Category Archives: Capsules

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)

CAPSULE: LIFEFORCE (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Tobe Hooper

FEATURING: Mathilda May, Steve Railsback, Peter Firth

PLOT: A space shuttle investigating Halley’s comet discovers a spaceship containing three suspended, nude human bodies; returned to Earth, the bodies come alive and begin vampirically sucking the life force out of humans.

Still from Lifeforce (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLifeforce is a grandly cheesy and frequently nonsensical mishmash of B-movie cliches, and a great movie to watch with a six-pack on hand. Although it’s loony, offbeat and fun, it’s ultimately too lightweight and not quite systematically deranged enough to rank as one of the greatest weird movies of all time.

COMMENTSLifeforce starts out as an Alien ripoff, and ends up as a Quatermass and the Pit ripoff; in between, it’s a Dracula ripoff, only with a naked woman wandering around using her electric French kiss to turn half of London into dessicated scarecrows who reanimate as zombie vampires after two hours pass. Yes, I said naked woman: French model Mathilda May’s totally nude performance is the thing everyone remembers about the film, and quite obviously the main source of the movie’s unending popularity. The woman is stunning; her body is such a perfect Platonic embodiment of the feminine form that, like a Greek statue, it transcends the erotic and becomes an object of pure aesthetic reverence. The flick would still be worthwhile without Mathilda, but her nude performance adds that certain something that lodges the movie in the cinematic consciousness. Add in early Industrial Light and Magic style special effects, with electric blue rays shooting everywhere in sight during the vampire zombie apocalypse as stolen human souls merge together and climb into a great glowing column shooting up to the alien mothership, and you have a film that’s visually unforgettable. When the beautifully overwrought pyrotechnics of the film are matched to the ludicrous story, a certain magical b-movie alchemy occurs. Lifeforce‘s script seems to be being made up as the film progresses, with the stunned actors getting their lines a few seconds before shooting (the movie is stuffed with deadpan lines like “a naked girl is not going to get out of this complex,” “now she has clothes,” and “in a sense, we’re all vampires”). Soon after the aliens have been returned to Earth and start sucking the life force from humans, we learn that astronaut Steve Railsback has a convenient psychic link with Mathilda May because she gave him part of her life force when she electro-kissed him, which allows him under hypnosis to follow her about as she jumps from body to body infecting more Englishmen and -women with the rapidly spreading plague, only now she needs her life force back so she visits Steve in erotic dreams and tries to steal it, but then she goes to Westminster Abbey and starts acting as a conduit for all the pilfered human souls her sub-vampires are stealing and draws Steve to her and… well, the exact mechanics of this plot to take over Earth from beyond the stars are iffy (had the script for Lifeforce been available in 1959,  might have considered making it Plan 10 from outer space). But the movie just keeps forging ahead, giving the audience more of what it wants (that is, a naked Mathilda May), regardless of logic.

Dan O’Bannon scripted Lifeforce: although he also wrote the serious Alien, some of his other campy screenwriting efforts (Dark Star, Return of the Living Dead) suggest that his tongue might have been planted in his cheek when he delivered this wacky script to Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Hooper.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Extraordinarily bizarre mix of science fiction and vampire movie, more likely to provoke derision than any other emotion.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jörg Buttgereit

FEATURING: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice M.

PLOT:  A necrophiliac who works for a corpse disposal service loses his job, his perverted girlfriend, and finally his mind.

Still from Nekromantik (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although Nekromantik is indisputably weird—not simply in its bizarre concept, but in its numerous nightmare digressions from linearity—it can’t be recommended as a viewing experience.  It’s a badly made, tedious parade of revolting and nihilistic imagery with no ambition other than to shock the viewer.  When the film does utilize weirdness, it does so shallowly and irreverently, solely in service of its intent to disturb.

