PLOT: A detective with a mentally ill wife seeks to solve a series of murders committed by ordinary people, each of whom has come into contact with a strange, amnesiac man.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: There’s no doubt Cure is a weird one, what with its unexplained creatures tied to shower rods, its ambiguous antagonist, and its head-scratching ending. It’s also a good psychological thriller, but it doesn’t quite throw the knockout punch needed to give it an undisputed place on the 366 weirdest movies of all time (although I admit the general critical consensus disagrees with that position). Cure does seem like a movie that could well age into an outstanding vintage if it’s left to ferment in the cellar of the viewer’s subconscious for a time, which is why I suspect I’ll be returning to sample it again someday.
COMMENTS: Cure is a movie that seeks to sink into the lowest, darkest depths of the human subconscious and wallow there. It’s no doubt an intriguing, and a weird, movie, but I found it somewhat unsatisfying by the end: it pulls itself apart by moving in too many different directions. The premise is that ordinary people commit atrocious murders, using the same modus operandi, an “X” cut into their victim’s chest. Their reactions after they’re apprehended vary from maniacal bereavement to calm detachment, but the perpetrators uniformly report that their horrific actions seemed normal at the time. The tie that binds these unwitting criminals together is that they’ve all encountered Mr. Mamiya, an amnesiac young man who has a short-term memory span somewhere between thirty seconds and one minute, and who answers almost every question put to him with the same response: “Who are you?”
On one obvious thematic level, the film deals with the question of identity, although it does so superficially (i.e., “who is” Takabe, really: the single-minded professional, or the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: CURE (1997)→
PLOT: A private practice psychiatrist takes over the case of a suicidal art student after his regular therapist takes a leave of absence due to stress, and discovers the case has metaphysical as well as psychological implications.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Stay gets a pretty weird vibe going through its trippy second act—not coincidentally, the part of the movie many mainstream critics complain grows tiresome—but ultimately this mindbending plot has been handled more elegantly before in more memorable films.
COMMENTS: Stay is often a feast for the eyes and a masterpiece of meaningfully employed techniques. Shots are packed with subliminal detail, and everyone notices the amazing transitions that flow seamlessly from one scene into the next (a character gazes out the window to see the person they’re talking to sitting on a bench, having already started the next scene, or wanders out of an art department hallway that magically becomes an aquarium). The artistic editing and camera tricks all lead up to a beautiful visual climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Sam (Ewan McGregor) and Henry (Ryan Gosling) deliver their “final” speeches while engulfed in a sea of waving strings, as if small filaments of cable have broken off the bridge and are drifting in the wind. Unfortunately, the story, while clever at times, can’t justify the enormous care devoted to the production design. Long time fans of psychological thrillers will guess the twist from the first shot, although through directorial sleight of hand and a shift of protagonists the film constantly suggests that it’s just about to head in a novel direction. In the end, the story is both resolved and unresolved—the unresolved parts being those leftover scraps of the script that relate not to the mystery’s solution, but to the screenplay’s attempts to misdirect the viewer from that solution. These questions wave around in the mind like those wavy filaments from the Brooklyn Bridge: not part of the supporting structure, just there to add atmosphere. The end result is a series of admirable tricks strung together, without a huge narrative or emotional payoff.
A curious and disappointing feature of the DVD release is that the widescreen version of the film, with limited commentary by director Forster and star Gosling, is hidden on side B of the double-sided DVD, with a fullscreen version with no commentary taking up side A. Renters who don’t have the opportunity to read the box cover or who miss the note on the disc’s label may view an inferior presentation of the movie by default. Ironically, one of the B-side commentators advises, “Never watch this in 4:3. You’ll miss too much.”
Every now and then, we run into a film that is pretty damn weird, but may not be strange enough to be among the 366 weirdest movies of all time. Then again, it may be. Sometimes, after reflection, we find that images from certain movies return to haunt our memory weeks or months after we dismissed them. Sometimes, weeks later we can’t figure out what we were thinking when we left a picture off the list.
It became clear with our most recent review (Stay, 2005) that there is a need to make an official new category for movies that could make the list eventually, but we weren’t sure about just yet. The new borderline weird category is a holding pen for movies that impressed us, but weren’t strong enough to immediately seize their place on the list of 366. These are movies that may well get their chance to make the list in the future, after they’ve fermented in our minds for a while.
The initial movies comprising this category are:
Adaptation (2002): Great movie, but we initially thought it was too much of an academic exercise to count as weird.
