CAPSULE: THE LAND OF THE LOST (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny McBride

PLOT:  Obnoxious scientist Rick Marshall discovers a way to go “sideways” in time to a world of dinosaurs, ape men, and lizard-like sleestaks in this science fantasy comedy.

landofthelost
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s quite a challenge to adapt a 1970s television show about a family lost in a world of dinosaurs and alien creatures and not make it come off as too weird for mainstream audiences, but Brad Siberling managed this feat.  Other than a narcotic-induced group hallucination involving an exploding crab, the only truly weird thing about this critical flop is that the producers chose to reimagine a crazy cult kids’ show as a standard comedy to accommodate the talents of star Will Ferrell, thereby thumbing their noses at the potentially lucrative nostalgia market.

COMMENTSThe Land of the Lost is a sloppily crafted piece of Hollywood entertainment.  The jokes, frequently involving dinosaur pee and poop, are unimaginative and clearly aimed at middle school boys.  The plot is too episodic, with the stranded travelers wandering from set piece to set piece instead of creating tension and forward momentum in their quest to find the lost “tachyon amplifier” and return to their own world.  The script is awful, with minimal regard for logic or internal consistency: we get a doctoral candidate who is inexplicably able to translate alien ape tongues simply because it’s easier than thinking up a clever way to communicate by pantomime.  Antagonists disappear, without being dispatched, when they’re no longer needed.  It’s lazy screenwriting that screams “Will Ferrell’s signed, we’ve already made a fortune off this thing.  Let’s just grind out five acceptable punchlines for the trailer, knock off early and get this check deposited.”  The supporting characters are bland, but the biggest problem with the movie is with Will Ferrell’s Dr. Marshall.  He’s arrogant, dim, easily annoyed, weak-willed and vindictive, and there’s no reason for the audience to root for him.  Of course, by the middle of the film he undergoes standard-issue “character growth,” consisting of a speech on how he’s decided to mend his ways.  Now, we are now supposed to approve when he gets the girl, even though he’s still the same jerk he always was.  Yet, despite all these faults, Land of the Lost is actually not an irredeemably terrible movie.  It’s tolerable, in that insidious way Hollywood has of taking mediocre ingredients and making them palatable by pumping up the pace, throwing in a little spectacle, and focusing on pretty faces roaming around in pretty places.  The sets are imaginative and interesting, often consisting of stray junk (like an ice cream truck and a filled motel pool) that’s been sucked through a wormhole and plopped into the wilderness.  The action sequences are kinetic, if nonsensical at times.  Ferrell’s character and the script’s disregard for logic are annoying—the movie seems to taunt you with its lack of craftsmanship—but Land of the Lost is never boring, and it will play fine for its intended audience of tween boys.

Going in to the movie, I knew it would be bad; I was hoping it would be a delightfully huge bomb, which can make for a fun time, rather than the forgettable attempt it turned out to be.  By design, summer blockbusters marketed to mass audiences have little weird potential, but I felt obliged to check it out due to sprinkled quotes like the one from Eric Snider (below) and these others: “surprisingly bizarre” (N.V. Cooper, “E” Online), “[a]lways weird” (Todd Maurstad, The Dallas Morning News), “[t]his is one very weird movie” (Joanna Langfield),  “aggressively weird” (Brian Juergens), “incredibly strange experience” (Edward Douglas),  “too damn bizarre to hate” (Luke Thompson).  That sounds like a lot of votes for weird, but to put things in perspective, out of dozens and dozens of reviews, about the same number of critics thought the film was “funny.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, what a weird movie this is… a wildly bizarre and frequently hilarious adventure that appears to be whacked-out by design, not out of sloppiness.”–Eric D. Snider, Film.com

366 WEIRD MOVIES ON FACEBOOK

Sorry there’s no new review today… sometimes regular ordinary life interferes with our enjoyment of weird movies.

In other news, 366 Weird Movies now has its own Facebook page.  What does this mean to you?  We have no idea.  We’re not even sure what it means for us.  Nonetheless, there it is.

