David Blair’s contribution to the 1996 compilation feature film is pretty out there. The narrator reads a tale of telepathy, invasion, and survival while CGI figures spin across the screen.
DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes
PLOT: A wealthy woman who finds herself suffering from nosebleeds, vomiting and other unexplained maladies is drawn into a New Age cult that promises to deliver her from her “environmental sickness.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its protagonist’s non-specific malaise, Safe has an uneasy, hard-to-pin-down tone that’s subtly disquieting. Whatever is plaguing Carol, however, we aren’t comfortable with a final diagnosis of “weird.”
COMMENTS: Safe is a movie in two parts. In the first half, Carol, a bored housew—um, homemaker—sleepwalks through a wan, bourgeois existence. Sex with her affluent but uninspiring husband is unfulfilling, the furniture store inexplicably delivers the wrong couch, and post-aerobic conversations with her friends revolve largely around upcoming baby showers and fad fruit diets. Finally, the wrong kind of excitement enters her life: she begins suffering unexplained nosebleeds, vomiting, and wheezing panic attacks. The doctors are nonplussed by her vague symptoms, and allergy tests turn up negative (except for milk). Still, she’s hospitalized after suffering a seizure at a dry cleaners; she has something.
At this point, the film changes focus when Carol investigates a health club flyer with the intriguing title, “are you allergic to the 20th century?” At first she attends lectures about “environmental sickness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity,” educates herself in the pseudo-scientific jargon about “body load” and “getting clear”; eventually, she declares herself a candidate for the expensive health retreat of Wrenwood, a “non-profit communal settlement dedicated to the healing individual.” Rather than getting better, however, Carol gets progressively sicklier the longer she stays within the carefully controlled atmosphere of the retreat: her body turns bony, her skin blotchy, she takes to lugging around an oxygen tank, and the slightest accidental sniff of fumes from a passing truck sends her into a wheezing spell. The psychobabble therapy—which insists that the patient’s illness is a result of negative emotions and of not loving themselves enough—keeps the residents in state of infantile dependency. Carol’s sickness actually gives her, for the first time in the movie, a sense of purpose and identity; her deterioration is, therefore, not surprising.
Haynes’ camera is deliberate; the film is shot mostly in clinical long shots, with very slow,ian pans. The soundtrack is low, rumbling synthetic drones, with vapid soft rock interludes. The feeling is of distant, gathering doom. The themes suggest layers of interpretation: the story could be a bourgeois satire, New Age satire, feminist allegory, AIDS allegory, or an existential nightmare manifesting itself as body horror. At Safe‘s heart are the subconscious concepts of “purity” and “contamination” (whether environmental, spiritual, or even demographic), and a warning about the danger of yearning for utopian homogeneity and withdrawal from the chaotic world. Ambiguous and creepy, Safe is a call to danger. In these gluten-wary times, Haynes’ message is still vital.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Alas, one waits through the entire two hours hoping that [Haynes] will save himself by puncturing his own balloon of self-seriousness with some of the bizarre humor and inventive genre-bending that has characterized his films to date. But it never comes.”–Todd McCarty, Variety (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who said “It features a great performance from Julianne Moore as a neurotic germophobe who becomes so paranoid in living in a modern industrialized society that she is shipped off to this naturalist colony where other neurotics wander around in these weird body suits that protect them from harmful pollutants in the air.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
DIRECTED BY: Rachel Talalay
FEATURING: Lori Petty, , , Ice-T,
PLOT: Set in the apocalyptic future, an outlandish young punk battles the mega-corporation that controls the world’s water, with a little help, of course, from mutant kangaroos.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The peculiar visual palette and oddball characters in Tank Girl don’t stand out from the omnipresent colorful punk aesthetics of its time. Its tonal inconsistency and mildly bizarre violence (along with a manic Lori Petty) can serve as a sort of goofy surreal serenade, but it never ventures far enough from its comic book origins to really sizzle.