Elevator Movie (2004): This low-budget, minimalist story of two people trapped in an mysterious elevator for months on end is the prime example of the “What were we thinking when we left this off the list?” reaction.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003): Definitely weird, but annoyingly weird. Possible choice to fill in slots 365 or 366 if every other candidate fails.
Kung Fu Arts [Hou Fu Ma] (1980): This monkey kung-fu fantasy is indeed weird, but we left it off on the theory that if we allowed one Shaw Brothers chopsocky film on the list, we’d have to let them all on, and there wouldn’t be room for anything else.
Nowhere (1997): Weird, but also very bad and juvenile. Maybe we were in a very bad mood when we viewed it, or maybe viewing it put us in a very bad mood; nonetheless it has its fans and may deserve a reappraisal.
Stay (2005): Despite a weird atmosphere, we’re not yet convinced it distinguishes itself enough from other classic entries in the mindbender genre.
W the Movie (2008): Weird indeed, but as it’s based firmly on current events (the G.W. Bush presidency) that are now past, only time will tell if this partisan screed stands up through the ages.
PLOT: Lucia, a waitress, falls in love with Lorenzo, a young novelist with a secret in his
past; their passionate love story is intertwined with dramatized scenes from Lorenzo’s novel, with it left to the viewer to decide what is “real” and what is “fiction.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sex and Lucia‘s fractured narrative is more confusing than weird. It’s meta-narrative conceits call to mind Adaptation, another movie that ultimately felt too much like an intellectual exercise to be extremely weird. Sex and Lucia treats it’s fiction-within-a-fiction structure with more subtlety and ambiguity, though Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay exists on a satirical plane that in the end makes it the more centered and satisfying effort.
COMMENTS: The best things about Sex and Lucia are sex (important enough to get its own paragraph!) and Lucia (Paz Vega, whose acting is as naked as her body). While counting its plusses, we should also mention the cinematography, done on a digital camera, with the scenes on the Mediterranean isle bleached like a seashell in the sun. The story is another matter. Many viewers find it frustrating that Medem riddles his script with narrative wormholes which shuttle the story back in time or to an alternate resolution, then demands the viewer assist in the construction by choosing what is part of the “real” story and what is in Lorenzo’s imagination. The bigger problem may be that none of the possibilities he offers have a tremendous emotional resonance. The movie is arty and self-conscious throughout, with multiple obviously significant shots of the moon. Symbolism is pervasive and tends to make sense, but adds up to little in the way of genuine insight. While these difficulties make Sex and Lucia less than it might have been, it’s still beautiful enough to be lightly intoxicating, like a Mediterranean vacation or a one-nighter with a beautiful woman.
The sex scenes, especially those between the gorgeous and unselfconscious Vega and Ulloa, are undoubtedly a major attraction. The lovers’ exploration of their bodies and sexual tastes during their whirlwind courtship is erotic and tasteful; the scenes are arousing, but are also beautifully constructed to create a sense of true intimacy between the characters. The sex is front-loaded; after the middle of the film, when a sordid and pornographic but equally erotic fantasy occurs, sex leaves Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship, replaced by tragedy and arguments. Medem refused to let the sexier parts of the film be cut for distribution, but the scenes of tumescent male nudity and fellatio are so brief that they are unnecessary and reek of gimmickry; it’s difficult to rationalize the director’s passionate defense of the artistic necessity of erections. The film may be purchased in either a unrated cut or in an R-rated version; your enjoyment of the movie is unlikely to be affected by which version you choose (I can’t determine if there’s a difference in runtime between the two versions).
NOTE: Elevator Movie has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Commenting is closed on this review, which is left here for archival purposes. Please visit Elevator Movie‘s Certified Weird entry to comment on this film.
DIRECTED BY: Zeb Haradon
FEATURING: Zeb Haradon, Robin Ballard
PLOT: A socially maladjusted college student and a reformed slut turned Jesus freak are
trapped in an elevator together–impossibly, for weeks on end.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Quite possibly, Elevator Movie will make the overall list of 366 movies; I reserve the right to revisit it in the future. By mixing Sartre’s “No Exit” with an ultra-minimalist riff on Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, garnished with large dollops of sexual perversity, writer/director/star Zeb Haradon has created one of the weirder underground movies of recent years. Unfortunately, in a demanding two character piece that requires top-notch, nuanced dramatic performances to succeed, Haradon’s acting talent isn’t up to the level of his imagination and screenwriting ability. The resulting film looks like an “A-” film school final project: it tantalizingly promises more than it’s capable of delivering.
