triplets themselves suggest the three Andrews Sisters, whose popularity peaked in the 1940s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For a film built on memorable imagery, picking one is difficult choice. A tiny pedal boat chasing an enormous ship across a storm-tossed ocean? The explosive geyser that creates its own rain of frogs, or the gourmet meal that results? The city of Belleville, all enormous buildings and a fat Statue of Liberty hoisting a burger? A strong argument for each of them, but I’ll go with the monochromatic dreams of Bruno the dog, who imagines a dreamworld railroad in which he is towed by his master around the rim of a gargantuan food dish.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film delicately blends a thoroughly unpredictable storyline, an artistic style at once beautiful and grotesque, and a fierce sentimental streak. Any one of these elements alone could have been off-putting, but Chomet pulls off the delicate balancing act, managing to capture the heartwarming ugliness of a cartoon by Charles Addams or Ronald Searle. As a result, truly bizarre moments arouse a sense of wonder rather than repulsion.


Original trailer from The Triplets of Belleville

COMMENTS: That plot description up there? Provides absolutely no insight into the twists and Continue reading 118. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE [LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE] (2003)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Frampton, Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, George Burns

PLOT: Four loveable lads from Heartland, America form a band, overcome the corrupting influences of the music industry, and save their town from the evil forces that want to steal four prized musical instruments which can guarantee peace and love the whole world over.

Still from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an almost perfect example of a bad idea gone wrong. Attempting to shape a collection of 29 Beatles songs into a narrative seems an iffy prospect, but the resulting story is somehow even more ludicrous than you could expect. Add in dubious casting (the singers can’t act, the actors can’t sing, no one can dance except Billy Preston), garish art direction, many open shirts, tight pants, and the enormous hair of Barry Gibb, and of course some truly awful musical performances. Then, take away all dialogue and replace it with bug-eyed silent film-style reactions and the bored narration of George Burns, and you’ve got yourself a veritable carnival of oddity.

COMMENTS: There is a peculiar subset of motion pictures with musical scores consisting entirely of Beatles songs, including Julie Taymor’s artsy Across the Universe, the peculiar war documentary-rock soundtrack mashup All This and World War Two, and the maudlin Sean Penn drama I Am Sam. As that list indicates, none converted the success of the Beatles into its own artistic or financial triumph. But in terms of jaw-droppingness, all of them take a backseat to the misfire that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The film is essentially a calculated effort on the part of music mogul Robert Stigwood to sell a boatload of records. He reasoned that combining the perennial popularity of the Beatles with the then-ascendant careers of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton was like printing the deed to a gold mine. His thinking appears to have ended there. He placed the project in the hands of neophyte screenwriter Henry Edwards, who concocted the tale of a magical bandleader named Sgt. Pepper. Pepper’s magical musical instruments single-handedly ended two World Wars.  His spirit enters a magical weathervane upon his death and his legacy is handed down to his grandson, Billy Shears, and the three Henderson brothers, with town mayor Mr. Kite and Billy’s girlfriend Strawberry Fields on hand to watch their success. And that’s where things start to really get weird.

Why do a defrocked real estate agent and his boxer henchman (Carel Struycken!) want to turn Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978)

CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

DIRECTED BY: Norman Jewison

FEATURING: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman

PLOT: The last days of Jesus Christ, including the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion, sung to a propulsive rock score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the very premise – a rock ‘n’ roll passion play – is inherently offbeat, and this particular version is laced with anachronisms and unusual characterizations, this is at heart a straightforward, earnest account of the story.

COMMENTS: When Superstar debuted on the Broadway stage in 1971, the very notion of a rock-n-roll passion play must have carried an unmistakable air of sacrilege. (Although another pop-oriented take on the story, “Godspell,” premiered off-Broadway the same year, and a film of that musical also came out in 1973.) But the show struck a chord with audiences; spawned from a concept album that had sold millions of copies, the musical ran for nearly two years on Broadway and spent eight years on the London stage, closing as the longest-running show in British history. A film version was probably inevitable; that the adaptaion would be placed in the hands of the director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair might not have been.

