Category Archives: Capsules

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

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Cara Delevingne, , Rihanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

 

CAPSULE: BLACK DEVIL DOLL (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Lewis

FEATURING: ” Mubia Abul-Jama,” Heather Murphy, Martin Boone

PLOT: A Black Panther, executed for the “rape and brutal murders of fifteen Caucasian women,” finds his soul transported into a ventriloquist’s dummy; he then resumes his evil ways.

Still from Black Devil Doll (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not need to get into a deep discussion here: Black Devil Doll is simply too silly, spoofy and self-aware to count as weird.

COMMENTS: First things first: Black Devil Doll isn’t an homage to the charmingly naive Black Devil Doll from Hell so much as it is an afro-remake of Child’s Play, with added interracial rape. Basically what we have here is a trashy soft porn feature starring zaftig strippers acting opposite a racial stereotype puppet: cheap, offensive trash, and proud of it. Anyone who’s not tolerant of gleeful overuse of the n-word, boundary-pushing racial humor or blatant misogyny will want to steer clear of this movie—it’s trying to trigger you. Among its bad taste stunts are X-rated cartoons, puppet sex scenes, copious puppet semen, lesbian Twister, an emasculated wigger, Bill Cosby seduction techniques, rape and killing (not necessarily in the order), vomiting, caustic diarrhea… you know, “can’t we all just get along?” kind of stuff. It ends with the strippers-cum-actresses giving the puppet a lap dance over the credits, and a post-credits sequence (by another director) and with the devil doll killing a delivery guy from “Oakland Fried Chicken,” the only fast food outlet with a genuine Sambo on the label. The actresses have names like “Natasha Talonz” and “Precious Cox,” and it was naturally “rated X by an all white jury.” It’s real woke.

Black Devil Doll comes awfully close to earning a “” rating, but has enough virtues to just barely skate by. The James Bond-esque opening credits, with voluptuous silhouetted ladies undulating across a landscape of fire and blood, are actually rather amazing, looking far more expensive than the rest of the movie. They are credited to cinematographer/editor John Osteen, who also inserts a couple of hip-hop montages during the doll’s, er, climaxes, which feature blazing fires, morphing effects and flashes of scenes from the civil rights movement (!) Osteen is more talented than anyone else on the cast and crew, although like the rest he was never heard from again. The funky vintage waka-waka instrumentals aren’t bad, either, although the sexy car wash rap is atrocious (deliberately so). Finally, there are just enough guilty-pleasure politically incorrect chuckles to counteract the painfully insulting ones: “Of course I love you, you dumb-ass ho!,” references to a “half-puppet mulatto baby,” and the classic feminist one-liner, “I’ll buy a dildo.” The final point in the movie’s favor is its brevity and brisk pacing: it has the good sense to keep its provocations to just over an hour, although probably for budgetary reasons rather than out of an abundance of good sense.

Black Devil Doll was made by a black director, because no white director could get away with it. The rest of the cast is all-white (although there may be some mixed blood in there), and the entire thing seems to be a side project of the “Boone brothers,” a pair of Confederate crackers who ran their own straight-to-video mini-empire of catfighting comedy videos called “Brawlin’ Broads” (directed by Osteen). The fact that this comedy about a stereotypical black rapist preying on topless white women seems to have been made by white producers aiming at a white trash audience makes it all the more uncomfortable. At any rate, director Lewis won’t be winning any Image Awards anytime soon.

The DVD contains a surprising number of special features, including two commentaries (one in-character by the devil doll, the other by the cast, neither very amusing or enlightening) and an audience reaction track from the premiere. There are also trailers, behind-the-scenes videos from the premiere and a convention appearance, a videotaped interview, and three (in)decent animations from Rich Moyer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part homage to the hilarious surrealism of Petey Wheatstraw and, to some, a respectful rip-off of Chester Novell Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell, this outrageous example of Joe Bob Briggs’ patented ‘three Bs – breasts, blood, and beasts’ is so insane, so silicon injected and silly that it’s almost impossible to take seriously.”–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (DVD)

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

2017 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: MOVIES & MAYHEM IN MONTREAL, VOL. 1

7/13 : Arrival

Nine hours in a train, thirteen hours securing Wi-Fi, and a whole ton of walking. All this adds up to your correspondent’s arrival to the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival. No sleep? No problem. This party’s got everything you need to stay on your feet.

