CAPSULE: STAY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:  Marc Forster

FEATURING: Ewan McGregor, ,

PLOT:  A private practice psychiatrist takes over the case of a suicidal art student after his regular therapist takes a leave of absence due to stress, and discovers the case has metaphysical as well as psychological implications.

stay

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEStay gets a pretty weird vibe going through its trippy second act—not coincidentally, the part of the movie many mainstream critics complain grows tiresome—but ultimately this mindbending plot has been handled more elegantly before in more memorable films.

COMMENTS: Stay is often a feast for the eyes and a masterpiece of meaningfully employed techniques. Shots are packed with subliminal detail, and everyone notices the amazing transitions that flow seamlessly from one scene into the next (a character gazes out the window to see the person they’re talking to sitting on a bench, having already started the next scene, or wanders out of an art department hallway that magically becomes an aquarium).  The artistic editing and camera tricks all lead up to a beautiful visual climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Sam (Ewan McGregor) and Henry (Ryan Gosling) deliver their “final” speeches while engulfed in a sea of waving strings, as if small filaments of cable have broken off the bridge and are drifting in the wind.  Unfortunately, the story, while clever at times, can’t justify the enormous care devoted to the production design.  Long time fans of psychological thrillers will guess the twist from the first shot, although through directorial sleight of hand and a shift of protagonists the film constantly suggests that it’s just about to head in a novel direction.  In the end, the story is both resolved and unresolved—the unresolved parts being those leftover scraps of the script that relate not to the mystery’s solution, but to the screenplay’s attempts to misdirect the viewer from that solution.  These questions wave around in the mind like those wavy filaments from the Brooklyn Bridge: not part of the supporting structure, just there to add atmosphere.  The end result is a series of admirable tricks strung together, without a huge narrative or emotional payoff.

A curious and disappointing feature of the DVD release is that the widescreen version of the film, with limited commentary by director Forster and star Gosling, is hidden on side B of the double-sided DVD, with a fullscreen version with no commentary taking up side A.  Renters who don’t have the opportunity to read the box cover or who miss the note on the disc’s label may view an inferior presentation of the movie by default.  Ironically, one of the B-side commentators advises, “Never watch this in 4:3.  You’ll miss too much.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sam can’t figure out why Henry wants to kill himself, but it probably has something to do with his inability to differentiate between his hallucinations and reality. Despite his professional training, Sam fails to come to the obvious conclusion: the movie around him has been hijacked by an overzealous D.O.P.”–Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Melissa.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

NEW CATEGORY: BORDERLINE WEIRD

Every now and then, we run into a film that is pretty damn weird, but may not be strange enough to be among the 366 weirdest movies of all time.  Then again, it may be.  Sometimes, after reflection, we find that images from certain movies return to haunt our memory weeks or months after we dismissed them.  Sometimes, weeks later we can’t figure out what we were thinking when we left a picture off the list.

It became clear with our most recent review (Stay, 2005) that there is a need to make an official new category for movies that could make the list eventually, but we weren’t sure about just yet.  The new borderline weird category is a holding pen for movies that impressed us, but weren’t strong enough to immediately seize their place on the list of 366.  These are movies that may well get their chance to make the list in the future, after they’ve fermented in our minds for a while.

The initial movies comprising this category are:

Adaptation (2002):  Great movie, but we initially thought it was too much of an academic exercise to count as weird.

Elevator Movie (2004):  This low-budget, minimalist story of two people trapped in an mysterious elevator for months on end is the prime example of the “What were we thinking when we left this off the list?” reaction.

Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay [Morgane et Ses Nymphes] (1971):  Probably the weirdest softcore lesbian sex film ever made, but its too languid in creating its trancelike atmosphere, and the sex scenes overwhelm the weird scenes.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003):   Definitely weird, but annoyingly weird.  Possible choice to fill in slots 365 or 366 if every other candidate fails.

Kung Fu Arts [Hou Fu Ma] (1980):  This monkey kung-fu fantasy is indeed weird, but we left it off on the theory that if we allowed one Shaw Brothers chopsocky film on the list, we’d have to let them all on, and there wouldn’t be room for anything else.

Nowhere (1997):  Weird, but also very bad and juvenile.  Maybe we were in a very bad mood when we viewed it, or maybe viewing it put us in a very bad mood; nonetheless it has its fans and may deserve a reappraisal.

Stay (2005):  Despite a weird atmosphere, we’re not yet convinced it distinguishes itself enough from other classic entries in the mindbender genre.