Also note our new, totally public domain, updated logo:

366logo-copy

We’re working on a review of Tarkovsky’s excellent and very beautiful Nostalghia; it will probably be added to the List on Monday of next week. There will be a capsule review tomorrow, and the second part of Alfred Eaker’s report on “Avant Opera” is scheduled for Thursday.  Stay tuned!

24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

“In BEGOTTEN, a time is depicted that predates spoken language; communication is made on a sensory level.”–E. Elias Merhige

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: E. Elias Merhige

FEATURING: Actors from the experimental theater group Theater of Material

PLOT:  A man sitting in a chair disembowels himself with a straight razor.  A woman materializes from underneath his bloody robes, and impregnates herself with fluid taken from the dead body.  She gives birth to a convulsing, full grown man, and mother and son are then seized and tortured by four hooded figures bearing ceremonial implements.

Still from Begotten (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Each frame of film was painstakingly manipulated to create the distressed chiaroscuro universe of the movie.  According to the technical production notes, after the raw footage was shot, “…optimum exposure and filtration were determined, the footage was then re-photographed one frame at a time… it took over ten hours to re-photograph less than one minute of selected takes.”
  • It has been reported that the film was inspired by a near death experience the Merhige had after an automobile accident.
  • Critics from Time, Film Comment, The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, and New York Newsday each named Begotten one of the ten best films of 1991.  Novelist and photographer Susan Sontag called it one of the ten best films of modern times.
  • After Begotten, Merhige went on to direct the music video “Cryptorchid” for Marilyn Manson (which reused footage from Begotten) before landing a major feature, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)–a horror film about the making of Nosferatu, starring Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck and John Malkovich as Murnau.
  • Begotten is intended as part of a trilogy of films.  A second film, Din of Celestial Birds, which deals with the idea of evolution rather than creation, has been released in a 14 minute version that is intended as a prologue to the second installment.
  • After its brief run in specialty arts theaters, including stints at the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, Begotten received a very limited video release, first on VHS and then on DVD.  Merhige explains that this is because he does not believe that these formats are truly capable of reproducing the look he intended for the film:

    There are so many arcane, deeply intentional uses of grain, light and dark in that film that it is closer to Rosicrucian manuscript on the origin of matter than it is to being a “movie”…. When I finished the film I never allowed it to be screened on video because of how delicately layered and important the image is in conveying the deeper mystery of what the film is “about”… this is why it is no longer available on DVD until I find a digital format that is capable of capturing the soul and intent of the film.  My experiments in BluRay have been promising.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The painfully graphic image of “God disemboweling Himself” with a straight razor–shot in the grainy, high-contrast black and white–is not easily forgotten.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A minimalist, mythic narrative of grotesque, ritualized suffering enshrouded in astonishing abstract avant-garde visuals and a hypnotic ambient soundtrack.  Love it, hate it, or admire the technique while criticizing the intent—everyone admits there is nothing else quite like it in our cinematic universe.

Original trailer for Begotten

COMMENTSBegotten is a difficult film to rate.  It does not set out to entertain, and it does not Continue reading 24. BEGOTTEN (1991)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 6/19/09

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):

$9.99: A Claymation feature about a young unemployed man’s search for the Meaning of Life through the wisdom to be found in a booklet on the subject, priced at an affordable $9.99.  From an Etgar Keret short story, with voices provided by Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia.  We mentioned this one way back in January, and it’s finally getting a US release.    $9.99 Official Site.

Dead Snow [Død snø]: A gory Nazi-zombie horror comedy from Norway.  We’re unsure there’s much traction (or weirdness) left in the gore zom-com genre, but some horror fans may want to check it out as a bloody alternative to Drag Me to HellDød snø Official Site (in Norwegian).

NEW ON DVD:

Bergman Island (Criterion Collection) (2004):  Released in conjunction with the Criterion edition of The Seventh Seal (see below), this is a series of interviews with late, reclusive, and oft-weird director Ingmar Bergman. Buy from Amazon.

Rifftrax: Carnival of Souls (2009): Mystery Science Theater alums riff on the low-budget weird creepfest Carnival of Souls.  We’ve got a sense of humor, so we don’t object to them making fun of a classic film–as long as they make it funny. Buy from Amazon.