Things began with a power-house slaughterfest, Doom-style, with Jung Byung-Gil’s latest picture, The Villainess. Countless dead bodies filled this tale of deadly women, murder agencies, and betrayal. Disarmingly introduced by the commendably low-key director, The Villainess is an ultra-violent assassin revenge movie with a strange “rom-com” interlude. I strongly suspect that would give Byung-Gil a high five after watching it.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable was introduced by no less than Japan’s consulate general, whose gracious speech was followed by some snazzy fantasy-rock violin. Unfortunately, things began to disappoint immediately thereafter; so much so that, having given Jojo a chance for half its length, I had to  duck out. Somehow I didn’t get the memo that most of the other attendees received: that this movie was amusing, stylish, and worthwhile. Ignorance of the series no doubt worked against me; the only other culprit I can think to blame is my sobriety.

I have no worries, though. Peeking ahead at the weekend, I find I will be booked solid with very promising titles. As midnight approaches, my first festival day winds down to a close. Tomorrow: three movies, with the action starting at 10 AM. Wish me luck out here; I’ll keep the reports coming.

7/14 : Travel-Size Review, The LaPlace’s Demon

Awkwardly titled, pleasantly unnerving. Giordano Giulvi’s The LaPlace’s Demon is a through-the-looking-glass take on the horror genre, replacing the fear of the supernatural with the terror at the hyper-rational. Eight souls are lured to an ominous mansion high atop a peak on a deserted island and trapped inside. Within, they find a clock-work model of their opulent prison, with eight white pawns. The all-knowing Professor Cornelius explains, via video-tape, they are part of an experiment to see if free will exists. As the pawns inside the model begin moving in sync with the visitors, real fear sets in when one pawn disappears—and an ominous Continue reading 2017 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: MOVIES & MAYHEM IN MONTREAL, VOL. 1

CAPSULE: TOKYO DRIFTER (1966)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tetsuya Watari, Tamio Kawaji, Ryuji Kita, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani

PLOT: Tetsu tries to quit the yakuza life after his boss goes straight, but a rival gang leader wants the building they own—and Tetsu’s life.

Still from Tokyo Drifter (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a rare case of a movie being screened out by competition from its own maker. Had Seijun Suzuki never made Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter just might stand as the most unusual yakuza picture ever made (at least, until arrived on the scene). But Suzuki took his deconstruction of the genre so much farther the very next year that Tokyo Drifter, while a stunning visual achievement, seems conventional in Branded‘s wake. Unfair to Drifter, which should stand alone on its own strange merits? Perhaps, but these two films, made (almost) back-to-back and leading to Suzuki being blackballed from the Japanese film industry for genre rebellion, will always be linked together in film history—and Branded to Kill will always be remembered as “the weird one.” You are still advised to watch them both.

COMMENTS: A movie so cool they ripped off its title for a Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drifter is an exercise in pure style. Seijun Suzuki, bored with the generic gangster scripts Nikkatsu Studios kept giving him as a B-director, amuses himself with outlandish set pieces while deconstructing the genre before our very eyes. The plot is a standard tale of loyalty and betrayal, merely an outline for Suzuki to hang his experiments on. Scenes are clipped—for example, how does Tetsu appear in the driver’s seat of the kidnappers car, other than by magic? How is his showdown on the train tracks resolved? We never see him actually escape. How does he evade certain death time and time again, with Viper showing up each time to drive him to his next drifting destination? It all makes sense, but only mythologically. Tetsu is a heroic archetype, a chosen one, undefeatable but cursed to wander forever without satisfaction. Suzuki simply chooses to cut out a lot of inessential exposition and get right to the cool stuff. He gives us the elements of the myth without bothering with the logistics.

Whereas the followup film, Branded to Kill, is a record of haunted  characters and obsessive themes, Tokyo Drifter is a thrill ride of stylish moments. The film is suffused with comic book colors and Pop Art sensibilities, and magnificent sets inspired equally by German Expressionism and Surrealism. The prologue mixes black and white with color sequences (and one shot incorporating both color and monochrome). Tetsu is seldom caught without his stylish powder-blue suit, which remains unrumpled no matter how many tussles he gets into. His gun blazes with a bright pink muzzle flash. The soundtrack is cool, Bond-ish spy-jazz, with a “drifter” theme song for Tetsu (performed as a torch song by his chanteuse moll, and whistled by Tetsu to announce his presence). Tetsu’s is a world of alleyways of full of jazz bars advertising their disreputable wares with garish neon signs. In an Old West-themed saloon in a U.S. Navy town, he gets caught up in a brawl that turns into havoc-laced slapstick straight out of a Mel Brooks movie. What you’ll probably remember best are the sets: Kurata’s office, which has Roman frescoes on one wall, and an abstract red and white light sculpture on the opposite wall. Even more impressive is the Club Aires cabaret, where the wild finale happens. It features an Expressionist door mounted atop a staircase and a sculpture of a slender, Dali-esque figure hoisting a giant doughnut above his head. At night it’s a complete black void, except for a spotlight, a glowing white piano, and a glowing red torus. Drifter may not have made bank, but Tokyo Drift wishes it could be a fraction as groovy as its swinging forebear.

