This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.
Brought to opulent (some might say pretentious) life by Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Amer is an homage to the Italian giallo horror films of the 1960s and ’70s, and more specifically the works of the genre’s most notable denizen, Dario Argento. Amer (French for bitter) is an all-but-wordless, trisected mindbender of a movie, running portentously through one girl’s life, from her twisted childhood, to the seductively innocent carnality of young womanhood, to her inevitably tragic (and inevitably violent) demise. In short, it is a lyrical horror movie that manages to arouse and nauseate at the same time and in equal measure. In shorter yet, it is both succulent and repellent. In even shorter, it is simply Amer.
Told as almost Gothic horror, set in a sufficiently terrifying seaside villa, Amer starts out with an eight or nine year old Ana, running from room to room, trying her best to outsmart both her overbearing mother and the ugly crone of a witch that was her grandfather’s caretaker, while attempting to steal a necklace she must pry out of her ancient grandfather’s cold dead hands. The film takes on a magical feel right away, as an insidious doom overshadows all that is happening around her and her young eyes are assaulted by the evil that lurks around her and (in a scene of frenetic, salacious eroticism) the writhing, sweating bodies of her parents bedroom. The terror, both metaphorical and physical, that will eventually devour Ana, is already beginning to surround this wide-eyed little girl.
We next turn to the adolescent Ana, her Lolita-esque body glistening in the midday sun, her bee-stung lips curling in a seraphic yet alluring manner, the slight breeze blowing her light dress provocatively, all the while slowly waltzing in front of a row of very-interested bikers, flaunting, advertising her newfound sexual desires. The erotic longings that first popped up in Ana’s wicked childhood surface here in a much more dangerous way. Next we see a grown Ana, her fantasy world now completely engulfing her, returning to her now dilapidated seaside home, every shadow, every noise, every creak, every sensual yearning, an ominous foreshadowing of the horror to come.
With the mysterious black-gloved hand that keep Ana from screaming, the muscled, libidinous arms that grope her and strangle her, and the shining, silvery blade that coldly slices against her face and mouth, warning her of what is to become of her, Amer ends with the same seductively perilous urgency with which it began. Perhaps made as the ego-trip many claim it to have been, Cattet and Forzani nonetheless have captured the essense of those giallo films, and especially the warped, libidinous proclivities of Mr. Argento, to a visual and aural “t.” Just like the Italian horrormeister’s movies, Amer is an erotically charged mindbender of a movie indeed.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’ Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.
Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand. The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my. The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.
Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.
In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.
This review originally appeared in a slightly different form at The Cinematheque.
Surprisingly resonant, this little film from the wilds of Estonia is a sharply focused take on the classic tale of St. Anthony, recalling the work of such past auteurs as Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson and Renoir. The Temptation of St. Tony, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, explores the modern world by showing the strange half-built state of affairs in the former Soviet state: middle-management bureaucrats with bourgeois attitudes traipsing about in the visual poverty of newly built homes on ugly, fauna-less tracts of land—Huxley’s grey squat buildings with a twist. All the while, the film is ensconced inside the world of Hieronymus Bosch, whose “Temptation of St. Anthony” provides the visual starting point.
Shot in crisp black and white (so crisp one could call it black and silver) Õunpuu gives us a tale that is pure Kafka (via Tarkovksy visually and Bunuel spiritually), interspersed with visions of a hellish possibility that twists the film into a nightmare. Our faithful and fateful protag is homebound after a party when he hits and kills a dog. He drags the dog into the woods to hide the evidence and stumbles upon a severed human hand. Upon further inspection, our man finds a pile of dozens and dozens of severed human hands. This is the beginning of the Kafkaesque nightmare, which roller coasters its way through Hell and back and into its inevitably tragic, incessantly twisted finale.
