All posts by Shane Wilson

CAPSULE: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Cara Delevingne, , Rihanna

PLOT: A pair of hotshot space cops flirt with each other as they stumble upon a conspiracy surrounding a lost race that threatens the survival of the massive spaceport that serves as the hub of galactic peace and commerce.

Still from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Valerian is an optical feast, presenting settings and creatures that push the edge of the imagination. However, that same imagination has hung these visual treats upon a story that is strictly by-the-numbers, with characters who are stock at their best and unfathomably shallow at their worst, rendering the film all frosting, no cake.

COMMENTS: The audience was quiet. Respectful. No laughing. No chitchat. Definitely no cheering. A candidate for blockbuster of the summer unspooled before us, and we could have easily been transplanted to a golf tournament without causing a disturbance. We sat in silence, staring at the screen like we were on a field trip to the art museum.

Actually, Valerian wouldn’t be out of place in a museum; it’s a lovely piece of pop art. Luc Besson has crafted a green-screen wonderland, ranging from the impressionist beauty of an alien beach world to a mind-bending cross-dimensional duty-free bazaar. Sometimes he is unable to restrain himself and piles the settings on top of each other; one chase scene barrels through a half-dozen environments in the space of a couple minutes. From start to finish, the film is a visual stunner.

Which is why the audience’s silence, while not necessarily reflecting quality, is so devastating. Valerian is a lot to look at, but is ultimately an uninvolving experience. The action set-pieces have no kick, the story feels boilerplate, and the leads are dangerously lacking in chemistry. People like spectacular visuals, but they’re not inclined to cheer for them alone.

At times, it feels like Besson has extracted the spine of the story from his earlier sci-fi venture, The Fifth Element, and grafted new visuals on top of it. Dane DeHaan’s hero’s journey from callow to committed is clearly intended to mirror that of . The overstuffed metropoli, aliens both corpulent and sinewy, the overwhelming power of *love*…they’re all straight out of Element’s playbook. Valerian even stops, like its older cousin, for a musical number. This one features Rihanna dancing (but not singing) and acting (but not, um, acting). What he hasn’t carried over includes any sort of stakes, much of a sense of humor, or charismatic characters. We’re supposed to take all those on faith.

Not that he only borrows from himself. The trio of duck-billed creatures who fence information feel like escapees from Labyrinth. A benevolent blue-hued race seems to have stepped directly out of Avatar (and brought some of their environmental and cultural issues with them). And overall, the film is surprisingly reminiscent of The Adventures of Tintin, another adaptation of a beloved French comic book that sacrificed character and story in favor of wondrous CGI visuals and a breakneck pace. Of course, Tintin is entirely animated, so perhaps our expectations for rich character development there are diminished. But Valerian has real actors, and this is where the trouble truly begins.

Design, as noted, is impressive, and there’s enough logic to the plot to earn a pass (ignoring, of course, the scene where a computer explains that the massive space station has traveled 700 million miles from Earth over the decades, which would put it somewhere just shy of Saturn). However, character is the gaping void of the center of the film, and the two leads bring absolutely nothing to the table. DeHaan is a black hole, delivering lines that are intended to mark him as a hard-bitten mercenary, but doing so in a voice cribbed from and bearing a look that suggests “bored 8th grader.” Cara Delevingne is marginally better, having the advantages of (a) being very pretty and (b) having only one emotion to play: cold irritation. The two are laden with banter, written to demonstrate their wit and cool under pressure, as well as to place them in the pantheon of great wisecracking romantic couples of the cinema. But DeHaan and Delevingne are nowhere near pulling it off. Their dialogue feels utterly false in their mouths, and because Besson puts their will-they-won’t-they dynamic at the forefront from the moment we meet them, the thud of their relationship is more than the film can overcome.

Besson’s instincts bend toward the weird. (Why else would you cast jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a futuristic bureaucrat?) But while his vision is undeniably heterodox , here he seems utterly unable to apply it. Perhaps the best indication of his failure of imagination comes in the very opening sequence, a montage chronicling the origin and growth of the City of a Thousand Planets. To accompany the growing alliance of humans and a variety of unusual extraterrestrials, he summons the ultimate alien: . But what song from the catalog does Besson choose? “Space Oddity.” Gifted with the limitless power of creation, he settles for the cliché; the most obvious, expected choice. And no one cheers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Little splashes of a weirder, kinkier, much better movie kept popping up throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and even though they tended to vanish as quickly as they appeared, I still found myself missing them. They’re like phantasms making quick cameos from the nether, a brief flicker of a more adventurous, less compromised movie that perhaps could have been…” – Will Leitch, Paste Magazine (contemporaneous)

