Tag Archives: 1998

CAPSULE: SLC PUNK (1998)

DIRECTED BY: James Merendino

FEATURING: Matthew Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish

PLOT: Young rebels grow up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA—a location not very conductive to rebellion.

Still from SLC Punk (1998)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One-and-a-half acid trip sequences do not a weird film make, especially when they’re just played for a quick laugh. SLC Punk is in fact a pretty wholesome teenage rumination which happens to be set against the background of the 1980s; in this modern day, it plays like Disney trying to make its own Trainspotting.

COMMENTS: Punk, especially ’80s punk, is a genre defined largely by arguments about its own definition, and SLC Punk spends a lot of time on the debate itself. At the end of the day, we have to give up trying to pin down the genre nobody can agree on and just move on, waving our hands at “that thing over there,” whatever you call it. Punk is Tao; to define it is to grip the air. And we all know the Billie Joe Armstrong quote, thanks.

With that out of the way, you will search far and wide for a comparably mature and realistic snapshot of punk rock culture, the Reaganomics ’80s, or Salt Lake City, for that matter. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) carries us through from start to finish, telling us of his life and coming of age. Along the way, we get some philosophizing about what it means to be a non-conformist, and how to harmonize your nonconformity with the world around you. Stevo’s cast of friends are characters in a punk-culture parable: some come to good ends, some to bad, and some just cruise along.

Not only does Stevo narrate, but he erases the fourth wall and takes us on live guided tours around his life, introducing us to his friends at a party as if we, the audience, were attending. Further segments become mini-documentaries, tackling the rivalry between punk and other cultures, the dichotomy of “posers” within the culture, U.S. vs. U.K. punks, what it’s like to score drugs or even decent alcohol in Utah, and other video-blog topics. We meet Stevo’s chum “Heroin” Bob (Michael A. Goorjian), his dad (Christopher McDonald) who doesn’t quite see eye to eye with his son but manages to have an amicable relationship anyway, his girlfriend Trish (Annabeth Gish), and his drug connection and part-time psycho Mark (Til Schweiger). There’s no real plot to be found here, just a series of interrelated vignettes in the day-to-day lives of these characters.

SLC Punk is a much-cherished cult classic which looks amazing for its six-figure budget. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest punk albums you will ever own; this is the music punks actually listened to in the ‘80s, as opposed to the music we think they listened to. While the movie puts the dyed mohawks and party hi-jinks up front, at its core it’s a thoughtful documentary masquerading as a fictional dramedy, one that wears its heart on its sleeve. It even winds up on a positive note, miraculously pulling through the nihilism to come to some upbeat conclusions, even though not everybody pulls through. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be left with a story that transcends a punk culture exposé and resonates with any youth scene in any state during any decade. All of us, goths, mods, emos, slackers, hippies, yuppies, and hipsters, are all our own brand of punk… and in the end, we are all posers to somebody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurdist coming-of-age comedy… likable for its outlandishness, less so when it shows a self-important streak. For all of Merendino’s jump-cutting affectations and other flashes of attitude, it’s finally as mainstream as its hero turns out to be.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: E.G. Daily (voice), Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, James Cromwell

PLOT: After the porcine Babe accidentally injures Farmer Hoggett, Mrs. Hoggett (Szubanski) takes over the family farm, which immediately begins losing money. Desperate, she takes Babe to the big city for another shepherding contest (like the one that ended the first film), but the duo find more than they bargained for, including an elaborate hotel populated almost exclusively by animals.

Still from Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it’s definitely louder and more chaotic than the gentle original, this enjoyable sequel certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a bizarre miscalculation. If this website were about the 366 weirdest family films, Babe 2 might get on that list.

COMMENTS: Unlike the beloved, Oscar-nominated Babe, Babe: Pig in the City was a gigantic box-office flop, at least in the U.S. Reviews were mixed to negative (mostly negative), with the notable exception of Siskel and Ebert, who both lavished the production with praise. Audiences stayed home in droves, as they say, and the picture was D.O.A. from the first weekend. Everyone seemed to feel that the movie was too dark and sinister, and, watching the film now, one is struck by the fact that director George “Mad Max” Miller  does indeed direct the action as if he were still doing The Road Warrior, with plenty of looming close-ups shot with a fish-eyed lens and a frenetic, restless camera. There are lots of weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness touches, like the way that Mickey Rooney (who never speaks) always looks as if he was interrupted in the middle of dinner and forgot to wipe his mouth. The “big city” is positively fanciful, featuring the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House all in one town; it’s an overload of visual invention, unlike the placid, bucolic setting of the original Babe. And James Cromwell is almost MIA, showing up at only the beginning and the end.

