WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 12/26/2014

Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

It’s the holidays in Hollywood, and there are only a few meager releases left to be dumped in 2014, either theatrically or on home video. None of them are particularly weird. We did scrape up a couple of news items that we’ve been sitting for a while, along with one late gift idea for the weirdo on your shopping list.

IN DEVELOPMENT:

Empires of the Deep (probably completed): This Chinese mermaid fantasy, which cost a reported $130 million dollars and was promoted as China’s answer to Avatar, was made with a cast of European and American actors headlined by Olga Kurylenko. Based on the trailer, the plot involves mermaids fighting giant evil lobsters (the SyFy channel would call them “Mega Lobsters”). At least four directors (including the guy who handled Halle Berry’s Catwoman disaster—who was their first choice!) either quit or were fired while working on this one. Empires is so bad it seems to have been shelved—but is it ? Once the Chinese figure out capitalism, greed will bring it to light. Read more at i09.

Untitled Stephen Sondheim project: This news is a little late, but now that Sondheim’s revisionist fairy tale musical Into the Woods is in theaters, it’s arguably timely. Sondheim, who’s rapidly approaching last-man-standing status in the Broadway musical business, has announced that his project will be deliciously noncommercial, a song-and-dance extravaganza based on two classics by Surrealist master Luis Buñuel: The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (For those not in the know, one of these movies concerns friends who find that they can never meet for dinner, while the other is about a group of people trapped at a dinner party they can’t leave). Suggested lyrics: “these canapés are tasty/But our exit must be hasty/Oh no, we… can’t… leave!” Our main questions are, how long will this take to make it from stage to screen, and will it suck as badly as that Fellini musical catastrophe? Read more at The New York Times.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Skidoo (1968): Read the Certified Weird entry! Just a few years ago, we thought we might never get to see the long-buried flop comedy where Jackie Gleason drops acid and plays “God”; now, here it is on Blu-ray. Buy Skidoo [Blu-ray].

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

CAPSULE: BUTTWHISTLE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Tenney Fairchild

FEATURING: Trevor Morgan, Elizabeth Rice, Analeigh Tipton, Adhir Kalyan

PLOT: A pathologically nice guy rescues a cute but sadistic girl from a suicide attempt, and she takes over his life and poisons his relationships.

Still from Buttwhistle (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Buttwhistle is legitimately weird, from its random opening Scanners tribute to the detached coda, an obscene discussion of the law of non-contradiction. That is not to say that it’s an entirely successful enterprise, however; and although it’s not nearly as bad as you may have heard, it’s not a serious contender for one of the best weird movies of all time, either.

COMMENTS: Despite its “stupid” title, Buttwhistle is put together with care, and maybe even love, but it’s easy to see why this strange mix of slacker drama and deadpan absurdity infuriated most viewers. The first ten minutes are guaranteed to confuse, with too many supporting characters–girlfriends, bikers, cheeky British chums—introduced without much context, and some real non-sequiturs thrown in to boot. Stick with it and the plot will mostly sort itself out, however, though I wouldn’t expect every line of inquiry to be followed through to completion if I were you.

When, out of nowhere, easygoing Ogden catches Beth falling from the sky—presumably in a suicide attempt—the basic outline of this frog-and-the-scorpion fable becomes clear. Ogden is a terminal nice guy; it’s impossible to insult him because he turns every jab into a joke on himself (“You have an answer for everything!” “I’m not going to answer that.”) He’s the kind of guy who regularly checks in on his elderly neighbor, the friend you turn to when you’re out of doors and needed a floor to sleep on, no questions asked. Beth follows him home and stays with him with no discussion about the arrangement. She is Ogden’s mirror image, completely nasty and selfish. She amuses herself by spiting in Ogden’s food when he’s not looking. She takes a keen interest in both seducing her savior, and in surreptitiously turning everyone in his life against him.

