Category Archives: List Candidates

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

PLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

Lowlife (2017) PosterWHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: SEQUENCE BREAK (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Skipper

FEATURING: , , John Dinan,  Lyle Kanouse

PLOT: A young electrical technician unwisely installs a mysterious circuit board arrives that arrives at an arcade game refurbisher’s office and finds himself getting increasingly absorbed by the machine and its game—literally.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here’s a list of nouns: nipple console buttons, white goo circuitry, and coital gaming seizures.

COMMENTS: From the first man to star as Herbert West in Re-Animator: the Musical comes a science fiction debut catering directly to the Cronen-bourgeoisie. A millennial update to the classic Videodrome (and even to eXistenZ), Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break is a creepy love letter to the 80s tech-gore genre. There are tips-of-the-hat to those who have come before—Skipper’s most obvious inspiration is David Cronenberg (explicitly stating as much in his introduction to the movie’s world premiere)—but there are elements of Steven Lisberger’s Tron, and even John Hughes-style romance between the teenage-acting, 20-something boy and girl nerd leads.

Osgoode (Chase Williamson) works at “Jerry’s Arcade Spot,” using his technical prowess and tunnel vision to bring old upright consoles back to life. Tess (Fabianne Therese), an out-of-work geek girl, enters his life just as Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) tells him that he’s going to have to close the place. A mysterious zealot (John Dinan) delivers a circuit board on a night Jerry is supposed to be out of town. After an unfortunate murder the parcel is forgotten until Osgoode makes the mistake of installing it in an empty frame. Playing the game, reminiscent of the arcade classic “Tempest” by way of a Tibetan mandala, Osgoode finds himself increasingly absorbed—first metaphorically, then in dreams, and then physically—and his grip on life outside his machines loosens considerably. Does he have the focus to regain control? More importantly, is there the possibility of a second play-through?

Beyond its arcade premise, Sequence Break is a throw-back in many ways. Most of the special effects are of the practical sort, an art that—thank goodness—keeps coming back to life despite the assault of ever-advancing CGI nonsense. The sexual goo and manipulation of the “haunted” arcade console feels real as we see the controls squishify in Osgoode’s able hands. Simple editing and camera techniques create an increasingly jarring perspective: flash-cuts, image-distortion, twin-screen action, and most hauntingly, facial disintegration. Like Osgoode, we become unsure of what’s real, what’s a dream, and what’s in the machine.

The organic-mechanical world of classic Cronenberg is a frightening thing, and Graham Skipper pulls off the tricks nicely. Combined with the sickly-sexual imagery is a story of a young and talented fellow who only seems to have discovered human love well after adolescence. In a way, Sequence Break is a “love-conquers-all” kind of romance, where the male protagonist has to find the desire and focus to choose the real world over a sticky facsimile. As a directorial debut, Graham Skipper’s effort is an impressively unsettling but ultimately uplifting piece of low budget sci-fi cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (Fantasia)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK WATERS (1993)

Temnye vody

DIRECTED BY:  Mariano Baino

FEATURING: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

PLOT: Seeking answers to her own past, woman investigates an ancient holy order that guards a mysterious relic at a convent on an island.

Still from Dark Waters (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because the cute little Gollum guy on the ferryman’s boat squatting there chomping on raw meat is only the 80th or so most unforgettable image from this atmospheric dive into religious horror. That’s religion as in “Cthulhu,” not just “Virgin Mary.” Also, the nuns in this movie deserve to be the standard against which all creepy (not to mention crispy) nuns are compared. So throw the Gollum a bone: “He keeps the other freaks away!”

COMMENTS: We admit it’s cheap to invoke the name of Master David Lynch (may peace be upon the name of the prophet) up front in a review, but it bears mentioning that one of Lynch’s rules of creating atmosphere is “shut up and let the scenery do the talking.” After a brief opening narration cutting to a Spaghetti Western prop-store cattle skull, Dark Waters keeps its mouth shut throughout its eight minute prologue, by which time three people have died, while we hang on mute scenes of the rituals surrounding a demonic-looking holy relic. This silence, of course, forces us to refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky (our prayers with confidence are placed in his hands). Cut to 20 years later, and Elizabeth (Louise Salter) is riding the “bus of fools,” and later a rowboat manned by a Charon stand-in, on her way to an island to confront this religious order and find out why her departed father supported it.  The mysterious order is harsh and unwelcoming, and things get scary fast. Great, now we have to name-drop The Wicker Man too. What we’re saying here is, even if Baino doesn’t prove worthy of being honored alongside the weird director greats, he has certainly walked their path.

