R. PANET’S TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

In this occasional feature where we ask established directors and critics to list what they feel are their top 10 “weird” movies.  There are no constraints on what the author can pick. This list comes from R. Panet, half of the production team behind Liberty or Death Productions. With partner, James Mannan she directed Hallow’s Dance, and also directed Revenant, along with assisting on numerous other productions, including Blood Moon, Quench and Going All The Way.

It takes a lot to really unnerve or disturb me these days, but these 6 films were all viewed in the 80’s when I was barely legally able to intoxicate myself, when my mind was young and unmarred by such weirdness, despite the fact that I was myself deemed weird by most anyway, and I personally blame these films for my quest to seek out all things weird, bizarre, and of the illimitable creative artistic expression, and yes, to add to my own wonderful weirdness. Before I viewed these films I did not know such a world existed. My experimental film cherry was popped.

The 6 weird movies that left a lasting impression on my young mind- in order of disturbance;

1. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo-120 Days of Sodom and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s La Montana Sagrada [The Holy Mountain] tie for first.

3. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

4. John Waters’ Pink Flamingos

5. Richard Kern’s Fingered

Continue reading R. PANET’S TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

CAPSULE: WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Goran Dukic

FEATURING: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits

PLOT:  In a special afterlife reserved for suicides, three lost souls hit the road: Zia is

wristcutters_a_love_story

searching for his earthly lover, Mikal is convinced she’s here by mistake and is looking for the People in Charge, and Eugene is along for the ride because he has nothing better to do.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the sunglasses-snatching black hole that’s taken up permanent residence under the passenger seat in Eugene’s old beater, Wristcutters never really crosses the shaky border into the land of the weird.  A few magical realist touches decorate this otherwise conventional, indie-flavored road movie/love triangle that’s best described as “quirky.”  (If you know of a review that doesn’t use the word “quirky” to describe this movie, please contact the proper authorities; the writer needs to have his or her critical credentials yanked).

COMMENTS:  Adapted from a story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters is a romantic comedy disguised as a black comedy, a conventional movie disguised as a bizarre movie, and a shamelessly hopeful movie disguised as a bleak movie.  None of those disguises are particularly hard to penetrate.  “Who could think of a better punishment, really?  Everything’s the same here, it’s just a little worse,” newly deceased wristcutter Zia realizes soon after he gets a pizza delivery job in the afterlife.  In Wristcutters, new suicides wake to discover a Great Beyond that’s not so great: in fact, it’s set in the middle of the Mojave desert where everything is so run down and recycled, even the automobiles are held together mostly by duct tape.  Furthermore, in the most dreadful dissimilarity to the living world, its denizens find themselves unable to smile, a restriction that makes the sympathetic performances of the young principals all the more impressive.  Still, the movie always has a hopeful sense that the main characters can find a way out of their existential predicament, and it doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a happy ending (though some may consider it a cop-out).  Although Wristcutters sometimes reeks of missed opportunities to explore deeper themes and blacker comedy in a more mystical landscape, it’s also apparent that director/scripter Dukic has hit exactly the lightly offbeat tone he was aiming for, and he has the good sense to wrap the story up quickly after his world runs out of new Purgatorial quirks to offer.  A couple of tunes by Tom Waits (who also offers up a memorable turn as ramshackle but wizardly guiding spirit Kneller) and Gogol Bordello bump up the cool quotient considerably.

After this successful debut, Croatian director Dukic is poised between worlds: he could use this feature as springboard to do something even more conventional, or push his offbeat impulses to their logically weird conclusion.  We’ll keep an eye on him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes it work is that the performers, trapped in a weird movie about a weird place, underplay their astonishment.”–A.O. Scott, New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VIY [Вий] (1967)

Must See

AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij

DIRECTED BY:  Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley

PLOT:  In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the

viy

corpse of a witch.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films.  Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time.  It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.

COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure.  The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero.  Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk.  The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be.  (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape).  The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.

Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio] [1960] was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation.  Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works.  The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production.  The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it’s completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com

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

A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

thomas_pynchon_a_journry_into_the_mind_of_pThomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and it’s wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there.  But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ Continue reading A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 5/1/09

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):

Eldorado (2008): Belgian comedy about an antique car dealer and a burglar/ex-junkie who hit the road together.  Road movies are traditionally quirky; it remains to be seen whether this will cross the line into the genuinely weird.  Features the music of freak-folk icon Devandra Banhat.  Eldorado official site (in French).

