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):
The White Ribbon (2009): The 2009 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Mysterious accidents pile up in a sleepy pre-WWI German town. Described as “haunting,” “creepy,” and “mesmerizing,” but unlikely to be weird; then again, reviewers are keeping the plot details very close to their chest, so who knows? The White Ribbon official site.
NEW ON DVD:
9 (2009): Read our capsule review. Shane Acker’s visually thrilling, plot-lite “stitchpunk” stop-motion kiddie epic hits vidstore shelves. The original (superior, and weirder) short on which the feature is based is included as an extra. Buy from Amazon.
Half-life (2008): Despite being a festival hit, this one never got a theatrical release that we can discover and flew under our radar. The plot is a multithreaded indie drama about the travails of suburban Asian-Americans combined with surreal animated flights of childhood fantasy. Looks interesting. The IMDB message boards for this film are amusingly overwhelmed by complaints from disappointed teenage fans of the popular, identically titled video game. Buy from Amazon.
Here’s my personal picks for top ten weird movies of the decade (setting aside the fact that it may be more reasonable to consider the decade as ending in 2010, rather than 2009). This list only covers movies we’ve actually reviewed, so if you read on you’ll also find the top 10 movies we didn’t get to, the top 10 weird movies of 2009, and my top 10 picks for 2009 (regardless of weirdness).
TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES OF THE DECADE (2000-2009)
10. Elevator Movie (2004) – A loser is trapped inside an elevator with a former slut turned Jesus freak, for months on end, in a compelling low-budget surrealist drama mixing No Exit and The Exterminating Angel with a touch of Eraserhead.
9. Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) – A jumbled up series of surreal short movies and music videos, linked by common characters and themes, but refusing to make sense; no one forgets the scene where the schoolgirl inserts a tube in her navel to give birth to a miniature sushi chef.
8. I Can See You (2008) -A neurotic, romantically frustrated loner goes on a camping trip with his advertising company buddies, and loses complete contact with reality. Features a wonderfully bizarre musical sequence; an oily, omnipotent ad pitchman who talks to the protagonist inside his head; and a 20 minute psychedelic freakout at the climax.
7. Tideland (2005) – Terry Gilliam’s dark and controversial riff on Alice in Wonderland tells a bleak and frightening story of a young girl abandoned to the world of her imagination. There’s nothing explicit shown, but the nuanced and challenging scenes implying child abuse and molestation were too intense and downbeat for mainstream viewers.
Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped withauthority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.
Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made. That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.
Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.
Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute. When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.
Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it. By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.
Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde. The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts. This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.
The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid. But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense. Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)→
PLOT: A mad doctor reanimates the body of his loved one who has died in a plague.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Silent films have an inherently dreamlike feel to them that gives them a leg up in the weird department. Prometheus Triumphant fails to capture and exploit this feeling, leaving us with a dull and lifeless film devoid of sound, color or interest.
COMMENTS: It’s tempting to give amateur films bonus points for good intentions, but with Prometheus Triumphant it seems like the filmmakers didn’t do due diligence to create something professional looking, thinking that a cool concept alone could carry the film. The first problem, as is usually the case, is the plot, a groaningly obvious and unoriginal mix of Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera that’s as thin as stage blood. Action is almost nonexistent: after embarking on his grave-robbing spree, it takes “The Creator” almost ten minutes to dig up and cart away his first corpse, and most of that time is spent watching him walk with a wheelbarrow across a bleak and uninteresting field with a few prop crucifixes in the foreground.
With no surprises or suspense in the story, Prometheus needs a strong visual look to compensate, one it’s incapable of generating on its budget. A few kind critics have implied that the film evokes the look of German Expressionism, but I’m led to wonder if they’ve ever actually seen a work of classic German expressionism. It’s true that both Prometheus and its inspirations are in black and white and use Gothic imagery, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone confusing a perfectly framed and detailed still from Nosferatu or Caligari with the mundane angles and dull sets of this one. Composer Lucein Desar clearly has some talent, but not enough ideas to stretch out over 80 minutes, and the score becomes repetitive and irritating.
