Tag Archives: 1999

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

286. AUDITION (1999)

Ôdishon

It’s a pretty strange script, he must’ve been taking some really bad drugs when he was writing this stuff.”–Takashi Miike on Daisuke Tengan’s Audition script

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu Aoyama decides it is time to marry again, but he has no idea how to meet an appropriate mate. His movie producer friend comes up with a plan: they will hold a fake audition for a movie role where the widower can secretly interview dozens of women. Aoyama becomes smitten with shy, mysterious Asami and asks her out; but when she disappears just as things start to heat up between them, he goes on a quest to find her, only to discover that his ideal love may not be the innocent creature she seems.

Still from Audition (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a novel of the same title by Ryū Murakami.
  • This was only Eihi Shiina’s second acting role, and her first lead, after a career as a model.
  • Along with than the relatively tame 1998 drama Bird People in China, Audition was Takashi Miike’s breakout film, after specializing mainly in yakuza pictures seldom seen outside of Japan.
  • Audition was ranked #21 in Time Out’s 2016 List of the 100 Best Horror Films. and included in Time’s 2007 Top 25 Horror Films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Poster and cover images always feature Asami holding a syringe, a moment that hints at bad things to come. But the weirder images that sticks in my mind are the shots of the mysterious beauty sitting in her apartment, head down, hair covering her face, telephone within arm’s reach. The implication is that she has been sitting there, motionless, in a trance for the entire time she has been offscreen, just waiting for Aoyama’s call. Also, she has something lying in the background. Something wrapped in a burlap bag…

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Thing in the bag; disembodied tongue; torture hallucinations

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Takashi Miike’s most accomplished film, Audition initially shocks because of how normal it seems, before the director slyly pulls the rug from under our feet and launches us headfirst into a nightmare of pain. Fortunately, a perfectly positioned 13-minute hallucination sequence gives this movie the surreal hook (meathook, as it were) needed to elevate this master of the perverse’s best-made movie onto the list of the weirdest movies ever made.


Trailer for Audition

COMMENTS: Audition‘s broad outline is this: an older man falls for a Continue reading 286. AUDITION (1999)

CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “skunky.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Todd Field

PLOT: An upscale married couple struggles with the temptations of infidelity in modern Greenwich Village, leading the husband to become enmeshed in a secret sex cult.

Still from Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from the creepy centerpiece involving an orgy of masked figures in cloaks, nothing weird happens. Eyes Wide Shut is a serious, deliberate psychological study with some interesting political undertones about power.

COMMENTS: Everyone loves a good sex party, especially when there are masks involved. You can role play, burn incense, and even participate in pagan rituals without worrying about being ratted out. In Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman, playing the melancholic wife Alice Harford, kicks everything off, posing to show off her pump-raised buttocks, and what follows is an odyssey about power and lust. The tragedy is that this film, Kubrick’s final—starring everyone’s favorite Scientologist and his then real life spouse—has been repeatedly reduced to some kind of vague warning about the dangers of an unchecked elite society (Illuminati, etc.), especially since the juiciest segments of the movie come from interpersonal struggle and subsequent identity distortion. These characters terminally deceive themselves and others. Cruise completely owns his role as the terribly charming but ultimately insecure professional Bill Harford, reminding us why we tolerate his wacky off-screen cult endeavors. Offering a multilayered performance with incredible range, restraint and subtlety, he provokes inquisition into his on-screen psyche. Kubrick is the master auteur he’s always been, while Kidman makes everyone horny, forming a powerful trifecta.

Judicious attention is given to high society, people with power and influence, to how they stew in immorality and the instability of their relationships. Kidman displays aggressive coquetry by teasing a suave ballroom gigolo, while at the opposite end of the party Cruise has two women swooning over him. This is a muddy affair hiding behind a façade of elegance and sophistication. We imagine all of the private lives of the patrons here have the same debased, amoral existence, rooted in treachery and egocentrism. Detachment is prevalent, indicative of wealthy people so confident in their endless supply of bailouts that there’s literally nothing they can’t get away with, nothing that can’t be covered up.

Like any good doctor, Bill Harford enjoys playing God. He’s a man with pride and confidence in his professional demeanor, infinite charm spiraling outwards from an desire to dominate others with his own compassion and experience. “Doctors are so…knowledgeable,” says a flirty party gal to Bill. When the camera closes in on Alice’s beautiful behind once again, the question remains: is it good enough Continue reading CAPSULE: EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

DAVID LYNCH’S THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Among idiosyncratic filmmakers, it seems only  can produce something G-rated and linear, for Disney Studios, without sacrificing his inherent quirkiness. To tell it straight, The Straight Story, along with 1980’s The Elephant Man (another linear film) may be his most accomplished and surprising work. It makes one wish Lynch had gone this route more often, which is to take nothing away from a string of masterful opuses like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (1999), and Inland Empire (2006). Even more, one wishes Disney would have and gone this route more often, instead of bombarding us with the dreck they have become infamous for. Oddly, it took someone like Lynch to render Disney substantial again, albeit briefly.

