Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Bogdanovich (using the pseudonym Derek Thomas)

FEATURING: Mamie van Doren

PLOT: Three cosmo—I mean, astro-nauts—are sent to Venus to rescue two missing comrades,while Venusian blondes in seashell bras pester them from afar by sending volcanoes, thunderstorms and dinosaurs to hinder them.

Still from Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Prehistoric Women is a classic Frankenstein-film, stitched together from various pieces of footage lying around the studio. The movie was made from dubbed footage from the Soviet space opera Planeta Bur, some effects from a second Soviet science fiction film, new voiceover narration which changes the focus of the original plot, and added scenes shot years later featuring English-speaking actors. Not only is the discrepancy between film stocks, soundtracks and atmospheres disorienting, but the new footage of (top-billed) Mamie van Doren and other scantily clad, pterodactyl worshiping Venusian dames is itself bizarre. This makes Prehistoric Women a worthy curiosity, if one for specialized tastes. Unfortunately, the movie is neither entertaining nor demented enough to merit inclusion among the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Though it was seriously intended, the original 1962 Soviet space opera that forms the bedrock stratum of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women was not a great movie. Looking at it from a post-Cold War perspective, the most valuable thing about it is the revelation that, despite petty ideologically differences, the US and the USSR were not so different as we supposed at the time: both societies assumed that nearby planets in our shared solar system would probably be inhabited by dinosaurs. Technically speaking, the special effects are highly variable: the hovercar looks great, the giant-tentacled cosmonaut-eating Venus flytrap is not bad, the tin-can robot is standard Forbidden Planet surplus issue, and the men in dinosaur suits are as cheesy as anything you might see in a low-budget 1950s American sci-fi epic. The color, which was tinted from the original black and white, is extremely washed out in surviving prints, a look that producer and director Bogdanovich managed to keep consistent for the new sequences; or, maybe, the passage of time did their work for them. The muted colors add another layer of unreality to the film.

Looking at the original Soviet film, you have to believe that Corman was onto something: what this movie really needed was a bunch of sunbathing, telepathic, pterodactyl-worshiping sirens in skintight pants and clamshell bras to liven things up. The gratuitous mermaid babe sequences are the most memorable parts. Every time the explorers face an environmental Venusian threat like a volcano or thunderstorm, it turns out the ladies’ pagan ceremonies were the cause. Their siren scenes, which all take place on a single rocky beach, are accompanied by an eerie, wordless keening, and the fact that the prehistoric witches never speak except in voiceover does add a legitimately dreamlike feel to these sequences. Prehistoric Women is slow (and incoherent) by contemporary standards, but the patient viewer seeking a cinematic experience that’s the equivalent of a fractured dream half-remembered after falling asleep on the couch at 2 A.M. while watching a sci-fi marathon on a UHF station will find this to be mildly rewarding.

This was the ever-frugal Corman’s second attempt to recycle footage from Planeta Bur. In 1965 he released the same Russian footage, with different inserts, as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. The earlier film featured a few scenes of top-billed star Basil Rathbone as a mission control type back on earth, barking extraneous orders to the stranded cosmonauts that were relayed to them through yet another unnecessary character. Mamie and her buxom coven were a big upgrade over Basil, and not just in pulchritude; without the ridiculous Venusian siren subplot, Prehistoric Planet was a much duller experience, while remaining just as confusing.

Because Corman was too cheap to renew the copyrights on his 50s and 60s movies, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women fell into the public domain.  It can be found on many bargain-priced compilations or can be legally viewed or downloaded by anyone through the Internet Archive or other sites.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] very peculiar ending… has a weird B movie pulp poetry to it.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

C APSULE: ABSURDISTAN (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kristyna Malérová, Max Mauff

PLOT: A young couple’s about-to-be-consummated love is threatened when the women of their village organize a sex strike against the lazy townsmen who will not fix the pipe that brings water to the hamlet.

Absurdistan

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disqualified for false advertising in the title: there’s nothing absurdist in this shamelessly romantic comedy. Still, it’s an offbeat and often beautiful fable that’s kilometers and kilometers away from the competition in this most formulaic of genres. A good date night movie for people who aren’t idiots.

