FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, Tadanobu Asano, Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya
PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.
The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
Hideaki Anno (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.
PLOT: A man has killed his wife, but she won’t stay dead. In an initially unrelated story, a foul-mouthed, short-tempered English hitman with a translator in tow is expanding his operations into Japan. Their plotlines intersect with those of a middle-class father who has a disaster with a celebrity hypnotist, trio of teenage burglars, and an ad exec whose absurd commercial ideas amuse only herself.
This is Gen Sekiguchi’s only feature film. He has also produced two short films and an entry in the 2011 anthology film Quirky Guys and Girls. He comes from an advertising and music video background, where he collaborates with screenwriter Taku Tada. The pair won the advertising award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.
Survive Style 5+ received little distribution (it garnered zero reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and has never been released on DVD in North America), but word of mouth on the Internet has made it into an underseen cult hit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: One character flying away on another, to the tune of “I Will Survive.” (Sure, fans already familiar with the movie may complain that this pick is a spoiler—but the new viewer will have trouble figuring out how things get to this point, right up until the very end.)
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Assassin with translator; pop as a microwave turkey; flying away
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Survive Style 5+ interweaves five stories–variously comic, absurd, supernatural, campy, and/or bizarre–including a series of surreal commercials imagined by one of the many oddball characters. It’s polished and stylish, yet consistently wild and unpredictable; an underground cult film that’s survived years of subpar distribution through enthusiastic word of mouth, and is just waiting to take off into the stratosphere.
FEATURING: Sara Strange, Dan Zukovic, Kurt Max Runte
PLOT: Three people are drawn together by their obsession with artistic imagery and the persistence of memory into a web of deceit, manipulation, and violence.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With meticulous visuals, florid dialogue, and a mannered indifference to others, Dark Arc is certainly not a typical movie. Most of the strangeness, however, lies in its attitude, which may be strikingly aggressive toward its audience, but isn’t particularly “weird” for the purposes of our list.
COMMENTS: I have a vivid memory of my first visceral reaction to a piece of art. Several pieces, actually. It was at the MoMA in New York, and I wandered into a room filled with paintings by Piet Mondrian, an artist who I had previously mocked as being easily reproduced with three primary colors and a roll of gaffer tape. But walking into a gallery filled with five or six of these abstract window-like creations, I was immediately struck by their power. Given their resemblance to stained glass, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call it a sacred experience.
Watching Dark Arc, I suspect that writer-director-star-songwriter Dan Zukovic—or at least his pretentious blowhard art critic character—would mock my reaction and attempt to trap me in a room full of red, yellow, and blue squares. His movie, ostensibly about the power of art but more accurately a look at unchecked obsession, exudes great hostility for… well, everyone, really, but especially anyone who is committed to a vision or a goal. Our heroes are poorly or not-at-all employed, indifferent to or contemptuous of the rest of humanity, and barely tolerant of themselves. So art is less of an escape and more of a millstone around their necks.
Dark Arc is frequently referred to as a comedy, and I suppose it might be, in the Chekhovian sense of featuring pathetic people who are trapped by their own absurdities. Viscount Laris, the ex-critic whom Zukovic plays like a vampiric John C. McGinley, even references Chekhov’s gun when he references a narwhal tusk that will “go off in the final act.” (It doesn’t, entirely.) But Zukovic treats these people with deadly seriousness. Laris and Lamia, the “no-sex escort” whom he enlists in a strange campaign to screw with the head of a graphic designer who he once encountered in his youth, spar with dialogue like screwball comedians with advanced degrees, but they are absolutely committed to the nastiness of their scheming. The movie emerges as a quasi-spin on Dangerous Liaisons, particularly in the film’s finale, which reads as a sort of punishment for having ever interacted with a piece of art.
It’s tempting to assign more prescient thoughtfulness to the picture than was probably intended. Dark Arc posits that art has the ability to burn itself into our brains, and its stars go to extraordinary lengths to recapture the initial power of an image. Like fans obsessed with their favorite blockbuster franchise or smartphone owners who can’t tears their gaze away from the screen, these characters are in thrall to the visuals, and their efforts to re-create them are so all-consuming as to evoke a drug addict’s chase for the thrill of that first high. Their actions are equally anti-social, not just isolating but actively against society.