COMMENTS:  Like sex, inherently shocking imagery in film can be used well, to explore the human experience, or (more commonly) it can be used badly and exploitatively.  The ironic celebration of evil in A Clockwork Orange disturbs the viewer deeply, but the purpose of the film isn’t to shock us; it’s to provoke us into thinking more deeply about the problem of evil by forcefully confronting us with the paradox of free will.

Too many artists, however, have noticed that offending huge numbers of people is a far easier way to draw attention to themselves than working hard at their craft and creating something thoughtful and meaningful.  Sometimes, artists get confused and adopt a simple logical fallacy: much great art, like Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Buñuel‘s Un Chien Andalou, has shocked and offended large numbers of people; therefore, the purpose of great art must be to shock people.  (This artistic disorder is commonly known as “John Waters Syndrome”).  Most shocking art, however, is made with a more cynical hand, made with the artistic integrity of a freakshow proprietor.  This is the category into which Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik falls.

Un Chien Andalou opens with a shot of a woman’s eyeball being slit by a straight razor, juxtaposed with a shot of a cloud passing in front of the moon.  The image is shocking but artistic, suggestive and numinous.  Nekromantik opens with a shot of panties dropping and urine streaming onto the grass; the image is banal, and, besides breaking Continue reading CAPSULE: NEKROMANTIK (1987)

CAPSULE: INTACTO (2001)

AKA Intact

DIRECTED BY: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo

FEATURING: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Eusebio Poncela, Mónica López, Max von Sydow

PLOT:  In a world where the power of luck is real and spread unequally, fortune’s favorites square off against each other in a series of secret tournaments, sometimes for mortal stakes.

Still from Intacto (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A weird kernel of an idea at the center of a movie can’t qualify it for the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time, without more. Intacto gives us a little bit more, in the form of the bizarre and unnerving rituals engaged in by luck’s elite, but although it’s a strange ride, it’s not enough.

COMMENTS: Intacto starts from a magical realist premise: an individual’s luck is not random, but quantifiable, like a red blood cell count. Some people have more of it than others, and it can be stolen, and traded. With that as the “what if?” starting point, first time director Fresnadillo constructs a strange world where the lucky carry grudges, face each other in underground tournaments, and use luck as a weapon. Structured as an arty dramatic thriller, the main fun to be had in Intacto comes from watching Fresnadillo slowly reveal the rules the fortunate play by. Particularly intriguing are the secretive games of chance the charmed set up to test their skills against one another; going far beyond five-card draw or craps, the matches are all highly artificial and ritualistic, with the rules not disclosed to the viewer beforehand, lending them a sense of mysterious gravity. The best and weirdest has a glowing green katydid selecting a champion by alighting on the molasses-smeared head of the luckiest blindfolded contestant in a darkened room in a casino basement. There’s a weirdish thrill to these mysterious bouts, but the rest of the thriller plot is not so thrilling. There are two converging plotlines. The primary strand features Federico, a former Chosen One who’s been robbed of his luck, seeking a disciple to square off against “the Jew” (a grave and typically impressive Max von Sydow), the lone survivor of a holocaust concentration camp and the reigning God of Chance. He finds one in Tomas, a bank robber and survivor of a plane crash. The secondary plot features Sara, a scarred female detective herself chosen by fortune, who seeks to bring Tomas to justice. The way the dual storylines play out in the climax is satisfying enough, but don’t expect any startling twists or heart-racing moments.

The major downside is that the film, thematically a metaphor about survivor guilt that’s difficult for the average person to connect with emotionally, is relentlessly downbeat and gloomy. Moody Tomas, backed by a morose Federico and hunted by glum female detective, squares off against the haunted Jew. Between the four of them, they can hardly manage to crack one joke or smile to lighten the mood. Intacto’s themes are weighty, but it also seems that director Fresnadillo is also convinced that an oppressive atmosphere is necessary to make an Important Film.