COMMENTS: The 1990’s was an interesting, vibrant period for punk culture. The 1981 Penelope Spheeris documentary The Decline of Western Civilization introduced us to heaps of buzz-cut youngsters sporting thrashed denim and safety pins, their mumbled words scattered due to their adrenaline pumped, amphetamine-fried brains. Nearly a decade later, after punk had (to some degree) conceded to generic glam/hair metal, Spheeris released part three of Decline, but the kids looked different this time around. Gone were the black and white clothes, the shaved heads. These kids had rainbow spiked hair held up with egg whites, as they snorted neon Slurpees up their noses while their zit-infested faces smothered the camera. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, kids on the fringes of the punk scene were embracing pop sensibilities and dying their hair like Billy Joe from Green Day while they bought Offspring shirts and purple hair dye from Hot Topic. It was an ideal time for a project like the counterculture comic book adaptation Tank Girl to get greenlit. Tank Girl, which shares an aesthetic with other excessively lively and colorful 90’s movies like Batman Forever and Double Dragon, emerged as a mainstream amalgamation of a larger cultural shift that would continue with the punkish neon of movies like The Phantom and SLC Punk. Channeling inspiration from punk rock culture and feminism, Tank Girl soars with excessive frivolity.
Staying close to true punk form, Tank Girl also contains crass humor and some reasonably nihilistic violence. Like the militant, borderline-psychotic urban youth that got their kicks from cheap speed and beating up poseurs, the titular character (Lori Petty) seems to get off on pain, whether inflicted on herself or others. She chuckles mirthfully after strapping some grenades to a goon’s vest—a combat move that brings to mind a certain Caped Crusader’s mischief in another punk-indebted 90’s film—and responds to a grave threat from Kesslee (villain Malcolm McDowell) with the line “I like pain”. Indeed, Tank Girl snottily defies convention by wearing its B-movie badge with honor. All the performances seem to sync with the frisky ambiance, the one exception being the nascent Watts as the square Jet Girl, who in a perfect world may have fared better swapping her role Continue reading CAPSULE: TANK GIRL (1995)
DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii
FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)
PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.
COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although it’s never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.
The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9” says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.
Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.
Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.
Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life
“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay
FEATURING: Marc Rylance, Alice Krige,
PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.
- The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
- The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
- The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
- The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.
Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta
COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of Continue reading 127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (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.
Though most folks (who know him at all) know him thanks to his feature films, Guy Maddin is a master of the short film format, having birthed more than two dozen shorts in his career, many under five minutes. The Heart of the World, his apocalyptic valentine to Soviet constructivist cinema, is the director’s best known and most impressive brief work, but anything by Maddin is worth looking at for a few minutes. Therefore, we thought the three short films included on MGM’s The Saddest Music in the World DVD deserved their own synopses. At their best these mini-movies are like a shot of pure rye whiskey: they burn going down, but they give your soul a jolt, and you want another as soon as you’ve digested the first.
“A Trip to the Orphanage” appears to be an outtake from Saddest Music, reimagined as a pure mood piece. The finale of “Orphange”—when Maria de Medeiros kisses a sleepwalker on the cheek, and he says “goodnight, mother” to her—actually appears in the film. There, the episode has no explanation. You won’t get one in “Orphanage,” either. The man walks through a wintry street with a sleepy, dazed expression. We also see shots of de Medeiros’ China doll face, and briefly view her posing with an anonymous child. A woman appears and sings a generic aria of lament: “so fraught with pain his yearning soul…” A sparse piano accompanies her. Snow falls over all the characters, and lace curtains billowing in the wind are superimposed on the picture; sometimes there’s one set of drapes waving in the foreground and a second set in the background. Singer Sarah Constible’s voice is opera-trained and lovely, and “Orphanage” is a Canadian saudade that’s as melancholy as a lone snowflake drifting on the wind. It’s also just as light, and in a mere four minutes it’s there and gone, just like a dream.
“Sombra Dolorosa” returns us to more familiarly comic Maddin territory, with a deranged plot, hysterical intertitles (“to save your daughter you must defeat… El Muerto!!”), and the same psychotic editing that characterized Cowards Bend The Knee. It tells the story of a bereaved widow who must defeat death in a wrestling match, before an eclipse arrives, in order to save her daughter from suicide (“FROM SUICIDE!”, the titles Continue reading THREE GUY MADDIN SHORTS: “A TRIP TO THE ORPHANAGE” (2004)/”SOMBRA DOLOROSA” (2004)/”SISSY-BOY SLAP-PARTY” (1995)
DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes
FEATURING: Carlos Atanes, Arantxa Peña, Diana de Guzman, Antonio Vladimir Fuenzalida, Manuel Solas, Scott Fitzpatrick
PLOT: Three short films: a man seeks to collect a debt in a bar with strong S&M overtones;
the director struggles to complete the film we’re watching while a fawning actress tries to keep him from hanging himself in despair; and a man returns to Spain from the U.S., only to find himself trapped in an orgy/melee on a staircase.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s weirdness is unquestionable; in these perverse short films, Carlos Atanes illustrates a profound understanding of the theory of surrealism—including its ability to piss off not only the average audience member, but the average critic as well. But, although the various casts and crews appear enthusiastic, the technical constraints of low-budget filmmaking hold these three pieces back from cinematic magnificence. It’s probably a matter of individual taste as to whether the rough edges should rule Codex off of the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, or whether the unpolished underground grit adds a charm that works in the compilation’s favor.
