Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: GROWING OUT (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Ratliff

FEATURING: Devon Lott, Ryan Sterling, Michael Hampton

PLOT: An aimless musician gets a job cleaning up an old William Castle-style spooky mansion. In the basement he finds a hand emerging out of the floor, and the longer he works there, the more he watches the mysterious person appear from below…

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Normally, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why a man slowly rising out of the sandy floor of a scary old basement isn’t weird, but if we’re going to count down the WEIRDEST movies of all time, this really doesn’t scratch the surface. It’s a guy-meets-girl movie with a few Lynchian twists thrown in, and that’s really not enough to hang with the big boys, now is it?

COMMENTS: Perhaps a penetrating metaphor for the encroaching distance that separates our true selves from our public personas, or perhaps a cheap, quick flick about freaky shenanigans in a creaky old house, Growing Out is a movie that tries to reach out and grab a very particular audience, specifically the indie horror crowd, and it does this with a gusto that is atypical of independent features like this. And, for what it is, it’s indeed enjoyable. It’s quite thrilling to see a young director and cast just go for it—even though the results aren’t all that spectacular, their enthusiasm is in itself kind of spectacular. The film looks good, the actors—in particular, the peripheral characters—are a lot of fun to keep track of, and the scenario is rife with possibilities. The problem it faces as a weird movie, though, is that it places a lot of limiters on itself. It wants to be a relationship movie so badly, with the usual current-jerk-boyfriend-in-the-way-of-the-aspiring-sensitive-boyfriend scenario, that it forgets the oddities it sets up in favor of meet-cutes and lonesome emotional guitar playing scenes. It’s not conducive to what they seemingly wanted to do with this kitschy film full of hipper-than-thou hopefuls. What about the guy growing out of the ground? What about the freaky house? And how about the strange man that lives in a trailer in the back yard? These factors seem unimportant compared to how our troubled troubadour is going to wind up with the girl of his dreams, and while I for one was interested to a point, it left me at the end feeling slightly disappointed and expecting a slightly more charming, slightly smarter, slightly weirder movie that just didn’t come. If you want well-paced and well-shot on a shoestring budget, this is a good bet, but this isn’t what you’re thinking of when you’re thinking of a bizarre film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Overly talky and slow, the film is tedious and unpersuasive. Ratliff fails to integrate the mechanics of supernatural horror with his concern for youthful passions and dreams, and the result is glum indeed.”–Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

CAPSULE: S. DARKO (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fisher

FEATURING: , Briana Evigan, Ed Westwick

PLOT: Samantha Darko goes on a cross-country road trip and learns along the way that, once again, the world will end at a predetermined time unless she figures out a way to stop it. Where’s Jake Gyllenhaal when you need him?

Still from S. Darko (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In a way, S. Darko is an oddity itself; its very existence is questionable to anyone who has ever seen the original. But the only weird thing about this movie is how much it missed the mark. It’s a cheap teen thriller looking for a quick direct-to-DVD freak-show buck, not a captivating look at angry youth, mental illness, and time travel.

COMMENTS:  In this direct sequel to Donnie Darko, a movie that couldn’t have needed a sequel any less, we follow the exploits of Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, who lost interest in the preteen dance group Sparkle Motion and went about growing up. She decides, or perhaps her BFF Corey decides for her, that she wants to become a professional dancer. They take a road trip from Virginia to California seeking this lofty goal, but their car peters out in rinky-dink 90s Utah. From there, they meet a couple locals, and everything seems peachy until BAM! time travel stuff happens again; not because of some real world-shattering drama, but through the power of friendship (???) The whole concept is somehow more bogus than before, and the suspension of disbelief is infinitely harder to maintain. It’s a bland pastiche of ideas presented in the first film blended together with sexy ladies and 90s slang that weakly mimics Richard Kelly’s original like a parrot without a beak. There’s none of the spirit of Donnie Darko to be found here that would even qualify this movie as a spiritual successor. S. Darko has a hollow concept that could have been designed to boot up a franchise involving time traveling teens with washboard abs. I’m not a slavish follower of the original, but Kelly had inspiration, and at least a vague idea of where to place a camera to make the most of a scene. S. Darko is all textbook pap, and while I don’t think I would travel back in time to un-watch this movie (as that is the single lamest reason to time travel ever) I won’t look back on it fondly, to say the least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“S. DARKO is intriguing, and its actors come off well, but there’s no way of escaping comparisons to DONNIE, a truly special film…While you can tell it’s trying as hard as it can, and takes things a little further and into weirder territory in the process, the soul just isn’t there.”–Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria

CAPSULE: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

DIRECTED BYSpike Jonze

FEATURING: Max Records, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara

PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.

STill from Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.

COMMENTS:  It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.

Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character.  Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.

The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: CITY NINJA [TOU QING KE] (1985)

AKA Ninja Holocaust; Rocky’s Love Affairs

DIRECTED BY: Yeung Chuen Bong or Liu Li Shen

FEATURING: Cassanova Wong, Chen Wei Man, Chia Che Fu?

PLOT:  Two men, one a boxing champion and one a destitute but talented up-and-comer, seek two necklaces, each with half of a Swiss bank account number engraved on it, for two different criminal organizations.

City Ninja

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This is one crazy chopsocky, but “over-the-top,” “shamelessly exploitative” and “incoherent” are more accurate adjectives to describe it than “weird.”

COMMENTS: From the opening scene where a wandering farmer fights off a horde of ninjas who randomly disappear or explode when defeated, you can be sure that this is a movie that places action and violence far above coherence and logic. You may have seen that coming, but what might surprise you is how much sex gets thrown into the mix. Both of the dual heroes gets several sweaty couplings with his main or subsidiary squeeze, and the flick even throws in a gratuitous Caucasian stripper groupie hired for her cultural willingness to show skin (the Asian girls demurely cover their naughty bits behind a frosted shower stall, soaking wet kimono, or a lover’s flailing limbs). The sex scenes are extra steamy for this type of movie, and even lead to some soap-opera style histrionics when one of the fighters is confronted by the girlfriend he dumped in front of the Other Woman; she pulls a gun on him while informing him she’s pregnant. The director views plot as a necessary evil that gets in the way of fight and sex scenes, yet he tackles a complicated story with two different strands and many moving parts. The result is that he rushes from fight scene to sex scene and back, and fits in exposition when he has a spare moment; there are several times when the viewer gets totally lost because the movie fails to establish which plotline it’s exploring at the moment.

Though the sex makes it stand out from the pack, chopsockies rely on flying boots, not heaving breasts, and City Ninja delivers memorable melees in spades. The combatants are lightning fast, the fight choreography is excellent, there’s comedy that actually works, and the mini-scenarios can be delightfully absurd. Best is a brilliant billiard room brawl with a kabuki-faced acrobat/poolshark that morphs into a mud-wrestling match; there’s also a remarkably executed scene where a boxer fights off attackers by manipulating his girlfriend’s stockinged legs as she sits on his shoulders. It’s far from high art, but it’s crazy and fun, and you have to admire the pure devotion to exploitation movie principles.

The IMDB credits Godfrey Ho as writer of Ninja Holocaust. Godfrey may or may not have been involved, but it certainly has that convoluted Ho vibe. The plot description and reviews make it clear that City Ninja and Ninja Holocaust are substantially the same movie, but the listed credits for the two films differ. I don’t feel particularly compelled to do the detective work necessary to straighten the credits out. Though it has two different heroes and can be difficult to follow, City Ninja does not appear to be spliced together from two different movies, as some assume based on it’s rumored association with cut-n-paste master Ho.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie is dumber than a box of dog biscuits, but it’s also a lot of fun. You never have to wait for something ridiculous to happen and the flick is never boring.”–Mitch, The Video Vacuum (DVD)

CAPSULE: PONTYPOOL (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Bruce McDonald

FEATURING: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

PLOT: Zombies who aren’t really zombies wreak havoc upon the peaceful (i.e. dull) Canadian town of Pontypool. We’re taken through the terror through the perspective of a local FM Zoo Crew DJ and his associates as more and more reports come into the station describing unnaturally violent tendencies in a growing minority of residents possibly infected with some kind of virus.
Still from Pontypool (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pontypool is merely a zombie movie with a twist. While it’s an admittedly interesting twist, I can’t help but feel that there’s not really a weird sensibility behind this project.  It’s original at times, strikingly original, and the writing is crisper than this little project merited, so it’s definitely a “good ‘un,” but it doesn’t stand out as freaky as much as it does slightly ahead of the curve in the horror genre.

COMMENTS:  Pontypool exists at that strange nether region between genius and camp that had me at “Sunshine Chopper.”  It’s a film that’s joyously in love with itself and the creativity that spawned it.  What’s so special about it? Well, besides the ingenious FM radio motif that anyone who’s ever been stuck in a commute will appreciate, it’s a film about the power of the spoken word.  Here, it’s English.  You see, what’s affecting these violent people is what can best be described as a virus affecting our collective language.  The people infected aren’t trying to kill other people as much as they are wanting to bite the words out of someone else’s mouth.  They’re stricken with a severe communications breakdown, and the mental anguish this inflicts upon said victim causes them to lash out violently.  It’s a really wicked concept, and I’m really quite impressed with the wit and cleverness involved with such an idea.  In the end, it’s really just a zombie movie, and it certainly has its limitations as far as the execution goes.  The soundtrack by Claude Foisy is weak and rather placid, the camerawork is hardly what anyone would call dynamic, and the actors are pretty green with the notable exception of the always-reliable Stephen McHattie.  But it’s definitely worth a shot if you’re a fan of the zombie film; as far as that niche goes, this blows about 65% of its peers out of the water and onto the shore for them to writhe uncontrollably, as is a zombie’s wont.  But as a weird movie, it has a long way to go in the grand scheme of things.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The suspense is carefully built up, but the film starts to get a little sticky, even risible, when it appears that the virus driving people mad is carried by words, specifically English ones, so the survivors in the studio start to converse in Franglais. But for the most part it’s compellingly apocalyptic.”–Philip French, The Observer