An inversion of Fresnadillo’s scenario can be found in 2003’s less effective and less weird The Cooler, starring William H. Macy as a mope who’s so ill-starred that a Las Vegas casino hires him to drain away the luck of roulette players and slot-jockeys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Elegant and lucid, and inflected with its own weird species of drollery, Intacto is a cerebral occult thriller from first-time Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, unfolding like a dangerously tricky puzzle, teasing and provoking.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEATH NOTE [Desu nôto] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shusuke Kaneko

FEATURING: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama

PLOT:  A law student finds a notebook (deliberately dropped by the God of Death) that

Still from Death Note (2006)

allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it; soon, criminals across the world start dropping dead, while, with the aid of super-detective “L,” the police race to stop the mysterious vigilante.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Death Note has a unique premise and execution, particularly in the way it mixes the fantasy and detective genres, and has potential as a cult film even beyond its existing magna/anime fanbase.  The presence of apple-munching Ryuuk, a lurking angel of death whose motives for making Light his emissary are never explained, gives this film a small tinge of weirdness, but other than that it abides by its own internal rules with such rigid consistency that it registers no more than an “offbeat” on the Weirdometer.

COMMENTSDeath Note begins with a potentially interesting premise, but spends most of its first reel setting up that premise in such a routine way that I feared it was going to be just another uninspiring Ringu variation.  Studying the law with the intention of becoming a district attorney, young Light magically gets the power to dispense capital punishment.  He targets only the vilest unrepentant criminals who have escaped justice.  The anonymous vigilante who slays with a stroke of the pen is anointed “Kira” and is applauded by legions of Internet groupies.  For a while it looks like we’re headed towards a depressingly obvious morality tale, with Light destined to fall from grace, abuse his power and accidentally execute an innocent man.  The first twist comes when we meet Ryuuk, a god of death and the source of Light’s new-found power; his motives are unknown and he proclaims himself neutral as to whether Light uses the Death Note or not.  Ryuuk constantly hangs around Light, apparently because he’s fallen hard for the earthly pleasure of the humble apple and Light has become his produce pusher.  The angel of death is an interesting character, but his idiosyncrasies take a while to unfold, and he’s a disappointment on other terms: he looks like an artist’s black and white rendering of Heath Ledger’s joker with bat wings attached, badly animated for a cheap video game.  He even moves like a game character, hovering slightly in the air with a stock expression until the game cursor hovers over him, at which point he jerks back his head and delivers his dialogue with a cartoonish cackle.  It’s to the script’s credit that despite the cheap animation, Ryuuk’s role is interesting enough that we eventually get used to him and forget about his distracting appearance.

The second wrinkle comes with the arrival of another oddball character, the anonymous sleuth “L,” who first appears as nothing more than a voice on a laptop.  Faced with a worldwide pandemic of accused murderers dropping dead from heart attacks after juries acquit them, the baffled police turn to the techno-detective, who cleverly narrows down the list of suspects from the entire population of the world to a small pool of Japanese students using pure deduction.  But the story doesn’t really take off until the halfway point, when Light turns his attentions from criminals to those tracking him down and new rules are introduced for the Death Note allowing him to write out elaborate scenarios to cause his victim’s demise, rather than unceremoniously dropping dead of a heart attack as they had previously.  Light needs his victim’s name in order to off him, and the anonymous L, driven by his own amoral sense of sport, seeks to discover Light’s identity as well.  The cat-and-mouse games between the two masterminds turn complicated, clever and thrilling, with L playing the part of a high-tech Sherlock while Light becomes a mystical Moriarty.  The story is spread over two feature films; this picture wraps up one story arc, but ends with Light and L at a stalemate to be broken in Death Note: The Last Name (2006).

Death Note has become a small franchise: based on a popular magna, it had previously been adapted as an anime series, it has spawned not only the of-a-piece sequel but a spin-off movie featuring L.  It’s also destined for a horribly uninteresting Hollywood remake.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Light’s goaded into his kill spree by the God of Death; a lolloping CGI ghoul in rock star clothes, who appears out of nowhere and offers advice while munching on apples. Weird, huh?”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin

FEATURING: Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.

