Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

Tenku no shiro Laputa; AKA Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING (U.S. Dubbed Version): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman

PLOT: A girl who falls from the sky and an orphaned boy search together for a legendary floating

Still from Castle in the Sky (1986)

city while being chased by flying pirates and a secret airborne government agency.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s an enthralling and magical children’s adventure, Castle in the Sky is also one of the more conventional fantasies in the catalog of a director whose work only flirts with weirdness.

COMMENTS: Castle in the Sky plays so much like an adaptation of a classic Western children’s book that it’s a surprise to learn that Japanese Hayao Miyazaki wrote the story basically from scratch. (The base concept of the floating city of Laputa is borrowed from Johnathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels, so a European literary connection does exist). Castle is epic in scope, featuring lost cities, magical artifacts, hidden destinies, and deadly giant robots; and yet, it’s all told from a child’s-eye view. After a lengthy earthbound prologue, most of the important action happens in an airy imaginary realm: not just in the floating city itself, but also in a stratosphere full of massive floating battleships, eternally aloft propeller-driven pirate vessels, and dragonfly-shaped personal aircraft. Its the kind of imaginary universe that doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief for kids, who simply assume that adventures like these take place over their heads and above the clouds every day. Although pint-sized, the boy hero, Pazu, is emancipated and on equal footing with grown-ups: he has a full-time job working in the mines and, as an orphan, he’s self-sufficient and lives on his own. Similarly, female lead Sheeta is also free of parents, and is perfectly capable of taking out those taller than she is with a well-placed wine bottle to the back of the head. The fact that there’s a hero for kids of either gender to identify with rates as a plus, though feminists who are keeping count may note that Pazu comes to Sheeta’s rescue a bit more than the other way around. Little girls will doubtlessly see Castle as the story of Sheeta Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: SUN DON’T SHINE (2012)/TCHOUPITPOULAS (2012)

Taking a trip to your local film festival is a good way to recalibrate your sense of weirdness. The sparsely attended showings will remind you that to the average movie patron, any film that doesn’t feature either 1. a car chase, 2, a robot chase, or 3. Adam Sandler probably qualifies as “weird.” So, although the two films commented on below may not qualify as weird by our bizarre standards, it’s good to remember that they are as extraordinary a pair of oddities as the average moviegoer might be accidentally exposed to.

Still from Shine (2012)Writer/director Amy Seimetz reveals that Sun Don’t Shine was based on a recurring nightmare, combined with her fever dream recollections of the subtle insanity engendered by south Florida humidity. The scenario sees fragile Crystal () and macho beau Leo (Kentucker Audley) on the lam heading for the Everglades in a clunker with a bad radiator, fleeing troubles which aren’t immediately disclosed but which you will easily guess. There are a few moments, when the story shifts to see things from anti-heroine Crystal’s distorted perspective (which seems equally informed by insecurity and sunstroke) that Sun seems about to take off into nightmare territory. But we always quickly return to reality and to the movie’s core, the uncomfortable co-dependent relationship between sullen Leo and wispy Crystal. The movie seems afraid to push itself past the merely uncomfortable and into the full depths of insanity, at least until a final “too little too late” moment of madness. In that, perhaps the script is only playing to its strengths. Seimetz is excellent at creating a believable dynamic between the troubled lovebirds; there’s a barroom scene where Crystal is boring her man with a story about pilfered lipstick to the point where he has to get up and walk away as if to say “I love you, but if you yap on for one more second we’ll be talking about your fat lip instead of your lipstick.” She follows him into the men’s room and wins him back with persistent affection. It’s a very real scene, but the problem is almost the entire film is made up of such supplemental moments. A movie can have so much character Continue reading FILM FESTIVAL DOUBLE FEATURE: SUN DON’T SHINE (2012)/TCHOUPITPOULAS (2012)

CAPSULE: THE TALE OF THE FLOATING WORLD (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Escalle

FEATURING: Yûko Nakamura, Ryôya Kobayashi, Kakuya Ohashi

PLOT: A surrealistic montage set in motion by a tidal wave and incorporating a samurai battle.

Still from The Tale of the Floating World (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Simply put, length. Floating World is a tidal wave of creativity, but at a little less 1/3 the running time it would need to be at least three times as notable or weird to take a slot on the List away from a full-fledged feature film.

