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 2. Drag 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 entirely 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 II, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of ‘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.

SLAPHAPPY VOLUME 8: SURREAL COMEDY

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

The Thieving Hand

The Thieving Hand (1908)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPSULE: THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008)

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY:  Rian Johnson

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

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

Still from The Brothers Bloom (2008)

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

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

AKA Lady Vengeance

threestar

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Yeong-ae, Min-sik Choi

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

Still from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

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

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

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

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

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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

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