COMMENTS: Absurdistan takes place in a central Asian village, once famed among merchants traveling the Silk Road for its beautiful women and virile menfolk, but now forgotten by the modern world. Unburdened by cell phones, social networking sites and other conveniences of the modern age, the villagers have reverted to simpler ways—which is to say, they think mainly about sex. And as long as the men are getting it, they have little incentive to do anything else, since the women take up the duties of baking, herding, and farming out of necessity. They grow too lazy even to fix the town’s water pipe, preferring enduring drought and living in filth to the unacceptable prospect of working up a good sweat. Although sex in Absurdistan is used as a weapon, overall, the village’s attitude towards the dirty deed is refreshingly frank and seems innocent and healthy compared to our own: its importance is freely acknowledged and respected, and not hidden from the children like a shameful secret. This perspective gives the movie a tastefully lusty charm that’s reminiscent of its inspiration, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.”

The most unique aspect of Absurdistan is the scarcity of dialogue; background info is given via voiceover, but very few words are actually spoken by the characters (and except for the heroine’s name, no words at all are spoken by the male lead). This is partly due to circumstance; few in the internationally assembled cast could speak properly accented Russian. More importantly, as an artistic choice it gives the film an aura of timelessness and universality. With no verbal exchanges, the comedy is delivered silent-movie style, and isn’t always exactly subtle: there’s a bit where a man stuffs two watermelons into a brassiere in order to infiltrate the women’s camp. None of the gags are gut-busting, but along with the top-notch desert cinematography, exotic music, and assured storytelling, it’s enough to keep the audience well-charmed until the climax.

Director/co-writer Veit Helmer doesn’t skimp on the sentiment—after completing their quest to save the parched village, the young lovers are granted not one but two fairy tale happy endings with heart-melting, magical images. But the hearts and flowers aren’t slopped on simply because the target demographic expects it. In the service of an original, well-told story, Helmer earns the right to be a bit sappy, and we earn the right to enjoy it.

Helmer also helmed 1999’s Tuvalu, which features a similar streamlined storyline with minimal dialogue, but adds experimental film-tinting and more surrealistic touches and absurd humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre yet charming plot, and the overall ensemble insanity — like Amélie meets Dogville, though not as compelling as either — is curiously entertaining.”–Chris Bilton, Eye Weekly

CAPSULE: GRACE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Solet

FEATURING: Jordan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Stephen Park

PLOT: A mother gives birth to a stillborn baby girl after a car wreck leaves her young family dead. The baby, however, comes back to life shortly after she is born. Unfortunately, the infant girl, with her proclivity to attract flies and drink human blood, is far from what her mother expected from parenthood.

Still from Grace (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are sequences in Grace that approach a state of uncomfortable strangeness, but too often the movie subverts itself and stews in its own conformity by sticking to horror conventions. By the time there’s a chance for a chance for what might have been a truly remarkable climax, the film has devolved into a maternal instincts cat-and-mouse thriller of sorts.

COMMENTS: Out of the gate, Grace has a strong concept that needs to be applauded. The undead-baby market has been virtually untapped, and I’m glad someone finally “went there.” The indie horror circuit has buzzed about writer and director Paul Solet as the next big thing, and this, his feature-length debut, is a notable entry amidst the middling horror releases this year. This is a strong film that is fresh, fairly terrifying, and smarter than one might think.

Grace’s complicated spirit masks itself in familiar trappings. It has an intellectual mindset, full of surprisingly difficult questions about a myriad of issues: veganism, lesbianism, midwives, maternal instincts, and coping with loss. And while we don’t always know where the filmmakers stand on said issues, posing the questions is intriguing enough. The ideas revolve around the modern family, and its new-found complexities in the 21st century coalescing with the timeless trials of parenthood. We witness complex relationships where people are intertwined in ways that are hard to understand, and at times hard to take; this is a movie where a woman asks her husband to suck her breast like he was a baby out of maternal grief for her dead son!

But in the end, it chickens out quietly and ends up being a horror movie like all the rest. The plot untangles rather quickly as we shift from a particularly nasty mother-daughter relationship to a thriller involving a mother-in-law off her rocker. In a brief 87 minutes, we’re back to basics, with only a hint of weird lying around as a memento in the form of Grace, a somewhat zombified child. What could have been something remarkable is instead just good, and while it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, I was really looking for something more from a film that proposed such interesting ideas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a horror movie but not a simple genre widget. That it’s rooted in reality gives its strange images the power to disturb. Even its environment is unusual, informed by women’s studies and alternative medicine.”-Michael Ordona, LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF THE DEAD (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Uwe Boll

FEATURING: Jonathan Cherry, Ona Grauer, Clint Howard,

PLOT: Teenagers go to the Isle of the Dead for the “rave of the century,” but ravenous killing machines from somewhere within the zombie genus spoil the party.