COMMENTS: Although organized around the concept of a remembrances of Japan’s past as dreamed by a survivor of Hirsohima (we gathered this from the director’s notes, and presume it’s explained by the narrator’s brief untranslated comments that start the film), Floating World works on a vaguer level as a surreal tribute to European Japanophilia. Nipponese iconography—cranes, geishas, samurai—suffuses the film like sunlight through a rice paper print. A scene of a robed woman stumbling through a snowbound forest looks like a visual quotation from Kwaidan. Plenty of strangeness accompanies us in our journey though this dream of the Rising Sun: calligraphic characters turn into ants and crawls off the page during an eclipse, ashen nude zombies dance, and a samurai duel with flashing blades in a watercolor blur. The circa 2001 CGI is cheap and clunky looking: the aqua tsunami looks painted on the film, for example, and a sinking Buddha head is obviously superimposed on a separate shot of brackish water. Given the context you could hardly say the unreality of the imagery counts as a negative, however; the shots work exquisitely as a series of stills. Floating World works both as a demo reel for director Escalle’s visual effects skills and as an art installation of its own. Cécile Le Prado’s ornamental Oriental score contributes to the stony feeling of smoking opium while staring at a Japanese woodcutting hung on the wall.

The title refers to the Japanese concept of the “Floating World”—a hedonistic, secular world of fleeting pleasures and beauty for its own sake exemplified by geishas and kabuki theater—which flourished in the classical Edo period. “Ukiyo-e” or “pictures of the floating world” were a genre of woodcuttings depicting scenes of Edo-era Japan. The 18th century novelist Asai Ryō wrote a work entitled “Tales of the Floating World” about a Buddhist monk who finds enlightenment through debauchery. Dating back to Impressionism, French artists have had such a longstanding infatuation with Ukiyo-e that it’s given birth to a subgenre of painting known as “Japonisme.”

CONTENT WARNING: The Tale of the Floating World contains (tastefully presented) sex and nudity, and parts would not be considered “safe for work.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

No reviews located.

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who cited the film’s synopsis: “An evocative and surrealistic view of Japan and the atomic bomb. An imaginary story, both cruel and childlike.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Chantal Akerman

FEATURING:

PLOT: A widow performs chores around her apartment and prostitutes herself in the afternoons.

Still from Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its belabored 3+ hours (!) of a woman doing dull daily chores in long static real time takes, Jeanne Dielman is an example of how a movie can essentially swallow its own tail, achieving a level of surreality by emphasizing ordinariness and normality to an absurd degree. Like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” this deliberate experiment in extended boredom serves a purpose in the film universe; it’s just that that purpose isn’t to be watched by a normal human audience.

COMMENTS: When I read critics rave about Jeanne Dielman, I sometimes feel like I’m scanning reviews from the Bizarro World Times, dispatches from an alternate universe where up is down and audiences are enthralled by watching women shop for buttons and cook meatloaf for hours on end. (Vincent Canby’s claim that the frumped-up Delphine Seyrig “has never looked more beautiful” than in this film doesn’t help counter that impression that every review of the film was written on Opposite Day). It’s not that Akerman’s movie is a fraud or a failure. According to its experimental goal of exploring mundanity to its absolute limit, it’s a success, one that, for obvious reasons, other directors have rarely sought to repeat. But Jeanne Dielman is a formal exercise that no one other than a theoretician could love: we can’t bond with its affectless characters, its punishing three hour running time is a blunt weapon used to hammer home its hopeless message, and frankly, it’s just no fun. Watching this movie isn’t just taking your cultural vegetables, it’s gagging down a spoonful of cultural castor oil. Jeane Dielman‘s high artistic intent and ridiculous integrity of vision are too powerful to give the film a “beware” rating, but this is a movie that’s better read about than watched; heck, even Mlle. Dielman’s son would rather read than act in the movie. On its release the movie was adopted by feminists as a landmark statement on the crushing boredom of “women’s work,” but it’s not (and Akerman herself never claimed it was). That interpretation would require that the men and the working women in the movie—the son, the postal clerk, the waitress—were depicted as living lives of glamor compared to housefrau Jeanne. Rather, the film paints the entire adult world (or at least the “bourgeois” world) as morbidly dull: the only human beings shown enjoying any aspect of life in the film are children briefly seen running and playing in the street. The universal and almost unqualified praise for Akerman’s avant-garde oddity—which bludgeons the concept of “entertainment” with the same subtlety and affection as John Waters did for the concept of “taste” in Pink Flamingos—seems like it might make a great case study for a 20th century edition of “Extraordinary Aesthetic Delusions and the Madness of Critics.” For those who crave such things, a similar modern ennuiscape was sketched earlier, but with greater economy and magic, by in Dillinger is Dead.