The Criterion Collection disc (DVD or Blu-ray) includes two Suzuki interviews and the original Japanese trailer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…kitted out with plot ellipses, bizarre sets and colour effects, inappropriate songs, absurd irrelevancies (nice hair-drier gags!), action scenes that verge on the abstract, and some visual jokes tottering precariously between slapstick and surrealism.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

CAPSULE: TOURIST TRAP (1979)

DIRECTED BY: David Schmoeller

FEATURING: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Tanya Roberts

PLOT: A group of teenagers have car trouble in the back country and find themselves stuck at a closed museum exhibiting creepy, realistic mannequins.

Still from Tourist Trap (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it be an excellent cult horror classic, this one ranks in the bottom half when it comes to real weirdness. If 2013’s Evil Dead or 2012’s The Cabin In The Woods don’t make the list, what chance does Tourist Trap have? While it’s a memorable horror film, Freddy Kruger picks weirder things out of his teeth.

COMMENTS: Weird movie fans approaching Tourist Trap will have reason to get their hopes up when they see the director, David Schmoeller. He also directed Crawlspace (1986), which is one of the better examples of a cult horror classic and a decidedly offbeat production. And nothing says “you came to the right movie” like the opening music theme, which is a perfect blend of whimsy and dread. Soon we will encounter the ISO standard horror cliches: carloads of young folks, a flat tire, the creepy old rest stop in the middle of nowhere, and the first sacrificial lamb killed off in a sentient room full of laughing mannequins. Ten minutes in, you’ll swear you’re watching an Evil Dead installment, until you remember this was done two years before Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell first ventured into the Tennessee woods. However, by the halfway mark, after you’ve gotten a better map of this film’s universe, there will be no doubt in your mind that Crawlspace’s director made this. Unique villains are David Schmoeller’s forte.

So a carload of teenagers on some kind of outing stumble upon the “Lost Oasis,” a museum now long closed ever since the new highway went through. Stranded with the typical horror-movie car malady, the broke-down kids soon meet Mr. Slausen (horse opera vet Chuck Connors), who runs a decrepit museum of mannequins. Slausen is chock full of exposition about this creepy place, a locale that practically begs for Scooby-Doo and Shaggy to run around stumbling into the trap doors and secret passageways. As it is, the gang of kids do a knock-out job of being dim-witted horror movie teens, insisting on going skinny dipping in muddy ponds in the middle of nowhere, or splitting off alone from the group to inspect deserted houses at night—even after they’ve been warned—because they’re just so darned curious. To the movie’s credit, once we put all the pieces together and gotten to know our antagonist, we get a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. For a low budget flick with little to work with beyond old theater parts and department store fixtures, it wrings out every ounce of scare value from its limited arsenal.

Tourist Trap suffers from Trope Codifier syndrome, causing it not to age well even though it originated many of the characteristics we now view jadedly. We see it today as a derivative mad slasher flick, but that genre was just being born when this movie came out. The wayward teens might as well have numbers branded on their foreheads to show the order they’ll be picked off. The story is loaded with creepy atmosphere, but very thin on logic. Gosh, those mannequins sure seem life-like, as if their eyes follow you around… now you see where this is going. Tourist Trap is redeemed if you recall that it came out one year before Friday the 13th and just one year after Halloween. Dyed-in-the-wool horror/slasher fans will want to see this movie to check it off the must-see list, but weird fans will find little to hold their attention past the sheer offbeat charm of it all and the occasional hilarious one-liner. Make no mistake, you’ll at least get a shiver from the mannequins the next time you’re browsing in the department store at your local dusty, half-deserted mall, which just goes to show that Tourist Trap has done the job it set out to do.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Even though the pic couldn’t be dumber or more senseless, for some it might have some appeal because of its oddness.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

This movie was made for Kindertrauma:

Tourist Trap

Crawlspace (also by David Schmoeller) review at Tenebrous Kate’s:

Crawlspace [1986]

CAPSULE: SOMETHING WILD (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta

PLOT: Straight-laced businessman Charlie impulsively hops into a car with wild gal Lulu, who takes him on an extended adventure that exhilarates him until her psycho ex-con ex arrives on the scene.

