Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: ONE MISSED CALL [CHAKUSHIN ARI] (2003)

DIRECTED BYTakashi Miike

FEATURING: ,

PLOT:  Students begin receiving phone calls from their own cell phones, dated three days in the future; the message is their own voice screaming, and they all end up dead at the appointed time.

Still from One Missed Call [Chakushin Ari] (2003)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Weird director Miike adds a few surreal style points at the end, but it’s too little, too late.  For most of the way, this is standard J-horror territory, and a bit dull to boot.

COMMENTSOne Missed Call begins by ripping off a riff from Ringu (1998), with cell phones replacing videocassettes as the technological bogeyman.  Heaping unoriginality on unoriginality, Miike adds recycled ideas from his own Audition (1999), including a slowly revealed child-abuse backstory and multiple false endings. It all eventual ends up as a standard entry in the supernatural Japanese horror (“J-horror”) genre.  The setup is fine, with the students discovering the mysterious, deadly calls from the future, then figuring out that the spirit that makes the calls selects a new target from the last victim’s stored phone numbers, putting them all at risk—even if they’re on the “Do Not Call” registry.  Anytime a ring tone sounds in the movie thereafter, it could be someone’s death sentence.  After the premise is established, however, the movie bogs down into talky exposition. The next target, psychology student Yumi, and man whose sister was one of the first victims try to trace the calls back to their source, where they presume they’ll find the ghost responsible for all this cellular slaughter.  Along the way there is an effective mixture of suspense and satire when a sensationalist television show broadcasts a live exorcism for one of the doomed souls at exactly the time the killer is supposed to strike, as well as a spooky trip through a haunted hospital.  But the needlessly confusing ending, where Miike suddenly decides to burn his personal weird brand onto a generic piece of genre livestock, is unsatisfying and even frustrating.  By the end—despite heaps and heaps of exposition along the way—the supernatural antagonist’s motives, origins, and perhaps even identity are left unclear.

In a time honored tradition of Japanese horror hit adaptations that stretches back all the way to 2003, One Missed Call was remade as a Hollywood flop (with Ed Burns and Shannyn Sossamon) in 2008.  This is a rare J-Horror the Americans could have actually improved with tighter editing and a streamlined storyline, but critical evidence (an amazing 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer!) indicates otherwise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in the final act, when the scene shifts to an abandoned hospital and evil comes out of its closet (or rather oozes out of its vat), we are suddenly in ‘Miike World’… Rationality takes a holiday as Miike sends the film hurling into a surreal universe. For Miike fans, all this will be familiar. For those expecting a generic horror flick, Miike’s imagination may be too out-there for comfort — or understanding.”–Mark Shilling, The Japan Times

CAPSULE: THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008)

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY:  Rian Johnson

FEATURING: Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi

PLOT:  Bloom is the passive brother floating in the wake of his older sibling Stephen, a

Still from The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Dostoevsky among con-men, who devises one last elaborate grift to rip-off a pretty, rich and very eccentric widow.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTQuirky, not weird.  For the weird fiend, watching a film like this is the equivalent of taking cinematic methadone while waiting to score some big-screen bizarre.

COMMENTS:  Though supposedly set in Montenegro, Prague, Mexico, St. Petersburg, and on a luxury steamer crossing the Atlantic, the real action in The Brothers Bloom is set firmly in Hollywoodland, a mythical, ultra-sophisticated realm where con men dress in pinstripe suits and bowlers to keep a low profile.  Our guides through this wish-fulfillment landscape of daring capers and champagne breakfasts are as quaint a collection of quirks as one might expect to bump into outside of a wine and cheese party held inside Wes Anderson’s noggin: Stephen, a master grifter who writes real-life dramas for his marks designed not only to make him money, but to keep them happy by fulfilling their need for romance and adventure; Bloom, a mopey soul who has lost his own identity through playing out Stephen’s scripts since childhood; Penelope, the socially backward heiress with a prodigal talent for absorbing other people’s skills, whether juggling chainsaws or making cameras out of watermelons; and Bang Bang, the nearly mute Japanese munitions expert, the screenplay’s most original invention and the one character who leaves us wanting more.  The cast does well, especially Brody as Bloom and a bubbly Weisz as Penelope (though however eccentric and awkward she might be, one has to seriously suspend disbelief to imagine that this pretty and very wealthy young thing isn’t swamped with suitors and hangers-on).