Still from House of the Dead (2003)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Uwe Boll’s weirdest idea is to periodically insert brief, totally unrelated clips from the “House of the Dead” video game into fight scenes in the House of the Dead movie. It’s not enough of a gambit to make this into a truly weird experience, but combined with the film’s transcendental, comic dumbness, it’s enough to make it an interesting curiosity.

COMMENTS: I think the people who have voted House of the Dead into the IMDB bottom 100 movies are too hung up on little things like believable characters, continuity, acting that doesn’t embarrass the performers, and dialogue that respects the intelligence of the target audience. Those are fine qualities in, say, a movie about a poor seamstress who falls in love with a consumptive poet in 19th century England, but they’re just window dressing in a movie about pumping as many bullets into the heads of as many zombies as possible in 90 minutes. Uwe Boll understands this, and, with an honesty that proved too brutally revealing for the 2003 movie watching public to handle, he delivered an experience in House of the Dead that’s the equivalent of sitting in front of a video game screen for an hour and a half, watching blood spatter, without even having to frantically press buttons for the gory payoff. I could say many uncharitable things about the inessential technical qualities of House of the Dead, but I can’t say that I was ever bored watching it, or that it reminded me of any other film in existence. The unbelievable seven minute centerpiece alone should save it from being listed among the worst movies of all time. Set to a relentless rap/metal metronome meant only to pump adrenaline, not generate suspense, it features photogenic, scantily-clad teens grabbing a cache of automatic weapons and slaughtering legions of living dead extras while Boll experiments with Matrix-style “bullet time” effects. Blood spatters; heads explode; college girls in low-cut, skintight American flag jumpsuits reveal ninja-quality melee skills; grenade blasts fling bodies through the air; guns inexplicably change from rifles to pistols in the blink of an eye. All the while, video game footage flashes onscreen, complete with health bars and “free play” notices.

There’s an energy and misplaced love of brain-dead action moviemaking here that’s brilliant, in its own way. It’s as effective a parody of the first-person shooter mentality as will ever be committed to celluloid. Add in shameless gratuitous nudity and pepper with headscratching verbal exchanges (“You did all this to become immortal.  Why?” “To live forever!”) and you have a movie that is unforgettable in its stupidity.

If you gave this exact same material to a competent hack like Michael Bay, he would work it over, smoothing out the rough patches of dialogue and continuity errors and polishing it to a dull, marketable, mediocre sheen. Given a modicum of acceptable storytelling and a surface appearance of competence, audiences wouldn’t feel so insulted—although the joke would be on them, since at bottom the result would be just as dumb. I much prefer the rough-hewn, all-too-human character of Boll’s work, which is at least interesting in its flaws.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cheese of the purest stripe, bafflingly bad to the point of being oddly charming in its brain-dead naivete.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SURVEILLANCE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Jennifer Lynch

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Julia Ormand, Michael Ironside

PLOT: Two FBI agents/weirdos harass criminals and innocents alike as they search for a couple of murderers to whom they might have ties.

Still from Surveillance (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Think CSI or NCIS meets Natural Born Killers. The weird quotient is totally crushed by the earthbound whodunnit quotient. It shows promise early on, and while the subtleties of the genre don’t escape my grasp, I don’t think that, in a truly weird movie, I should be asking “whodunit?,” but rather, “what the hell’s going to happen next?”

COMMENTS: Surveillance is the sophomore directorial effort by possibly-nepotistic director Jennifer Lynch, her first being the acclaimed/notorious Boxing Helena. This little nugget of info was what really interested me about seeing Surveillance, and I was hoping, no, begging for it to be just as weird as Helena without, hopefully, the punch-in-the-dignity twist ending.

What I got, unfortunately, was a moderate amount of sadism and unusual behavior, but a decidedly pedestrian tone. It’s a pretty good film, but it’s simply not weird enough to keep me thinking about it or talking about it after I’ve seen it. The leads, and Julia Ormand, are good, and I like the dangerous chemistry between them, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before verbatim in other movies. The stand-out here is the vicious Michael Ironside, who plays the torturous Captain Jennings, a psychotic cop with a penchant for roughing up people and generally acting schizophrenic. I love his character, and I love his particular intensity that recalls his heyday, circa Scanners.