Not all of Prometheus‘ flaws can be forgiven due to budgetary limitations; some of them come from an endemic lack of attention to detail. A shot containing a modern steel handrail and concrete steps in 1899 might be forgiven, but a navel ring on the corpse of a dead peasant girl can’t be. Even more revealing are the mistakes that show up in the intertitles. Many people confuse “throws” for “throes,” but in this day of automatic spellcheckers, how can anyone let a goof like “existance” slip into a project that’s intended to be professional? And if you’re going to misspell a term you’re only vaguely familiar with, such as “Bürgermeister,” at least be consistent: don’t use “Bergmeister” sometimes and “Burgmeister” other times.
It may seem picky, but these mistakes help explain why the flick is so listless in the end. Everyone seems so excited by the cool overarching concept of recreating a classic silent movie that they forgot to work on the little things that make a work breathe. It’s almost as if the camerawork, imagery, acting, script, action, sets, locations, costumes, and makeup all have no higher aspiration than to be usable, and the directors were satisfied if they turned out adequate. The end result isn’t a meaningful tribute to Murnau, Wiene and Lang; if it weren’t so sincerely intended, it would be an insult. Prometheus Triumphant reinforces every negative stereotype mainstream viewers have about silent films being boring and inferior. It’s what all bad, amateur horror movies would look like today if cinema had never developed sound, color, or slashers.
The DVD contains a short film by the same directorial team, “The Sleep of Reason,” that shows a bit more promise than Prometheus actually delivered. Despite the fact that the feature didn’t work on an entertainment or artistic level, I wouldn’t write Towns and McKown off as hacks. Sometimes things just don’t come together the way the creators imagined. At least they had some fun and hopefully learned some valuable lessons; but sadly, better-made independent features are sitting on shelves, while this failed experiment gets a relatively decent distribution deal.
PLOT: An enigmatic hitman is sent on an obscure mission to kill an unknown man for unexplained reasons; the movie follows him as he meets with a long string of contacts of unclear significance, each of whom gives him a matchbook with further instructions and offers him a piece of dime store philosophy.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Set in an unreal moviescape of secret rendezvous and mystifying portents, The Limits of Control has definite shadings of weird. It’s a bold experiment in pure cinema, and like most bold experiments, it’s partly successful and partly frustrating. Stripping the plot down beneath its bare essentials, to the merest skeleton, Jarmusch proves that you can get pretty far on cinematic tone and technique alone. He also proves that you can’t quite get all the way to a good movie solely through cinematics.
COMMENTS: Dawn’s light breaks across the open eyes of a lone man lying in a hotel room bed. He gets up, puts on a natty suit, and does tai chi exercises, measuring each move slowly and precisely. He goes to a cafe, sits alone, and orders two espressos in two cups; he sends the order back when the waiter brings a double espresso in a single cup. Night falls. He returns to his hotel room, lies down on his hotel room bed, eyes wide open. Time presumably passes. Dawn’s light breaks across his unblinking face. A new day has begun.
It’s a typical twenty-four hours in the life of the character known only as the Lone Man, a secret agent who spends most of his days walking around, looking at the Spanish scenery or visiting the modern art gallery, sitting alone quietly in a cafe sipping espresso, and staring off into space blankly. He’s a quiet man, one who makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name look like a chatterbox. He won’t say one word if zero words will get his point across. Occasionally, another spy will meet him at a cafe and they will exchange Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009)→
PLOT: In this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, a a string of grisly killings is linked to an unnameable creature inhabiting the loft of an abandoned New England mill inherited by newlyweds.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Shuttered Room showcases a strange story of monsters and madness. The setting is claustrophobic and creepy, the characters are downright bizarre, and so are the situations that the protagonists stumble into. The cinematography is expertly, if not artfully, executed. Thus the viewer expects a conventional storyline, and it is unsettling when shocking events unfold.
COMMENTS: A newlywed couple, Mike and Susannah Kelton (Young, Lynley) travel to an island off of the Connecticut shoreline to visit an old mill which Sue just inherited. It was once her childhood home. From the start, she has reservations, but the couple perseveres at Mike’s urging. They need to view the property with the goal of renovating the mill into a bed and breakfast.