The centerpiece of the film is the Bosch-like Hell that plays itself as some sort of nightclub-cum-cannibalistic whorehouse where our “hero” must save the waifish (read: pretty, but used would-be crack whore) damsel-in-distress he has become enamored with—and since we are throwing in influences, let’s toss in David Lynch right around this point. The place is made up in such a way that we would not be surprised to find the disfigured face of Tom Waits dancing about in some sinister manner—and for a second we almost seem to, though at second glance we find that it’s the French actor Denis Lavant. Whatever the case may be, The Temptation of St. Tony—this strangely sublime nightmare of a movie, in its crisper-than-crisp photography, impossible Kafkaesque storyline, Bosch-inspired visual audacity and Tarkovskyian layerings—is a film you’ll be hard pressed to avert your eyes from, even in the most disturbing of moments.
PLOT: A shy up-and-coming ballet dancer lands the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.”
Obsessed with perfection and paranoid that the dual role will be taken away from her, she struggles to become both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan characters.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a psychological horror-thriller, no doubt about it, and in many ways it sticks to the conventions of that kind of film . But at the same time, Black Swan is so eerie, so unsettling, and so strange in its hallucinatory freak-outs and loosening grip on reality—and so good overall—that it probably warrants inclusion on the List.
COMMENTS: It is very difficult to write any kind of in-depth review of this movie without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything, just take my word for it that Black Swan is a truly exceptional film and you should go see it. Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid any big revelations, but will mention various plot points.
It seems the controversial Darren Aronofsky has found a way to combine the considerable and versatile talents he exhibited in his preceding films into one near-perfect thriller that’s both unsettling and emotionally gripping. He infuses his new feature with all the depravity of Requiem for a Dream, the visceral surrealism of Pi, the visual splendor of The Fountain, and the grounded character of The Wrestler, while of course adding some beautiful dance sequences and a sapphic fantasy. His camera moves with the dancers as they bound across the stage, offering a volatile but accessible glimpse at a live art form and throwing in enough technical tricks to keep any camera geek guessing.
Nina is a quiet, innocent young woman—an obvious product of her coddling, controlling mother—and her quest for perfection in dance leads her to attempt a complete personality overhaul. To play the Black Swan role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” she must release the dark, confident, seductive force within her that’s been fighting to break out. This duality within her character is frequently hinted at throughout the film through use of mirrors, sex, and hallucination woven so seamlessly with reality that the viewer is frequently unsure what is real—as is Nina herself. The constant mind games Aronofsky plays with his audience—along with Natalie Portman’s dedicated performance—make for a captivating, tense experience. I was so engaged and so anxious during this movie I felt myself physically relax about twenty minutes after it ended, though mentally I still felt shaken.
A testament to the great struggles inherent to any artistic expression, Black Swan is an intense and passionate film. Every sound is acutely felt, every strange vision strikes a cord. At times things get as visceral as Cronenberg‘s body horrors. The horror is derived from how little we really know about anything outside of Nina’s own experience, and how unsure we are about how much worse it’s going to get. Everyone around her presumably leads a fairly normal, expected life (well, everyone except Winona Ryder’s tragic, boozy ex-dancer Beth), but we are rarely able to see outside of Nina’s self-constructed dual prison of home and studio, which is inflated in her own head. Indeed, the few times we are reminded of the outside world offer welcome comedic breaks to somewhat ease the ever-building tension.
All of Aronofsky’s stylistic flourishes and subtly terrifying images are tempered by several truly impressive performances. Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation, and exhilaration. Mila Kunis is an excellent foil, physically mirroring the shy protagonist while exuding the sexuality and abandon Nina strives for. Vincent Cassell is a superb jackass, channeling George Balanchine in his romantic, tyrannical choreographer Thomas Leroy, and Barbara Hershey is appropriately sympathetic and creepy as Nina’s obsessive mother Erica.
From the very beginning Black Swan reaches out and grabs its audience, never letting its grip slip until well after the credits roll. At times it may be hard to watch, but you’ll never want to look away, and what you see will certainly stick with you. And the combination of backstage ballet drama, pulp-thriller gore, and hallucinatory allegory actually is pretty weird.