But Babe: Pig in the City is hardly the nightmare that it’s been made out to be. Doesn’t anyone remember the frights in The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, or most of the Disney classics? In the original Babe there is a scene where Farmer Hoggett aims a gun right into the pig’s face, intending to turn him into bacon; it’s still rather startling, so the more jarring moments in the sequel, as when Babe is chased by a snarling dog, shouldn’t be that surprising. And this is one sequel, that, unlike so many others, tries to do something entirely different from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless… Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contraptions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema

TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

NOTE: The pilot episode to “Serial Experiments Lain” is embedded for viewing (as of date of publication) at the bottom of the post. (May not be available in all countries).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ryūtarō Nakamura

FEATURING: Kaori Shimizu, Bridget Hoffman (English dub)

PLOT: Timid junior high school student Lain receives an email from her schoolmate Chisa, who has recently committed suicide. Chisa states that she is not dead but that she has only abandoned her physical body, ending her email with the words “God is here.” After this event Lain develops an interest in, even an obsession with, “the Wired,” a worldwide communications network similar to the Internet. She discovers that there may be another Lain, identical to her in appearance but with a very different personality, inside the Wired, and that the boundary between the virtual and the real world may not be as sharp as it is thought to be.

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a world where a global communications network is almost like a spirit realm, “Serial Experiments Lain” is undeniably weird and surreal, and it is also quite interesting and entertaining to watch. However, it is a (short) TV series, not a movie, and as such an exception would have to be made in order for it to make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made. The competition is very strong, with true classics such as Stalker and Nosferatu already on the List, and in this company “Serial Experiments Lain” is just not quite outstanding enough to warrant such an exception.

COMMENTS: Mind-bending and confusing plots are not uncommon in anime. A few of the more well-known examples are “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Paranoia Agent,” “Rahxephon,” Paprika, and the anime series considered in this review: “Serial Experiments Lain.” What all of these have in common is that they have mysterious plots that leave you wondering “What did it all mean?,” and in fact you can find many Internet debates about the meaning of “Lain.” But does “Lain” really have a true “meaning of it all”? I believe, based on some of his other writings, and his interest in the work of the well-known writer of weird horror , that series’ writer Chiaki Konaka is a weirdophile. It is likely that he chose to make some scenes weird-for-weirdness’-own-sake without having any particular interpretation in mind. In other words, “Lain” is among other things a work of surrealism. It does not necessarily always make complete sense and it does not need to. That said, it contains interesting philosophical and psychological themes that are well worth discussing.

“Lain” is not really attempting to be serious science fiction in the sense of trying to be, to any extent, scientifically accurate. It does, however, very loosely base elements of its story on real scientific theories, although only on theories that have been rejected by mainstream science. We could say that “Lain” takes place in an alternate world where fringe theories of some of the scientists contributing to the early development of Internet technology have turned out to be true. One of the episodes is largely dedicated to presenting excerpts from the scientific history behind the Internet while also presenting discredited theories of the same scientists, seamlessly mixing the fake and real ideas. This episode appears fairly late in the series and can perhaps to some extent be seen as a deus ex machina, but it does have the positive effect that the technology used in the series and some of the characters’ special abilities gain the appearance of having a scientific explanation within the fictional world. However, these explanations do not survive Continue reading TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

167. RUN LOLA RUN (1998)

Lola rennt

“One of the big problems of the movie for me was always that I thought, how can we make the repetition idea become something spectacular and exciting, and not make it feel like ‘oh my God, it’s starting again, how boring.’ So this was really a big task for me, not losing the concentration of the audience and really having them care for what happens again and again. So we tried to really make it very exciting and very strange and different…”–Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run DVD commentary

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri

PLOT: Lola’s boyfriend calls her on the phone: he needs 100,000 Deutschmarks in twenty minutes to pay off a gangster, or he’s going to be killed. Lola has no money and no transportation, but she formulates a plan in a split second, and takes off running. She arrives too late and the story ends in tragedy; but fortunately, she gets a do-over.