The con game is one of the toughest scripts to write, depending on its ability to surprise viewers who’ve seen many a twist ending in their day, and Johnson makes the task even tougher on himself by raising expectations and promoting his guys as the best in the business. In the end the final execution of the game doesn’t surprise, but the alert viewer has lots of fun along the way playing the multiple angles in his head, imagining possible double crosses as new players come into the field. The film runs out of gas before the end and sputters through a disappointing and overly sentimental epilogue/fourth act, but it doesn’t erase the enchantment built up until that point. A whiskey drinking camel and some interesting live action puns round out the fun.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘The Brothers Bloom’ is set on a planet somewhat like our own, but far wackier… The movie is wonderfully weird.”–Kurt Loder, MTV

CAPSULE: SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE [CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI] (2005)

AKA Lady Vengeance

threestar

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Yeong-ae, Min-sik Choi

PLOT: Beautiful Geum-ja goes to prison for thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder

Still from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

of a five-year old boy, a crime she didn’t commit, and on release commences an intricate and shocking plan of revenge on the true culprit.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its series of flashbacks and dream-sequences coupled with Park’s trademark gratuitous style, Lady Vengeance just sneaks across the line separating “weird” from “arty”. There’s nothing about the story of Geum-ja’s revenge, however, that suggests that it’s best told in a weird way, and after a confusing first half, the conclusion unspools in a bloody but mostly straightforward thread.  The result is a film that’s trapped in a netherworld between the hyper-weird and the conventional; it could have been more successful if it had put its whole heart into one strategy or the other. The more satisfying Oldboy is a better choice to represent Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” on the list of 366.

COMMENTS: After an absolutely gorgeous black, white and red credits sequence involving a living tattoo of a rose vine and blooming pools of blood, the first half of Lady Vengeance flings the viewer back and forth between the present and flashbacks involving a multitude of characters from a women’s prison, sprinkling in a few dream/fantasy sequences on the way.  The result makes a confusion of the story details, although the big picture is clear. It feels as if the audience is being jerked around in the early reels; there’s no good reason for the fractured narrative, and after all the groundwork laying out the large cast of characters who figure in the scheme to capture the villain, the actual details of the plan turn out not to matter much.  Lady Vengeance finally shines in the grisly, intense finale, an unflinching look into the dark depths of violence.  It follows this up with a brief beautiful scene of frustrated redemption before limping to an unsatisfying denouement with a mysterious final image that doesn’t really work, leaving audiences simply puzzled rather than intrigued.  Along the way Park shoehorns in a curious touch whenever an idea pops into his head, such as a wipe transitioning from the present to a flashback via an closing door, a radiating halo around his angel of vengeance, or a character’s inner monologue written in the clouds. Lady Vengeance ends up a jumbled bag of good and bad ideas, isolated beautiful moments and frustrating experiments.

Park has all the elements of a great director: an impressive visual sense, an ability to ferret out the heart of a character and a story, and an interesting and audacious selection of topics.  His well-recognized flaw is that he falls in love with style for its own sake, rather than using style in the service of his story.  Chan-wook is consistently interesting and make worthwhile films, but (with the possible exception of Oldboy) he has yet to hit one out of the Park.  When he does, watch out!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A kind of brilliantly realized perplexity is the predominant tone, and when Park sets these complex emotional nuances before some of the most riotously colorful and splashily off-kilter backgrounds (both literal and figural) ever witnessed, the resulting schism is akin to watching a pop-art paintball skirmish in the world’s most baroque ossuary.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984)