Imagine a world where up is down, hot is cold, red is black, dandelions are zombies and that mysterious slit between a young girl’s legs is called a keyboard. Welcome to the bizarre world of Giorgos Lanthimos’ deep black comedy-cum-Greek tragedy oddity, Dogtooth.
The strange story of a father who keeps his three adult children locked away on their country estate, allowing them no knowledge of the outside world other than what he and their mother (almost a prisoner herself) let them know—most of which is a twisted version of reality. Never allowing the children (and though they all seem to be in their twenties, they are still very much children emotionally) to set foot outside of the family gate, the father tells them no one can venture outside the home except in the family car. Only he ever does. He drives his car ten feet past the gate to retrieve the son’s lost toy airplane. Down on all fours and barking at unseen terrors lying in wait just outside of the family compound, these are not your normal cinematic children. Though they live in what they perceive to be reality (and the only world they know) they could very well be living on another planet.
Essentially prisoners, these children are like experiments to the father (much like the dog training he is introduced to at one point in the story). Each day they learn new words that have no correlation with what they actually mean in the outside world. They are told that they can leave home only once their canine teeth fall out—a thing that of course we know does not happen without a bit of forceful persuasion. At one point, the father begins bringing home a young woman he works with (blindfolded, of course) to have her engage in sexual relations with the son—a thing that is done without emotion, without fanfare and without any seeming pleasure on either end—only to have her betray his confidence by beginning to have a sexual relationship with the youngest daughter in exchange for presents. Again, this is done without any semblance of emotion or passion; the daughter simply tells the girl if she licks her “there” (pointing to the obvious spot) she can have a gift.
Playing off Shyamalan’s The Village (though without the ridiculousness of that film) but done in a very matter-of-fact style typical of Greek cinema (or any Balkan cinema really) and especially of the nation’s cinematic icon Theo Angelopoulos, Lanthimos’ odd little movie reeks of possible exploitation, both in character and in style. But, instead, it comes off as almost experimentation—as much as the father’s experimentation (i.e., the dog-like training) upon his unknowing children. Yet, even with the passionless approach to characterization (including the most banal sex scenes ever filmed) we can feel the tremors begin beneath the surface, and we know that eventually there is going to be a deeply felt emotional explosion from at least one of these children. Of course this emotional A-Bomb does eventually come (culminating in that aforementioned forceful persuasion) and we are left with a haunting final image that may be the inevitable conclusion to a psychologically dangerous tale such as Lanthimos’ bizarre Dogtooth.
This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.
“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Johnny Guitar is one of those films one must not take too seriously. Now don’t get me wrong, the film is indeed a great work of cinematic art (possibly director Nick Ray’s best work) and its classically gorgeous look and progressive visual style make it a wonder to behold, but its over-the-top giddiness and the way it verges on camp (especially in the dialogue and performances) make the film something altogether different. Something almost dreamlike—almost as if you are not watching a movie so much as hallucinating what you might think a movie could or should be.
Johnny Guitar, the film that Truffaut once called “Hallucinatory Cinema,” is almost magical in its approach to what film is and still should be. This strange characteristic turns this redefined western into almost an experimental work of art. Something that defines not what the western genre is, nor even what it could be, but what it might be if torn asunder and flipped onto its proverbial backside. Something one could see Quentin Tarantino attempting today, but made instead back in the mid-fifties when life was staid and suburban and everyone was just crazy about Ike.
Derek Malcolm of The Guardian said of the film, “This baroque and deliriously stylised Western, along with Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, proves it is possible to lift the genre into the realms of Freudian analysis, political polemic and even Greek tragedy.” Amen brother.