Still from Run Lola Run (1998)
BACKGROUND:

  • Lola‘s narrative structure is almost identical to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1981 film Blind Chance.
  • The film’s first epigram is a famous quote from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.” The second quotation, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel” (“after the game is before the game”) is from World Cup champion coach Sepp Herberger.
  • This fast-paced film contains 1581 cuts, averaging out to 2.7 seconds per shot.
  • Lola rennt swept the major categories at the 1999 German Film Awards, with the notable exception of Best Actress—Franka Potente was not even nominated. It won around twenty other awards from international critics associations, but was not nominated for an Academy Award.
  • Voted #86 on Empire’s List of the 100 Best Films Of World Cinema.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lola, running. Writer/director Tom Tykwer himself has said that the genesis of the film came from an image that sprang to his mind of a woman running through the streets; he constructed a scenario around the picture in his mind’s eye to explain where this vision was racing to. Since we’re interested in weirdness, we’ll focus on one specific iteration of the recurring image of Lola running: when she dashes out of her parents’ home, the camera circles around her mother’s room to catch a television set, where a cartoon version of Lola is flying down the spiral staircase.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Run Lola Run has the hip surreality of a music video. Stylized within a heartbeat of its life, Lola is as proudly and defiantly artificial as Franka Potente’s Strawberry-Shortcake-with-her-head-on-fire dye job.


Original trailer for Run Lola Run

COMMENTS: “Foreign movies come off really weird,” headlines one Amazon reviewer, who confesses that he got annoyed watching the opening and Continue reading 167. RUN LOLA RUN (1998)

CAPSULE: BUFFALO ’66 (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vincent Gallo, , , ,

PLOT: When Billy Brown looses a $10,000 bet he can’t pay for the Buffalo Bills to win the Superbowl, he’s forced to do prison time for a crime he didn’t commit; when he’s released from jail, he kidnaps a random girl to pretend to be his wife in order to pull the wool over the eyes of his unwitting parents, who think he’s working for the government.

Still from uffalo '66 (1998)
WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s not a scrap of strange and fantastic here, and sometimes the stark realism is agonizing and tedious. Vincent Gallo portrays Buffalo, New York as a soulless town with a cast of idiots. Buffalo ’66 plays like a Daniel Clowes comic but without the eccentricity: dazed and dissociated people wander through a wasteland of football, TV, chain diners, and strip joints. Unlike in Clowes, the protagonist comes out of it a changed man.

COMMENTS: Vincent Gallo plays Billy Brown, a guy who really needs to pee. He spends nearly the first twenty minutes of the movie looking for a place to go and, in the process, reveals that he’s an incorrigible jerk by beating up a stranger in a bathroom he deems a “faggot” and kidnapping a girl to pass off as his wife. Perpetually peeved, Billy even bothers to complain about how filthy the windshield is during the kidnapping in which he also fusses about how he can’t drive her “shifter car.” Finally, once in a residential neighborhood, Billy gets out of the car and pees, releasing his anger and annoyance in urine. But where does it all stem from? Why is this guy such a jerk? Via overlapping flashbacks displayed while Billy lies on a park bench in a monochrome landscape of grey, we watch his monotonous jail time: glimpses of water fountains and chess games. He goes from grey to grey, from the prison to Buffalo, New York, in winter. It’s a place where, in a football-centric household, his parents stare vacantly into space and shove food in his direction. His dad is a retired lounge singer totally uninterested in his son, but he takes a sexual interest in Billy’s fake wife, Layla. Billy’s sugar n’ sunshine mother, dolled up in her Buffalo Bills merchandise, can’t even remember her son’s severe allergy to chocolate. During an uncomfortable bedroom scene in which Layla forces Billy’s dad to sing some show tunes from days gone by, Billy tears up at the sight of a photograph of him as a boy. Underneath his unremitting jerk exterior, he’s a pathetic figure living in the shadow of what could have been, if the Bills had won the Superbowl. As bitter and miserable as he behaves, there’s a child living in him who’s never truly had a chance to grow up.

