Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: THE CHUMSCRUBBER (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Arie Posin

FEATURING: Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, , Glenn Close, Allison Janney, William Fitchner

PLOT: In a wealthy California suburb, disaffected teen Dean finds himself snared in an amateur blackmail and kidnapping plot after his only friend, a drug supplier, hangs himself and local high school dealers assume Dean knows the location of the stash.

Strill from The Chumscrubber (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie is indeed weird—partly by design, and (I suspect) partially by accident—but doesn’t benefit by it. It’s worth a look as a curiosity, but doesn’t rise to a Listable level.

COMMENTS: The Chumscrubber is exactly what the title says it is. What, you don’t know what a “chumscrubber” is? That’s OK, neither does the movie. Well, that’s not 100% true. In fact, the “chumscrubber” is a decapitated character from an apocalyptic teen video game—presumably one that scrubs chum when offscreen. But what’s it doing in this movie? What it supposed to symbolize? And why it was deemed a significant enough entity to name the movie after despite getting only a few minutes of screen time? Only the writer knows the answer for sure.

The scattershot script has a lot of problems. For example, what would you do if a group of bullies whom you hated, who had no leverage over you whatsoever, tried to blackmail you into committing a crime? If you said “either ignore them or report them to the police,” congratulations: you just ended the movie early. If you said “go along with their incriminating scheme, obviously,” then you may be target audience for The Chumscrubber. Besides the implausibility of that central plot point, other, more promising gambits, like dueling wedding/memorial parties scheduled for the same day and the surreptitious introduction of ecstasy into a casserole, promise wacky hijinks to come, then fizzle out when they arrive.

Yet, with all it’s issues, The Chumscrubber isn’t a terrible movie experience. The suburban satirical targets may be too obvious, but the you-never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next plot is refreshing, even fun. The movie has a lot going on to keep your mind occupied: Dean’s troubled teen travails, drug abuse (both recreational and prescription), bullying, kidnapping, a hallucinating hero, bad video game CGI, a misguided romantic subplot, and an entire bonus movie shoehorned in about mild-mannered mayor Ralph Fiennes, who is either going crazy or is the victim of an identity shift. The fine cast does their best in individual scenes that work better than the whole, and the auteurial ambition shines through. Embodying passive-aggressive grief-engendered dementia, Glenn Close is ace, as always. She understands that this material only really works as a black comedy, and seems to be acting in a different (and better) movie. Allison Janney, as Dean’s mom, plays against Close well, allowing herself to be guilt-tripped and becoming one of the few three-dimensional characters. Lead Jamie Bell, a poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg, also puts in quality work. The other veterans in the cast do their best, fighting characterizations that don’t have much depth or sense to them (Fiennes seems particularly bewildered and unsure how to handle his bizarre role).

It’s not surprising that Arie Posin (almost) never worked in movies again. But it’s pretty amazing that he was able to make this meandering, would-be cult movie—with A- list talent, to boot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dreamily surreal… recalls David Lynch and ‘Donnie Darko’ while remaining fresh and original…”–David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Sholder

FEATURING: Andrew Divoff, Holly Fields, Chris Weber

PLOT: In a direct-to-video sequel (the first of three) an ancient evil genie (djinn) breaks free of his prison again, tries to conquer Earth with his rule-bound goal of unleashing all djinn onto humanity again, and gets shut down by a panicked, but barely resourceful, female protagonist again.

Still from Wishmaster 2: The Evil Within (1999)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a color-by-numbers horror flick intended to thrill, but not challenge, lite-beer-chugging mall rats. It is so shrink-wrapped and pre-fabbed that it if it were a microwavable meal the ingredients would begin with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Someday, the imaginative horror factory that is the enterprise may demand our attention on the List. But it is not this day, and this is certainly not the movie.

COMMENTS: The whole Wishmaster franchise is the kind of premise that a first-year creative writing student at community college would pounce on with joy, and an experienced fantasy writer would know not to touch with a ten-foot-pole. An evil genie (djinn—gesundheit!) is unleashed on the world with the power to grant humans wishes, but subject to his own malicious interpretations of the wording. Besides a few exceptions (he can’t destroy himself, or re-arrange the fabric of space-time), he has unlimited powers. Think of the potential! And that’s exactly the problem with these kinds of premises: no matter what you do to actualize that potential, it will never live up to what you COULD have done. It’s like having God as a character in your story: whatever the payoff, God ends up being a wimpy letdown, unless you play it for laughs with a lampshade upon this very limitation. Moral of the story: don’t bite off more than you can chew, i.e., by adding God, or nearly God-like, antagonists.