DIRECTED BY: Lloyd Kaufman & Michael Herz

FEATURING: Mitchell Cohen

PLOT:  A nerdy teen janitor is tormented by his serial killer peers until he accidentally

Promotional card for The Toxic Avenger (1984) under it's working title, Health Club

falls into a vat of toxic waste and emerges as a mop-wielding, avenging mutant superhero.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When a movie about a mutant janitor who fights transvestite thugs and, to add insult to injury, presses his wet mop into their heads after he disembowels them can’t find a place on a list of weird movies, you know you’re searching for a very refined brand of weirdness indeed.

COMMENTSThe Toxic Avenger has just enough craziness going on to make it watchable, but it’s not nearly the classic its cult reputation might suggest. Although an absurd thread runs throughout to keep it sporadically interesting, its sniper-like focus on chesty chicks and cheesy kills keeps it squarely locked in on its target audience of males under 25. Others will find the goofy spoofery seldom funny and often offensive (for example, the hit and run killing of young boys and racial minorities for sport). There are few laugh-out-loud moments for grown-ups, although a scene in the middle of a crime-fighting montage where superhero Toxie helps a housewife with a stubborn jar lid does elicit a chuckle. The centerpiece hostage scene at a restaurant tells you all you need to know: a gang of robbers wearing performance art greasepaint burst in, shoot a blind girl’s seeing-eye dog, and prepare to sodomize her when Toxie arrives. Our hero fights a battle against a gangster with ninja skills who grabs a samurai sword off the wall (of a Mexican restaurant?), and in the end the mutant dweeb gruesomely and painfully dispatches them with a milkshake machine and a deep fryer. It’s a fantasy of nerd revenge against the upper crust of high school society, as Toxie dismembers obnoxious jocks (a justified act, since like all popular people, his tormentors are inhuman monsters who like to mow down kids in their cars and masturbate to the gory Polaroids afterward). The movie invites us to identify with and cheer for Toxie as, Michael Meyers-like, he stalks and kills half-naked girls (who are, of course, evil, and deserve to be dispatched for the good of Tromaville). Ultimately, this Columbine-esque wish fulfillment, where the beleaguered kid not only kills his bullies but becomes a beloved celebrity and gets the girl, creates a subtext that’s far more offensive than any of child killings or the pre-teen white slavery ring Kaufman and Herz try to shock us with.

The Toxic Avenger‘s blend of horror-movie gore, gross-out offensiveness, proudly lowbrow comedy, and absurd touches struck a nerve in the 1980s, when it bypassed the normal movie distribution channels to become one of the first cult videocassette hits. It was so successful that Troma studios has been remaking this same film, under a variety of titles, for the last 25 years.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Airplane! for the antisocial set, or a Grimms fairytale gone horribly, horribly wrong, this weird-ass peek into the past proves that some high concepts are indeed eternal.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (21st Anniversary DVD)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: NOWHERE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:  Gregg Araki

FEATURING: James Duval, Rachel True

PLOT:  Shallow L.A. teenagers take drugs and have kinky sex all day in preparation for the party of the year, while a rubber alien reptile occasionally stalks and abducts them.

nowhere

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  As an attempt at a contemporary update of Repo Man by way of Clueless, Nowhere is weird, but only in the most superficial way possible; ultimately, it lacks the emotional and thematic chops to earn itself a more dignified adjective than “silly” (although less dignified adjectives like “self-indulgent,” “pretentious” and “annoying” do spring to mind).