The film begins with a freeze frame of Billy as a boy, underscored with Gallo’s own song with the lyrics “all my life I’ve been this lonely boy.” When huddling alone in a bathtub in a sleazy motel, Layla remarks that Billy looks “like a little boy” We see Billy teetering under the weight of the tough guy role he feels he has to play through a confused lament in a Denny’s restroom. He’s convinced himself he’ll go into a strip joint and kill the placekicker whose missed field goal has ruined his life, and then kill himself; but then, as if Clarence has come down from heaven to make him appreciate being alive, Billy, the over-grown child and tough guy jerk becomes kind and comfortable in his own skin. In drastic contrast to the painful realism of a film characterized with its grotesque personages, Billy undergoes a quick change in personality: from cantankerous to joyful. This transformation of an inveterately unlovable character changes this film from sour to saccharine, with an artificial sentimentality that couldn’t even warm Frank Capra’s heart.

While Billy may be the main focal point of the film, Chrisina Ricci’s character is infinitely more interesting. Wearing searing blue eyeshadow and a promiscuous blouse to a tap dance lesson, Layla is sex-starved and ready for adventure, so when a scruffy stranger kidnaps her, she resists only a little, putting the bulk of her energy into crafting a romantic history for Billy’s parents. She is the sweet and sincere to oppose Billy’s sour phoniness. His stridency hardly bothers Layla because he’s the only boy who’s ever shown her any attention, so she pays back his nonstop cruelty with love. While Billy’s theme song may be “Lonely Boy,” Layla’s is King Crimson’s “Moonchild,” played during her awkward tap dance number in a bowling alley. This scene portrays her as a beautiful but naïve creature, in violent contrast to Billy’s hackneyed disenchantment.

Although bearing complex and distinct characters, Buffalo ’66‘s artificial resolution rings hollow enough to undermine the power of the miserably real plight of Billy Brown, the embittered protagonist who bet more than he had on a football team his mother taught him to believe in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like a collision between a lot of half-baked visual ideas and a deep and urgent need… There’s not a thing conventional about this movie.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT (1998)

Crna Macka, Beli Macor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florijan Ajdini, Srdan Todorovic, Bajram Severdzan, Branka Katic

PLOT: Dadan, a local gangster, promises to release Matko’s debts if he will marry his son to Dadan’s sister.

Still from Black Cat, White Cat (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great movie, but we have to make our way down a long list of more appropriate adjectives—eccentric, madcap, farcical, etc.—before we get to “weird” as a way to describe it.

COMMENTS: Black Cat, White Cat is almost Shakespearean in its comedic plot: you have two sets of young lovers and a horde of older, money-obsessed fools whose scheming complicates the youngsters’ chances for happiness. Set in a village on the banks of the muddy Danube, the main plot is set into motion by 17-year old Zare’s father, the irresponsible Matko, who hatches a harebrained scheme to try to steal several train cars loaded with gasoline—a caper which requires the assistance of not one, but two sets of gangsters. Things predictably go awry, leading Matko to promise Zare’s hand in marriage to coke-addled Dadan’s short and shrewish sister, Ladybird. But Zare is in love with a feisty barmaid, while Ladybird refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love; Dadan, however, insists that his family honor requires Ladybird’s marriage, and is intent on staging the nuptials at gunpoint, if need be. This leads to a festive but awkward gypsy wedding that is further complicated by a corpse on ice in the attic and a pending visit from a more powerful mobster. Quirky characters abound, from the crime boss with bad teeth and a love of Casablanca to Zare’s thoughtful grandfather, who figures that his own demise may save his grandson from his no-good father, but it’s Srdan Todorovic who dominates as Dadan. With an open-necked shirt revealing his gold chains, a pair of live-in groupies, and a crucifix filled with cocaine, Dadan seems to have stepped out of a Seventies disco movie: Serbian Night Fever. Amped up on nose candy, he constantly pumps his fists from nervous energy, sometimes to a thundering beat that echoes only inside his own coked-out skull. He’s also fond of firing automatic weapons into the air and juggling hand grenades for sport, so despite his ridiculous appearance, he’s not the kind of guy you want to trifle with. A bride disguised as a tree stump and a booby-trapped outhouse provide slapstick interludes. There are a few weird touches here, as well, such as dead people coming back to life, a thoughtful grandson who brings a seven piece band to visit his sick grandpa, and a pig who inexplicably eats a car. With a small town’s worth of Eastern European eccentrics, a knotty romantic plot and grotesque and vulgar comic details (like the woman who pulls nails from a board with her clenched buttocks), Black Cat, White Cat is an amphetamine rush that never lets up. Thick and spicy as goulash, it’s the kind of script Leonard Elmore might have written if he’s been born a Bosnian gypsy.