And give credit to Zukovic for having an eye for a picture. In a film so dependent upon the conviction that someone could throw away their own life for an image, he’s come up with some powerful ones to make the case. The most potent is the keystone image of Strange alone in a colorless field, arrestingly unmissable in a shocking pink raincoat, a snapshot that could have been plucked right out of Pleasantville. It’s hardly surprising that the tableau opens and closes the film, in addition to its many recurrences.
But one image does not a great or even a weird film make, and Dark Arc can’t wring much out of a conflict that is ultimately so evitable. In fact, the film walks such a straight line to its conclusion as to make a lie out of its title: these are dark people, walking deliberately and unwaveringly toward a dark end, but there is no arc. Nobody changes, nobody advances, nobody has a single thought that would dispute Zukovic’s thesis that everyone is awful. One might argue that there’s more of an arc in a bunch of black lines and colored squares.
PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.
COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.
Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.
Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.
Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.
In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.
There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)→
PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.
COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.
As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.
Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “must see” status.
To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).
FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Marion Cotillard, Helene de Fougerolles
PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.
Director Hadzihalilovic is the wife (and former editor/producer) of Gaspar Noé, to whom the film is dedicated. (Hadzihalilovic also collaborated with Noé on the screenplay to the Certified Weird Enter the Void).
In 2015 Hadzihalilovic completed Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.
PLOT: A young man spends his days pinning advertising fliers to residences as a pretext to discover who in the neighborhood is on vacation; he then sneaks into their home and stays for a few days, always cleaning and fixing something around the house as a form of payment. One day he discovers that the residence he’s broken into isn’t empty; a battered woman catches him sleeping in her bed. The two silently connect and, after the intruder assaults the abusive husband with a barrage of golf balls, the wife accompanies him on his break-ins, until the law catches up to them.
Major characters with no dialogue is something of a Ki-duk Kim trademark: his 2000 effort, The Isle, featured a mute heroine, and the male protagonist of 2001’s Bad Guy was almost entirely silent.
This was the first movie Kim made after forming his own production company. To save money, the writer/director did the motorcycle stunt work himself.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: An easy pick. It’s the image chosen for the poster: the husband and wife embracing, while the wife kisses her lover who stands behind her spouse, unseen. To the uninitiated, this shot suggests the movie will be about a love triangle; knowledge of the story imbues the scene with more ambiguity.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent lovers; jailhouse golf; invisibility training
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise of a man who lives in others’ homes is unusual. The fact that the two lovers never speak to each other, although capable of speech, adds a layer of mystery. In the mystical third act where the protagonist trains himself to be perfectly undetectable, however, 3-Iron opens up into legitimately weird realms.
FEATURING: Eriko Satô, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Murakami, Eisuke Sakai; voices of Carrie Keranen, Eva Kaminsky, Vinnie Penna, Madeleine Blaustein (English dub)
PLOT: A naive, upbeat female superhero battles the alien organization “Panther Claw” after they abduct her professor uncle, while simultaneously trying to keep her temp job and find a true friend.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It is weird, in that Japanese pop way, but it’s also extremely lightweight, and we have to draw the line somewhere.
COMMENTS: “She’s that trendy girl/The one with the teeny butt… She’s that popular girl, the one with the bouncy boobs.” So goes Cutie Honey‘s theme song, which omits any reference to her crimefighting abilities. Our first view of Honey is of her soapy legs and feet in the bubble bath. She gets a phone call in the tub, learns her uncle is abducted, and has to rush to the scene of the crime—only she has no clothes available, so she runs through the street in her underwear, partially covered by a trash bag that doesn’t conceal much. Her regular crimefighting costume features skintight black pants and a heart-shaped cutout for her cleavage; during her off hours she favors midriff-baring mini-skirts and stiletto heels. Somehow, the camera always finds that the upskirt angle best captures the energy of the fight sequences. But, even though Cutie’s body is relentlessly sexualized—virtually fetishized—the story never compromises the innocence of her character. Cutie herself has no sexuality; she seeks only harmless friendship, and any impure thoughts others might have about her stem strictly from their own corruption. (The bosses clearly get an erotic charge out of battling her, especially Cobalt Claw, the vampire dominatrix Honey defeats with a searing embrace). Japanese movies have a way of pulling off this innocent fanservice without making it seem too skeevy, and director Hideaki Anno’s background in anime clearly served him well in the endeavor.