Other westerns of the time delve deeper than the typical genre-specific Hop-a-long Cassidy territory of the earlier mode—The Searchers is a Freudian masterpiece for sure and the films of Anthony Mann (and to a lesser degree Budd Boetticher) have stretched the ideas of right and wrong to Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)→
PLOT: A maniac conductor sadistically stalks hobos along his Depression era freight, smashing their skulls with a club hammer when they try to ride the rails. NO ONE rides his Number 19 train for free. Evil incarnate, he exists only to hunt men.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Emperor Of The North Pole may not have the requisite look, feel, or scary music, but it is very much a horror movie. Instead of the supernatural, the monsters are men. The killer is no cloaked slasher striking by night, but a crazy-eyed, obsessed railroad man, insane with twisted rage, filled with frothing blood lust, armed with cruel and unusual instruments of punishment. He gets his kicks by smashing in skulls and he strikes in broad daylight unrestrained, with complete impunity. This incongruency—a horrifying film that masquerades as a suspense drama by telling an unconventional, real-world story—makes for an unusual viewing experience. Add larger-than-life archetypal characters; bizarre, colorful monologues; and a deceptively simple plot about a symbolic evil vs. slightly-less-evil struggle, and the result is a riveting, weird movie.
COMMENTS: Pastoral Oregon locations set an illusory bucolic tone in the opening shots of Emperor Of The North Pole as a steam locomotive winds its way through rural woodlands. This is Union Pacific’s Number 19 freight, and it has a madman on board.
It is 1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and 1/4 of Americans are unemployed. Many of them are literally starving to death. A mobile army of homeless men roams the country looking for temporary work, stealing rides on the rails. They are nomads who live by no law but their own, and the Railroad Man is dedicated to their destruction. On the Portland route, that man is Shack (Borgnine), a ruthless conductor who enforces the “paying passengers only” rule with deadly reverence.
Railroads don’t like it when you stow away on board or trespass on their tracks. Today they employ a battalion of federally licensed, armed railroad detectives to catch you, and these men behave like real bastards when they do. But in 1933 even the railroads were hard up. His actions condoned by underfunded, undermanned, corrupt law enforcement, Shack takes the job of controller, making sure that no one rides for free. Drawing from his own sadistic black book of dirty tricks he patrols his train like a monstrous gargoyle, perpetually on the lookout for bums.
Relentless and Argus-eyed, Shack is a real-life Terminator: he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with, he has no mercy to appeal to, he is hard to kill, and he will never, ever stop. Shack has a savage arsenal of bizarre, creepy weapons at his disposal, but his favorite is the engineer’s heavy, double-headed club mallet.
When Shack, creeping along the speeding 19’s boxcar catwalk, finds a tramp riding on the frame of a hopper car, he sneaks up on the hapless man. The bum, enjoying a sandwich, is blissfully unaware of the danger. With a fell swoop of the club hammer, Shack smashes the man’s skull. His head laid open, dangling between cars, the hobo begs for his life before being sucked under. In a spectacular, graphic sequence the rail cars’ sharp under-hangs ensnare the tramp and violently wad him up before the heavy wheels slice him in half like a biscuit.
For the Railroad Man, his pension and gold watch are at stake. For the hobo, it is a matter of survival. But for both, there is also pride. Shack is determined the hobos not see him as a free ride. He is humiliated and taunted when the hobo community marginalizes him by defying his rules.
The hobos hate Shack, but they also want to prove themselves to each other. To be a master hobo, a skilled man of the road who can survive in style and avoid arrest, is to become “Emperor of the North Pole,” king of the tracks. The term is cynically self-deprecating. Penniless, desperate, with no past, no future, no clout and nobody to vouch for them, the hobos perceive that they lead a futile, near meaningless, existence. Anybody presiding over the North Pole would be emperor of a worthless desert.