CAPSULE: BRAINIAC [El barón del terror] (1962)

DIRECTED BY:  Chano Urueta

FEATURING: Abel Salazar

PLOT: A smirking sorcerer is burnt alive by the Spanish Inquisition, only to return three hundred years later as a shapeshifting brain-eater to wreak his vengeance on the descendants of those who condemned him.

Still from Brainiac (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTBrainiac‘s appeal, weird or otherwise, lies almost entirely in its delirious hairy monster with its two-foot, forked, brain-sucking tongue. The beast looks like a mix between a middle-schooler’s papier-mâché art project and a legitimate nightmare. The rest of the movie is a different kind of nightmare.

COMMENTSBrainiac‘s story of vengeance from beyond the grave is a sloppy mess that exists only to showcase its unforgettable monster. And what a freak that Brianiac is! With its beaklike nose, sharp protruding ears, dual fangs, lobster-claw hands and two foot tongue, its head is hung with more phallic symbols per square inch than any other Mexican monster of its era. To add to its brutish masculine menace, the head is oversized, hairier than Dr. Hyde, and its temples and cheeks bulge and pulse when it sees itself faced with a helpless female victim. The Brainiac’s appearance (not to mention his behavior) is simultaneously goofy and frightening; the mask is so obvious and the facial features so exaggerated that the whole package seems to have been shipped to us equally from the land of parody and the land of nightmare. It’s an image that’s not easily forgotten, and one that’s kept El barón del terror in circulation on TV and video for over forty years, while thousands and thousands of more competent productions have been forgotten. When the monster’s not on screen, bad movie fans can entertain themselves by picking apart the plot’s inconsistencies—I find it especially odd that the Inquisitors who sentenced the Baron to death, presumably all celibate clergymen, each ended up with exactly one descendant three hundred years later. When in human form, the Baron occasionally sneaks off for a snack of brains eaten with a spoon out of a silver chalice. Also keep an eye out for the worst depiction of a comet ever put on the screen. In terms of riotous dialogue and incidents, however, Brainiac is no Plan 9 from Outer Space, and anyone who’s not a connoisseur of crap will find it slow going whenever the monster’s not on screen.

Brainiac was one of the Mexican fantasy movies imported into this country by the legendary K. Gordon Murray, dubbed into English and then sold to kiddie matinees or packaged for late-night TV showings in the U.S.  Murray also was responsible for bringing Mexican wrestling superhero movies (e.g. Santo) and several demented fairy tales (Santa Claus, Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters) north of the border.  David Silva, who plays a police detective, later appeared in El Topo as the Colonel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre. Nutty. Goofy. Ridiculous. Hilarious. The Brainiac! Even for Mexihorror this is one weird, way-out flick.”–Eccentric Cinema

CAPSULE: EX DRUMMER (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Koen Mortier

FEATURING: Dries Van Hegen, Norman Baert, Gunter Lamoot, Sam Louwyck

PLOT: A writer agrees to become the drummer for a band formed by trio of handicapped lowlifes to win a Belgian battle of the bands; he ends up manipulating them into destruction.Still from Ex Drummer (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With it’s inverted skinhead and brief tour of a ravaged vagina, Ex Drummer is definitely weird; the problem is, it’s so unpleasant, pretentious, tedious and nihilistic that the oppressive atmosphere makes the viewer desperate to escape the movie.