COMMENTS:  It begins with the portentous pronouncement “L.A. is like… nowhere.  Everyone who lives here is lost,” voiced with emotionless fervor by “Dark” (Keanu Reeves impersonator James Duval) as he masturbates in the shower.  (This should be your first hint that you might want to skip this movie: do you really want to spend 82 minutes watching an inferior version of Keanu Reeves?)  In the course of a day, the film introduces us to such lost characters as bulimiacs, drug addicts, vanishing valley girls, a “Baywatch” hunk/rapist, and teen dominatrices, all of whom are at bottom indistinguishable but for their preferences in body piercings.  Their chief defining characteristic is a lack of character.  What little character development there is involves Dark’s doomed search for true love and his fruitless attempts to convince bisexual gal pal Mel (Rachel True) to stop sharing her nubile body with every Tom, Dick and Mary.  Too occasional chuckles come via the vulgar and exaggerated teen slang. (A three way cameo conversation between val-gals Traci Lords, Shannen Doherty and Rose McGowan about potential beaus to take to the big party who are not gay, dead by their own hand, or under-hung is an engagingly braindead highlight).  Any lighthearted satirical momentum the film may muster, however, is destroyed by the intrusion of ugly realities like date rape and teen suicide that belong in a non-joke movie that would treat these topics with respect.  Writer/director Akari aims his wit at an incredibly easy target—vapid Hollywood teenagers—but he hardly appears less shallow than they are; whenever the script veers dangerously near something that looks like a real human emotion, as in the climax, he’s quick to deploy predictable Gen-X irony to turn the scene into an absurd joke before his skill at eliciting genuine empathy can be tested.

The teens’ irresponsible “empty” hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, partying, and humping hot bodies actually looks pretty appealing, if only the company didn’t totally blow.  The flick may be enjoyed by smart teenagers (even though director Araki seems to have nothing but contempt for teens), but impressionable young minds should be steered towards better adolescent angst comedies like Heathers if it at all possible.  Not currently available on DVD in North America.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This live-action cartoon might be described as a surreal ‘American Graffiti’ crossed with a kinky ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ as imagined by a punked-out acolyte of John Waters or Andy Warhol…  If it weren’t so overpopulated and desperate to shock, ‘Nowhere’ might have succeeded as a maliciously cheery satire of Hollywood brats overdosing on the very concept of Hollywood.”–Steven Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SEX AND LUCIA [LUCIA Y EL SEXO] (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Julio Medem

FEATURING: Paz Vega, Tristán Ulloa, Najwa Nimri

PLOT:  Lucia, a waitress, falls in love with Lorenzo, a young novelist with a secret in his

sex_and_lucia

past; their passionate love story is intertwined with dramatized scenes from Lorenzo’s novel, with it left to the viewer to decide what is “real” and what is “fiction.” 


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSex and Lucia‘s fractured narrative is more confusing than weird.  It’s meta-narrative conceits call to mind Adaptation, another movie that ultimately felt too much like an intellectual exercise to be extremely weird. Sex and Lucia treats it’s fiction-within-a-fiction structure with more subtlety and ambiguity, though Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay exists on a satirical plane that in the end makes it the more centered and satisfying effort.

COMMENTS:  The best things about Sex and Lucia are sex (important enough to get its own paragraph!) and Lucia (Paz Vega, whose acting is as naked as her body). While counting its plusses, we should also mention the cinematography, done on a digital camera, with the scenes on the Mediterranean isle bleached like a seashell in the sun.  The story is another matter.  Many viewers find it frustrating that Medem riddles his script with narrative wormholes which shuttle the story back in time or to an alternate resolution, then demands the viewer assist in the construction by choosing what is part of the “real” story and what is in Lorenzo’s imagination. The bigger problem may be that none of the possibilities he offers have a tremendous emotional resonance.  The movie is arty and self-conscious throughout, with multiple obviously significant shots of the moon. Symbolism is pervasive and tends to make sense, but adds up to little in the way of genuine insight.  While these difficulties make Sex and Lucia less than it might have been, it’s still beautiful enough to be lightly intoxicating, like a Mediterranean vacation or a one-nighter with a beautiful woman.