Still from White Zombie (1932)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTWhite Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.

COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint.  The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater.  This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona.  The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career.  In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell.  Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film).  The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride.  But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.

This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema.  Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre. 

White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Contemporary critics  found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic.  They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films

CAPSULE: NINJA CHAMPION (1985)

Ninja Champion has been voted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Comments on this initial review are closed. Please see the official Certified Weird entry to comment.

DIRECTED BY:  Godfrey Ho

FEATURING: Nancy Chan, Bruce Baron, Richard Harrison

PLOT: The hard-to-unravel plot involves a raped woman seeking vengeance, her relationship with the ex-fiance Interpol agent who deserted her, diamond smugglers, identical twins, and ninjas.  No champions appear.

Still from Ninja Champion (1985)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTNinja Champion is like manna from heaven for bad movie fans, who will want to check it out posthaste.  Its only weirdness, however, comes from the utter incoherence of its cut-n-paste plot, and this chopped-up chopsocky needs more than that to escape out of the kung fu jungle and crack the List of the best weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  Godfrey Ho is a director who believes that basic continuity is a luxury only big-budget productions can afford; he’s confident that the meat-and-potatoes masses won’t care if a movie makes absolutely no sense, as long as there are frequent ninja battles in it.  You must turn off your rational faculties to enjoy Ninja Champion. Otherwise, you will be rewinding the DVD every five minutes, trying to solve riddles like “where did that actress’ new blouse come from?,” “who was that guy and why he just disappear for no reason?,” and “how in the heck did she get those handcuffs off?”  The film seems to be simply another cheesy, cookie-cutter kung fooey, until the first really wacked out scene appears.  To prove her smuggling cred to an opium-smoking crime boss, our heroine Rose opens her blouse wide to display the diamonds she has been hiding.  It’s obviously a cheap ploy to smuggle some nudity into the film—but—the actress’ breasts (and the pilfered jewels) are blurred so that nothing can be seen. (It’s not a case of censorship, as a naked breast does appear in the film later, courtesy of a body double). It looks like someone smeared a thick wad of Vaseline on the bottom half of the camera lens. We are even treated to leering, full-frame closeups of her smudged, impossible to ogle chest.  This begs the question: is Godfrey Ho the first director in exploitation movie history to manage the oxymoronic feat of including a gratuitous topless scene with no nudity in it?  Hot on the heels of this bungled attempt at smut comes the badly integrated ninja storyline, wherein a Caucasian ninja randomly hunts and kills other ninjas (sometimes wearing headbands helpfully describing themselves as “ninja”) while they are practicing their circus tricks.  In between trying to follow the twisted, ludicrous plotline and watching for continuity errors, you can thrill to sparkling lines of dialogue:

“OK, you can help me kill them if you like, but I’m still going to kill you!  It’s over, George!”

“We ninjas are getting bored.  Can we start now?”

And of course, this immortal exchange:

“The wine, there must have been something in it!  Oh God!”

“Not the wine, my nipples, you jerk!”

Ho “directed” over 40 movies with “Ninja” in the title.  His method was to buy up cheap footage from unreleased Hong Kong movies and to intercut them with film he shot of American actors playing ninjas, then dub the older movie to incorporate a ninja subplot.  The results were then dumped into U.S. video stores in an attempt to cash in on the minor 1980s craze for ninja movies.  Without having seen any of his other efforts, I’m going to declare Ho’s Ninja Champion his weirdest, because the diamond smuggling/rape revenge/identical twin plot is so bizarre and confusing on its own that I doubt he could have found a more incompetent film to use as the base movie.