The Seventh Seal [Det sjunde inseglet] (Criterion Collection edition) (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s classic, which features the iconic chess match between a knight and Death, receives the Criterion Collection 2-disc treatment. A major, major release. Buy from Amazon.

What’s Up Tiger Lilly? (1966):  Woody Allen‘s debut feature was an effectively absurd comic experiment: he took a crappy Japanese secret agent movie and re-dubbed it so that the action revolves around finding an egg salad recipe. Buy from Amazon.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964):  The classic black comedy, with outstanding performances by Peter Sellers (in three roles) and George C. Scott (who steals every scene he’s in).  Not very weird, but an indisputable classic by a director (Stanley Kubrick) who knew how to amp up the weird when necessary (2001: A Space Odyssey). 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.

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART ONE

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.

Der Ring Des Nibelungen Pierre Boulez, Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of it’s kind.

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach.

In the accompanying dvd “Making of the Ring,” Boulez appears commendably unconcerned when he non-chalantly admits that audience taste is of little concern to him.

In 2007 the age-defying Boulez re-teamed with Chereau once more for a filmed version of Janacek’s “House of the Dead”, before permanently retiring from the opera house.

Janacek’s final, harrowing, rhythmically complex, intense opera on the horrors of political Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART ONE

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS:  On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope.  Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes.  Not that that’s a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead 2, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of Jaques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance.  Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film.  After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

CAPSULE: ONE MISSED CALL [CHAKUSHIN ARI] (2003)

DIRECTED BYTakashi Miike

FEATURING: ,

PLOT:  Students begin receiving phone calls from their own cell phones, dated three days in the future; the message is their own voice screaming, and they all end up dead at the appointed time.

Still from One Missed Call [Chakushin Ari] (2003)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Weird director Miike adds a few surreal style points at the end, but it’s too little, too late.  For most of the way, this is standard J-horror territory, and a bit dull to boot.

COMMENTSOne Missed Call begins by ripping off a riff from Ringu (1998), with cell phones replacing videocassettes as the technological bogeyman.  Heaping unoriginality on unoriginality, Miike adds recycled ideas from his own Audition (1999), including a slowly revealed child-abuse backstory and multiple false endings. It all eventual ends up as a standard entry in the supernatural Japanese horror (“J-horror”) genre.  The setup is fine, with the students discovering the mysterious, deadly calls from the future, then figuring out that the spirit that makes the calls selects a new target from the last victim’s stored phone numbers, putting them all at risk—even if they’re on the “Do Not Call” registry.  Anytime a ring tone sounds in the movie thereafter, it could be someone’s death sentence.  After the premise is established, however, the movie bogs down into talky exposition. The next target, psychology student Yumi, and man whose sister was one of the first victims try to trace the calls back to their source, where they presume they’ll find the ghost responsible for all this cellular slaughter.  Along the way there is an effective mixture of suspense and satire when a sensationalist television show broadcasts a live exorcism for one of the doomed souls at exactly the time the killer is supposed to strike, as well as a spooky trip through a haunted hospital.  But the needlessly confusing ending, where Miike suddenly decides to burn his personal weird brand onto a generic piece of genre livestock, is unsatisfying and even frustrating.  By the end—despite heaps and heaps of exposition along the way—the supernatural antagonist’s motives, origins, and perhaps even identity are left unclear.

In a time honored tradition of Japanese horror hit adaptations that stretches back all the way to 2003, One Missed Call was remade as a Hollywood flop (with Ed Burns and Shannyn Sossamon) in 2008.  This is a rare J-Horror the Americans could have actually improved with tighter editing and a streamlined storyline, but critical evidence (an amazing 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer!) indicates otherwise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in the final act, when the scene shifts to an abandoned hospital and evil comes out of its closet (or rather oozes out of its vat), we are suddenly in ‘Miike World’… Rationality takes a holiday as Miike sends the film hurling into a surreal universe. For Miike fans, all this will be familiar. For those expecting a generic horror flick, Miike’s imagination may be too out-there for comfort — or understanding.”–Mark Shilling, The Japan Times

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.

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