But since when did more ambition than capability ever slow franchise originator Wes Craven down? So, djinn are a race of evil angels starting from the dawn of creation, and the boss djinn, when freed, has the goal of unleashing all his kind to rule humanity. The catch is, to do so he has to grant three wishes for the unlucky human who releases him from his bottle/lamp/(or in this case) ruby red gem. Numerous legalistic restrictions apply, because God may have been reckless in creating these things, but he had some good lawyers to back Him up. It says right here in the D&D manual that the djinn may take the soul of any human he grants a wish to (more play-toys for his dungeon), and he may interpret the wish in whatever outlandishly gruesome way he pleases, no taksey-backsies. As you might guess, careless mumbling around an evil djinn never leads to a happy outcome, and the people in the Wishmaster universe make a (short) career out of saying the stupidest possible things and instantly getting punished for it. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Continue reading CAPSULE: WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Adrian Brody

PLOT: Three brothers, each at a personal crossroads, reunite for a spiritual quest through India.

Still from The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Darjeeling Limited comes from Wes Anderson’ mid-to-early period, where he flirted with stangeness in airy, slightly dreamy features like Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and this before floating back to Earth for the family-friendly Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Oscar-friendly The Grand Budapest Hotel. He never became quite untethered enough from the bounds of indie movie reality and character-based comedy to soar all the way to the vertiginous heights of the weird, though he did aim high enough to make movies of this period worthy of some scrutiny by fans of unusual films.

COMMENTS: “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails,” Jack sensibly asks after the trio of brothers have been asked to disembark from the title vehicle mid-trip. The “off the rails” joke seems intended a wry, self-aware comment from Anderson about the shaggy dog nature of his story, but it’s not really accurate. For better or worse—I’d say better—The Darjeeling Limited never deviates from the path it sets. This director is known for his tight formalism, revealed in his immaculate set design—every swatch of geometric wallpaper, every piece of matching luggage covered in palm trees suggesting a proper Old World elegance—and in the distant, detached stiffness he enforces on his actors.

The Darjeeling Limited is a quintessential Wes Anderson movie: carefully composed visuals (with a stunning turmeric and saffron color scheme), quirky characters with muffled emotions, a mildly absurd plot. It’s perfectly capable of absorbing you in its off-center but oddly believable universe. Owen Wilson (as the ringmaster brother swaddled in bandages from his recent near-death accident) and Jason Schwartzman (as the womanizing writer brother) are old hands for Wes; lanky Brody, not known at the time for his comic performances, fits into the ensemble surprisingly well. , naturally, has an amusing sad sack cameo, and old hand turns up in a small role, too. These three brothers are allegedly off on a spiritual journey, but their quest turns out to be more about coming to grips with the legacies of their parents than discovering nirvana. A Wes Anderson protagonist is typically an upper-middle class (i.e., bourgeois) man focused on a peculiar obsession (Rushmore‘s Max and his crush on an older woman, Steve Zissou’s quest for vengeance), whose narcissism is deflated when he comes to realize that the universe will go its own way without yielding to his desires. These characters’ lenses gradually widen to compensate for their myopia, and they end up not with redemption, but with the resigned wisdom that comes from accepting disillusionment. Here, the realization comes in triplicate. Perhaps there is a legitimate spiritual lesson there, after all.

The Criterion disc includes “The Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman (alongside ) that describes an incident just before the beginning of Darjeeling Limited. It screened before the feature in some theaters. It carries the same sense of whimsical melancholy as the main feature, but, despite plot connections to the main story, it isn’t necessary to enjoy or understand Darjeeling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…entertaining and engaging, and also deliberately strange.”–Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

(This movie was nominated for review by “bill,” who said it was “not as overtly strange as some of the movies on this list however there is a certain surreal aspect to the story telling that makes this a masterful cinematic oddity .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PHENOMENA (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: , , Daria Nicolidi

PLOT: A teenage girl with a psychic bond to insects teams up with a forensic entomologist to hunt down a serial killer.

Still from Phenomena (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Phenomena certainly has a wacky premise, and a chimp, to boot. That’s enough to get it onto our radar. Set those features aside, however, and it becomes a standard slasher/horror that borrows too much from the same director’s superior Suspiria to stand on its own.

COMMENTS: So an American brunette ingenue travels to a dramatically lit European all-girls boarding school where she becomes involved in a series of murders… no, it’s not Suspiria, and that’s not , it’s Jennifer Connely. But there are so stylistic many similarities to Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece in Phenomena that, if it wasn’t made by the same director, you’d probably accuse it of being a poorly-conceived ripoff.