W the Movie (2008): Weird indeed, but as it’s based firmly on current events (the G.W. Bush presidency) that are now past, only time will tell if this partisan screed stands up through the ages.

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/12/09

A 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.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Flicker (2008): A documentary on Byron Gysin’s “Dream Machine,” a device featuring flashing lights intended to invoke altered states of consciousness without the use of drugs, which fascinated counterculture figures like Kenneth Anger and William S. Burroughs.  Flicker official site.

Moon (2009):  A science fiction movie that appears to be about actual science and ideas, rather than an action film set in space, which in itself makes it an oddity.  An astronaut alone on a moonbase with only a computer for company meets a younger version of himself: a clone, or is he suffering hallucinations brought on by his isolation?  Directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, and featuring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey.  Moon official site.

NEW ON DVD:

Were the World Mine (2008): A gay fantasy-musical-romance centering around a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  Certainly an unusual blend of genres, if nothing else; it was a big hit with its niche target audience and may have crossover appeal.  Buy from Amazon

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.

SLAPHAPPY VOLUME 8: SURREAL COMEDY

The “SlapHappy Volume 8 Collection: Surreal Comedy” must be unreservedly recommended for making available  rare, hidden fragments from surreal cinema’s infancy.  It’s not everyday one gets to see J. Stewart Blackton’s 1908 Thieving Hand which pre-dates the later, similar theme of a wayward, disembodied hand  found in films like The Beast with Five Fingers (which Buñuel worked on during his brief Hollywood stint).

The Thieving Hand

The Thieving Hand (1908)

Edwin S. Porter collections aren’t  exactly a dime a dozen either, so 1906’s Melies-inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on the famous Windsor McCay comic strip, is possibly the highlight here.  The sight of something akin to Linda Blaire’s bed engaged in a Dickens-like flight across a city skyscape is well worth the price.  Today, Fiend is possibly the most interesting of Porter’s vast but not entirely distinguished output, certainly much more so than some of the historically better known films such as  Life of an American Fireman.

The team of Richard M. Roberts, Larry Stefan and Paul Lisy have certainly done thorough research and a number of delightfully rare oddities are compiled here: Eddie Lyon’s 1923 Hot Foot; Bobby Dunn ajd Ferdinand Zecca’s 1910 Slippery Jim , Edward F. Cline’s 1925 Dangerous Curves Behind, and the 1948 Fresh Lobster with Billie Bletcher.

Still, despite the glimpses of rare treasures here, SlapHappy Volume 8 falls short of being the ideal collection.  These are indeed mere glimpses, clips culled from the films, and since most of these are shorts, presenting these films in their entirety could have been easily accomplished and would have been much more desirable.

The SlapHappy producers, in following the formulaic recipe of their series, short-changed the potential of what could have been their most valuable volume.

Stills from films like Keaton’s The Playhouse are utilized, but there no actual clips. Instead, excerpts from lesser, more obvious, on the surface examples of Keaton’s ventures into surrealism are shown (Buster running into dangling skeletons, etc) simply because these are more obvious; a bit like Salvador Dali being held up as the quintessential persona over considerably more substantial surrealists such as Max Ernst and Paul Klee.

The producers’ goal, as Sam Charles’  narration indicates, is focused on early surreal comedy–as opposed to early surrealism–but even here, it falls short of being the reference volume.  An extraordinary amount of time is given to the weaker Fresh Lobster, when much more time could have been devoted to Zecca’s far more compelling Slippery Jim (Zecca was an editor for Melies, and it shows), the films of Charley Bowers, or numerous, much more substantial examples of early surreal comedy (Chaplin’s surreal heavenly dream sequence from The Kid, Keaton’s The Navigator, The Frozen North, Sherlock Jr, or Beckett’s Film are just a few of the better known examples).

Surreal Comedy is an all too brief entry, abbreviated to make room for the Getting the Girl and Chaplin bonuses, both of which contain footage found elsewhere. Still, Volume 8 is a valuable but unimaginative introduction to the art of early surreal comedy that ultimately falls short of being the priceless collection it could have been.

CAPSULE: THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008)

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY:  Rian Johnson

FEATURING: Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi

PLOT:  Bloom is the passive brother floating in the wake of his older sibling Stephen, a

Still from The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Dostoevsky among con-men, who devises one last elaborate grift to rip-off a pretty, rich and very eccentric widow.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTQuirky, not weird.  For the weird fiend, watching a film like this is the equivalent of taking cinematic methadone while waiting to score some big-screen bizarre.