COMMENTS: Zeb Haradon is definitely a writer to keep an eye on. The script of Elevator Movie, though not perfect (it misses a few precious opportunities to ratchet the tension and drama up to stratospheric levels), is far and away the movie’s greatest asset. Haradon takes a very threadbare set of motifs (most notably, infantile Freudian sexuality) and pushes them as far as he can. This two-character, one setting drama could have been intolerably boring for the first few reels as it builds to its crashingly surreal climax, but Haradon manages to keep us interested by slowly revealing new facets of the characters and keeping up a reasonable tension as Jim and Lana struggle to reconcile their need for intimacy with their complete incompatibility and diametrically opposed agendas. This could have been a masterpiece, had the actors been able to carry off the monumental task the script sets up for them. Robin Ballard is passable in the easier role of Lana, but Haradon is almost unforgivably subdued as Jim. Jim is passive, so some of the wimpiness of the characterization is intentional, but when he needs to project a menacing, seething passion subdued under a calm exterior, he can’t pull it off. Therefore, at times the inherent dramatic conflict tails off into a bland “OK, OK”, just as Jim’s voice does when Lana once again rejects his advances.
The images in Elevator Movie, largely scatological and sexual but also involving some brief animal cruelty, are not for the meek. That said, some of these shocking images, and the surprising but perfect ending, can resonate a horrid fascination for a long time afterwards. That’s what makes Elevator Movie come so achingly near to being a great weird movie. Even with qualifications, it’s definitely worth a look for the Eraserhead set.
PLOT: “W” appears in a meteorite in the Arizona desert, steals the election for
the party of No, and becomes a tyrant opposed by liberal reporter BlueMahler.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With half the characters distinguished by facepaint that makes them look like either World Wrestling Federation rejects or members of a failed 70s revival glam band, acting in front of shifting psychedelic computer-generated backdrops, this surrealist satire of George W. Bush’s presidency is definitely weird enough to make the list. The problem is that, as a polemic against the 43rd President of the United States, it comes with an expiration date. It’s too particular and too parochial, both in terms of subject matter and target audience, to earn a final place on a list of 366 representative weird movies.
COMMENTS: Because it is a vehemently partisan mockery of a former President, as opposed to a generic political satire, W the Movie is difficult to review. Your reaction may depend on your politics; the far left might applaud it as a hilarious send-up of a dangerous political hack, those on the right may be outraged (and personally insulted), or simply dismiss it as liberal piffle. Moderates and fence-sitters are unlikely to be swayed. All sides will recognize it as deliberately unfair; Bush’s foibles are exaggerated past the point of absurdity. W is cruel, crude and stupid, and at his most decisive when he demands his pancakes with “lots of syrup”; his foil, BlueMahler, is brave and righteous, and his only character flaw is neglecting his wife and son as he devotes his life to exposing the truth about the alien demagogue and his infernal war. W the Movie makes the work of Michael Moore (who himself makes as appearance as a ghostlike, babbling puppet) look fair and balanced. There’s a place in the film world for narrowly political art and clever character assassination, and in this sense the producers are to be commended for not fearing to enter the fray, take sides, and name names.
But, polarizing political content aside, there’s quite a bit to be admired in the low-budget production. It’s an excellent example of how a unique, almost mesmerizing visual style can be forged through CGI on the cheap, when artistic effect and atmosphere is placed above the fetish for strict realism. About 90% of the film was shot in front of a green-screen, and memorable virtual sets include W riding on a missile against a cloudscape (a la Dr. Strangelove), W worshipping at an altar of giant gold coins, and an amusing black and white parody sequence with W in Ford’s Theater. The effect is a bit like the old studio-bound pictures of the 30s and 40s, where the backgrounds were matte paintings, but modern technology combined with a hallucinogenic vision makes these brightly colored living mattes slip, morph and shift before the viewer’s eye. Therefore, the film is constantly interesting to the eye, even when the plot gets difficult to follow. Furthermore, Eaker does quite well in multiple roles, including both W and his nemesis BlueMahler. Actors cast in smaller roles range from adequate to distracting. The humor is also uneven, ranging from the highly effective (the Ford’s Theater scene) to the painfully embarrassing (the 9/11 tragedy is used as an excuse for cheap jokes about W’s pro-life stance and lack of geographical acumen). More genuine funny and fewer pointed potshots would have made it a happier movie experience. All in all, W‘s well worth checking out, but if you’re to the right of Obama politically, you may want to check your party of No pin at the door.