The script, also by Lynch, is devious, with plenty of funky, uneven dialog that recalls, in small doses, her father‘s wording from Wild at Heart (“Those are dummies, dummy!”). Her direction isn’t bad, either, although far from inspired. She has a good time playing with different filters and tones here, but it’s pretty standard fare. Surveillance is solid feature that I actually enjoyed a bit, and would recommend as a definite rental possibility, but don’t come looking for something genuinely freaky here, because this film can’t sustain real-deal strange in large doses. Jennifer Lynch somehow manages to makes a better film than her debut, but at the expense of creating anything exceptional.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Jennifer Lynch tried way too hard to follow in the deep blue surrealist footsteps of her father, David Lynch… But she finds her own voice in Surveillance, a grubby, disturbing serial-killer mystery, a kind of blood-simple Rashomon.”-Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST [BAKJWI] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim

PLOT: A priest becomes a vampire after he receives a blood transfusion during an experimental treatment to find a cure for a deadly virus; after his transformation he becomes erotically obsessed with a young woman who lives as a virtual slave to the family that adopted her.

Still from Thirst [Bakwjwi] (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  All of Park’s films at least flirt with weirdness, and Thirst is no exception. In a way, however, this vampire drama is the Korean fantasist’s most conventional effort. Aside from a disorienting dream sequence intercut into a bout of lovemaking, Park adds only a few short surrealistic bursts here and there, instead sticking surprisingly close to the vampire formula.

COMMENTS: Like all Chan-wook Park films, Thirst is technically excellent: the cinematography, musical accents, and nuanced performances are all top-notch. The plot, while rambling and overlong, ties up loose ends neatly by the end. Many of the individual scenes are nearly perfect, too; the long and violent sequence where a furious Sang-hyeon forcibly converts Tae-joo into a vampire in front of her paralyzed adoptive mother is intense and beyond criticism. Hae-sook Kim’s Lady Ra has a particularly excellent turn that catches fire once her character becomes nearly comatose, and Song and Kim’s love scenes sizzle with guilt-ridden eroticism. Park even scales back the distracting, heavily stylized directorial flourishes (such as the dotted line coming off the hammer in Oldboy) that seem to pop up in his every effort just because the director thinks they look cool; the imagery in Thrist flows naturally, like uncoagulated blood.

With all of the above going for it, what I found most shocking about Thirst is how little spark or originality it emanates. We’ve seen the tragic reluctant vampire since 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and thirst for blood has always been a metaphor for lust (in the 1970s exploitation filmmakers became quite explicit with the theme in flicks like Lust for a Vampire and Vampyres). There’s no real spin on the vampire legend to be found here. A few traditional nemeses—garlic and crucifixes—have been jettisoned, but the vampire’s psychological essence—predation and isolation—remains intact. Making the bloodsucking protagonist a priest, while adding the superficial appearance of depth, doesn’t pay off in any profound poetic or philosophical way.  If there’s a spiritual dilemma to be found here, it’s of the mostobvious sort, as the fallen Father struggles to reconcile his vow to serve his suffering flock with his need to drink their blood and avoid sunlight.

The film’s supposed organizing principle, the vampiric curse, gives way to a noirish supernatural love triangle; as it turns out, it’s that old snake in the garden, sex, that’s the root of all evil, not nocturnal bloodsucking. The shift from the struggle to create a personal system of ethical vampirism to a story about falling for a femme fatale means film looses its thematic focus, if not its drama, about halfway through. Thirst is well worth the watch, but frankly, it left me thirsty for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If, like me, you believe Thirst can’t possibly get any weirder, then you’re in for a comically surreal ride as Park’s genre mash careens of the beaten logical path into that magic land that seems to exist only in the mind of Korean filmmakers.”–Jacob Powell, The Lumiere Reader (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST (1979)

DIRECTED BY: Rod Hardy

FEATURING: Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Max Phipps, Henry Silva, Rod Mullinar

PLOT: A direct descendant of Elizabeth Bathory is kidnapped by vampires who want to make her one of their own.

Still from Thirst (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Thirst has an offbeat plot for a vampire movie, it doesn’t go that extra mile to make itself stick out from the bloodsucking crowd.

COMMENTS: All that charming and wealthy Kate Davis (Contouri) wants to do is live happily ever after with her handsome boyfriend.  Unfortunately, unbeknown to her, she is a direct lineal descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  You remember Liz, she was that Hungarian rich chick who drank and bathed in 600 or more gallons of blood from 600 or more beautiful young women in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.

