Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: VAMPIROS SEXOS (1988) & MONDO WEIRDO (1990)

Vampiros Sexos AKA I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing

Mondo Weirdo AKA Jungfrau am Abgrund (Virgin on the Edge)

Beware

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Carl Andersen

FEATURING: Feli Schachinger, Carl Andersen (as “Zaphod Beeblebrox”) (Vampiros Sexos); Jessica Franco Manera (Mondo Weirdo)

PLOT: Vampiros Sexos has something to do with a space vampire trying to recover poisoned olive oil which turns teenagers into “zabbadoings”; in Mondo Weirdo, a sexually repressed young woman enters a world of nightmarish eroticism.

Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)
Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even for a website that specializes in weird movies, Carl Andersen’s two ultra low-budget punk sex films are an acquired taste for specialized audiences. Most will want to stay far away, but others will eat it up… you know who you are.

COMMENTS: I’m sure Carl Andersen put a lot of work into Vampiros Sexos, but it plays like something slapped together over a drunken weekend (which is probably the exact aesthetic he was going for). The “plot” is a loose assembly of vampire tropes and silly jokes interrupted by long, explicit, polyamrous orgies. It’s presented in grimy black and white and often uses odd angles and shaky cameras, with scenes (deliberately) overlit or underlit so you can barely make out what’s going on. Sonically, it sometimes plays like a silent film (complete with intertitles that switch between English and German), and at other times like a  roughie with unsynced sound. Mostly, it plays like a long, explicit DIY music video, with the band Model D’oo supplying songs like “I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing” in a lo-fi, synth-and-drum heavy style trapped halfway between early 80s New Wave and industrial music. Sexos contains attempted slapstick, full-frontal zombies, stripping during the credits sequence, “The Three Psychedelic Stooges” (I never figured out what this referred to), vomiting, goofy gore, lots of scenes shot inside what looks like a cellar punk club, and a sexy lady with a shaved head. The sparse but occasionally amusing B-parody dialogue includes lines like “inside this vat is an undiscovered olive oil. I will now take it onto me to cook up some pretty lunch” and “I will show you my zombie bootie.” Anderson is fond of referencing his influences (or, more accurately, stuff he thinks is cool): “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Night of the Hunter, and . His actual stylistic influences are more like a combination of , , and Gerald Damiano. It’s not as much fun as it sounds.

Mondo Weirdo shows improvement, though if you caught it sans-Sexos you might think you were looking a first attempt at a student film (again, I suspect that’s exactly the aesthetic Andersen is going for). This time around the lighting is uniform, the camera is fluid rather than jerky, and there are more ambitious effects, like a triangularly split screen for a lesbian sex scene. Even Model Doo’s music has improved, becoming more ambient and soundtrack-like at times. The film begins with a vintage exploitation disclaimer, though one delivered in broken English, describing the upcoming attraction as “one of the most bizarre cases in history of distorted sexuality” and warning “should you seem to have problems to share this world of nightmare and bloodily cruel events, please leave the auditory [sic] now.” The opening finds attractive, waifish Odile menstruating (presumably for the first time) in the shower, then walking into a punk club where two girls are going at it hot and heavy around a stripper pole. She’s so scarred by the confluence of these two events that she spends the rest of the film walking around in a daze, giving blow jobs, slitting throats, mystically traveling through the bell of a saxophone, vomiting, licking blood, and engaging in split-screen lesbian sex. At one point a -style intertitle explains “elisabeth bathory invites odile to a strange dinner with strange people and very strange things are going on!” A doubling of characters puts me in mind of Meshes of the Afternoon, while the theme of a doomed, rebellious girl silently wandering through a haunted landscape makes Odile into a teen pornstar version of the Gamin from Dementia (1955). The graphic sex is still distracting and the desire to shock immature, however, and the overall product, while better than Sexos, is a bit boring, in the film school dropout way that the can make sex and violence boring.

Cult Epics label founder Nico B. named these movies to his top 10 weird movies list in 2015, calling Vampiros Sexos “a European punk rock hardcore sex vampire film, stylistic and trashy at the same time” and noting that Weirdo “surpasses the first one in obscenity.” He was so impressed he acquired the rights and released this three-disc set: a DVD of Sexos (transferred from VHS and presented with the short “What’s So Dirty About It?,” an experiment using the hardcore scenes from the feature edited into a strobing pattern), Mondo Weirdo on Blu-ray (with Andersen interviews as a bonus feature), and a CD of Model D’oo’s songs from both films.

Jessica Franco Manera is reportedly the daughter of prolific Eurosleaze director , to whom the film is dedicated (alongside ). It takes a special kind of man to dedicate a film to the father of the actress you’ve cast in a role requiring her to perform hardcore sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mondo Weirdo]  is pretty insane stuff, not for the faint of heart… [Vampiros Sexos] makes even less sense than Mondo Weirdo… The two main attractions are essential viewing for fans of transgressive and outre cinema.”–Ian Jane, “Rock! Shop! Pop!”

CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Miguel Ferrer, Chrysta Bell, James Belushi, Robert Knepper, , , , , , Al Strobel, Carel Struycken, , David Lynch

PLOT: Picking up twenty-five years after the events of “Twin Peaks” and Fire Walk with Me, life has continued for most of the small town’s residents; but things are afoot which once again will involve the FBI and Agent Cooper and a mystery involving “the strange forces of existence.”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As noted in the earlier capsule on Twin Peaks, “it’s a TV series“. However, I’d like to put forth the case that the entire Twin Peaks universe—the original 90’s series, the feature Fire Walk With Me, and “The Return”—should be treated as one whole project instead of as separate entities and as such, should be considered as a contender for the List.

