PLOT: Five connected stories where the protagonist is always played by Rezza. An affair during a funeral is spiced up by the occasional comments of the deceased; the two lovers of a woman suddenly exchange their ages; a terminally bored girl is forced to join a totalitarian rehab clinic; a poet consumes his life searching for forgiveness for having stepped on a man’s toe; and a professional event-crasher loses control of his own body and is forced to cut it to pieces until only the head remains.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because it is a rare example of an arthouse film that is not pretentious but actually fun, highly committed to weirdness and yet serious in its (admittedly well-hidden) message.
COMMENTS: While you have to understand Italian to fully appreciate the lyrical, offbeat and hilarious dialogues, everyone will be amazed by the physical and vocal contortions of the protagonist(s). Pretty much everything in Escoriandoli (the title itself is a pun that roughly means “confetti-like joy in excoriating them”) is odd: an example may be how all the actors on a bus react to its movements—although the vehicle is explicitly shown as being still—but almost no scene can be considered “normal”.
FEATURING: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Anna Wetlinská, Jirí Lábus, Pavel Nový
PLOT: A man enters a newsstand and furtively buys a pornographic magazine as the owner nods conspiratorially at him. At home, he leafs through the pages but is interrupted by the postwoman, who has him sign for a letter that simply reads “on Sunday.” Over the next several days the man constructs an elaborate chicken costume; meanwhile, the postwoman, his next door neighbor, the newsstand owner, and another couple are all involved in their own strange, surreptitious projects.
Conspirators of Pleasure began life as a screenplay for a short written in 1970 but never filmed. That short would have told the parallel stories of the “chicken man” and his neighbor across the hall. Svankmajer resumed work on the project in 1996, thought of four more characters to include, and expanded the film to feature length.
In 1975 Svankmajer wrote a (satirical?) essay entitled “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines.”
Originally known for his stop-motion animated shorts, Conspirators was Svankmajer’s third feature film, and it continued a trend of having less and less animation in each successive film (there are only a few accent scenes here, which amount to about one minute of animation).
The end credits list Sacher-Masoch, the Marquis de Sade, Freud, Luis Buñuel, and Bohuslav Brouk (a Czech psychoanalyst who wrote up a series of case studies about masturbatory practices) as having provided “professional expertise.”
The Quay Brothers, animators who paid tribute to the Czech director with the 1984 film “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,” are listed in the credits as “musical collaborators” (although the soundtrack is prerecorded classical music).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The man in a chicken suit doing a ritualistic (and sometimes literally animated) dance in front of a doll-like effigy tied to a chair.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stop-motion submissive; dough-snorting; carp shrimping
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: We follow six people engaged in complicated, intensely personal fetishistic rituals; adding to the odd, voyeuristic atmosphere, there is no dialogue, other than what’s overheard in the background on television. Each of the conspirators crosses the others’ paths, but continue to work on their own private obsessions, until all of them appear to receive their ultimate gratification. Then, Jan Svankmajer launches us into a new stratosphere of strangeness at the finale, when the chickens come home to roost (so to speak).
“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen
PLOT: Fletcher Munson, a corporate functionary, is tapped to write a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder of a pseudo-religious self-help movement called Eventualism. One day, still struggling to come up with a draft, he notices his exact physical double in a parking lot—a dentist who, it turns out, just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Meanwhile, we occasionally peek at the life of nonsense-speaking exterminator and Lothario Elmo Oxygen, whose connection to Munson’s storyline will not become entirely clear until the final act.
Steven Soderberg served as writer, director, and lead actor. This was his first appearance on film and to date is his only leading role.
Soderberg made Schizopolis for about $250,000, shooting in Louisiana with his old LSU film school buddies, in between shooting the big-budget Hollywood movies The Underneath (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
Soderberg did not have a shooting script but wrote new parts each day, and incorporated improvisations from the cast.
Actress Betsy Brantley, who plays Steven Sorderberg’s wife in the film, was Soderberg’s real-life ex-wife.
Soderberg’s opening narration was added after Schizopolis‘ negative reception at Cannes.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shot with handheld video cameras in a bland suburbia, often in a vérité style, Schizopolis is very much a work of words and ideas, not images. Therefore, the most representative image is actually a picture of a word: a sign reading “idea missing.” The meta-joke is that Schizopolis is aware it is built out of ideas, and is confident enough to joke about its own dependence on concepts.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pantsless titles; nose army; dentist doppelgänger
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Schizopolis translates as “divided city” or, informally but more appropriately in this case, “city of schizos.” When the film opens with the director standing on an empty stage, backed by carnival music with periodic changes of focal length as if you were watching the intro through an optometrical device, warning that the upcoming movie may confuse you and you should prepare yourself to see it multiple times, you should be fairly warned that your mind is about to be toyed with, and toyed hard.
PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited Roald Dahl.
COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.
This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief, Tim Burton did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.
Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.
Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.
PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.
COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.
I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).
Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.
Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation. As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.
PLOT: Although there are many digressions, the two main plotlines involve a group of actors traveling to Sarajevo to put on a play and a movie director trying to make a film called Fatal Bolero.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It feels like assigned homework for Professor Godard’s graduate-level “Advanced Semiotics in Cinema” course.
COMMENTS: A woman, the granddaughter of Albert Camus, wants to stage a play in war-torn Sarajevo (for reasons that are never made completely clear). Her uncle (I believe) is casting a movie called The Fatal Bolero, and she convinces him to fund their expedition. They set off for Sarajevo (in Camus’ car), but the director ditches them along the way. The three actors are captured by soldiers, who plan to commit war atrocities on them while running around slapstick-style dodging shells lobbed from unknown destinations. We then return to France to follow the director, who is struggling to make his movie on a tight budget. The crew discovers two bodies in a burnt-out building—either sleeping derelicts, or corpses—and puts a red dress on the female, who later awakens and plays the lead role. The ending is a cute self-referential bit where audiences lined up to see Bolero ask if there will be nudity; when they’re told the answer is no, they threaten to leave to go see an American film, and the desperate producers spontaneously change the movie. It takes some work for the viewer to figure out those basic outlines. That plot, per se, is not of much concern to Godard; what he is interested in, as his directorial stand-in directly proclaims, is the “a saturation of glorious signs bathing in the light of absent explanation.” By design, the characters aren’t well-defined or established (it’s not even clear what their names are, and there are a lot of “who’s that guy again?” moments). There are gaps in the action, non-sequiturs, and scenes that begin suddenly without orienting the viewer. Everyone in the movie talks like an off-duty philosophy professor waxing poetic after two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. “There is no death. There’s only me, who is going to die,” muses a young actress while staring out of a train window. Later, sitting around a campfire, her sister responds, “the sensation I have of existence is not yet a ‘me.'” Godard glancingly addresses a multitude of issues, from the existential to the cinematic/theoretical, and sometimes his almost absentminded reflections are brilliant: his thesis that cinema has a greater mystery and dignity than literature because film incorporates actors and props that have a separate existence outside the imagination of the author, uttered by the movie’s director while the camera focuses on the face of an actress huddling against a cold beach wind, is fascinating to consider. But the absence of humanity exhibited by the nearly anonymous characters makes the movie too cold to be involving, and the lack of rigor in its intellectual musings means many of its tossed-off insights come off as hot air. It’s vintage late Godard: brainy, but boring, too thoughtful to be totally dismissed, but too flighty to be embraced.
Spoken phonetically, the title For Ever Mozart sounds like “faut rêver Mozart” (“dream, Mozart”) in French.
The previous New Yorker DVD of For Ever Mozart contained no extra features; the 2014 Cohen Media Group release includes a commentary by film critic James Quandt and an interview with Godard.
This week we feature Run Wrake’s visual companion to excerpts of Howie B’s first album, Music for Babies. They compliment each other remarkably well by distorting natural sounds and images until they seem as if they’re from another world entirely.
FEATURING: Norimizu Ameya, Yôta Kawase, Mika Kunihiro, Sosuke Saito
PLOT: In the midst of bizarre and intricate top secret drug research, four mad scientists run
low on test subjects and use one another as guinea pigs. Their equipment malfunctions as the team succumbs to the drug’s psychotic effects. The entire experiment spirals horribly out of control, turning the final test subject into a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster—with a unique twist.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The bizarre story, unconventional filming, and shocking imagery in Rubber’s Lover make it a weird viewing experience, even by the standards of the Japanese cyberpunk genre.
COMMENTS: Kinetic editing and dark, shocking images define this unusual, experimental Japanese horror film. In a modern update to the Frankenstein plot, a team of rogue scientists conduct experimental drug, sensory, and mind control research on abducted human subjects in a secret government torture lab. The results are promising, but they can’t seem to get the dose right; the subjects keep dying. (Who might have predicted that?) Worse, they are running out of hard-to-obtain “patients” and time is running out to conclude experimentation. Their horrifying lab is full of eerie black iron devices and electronics, all maddeningly grotesque in appearance.