I might mention that Liz Bathory also sodomized the comely maidens first, then partially ate some of them alive, before torturing and murdering them and drinking, bathing, and masturbating in their blood.  But then gee golly gosh, what’s a bored aristocratic gal supposed to do for fun in the darned old dark and dusty 1500’s anyway?

So it turns out that there are 70,000 well networked, politically powerful vampires in the modern world, and some of them come from equally distinguished aristocratic families.  Unfortunately for poor Kate, a member of one wants to marry her, and probably do a few other things to her that we won’t go into here; suffice it to say that the hapless and desirable Kate is snatched away to a vampire “resort.” While there, she will become indoctrinated into vampire culture, get hitched, and.. and well, I suspect “get” other things as well, seeing as how her vamp suitor has been watching surreptitiously-filmed home movies of Kate getting her groove worked over by her boyfriend.

The resort also happens to be a human blood farm.  Kidnapped, tranquilized mortals are put out to pasture and herded in a couple of times a week to be “milked” for, you guessed it, rich, red, raw human blood!  They are referred to as “blood cows,” and they are drained of a pint or so each time via the latest technology in a huge row of sanitary stalls.  They don’t appear to be very happy about it either, but then that’s a good incentive to unionize.

The vampires hook a “direct-to-line vacuum pulsator” (dairy speak for the milking machine hose terminal that is supposed to fit around a cow’s udder) right into the helpless humans’ jugulars.  They then suck, pump, filter, pasteurize, homogenize, inspect and certify the blood as safe, just like at a real dairy (hey, vampires have a right to protect themselves from hepatitis too, you know).

Then, presto. They distribute the human Clamato juice world-wide in conventional milk cartons.  Makes you thirsty just thinking about it, huh?  It turns out that the facility gives consumer tours and everything.  It also has some nice amenities such as swimming pools, racket ball courts, and booze kiosks (vamps only!)  Unfortunately for Kate, since she’s on a special diet, the program for her consists of involuntary drug-induced hallucinations, coercive brainwashing and blood force-feeding, just to get her in the mood for her wedding night.

It works!  Well, sort of.  The problem is that the plan, like most in these hemoglobin flicks, doesn’t go very smoothly.  In fact after some initial difficulties, then apparent success, it blows up right in everyone’s faces with gruesome and disturbing results.  This is a solid Australian film and one of the best vampire movies from the 1970’s that I have seen so far.  If you like odd and twisted cinema, or hot and heavy bloodsucking action, I give it four and half stakes through the heart out of five.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the quirkier horror films in recent history… The movie comes off as one long dream sequence (which it is, as Kate goes through a long programming session) — it’s mood music for the eyes, and bloody music at that.”–Christopher Null, AMC Film Critic (DVD)

CAPSULE: KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Chiodo

FEATURING: Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, John Allen Nelson,

PLOT: Aliens from outer space, who look exactly like circus clowns, land their carnival-tent spacecraft near a rural town and begin abducting humans for unknown purposes.

Still from Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Killer Klowns is actually a very conventional spoof with an unusual gimmick that’s well-executed; it’s a bit offbeat, but as far as weird goes, it’s strictly entry level stuff.

COMMENTS: Although Killer Klown‘s kultists will doubtlessly be offended, this movie is gimmicky, rather than original. It’s a shameless retread of the old aliens-invade-the-earth-and-interrupt-teen-makeout-sessions plot with killer clowns substituting for a killer blob. Every standard plot cliche is squarely parodied, right down to the drunken coot who thinks the landing spacecraft is a shooting star and the fact that the cops assume the teen witnesses are pulling a prank. Switching out one-eyed scaly monsters for clowns is nothing but a gimmick, but it’s a good one, and it makes this formulaic exercise watchable. The movie is so stuffed with circus gags that just when you’re certain the script has run out, a new one emerges, like yet another harlequin squeezing out of an impossibly tiny car. Popcorn, cotton candy, balloon animals, shadow puppets, and banana creme pies all become implements of doom that threaten humanity’s very existence. These jokes should be enough to keep you reasonably entertained, but the costume and set design will vie for your attention.  The garish, oversized grinning clown heads evoke a campy coulrophobia. The interior of the big-top mothership is a candy-colored wonderland, with skewed funhouse sets that are even vaguely reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and the eye-searingly bright colors and low-tech ingenuity anticipate the following year’s Dr. Caligari ). It’s also fun to see veteran character actor John Vernon ham it up as the crotchety kid-hating cop. All in all, it’s nothing earthshattering, but it’s a good time if your in the mood for a light, lightly bizarre comedy.