In this context, the alpha male tramp of the West Coast hobo “jungle” camps is the admired A-Number One (Marvin). A#1 is determined to prove himself Emperor Of The North Pole by successfully riding notorious Shack’s Number 19 all the way to Portland. He is dogged by a swaggering, inept, tag-along, upstart named “Cigaret” (Carradine). Using numerous tactics to sneak aboard and avoid detection on the 19, A#1 is caught between Shack’s criminal tactics and Cigraret’s malicious recklessness. Despite A#1’s paternal attempts to mentor him, Cigaret continuously betrays A#1 out of a sense of misguided competition.
In trying to derail Shack, A#1 and Cigaret nearly derail the entire train. To distract and misdirect Shack, A#1 and Cigaret do their best to compromise and professionally ruin him with a series of sidetracking stunts. But the stunts are not mere jokes. They are heavy, malicious felonies which endanger the hobos, other trains, and entire crews with imminent bloody death.
While the ‘bo’s believe Shack deserves killin’, their actions justify Shack’s murderous rampage as well. Like a runaway train, the perverse feud escalates beyond the boundaries of any sensible limits. The locomotive steams and roars. The whistle shrieks. The pistons churn. The black smoke streams into the sky. The trio of enraged men highball over the steel rails. Their murderous plots against each other descend into a maelstrom of frothy, blood-soaked madness. As they barrel along among the swaying cars of the speeding train, the inflamed trio hurtles toward an ultimate gladiatorial showdown to determine who will be Emperor Of The North Pole.
Writer Christopher Knopf’s deceptively minimalist script was tailor made for Robert Aldrich’s now familiar themes: men in their primal state squaring off against each other, the ultimate confrontation, man against environment, life as arena, life as a game, men and machines. The characters are simplistic and archetypal, and the space they occupy, like a gladiatorial ring, is very small: the area enclosed by two rails. The universality of these simple building blocks enabled Knopf to forge an engrossing adventure to which audiences can easily relate.
Knopf considered the political tempo of the times, the populist social attitudes of the downtrodden, the quest for survival, the attitudes of the elites; i.e. the fabric of society and its rules. He rendered these factors down into a raw story about a conductor who won’t have hobos on his train and the two hobos bent on defying him. The result is powerful and directly accessible without being dumbed down.
Every shot is carefully assembled as if it will be a still photo submitted for exhibit. Each frame showing a character is an artistic portrait. The selection of shots and the way they are edited is expressive and precise. Additionally, Aldrich used a fine grain film stock which reveals very sharp detail. The resulting visual impact dramatically emphasizes the action. This gives everything about the film a larger than life feel, and reinforces the conceit of archetypal characters in an archetypal situation.
Emperor Of The North Pole was re-released on DVD in 2006. The DVD reflects that the original film print was carefully preserved. The re-release has dazzling sharp picture quality.
Emperor Of The North Pole was inspired by Jack London’s On The Road and From Coast To Coast. It was shot along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern short line railroad near Cottage Grove, where Stand By Me (1986) was filmed in 1985. Viewers who see both will recognize the distinctive countryside. Stand By Me was the last of several motion pictures to be filmed on these tracks. The first, in 1926, the was The General, Buster Keaton’s famous period piece about a Civil War locomotive chase.
Surviving for over 90 years, the Oregon Pacific and Eastern was constructed in 1901 to bridge Cottage Grove southeast to the Bohemia mining district. The last train ran the line in the mid 1990s.
The steam locomotive and trains used in the filming of Emperor Of The North Pole were part of the actual working stock of the railroad, still in use in the the 1970’s. Shack’s Number 19 locomotive featured in the movie is a 1915 Baldwin 2-8-2. It pulled excursion trains well into the ’70’s along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern (pictured below).
Number 19 still runs today, pulling the “Blue Goose” excursion train on the Yreka Western Railroad between Yreka and Montague, California.
The terms “hobos,” “tramps,” and “bums” have been used interchangeably in this recommendation for purposes of convenience. This is actually not correct usage, as the names have distinctly different meanings. Here is the rule for remembering them: a bum sits and loafs, a tramp loafs and keeps moving, but a hobo works and moves, and he is clean.