COMMENTS:  Though supposedly set in Montenegro, Prague, Mexico, St. Petersburg, and on a luxury steamer crossing the Atlantic, the real action in The Brothers Bloom is set firmly in Hollywoodland, a mythical, ultra-sophisticated realm where con men dress in pinstripe suits and bowlers to keep a low profile.  Our guides through this wish-fulfillment landscape of daring capers and champagne breakfasts are as quaint a collection of quirks as one might expect to bump into outside of a wine and cheese party held inside Wes Anderson’s noggin: Stephen, a master grifter who writes real-life dramas for his marks designed not only to make him money, but to keep them happy by fulfilling their need for romance and adventure; Bloom, a mopey soul who has lost his own identity through playing out Stephen’s scripts since childhood; Penelope, the socially backward heiress with a prodigal talent for absorbing other people’s skills, whether juggling chainsaws or making cameras out of watermelons; and Bang Bang, the nearly mute Japanese munitions expert, the screenplay’s most original invention and the one character who leaves us wanting more.  The cast does well, especially Brody as Bloom and a bubbly Weisz as Penelope (though however eccentric and awkward she might be, one has to seriously suspend disbelief to imagine that this pretty and very wealthy young thing isn’t swamped with suitors and hangers-on).

The con game is one of the toughest scripts to write, depending on its ability to surprise viewers who’ve seen many a twist ending in their day, and Johnson makes the task even tougher on himself by raising expectations and promoting his guys as the best in the business. In the end the final execution of the game doesn’t surprise, but the alert viewer has lots of fun along the way playing the multiple angles in his head, imagining possible double crosses as new players come into the field. The film runs out of gas before the end and sputters through a disappointing and overly sentimental epilogue/fourth act, but it doesn’t erase the enchantment built up until that point. A whiskey drinking camel and some interesting live action puns round out the fun.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘The Brothers Bloom’ is set on a planet somewhat like our own, but far wackier… The movie is wonderfully weird.”–Kurt Loder, MTV

CAPSULE: SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE [CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI] (2005)

AKA Lady Vengeance

threestar

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Yeong-ae, Min-sik Choi

PLOT: Beautiful Geum-ja goes to prison for thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder

Still from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

of a five-year old boy, a crime she didn’t commit, and on release commences an intricate and shocking plan of revenge on the true culprit.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its series of flashbacks and dream-sequences coupled with Park’s trademark gratuitous style, Lady Vengeance just sneaks across the line separating “weird” from “arty”. There’s nothing about the story of Geum-ja’s revenge, however, that suggests that it’s best told in a weird way, and after a confusing first half, the conclusion unspools in a bloody but mostly straightforward thread.  The result is a film that’s trapped in a netherworld between the hyper-weird and the conventional; it could have been more successful if it had put its whole heart into one strategy or the other. The more satisfying Oldboy is a better choice to represent Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” on the list of 366.

COMMENTS: After an absolutely gorgeous black, white and red credits sequence involving a living tattoo of a rose vine and blooming pools of blood, the first half of Lady Vengeance flings the viewer back and forth between the present and flashbacks involving a multitude of characters from a women’s prison, sprinkling in a few dream/fantasy sequences on the way.  The result makes a confusion of the story details, although the big picture is clear. It feels as if the audience is being jerked around in the early reels; there’s no good reason for the fractured narrative, and after all the groundwork laying out the large cast of characters who figure in the scheme to capture the villain, the actual details of the plan turn out not to matter much.  Lady Vengeance finally shines in the grisly, intense finale, an unflinching look into the dark depths of violence.  It follows this up with a brief beautiful scene of frustrated redemption before limping to an unsatisfying denouement with a mysterious final image that doesn’t really work, leaving audiences simply puzzled rather than intrigued.  Along the way Park shoehorns in a curious touch whenever an idea pops into his head, such as a wipe transitioning from the present to a flashback via an closing door, a radiating halo around his angel of vengeance, or a character’s inner monologue written in the clouds. Lady Vengeance ends up a jumbled bag of good and bad ideas, isolated beautiful moments and frustrating experiments.