As it is, Argento gets so wild here that he nearly descends into self-parody, although there’s little reason to suspect that Phenomena was intended to be watched with tongue in cheek. The movie is a mixture of good stuff culled from Argento’s toolbox—fantastical lighting (though more restrained than some of his early works), bold camera angles , suspenseful gore, a fairy tale atmosphere—mixed with some clumsy new variations on the formula. The overall mish-mash of good and bad, nice ideas and crazy ones, results in a horror film that’s not really successful on any level (except possibly camp), but is seldom boring. On the good side of the ledger, Argento still has an decadent way with atmosphere. Also, the all-the-stops-pulled finale, with multiple false endings and a genuine surprise finish, is legitimately thrilling. On the bad side, the effects used to create insect swarms (and individual insects) are terribly dated and cartoonish (the locusts of the previous decade’s Exorcist II are a huge success by comparison). The score is another mix of good and bad, with the effective part supplied by Argento’s usual collaborators, Goblin (billed here as “the Goblin”). Unfortunately, Argento also had the bright idea to try to appeal to 1980s youths by inserting rocking tunes from Motorhead, Iron Maiden and something called “Andy Sex Gang” into the movie; at least one shock scene is destroyed by the incongruous pounding metal track that makes it play like a music video excerpt instead of a suspenseful stalking. The crazy insectoid premise also falls into an ambiguous category: maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, depending on your point of view and how seriously you’re trying to take Phenomena. But it definitely leads to some eyebrow-raising dialogue: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” deadpans Donald Pleasance’s wheelchair-bound entomologist.

Young Connely is not fantastic in the unconventional role—her line deliveries are so “blah” you may wonder if she was dubbed alongside the Italian cast—but her star potential is evident. If she’s not completely convincing, she is rosy-cheeked and stunning (in a chaste, high-school-crush kind of way). It’s no surprise she found stardom a year later in Labyrinth. Pleasance is, for reasons unknown, Scottish here; his performance is scaled back from his usual hamminess, and not the worse for the restraint. The real scene-stealer, however, is the chimpanzee Tanga, whose presence in the story is so inexplicably unnecessary that it becomes a sort of genius.

New Line cut 28 minutes from the film and released it in the U.S. as Creepers. The complete version is reviewed here. It makes for fine, not-too-serious Halloween viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Argento’s weird thriller was a huge box-office hit [in Europe]… Though Argento’s plot is often confused and grotesque, he has a remarkably energetic visual style (mobile camera, slow-motion, careful lighting, creative editing) that is never boring.”–TV Guide

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

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

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []

CAPSULE: TAG (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reina Triendl, Mariko Shinoda, Erina Mano, Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite

PLOT: A Japanese schoolgirl finds herself shunted through many different realities, all of which want to kill her and her companions.

Still from Tag (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: At an earlier stage of this project’s development, Tag might have been shortlisted. This quintessentially Japanese mix of exploitation and surrealism will hit the sweet spot for fans of smart splatterpunk, Sono-style, but doesn’t go far enough above and beyond to merit consideration for the List, considering the shrinking number of available slots.

COMMENTS: There’s no denying that Tag‘s opening gambit, featuring two busloads of schoolgirls sheared in half by unseen forces, is one of the more memorable opening statements in recent movie history. If the rest of the movie never quite catches up to that level of excitement, it still leaves one hell of an impression on the viewer. It leaves quite an impression on lone survivor Mitsuko, too. In silent shock, she wanders into her schoolyard, where everyone is going about the day normally and treats her as if she‘s the one who’s insane, blubbering about a killer wind. Everyone, that is, except for her girlfriend nicknamed “Sur” (for “surreal”), who explains about alternate realities and the butterfly effect. This sophomore-level philosophy gains some credibility when the school’s teachers pull out machine guns and start mowing down their students (in a sort of nasty reversal of the final scene of If…. ). Mitskuko is again the lone survivor, fleeing the carnage into yet another, equally dangerous version of reality…

Fun Tag drinking game: take a swig every time a male actor appears onscreen. Tag is so female-centric that, despite the fetish schoolgirl uniforms and the ample panty shots,  it’s hard not to see it as Sono’s feminist statement. What form that statement takes isn’t one-hundred percent clear, but it would seem to involve something about the various (limiting) roles females are forced into in Japanese society (by males) and the resulting anxiety that engenders in young women trying to establish their own identity. The ending revelation, which seems intended to tie everything together and reveal a hidden logic, is underwhelming. A lot still remains unexplained when the curtain falls—for example, the pig-man. In the end, I suppose you just have to take Sur’s advice: “Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you.”

Tag‘s gore effects are provided by another 366 fave, (Tokyo Gore Police).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another feather in the highly idiosyncratic cap of Japanese helmer Sion Sono. This cavalcade of carnage set in a bizarre parallel world where women are chased and slaughtered by all manner of human and supernatural forces hits the sweet spot where grindhouse meets arthouse.”–Richard Kuipers, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sir Exal. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: “MARTIN SCORSESE’S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, VOL. 2”

DIRECTED BY: Lufi O. Akad (Law of the Border), Lino Brocka (Insiang), Mario Peixoto (Limite), Ermek Shinarbaev (Revenge), (Mysterious Object at Noon), Edward Yang (Taipei Story)

FEATURING: Tsai Chin (Taipei Story), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taipei Story), Yilmaz Guney (Law of the Border), Hilda Koronel (Insiang)

PLOT: This box set contains six newly restored art films from across the globe, most of which have never been released separately.