This film has a very powerful cult following, with Killer Klowns t-shirts and paraphernalia selling briskly to this day. I admit, I can’t quite understand why its fans show such a depth of devotion to this likable but lightweight flick. It might have to do with the fact that many people first see this movie when they are young and impressionable, when the concept of a comedy involving evil space clowns seems shockingly original and even subversive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This krazy, kooky movie strings together the creature feature with the alien movie, and pumps it full of dark humour, using that icon of innocent fun, the clown… Patchy but mostly fun, the basic clowns/circus/theme park-like fun idea is expanded as far as possible and worked to death…”–Andrew L. Urban, Urbancinefile.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes

FEATURING: , Dina Korzun, David Strathairn

PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…

Still from Cold Souls (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City.  It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it.  It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.

COMMENTSCold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay.  It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.

Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.

Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at leastCold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.

Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HOUSEKEEPING (1987)

DIRECTED BY: William Forsyth

FEATURING: Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill

PLOT: Two orphaned girls are joined by their transient aunt who becomes their guardian in this dreamy, pensive study of nonconformity and the breaking of social mores in a restrictive 1950’s environment.

Housekeeping

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Housekeeping has an original plot about unusual characters doing unusual things, it is not truly weird.   If anything, the entire point of the movie is to illustrate that what many consider odd is perfectly normal, depending on the angle of interpretation.

COMMENTS: Housekeeping is a surreal atmosphere piece that questions right and wrong, debates the meaning of normality, and examines the consequences of non-conformity. The story follows the erratic behavior of two teenage girls and their seemingly irresponsible caretaker.

In the 1950’s Pacific Northwest, a series of bizarre events unfold, leading to the abandonment of two adolescent girls. In a dramatic early scene, the girls’ misfit mother asks some young boys for help in getting her car out of a muddy rut. When they do, she casually commits suicide in front of them by driving over a cliff. Her daughters, long abandoned by their father, become the wards of their grandmother and aunt, who see them into their early teens. When the deceased mother’s sister shows up, the grandmother and great aunt disappear into the night, leaving them in the care of the newly arrived “Aunt Sylvie” (Lahti).

Sylvie, as it turns out, is an avowed nonconformist with an unconventional lifestyle and unique view of the world. Her permissive parenting enables an alternative existence for her nieces. This new freedom includes skipping school, stealing boats, riding the rails, and other risky, unstructured behavior: acts which are particularly outré when performed by young women in the conservative 1950s.

The film is an odyssey of self discovery as Ruth, from whose point of view the story is presented, begins to question social convention and accepted folkways. As Ruth gravitates toward Sylvie’s atypical values, her sister Lucille is upset by the lack of structure and begins to embrace social norms.

The film presents this evolution of the girls’ characters and personalities through a series of ethereal misadventures and explorations. This transition is further influenced by the recounting of early childhood impressions, and their observations of the unique geography of their home, which is located on a surreal lake surrounded by wooded mountains. Ice and snow symbolism connects different story segments, along with railroads and trains, particularly a spectacular derailment disaster that occurred many years in the past. The lake itself, a massive body of deep cold water holding the wreckage and bodies from the doomed train, embodies concepts of obstacles, boundaries, mystery and the transcendence of space and time.

Ultimately, and inevitably, outside authoritarian interference descends upon the trio; the tale alludes to fear of witches by the unsophisticated locals. Nonconformity is equated with a dread of the unknown. At this point, the slowly building tension between the girls’ independence and the mainstream establishment comes to a rolling boil. The three must choose between two extremes, either one of which will create dramatic and permanent consequences.

Some credit Housekeeping with exploring themes concerning transience, self reliance, dependency, female marginalization, and freedom. This may be true, but the literary eye rollers —that crowd who seek to distinguish themselves intellectually via the discovery of a plethora of symbolism, real or imaginary, in any work—are likely to perceive Housekeeping as an exploration of feminist issues. This would not be the best interpretation of the story. Housekeeping is not a women’s movie. It is a beautifully photographed, thought-provoking atmospheric fantasy about unconventionality and its consequences. The events are experienced from the point of view of a youngster who happens to be a girl. The choice of gender serves more to facilitate this study of social taboos than to make any sort of statement. Those who wish to interpret Housekeeping as being a feminist vehicle will miss the nebula for the stars.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

one of the strangest and best films of the year… not a realistic movie, not one of those disease-of-the-week docudramas with a tidy solution. It is funnier, more offbeat, and too enchanting to ever qualify on those terms.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)