COMMENTS: There are many possible interpretations of Ex Drummer—for one, the script at times implies it is a vague meditation on “personal sadness”—but the most honest explanation of what the film is comes from writer Dries’ confession when he agrees to join “The Feminists” as their celebrity drummer: “I want to step outside my happy world. Descend into the depths of stupidity, ugliness, obtuseness, unfaithfulness… Latch onto the life of losers, but without belonging to that world and in the knowledge that I can always return to my own world.” In other words, it’s moral tourism among the disadvantaged: the underclasses do the craziest things, like constantly rape each other and neglect their children until the tykes chomp down on excrement from hunger. Who wouldn’t want to enter such a world for ninety minutes, aside from most film-goers? Besides the drummer, the blackguard band’s principals are an abusive deaf guitarist, a gay rhythm guitarist with a stiff arm from an accident incurred when he was caught masturbating as a teen, and a misogynist skinhead singer with a lisp. Upper-class, educated Dries’ turns out to be the worst scoundrel of all, callously manipulating and scripting these mooncalves into cruel ends for his own amusement. True, the film can be very weird (gravity works backwards in the skinhead’s flat, where toothpaste and blood flow towards the roof), but the weirdness sits uneasily: the director seems to view unreality as just another form of ugliness to be savored. As a black comedy, more comedy and less black would have been greatly appreciated. First time feature director Mortier has a few interesting ideas and shots, such as an extended early sequence where the film unspools in reverse as the band bicycles backwards from Dries’ flat into their own backstories. But the pity is that the main memories we take home from Ex Drummer aren’t these few moments of inspiration; rather, there’s an impression that most of the movie was full of endlessly padded scenes of the band squabbling among itself or fighting other bands or organizers, hurling epithets and fists whenever anyone perceives the slightest slight to their egos. Since there are no characters anywhere in the film to root for, we have no reason to care who wins the battle of the bands. After that contest’s decided, there’s really nothing left for the movie to accomplish, but it presses on for another distasteful fifteen minutes, because having nothing to say or do has never stopped it before. Ex Drummer‘s attempts to forge nihilistic poetry from the lives of pariahs has gained it critical comparisons to Trainspotting; these are off, because Danny Boyle’s movie was about real people, and never indulged in such undisguised contempt for its characters. A more apt comparison is that Ex Drummer is a Belgian Gummo, with Eurotrash substituting for poor white trash, and even more shameless and self-aware gawking at the freaky antics of the disadvantaged.

On the plus side, the aggressive punk/metal soundtrack (with a few mellower indie rock numbers strategically inserted for a much needed change of pace) is actually pretty good, and likely the real reason for the film’s cult following. If you’re a fan of this type of music you’ll probably be much more forgiving of this movie, which could at times be described as an extended, uncensored, and rather pretentious music video.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre, horribly violent and frequently brilliant black comedy from Belgium: a melange of Irrevérsible, Clockwork Orange, Man Bites Dog and This Is Spinal Tap.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

AKA Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

FEATURING: Alan Cox, Nicholas Rowe, Sophie Ward

PLOT: Young Watson meets prodigy schoolboy Sherlock at a British boarding school; together with Holmes’ girlfriend, they solve a mysterious rash of bizarre murders plaguing London.

Still from Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Noteworthy for some dark and intense hallucinatory scenes, but basically it’s a rollicking Spielberg-produced action-adventure a la the Indiana Jones series.

COMMENTS: Directed by Barry Levinson but bearing executive producer Steven Spielberg’s stamp all over it (much like “Tobe Hooper” ‘s 1982 Poltergeist), Young Sherlock Holmes was an unexpected box office flop in 1985, but has since garnered a minor cult film reputation among nostalgic post-boomers. There are a few exhibitions of Holmesian deduction in the early reels to establish the prodigal intelligence of the adolescent Holmes, but the main mystery, involving an ancient Egyptian cult in Victorian London, isn’t quite up to Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate standards. The reason to watch it is for the special effects in the fanciful hallucination sequences, which hold up excellently today, and can still be intense and scary for younger viewers. The most memorable of these is a stained-glass knight who jumps down of a cathedral wall and menaces a cleric; a more whimsical example is the sinister cupcakes that menace chubby young Watson in a graveyard. Leaving aside the objection that shooting your victims full of hallucinogenic drugs and hoping that they commit suicide while battling phantasms in their delirium isn’t the most fail-proof of techniques for a professional assassin to employ, these scenes are mildly weird and enjoyable enough in themselves to make this flick worth catching for weirdophiles. The hallucinations cease in the second half, as the film becomes more concerned with solving the mystery and restoring the status quo; inevitably Holmes, the apex of rationality, is able to defeat the dark occult specters from the ancient unconscious and reestablish the Age of Enlightenment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…things take a turn towards the predictable thanks to Chris Columbus’s script ignoring all the things that made the duo so dynamic and instead cobbling together some nonsense about Eastern cults and hallucinogenic drugs that more readily recalls the work of Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) than Conan Doyle.”–Richard Luck, Channel 4 Film

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)

FEATURING: Judy Garland, , Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley

PLOT:  A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge.  After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys.  These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe.  The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy.  We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.

COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.”  Are you a viewer who loves the movie?  Me, too.  You admire the immaculate casting and performances?  The unforgettable music?  The clever nonsense wordplay of Continue reading CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)