PLOT: Anton is a lowly, mistreated assistant at a bathhouse run by his blind father; he falls in love with Eva, the daughter of a sea captain. His real estate developer brother wants to tear down the bathhouse, and also seeks the hand of Eva. After a piece of rubble falls from the ceiling and kills Eva’s father while he’s swimming in the pool, an inspector gives the family a few weeks to bring it up to code or face demolition.
Tuvalu was Veit Helmer’s debut feature after making six shorts.
The movie was a true international production: director Helmer is German, male lead Denis Lavant is French, female lead Chulpan Khamatova is Russian, and (based on his accent) primary antagonist Terrence Gillespie (in his only known performance) is American. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: While there are some great candidates, from the cavernous Turkish bath itself to Eva’s nude swim with her pet goldfish, we’ll go with the two dream sequences. While the rest of the movie is shot monochromatically, the characters dream in tropical color: specifically, in a negative-image palette saturated in pinks and pale pastel blues, with gold trim.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Blind lifeguard; skinny-dip with goldfish; hat crosswalk
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stylized to the T’s and set in a bleak Expressionist world where crumbling Romanesque baths sit in fields of rubble, Tuvalu shows all the right cinematic influences along with the instinctual oddness necessary to be canonized in the halls of weirdness.
PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)
COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!
Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:
IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.
PLOT: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returns from conquering the Goths; he imprisons the queen Tamora and her three sons, killing the eldest boy as a sacrifice to the gods. Back in Rome, the emperor is dead and the popular Titus averts a civil war by supporting Saturninus for emperor against the rival claim of his brother; once on the throne, Saturninus surprises Titus by taking Tamora as his queen. Tamora and her secret lover, the Moor Aaron, then set about plotting revenge against Titus and his entire family.
Written in the style of the Jacobean revenge tragedy, “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and perhaps his most disliked by critics; some even went so far as to speculate that the play must be misattributed to him, as Shakespeare could not have written such trash. Harold Bloom scathingly called it “a howler” and “an exploitative parody” and suggested Mel Brooks would be the director most suited to the material.
Julie Taymor adapted this film version from her off-Broadway stage production. Titus was her debut film, although she had achieved fame, and won a Tony award, for her 1994 Broadway stage production of “The Lion King.”
Taymor chose production designer Dante Ferretti because he had worked on one of her inspirations for Titus‘ look: Fellini Satyricon.
An orgy scene had to be edited (reportedly, to excise male genitalia) to earn the film an “R” rating.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For this adaptation, Taymor fashioned four short, digitized dream sequences that she calls “penny arcade nightmares.” We selected the one where Lavinia remembers her own rape, imagining herself as a doe (with a deer’s head and hooves) menaced by ravishing tigers. Trip Shakespeare, for sure.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Paper bag brat; those are twigs that were her hands; Shakespearean video games
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Julie Taymor gives Shakespeare’s least-respected, bloodiest play an anachronistic avant-garde treatment, with fascist emperors riding in convertibles, Roman orgies, “penny arcade nightmares,” and all of the rape, dismemberment, and people-eating that we associate with the Bard’s work.
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.
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 Godard. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Lars von Trier 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.
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.
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)→
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.
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.
Among idiosyncratic filmmakers, it seems only David Lynch 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), Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, and Farnsworth.
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.
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!