FEATURING: Mireille Saunin, Dominique Delpierre, Alfred Baillou
PLOT: Two pretty young women travelling through the French countryside
stumble upon the castle of an elegant witch attended by a bevy of beauties and a dwarf, who promises to keep them eternally young and pampered if they will give up their souls to her.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: With it’s hunchbacked dwarf in eyeliner, tokes off a hookah, and decadent, dreamlike atmosphere, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay tries fairly hard to be weird. But the film isn’t really as committed to creating a weird atmosphere as it is in filling the frame with as many tastefully hot lesbian sex scenes as it’s running time will allow.
COMMENTS: Despite the acres of nude female flesh and Sapphic trysts, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay is a serious attempt at art, albeit erotic art. The cinematography and costumes are luscious, and the location shooting at a real French castle provides a sensuous, refined background for the ladies’ romps in the buff. The setting is decadent, and so are the pleasure-obsessed slave girls and their mistress, who sip on wine and quote Baudelaire all day in between refined orgies and interpretive erotic dances. It’s the kind of locale you might like to live in (especially if you’re a lesbian), but not one that’s especially interesting to watch. The atmosphere is trance-like, but the actresses emote as if they were in a trance. Despite the high-stakes battle for the girls’ souls, everything is so sublimated and understated that little real drama emerges. The sex scenes are of the tasteful sort where one girl carefully caresses or kissed the torso of her lover, but only briefly brushes a nipple by accident. The ending to the film is surprisingly effective, although abrupt.
The DVD presentation by Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro is really amazing for a film this forgotten. Tomb’s writes exhaustive essays on the film, cast, crew, and even the Chateau de Val location, as well as including Gantillon’s short film, Un couple d’artistes. It’s nice to realize that enthusiasts exist to give a film as obscure as Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay a release that’s as every bit as loving as Criterion Collection would if it were a respectable mainstream classic.
PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a
mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough to make the List, although it can be such slow going that many folks will tune out before discovering it’s weirder points. Twilight just isn’t good enough. With several of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort, weird though it may well be, to take space away from a more deserving contender.
COMMENTS: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting. The protagonist, Peter (Nigel Whitmey), is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also, it seems, to episodes of sleep-acting. For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed. It doesn’t help that Whitmey’s dialogue was dubbed in by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor. Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance. Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent. Veteran movie actors Shelley Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.
That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous. Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene. Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy. This makes the movie effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection” (buy), along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.
FEATURING: Carter Wong [as Huang Chia-Da], Cheng Shing, Sida the French Monkey Star
PLOT: A princess marries a chimpanzee, amidst intrigue in the Chinese imperial court.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Any film featuring “Sida the French Monkey Star” is at least a little weird. The main obstacle to Kung Fu Arts cementing a place in the list of 366 is that it’s coming out of the weirdest movie genre of all—those short lived 1970s “chopsocky” movies made quickly, dubbed badly, and exported to the West to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee. When the average entry in this genre features fists that cut the air with a loud swoosh, heavily stylized but amazingly choreographed fight scenes between men wearing brilliantly colored robes, and silly dialogue that surrealistically refuses to keep up with the actor’s lips, the threshold to be considered “weird” rises significantly. Kung Fu Arts adds monkeys to the formula: monkeys who are addressed by the ensemble as if they were mute actors with a perfect understanding of Cantonese, but monkeys nonetheless. This is creates a fairly high weirdness quotient, but in the end I decided not to make Kung Fu Arts a finalist, because I have faith there were even more deserving entries out there. But don’t be surprised to see this movie reconsidered and placed on the list some day in the future.
COMMENTS: If you’re tuned in to the chopsocky wavelength (and you should be), Kung Fu Arts is an entertaining little picture. Although it’s somewhat light on fighting, it has wonderful costuming, an intriguing fairy-tale plot, and a reasonable amount of chuckles stemming from the straight-faced acting directed at the primate stars. From the moment the imperial guards fall to their knees and plead with Sida to come down from the rooftop with the king’s pilfered royal proclamation, to the final battle where a small army of primates help the hero to defeat the evil usurper to the throne, Kung Fu Arts supplies plenty of silly smiles, some intended by the filmmakers, and many unintentional.
Kung Fu Arts is available as part of the Mill Creek 50 Martial Arts Movie Pack. Because the movie is in the public domain, it’s available for download from Public Domain Torrents.
PLOT: Adaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Adaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself). In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses. Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.
COMMENTS: Adaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence. (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category). In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games. All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.” As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film. This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.
Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic. The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman. When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself. Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.