COMMENTS: In uncertain times, audiences and institutions like to choose the familiar, which may account for the numerous remakes and “reboots” of successful material from the past (witness the return of “X-Files” and “Will & Grace,” to name just a couple). Most of these are obvious cash grabs, empty and unrepentant. When it was announced in late 2014 that David Lynch and Mark Frost would be bringing “Twin Peaks” back to television, however, speculation was wild and expectation high on what that result would be, especially as it went from a proposed nine episodes to an eighteen-hour “feature film” and Showtime gave Lynch and Frost complete creative control.

It’s evident now that “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime’s marketing title; Lynch and Frost have made it clear that they consider this “Season 3”) was in every way the Major Event that fans and critics had hoped it would be—but it was in no way what anyone expected. As the head of Showtime, David Nevins, told the press in early 2017, it was the “pure heroin version of David Lynch.” We had no idea.

Unfettered by the constraints of network television, instead of bringing fuzzy warm nostalgic memories of the original 90’s show to the forefront, Lynch and Frost opted for a true continuation, and also made it very contemporary to the current times (there is a small amount of nostalgia indulged in as things converge at the end, but it’s very brief). Going even further than he did with Fire Walk With Me, “The Return” is a culmination of tropes Lynch has employed throughout his career, but with an emphasis on his aesthetic post-Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive. Those who were expecting a straight return to the world of “damn good coffee” and doughnuts were thrown immediately, and it drove almost everyone watching from May to September crazy in attempts to “figure out” where the show was heading.

It’s twenty-five years later and characters have aged, and changed. Continue reading CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, Michael Patrick Jann, Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , Samuel Barnett, Jade Eshete, Hannah Marks, Michael Eklund, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Kaoho, Dustin Milligan

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)

CAPSULE: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Deborah Fallender, Max Wall, John LeMesurier, Harry Corbett

PLOT: Disowned by his father, young Dennis Cooper travels to the big city; through circumstances circuitous and deeds unintentional, he saves the kingdom from the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Still from Jabberwocky (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Long-time stalwart of the strange Terry Gilliam was just getting on his own feet with this, his first solo outing as a director. That said, there are a number of oddball moments, characters, and set-pieces; however, Jabberwocky is more on the straightforward side of things—with spikes of silliness—-than it is an Out-of-Left-Field-Terry-What-Are-You-Doing? spectacular.

COMMENTS: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of Dennis, the mind-blowingly unlikely hero of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, “greatness” clings like a limpet to the rotting potato our hero carries religiously throughout the movie. After an unpleasant experience co-directing with ‘s for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam seems to enjoy his newfound freedom to chaotically putter through a movie that, although occasionally uneven, brims with life in every scene.

A menace lurks in the forests and farmlands, viciously devouring victims before spitting out their skeletal corpses. What brave hero will save the good folk of the kingdom? Why, none other than Dennis (Michael Palin), a bewildered little man obsessed with stock-taking and other trappings of commerce. When his father, a venerable craftsman, casts him from his home, Dennis travels to the capital city to find his fortune so that he might be worthy of the hand of the piggish and unseemly daughter of Mr. Fishfinger, a seller of fish (!) who is, along with the merchants and clergy of the besieged city, keen to see that the rampaging monster keeps the swarms of peasants captured in its walls. Dennis woos the kingdom’s dotty princess (Deborah Fallender), pursues the fearsome Jabberwocky, and reluctantly endures a happy ending.

Not quite modulating his animator sensibilities, Terry Gilliam effectively makes a long-form, live-action version of the cartoons that brought him fame with the Python comedy troupe. The grittiness of medieval life is on full and absurd display as Dennis has run-ins with fanatical penitents, encounters a smilingly self-dismembering beggar, and is ushered around the chaotic city milieu by the director’s smirking machinations. Standing out amongst this cartoonery is a scene where a hungry Dennis pursues a rogue turnip first dropped by a merchant, then batted about by a series of passersby. Jabberwocky bears witness to the silly side of the Dark Ages’ dirtiness. (Indeed, one’s suspicion of ‘toonish buffoonery is confirmed by Terry Gilliam in the movie’s commentary).

No, Jabberwocky isn’t terribly weird. There is too much of a smiling sensibility lying atop, below, and at the surface for any disorientation. And no, Jabberwocky is no landmark directorial debut, but more a qualifying lap for Gilliam’s subsequent projects. A cast of characters who knows no other life and comically shrugs off all adversity undercut the despair of starvation and filth. The end result feels like “Tom & Jerry’s” Hard to be a God. Gilliam would go on to make weird and wonderful movies where his hero’s unlimited humanity blasts through a wall of farcical nihilism; with Jabberwocky, we still see a giggles-take-all attitude from the legendary filmmaker.

DVD INFO: Criterion provides, again, pleasant run-of-the-mill thoroughness. Lifting the charming commentary from the previous 2001 DVD release, they add a contemporary interview-documentary involving Gilliam, Palin, and others (all of whom, separately, go on pleasant tangents about the symbolism of potatoes), as well as a more in-depth bit with the film’s beastie designer, Valerie Charlton. Toss in a few odds-and-ends like the (bizarre) trailer, an audio interview from the late ’90s with  cinematographer Terry Bedford, and the obligatory fold-out essay in the disc case and you’ve got yourself a special release. And, oh yeah, the glorious images of this glorious movie have been upgraded and cleaned up for glorious “4K Blu-ray”. Huttah.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gilliam’s monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol’s surreal poetry.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , Naoto Takenaka; Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Joey D’Auria (English dub)

PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.

COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.

As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.

Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “” status.

To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with , Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an anime made by Bergman or Tarkovsky… pure, wordless cinema, existing in a realm too deliciously mysterious to pull down.”–Sci-Fi Movie Page

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 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.)