Stil from Limite (1931)
Still from Limite (1931)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “World Cinema Project” is an initiative to preserve films from around the world (especially the third world) which have cultural value as relics of their particular times and places, but which alone lack the commercial appeal necessary for market forces to do the job. While there are some curious obscurities in this second set, none of them are strong enough to demand a separate review, much less contend for a spot among the weirdest films of all time.

COMMENTS: Of the six random entries in the latest installment of the -led film preservation, surprisingly, half of them include elements that might spark the interest of fans of weird cinema. We can deal with the three others quickly enough. 1966’s Law of the Border is a “Turkish Western” about smugglers on the Syrian/Turkish border who try, and fail, to go straight as sharecroppers. A work of social realism, but with action-oriented gunfights, it’s somewhat confusing as narrative and rudimentary as cinema. The Filipino melodrama Insiang (1976), about a pretty but much-abused slum dweller who devises a complicated revenge plot against her embittered mother and a much older seducer, fares better, engaging the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Edward Yang’s Tapei Story (1985) is standard arthouse fare: a stately but not exactly gripping social drama about urban ugliness and alienation, generational clashes and changes, and so on. It may well win over intellectual-minded drama-hounds with its realism and cynicism, but it gave me a distinct “been there, done that—only now in Taiwan” feeling.

The three less conventional entries deserve slightly more attention, although none of them have quite enough weird weight to merit a full review (though if any spark your interest, by all means chase them down). Limite is a legendary Brazilian silent film, long thought lost and even now missing crucial elements, which turns out to be underwhelming. It’s the only film of Mario Peixoto, who was only twenty-one at the time. It’s “poetic” and “meditative,” which is to say, slower and more obscure than it needs to be. Peixoto shows a good deal of talent, with a gripping contextless opening image of a handcuffed woman which could have come from a lost Buñuel/Dalí collaboration and a humorously inventive tracking shot where the camera outpaces its wandering subject, then doubles back to catch up with her as she leans against a post, resting. Mostly, however, it’s composed of a lot of scenes of a scraggly threesome languishing in a lifeboat, with largely dialogue-free flashbacks explaining how they got there. Overlong and unclear, with many superfluous, indulgent camera experiments, it seems more like a first draft of a good movie rather than a completed masterpiece.

In a way ‘s Mysterious Object at Noon is the outlier in the set, since “Joe”‘s fan base is large enough that his 2000 feature debut has long been available on video (although this release marks its first appearance on Region A Blu-ray). It is doubtlessly a strange film, nonetheless, even by Joe’s standards. A narrative/documentary hybrid, the concept is that the director goes on a road trip through rural Thailand, inviting the people he meets to add a new chapter to a story. He films some of these sequences as mini-movies, stages another as a play, and spends a lot of time simply interviewing the participants. Unfortunately, the tale they come up with, about a crippled boy, his live-in teacher, and an alien, is disjointed and absurd in an uninvolving way; Mysterious Object is only interesting on the slightest formal and intellectual level. The experiment is ultimately a failure, though a noteworthy one.

1989’s Revenge, a Kazakhstani effort made during the glasnost period, is the set’s biggest surprise. The movie was made under the old Soviet apparatus but orphaned, with no funds for distribution or promotion, when that empire dissolved only two years later. It’s a sprawling near-epic of a man literally conceived as a tool of revenge for the murder of the sister he never knew, bookended by Buddhist parables. Born to be a poet but fated to be an avenger, mystical occurrences dog the boy’s journey from Korea through China to Russia in pursuit of his sister’s killer. It’s a strange and spiritual plea for poetry above worldliness, lit by outstanding cinematography and draped in vivid period costuming. Had more of the movies in the set been unexpected revelations like this one, this edition of the “World Cinema Project” might have earned a general recommendation.

While each of these films is significant in some way, they aren’t, as a lot, overlooked masterpieces. There’s a reason that none of them were considered commercial enough for a standalone release. (The exceptions, perhaps, are Mysterious Object, which was previously released on DVD, and Limite, which could have been marketed to hardcore cinema historians as a lost cult film). As a purchase, the set is hard to recommend except to the most dedicated film scholars with an overabundance of disposable income. The movies have so little uniting them that even if you were intrigued by three of these titles, that would still leave you paying for another three you had little to no interest in. Highbrow cinephiles may feel obliged to salivate at this buffet, but sadly, the spread elevates diversity above quality.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once indispensible and flawed, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2 is best viewed as another fine product from the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, even if the grouping of films remains, as with the first set, little more than incidental.”–Clayton Dillard, Slant