Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: CORALINE (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning (voice), Teri Hatcher (voice)

PLOT:  A petulant little girl finds a parallel universe behind a hidden door in an old house, a world where her parents are more attentive, her neighbors more fascinating, and the entire universe seems set up to pamper and delight her; she can stay there forever, but of course there’s a catch.

Still from Coraline (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I attended a screening with a ten-year old and asked him if he thought the movie was “weird.”  His answer: “Nah, not unless you think every fantasy movie is weird.”  Smart lad.

COMMENTSCoraline is a welcome dark fantasy for children, although its themes of evil Doppelgänger moms, frightening buttons, and implied eye-gouging are too scary for very little ones.  Since it’s from Hanry Selick, the director of the borderline weird Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect going in that the art direction and stop-motion animation will be the real stars.   Selick does not disappoint, shuffling the viewer through three distinct visual styles: the dingy earth tones of real life, a brightly colored, eye-popping fantasy world, and a sinister, disintegrating universe with an insect trapped in a spiderweb theme.  The storyline, and the unexpected scares once the movie shifts from childhood fantasy to childhood horror in the third act, make Coraline more than just eye candy for the kiddies.

Presented in theaters in 3-D, but the novelty doesn’t add anything significant to experience: I would have been just as happy to watch the same moving pictures tell the same story on an unabashedly flat screen.  Though there’s nothing really weird to be found here, Coraline, in the best children’s’ movie tradition, is worth a trip even for adult fans of fantasy and pure escapism.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Coraline discovers a Wonderland filled with surreal characters and dark implications that make a kid grow up quick… those who tough it out with this twisted, trippy adventure in impure imagination will only be the better for it.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

CAPSULE: TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorshin

PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a

twilight_of_the_ice_nymphs

mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.

WHY IT  WON’T MAKE THE LISTTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough to make the List, although it can be such slow going that many folks will tune out before discovering it’s weirder points.  Twilight just isn’t good enough.  With several of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort, weird though it may well be, to take space away from a more deserving contender.

COMMENTSTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting.  The protagonist, Peter (Nigel Whitmey), is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also, it seems, to episodes of sleep-acting.  For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed.  It doesn’t help that Whitmey’s dialogue was dubbed in by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor.  Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance.  Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent.  Veteran movie actors Shelley Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.

That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous.  Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene.  Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy.  This makes the movie effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection” (buy), along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Maddin’s fictional world is… so infused with such a delightful weirdness, such a disorienting, overwrought absurdity, that its artificiality and peculiarity give it a marvelous flavor that is a real pleasure to savor.” -Keith Allen, movierapture.com

CAPSULE: CUBE ZERO (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Ernie Barbarash

FEATURING: Zachary Bennet, Stephanie Moore, Michael Riley

PLOT:  Audiences return to the cube from Cube in this prequel, only this time

cube_zero

we see the diabolical prison from the vantage point of its bureaucratic overseers as well as the poor souls trapped inside.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  While the first Cube sequel (Cube 2: Hypercube) tried unsuccessfully to ratchet up the weirdness factor by throwing in more effects and a hyperbolic, reality-twisting plot, Cube Zero instead chooses to focus on a standard rescue narrative.  It also purports to answer (although unrealistically) pretty much every question one might have as to the cube’s design or purpose, thus completely exorcising the mysterious atmosphere of the original and leaving nothing left to be said or done in the Cube universe.

COMMENTS:  Unlike its predecessors, which showed b-movie influences but had higher aspirations, Cube Zero is an unapologetic action/sci-fi vehicle.  The paranoia of the previous entries only arises sporadically: once when drone Wynn asks a co-worker about his memories, and once in a highly effective scene that poses a surprisingly literal theological question.  Otherwise, the movie is more interested in the cube’s traps, imbuing them with gleefully gory capabilities (in an early scene, a victim startlingly dissolves into a pile of gooey grue before our eyes).  Add to this formula a cartoonish villain in the person of Jax, who sports not only a cane and an ironically genteel cadence but also a glittering metal implant where his eye once was, and you get an effective (if standard issue) b-movie, but a highly ineffective weird movie.