Still from Something Wild (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I must be missing something about Something Wild. I get why people like it: likeable cast top to bottom, sexy Melanie Griffith, easy to follow story that’s comfortably familiar but still manages to surprise. What I don’t get is its cult movie reputation, Criterion Collection-worthiness, or recommendation for coverage on a weird movie site.

COMMENTS: Something Wild is a masculine mid-life crisis daydream, with Melanie Griffith as the manic pixie dream girl on a meth binge who leads “closet rebel” yuppie Jeff Bridges into a wonderland of forbidden pleasures and the danger that accompanies them. Casual drinking and driving, handcuffs as a sex toy, cruising down the highway in a convertible, picking up hitchhikers, shoplifting, dash-and-dines, singalongs to unthreatening rock and roll hits, jealous stares at the wild babe on your arm, winning the girl’s heart away from the abusive bad boy jock—all the joys of the late teenage years are here, for a middle aged man who really knows how to appreciate them to savor. Bridges’ Charlie is a solidly nice guy, who remains so in our eyes even after he abandons his wife, children and colleagues. In real life Griffth’s kooky free-spirited Lulu would be an alcoholic sociopath destined for a bad end. In the movie’s reality, however, the mismatched couple have nothing but sexy wacky adventures—at least, until Ray Liotta springs onto the scene like a blade out of a switchblade to add a dose of the dangerous reality that would face any two people who let their hormones lead them this far astray.

Maybe the mild kinkiness and the tone-shift (which is frequently overstated in its impact) seemed fresh in 1986—although maybe not, considering that was the year that gave us Blue Velvet. If there’s anything remarkable about Something Wild, it’s the way that the script and direction keep us so darn comfortable with Charlie and Lulu’s outré adventures, grounding them in the conventions of realist romantic comedy while teasing us that we are glimpsing the exotic pleasures of the hedonist set. Offbeat and sexy, this is a fine comfort movie to watch while munching popcorn on the sofa—but it’s not hard to find something wilder. Just browse the sidebar here.

Look for cameos by directors John Sayles and . Extras on the relatively bare Criterion Collection disc include the trailer, a 30-minute interview with director Demme, and a 10-minute discussion with screenwriter E. Max Frye. This is not to be confused with 1961’s less-known but arguably weirder Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a rape victim in a fugue state, which is also in the Criterion Collection.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Demme is a master of finding the bizarre in the ordinary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY: Agustí Villaronga

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

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

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

CAPSULE: OBSESSIONS (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Dieter Geissler, Alexandra Stewart, Tom Van Beek,  Donald Jones

PLOT: A carefree medical student’s life is thrown into disarray when a painting falls from his wall, creating a peep-hole to the neighboring apartment where he witnesses a world of LSD-fueled rape and murder.

Still from Obsessions (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The oft-hyphenated phrase, “by-the-numbers”, springs to mind when thinking of this picture. Trying to be a ian thriller, a drug morality tale, and (perhaps) a soft-core pornographic movie, Obsessions fails on all counts—with the only weird thing being that somehow let his name be associated with it.

COMMENTS: There is unfortunately little useful to say about this mish-mash of a Dutch film. The press release and DVD blurb hype it up as best they can, going so far to claim that Obsessions helped to jumpstart “auteur cinema in Holland.” That may well be true, but that’s something better explored by a film scholar (that is, some other film scholar). As it stands, all by itself, on its own, as a movie, it stands… kind of wobbly. Thinking back on it now, the only clever bit occurred during the plot setup in the opening credits.

A heavy, framed picture of a modified Van Gogh portrait (with super-imposed razor poking at the poor man’s ear) falls from the thin wall of Nils Janssen’s apartment, bringing with it a hunk of plaster and leaving behind a perfectly-sized peep-hole. Through this new portal, Nils (Dieter Geissler), an affable medical student, sees and hears strange doings across the way, finding that it’s not all scooters, cognac, and medical school in his trendy downtown world. His improbably attractive girlfriend Marina (Alexandra Stewart), a journalist for a fashion magazine with a sideline in pop-news, joins in his… “obsession” …and the two try to unravel a bizarre crime spree involving LSD, a series of addled young women, a fat drug-dealer with a lazy eye, a con posing as a US Army officer, and a masseuse who plies her trade with her feet. Before you can say “tight slacks,” things go south when the criminals discover they’re being spied upon.