FEATURING: Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar
PLOT: The childish Cowboy and Indian decide to build their roommate Horse a brick
barbecue for his birthday, but after accidentally ordering 50 million bricks instead of just 50, they launch a spectacular and hilarious chain of events involving sea creatures, catapulted farm animals, music lessons, burning lava, mad scientist overlords, and a giant robotic penguin. WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The inexplicable premise sets up a story that escalates into weirder and weirder territory as it progresses. A lively assemblage of old-fashioned model figures rendered in clay prance about a candy-colored landscape sporting Looney Tunes-worthy voices and completely nonsensical motivations. Their experiences get funnier as they become more surreal, with frequent disregard of the laws of physics, a range of goofy outbursts, eclectic personalities, and unpredictable changes of scenery. As a film it’s immensely enjoyable, but completely impossible to explain.
COMMENTS: Belgian writers/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar adapted A Town Called Panic from their television series starring bickering housemates Horse, Cowboy, and Indian, featuring a wide variety of shenanigans. In the beginning of this movie, the trio transform a few normal life experiences (running a farm, finding a birthday gift, taking music lessons) into uncategorizable slices of a child’s playtime. As it moves along, the small connection to reality dissipates in trips to the center of the earth, Antarctic mad science, and underwater department stores.
The animation is incredibly playful and dynamic, and the sets look like they jumped out of a Dr Seuss illustration. The characters, modeled in clay to resemble plastic action figures, move around with jerky large movements and detailed fine ones, propelling the film forward with an insane energy. No matter what is happening on screen, it is extremely fun to watch, as well as an impressive technical achievement. The bursts of garage rock soundtrack perfectly suit the manic atmosphere of the visuals.
It’s immensely funny, and chock-full of surrealistic imagery and wacky surprises. Many of the voices are high-pitched to match the rapid, anxious dialogue. The story is crazy, but somehow it all makes sense within the parameters of this imaginary world that Patar and Aubier have created. It fits that when a house is crushed by a mountain of bricks, it just flips upside down and hangs underwater, or that falling down a deep crevice leads to the earth’s molten core. Once you’re into the swing of things, just sit back and allow the insanity, cartoon violence, and non sequiturs to unfold across this unplanned epic journey.
While the script is notably zany, it’s quite smart and thoughtful, with various cute details and references that create a good balance between the physical comedy and dialogue. The characters are adorable and surprisingly relatable in their own ways, offering such delightful antics and madcap conversations that—when taken in together with the bold visuals—multiple viewings are required to fully appreciate the film’s humor and imagination.
PLOT: Ex-con/lounge singer Stingray Sam grudgingly joins his former partner the Quasar Kid
in a quest to save a little girl, with frequent musical breaks featuring songs by The Billy Nayer Show. David Hyde Pierce narrates intermittent segments of animated collage that explain their futuristic society.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It’s a wacky, memorable space musical with western flair, crisp black and white visuals, and imaginative, nonsensical notions of the future, but all that can be found in slightly more intriguing form in McAbee’s earlier work The American Astronaut, which better serves The List by being a feature-length movie (Stingray Sam is an hour-long serial). But it certainly contains enough of its own charm and inventiveness to stand alongside its predecessor, and it shouldn’t be wholly dismissed just yet.
COMMENTS: Conspicuously sponsored by the fictional “Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco” and excitedly asking what our heroes will be up to next at the end of every episode, Stingray Sam is a fitting tribute to old-fashioned serials, keeping many of the western and sci-fi elements of such shows while incorporating a wealth of inspired new ideas. There are several weird inventions and convenient technologies to place it in the futuristic space setting, but the sets are wonderfully low-key and familiar. McAbee’s incredible charm seeps through the screen in everything from his performance to the silly dialogue, aided along by the excellent musical numbers and gorgeous animated collage sequences.