Some Cube fans (who apparently missed the major point of the movie) yearned for answers to the riddle of the Cube’s existence.  They finally got them with this installment.  Unfortunately, since these revelations destroy the fragile mystery and deliberate ambiguity that made Cube special, Cube Zero probably deals a fatal blow to the franchise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you enjoyed the last two ‘Cube’ movies, then you’ll feel right at home. True, there’s nothing overly original in ‘Cube Zero’… [although the] movie does offer a lot of answers, there’s that unshakeable sense of [deja] vu. Introducing Wynn and the other operators marks the sequel’s best decision, but adding the wacky Jax and his two black suited underlings takes away some of the film’s gloomy disposition and makes ‘Cube Zero’ something of a comedy, with a lot of ‘Brazil’-esque kooky bits and set scenery that seems to exist for the singular purpose of being kooky.” —Beyond Hollywood

CAPSULE: CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Andrzej Sekula

FEATURING: Kari Matchett

PLOT: Just as in the 1997 surprise hit, eight strangers wake up stripped of

cube_2_hypercube

their memories in a mysterious, deadly cube composed of indistinguishable rooms–but this second generation “hypercube” has some new tricks to play on its captives.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCube 2: Hypercube can get pretty weird, especially when the film throws in gratuitous alternate realities in an attempt to up the original Cube‘s ante.  The sequel also does a fair-to-middling job of recreating the atmosphere of paranoia and existential anxiety from the original.  The first movie is a classic, but if there is to be room for more than one Cube movie on the list of 366, Hypercube needs to take the series in a startling, original new direction.  This, it fails to do; the sequel merely attempts to provide this audience more of what they loved about the first movie.  It can’t possibly achieve this feat, however, because what people loved about the original was it’s originality: the shock and surprise of finding a low-budget independent science fiction gem that was thoughtful, exciting, and weird.

COMMENTSCube 2: Hypercube is of interest mainly to fans of the original who want to revisit the cube and hope only for a few new twists.  The CGI special effects are mildly upgraded, and the cube has a new gleaming white color scheme, which may make some happy.  One of the things that made the original so exhilarating, however, was the varying reactions of characters to the predicament of being trapped inside the bizarre structure: some fight to survive, some give up hope, some become paranoid and suspect their fellow travelers know something about the cube and are trying to deceive them, some simply go mad.  The way the trapped inmates bounced off one another made Cube at times seem more like a character-centered play rather than an effects-centered movie.  Although Cube 2 tires to recapture this interplay, wooden acting from several of the leads frustrates the attempt.

Cube 2: Hypercube also stumbles when it takes baby steps towards trying to explain why the cube exists.  In the original, although the structure exhibited signs of order that suggested a diabolical intelligence behind it, there was no unambiguous hint to its origin or purpose; this made the cube a powerful metaphor for brute existence.  While trying to recapture the ambiance of the first movie, Cube 2 deliberately takes steps towards demolishing its essence.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Cube 2 is somewhat more gimmicky and certainly less conceptually neat than the first Cube was. There’s lot of fascinatingly weird happenings and these are all eventually given an explanation – alas not one that comes with the beautiful sense of a puzzle falling into place that we saw in the first film. The disparity can clearly be seen in comparing the story structure of the two – the first film has the logic of a detective story unfolding, whereas Cube 2 is merely a flight through a collapsing labyrinth.” –Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Movie Review Site

CAPSULE: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

AKA You Better Watch Out

DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson

FEATURING: Brandon Maggart

PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.

christmas_evil
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout. Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice. The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough. There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.

COMMENTSChristmas Evil is a serious character study—or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study—of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making. There are many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) that provide a black comedy feel. On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production. Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe. If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.