Park has all the elements of a great director: an impressive visual sense, an ability to ferret out the heart of a character and a story, and an interesting and audacious selection of topics.  His well-recognized flaw is that he falls in love with style for its own sake, rather than using style in the service of his story.  Chan-wook is consistently interesting and make worthwhile films, but (with the possible exception of Oldboy) he has yet to hit one out of the Park.  When he does, watch out!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A kind of brilliantly realized perplexity is the predominant tone, and when Park sets these complex emotional nuances before some of the most riotously colorful and splashily off-kilter backgrounds (both literal and figural) ever witnessed, the resulting schism is akin to watching a pop-art paintball skirmish in the world’s most baroque ossuary.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

“This fearful worm would often feed on cows and lamb and sheep,
And swallow little babes alive when they lay down to sleep.
So John set out and got the beast and cut it into halves,
And that soon stopped it eating babes and sheep and lambs and calves.”

–Lyrics to “The D’Ampton Worm” from Lair of the White Worm
Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant, Catherine Oxenberg, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis, Stratford Johns

PLOT:  An archeology student visiting the British countryside digs up an elongated skull he assumes belongs to an dinosaur while excavating the site of a buried convent, now an English bed-and-breakfast run by two young sisters.  Lord James D’Ampton is the boyfriend of one of the sisters, and also the descendant of a legendary D’Ampton who reputedly slew a dragon (the “D’Ampton Worm”) that had terrorized the countryside.  After wintering in climes unknown, slinky and regal Lady March returns to her mansion and discovers the skull, after which strange events begin to transpire…

Still from Lair of the White Worm (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Russell’s script was very loosely based on Bram (“Dracula”) Stoker’s 1911 novel, although the similarity almost ends with the shared title.
  • This was Russell’s second horror film in three years after Gothic (1986).
  • Hugh Grant had roles in six films released in 1988, including portrayals of Chopin and Lord Byron.
  • This was Amanda Donohoe’s second starring role in a feature film.  She went on to greater fame when she joined the cast of the hit T.V. show “L.A. Law” in 1990.  Catherine Oxenberg, on the other hand, had made a name for herself on the hit T.V. show “Dynasty,” and this was her first feature role in a theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A 30 second hallucination sequence featuring Roman soldiers raping nuns before a cross on which a monstrous worm slithers over a crucified Jesus while a topless blue vampire woman looks on joyfully, waggling her tongue.  The scene is dressed up in lurid colors and performed in front of a deliberately cheesy looking blue-screen inferno.  So over-the-top and parodic that it’s not nearly as offensive as it sounds.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Ken Russell throws a handful of his typically excessive hallucination/dream sequences into what is otherwise a subtle horror parody, creating a minor masterpiece of deliberate camp blooming with ridiculously memorable scenes.

Clip from Lair of the White Worm

COMMENTS:  The one word that immediately comes to mind to describe Ken Russell’s The Continue reading 23. THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/5/09

A 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.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

The Land of the Lost (2009): Firmly mainstream Will Ferrell is no harbinger of weirdness, but the idea of casting him in a straight comedy version of the trippy and campy 1970s kid’s TV show about a family sent back in time to an age of dinosaurs and Sleestak’s is pretty weird by Hollywood standards.  Critics have been firmly negative, but a snippet from one of the few positive reviews make me wonder if there might be something of unexpected interest about Land of the Lost:  “Oh, what a weird movie this is… wildly bizarre… whacked-out by design…” (Eric D. Snider, Film.com).  Land of the Lost official site.

NEW ON DVD:

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog (2008): Neil Patrick Harris stars as Dr. Horrible in this 42 minute supervillain romantic musical originally published as a free Internet series.  The project was conceived by television’s Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) to keep the creative juices flowing during the 2008 Writer’s Guild strike.  Copious extras are included to induce fans into buying this formerly-free web series: two commentary tracks (in what I think may be a first, an entire commentary is sung!), a 20 minute “making of” documentary, and ten auditions by fans seeking to join the series’ “Evil League of Evil.” Buy from Amazon.

ON DEMAND FREE MOVIES (SOME U.S. CABLE SYSTEMS)

The City of Lost Children (1995):  This beautiful Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro fable about a man who steals children’s dreams, starring Ron Perlman and set in a bizarre, baroque, futuristic cityscape, will eventually receive a place on the list of 366.  You can view it courtesy of Fearnet until July 31.

Eraserhead (1977):  Want to catch this recently reviewed classic surreal nightmare for free?  It’ s a must-see for anyone who claims to be interested in weird cinema.  If your cable system offers it, you can catch it courtesy of the Sundance Channel until June 23rd.