Tonally, Buttwhistle is a strange egg. A lot of it has the feel of a hipsterish indie drama, but with inconsistent applications of absurdist humor. The influences are good: (Ogden talks about changing his name into the sound of an air horn, middle name “for which it stands”) and (when someone illogically calls Ogden’s phone and asks to speak to half of a pair of detectives currently interviewing him about missing dogs, the other partner grills the lad about the unsolicited call), but without the silliness of the one or the darkness of the other. A vision of an ex-girlfriend and a talking bar of soap give Ogden advice, he fights girls while dressed in drag, helps fix a biker’s plastic cybernetic hand, and so on. The performances are pleasant, and a number of small clever jokes land, but overall Buttwhistle fails to find sure footing. The message is that Ogden is too nice, too altruistic for his own good—but he’s so likable we don’t want him to change, which makes for an oddly non-cathartic tragedy. Buttwhistle‘s fractured aesthetic lacks sharp edges, but remains hard to grasp.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…surreal and senseless, with hopelessly inept execution.”–Geoff Berkshire, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Isao Takahata

FEATURING: Chloe Moretz,  (English dub)

PLOT: A bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot; he raises her and trains her to become a noble, and eventually a princess, although she has other ideas about life.

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a gorgeously animated fantasy film, but not exceedingly weird until a final act push that’s too little, too late.

COMMENTS: Kaguya is an extremely beautiful film. At times it looks like it was drawn on rice paper scrolls in cherry blossom ink. A serious, reverential, and yet generally light-hearted treatment of Japan’s oldest written narrative, it will not appeal to young kids, who will stick with it through the opening but get bored long before the credits roll after 137 minutes. Girls setting out on their teenage years may identify with poor Kaguya, pressured to be a lady against her own heart; but, despite its fairy tale structure and youthful protagonist, this is reflective animation aimed at adults.

The tale can be broken into three parts. The opening describes how a humble bamboo cutter discovers tiny Kaguya nestled inside a bamboo shoot. The miniature child grows at a magically impressive rate, and even induces lactation in her surrogate mother (who declares “I’ve got milk!” in a breastfeeding scene that I’ll wager will be cut from the U.S. release). After discovering more treasures in bamboo, including fine silk robes, the cutter is convinced the girl is a gift from heaven and destined to become a princess, which sets the second act in motion. Here, Kaguya is taken from her rustic friends and trained to be an Edo-period lady. Despite chafing at the regimented lifestyle, her instantaneous mastery of the koto is taken as further proof of her divine origin and noble destiny. Conflict arises when a series of noble suitors seek to win the girl’s reluctant heart, and she sends each of them on a series of seemingly impossible quests. After escaping this trap, Kaguya’s true celestial origins are finally revealed, and the tale wraps up on a melancholy note.

Kaguya embodies a longing for things past, starting with the nostalgic preference for nature over culture. Kaguya’s days romping through the bamboo forests with her friends are an idyllic paradise, while she submits to the pressures of civilization morosely and only to please her status-climbing parents. A scene where the foundling sheds a single tear as her natural eyebrows are plucked out so they can be replaced by painted smudges reveals all. Thematically related is the film’s sadness over forsaken childhood; Kaguya’s assumption of the responsibilities (absurd as they may be) of a noblewoman represents the loss of innocence. From nature and childhood to civilization and adulthood, and last, the final trip home back from where she came: Kaguya spends a lifetime in her tale. The finale is a dreamlike elegy, with flying lovers swooping over meadows of wildflowers and a cloud-borne procession of krishnas and buddhas obliterating consciousness. The ultimate message is surprisingly humanistic and anti-religious; “life” in the heavens, cloaked in forgetfulness and free of grief and care, is a pitiable state compared to being alive on Earth and feeling both joy and pain. And yet there is also resignation beside the rage: “the waterwheel goes round,” the final choir sings. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Princess Kaguya may have been born of the moon, but she’s an earthling at heart, and her fate is the same as ours.

‘s retirement left Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) as the star of the Studio Ghibli stable of animators. His works have always proved popular with Western critics and connoisseurs, but he has yet to have the sort of crossover success with popular audiences that Miyazaki made look so easy. Kaguya won’t change that pattern, and it could be the last film the 79-year old Takahata makes, leaving Ghibli looking for fresh blood. (There are sad, sad rumors going round the Ghibli may close up shop permanently).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is screening in very limited venues across the U.S. The DVD/Blu-ray release date is not yet set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cryptic in story and minimalist in form, this brave new offering from Studio Ghibli quietly dazzles… an embarrassing flop in Japan… [i]t may be better received by Western audiences, who will appreciate its strange qualities as innately Ghibli.”–Andrew Blackie, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MISSING PICTURE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rithy Panh

FEATURING: Jean-Baptiste Phou (English narration), Randal Douc (French narration)

PLOT: Rithy Panh remembers his boyhood growing up in a Cambodian work camp under Pol Pot’s murderous regime, using clay figures of his own design to recreate horrors from the past.