Written and produced by frequent Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney with cinematography by Freddie Francis (of Hammer Horror and The Elephant Man), Straight Story is based on the true story of Alvin Straight. Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as the eccentric protagonist. The film is a tour de force for Farnsworth, whose last film this was (dying of cancer, he committed suicide months after filming). He is like a perfectly used note in Lynch’s composition.

Reading the plot of the film, one suspects a typical Hallmark-styled production, which is probably why Mickey’s Clubhouse chose to distribute it. The Straight Story, like much of Lynch’s oeuvre, resonates with a pronounced, authentic spirituality. It is Lynch’s personal direction and interaction with his cast that gives this film its three-dimensional purity. Lynch has never overly plotted his films, which is why Dune (1984) proved an poor match for him. Rather, he is like a figurative painter, who works well with tenacious personalities, such as Laura Dern (in three films), , , and Farnsworth.

Still from The Straight Story (1999)Finding that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has recently had a stroke, Alvin (Farnsworth) sees one last life mission. Having not spoken to Lyle for a decade, very much ill himself, living with mentally ill daughter (Sissy Spacek) and shorn of both license and car, Alvin hops on his tractor mower and drives 300 plus miles to visit Lyle.

Lynch and Farnsworth find poetry in Alvin’s pain. It is not self-pitying. Alvin has a past as a military sniper and, despite his simplicity and nostalgia, his character rings original and virtuous.

On the road, Alvin encounters an assortment of wanderers. Like Alvin, they possess a whimsical quality, but are never condescended to as caricatures. One might suspect a Kerouac road fable at the film’s center, but Lynch has no movement to propagate. He is only interested in his people and how each comes to purgation.

The unsung heroes of this film are cinematographer Francis, who composes his beautiful, yet dolorous landscapes with the aesthetic assurance of a Van Gogh, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose acoustic score is diaphanously choreographed to a  lyrical odyssey.

To many filmgoers, the name David Lynch conjures up an image of a surrealist boogey man. Yet, Lynch has often been able to accomplish the seemingly impossible within surrealism: to paint individuals that we can identify and empathize with within a capricious, mesmerizingly-paced panorama. Even Lynch’s most skeptical, misanthropic followers will find edification in The Straight Story, without burdensome bathos or heavy-handedness.

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “alex.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FANTASIA 2000 (1999)

DIRECTORS: James Algar, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Francis Glebas, Eric Goldberg, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt

CAST: James Levine (conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), plus hosts James Earl Jones, Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Penn and Teller, and Itzhak Perlman

PLOT: Like the original Fantasia (1940), Fantasia 2000 has no overarching plot. Instead, the film presents a series of short subjects “illustrating” classical compositions by such masters as Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Ottorino Respighi.

Still from Fantasia 2000 (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-sequel lacks the edge of the first Fantasia’s sinister “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence (the one with the giant demon). Also, this later Fantasia is unlikely to attract the kind of audience that went to the late 1960’s re-issue of the first film while under the influence. After all, the original Fantasia received the Harvard Lampoon’s 1968 “OhGodOhGodOhGodTheLightsTheSoundsTheColors” award, which it shared with Yellow Submarine and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

COMMENTS: While lacking the innovative qualities of its predecessor, which was one of the first–if not the first–films recorded in multichannel sound, Fantasia 2000 is a (much) shorter, faster and more kid-friendly variation on the original, all of which does not necessarily make it better. Nevertheless, the film is both amusing, and, during the Stravinsky and Respighi sequences, surprisingly stirring.

Fantasia 2000 begins with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” being portrayed in abstract fashion with lots of Origami-style butterflies fluttering across the screen. This sequence is obviously meant to recall the original Fantasia’s opening: an impressionistic rendering of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which was the dullest scene in either movie. Things perk up considerably after that, as Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” is turned into a touching computer-animated tale of humpback whales. Then comes a funny take on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, animated in the style of legendary New York caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. This is followed by another digital segment: Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F. Major”, now rendered as a somewhat lackluster adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Next up is a very brief bit from Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale”, which here becomes a watercolor-painted sequence featuring pink flamingos playing with a yo-yo. One gets the feeling that this is supposed to be reminiscent of the 1940 original’s version of “Dance of the Hours,” with its immortal ballet-dancing hippos and ostriches, but if that is the case, then the earlier film’s anthropomorphic gags are far more memorable. There’s more anthropomorphism to come, as “Carnival of the Animals” is followed by a reprise of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This is simply the classic sequence from the original Fantasia edited in here: Mickey Mouse, thinking himself a great wizard, must fend off an army of living brooms. As it was it the best scene in the original, this is the best sequence in the second one, probably because it’s the only segment that illustrates what the composer was actually writing about. Donald Duck then gets equal time, as it were, by starring in Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” This is not a story about Donald’s graduation, but a retelling of “Noah’s Ark” with Donald and Daisy standing in for Noah, and it’s amusing enough. The film’s finale is a memorable take on Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite,” as a woodland sprite brings the spirit of spring to the forest, only to be vanquished by the Firebird spirit, who lives in a volcano. But this is Disney, so the sprite rises again like the phoenix. Although this is arguably the most lavishly animated segment in Fantasia 2000, some of the imagery is suspiciously reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, as well as the forest fire in Disney’s own 1942 Bambi (complete with woodland creatures). Nevertheless, this is a fine note for the film to go out on.