As soon as they arrive on the island, the locals begin subjecting them to the old “Yew ain’t from around here!” treatment (even though Sue is). Mike meets her uncle who insists that they should leave. The uncle’s employee shows Mike his mutilated face, missing an eye, and reports that the injury was caused by the devil when he got drunk and spent a night in the abandoned mill. The couple also meet the local ruffians, a gang of unsavory toughs led by a psychopath named Ethan (Reed), who happens to be Sue’s cousin. Mike is a dignified magazine editor. Both he and Sue are city-slickers—and it Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967)→
Greetings weird movie fans! I hope Santa brought you lots of weird films for Christmas. (Word has it good little boys and girls got limited edition Blu-rays of Eraserhead, while bad movie fans got “The Complete Uwe Boll” boxed set—I’d be happy either way).
In the final week of 2009, we’ll turn our attention to catching up with a few weird stragglers from the year past with reviews of Jim Jamursch’s The Limits of Control and the grandiosely titledamateur production Prometheus Triumphant: A Fugue in the Key of Flesh. For a change of pace we’ll toss in a review of the 1967 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Shuttered Room and perhaps a surprise review or two.
The weirdest search term used to locate the site this week was, undoubtedly, “elephant milk movies.” I shudder to think what the searcher was hoping to find.
We actually made some progress on the reader suggested review queue this week by getting Dark Country off the board (though, as a borderline selection, we reserve the right to revisit it in the future). Here’s what’s left for us to cover: Greaser’s Palace (substituted for Institute Benjamenta), Waking Life, Survive Style 5+, The Dark Backward, The Short Films of David Lynch, Santa Sangre, Dead Man, Inland Empire, Monday (assuming I can find an English language version), The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Barton Fink, What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams), Meatball Machine, Xtro, Basket Case, Suicide Club, O Lucky Man!, Trash Humpers (when/if released), Gozu, Tales of Ordinary Madness, The Wayward Cloud, Kwaidan, Six-String Samurai, Andy Warhol’s Trash, Altered States, Memento, Nightmare Before Christmas/Vincent/Frankenweenie, The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gothic, The Attic Expeditions, After Last Season, Getting Any?, Performance, Being John Malkovich, The Apple, Southland Tales, Arizona Dream, Spider (2002), Songs From The Second Floor, Singapore Sling, Alice [Neco z Alenky], Necromania (1971, Ed Wood), Hour of the Wolf, MirrorMask, Possession, Suspiria, Mary and Max, and Wild Zero. We’ll get to them all, we promise!
Josh Gottsegen delivers a mysterious work of art in the underappreciated short, “Royal Game.” This short features a chess match between two mystical beings. Perhaps the strangest part of this short is its musical arrangement by Marc Lipari.
We celebrate the season a little bit differently around these parts. Please enjoy this disturbing tribute to the holidays from I Can See You‘s Graham Reznick. It features a creepy doll with perpetually downturned eyes, graphics and sound that are reminiscent of a “Sesame Street” segment, and irrational Satanic rituals.
This short, along with Voltaire’s X-Mess Detritus, was part of Beck Underwood’s “Creepy Christmas” project. There’s plenty more where these came from, so please visit the Creepy Christmas site to see all 25 films!
All About Steve (2009): This one is quite the stretch for weird interest, but we’ll mention it for the curious. The romantic comedy All About Steve, starring Bradley Cooper and the never-weird Sandra Bullock, received absolutely abysmal reviews. There were a smattering of opinions, however, that indicate that, if you’re in the right mood, this could be a flick of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety. James Kendrick, for one, suggested that the film could be seen as an unintentional “satire of romantic comedies, or at least some kind of avant-garde experiment in testing the limits of audience identification… If you’re not on board with its scattershot comedy and fundamental weirdness, it could very well be a nightmare. But, if you let yourself sink into its wild wrong-headedness and just go with the flow, there are sublime pleasures to be had.” If you give it a try report back to us! Buy All About Steve from Aamzon.
No Right Turn (2009): There’s not much information to be found on this Danish pulp thriller, but it does somehow incorporate fantasy elements into its tale of drug dealers and prostitutes, and it also has a retro-exploitation movie poster in lurid yellow. Buy No Right Turn from Amazon.