Stung by politically-motivated criticism of his previous movie, Underground (1995), Emir Kusturica had publicly announced his retirement from filmmaking. He changed his mind to start working on a documentary about gypsy music, a project he never completed but which sparked the idea for the story that became Black Cat, White Cat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mad scramble through the Felliniesque realm of Mr. Kusturica’s imagination, and it proves nothing if not this much: give this man the Danube, gypsy musicians and a camera and you’ve got a party.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dr D, who described it as a “joyously insane gangster-wedding-crime movie!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ACID HOUSE (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Paul McGuigan

FEATURING: Stephen McCole, Maurice Roëves, Garry Sweeney, Jenny McCrindle, Iain Andrew, Irvine Welsh, Kevin McKidd, Gary McCormick, Michelle Gomez, , Jemma Redgrave

PLOT: A grotesque, genre-bending trio of tawdry, disturbing stories about squalor, decay, excess, perversion, stupidity, and altered states.THE ACID HOUSE (3)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTNot only is The Acid House unconventionally filmed, using an insect point-of-view and other unusual camera angles along with non-linear plots, etc., but the stories themselves are strange, surreal, and unsettling.

COMMENTS: The Acid House is funny, grim, unsettling, revolting, and… well, a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing! Another in a series of surreal, underground British Isles films, The Acid House immediately reminded me of Pat McCabe and ‘s bizarre Irish effort, The Butcher Boy (1987), and the somewhat less eerie, but equally strange, Disco Pigs (2001).

Like The Butcher Boy, The Acid House explores the seamy side of working class culture: in this case, Scottish rather than Irish. It follows demented characters who pursue debased agendas under circumstances which are at once supernatural and decidedly sleazy. Writer Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) dramatizes three plots from his raunchy book of short stories, “The Acid House.” Given Welsh’s imagination and penchant for depraved characters, decadent circumstances, and just plain rotten motives and outcomes, a creepy movie with totally grotesque content is the inevitable result.

In the first story, “The Granton Star Cause,” Boab (McCole) is a loser who puts as little effort into making love to his girlfriend as he does into his rugby performance. Expelled from the team, dumped by said girlfriend, and kicked out of the house by his parents, Boab seeks solace in the bottom of a pint glass at the local pub. There he meets God, in human form, who informs Boab that he created Man in his own image. God then informs Boab that he (God) is lazy and pathetic, and that since Boab shares these traits, he hates Boab for reminding him of his own worst characteristics.

To express his hatred for Boab, as well as his own self-loathing, God dooms Boab by turning him into a common housefly. Now an airborne insect, Boab puts a literal twist to the expression, “a fly on the wall.” Spying on his family and friends’ sleazy private lives, Boab discovers the depth of their secret perversions, before exacting revenge upon several tormentors.

The second story in The Acid House isn’t supernatural, but it’s just as disturbing. In “The Soft Touch,” the village doofus, Johnny (McKidd), marries the town whore, Catriona (Gomez), with predictable results. Yet Johnny accepts responsibility and attempts to be good father and husband, while his new bride continues doing what she does best. A bad situation worsens when Catriona involves herself with the couple’s insane upstairs neighbor Larry (McCormick), who begins systematically to dismantle Johnny’s life. Too soft to take decisive action, Johnny becomes a helpless victim until the nutty neighbor turns the tables on Catriona.

In the third segment, also titles “The Acid House,” Coco (Bremner), a mindless hooligan, and Jenny (Redgrave), a middle class pregnant woman, are simultaneously struck by lightning. Coco, who is on an LSD trip at the time, switches bodies with the newborn infant. Visiting Coco’s adult body in the hospital later, his friends chalk up his new level of infantilism to having finally fried his brain with too many drugs. Meanwhile, Coco, as a grotesque infant, delights in breastfeeding and not so subtly manipulating his new “mother” into indulging his atavistic desires.

The Acid House is outrageous, over the top, and offensive. It will never be accused of being too clever or subtle. In fact, from a literary standpoint, Welsh’s treatment of his subject matter is akin to performing a CPR heart massage with a sledge hammer… then vomiting in the patient’s mouth while administering artificial respiration. Despite the supernatural premise of two of the three stories, the horror in The Acid House is not the traditional “ghosts and goblins” type. Rather, it stems from a deep dread of entrapment, from awful bodily metamorphosis, and from an exploration of the abysmal depths of the debased human condition.

The Acid House is a must-view for all fans of campy, disgusting occult movies.

THE ACID HOUSE (4)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“McGuigan has the tendency to overindulge in some banal psychedelic editing, but, for the most part, he’s picked the right style to get as close as possible to the emotional intensity Welsh’s ferocious writing promises. It’s Welsh who lets him down, whose dips into deranged flights of surreal fancy fly smack into a brick wall of triviality.”–David Luty, Film Journal International

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, , , , Ian Richardson, , Bruce Spence

PLOT: J. Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a dingy hotel bathroom. In the adjoining bedroom lies a dead prostitute, and Murdoch is soon suspected of murdering five women, although he has no memory of these events. Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt) interrogates Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Connelly), who hasn’t seen her husband in days.

Still from Dark City (1998)

WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: What seems like a typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario gradually turns into something far more complicated and weirder… but not weird enough (in my mind) to be considered one of the 366 weirdest films of all time. I suspect Dark City seems “weird” mainly to people who consider all science fiction weird (and revealing that the film is science fiction may already be giving too much away). Still, it is a truly fascinating and visually stunning production that continually asks the question, “what is reality?,” and does so in a far more sophisticated manner than the similar and much more popular The Matrix.

COMMENTS: At first Dark City seems to be film noir, and the look of the movie is vaguely 1940’s, with almost every scene taking place at night; all of this is somewhat similar to director Alex Proyas’ previous The Crow. The film’s highly impressive art direction (by Battlefield Earth’s Patrick Tatapolous) is reminiscent of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, although on his director’s commentary, Proyas denies any such influence. Kiefer Sutherland plays creepy Dr. Schreber, Murdoch’s therapist, in a manner that subtly recalls 1940’s character actor Peter Lorre. But the 1990’s-style special effects, produced some 15 years ago, are still flawless. The sight of skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground predates Inception by more than a decade. And the musical score by Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal), part of which was used to advertise the first X-Men film, is electrifying. Dark City is a true gem, and, unlike The Matrix and its sequels, it raises the questioning of reality, and then actually grapples with the idea, instead of forgetting all about it and simply indulging in showy displays of special effects. Dark City presents plenty of visual spectacle, but that spectacle is actually germane to the storyline. It’s well worth seeing.

This Director’s Cut DVD is about 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The changes seem relatively minor, although Sutherland’s opening narration, which gave away too much of the plot, has been removed for this new cut. Also, Connelly plays a nightclub singer, but her singing isn’t very good in this extended version; in the theatrical cut, a woman with a better voice dubbed her. Somehow, the fact that her singing is now rather flat and… sleepy… only adds to the film’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. The DVD extras are quite extensive. There are three audio commentaries, one from Proyas, a rather dull one from screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David (The Dark Knight) Goyer, and another from Roger Ebert, who admires this film a great deal. He has only done two other audio commentaries: for Citizen Kane and Casablanca! There is also an on-screen introduction from Proyas, who explains why he assembled this new cut in the first place, the theatrical trailer, a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, and a Production Gallery of photographs taken by Sewell, who was apparently a real shutterbug on the set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way… Proyas… is a walking encyclopedia of weird science-fiction and horror imagery.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)