The sex scenes, especially those between the gorgeous and unselfconscious Vega and Ulloa, are undoubtedly a major attraction.  The lovers’ exploration of their bodies and sexual tastes during their whirlwind courtship is erotic and tasteful; the scenes are arousing, but are also beautifully constructed to create a sense of true intimacy between the characters.  The sex is front-loaded; after the middle of the film, when a sordid and pornographic but equally erotic fantasy occurs, sex leaves Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship, replaced by tragedy and arguments.  Medem refused to let the sexier parts of the film be cut for distribution, but the scenes of tumescent male nudity and fellatio are so brief that they are unnecessary and reek of gimmickry; it’s difficult to rationalize the director’s passionate defense of the artistic necessity of erections.  The film may be purchased in either a unrated cut or in an R-rated version; your enjoyment of the movie is unlikely to be affected by which version you choose (I can’t determine if there’s a difference in runtime between the two versions).   

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At its best, Sex and Lucia works literally like a dream, like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — the narrative is fractured and oblique, the meaning suppressed. It will infuriate a lot of moviegoers, perhaps especially those looking for a high class dirty movie.”–Phillip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (DVD)

CAPSULE: WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Goran Dukic

FEATURING: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits

PLOT:  In a special afterlife reserved for suicides, three lost souls hit the road: Zia is

wristcutters_a_love_story

searching for his earthly lover, Mikal is convinced she’s here by mistake and is looking for the People in Charge, and Eugene is along for the ride because he has nothing better to do.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the sunglasses-snatching black hole that’s taken up permanent residence under the passenger seat in Eugene’s old beater, Wristcutters never really crosses the shaky border into the land of the weird.  A few magical realist touches decorate this otherwise conventional, indie-flavored road movie/love triangle that’s best described as “quirky.”  (If you know of a review that doesn’t use the word “quirky” to describe this movie, please contact the proper authorities; the writer needs to have his or her critical credentials yanked).

COMMENTS:  Adapted from a story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters is a romantic comedy disguised as a black comedy, a conventional movie disguised as a bizarre movie, and a shamelessly hopeful movie disguised as a bleak movie.  None of those disguises are particularly hard to penetrate.  “Who could think of a better punishment, really?  Everything’s the same here, it’s just a little worse,” newly deceased wristcutter Zia realizes soon after he gets a pizza delivery job in the afterlife.  In Wristcutters, new suicides wake to discover a Great Beyond that’s not so great: in fact, it’s set in the middle of the Mojave desert where everything is so run down and recycled, even the automobiles are held together mostly by duct tape.  Furthermore, in the most dreadful dissimilarity to the living world, its denizens find themselves unable to smile, a restriction that makes the sympathetic performances of the young principals all the more impressive.  Still, the movie always has a hopeful sense that the main characters can find a way out of their existential predicament, and it doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a happy ending (though some may consider it a cop-out).  Although Wristcutters sometimes reeks of missed opportunities to explore deeper themes and blacker comedy in a more mystical landscape, it’s also apparent that director/scripter Dukic has hit exactly the lightly offbeat tone he was aiming for, and he has the good sense to wrap the story up quickly after his world runs out of new Purgatorial quirks to offer.  A couple of tunes by Tom Waits (who also offers up a memorable turn as ramshackle but wizardly guiding spirit Kneller) and Gogol Bordello bump up the cool quotient considerably.

After this successful debut, Croatian director Dukic is poised between worlds: he could use this feature as springboard to do something even more conventional, or push his offbeat impulses to their logically weird conclusion.  We’ll keep an eye on him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes it work is that the performers, trapped in a weird movie about a weird place, underplay their astonishment.”–A.O. Scott, New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VIY [Вий] (1967)

Must See

AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij

DIRECTED BY:  Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley

PLOT:  In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the

viy

corpse of a witch.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films.  Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time.  It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.

COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure.  The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero.  Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk.  The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be.  (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape).  The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.

Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio] [1960] was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation.  Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works.  The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production.  The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it’s completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com

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

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat