CAPSULE: ZENITH (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Vladan Nikolic

FEATURING: Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards III, Ana Asensio, David Thornton

PLOT:  In the year 2044 people have been genetically engineered to feel perpetually happy, so

Still from Zenith (2010)

they perversely seek out illegal drugs that bring intense pain; in this society, a dealer in pharmaceutical misery stumbles upon what may be a generations old conspiracy that goes by the code name “Zenith.”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  More confusing than weird, Zenith is at the same time a laudable and thought-provoking, but forced and undramatic, attempt to create a cult-y reality-bender along the lines of more organic puzzle movies like Primer.

COMMENTSZenith is one bewildering conspiracy movie.  It creates frustration and paranoia by chopping up its narrative with lots of fast-forwards, rewinds, out-of-sequence scenes, and even episodes of déjà vu.  Elisions, false clues and dead end leads increase the confusion quotient.  Although the sloppiness of the story is an intentional strategy meant to put us inside the paranoid heads of the protagonists, the procedure still occasionally comes off as the director jerking the viewer around—especially when it comes to the rug-pulling conclusion, which tempts alienating the movie’s core audience.  Writer/director Vladan Nikolic crafts an intricate scenario here that may please fans of “difficult” stories, but it’s more rewarding, above and beyond the plot level, to think of the movie as an examination of the conspiracy fan’s psychology.  “Dumb” Jack, the pain-pill pusher (a grungy and intense Peter Scanavino), begins the story thinking of his defrocked priest father, Ed, who’s obsessed with trivia about the Illuminati and the Bilderbreg group, as a crazy old coot.  But the more he watches old VHS tapes of dad’s decades-old investigations of the “Zenith” conspiracy, the more he comes to be just like him, until at the end the two men have become virtual doppelgängers.  The movie suggests that it may be able to easier to get sucked into irrational conspiratorial beliefs than it seems, especially seeing as how it asks the viewer to take pleasure in following the clues and tagging along as they track down that mysterious man who, if only he can only be located and Continue reading CAPSULE: ZENITH (2010)

CAPSULE: THE RUM DIARY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi

PLOT: An alcoholic journalist goes to Puerto Rico where he encounters unscrupulous

Still from The Rum Diary (2011)

capitalists and bottomless mini-bars.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The confluence of three offbeat talents—-seldom seen cult auteur (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) directing quirk king Johnny Depp in an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by gonzo godfather —produces a movie that’s far more conventional than you might have guessed.

COMMENTS:  For better or worse, it’s impossible to avoid comparing Rum Diary (unfavorably) with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film’s producers can’t complain the comparison is unfair, because they cut a trailer that’s obviously aimed at hooking Loathing fans: it’s filled with boozy shenanigans, a bowling ball knocking down ten pin rum bottles, and Johnny Depp promising, in his best deadpan Hunter S. Thompson drawl, “all of this might sound like some crazed hallucination…”  Diary even contains a mild LSD trip sequence that sees Michael Rispoli’s tongue extend six feet in the air “like an accusatory giblet”; of course, this sixty seconds of psychedelics occupies a prime place in the marketing scheme.  There’s also a scene with a voodoo priestess who coughs up frogs—and that’s about it on the weirdness front.  The rest of the movie is a series of drunken war stories in which part-time journalist, full-time imbiber and would-be novelist Paul Kemp (Thompson’s alter-ego, played by Depp as a less manic and assured Raoul Duke) worries about “finding his voice” and flirts with joining up with the “Bastards.”  Why the Bastards (represented by real-estate developer Aaron Eckhart) are so keen to recruit horoscope writer Kemp into their venal cabal isn’t clear; corrupting idealists is what makes them Bastards, I guess.  Also not clear is what’s so darn evil about their plan to build a hotel that would supply thousands of jobs for the local populace on land previously only used for the noble purpose of naval test bombing.  Their marketing plan, which would involve Kemp slipping some favorable words into his columns, is unethical, sure, but hardly a screaming headline, page one outrage.  But the scheme’s investors smoke cigars and complain about Negros and Communists, so they are pretty clearly villainous.  Despite their wickedness, though, the only moral objections Kemp actually raises have to do with the way Eckhart treats his flighty, arm-candy lover (Amber Heard, who looks fabulous in a bikini but disappears from the movie like a neglected girlfriend).  Joining Depp, Eckhart and Heard are Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of colorful drinking buddies (Rispoli plays his photographer role like a 1940s New York City cabbie, while Nazi-obsessed basket case Ribisi affects an annoying whine).  The trio’s wandering adventures build to a remarkable anticlimax.  None of the plot lines dangled off this tropical pier snag a catch, but Kemp/Thompson does eventually find his literary voice—too bad for us it only happens after he’s finished narrating this tale.  It’s pleasant to see Depp reprise his role as Thompson, and there are memorable lines of dialogue and set pieces (all of which find their way into the trailer).  But the movie sips at drunken insanity rather than gulping it down; it never goes four-sheets-to-the-wind crazy.  The tone of muted madness here doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s gonzo spirit.  Call it “Mild Concern and Dislike in San Juan.”

“The Rum Diary” was written by Thompson some time in the late 1950s or early 1960s but was rejected by several publishers.  Johnny Depp reportedly discovered the manuscript in Thompson’s basement while he was researching the writer’s mannerisms in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing.  Depp encouraged Thompson to revise the lost novel; it was published in 1998.   The actor also served as executive producer for this adaptation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has no mighty gonzo wind… it leaves our freak flag limp.”–David Edelstein, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

2011 is winding down, and we at 366 are already starting to obsess about year-end “best of” lists and stuff like that.  There’s still much fresh weirdness to take in before the big ball falls on December 31.  So, forgive us if things are a bit messy around here.  We’re not 100% sure what we’ll feature next week, but you will see reports on two out of three of the following new offerings: The Rum Diary, the sorta-pseudo prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Zenith, an independent mindbender about the Illuminati and their possible role in a future in which people buy illegal drugs in order to make them feel pain; and/or Father’s Day, the absurdist mock-grindhouse feature about a patricidal serial killer.  Just because we’re focusing on new releases, however, doesn’t mean we’re only covering new movies, because (thanks to the Criterion Collection) we’ll also be visiting Jean Vigo’s influential and forbidden 1933 anarchist boarding school featurette Zéro de conduite (courtesy of “The Complete Jean Vigo” disc), as well as the anti-vivisectionist 1932 horror classic Island of Lost Souls (with Charles Laughton as the mad scientist and as the “Sayer of the Law”).

We had another challenge time determining the Weirdest Search Term of the Week; lots of candidates, but nothing really stood out as mind-boggling.  We start with the English-as-a-Second-Language porn surfers, who dependably supply plenty of weird (and frequently unprintable and disturbing) search terms each and every week.  This time around they bring us the indecisive “seks anal bull bill boll” and the cryptically erotic “sexing black toto story in nigeria.”  Because picking the peculiar porn query as the weekly winner is too predictable, so we turn to other head-scratching searches for our finalists, starting with the declarative “wealthy powerful older fat women lust for gladiators.”  Unexpected, interesting information, that.  But our official winner for Weirdest Search of the Week is the honest (?) but unexpected query “do reptilians wear hoodies,” which earned bonus points because we actually provide the answer to that question in this review.

Here’s the neglected but still growing reader-suggested review queue: Kairo [AKA Pulse];The American Astronaut; Blood Tea and Red Strings; The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. II (for Lucifer Rising, among  others); Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; The Bride of  Frank; Continue reading WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE

SATURDAY SHORT: ODILON REDON (1995)

A father and son witness a train wreck, and compete for the affection of the only survivor. Like much of Maddin‘s work, this short was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival.  This film is also known by the long title The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity: Odilon Redon.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (Odilon Redon) from Guy Maddin on Vimeo.

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/4/2011

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 DEVELOPMENT:

Sleepwalker (est. 2012): About a disappearance in a creepy Southwestern town.  The filmmmakers describe the tone as “David Lynch, Hitchcock, and The Twilight Zone mashed up into a strange and surreal puzzle…”  They are soliciting funds via Kickstarter; for as little as a $1 contribution, you could become a micro-movie-mogul.  Sleepwalker Kickstarter page.

NEW ON DVD:

“The Artists: The Best of Kino’s Silent Classics”: An interesting box containing seven classic silents.  The crucial title for weirdophiles is Metropolis (1927); however, be warned that the version included in this set is the 2002 restoration, not Kino’s “Complete” Metropolis from 2010 (reviewed here).  The other films in the star-oriented bundle are Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922); Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924); Clara Bow as the original It (1927) girl; 1920’s Dr. Jeckyll & Mister Hyde with John Barrymore, the earliest screen adaptation of the classic tale; Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919); and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).  Buy “The Artists: The Best Of Kino’s Silent Classics Vol. 1”.

Bunraku (2010): Read our capsule review.  This expressionistic comic book detailing the adventures of a samurai and a cowboy in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world is plot-lite but pretty. Buy Bunraku.

Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010):  Mark Hartley’s followup to Not Quite Hollywood, his surprise hit “Ozploitation” documentary (focusing on obscure Australian exploitation movies) travels this time to the more familiar (to trash aficionados) terrain of the Philippines.  Topics covered include the /Jack Hill women-in-prison flicks, Eddie Romero’s beastly “Blood Island” horrors, and the dwarf James Bond parody For Your Height Only, with interviews from talking heads like Corman and the ubiquitous John Landis.  Buy Machete Maidens Unleashed!.

The Nutcracker: The Untold Story [AKA The Nutcracker in 3-D] (2010):  A version of the Nutcracker re-imagined as a sci-fi-styled quest to restore the deposed Nutcracker to his throne, usurped by the Rat King.  A huge holiday flop in 2010, but of the nearly universally negative reviews, the one that caught our attention was Peter Hartlaub’s notice for the San Francisco Chronicle: “Imagine watching Tchaikovsky’s ballet after taking a handful of peyote…”  It cost a reported $90 million to create, but made back less than $200,000 at the box office.  Of course, the film is not in 3-D on home video, a happy accident that allows Universal to rename this release as The Untold StoryBuy The Nutcracker: The Untold Story.

Tabloid (2011):  Read our capsule review.  Errol Morris’ eccentric documentary about the UK tabloid sensation caused when a former Miss Wyoming (allegedly) kidnapped a Mormon missionary, tied him to the bed for a weekend, and forced him to have sex with her repeatedly. Buy Tabloid.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Bunraku (2010):  See description in DVD above.  Buy Bunraku [Blu-ray].

The Nutcracker: The Untold Story [AKA The Nutcracker in 3-D] (2010):  See description in DVD above. Buy The Nutcracker: The Untold Story [Blu-ray].

ALBUMS:

Crazy Clown Time: We don’t usually mention music here, but we’ll make an exception in this case: it’s David Lynch‘s debut album.  At the age of 65, Mr. Eraserhead has released his first techno album (yes, he sings—well, mostly recites into a vocoder—most of the lyrics).  We’re not music critics, so we won’t comment on the merit of the beats, or demand Dave get out of the studio and back on the set where he belongs.  The album (which officially drops Nov. 8) can currently be streamed via National Public Radio’s websitePre-order David Lynch’s album “Crazy Clown Time”.

WEB SERIES:

The Funny Man: We reported on Jake Barsha’s planned horror thriller featuring a psychopathic comedian serial killer some time ago.  It seems the project has shifted from a feature film to a (quite successful, it seems) 10 episode webseries on dailymotion.   All ten episodes should be up by the time you read this; here’s a link to episode 1 for horror fans.

FREE (LEGITIMATE RELEASE) MOVIES ON YOUTUBE:

Alice in Wonderland (1972): This Wonderland adaptation made by the BBC has a middle-of-the-road reputation, but some may want to see it for the casting (which is the way they always suck you into seeing yet another version of Alice): Sir Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Peter Sellers as the March Hare, Dudley Moore as the Doormouse.  It’s also a curiosity in that it’s a musical, with a score composed by the great John Barry, lyrics by his Bond collaborator Don Black.  Watch Alice in Wonderland (1972) free on YouTube.

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.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) – 2011 CRITERION RELEASE

Although it has been predictably labeled a “horror” film by more than a few dull and lazy commentators, ‘s The Phantom Carriage owes more to Charles Dickens and the literary world of supernatural dreams than it does contemporary, cheapened genre categories.  In October of this year, The Phantom Carriage received its long overdue Criterion release.  A telling clue to the film’s artistic merits can be heard in the academic commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg.  Another valuable and revealing extra in this Criterion edition is an excerpt from a filmed interview with in which the director discusses the influence that Sjostrom and The Phantom Carriage had on his own art. A video essay by historian Peter Cowie, and an accompanying written essay by Paul Mayersberg (screenwriter of The Man Who Fell To Earth) round out a typically impressive Criterion release.

According to the Scandinavian myth, the last person to die on New Years Eve is doomed to be the dreaded coachman for the grim reaper’s chariot until the following New Years Eve.  The director himself plays protagonist David Holm, and Sjostrom’s acting is strikingly contemporary in its naturalness, quite the reverse of what we think of in regards to histrionic, stylized silent film acting.  Holm, an alcoholic, is killed on New Years Eve and, at the stroke of midnight, it is he who is drafted to be Death’s charioteer.  An old acquaintance of Holm’s happened to have been death’s previous coachman and, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” he warns Holm of a spiritually bankrupt state.  Indeed, Holm’s life has been one of decay and shocking cruelty, but Sjostrom does not resort to oversimplification.  Although Holm has become a sadistic caricature, moments of human warmth still surface, ebbing towards regret and eventual redemption.  Compared to Holm, Ebeneezer Scrooge is the stuff of sainthood.

Still from The Phantom Carriage (1921)Comparisons to Dickens are apt, but Sjostrom’s film casts an even more complex and lugubrious milieu.  The movie is based on Selma Lagerlof’s novel “Korlarlen” and, in contrast to the expressionism popular during the period, Sjostrom opts for a naturalistic setting.  While The Phantom Carriage does not take the easy route of escapist fantasy for adolescent boys, that does not mean it is lacking in intensity.  One scene clearly seeded ‘s idea for Jack Torrance in the unsettling “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining (1980) .

The cinematography, by Julius Jaenzon, is exquisitely haunting.  Jaenzon’s use of double exposure in the ghostly carriage holds up impressively for a 90 year old film.  The Phantom Carriage was released the same year as Charlie Chaplin‘s groundbreaking The Kid.  Both films are, rightly, considered spiritually progressive, humanist films of the silent era.  However, Sjostrom’s film does not fall into the maudlin sentiment that occasionally mars Chaplin’s premiere feature.

Along with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, The Phantom Carriage is one of the most important releases of the year.  Sjostrom’s influential classic is also among the most long-awaited Criterion releases of early cinema.

97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

“Do not demystify.  When you know too much, you can never see the film the same way again. It’s ruined for you for good. All the magic leaks out, and it’s putrefied.”–David Lynch, explaining to Terrence Rafferty why he will not record director’s commentaries

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Laura Harring,

PLOT: A woman (Harring) is involved in a nighttime accident on Mulholland Drive and flees into the city of Los Angeles with amnesia; she sneaks into an apartment soon to be occupied by naive young Betty (Watts), who has come to Hollywood hoping to find stardom.  Meanwhile, a film director (Theroux) finds himself pressured by mysterious mobsters to cast an unknown actress in his upcoming project.  Betty helps the amnesiac woman try to recover her identity, but the clues only lead to a strange avant-garde nightclub, a key, a box, and a sudden reality shift that throws everything that came before into confusion.

Still from Mulholland Drive (2001)


BACKGROUND:

  • Lynch originally intended Mulholland Drive as a TV series in the mold of “Twin Peaks.”  When the networks passed on the pilot, the French producer Studio Canal stepped in with additional financing to turn the pilot into a feature film.  In between ABC’s proactive cancellation of the series and the creation of the film version, all of the sets and props were dismantled, forcing Lynch to come up with a different way to complete the story.
  • Monty Montgomery, whose appearance as “The Cowboy” is an uncanny show-stopper, is a Hollywood movie producer (who produced Wild at Heart for Lynch).  Mulholland Drive is his only acting credit (he’s listed as “Lafayette Montgomery” in the credits).
  • Lynch insisted no chapter stops be included on the DVD.
  • The original DVD release included an insert from Lynch containing “10 Keys to Unlocking This Thriller.”
  • Mulholland Drive received significant critical acclaim, nabbing Lynch a Best Director award at Cannes (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director Oscar nomination.  It was voted best picture of the Year by the Boston Film Critics Society, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the new York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society (where it tied with Memento in the voting).  It was also voted best foreign picture by the Academy Award equivalents of Brazil, France, Spain, and Australia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Silencio nightclub, decorated in Lynch’s trademark red velvet drapes and staffed by his trademark subconscious monsters.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If the massive reality shifts and actresses unexpectedly playing