To Norman Jewison’s credit (the screenplay is credited to him and British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), the movie faithfully retains the show’s determination to treat its characters as human beings, rather than the religious icons they have become. Lyricist Tim Rice sparked some controversy by suggesting that he and partner Andrew Lloyd Webber simply wanted to portray Jesus as a man, but they doggedly stuck to that vision, and the results are intriguing: Jesus is beleaguered and plagued by doubts. Judas is a buzzkill true believer, hectoring Jesus for being insufficiently pious and ultimately betraying the man he idolizes out of a sense of moral outrage. Pilate is the most reasonable man in Judea, Mary Magdalene is hopelessly confused, and the apostles are shiftless hippies. It’s probably not the version taught in Sunday school, but it lends the events a greater dramatic heft.

If Jesus Christ Superstar is controversial, it’s because it doesn’t traffic in the more mystical Continue reading CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

CAPSULE: THE ARBOR (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Clio Barnard

FEATURING: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin

PLOT:  A quasi-documentary about the short life of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, the

Still from The Arbor (2010)

impoverished housing estate she called home, and the troubled family she left behind, told with actors lip-synching to tape recordings of real-life individuals.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Arbor is built around an unusual, film-length gimmick.  The movie itself, however, is a straightforward telling of Dunbar’s life. The story is surprising, but all too believable in its depiction of circumstances impossible to overcome.

COMMENTS: Andrea Dunbar was 15 when she began writing a play about her life in a working-class slum. The play, called The Arbor, was eventually discovered and produced by the prestigious Royal Court Theater.  Her next play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was successful enough to be made into a film, and it seemed she had the makings of a great theatrical career.  But Dunbar was something of a screw-up.  Probably alcoholic, she was careless with relationships and had three children by three different fathers.  Ultimately, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while out drinking in her favorite pub at the age of 29.

This biography would be interesting enough, but The Arbor has a trick up its sleeve: director Barnard recorded interviews with Andrea Dunbar’s family and friends, and then cast actors to lip-synch those interviews, literally mouthing every word, stutter, and vocal tic.  It sounds like a stunt, but this technique gives Barnard a level of freedom unprecedented in documentary filmmaking.  Rather than a series of talking heads narrating unseen events, Barnard is able to place her actors in tableaux that reflect the accounts provided by the authentic voices.  In one early scene, recalling a fire set by one of Dunbar’s daughters, two adult actors stand side-by-side in the burning room, delivering contradictory recollections of the people they portray in a way the two real women never could.

It’s a daring convention, and sometimes a distracting one. A title card announces the technique at the start, and it’s almost impossible to forget as you watch each actor’s lips and try to get your head around the idea that they are channeling someone else’s voice.  Barnard seems to welcome the disorientation.  Consider that one of the actors (George Costigan, playing one of Dunbar’s occasional boyfriends) was also one of the stars of the movie of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!  Blurring reality seems to be the goal.  Add to that the fact that scenes are filmed in actual locations, including the pub where Dunbar died, and the line between reality and fiction is almost completely obscured.

Perhaps an even more clever touch is the staging of scenes from the play The Arbor on the streets of the Buttershaw Estate where the playwright grew up.  Even more than the archival footage of Dunbar from over 25 years ago, her play brings the world of late 70s working-class England to life, and the contrast with today reveals the community to be a gravity well of misery from which no one seems able to escape.  Plus, it’s immediately clear how thinly-disguised Dunbar’s characters are.  She, too, kept reality at a close remove.

The word “harrowing” is almost cliché in stories like this, but it’s hard to think of a better one as we learn the awful fate of Dubar’s daughter Lorraine.  An alien in her own family (half-Pakistani, she is scorned by the community, and possibly even by her own mother), Lorraine has resentment to spare.  However, it becomes clear that she has made even worse life choices than her mother, culminating in an unspeakable personal tragedy.  Here is where the gimmick works best, as the deadened voice of the real Lorraine Dunbar mixes with the sad eyes of actress Manjinder Virk to create the perfect blend of lament and hopelessness.

Ultimately, The Arbor is a bold attempt to do something new with the documentary format, to find a visually compelling way to tell a true story.  The lens we view the story through is an odd one, but the film’s real power is an all-too-familiar story of people in desperate circumstances.  Dunbar got a little closer to making her way out, but the outcome is heartbreakingly familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The disconcerting effect of the lip-syncing becomes exacerbated as Barnard surrealistically positions her subjects within their own descriptions of the past…The resulting eeriness combines identification with the characters and a Brechtian removal from them, establishing the mystery of the director’s intent.”–Eric Kohn, INDIEWire (contemporaneous)