Inland Empire (2006): David Lynch’s latest theatrical feature is the (reportedly) incoherent story of an actress (Laura Dern) losing her grip on reality while shooting a film.  3 hours long.  Sundance Channel, expires June 16.

Lady Vengeance [Chinjeolhan geumjassi] (2005):  The third installment of Chan-wook Park‘s informal Vengeance Trilogy, which also included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the weird Oldboy (2003).  Sundance Channel, expires June 23.  This may receive an upcoming review on these pages.

The Toxic Avenger (1984):  The somewhat overrated cult classic gross-out black comedy/superhero parody that put Troma studios on the map.  Read our recent review .  Available courtesy of Fearnet until June 30.  Also available for the same period are the three sequels.

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.

FROM THE CRYPT OF CREEPORIA

“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground.  The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow.  We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.

The 1950s through the 1970s was the era of the horror host/horror personality.  Most of these characters, from Vampira on down to Sammy Terry, mixed horror and humor quite effectively and the period is widely considered to be a golden age of horror personalities.  Since then, Elvira, of course, made a name for herself.  Now, with the post myspace/facebook/youtube age, there has been a re-emergence, indeed a plethora of new horror personalities.  Predictably, most of these are pale, watered down imitations of the originals with no unique personality of their own, with a notable exception: Creeporia.

Creeporia, Episode 1, part 1: other episodes can be viewed at creeporia.com

Creeporia is the creation of producer John Semper Jr, who has an extensive 30 year resume, mostly in animation, which includes work with Jim Henson, George Lucas, and Stan Lee and shows such as the animated “SpiderMan” and “Static Shock.”  Semper’s sincere  affection for the classic Roger Corman school of horror humor is quite apparent in his Creeporia creation and the shows he has crafted for her.

Semper’s experience has taught him plenty and he’s savvy enough to know that the key lies in a well developed character with a unique personality.  He could not have done better in actress Kommerina DeYoung.  Young’s Creeporia thankfully does not resort to being yet another in the Vegas imitators’ school for Elvira, Vampira and those who came before.  Creeporia is  her own ghoul and she is sexy, but never resorts to caricatured farce.  Creeporia lives (sort of) in a crypt with a host of characters, such as a skull named Bonaparte (aka Boney), a corpse named Maurice, a spider named Harlan, a bat named Batty, and more.  There’s a bit of the zany Pee Wee Playhouse atmosphere in the Continue reading FROM THE CRYPT OF CREEPORIA

OSCAR WON’T, AND IF CANNES CAN’T, MAYBE MEXICO?

We almost never pay attention to the Academy Awards around these parts. When the weirdest film to get a “Best Picture” nomination in 2008 is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you know you’re dealing with one weird-hating Academy. The last film “Best Picture” winner with even smatterings of weird was Midnight Cowboy (1969). Just a pinch of weirdness, or even a mild, sub-weird flirtation with the experimental, is usually the kiss of death to Oscar.

The international and less commercial-minded Cannes Film Festival, on the other hand, has been much kinder to innovation in film. In 2000 Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark managed to win the highest prize, the Palme d’Or, despite containing musical dream sequences.  Acknowledged weird classics like Wild at Heart (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) have also managed to break realism’s stranglehold on the top awards.

On May 24, 2009, Cannes announced the recipients of its jury prizes.  Let’s see how Cannes did in recognizing cinematic weirdness this year:

PALME D’ORThe White Ribbon [Das weiße Band].  Black and white film set in Germany on the eve of World War I.  The synopsis says, “Strange accidents occur and gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual.  Who is behind it all?”  Although it appears to have a weird element in the form of an unsolvable mystery, at heart it looks like a standard allegorical art film.

GRAND PRIX (I.E., PALME D’OR RUNNER UP)The Prophet [Un Prophete]:  An illiterate young Arab man is thrown into a French prison and becomes a gang kingpin.  Sounds about a weird as a plastic couple on a wedding cake.

JURY PRIZE (I.E., THIRD PLACE):  This year was a tie.  The first film recognized was Fish Tank, an unweird drama about a British teenager, her promiscuous mom, and her mom’s lout of a boyfriend.  The second awardee shows a little more promise: Thirst [Bakjwi], Chan-wook Park‘s take on the vampire legend, although reviews suggest the oft-weird director takes a conventional approach to the subject this time out.

OTHER FILMS IN COMPETITION:  A few interesting, potentially weird films were screened Continue reading OSCAR WON’T, AND IF CANNES CAN’T, MAYBE MEXICO?

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