Original trailer for Mulholland Drive

multiple roles is not enough for you, then the monster behind the Winkie’s, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” delivered by a woman who collapses onstage, and a mafia-style media syndicate run by a deformed dwarf who uses an eyebrowless cowboy as his right-hand man will convince you that we are deep in that subconscious pit of eroticism, kitsch and weirdness that can only go by the name Lynchland.

COMMENTS:  Oddly enough, what may be the most important scene in Mulholland Drive Continue reading 97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

CAPSULE: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Tsui Hark

FEATURING: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng

PLOT: When court officials begin spontaneously bursting into flames as her coronation

Still from Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

approaches, Empress Wu suspects a conspiracy and hires the one man she believes can uncover it: Detective Dee, whom she imprisoned years ago for treason.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are some strange fantasy elements (an talking deer courtier called “the Chaplain”) existing alongside historical material (Empress Wu and Dee himself are real figures), when you get right down to it, Detective Dee is probably only as weird to Western eyes as Indiana Jones was to Asian eyes.

COMMENTS Detective Dee does just about everything above average, and it does one thing really well: art direction.  From the skyscraper-sized Buddha being built for the Empress’ coronation to the flooded underground city where lowlifes go to hide when the heat is on to the everyday pageantry of the Chinese imperial court, Dee is a fantastic looking film, and it’s always a pleasure to watch the film’s ass-kicking characters cavort across these carefully rendered backdrops.  The fight sequences (orchestrated by cult choreographer Sammo Hung) are typically spectacular—the scene where Dee kicks a leaping stag in the head as he flies by is amazing—but they sometimes lack spontaneity and soul, feeling over-studied and over-crafted.  (I admit to a prejudice here: I miss the balletic martial artistry of the old Shaw Brothers films that relied solely on the performers’ athleticism.  But I accept that wire fu is here to stay).  The abundant CGI effects are of acceptable quality, a few years and a few million dollars behind contemporary Hollywood standards; fortunately, they are mainly used for artistic rather than realistic effect.  The only place where Dee drops the ball a bit is in the plot.  Continuity and clarity are not qualities one expects to see highlighted in Hong Kong fantasies, but considering that this one is explicitly couched as a “mystery,” the audience might have expected a little more misdirection and revelation.  Instead, clues pop up arbitrarily, sending our detective to yet another exotic locale where enemy agents await him in ambush.  And with the introduction of various rebel factions and their separate schemes that may or may not be related to the main mystery, the plot gets confusing, without being particularly intricate.  Still, those are minor objections, easily solved by going into the movie with the expectation you’re going to be watching a detective who solves riddles with blows from his feet and his magic mace, rather than his mind.  Among its weirder features, Dee sports a talking deer with symbols scrawled on his head, robed robots, a kung-fu battle on top of two teams of thundering horses, and a character named “Donkey Wang” who disguises himself using acupuncture.  Dee isn’t a game-changing epic, but it is a two-hour mix of history, fantasy, pageantry, mystery, novelty, intrigue, spectacle and thrills—and that’s a lot for your entertainment dollar.

University of Texas-educated director Tsui Hark is one of the most important figures from the Hong Kong New Wave, basically founding the modern fantasy wuxia genre with his groundbreaking Wu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983).  He has also been enormously important as a producer, financing and guiding odd fantastical projects like the unforgettable A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).  Before Detective Dee, Tsui had helmed a number of financial and artistically disappointing features since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.  This film has been widely hailed as a return to form by the beloved fantasy icon, and a prequel is already in the works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing is meant to seem real in the Chinese ‘Detective Dee,’… [it] entertains us because it is so audaciously unreal.”–Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press (contemporaneous)

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