I Can See You (2008):  From the New York Times:  “[Director Graham Resnick has] one eye on genre mechanics, one eye on avant-garde conceits and a third eye for transcendental weirdness.”  Sounds like a must-see to me; hope it makes it to your (and my) neck of the woods before it shuffles off to video.  I Can See You official site.

The Limits of Control (2009):  The latest from Jim (Dead Man) Jamursch about a mysterious criminal working on an unspecified job in Spain has been described as “dreamlike” and “hypnotic”.  Heavyweight thespians John Hurt and Bill Murray appear in small roles.  Definitely promising.  The Limits of Control official site.   

NEW ON DVD:

Johnny Got His Gun (1971): It’s about time this anti-war classic about a quadruple-amputee–told in hallucinations, flashbacks, and conversations with Jesus Christ (played by Donald Sutherland)–got DVD release. Buy from Amazon.

Martyrs (2008):  It sounds like an art-house version of The Last House on the Left (wait, wasn’t that The Virgin Spring)?  Whatever it is, it’s clear that the violence and cruelty is extreme, and it’s been gathering powerful negative/positive reactions from viewers, and looks like it may be on it’s way to becoming a modern cult film.  Buy from Amazon.

SCREENINGS (INDIANAPOLIS, IN):

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P. (2001):  A conspiracy-minded documentary about reclusive, postmodern (and quite weird) author Thomas Pynchon.  Showing at the Earth House Collective in Indianapolis on Thursday, May 7th at 7:00 pm.

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.

CATHERINE CROUCH: BREAKING THE GENDER BARRIER THROUGH FILM

“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.

gendercatorDuring the 2007 San Francisco Frameline Film Festival, filmmaker Catherine Crouch’s short The Gendercator was accepted, then removed from the festival due to a protest, consisting of 130 signatures which claimed that the film was transphobic.  6 of the 130 protesters had actually seen the film.  This was the first time in the festival’s history that a film had been accepted and then withdrawn.

Judgment is best reserved until after seeing the film,and after doing so, it is blatantly apparent that this was a case of paranoid and shamefully militant censorship, no different than McCarthy era blackballing.  The liberal arts community rightfully protested (albeit meekly) when the Bush administration had the replica of “Guernica” covered at the U.N., yet the San Francisco Frameline Film Festival has shown it is fully capable of resorting to the same level of despicable tactics.  Worse, it’s claims to do so, in light of “sensitivity”, is made even more ironic since an overwhelming and elegiac “sensitivity” flows through every single one of Crouch’s films, Gendercator included.

The Gendercator is a charming Rip Van Winkle inspired fantasy short about a lesbian who falls asleep under a tree in the 1970’s’, only to re-awake in the year 2048.  In this future, stern binary laws are militantly enforced and the heroine is scheduled for a date with the Continue reading CATHERINE CROUCH: BREAKING THE GENDER BARRIER THROUGH FILM

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat

DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

This review is a follow-up to last week’s “Fringe Cinema” column on Damon Zex.  Read last week’s column here.

Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess.  He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later.  After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate.

Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels.  Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly.  Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from.  It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre.  Even knowing Zex’s previous work will not prepare the viewer for for this, despite it’s being that seemingly inevitable bookend to what came before.

When making Checkmate Zex knew fully well that he risked propelling even his most ardent admirers into that incessant squirming, uncomfortable plateau.  But then, Damon Zex is hardly one to rest on laurels, nor is he one to cave into conservative, expectant formulas to appease a fan base.  The Checkmate that emerged after Zex’s self-imposed silence is the equivalent of an artist clearing out his own mothballs.


The first 2:50 of Checkmate

Everyone involved with Checkmate knew Zex was onto something special and different, even though a videographer friend, frustrated with the film’s static qualities, wanted to change it and chastised the artist for breaking the “101 basic cinematic principles.”  Indeed, Damon Zex is breaking even his own orthodoxy in Checkmate, but with an overwhelming sense of clarity.  The long, sustained enveloping pauses are sharply cut with richly complex compositions which could almost be described as inducing cubist headaches.

The bulk of Checkmate is juxtaposed to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and Zex is one of those artists determined to take Mahler back from the music fundamentalist who have claimed the composer as solely their own.  Alban Berg proclaimed the first movement of the Mahler 9th as the greatest in all of music.  Arnold Schoenberg gave an impassioned

Continue reading DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays.  He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to Continue reading 19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

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