Although Ninja Champion is sold separately or packaged with various other kung fu, the best deal is Mill Creek’s “Martial Arts 50 Movie Pack,” which also contains the borderline weird Kung Fu Arts and 48 other silly butt-kickers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…simply one of the most insane so-called ‘movies’ that I’ve ever seen.”–Keith Bailey, The Unknown Movies (DVD)

CAPSULE: UHF (1989)

AKA The Vidiot from UHF

DIRECTED BY: Jay Levey

FEATURING: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Michael Richards

PLOT:  Walter Mitty-style daydreamer George becomes manager of an independent television station, and his bizarre programming becomes a surprise hit.

Still from UHF (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t begrudge Al his weirdness, but he means something more juvenile by “weird” than we do.  UHF has an irreverent and independent spirit and takes a few turns into the decidedly offbeat, but it’s basically Al’s mildly skewed idea of mainstream comedy.

COMMENTSUHF saw pop-parodist “Weird Al” shift his gentle satirical sights from hit singles to movies and TV.  The framing plot is stock: likable ne’er-do-well comes to have responsibility for a failing enterprise and unexpectedly makes it a success, drawing the ire of soulless corporate powers who seek to crush him.  While you won’t be surprised to find out the Weird Al wins the day and gets the girl back, the plot is just a frame on which to hang a series of skits and parodies.  Al tackles movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, the facetious Gandhi sequel Gandhi 2, and Rambo.  Like his music videos, the satire is not exactly incisive (Conan the Barbarian becomes Conan the Librarian, for example), but that’s OK: Weird Al is in the business of making puns, not enemies.  Film nuts will enjoy the subtler nods to This Island Earth, Network, and a real groaner based on Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  The parodies of Eighties movies should have gone stale by now, but they haven’t, largely because Hollywood keeps recycling the same cliches twenty years later.  You don’t need to have seen the original Rambo to recognize what’s being lampooned when the musclebrained hero’s automatic weapon’s causes bamboo huts to randomly explode.  The TV skits, which for the most part stand on their own without requiring knowledge of long forgotten shows, are funnier and more inventive than the straight parodies; they allow Al to show off a more unique and absurd sense of humor.  “Wheel of Fish” is a memorably ludicrous game show, and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” (hosted from his apartment, where he investigates his ant farm and teaches poodles to fly) is another highlight.  Squeaky Emo Phillips, improbably cast as a shop teacher (!), gets off the film’s darkest and most hilarious line after an accident with a table saw.  But the best of all is Michael Richards as a slow, mop-loving janitor whose children’s show (where the kid who finds a marble in a vat of oatmeal is rewarded by getting to “drink from the firehose”) becomes the station’s flagship hit.  Richards steals most of his scenes and demonstrates some of the herky-jerky physical comedy that would make him beloved as Seinfeld’s “Kramer” in a few years.  All in all, UHF is a meandering, light-hearted series of gags in an Airplane! vein that makes for a pleasant enough afternoon matinee.  The PG-13 rating is for some silly cartoon violence.  Other than that, it’s sweet, sex and swear-word fee, and appropriate for older kids, who will eat up the booger humor.

“Weird Al” sold millions of parody records in the 1980s (redoing Michael Jackson’s #1 hit “Beat It” as “Eat It” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as “Like a Surgeon.”) Hoping to cash in on Al’s already fading popularity,UHF was intended as a summer blockbuster by Orion studios, but the movie critically savaged and tanked at the box office.  Orion went bankrupt soon after.  The film later became a huge hit on VHS and DVD.  It’s not nearly as bad as the cold-hearted critics initially claimed (Roger Ebert called it “the dreariest comedy in many a month”), or as hilarious as the Weird Al cultists who made it one of the best-selling videos of all time would have it.  Instead, it’s diverting spoofery for the ten-year-old inside all of us that should keep you amused for 90 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You look at his picture, you hear he’s called ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, you nod your head. The man, if nothing else, has the right name.” Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Vooshvazool.” Suggest a weird movie off your own here.)]

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT:  In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTSPonyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life.  When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.  There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy, and the main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way).  The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke.  Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life.  Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults.  Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood.  Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven.  There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education).  The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films,Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)