Anyway, we’re in for the good old-fashioned Gothic interpretation of Catholic (or is it Orthodox?) faith. You bet your sweet bippy there will be spectral nuns chanting in Latin, self-flagellation with snapping whips, and a slow lingering camera pan over a crucifix every other minute (yes, Ken Russel, we thought of you too). The convent is all candlelit and leaky amid a solid movie-long rainstorm, with every color an earth tone as the constant drip of water threatens to snuff out the candles. When Elizabeth flashes her pack of Marlboros here, it’s like an aberration from another universe. Not that the nuns will mind, as most of them are blind, apparently from exposure to the bad mojo on the island. Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist), seems to get her counsel from these blind, mummy-like nuns while she herself keeps her vision. She assigns Sarah (Venera Simmons) to see to her guest (stuck here because the boat only runs once a week), even while bluntly telling Elizabeth that it’s none of her damn business what the convent does. But we get plenty of hints anyway, from Elizabeth’s nightmares that reel down catacomb corridors lit with enough candles to smoke out Hades, to Elizabeth turning straight to the Book of Revelation to read about the Apocalypse. Elizabeth and Sarah trespass in cavern and attic alike to explore the mystery, but they have to be careful. Blind or not, the nuns will kill to protect their secrets. Of course we have an idea where this is going, but that doesn’t matter, because while the whole plot can be spoiled in two sentences, how we get there is much more important.

For a movie with such a taciturn script, it is a good thing that Dark Waters makes such excellent use of the visual side of the medium. Every frame is composed to etch itself onto your eyeballs, every note of music designed to stretch your last nerve to the breaking point, every ray of light muted into a dramatic chiaroscuro shadow. Burning crosses wielded by nuns stampeding over hills at night cut to horrific drawings of tentacled monstrosities in tomes of ancient lore. It’s so heavy on atmosphere that you don’t watch this movie so much as you lay back and smoke it. If we could pick any bones with Dark Waters, it’s that the film tends to be a little -ish/Dario Argento-like at times, as many shots are there just to gawp at rather than advance the plot. And let’s face it, the story is derivative, equal parts and Italian giallo thrillers, except the nuns here mostly keep their tops on. Waters even invokes The Haunting of Hill House, since Elizabeth is a stranger visiting this strange place while having deep, but inscrutable, connections to it, and having a woman her age as her sole confidant. But the individual details push this effort far above its roots.

This is Mariano Baino’s sole feature length credit, with nothing else to his name but for a few shorts. With this nearly-undiscovered gem for a freshman effort, will we even begin to apprehend what he could do for an encore? It’s been 24 years since Dark Waters came out, so we may never know what else this visionary is capable of.

Dark Waters was re-released by Severin Films on DVD, and for the first time on Blu-ray (sold separately) in 2017. The elaborate edition comes with directorial commentary and hours of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film… the director’s painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.”–The Vicar of VHS, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dark Waters (1993 film) – The film’s entry at Cthulhu-Wiki

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HONOR FARM (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Karen Skloss

FEATURING: Olivia Grace Applegate, Louis Hunter, Katie Folger, , Mackenzie Astin

PLOT: After a disappointing senior prom, Lucy and Annie ditch their dates and join up with a clutch of hearse-driving students who are heading to the haunted prison, the Honor Farm, to take psychedelic mushrooms; Lucy slips in and out of reality as events take alternatingly sinister and joyful turns.

Still from The Honor Farm (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Honor Farm is an unlikely fusion of “teen-coming-of-age” drama and “teens-in-danger” horror. Combined with the rampant symbolism (a prom, a stag, and a donut), things might just be weird enough for us.

COMMENTS: Shroom-chomping teenagers, a dreamy hearse ride, an abandoned prison, and a looming stag adorn the universe of The Honor Farm. This fun mix of ingredients from filmmaker Karen Skloss jumbles together with gusto, emerging as a horror-tinged and symbolism-soaked high school drama. The New Age blood-dream opening sets the ambiguous tone of calm and dissonance that continues throughout the feature.

Waking from a dream at the dentist’s office—a girl does have to have her teeth as white as possible for prom, you know—Lucy (Olivia Applegate) seems all set for the first big night of her adult life. After her beau nearly vomits on her in the back of their rented limo, Lucy and her friend Annie (Katie Folger) run off to a nearby gas station and encounter a group of senior girls in an old red hearse. One City of Women-style ride later, the gaggle of teen ladies arrive at the outskirts of the “Honor Farm”, an old prison with a bad history of brutality. Lucy meets dreamy (and interesting) high school boy J.D. (Louis Hunter), who doles out the mushrooms. After a bout of faux-intellectual philosophizing, teen-style, ambiguous events begin in earnest. Cue the horror music.

Narrative tricks and references abound. When one young woman attempts to channel to a dead boy, J.D. leads Lucy through a tunnel opening in parallel. As we see the tunnel exit collapsed, the ritual, too, is interrupted. We award points both for the arrival of a dentist with laughing gas as well as a vision of a sacrifice victim posing the riddle, “What has no end, beginning, or middle?” Answer? A donut, obviously. And oh yes, Skloss also tucks in faerie ring imagery (mushrooms, again), the goddess Diana-as-Stag spirit guide, and a flaming playing card with a purpose. (This last example could almost be a meta-reference to “The Simpsons” “Twin Peaks” parody: “this suit burns better.”)

Though I may be rambling here, Skloss never does. Those who’ve read my reviews know that I’m a big fan of efficient films. At 77 minutes, The Honor Farm certainly isn’t over-long, but neither does it skimp on narrative and character development. Lucy is at a new place in her life, wanting to “feel something real.” Ironically, it takes unreal experiences to satisfy this craving. The Honor Farm has just the right levels of teen-comedy, scares, myth, and ambiguity to sit well with itself. Kudos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While there are definitely some interesting aspects to The Honor Farm, it often succumbs to a lack of focus, ultimately feeling like a mishmash of five different movies with none of the elements coming together in a truly complimentary way by the end of the film. Skloss offers up a hypnotic coming-of-age tale with shades of horror—there’s some supernatural stuff thrown in, as well as a weird cultish subplot… I just wanted more for Lucy on her journey of self-discovery than what we ultimately get here. The film does offer up some stunning cinematography, particularly during The Honor Farm’s more surreal moments during Lucy’s fantasy…”–Heather Wixson, Daily Dead (SWSX screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

LIST CANDIDATE: TAMPOPO (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jûzô Itami

FEATURING: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, , Fukumi Kuroda

PLOT: A stranger rides into town and helps a struggling widow to master the art of noodle preparation, while peripheral characters enact food-related comic sketches.

Still from Tampopo (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Tampopo‘s parodic tale of noodle shop warfare is almost straightforward, if offbeat. Fortunately, there are enough surreal diversions—a fourth-wall breaking introduction where a gangster lectures the audience about eating too loudly during the movie and scenes exploring the erotic possibilities of live shrimp and egg yolks—to make this one worth a weird watch.

COMMENTS: Few movies can make you as hungry as Tampopo, the savory “noodle Western” (or “Eastern”) about an itinerant truck driver/gourmet who trains a mediocre cook to prepare the world’s greatest bowl of ramen. The main plot lightly parodies Westerns, with the stranger wandering into town to help (and woo) the local attractive widow, complete with showdowns with the local gang—although they battle not with guns, but with cutlery. In between advancing that storyline, the film takes time out for unrelated absurdist sketches revolving around food. (In the first of these, we visit a five star restaurant for a business meal where sycophantic salarymen order the same bland meal as the boss, while in another room a matronly etiquette maven tries in vain to teach young ladies to eat their spaghetti without slurping). The most of memorable of these excursions involves a mysterious yakuza in a white suit, who has kinky gourmet sex in a hotel room with his mistress. Come to think of it, the movie may make you as horny as it does hungry, although the sex is (almost) all done in good taste.

Not that it’s all fluffy, marshmallowy cinema. There are moments here that seem better fitted to a mondo film, such as the killing of a turtle (with one quick slice from a knife inserted under the shell), and the thematically meaningful yet taboo footage that plays while the credits roll. Many people find the egg yolk foreplay more yucky than erotic, while there’s another scene where the yakuza flirts with–and even French kisses—a dangerously underage oyster fisherwoman. These scenes are mildly shocking, although they’re neither mean-spirited nor deployed simply for the sake of shock. They add pungent, R-rated spice to a movie that might otherwise be too sweet and mild; with a few judicious cuts, it’s appropriate for a school-age crowd.

