WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 1/9/09

A new feature looking at potentially weird films that are currently in theaters, coming to DVD soon or in production. Visit the official sites to see trailers.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: An adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who is born elderly, but grows younger as he ages. Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, directed by certified weird director David Fincher (Fight Club). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Official Site

Australia: Down-under epic is unlikely to be extremely weird, but magical powers of the Australian aborigines taken at face value have raised some critical eyebrows. Director Baz Luhrman (William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge) also has some weird leanings. Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and a cute kid.  Australia Official Site

The Spirit: Appears to be a rehash of the comic book style of graphic novelist turned director Frank Miller’s cult hit, Sin City.  Reviews have not been kind, although they do occasionally call it “incomprehensible,” which sounds promising.  With Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johnasson, and Samuel L. Jackson.  The Spirit Official Site

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

CAPSULE: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

AKA You Better Watch Out

DIRECTED BY: Lewis Jackson

FEATURING: Brandon Maggart

PLOT: After young Harry sees his father making love to his mother while dressed as Santa Claus, he grows up obsessed with jolly old St. Nick; one Christmas Eve, he snaps.

christmas_evil
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Christmas Evil has a few nice, weird little touches scattered throughout. Several times the film seems to switch perspective from an objective view to Harry’s skewed subjective view without giving the audience notice. The darkly witty Santa lineup scene, the out-of-left-field Frankenstein homage, and of course the memorable final shot, where Harry completely breaks with reality and takes the viewer with him, are memorable enough. There is also an eerie atmosphere throughout, helped greatly by an unsettling electronic score. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such high points to justify placing Christmas Evil on the overall list of 366.

COMMENTSChristmas Evil is a serious character study—or, at least, an honest attempt at a serious character study—of a middle-aged loser who lives in a dangerous fantasy world of his own making. There are many little subtle details (catch, for example, the vintage Santa poster depicting St. Nick as a forbidding judge with a gavel) that provide a black comedy feel. On the other hand, it’s very slow to get started and the cheapness of the production often shows to its disadvantage–there’s one terrible editing glitch at the company Christmas party that’s so obvious and jarring, it suggests a loss of financing during post-production. Overall, it’s not nearly as bad as detractors would have it, or as as good as its few defenders (like John Waters) would like to believe. If Christmas Evil were a gift in your stocking, it wouldn’t be a lump of coal, or the keys to a new Mitzubishi Lancer; it would be a pair of cheap but comfy socks in a crazy color scheme that’s not to everyone’s taste.

When it debuted, Christmas Evil (then known as You Better Watch Out) was an oddity: the first film to depict the previously jolly ol’ St. Nick as a homicidal killer. Since then, the holiday vidscreens have been decked with Santa-slasher dreck such as Santa Claws (1996), Santa’s Slay (2005), and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series (1984-1991, with a remake on the way), greatly diminishing the novelty of a psycho Santa. Christmas Evil has little in common with it’s bloody progeny, and is probably the best entry in the sleazy sub-genre it inspired.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “…the best seasonal film of all time. I wish I had kids. I’d make them watch it every year and, if they didn’t like it, they’d be punished!” -John Waters, Crackpot

CAPSULE: KUNG FU ARTS [HOU FU MA] (1980)

AKA Kung Fu: Monkey, Horse, Tiger

DIRECTED BY: Lee Shi Chieh, Lee Geo Shu

FEATURING: Carter Wong [as Huang Chia-Da], Cheng Shing, Sida the French Monkey Star

PLOT:  A princess marries a chimpanzee, amidst intrigue in the Chinese imperial court.

kung_fu_arts

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Any film featuring “Sida the French Monkey Star” is at least a little weird.  The main obstacle to Kung Fu Arts cementing a place in the list of 366 is that it’s coming out of the weirdest movie genre of all—those short lived 1970s “chopsocky” movies made quickly, dubbed badly, and exported to the West to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee.  When the average entry in this genre features fists that cut the air with a loud swoosh, heavily stylized but amazingly choreographed fight scenes between men wearing brilliantly colored robes, and silly dialogue that surrealistically refuses to keep up with the actor’s lips, the threshold to be considered “weird” rises significantly.  Kung Fu Arts adds monkeys to the formula: monkeys who are addressed by the ensemble as if they were mute actors with a perfect understanding of Cantonese, but monkeys nonetheless.  This is creates a fairly high weirdness quotient, but in the end I decided not to make Kung Fu Arts a finalist, because I have faith there were even more deserving entries out there.  But don’t be surprised to see this movie reconsidered and placed on the list some day in the future.

COMMENTS:  If you’re tuned in to the chopsocky wavelength (and you should be), Kung Fu Arts is an entertaining little picture.  Although it’s somewhat light on fighting, it has wonderful costuming, an intriguing fairy-tale plot, and a reasonable amount of chuckles stemming from the straight-faced acting directed at the primate stars.  From the moment the imperial guards fall to their knees and plead with Sida to come down from the rooftop with the king’s pilfered royal proclamation, to the final battle where a small army of primates help the hero to defeat the evil usurper to the throne, Kung Fu Arts supplies plenty of silly smiles, some intended by the filmmakers, and many unintentional.