After the marketing success of a line of toys based on Star Wars characters, figurines based on popular movies became huge sellers in the late 1970s and 1980s. Obviously not every toy company could afford to license a top-of-the-line property like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles posable action figure was almost certainly the most ill-advised attempt to cash in on the fad. I can still hear the radio spots created to coincide with the movie’s 1983 U.S. release: “Your Jeanne Dielman action figure makes coffee, entertains ‘gentleman callers,’ eats in stony silence, or just sits and stares at the wall, just like international screen icon Delphine Seyrig! For extra authenticity, the molded plastic face is incapable of expression. WARNING: to avoid risk of catatonia, toy should not be played with for more than three hours at a setting. Potato peeler and scissors sold separately.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Miss Seyrig has participated in a number of supposedly experimental films over the years, but in none as original and ambitious as this. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is not quite like any other film you’ve ever seen…”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (1983 U.S. theatrical release)

CAPSULE: JOHNNY SUEDE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Tom DiCillo

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener

PLOT: Johnny Suede, a young man with a freakishly large pompadour, tries to pay the rent,

Still from Johnny Suede (1991)

keep a girlfriend, and make it as a musician in the big city.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Johnny Suede flirts with weirdness, but can’t commit to it.

COMMENTS: By far, the weirdest thing about Johnny Suede is Brad Pitt’s Fabian-on-steroids pompadour. That said, one early scene promises a high level of creepy surrealism that the body of the movie fails to deliver. Walking home from another night at the club where his stuck-in-the-fifties style fails to impress the nifty chicks, Johnny passes an alley where a woman who appears to be heavily drugged is either being raped or prostituted. Like a good citizen, Suede finds a public telephone and calls the cops, but he is interrupted when a falling projectile shatters the phone booth’s glass ceiling. The box from the heavens contains Johnny’s dream footwear: black suede shoes with rhinestone accents. Johny forgets the alleyway assault, and the movie forgets the atmosphere of urban dread and decay and forges ahead instead with the slightly offbeat story of a delusional young man struggling to find his way to manhood, romantic happiness and self-sufficiency. A few fantasy moments—a wooden hand poking out of a deserted street, bad fried chicken shared with equally-pompadoured but more successful jerkwad singer Freak Storm in an alley, and lightly Lynchian dreams of nude men in diners and being stabbed by a dwarfs with a TV antenna—intrude on what is basically a series of scenes of apartment-painting jobs, band rehearsals, and awkward dates. Johnny is mildly delusional about both his musical talent and his skills as a ladykiller, and generally not as cool as he thinks he is; he’s a braggart, a bit slow, and a bad liar. His out-of-touch, out-of-time greaser perception of what it means to be a man—indicated by his peacock ‘do as well as recurring symbolism involving miniature cowboys and bulletless guns—keep him impoverished financially, morally, and romantically. Suede’s an interesting, complex character, but the script doesn’t give him much of interest to do. He is well-realized by pretty young Pitt, and the supporting cast is appealing and talented, supplying enough interest to make the minimal story watchable. As a schoolteacher with shoe-throwing tendencies, Keener is sexy, in an average-gal-with-needs sort of way. Watch out for small roles by a young but already cool Samuel L. Jackson as the bass playing Bebop, a still-elegant Tina Louise as a romantic interest’s record industry-connected mom, and a platinum blonde Nick Cave as a drunk and coked-out scam artist singer who represents Johnny’s probable future if he doesn’t wise up and let Keener’s good lovin’ into his heart. As a weird movie lover,  you might find yourself wishing the movie had the courage to pull the trigger on that surreal gun it gave us a peek at early on. Like it’s main character, Johnny Suede is indecisive—it’s quirky and can even be a bit weird when it lets its guard down, but it secretly craves acceptance from normal society.