I first saw Tampopo (on VHS) when it came out thirty years ago, and although I had a generally good impression of it, I didn’t remember much beyond the basic premise. I’m surprised that I didn’t recall it as being especially strange or surreal. I found it a more interesting film this time around, which suggests that this may be a movie that takes some life seasoning to appreciate. It’s essentially a silly work, but as a paean to the pleasures of food and sex (and movies), it’s an easy one to champion.

The Criterion Collection released Tampopo on DVD in 2010, then finally upgraded it to Blu-ray this year (2017).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of those utterly original movies that seems to exist in no known category…. the movie is so consumed and detailed, so completely submerged in noodleology, it takes on a kind of weird logic of its own.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd,” who simply said “Tampopo is a weirdo.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith

FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil

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

Still from Buster's Mal Heart (2016)

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

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

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

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY: A MUSICAL ADVENTURE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Williams

FEATURING: Claire Williams, Didi Conn (voice), Mark Baker (voice)

PLOT: Raggedy Ann and Andy to pursue a toy pirate into a mystical fantasy world to rescue a French waif.

Still from Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because of its reputation as a weird animated film which traumatized generations of kids, we dare not exclude it from consideration, lest the masses rise up against us. But also, it includes an auto-cannibalistic taffy pit, singing naked twins, a camel who insists on pointing out his deformities, and a practical-joker knight—and we haven’t even entered Loony Land yet.

COMMENTS: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A bunch of animated, sentient toys in a child’s room greet a new toy which is unable to accept its lot in life. It runs away with another toy from the room while the rest of the toys marshal a plan to go rescue them—with lots of songs along the way. Toy Story? Ding, you are correct! But Raggedy Ann and Andy did it all eighteen years before. The film is in fact based on the book “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knee,” by Johnny and Marcella Gruelle. There were a whole series of these books that came out around the Great Depression and are soaked in that time period’s sensibilities—after all, Ann is raggedy, not shiny and new like a rich kid’s doll would be.

From the letter-by-letter animated credits to the full-blown absurd climax, this movie is a treat in every sense, but it is also some of the most bonkers animation ever set to film. It’s an onslaught of eccentric characters, spontaneous songs every ten minutes, fantasy places as exotic as anything you’d find in Wonderland, and demented dream logic throughout. All of this is animated by a team working on individual segments, chiefly led by legendary animator Richard Williams, with meticulous attention to detail but mismatched styles throughout the film, giving it Heavy Metal levels of inconsistency. Flopsy moppet dolls gambol in boneless dances, shape-shifting blobs boil in a hodge-podge of mismatched eyeballs, and at times the cast is propelled through what appears to be an MC Escher world or a psychedelic rainbow land, except when they’re charging off cliffs against a sky that’s an homage to Vincent van Gogh.

Raggedy Ann and Andy reside with a host of other dolls in the playroom of a little girl, Marcella, who’s getting a new toy for her birthday: Babette, a French doll who snobbishly disdains her surroundings. She’ll be taken down a notch when the pirate Captain, finagling an escape from the solitary confinement of his snow globe, sails away with her lashed to the mast of his ship. Ann and Andy set out to rescue her, encountering the wrinkly-kneed Camel, the sentient self-consuming lake of taffy known as the “Greedy,” a sadistic practical joker Knight, and eventually the appropriately named Loony Land where bedlam is the only law.

If you see this film as a wee tot, it’s just a fun fantasy musical with a tad more psychedelic imagery than the average animated feature. The weirdness sneaks up on you long after. Perhaps the movie’s story comes from more innocent times, but there’s almost too many disturbing implications for it to be unintentional. Ann and Andy are brother and sister but act like lovers, there’s a mean and crazy man who torments lost little dolls in the woods at night while singing that he loves them, there’s an impotent king whose body parts inflate at random and who rages that he can’t expand bigger unless he’s torturing a captive, there’s a female former captive in bondage who now rules a crew of men while cracking a whip, there’s a tickle monster, and you could go on all day. Now ponder the hellish existence of the Greedy, a monster made of candy who craves candy and so eats himself constantly, before discovering Ann’s candy heart and coming after her with a pair of scissors to cut it out – because he wants a “sweetheart.” Now you know why everybody loved this movie as a kid and yet recalls it with shivers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What mostly registers from the movie, though, is its unfettered weirdness; and this is something that will be felt differently by every viewer. For myself, I was delighted by the way the animators chased their ideas down to extreme degrees without holding anything back, seeing how the discipline learned from Disney and Warner could produce some exquisitely warped surrealism.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

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)