Kung Fu Arts is available as part of the Mill Creek 50 Martial Arts Movie Pack.  Because the movie is in the public domain, it’s available for download from Public Domain Torrents.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: ” The plot is completely nonsensical (though possibly based on some sort of Chinese myth), and it seems like the film was designed mostly for children with some potty humour thrown in for good measure.”–Doug Tilley, Movie Feast (DVD)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 1/2/08

A new feature looking at potentially weird films that are currently in theaters, coming to DVD soon or in production.  Visit the official sites to see trailers.

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Let the Right One In:  There’s a fantastic buzz about this Swedish movie about a 12 year old boy who falls in love with a neighbor girl who is a vampire.  It looks like an inferior Hollywood remake is already in the works!  Let the Right One In Official Site

Timecrimes [Los Cronocrimenes]:  Well reviewed Spanish time-travel Twilight Zone thriller.  Looks promising.  Los Cronocrimenes Official Site (Spanish)

Waltz with Bashir: Animated Israeli politically tinged film, described as visually inventive and surreal.  Waltz with Bashir Official Site

Repo: The Genetic Opera:  Gory sci-fi musical comedy about a future where organs are bought on the open market, and occasionally have to be repossessed.  Adapted from am underground LA stage play.  Very poorly reviewed.  Repo: The Genetic Opera Official Site

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

CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

7. EL TOPO (1970)

AKA The Mole (literal translation)

“Q: You’re creating this story right now.

A: Yes, this very moment.  It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.” -Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Conversations with Jodorowsky”

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: El Topo, a figure dressed in black and carrying his nude son on horseback behind him, uses his supernatural shooting ability to free a town from the rule of a sadistic Colonel.  He then abandons his son for the Colonel’s Woman, who convinces him to ride deep into the desert to face off against four mystical gunfighters.  All of the gunfighters die, but El Topo is betrayed, shot, and dragged into a cave by a society of deformed people, who ask the outlaw turned pacifist to help them build a tunnel so they can escape to a dusty western town run by degenerate religious fascists.

el-topo

BACKGROUND:

  • El Topo is considered to be the first “midnight movie,” the first movie to be screened in theaters almost exclusively after 12 AM.  Although the heyday of the midnight movie has past, it was a clever marketing gimmick that stressed the unusual nature of the film and positioned El Topo as an event rather than just another flick.
  • El Topo was famously championed and promoted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
  • Due to an acrimonious dispute over ownership rights between Jodorowsky and Allen Klein, the film was withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, during which time it could only be seen on bootlegged VHS copies.  The scarcity of screenings vaulted El Topo‘s already powerful reputation into a legendary one.  Jodorowsky and Klein reconciled in 2004 and the film had a legal DVD release in 2005.

INDELIBLE IMAGEEl Topo is a continuous stream of unforgettable images; any frame chosen at random inflames the imagination.  My personal favorite is the lonsghot after El Topo kills third master gunfighter, where his body lies bleeding in his own watering hole while the rest of the landscape is littered with rabbit corpses.   The iconic image, however, is  El Topo riding off on horseback with a naked child sitting behind him, holding a black umbrella over his head.  This image is particularly representative because it shows not only Jodorowsky’s gift for composition, but his penchant for shamelessly borrowing from other sources of inspiration: the concept is pinched from the most surreal moment of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In the first scene, a man clad in black carrying an

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Original trailer for El Topo

umbrella rides through an endless desert waste.  Behind him in the saddle is a male child, naked except for a cowboy hat.  The man stops his horse by a lonely hitching post in the sand, ties the umbrella to the post, and hands the boy a teddy bear and a locket and a photograph.  The man says, “Today you are seven years old.  You are a man.  Bury your first toy and your mother’s picture.”  He pulls out a flute and plays while the naked child follows his instructions.  What makes El Topo weird is that this is the most normal and comprehensible thing that happens the film.

COMMENTS:  In Judges 14, Samson (the Hebrew version of Hercules) is attacked by a Continue reading 7. EL TOPO (1970)

6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Su-jeong Lim, Rain

PLOT: Young-goon, a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly fatal attempt to recharge her batteries.  Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but character traits from the other patients.  Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her—and seeks to find a solution to her troubles that will remain true to her delusion.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

BACKGROUND:

  • I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)].   It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
  • The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
  • The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.”  He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon.  The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The main characters—a woman who self-destructs

Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK

because she believes herself to be a robot, and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for bunny rabbit masks—would, at the very least, qualify as quirky.  Add elaborate hallucinatory sequences, including a massacre of the hospital doctors set to the rhythm of a gentle chamber waltz, and a flight to the Swiss Alps in the grasp of a giant ladybug accompanied by yodeling, and the movie becomes fantastic.  But what makes it weird is that the director takes the principals’ delusions at emotional face value, never allowing reality to bully and overcome his madmen’s subjective worlds.

COMMENTS:  We can easily imagine the 2009 Hollywood remake of Saibogujiman Continue reading 6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]

“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franjou

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Georges Franjou

FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

PLOT:  The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident.  The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on.  When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
eyes_without_a_face

BACKGROUND:

  • Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
  • Director Georges Franjou has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
  • The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day.  It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The mask itself, the heart of the film.  There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint).  An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not

Original trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)

obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franjou’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real.  But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations.  The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what?  For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franjou is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.

COMMENTSEyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that Continue reading 5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

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