Nothing in Fantasia 2000 is the slightest bit weird, but it is all gorgeously animated and quite entertaining. Compared to its legendary, if sometimes ponderous, 1940 predecessor, however, Fantasia 2000 does seem a bit lightweight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If it’s a head trip you’re looking for in the millennial version of Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia,’ you’ll have to wait for the grand finale, in which the world appears to come to an end, then suddenly bursts to life again… [it] often has the feel of a giant corporate promotion…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Evan Neumann

PLOT: Scenes from the life of schizophrenic Julien and his bizarre family.

Still from Julien Donkey-boy (1999)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made between his startling debut Gummo (1997) and his acerbic comeback movie Trash Humpers (2009), Julien Donkey-Boy is the Harmony Korine experiment that falls through the cracks. Sure, it’s got its fertile weird moments—Korine puts Werner Herzog in a gas mask and has him swill cough syrup—but its indifference to narrative or structure makes for a lot of dry patches, resulting in a frequently dull movie that’s of interest to hardcore Korine-ophiles only.

COMMENTS: Switching from familial underwear wrestling matches to hidden camera thrift store excursions to snippets from a freakshow talent contest, with all the footage apparently shot by a drunk and edited by a psychotic, the movie Julien Donkey-boy is as schizophrenic as its protagonist. Julien himself is ably, if unpleasantly, portrayed by Scottish Ewan Bremner, who drools and slurs ridiculous monologues from behind a grill of gold teeth (presumably the source for the “donkey-boy” title reference). Julien’s brother is an aspiring wrestler; his sister practices ballet in her room at night, but she’s in her third trimester. Lording over this motley brood is pop Werner Herzog; he swigs cough syrup (from a slipper), listens to Dock Boggs and occasionally wears a gas mask. He has given up on Julien and his sister and focuses all his hopes and attention on their athletic brother. We absorb these relationships slowly as the movie weaves from one improvised incident to another. Julien spies on his sister dancing, then takes a bath and gibbers out a prayer, then the family has dinner and Herzog discusses the false-teeth cleaning habits of famous people, and so on. Other scenes are simply impressionist camera experiments, with out-of-focus, seasick handheld shots and experimental lighting. Korine keeps up his obsession with grotesqueries and freaks, finding ways to shoehorn a dwarf who plays drums with his feet, a rapping albino, and a human ashtray into the story. One bizarre, disconnected scene shows a nun masturbating. The deliberately undisciplined technique of stitching together sketches shot in various styles is carried over from Gummo, but the collage approach doesn’t work as well for painting a portrait of an individual as it did for a town. By repeating words like mantras and babbling nonsense syllables to fill in the empty spaces in his monologue stream, Julien’s speech resembles a real schizophrenic. But, like a real schizophrenic, although you feel sorry for him, you also don’t want to spend a lot of time with him. The character manages to be simultaneously irritating and boring, which are not the defining characteristics you want in a movie protagonist. In a key scene, Julien proudly recites a poem at the dinner table: “morning chaos eternity chaos midnight chaos noon chaos eternity chaos…” It goes on for several stanzas before Herzog interrupts, explaining he doesn’t like the poem because it’s too “artsy-fartsy.” He then describes the climax of Dirty Harry as his idea of great art. Korine seems to be mocking the public preference for meaningless exploitation over artistic ambition, but the irony is that anyone would consider Dirty Harry a greater achievement than Julien’s nonsense poem. Julien Donkey-boy emerges as the least interesting of Korine’s experimental features, which is a shame because it’s also his most humanistic pictures, and the only one where he seems to truly like his characters (Julien was based on Korine’s uncle). The scene where Sevigny pretends to be Julien’s dead mother while talking to him on the telephone is unexpectedly touching, and the shots of the pregnant blonde meandering through a golden field of sunlit grain while singing hymns counts as the most legitimately beautiful thing Korine has ever filmed. It’s too bad these few sympathetic moments are drowned out by a cascade of babble.

Julien Donkey-boy starts with a certificate (signed by ) proclaiming that the movie was produced in accordance with the Dogma 95 movement. Dogma was a set of rules set forth by von Trier and other Danish filmmakers intended to make filmmaking more naturalistic: i.e. there should only be handheld cameras, no music added, only natural lighting, etc. In practice, almost no Dogma film ever followed all of these arbitrary rules (although, as Armond White incisively pointed out, almost every amateur porn movie did). Julien Donkey-boy includes a non-diegetic musical score and lots of optical trickery that should have precluded it from being certified as a Dogma film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Korine emerges more clearly this time as a filmmaker exploring the territory where the circus sideshow meets the avant-garde.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who rhapsodized that it was “frickin’ weird… Korine’s finest/weirdest accomplishment to date.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)