When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly ol’ St. Nick as a homicidal killer. Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa. Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot

CAPSULE: KUNG FU ARTS [HOU FU MA] (1980)

AKA Kung Fu: Monkey, Horse, Tiger

DIRECTED BY: Lee Shi Chieh, Lee Geo Shu

FEATURING: Carter Wong [as Huang Chia-Da], Cheng Shing, Sida the French Monkey Star

PLOT:  A princess marries a chimpanzee, amidst intrigue in the Chinese imperial court.

kung_fu_arts

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Any film featuring “Sida the French Monkey Star” is at least a little weird.  The main obstacle to Kung Fu Arts cementing a place in the list of 366 is that it’s coming out of the weirdest movie genre of all—those short lived 1970s “chopsocky” movies made quickly, dubbed badly, and exported to the West to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee.  When the average entry in this genre features fists that cut the air with a loud swoosh, heavily stylized but amazingly choreographed fight scenes between men wearing brilliantly colored robes, and silly dialogue that surrealistically refuses to keep up with the actor’s lips, the threshold to be considered “weird” rises significantly.  Kung Fu Arts adds monkeys to the formula: monkeys who are addressed by the ensemble as if they were mute actors with a perfect understanding of Cantonese, but monkeys nonetheless.  This is creates a fairly high weirdness quotient, but in the end I decided not to make Kung Fu Arts a finalist, because I have faith there were even more deserving entries out there.  But don’t be surprised to see this movie reconsidered and placed on the list some day in the future.

COMMENTS:  If you’re tuned in to the chopsocky wavelength (and you should be), Kung Fu Arts is an entertaining little picture.  Although it’s somewhat light on fighting, it has wonderful costuming, an intriguing fairy-tale plot, and a reasonable amount of chuckles stemming from the straight-faced acting directed at the primate stars.  From the moment the imperial guards fall to their knees and plead with Sida to come down from the rooftop with the king’s pilfered royal proclamation, to the final battle where a small army of primates help the hero to defeat the evil usurper to the throne, Kung Fu Arts supplies plenty of silly smiles, some intended by the filmmakers, and many unintentional.

Kung Fu Arts is available as part of the Mill Creek 50 Martial Arts Movie Pack.  Because the movie is in the public domain, it’s available for download from Public Domain Torrents.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: ” The plot is completely nonsensical (though possibly based on some sort of Chinese myth), and it seems like the film was designed mostly for children with some potty humour thrown in for good measure.”–Doug Tilley, Movie Feast (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

CAPSULE: ANGEL HEART (1987)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet

PLOT:  1950s private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by a suave, sartorial client (Robert DeNiro) to track down a crooner; as the search takes him from Harlem to New Orleans, Angel finds that every lead he interviews ends up dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With its (sometimes literally) dripping atmosphere, mysterious dreamlike flashbacks, and a conclusion that will chill the blood if you don’t see it coming, Angel Heart appeals to lovers of the weird. In the end, however, this macabre film noir is simply too conventional to be weird, a standard detective story with the supernatural grafted onto it.  The fact that the mystery is completely and satisfactorily resolved at the end leaves us little wonder to carry forward.

COMMENTS:   There was one throwaway scene that almost tipped Angel Heart into the weird column.  Angel is standing on the beach at Coney Island, backing off from the oncoming tide, wearing a plastic nose shield on his sunglasses (more than a little reminiscent of the bandage Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) on an overcast day, and talking to the wife of a carnival geek as she soaks her varicose veins in the Atlantic.  Now that’s a situation you don’t find yourself in everyday!  Had there been more subtly off-kilter scenes like this peppered throughout, Angel Heart could have been a weird classic.

On its original release, the film was notorious for the bloody, MPAA-enraging sex scene with recent ex-Cosby kid Lisa Bonet.  The scene still packs a wallop today, and is even more memorable because it isn’t wholly gratuitous, but has a horrifying significance within the context of the story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Angel Heart,’ with its stigmatic sets and satanic text, makes the perfect cult movie just as the Rev. Jones made the perfect batch of Kool-Aid. It already has assured itself a limited audience, as most moviegoers will be repulsed by the needless gore, including sudden open-heartsurgery and assorted other murder-mutilations. The lot overwhelms this devilishly clever detective allegory, a supernatural variation on ’50s pulp mysteries.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post (contemporaneous)