 

289. WOOL 100% (2006)

“I will not let the non-knitters of the world decide how normal I am.”–Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, “At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much

DIRECTED BY: Mai Tominaga

FEATURING: , Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Ayu Kitaura

PLOT: A pair of packrat sisters have their perfectly dis-ordered world turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious girl. Dubbed “Knit-Again” by the sisters, she is caught in an obsessive cycle of wrecking their home, knitting a large collection of red yarn into a massive shroud, and unraveling her creation and beginning anew. Their attempts to rid themselves of Knit-Again lead the sisters to reconsider an event from their shared past.

Still from Wool 100% (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wool 100% is director Tominaga’s first feature. Her previous works were animated short films.
  • Kyôko Kishida is probably best known for portraying the title role in Woman in the Dunes. This was her final film; she died the same year as the film’s release in Japan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Waves of knitted red yarn, filling the screen and undulating like blood, as two young women try to knit a romance (and a baby) into being.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “I have to knit again!”; living scrapbook; rooftop dollhouse fire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wool 100% is the purest kind of fairy tale: unsettling and unforgettable images of characters caught in fantastically unusual circumstances. You might knock it for ultimately following a retroactively logical progression, but the journey there is perplexing, and the final explanation is just as surprising as the quixotic tale that precedes it.


Original Japanese trailer for Wool 100%

COMMENTS: I’ve called Wool 100% a fairy tale, and I stand by that. Continue reading 289. WOOL 100% (2006)

“WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

For better or worse, the snark-meisters at “ are responsible for blowing the dust off a lot of truly unusual motion pictures, exposing these cinematic curiosities to a far greater and (relatively) more mainstream audience than they ever accrued in their unheckled forms. Only the most dedicated and tolerant moviegoers would have even heard of the legendary trainwreck that is Manos: The Hands of Fate had it not been immortalized at the peak of MST3K’s popularity, and a handful of the show’s other targets—Robot Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats, Horrors of Spider Islandhave also been honored with inclusion on this website’s eponymous list. (The show’s own movie adaptation was not similarly recognized). After ten seasons of plumbing the depths of movie misses, the last new episode was transmitted in 1999, and while audiences have had other sources for high-octane movie riffing (including efforts from the show’s stars), the special combination of comic commentary and curated curiosities provided by the original series has been unavailable.

Still from Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11

Thanks to one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns ever undertaken, that void has now been filled. Show creator Joel Hodgson has shepherded the show back onto the small screen (and the very, very small screen, as the show is available for binge-watching courtesy of Netflix), with a new cast of riffers, some higher-grade mad scientists, some even higher-grade cameo appearances, and a few tweaks to the host segment formula. It’s all in service, though, of the same basic low-fi approach to movie-watching: man and robots watch bad movie, man and robots make fun of said movie.

I don’t want to use this space to review the show itself (full disclosure: I’m an acquaintance of the actress who voices Gypsy and two Bonehead assistants in this iteration), except to say that it accomplishes the most critical and challenging task: it feels like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Instead, I’d like to recap the films selected to re-christen the Satellite of Love and consider their place within the canon of Weirdness.

Right out of the gate, the producers hit upon a solid formula: monster movies from other lands. The show’s original run set a high standard for making fun of giant monsters with five Gamera movies on the bill. The new season’s debut, Reptilicus (1961), riffs upon an especially funny logline: a giant lizard attacks Denmark. The notion of a ridiculous monster terrorizing the land of Hans Christian Andersen is so delightfully absurd that it inspires the instant-classic host singspiel, “Every Country Has a Monster.” There is much to enjoy, including poorly assembled rear-projection monster attacks, outstandingly negligent scientists, and interminable “comedy” from Danish clown Dirch Passer. It’s as endearing as you would expect a continental kaiju to be, and a solid hit right out of the box.

Monsters figure large this season, and one of the best is the low-rent Bigfoot at the center of Cry Wilderness (1987). Somehow, the legendary Sasquatch has taken off its gloves (literally) and befriended an obnoxious grade-schooler, and together they romp through a disconnected assembly of attractive California forest locales while befriending a number of wild creatures who should really be left alone. Continue reading “WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, SEASON 11

283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the Continue reading 283. THE TINGLER (1959)

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)