Writer/director DeCillo was Jim Jarmusch‘s go-to cinematographer before striking out on his own with this debut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Offbeat, stylish and packed with some wonderfully bizarro moments…”–Jeff Dawson, Empire Magazine

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who argued that it “has a low key, offbeat charm to it that I love” and “would make an excellent triple feature along with Barton Fink and Eraserhead [only due to the humongous hair theme].” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PEARLS OF THE DEEP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová,

FEATURING: Pavla Marsálková, Milos Ctrnacty, Frantisek Havel, Josefa Pechlatová, Václav Zák, Vera Mrázkova, Vladimír Boudník, Alzbeta Lastovková, Dana Valtová, Ivan Vyskocil

PLOT: Short adaptations of five stories from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal: racing enthusiasts

Still from Pearls of the Deep (1966)

are obsessed with crashes, two old men in a nursing home reminisce, functionaries try to sell insurance to a mad artist, the discovery of a corpse causes a restaurant to close, and a timid apprentice plumber falls for a fiery teenage Gypsy girl.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Only two of the five segments in this anthology are significantly bizarre, and a paltry 40% weird rate is not going to get your omnibus movie onto the List.

COMMENTS: The Czech New Wave was part of a fascinating period of creativity that resulted from an unprecedented liberalization of film and literature in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s; the movement brought the world the novels of Milan Kundera and the films of director Milos Forman. During this time writers and filmmakers often turned towards surrealism as a way to implicitly critique the absurdity of the totalitarian status quo while maintaining deniability about their political aims (after all, they were merely writing obscure nonsense fiction in the tradition pioneered by national icon Franz Kafka). The New Wave essentially ended in 1968 when, concerned that the rapid pace of democratization might lead Czechoslovakia to exit the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union invaded the country and installed a hard-line regime. Based on short stories by New Wave writer Bohumil Hrabal and featuring entries from five of the top directors of the New Wave, Pearls of the Deep is a sort of sampler of this moment in history when Iron Curtain artists briefly wiggled out of the shackles that had bound them to an ideological wall for decades.

In the wild, you have to open a lot of oysters to find a single pearl; something similar is true of feature length anthology of short films, where the entries have an inevitable tendency to average out. Although even Hrabal’s straightest stories contain small doses of absurdism (which show up in non sequitur dialogues or little narrative oddities), only two of these adaptations have conceits peculiar enough to form surrealistic pearls. Since our focus is on weird films, we’re going to briefly open and reject three out of these five New Wave oysters before looking more Continue reading CAPSULE: PEARLS OF THE DEEP (1966)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Kelly Reichardt

FEATURING:  Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, , Shirley Henderson

PLOT: A small group of settlers faces an indefinite fate when they gamble their survival on the veracity of two diametrically opposed guides, each of questionable character.

Still from Meeks Cuttoff (2010)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: On its face, Meek’s Cutoff appears to be a steady, plodding historical-fiction drama, a slow, tense tale about the perils of trust and the tedium of uncertainty. And it is…to an extent. But there’s something going on under the surface. When the film refuses to relinquish it’s heavy, solemn tone by employing a musical score or comic relief as the unrelentingly grim and heavy nature of the characters’ conundrum intensifies and hangs on our conscience like dead weight, and as the subtly surreal nature of the setting and the situation sinks in, the weirdness mounts. The effect combines the absurdist, futile tedium of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the eerie sense of a malignant grand design of Yellowbrickroad (2010), and the pensive, serenely surreal atmosphere of Housekeeping (1987). The result is unique and unsettling.

The sudden, quietly shocking ending and the location in the story in which it occurs appalls the viewer with a sickening insight. This epiphany reveals that the movie is not about the drama which has been unfolding up to this point, or about how it is to be resolved, but that it concerns something entirely different. Upon grasping the filmmakers’ message, we realize we have had a genuinely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: From the first frame, it’s obvious that Meek’s Cutoff is a serious, authentic, carefully crafted story. As is the case with so many independent art films, a majority of viewers may reject it. Audiences who are pining for a reprise of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider should skip Meek’s Cutoff and instead opt for something like True Grit. They will find Meek’s Cutoff  boring, and it’s climax confusing, unsatisfying and disturbing.

Viewers who enjoy artfully cerebral movies with ambiguous conclusions however, will like Meek’s Cutoff. The clever ending dramatically drives home the thrust of the film, revealing it to be much Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)