COMMENTS: Though born in Paris, Surrealist cinema was conceived in Spain, the love-child of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. If either patriarch had lived to see the mirror succubi, the crab-armed women and the staircase orgies of Codex Atanicus, they’d be proud to claim Carlos Atanes as their offspring. Today, when pure surrealism has been almost abandoned in movies, it’s refreshing to see someone who remains dedicated to probing the mysterious subconscious and carrying on the tradition of Continental Surrealism, despite lack of funding and public indifference. The three films that comprise Codex Atanicus showa a passion for the irrational and a knack for nailing down the way dream concepts follow their own logic, morphing into new entities and images. Like his spiritual grandfather Dalí, Atanes is unabashedly egotistical to the point of self-parody, coining the adjective “Atanic” to describe his own movies; he’s also unafraid to tap into his Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: CODEX ATANICUS (1995/1996/1999)
“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”
–William Blake, Gnomic Verses
DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch
PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.
- William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
- Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
- Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
- Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
- Neil Young composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
- Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
- Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the sudio.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and
Original trailer for Dead Man
lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out. It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.
COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)
DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan
FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley, Peter Gowen, Alan Boyle, Andrew Fullerton, Fiona Shaw, Aisling O’Sullivan, Stephen Rea, Sinéad O’Connor
PLOT: Against the backdrop of Cold War absurdity, a rebellious 1950’s Irish youth descends
into a psychotic maelstrom upon the deaths of his dysfunctional parents and abandonment by his best friend.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Based on the prize winning stream of consciousness novel by Pat McCabe, the movie flows like a grim fantasy regurgitated by a mescaline-intoxicated James Joyce. The combination of genres and mild-mannered, cavalier narrative of perversity and violence make The Butcher Boy a weird and wonderful, if unsettling viewing experience.
COMMENTS: High production values and slick editing distinguish this utterly bizarre story about a cheerfully deluded boy’s descent into madness, mayhem and murder. The lighthearted presentation of repellent material makes for a heavy cinematic encounter that timid viewers will find unpleasant and unsettling.
Francie (Owens) is a slightly delinquent youth. His father (Rea) is a talented, but unrecognized musician—and an anti-social, violent alcoholic. His bipolar mother does her best to distract herself from the family’s depressing existence via a zealous plethora domestic rituals.
Despite his oddball, dysfunctional family life, Francie manages to hang on until his mother commits suicide. The tragedy triggers a series of frantic misfortunes that lead to an insidious and inevitable structural decay of the framework that Francie desperately needs for a normal maturation.
Lacking valid coping options, Francie immerses himself in a comic book-fueled world of fantasy, accentuated by typical boyish adventures and games. But the games become increasingly grim when misfortune and his own recklessness lead him ever further astray.
Beguiled by hallucinatory visions, Francie is off first to a Catholic reform school where he stabs a pedophile priest, then to a lunatic asylum where the staff jolts him with shock treatments and a fellow patient warns him of impending trepanation-style lobotomy. Concluding that the damning chain of unalterable events is rooted in a neighbor’s hatred, Francie finally plunges over the dam of reality. Maddened and desperate, he cascades away on the headwaters of a psychotic mission to compel salvation and resolution via maniacal revenge.
The Butcher Boy is a viewing experience steeped in incongruity. The plot is cinematically presented as a comedy. It is anything but. Grim, twisted, and gritty, the sequence of events that unfold are nothing to laugh at. The storybook Irish countrysides of Warrenpoint and Monaghan accent this foreboding tale, and clash with starkly seedy Dublin locations. Discordant hallucination sequences disrupt the balance of reality. The resulting contrast between subject matter and tempo results in an arty, but disturbing film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Though the movie sometimes looks as if the authentic Irish wit, colour and blarney has been filtered through the sensibility of a Buñuel or Polanski, Jordan never allows the surreal/expressionist aspects to dominate.”–Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide
The Butcher Boy trailer