Stillfrom The Missing Picture (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This handcrafted memorial of genocide is a heartbreaking and dreamlike testimonial to perseverance in the face of incomprehensible evil, but despite being both off the beaten path and worthy of your attention, it’s not what we could truly term “weird.”

COMMENTS: Strictly speaking, mass murder is never entirely rational, but there was something especially horrific about the crimes of the Khmer Rogue and the way they blended an absurdly suicidal ideology with naked hypocrisy. Pol Pot’s regime allowed thousands of people to die of malaria because they would not treat the ill with “capitalist” medicine. The people were asked to work in “rice fields” set up in deserts, dying of hunger and exhaustion today so that millions might be fed in some far-off tomorrow. If the children sent to work in one particularly tough camp could not extract three cubic meters of dirt per day, their quota was raised to five cubic meters. It was a utopia of perfect equality, except that the overseers in the red neckerchiefs carried guns and never went hungry.

Since there is no filmed record of the horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields, other than propaganda movies showing smiling workers loading sacks of grain onto trucks (the narrator suggests that they may be props filled with sand), Rithy Panh recreates his experiences in the death camps by carving clay figures and arranging them in dioramas, which he then films with bitterly poetic narration. This is the missing picture—a record of misery that went unrecorded, because the powers that be didn’t want it to be seen. The crude, pocked and weathered figurines with frozen expressions for make perfect victims. They are nameless masses, but no matter how blank their features, each is somehow an individual, whether the individuality comes from a unique pose or some imperfection in their sculpture. They are unable to express the horror of their situation, but this makes them the perfect dumb witnesses to inexpressible horror. They sometimes interact with rare footage of Kampuchea in the 1970s. Carved figures of red-scarved soldiers stand quietly in front of black and white archival war footage; newly enlisted workers stare out from cattle cars as back-projected scenery races by. The soundscape—melancholy Cambodian folk music, dark ambient music with exotic instrumentation—combines with the quiet, almost resigned narration to make the picture play like a muted nightmare.

Technically, The Missing Picture is a documentary, but that designation seems too limiting for such ambitious nonfiction. Picture (re)creates more than it documents. Watch this with the (slightly weirder, and far more acerbic) The Act of Killing for an unconventional and disturbing documentary double-feature about the capacity of man to deal death to his fellow man, from the right or the left, from action or from neglect. “To survive, you must hide a strength within yourself… for a picture can be stolen, a thought cannot.”

The Missing Picture was Cambodia’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It was passed over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

” …like a dream, like a nightmare, and it often flows in an eerie stream of consciousness.”–Maryann Johanson, Flick Filospher (contemporaneous)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Next week, we’ll get some more 2014 reviews out of the way in time for a little holiday indulgence with our office Saturnalia party. (Sadly, this year the health department forced us to shelve the 366 Weird Suckling Pig Sacrifice. We’re having ham sandwiches instead). We’ll check out two very good but only slightly weird movies—the Cambodian genocide diorama doc The Missing Picture and the Studio Ghibli animated fairy tale The Tale of Princess Kaguya—and one very weird but not so good movie, the brilliantly named absurdist indie Buttwhistle. Staff gets Christmas Day off, but we’ll still post a little something for all you weirdophiles out there.

It was a light week for weird search terms used to locate the site, but we’ll spotlight what we saw for our Weirdest Search Term of the Week contest. First up is “spanish film about a kid that’s trying to get some boobs,” which could be read a couple of different ways. Next we have the tautological search, “what movie is there a person where they lost there mind because they r crazy.” And finally, although we don’t like to encourage this kind of searcher, we have to award our Weirdest Search Term of the Week to “nude teengirl in odd clothes”; a search made by a pervert who is somehow completely unacquainted with the concept of “nudity.”

Here’s how the ridiculously-long and ever-growing reader-suggested review queue stands: The Real McCoy; Themroc; Candy (1968); The Fox Family; Angelus; Britannia Hospital; This Filthy Earth; Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!