Had this rambling plot been in the service of a pornographic endeavor (something the Netherlands didn’t shy away from in the 1960s), I’d feel more sympathetic to it. The amateurism of the acting, staging, and dialogue (not sure how involved Scorsese was in the writing; he was in his mid-20s at the time and only in town for another project) all smacks of high quality smut or low quality drama. For better or (more so) worse, Obsessions is the latter–and all the Hitchcock references and “gee-whiz!” camera tricks can’t change the fact that we travel through the film’s ninety minutes with a mix of incuriosity and relief at its brevity.

Pim de la Parra and his confrère Wim Verstappen went on to achieve notoriety a couple of years later with their full-blown adult feature, Blue Movie. Afterwards they cruised through the 1970s with a series of “mature” titles interspersed with the occasional drama and experimental film. While it seems P de la P could have pursued one direction or another after his late-60s crime-thriller, I’d wager that either genre isn’t any poorer for him having stepped away from it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with arty montages, plentiful nudity, and Hitchcock references galore (note all the stuffed birds everywhere), Obsessions is a really odd one, mixing old school thriller tropes, chic ’60s fashions and decor, and sleazy kink, all with that percolating Herrmann music underneath.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE DOOM GENERATION (1995)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Johnathon Schaech

PLOT: Three teenagers have sex and go on a murder spree.

Still from The Doom Generation (1995)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With lots of low-comedy shocks but very little outright weirdness, The Doom Generation is a shallow, unilluminating wallow in hyperironic misery. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it makes Akari’s followup, Nowhere, seem mature and clever by comparison.

COMMENTS: The main characters are a slut, an idiot, and a psycho. It’s never a good sign when the audience hates all three of the principals and hopes that they will die. Instead, the trio kill a bunch of people who are probably as loathsome as they are—but we never get the chance to find out for sure, because we’re stuck following these losers on their tour of American convenience stores and motel rooms. The only possible reason to like these characters would be the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between Amy and Jordan, but Araki sabotages that possibility by making the male a spineless cuckold, and granting the female’s selfish fantasy of banging the bad boy while keeping her sweet doting lover on the side. Meanwhile, there’s nothing at all redeemable about third-wheel Xavier, who exists only to seduce these two lost souls into a life of slaughter that, we assume, is meant to play as their logical reaction to the superficial consumerist society they find themselves trapped in.

The Doom Generation is a painfully tone-deaf satire that tries for the trashy camp of , but actually has the comic sensibilities of Dude, Where’s My Car? To wit: the decapitated Asian Quickiemart clerk’s name is—get this—“Nguyen Kok Suk.” Heh heh, brilliant: pass that bong, brah. I suppose the meta-joke is supposed to be that Araki is crafting a movie that’s so dumb that his characters—kids given to uttering self-pitying lines like “there’s just no place for us in this world”—would think was deep. A newswoman characterizes the skull earring found at a crime scene as “the type sold most frequently in ‘rock and roll’ paraphernalia shops, often worn by homosexuals, Satanists, and members of other dangerous cult groups.” This, of course, is the way clueless teenagers imagine clueless adults talk about them. Araki lays the irony on so thick that we can’t tell whether he’s secretly fond of these kids (whose only good act is to bury a dog they accidentally kill), or is just using them for the sex and murder money shots he needs to keep the audience feeling smug, titillated and jaded.

The characters surnames are Red, White and Blue, and every time they purchase something at a convenience store or drive-thru, the cash register rings up “$6.66.” Is Araki implying that America is hell? I can’t tell. The only good points about the movie are the art direction, Rose McGowan’s performance (a confident debut in her first starring role), and a somewhat amusing running joke where Amy keeps running into old lovers she denies knowing. The only weird points are the severed head that keeps talking after it flies off its body and the green screen news broadcast where vapid talking heads deliver campy copy over grisly crime scene footage. Otherwise, this is a tedious tale of three unpleasant people wandering around and killing things until their movie ends. It should have been titled The Dim Generation.

Lest one I assume I have some personal vendetta against Gregg Araki, note that I gave The Mysterious Skin a “Must See” rating. It’s hard to imagine that that intelligent and emotionally shattering drama, which tackles the subject of youthful disaffection with authenticity and compassion rather than sick jokes, was the work of the same director as the self-consciously hip Doom Generation. The difference in quality results from Araki, a great stylist but not a great thinker, adapting someone else’s material rather than writing his own.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… structured as an apocalyptic journey into the unknown — America’s wastelands — but this time the road comedy is hallucinatory and psychedelic, in a style reminiscent of ‘Natural Born Killers,’ though blessedly lacking Oliver Stone’s blatant message and obvious satire… The trio flee into a bizarre world of nightmarish violence and omnipresent danger that gets darker and darker as their odyssey progresses.”–Emanuel Levy, Variety (contemporaneous)

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