By the time the second episode’s explanatory animated piece details the upper class invention of gender-determining drugs, male-on-male baby-making, and a delightful portmanteau naming system, what started out as a fairly straightforward quest to rescue a maiden quickly evolves into a madcap journey through McAbee’s unpredictable imagination. The layers of references, backstory, character, and pseudo-science wrapped up in a musical comedy-adventure are impressively nuanced. David Hyde Pierce’s articulate and tongue-in-cheek narration (which delights particularly in the word “Durango”) offers a range of ideas, inventions, and happenings that don’t always make sense but never fail to spark interest. The first time around some of this information goes by too quickly, as viewers are hit with so many novelties and humorous animation at once, but subsequent watches prove McAbee’s involved story and unique futuristic vision to be unavoidably successful, if preposterous.
With catchy tunes that probably sit somewhere in the rock and roll spectrum yet manage to remain without a definable genre classification, The Billy Nayer Show (who also comprise several main cast members) craft a fun soundtrack that usually leads to manic dancing and wide smiles. Each episode contains one song, which never encroaches on the action or comedy (and often increases the latter), along with a curt opening theme that reminds us “Stingray Sam is not a hero, but he does do the things that folks don’t do that need to be done.” They serve to make the strange story even more memorable, describing stingray babies, entertainment on Mars, and peg-legged fathers, and add an extra element of goofy joy to the work.
Looking past the wonky sci-fi premise and western trappings (complete with cowboy hats and “yes ma’ams”), the heart of Stingray Sam lies in the unbridled glee the entire project exudes. As Sam, McAbee swings his way into everyone’s hearts with his jerky dance moves, easy smile, and affable demeanor, while Crugie keeps his cool as the Quasar Kid, offers some gruffer tunes, and frequently betrays a weakness for olives. Their intricate secret handshake is just icing on this lovable, quirky cake of a partnership. The beleaguered faces of many supporting cast members seem somehow twisted and plasticine, suiting the off-kilter atmosphere perfectly as they help or hinder our heroes’ proceedings. There’s not much else like Stingray Sam.
Stingray Sam is currently only available directly from director Cory McAbee at his personal site (click here to purchase). If the film follows the marketing plan of The American Astronaut, it will eventually be released via normal distribution channels as well.
FEATURING: Desmond Harrington, Melissa Sagemiller, Udo Kier, Rip Torn
PLOT: In a deviant twist on the Pygmalion myth, a man’s infatuation for a life-like sex doll
evolves into a sinister love triangle when he becomes involved with a coworker.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Love Object, like Lars And The Real Girl which came after, is about a lonely introvert who buys a realistic sex doll for companionship. Like Ken in Love Object, Lars comes to yearn for a coworker, but has trouble making a connection. Lars and the Real Girl is a cute movie about the human spirit, and the socialization and evolution of a lonely man. With the help of his doll and coworker, Lars comes out of his shell, grows and triumphs. In this way, Lars And The Real Girl, while employing a weird vehicle to make its point (the love doll) is more or less a mainstream comedy-drama, no more odd than a Cyrano de Bergerac theme such as Roxanne (1987).
Love Object, however takes a twisted path. The weird idea of needing the love doll is used to define the protagonist’s nature, but it gets stranger from there. Ken’s obsession with the doll is not a positive step in the evolution of his character. It leads him down a dark perverse path toward madness, violence and ruin. The plot is sick and creepy, the content perverse, and it is skillfully handled, making Love Object a good candidate for the designation of being truly weird.
COMMENTS: It’s tempting to insert some sophomoric humor into this recommendation, but the jokes would be all too predictable. Despite delivering many elements of black comedy, the overall tone of this surprisingly violent sardonic yarn is serious. Love Object grimly depicts a bizarre theme with good pacing and artfully blended visual continuity.
Kenneth Winslow is the kind of cold, compulsive dullard who alphabetizes his jock straps. Taking more interest in the technical world than the human one, Ken writes instruction manuals for electronics —you know, the ones nobody reads.