Threatened with impending shut-down and loss of grants if they don’t achieve viable results soon, the crazy quartet decides to give their last living human guinea pig a mega dose of their weird drug cocktail. His brain explodes, dosing an assistant by spraying blood on him. Now the assistant is instantly addicted, semi-psychotic, and useless for being anything but, you guessed it, the next test subject.
The researchers fight over which of their two drugs they should test on him, as both have developed competing formulas. One decides to test his drug on his partner, turning the hapless associate into a mad sex offender who then marathon-rapes a female executive sent to shut down their lab. To prevent her leaving and making a bad report (why would she want to do that?) Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: RUBBER’S LOVER (1996)→
FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Mike Malone
PLOT: A series of absurdist sketches and nonsense dialogues linked together by a thin plot
about an office worker struggling with an assignment to write a major speech for a cultlike motivational speaker obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hilarious witticism characterizing film’s oddness. Cautious disclaimer suggesting uneven satire undermines enjoyability, but granting nobility of purpose and peculiar appeal. Self-aggrandizing non sequitur.
COMMENTS: After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on a stage and introduced the film. “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours,” he advised. “You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” We are then thrown into the story of Fletcher Munson, a chronic office masturbator suffering from writer’s block as he attempts to pen a speech for “Eventualism” founder T. Azimuth Switters. A third of the way through the movie he meets (and sort of becomes) his exact double, an amorous dentist named Korchek who happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife, but Korchek (or is it Munson inhabiting Korchek’s body?) falls in love with Munson’s wife’s doppelgänger, Attractive Woman #2. Then, in the movies final act we see the same scenes replayed from the perspective of Mrs. Munson. Interspersed with all of this are bits involving a pantsless old man running away from a pair of orderlies, news reports suggesting Rhode Island has been sold to a consortium of investors who want to turn it into a shopping mall, and a shot of a sign posted on a tree reading “idea missing.” Oh, and there’s also an exterminator who speaks gibberish and seduces local housewives. What’s there to possibly be confused about? Sorerbergh, who started his career with Sex, Lies and Videotape, the movie that launched the indie filmmaking revolution, made Schziopolis as a palette-cleanser after his big budget flop Underneath left a bad taste in his mouth (a fan cleverly described this as Soderbergh’s “second first film“). Working with his friends on a budget of only $250,000, it’s a loose, breezy, seemingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)→
PLOT: Frank, a mentally challenged old man with a speech impediment, kills various people he
meets as he searches for true love from a woman with large breasts.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an authentic piece of goombah outsider art, The Bride of Frank is actually weird, but it’s also bad. And I mean real bad, not “entertaining” bad.
COMMENTS: The movie begins with a toothless old man tricking a five year-old girl into getting into his big rig, trying to get her to kiss him, then crushing her head under the wheel of his truck after she calls him a “dirty bum.” If that scenario sounds like can’t miss comedy gold to you, then you’re The Bride of Frank‘s target audience. All others will want to observe that “beware” rating. That opening scene of child molestation played for laughs does have the virtue of driving away most of the audience before the film can even get started; anyone who continues on past that point can’t pretend to be surprised by the senseless killing, simulated defecation, and sexual perversion that follows. Tonally, the opening, which makes us want to destroy Frank with fire, is a huge problem because it’s out of character with the way the rest of the movie wants to portray him—as a hideous-looking but childlike outcast, a la Frankenstein’s monster, who only kills bad people after they insult and reject him. To wit: Frank decapitates a nerd and relieves himself inside the corpse after being insulted at his birthday party, rips the face off a transvestite who tricks him into a sexual encounter, tears the eye out of a 300 pound exotic dancer and violates her corpse because she’s a tease, and so on. Yawn. Are we jaded yet? More conventional comic relief comes from the poetically obscene homoerotic/homophobic repartee between two of Frank’s coworkers, which is slightly amusing, but nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve ever worked with Jersey teamsters on a loading dock. Frank, the weatherbeaten, dim, ex-homeless killer whose speech impediment is so thick he’s often subtitled, is played by real-life ex-homeless man Frank Meyer. Frank is like John Waters regular Edith Massey, except he’s not in on the joke. He’s not acting, he’s simply Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BRIDE OF FRANK (1996)→
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