Former swimsuit model Eriko Satô’s considerable physical appeal aside—and to be fair, she does do a nice job rounding out her character between all the cheesecake shots, locating Honey’s legitimate grrl power—Cutie Honey is a wild, electric affair, one of the best live-action translations of anime style. Anno even splices in some brief, stylized animation at times, such as when Honey dodges Gold Claw’s missiles in the sky or hurls Scarlet Calw’s energy beam back at the villainous supergeisha. Of course, reality is a distant cousin to the characters of this world, and they’re not really on speaking terms. Panther Claw’s human henchmen dress in snazzy black Zorro-inspired uniforms, carry golden guns, and generally act like disposable buffoons from Adam West’s “Batman.” The big baddie—Sister Jill—is some sort of tree goddess who eats virgins, and her tuxedo-clad butler wears eyeliner and a very fake mustache. There’s also a giant holographic uncle. And what would a weird Asian movie be without out-of-place musical numbers, including some drunken karaoke from the three principals, plus a quartet of henchmen playing violins as Black Claw croons a jazzy mid-tempo challenge (your toe will tap as he sings “for the sake of my own happiness, please wither away beautifully, baby.”) Cutie Honey is like an extended sugar-rush episode of “Power Rangers,” if the solo Ranger was played by a teenage pop star who dresses like a hooker.
The “Cutie Honey” franchise began life as an ecchi manga, then became a more innocent animated children’s TV series in the 1970s, followed by various video and television revivals of varying degrees of naughtiness. This feature version was followed by a live-action TV series, with a new live-action feature film scheduled for release in October 2016. Hideaki Anno, of course, is best known around here for directing two separate “Evangelion” anime series; we’re still awaiting the final installment of the second series, which seems to have stalled since Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo rolled out in 2012.
PLOT: Albert (Schwartzman) is an activist fighting the gigantic Huckabees corporation, which is building a Target-style store in the nearby woods. Enlisting the help of a pair of “existential detectives” (Tomlin and Hoffman), Albert soon encounters two Huckabees operatives—the beautiful blonde couple Brad (Law) and Dawn (Watts)—as well as a disillusioned fireman (Wahlberg). Eventually, everyone’s lives are changed.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it is so willfully, obstinately pretentious, unfunny and heavy-handed as to be all but impenetrable. Still, fans of the bizarre will likely get something out of it, as it definitely goes all-out in its manic insanity and breaks a ton of storytelling rules.
COMMENTS: Director David O. Russell once said that I [Heart] Huckabees was his least favorite of his own films. It may not have been fun to make (find the YouTube videos that show Russell throwing a tantrum—among other things—at Tomlin), because it certainly isn’t fun to watch. A labyrinthine mess, Huckabees makes no sense and doesn’t seem to want to. Despite fine performances (particularly Wahlberg’s) from its all-star cast, the movie is (apparently intentionally) unappealing from beginning to end. Granted, this is a polarizing picture (no one is likely to have a “meh” reaction to it), but yours truly could barely sit through the film.
After this debacle, Russell made Nailed, which was left unfinished and shelved for years, but followed it up with three artistic and commercial triumphs in a row: The Fighter (also with Wahlberg), Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. I [Heart] Huckabees, by contrast, is like a transmission beamed in from an alternate, unpleasant universe in which nothing means anything. (Perhaps that was the point of the “existential detectives”). The film reaches one its many nadirs when Albert has a Terry Gilliam-like vision of Brad as a lactating Virgin Mary, or something. Meanwhile Dustin Hoffman sports a hairstyle reminiscent of the Beatles circa 1964, Tippi Hedren drops an F-bomb, Schwartzman’s real-life mother (Talia Shire) shows up to play Albert’s mother, and Shania Twain pops up as herself (I can’t see her fan base enjoying this picture). None of this is amusing or at all entertaining. It is, however, genuinely bonkers. What the point of this silliness is remains a mystery, but one that most people didn’t care to find out when the film opened in 2004. That was the same year that the equally challenging , but far superior, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released. That film had a heart as well as a brain. Huckabees, on the other hand, is like an endless series of interlocking puzzle pieces that can never be put together correctly. It’s not a good movie, but it’s definitely a weird one, and it just might make it onto the List.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Weird does not necessarily equal funny.”–Linda Cook, Quad City Times (contemporaneous)
FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard, Lea Bridarolli
PLOT: A young girl of about 6 wakes up inside a coffin and finds herself in a strange girl’s boarding school, planted in a forested park walled off from the outside world.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful metaphor for childhood. The pacing, however, makes Picnic at Hanging Rock feel like a nonstop thrill ride.
COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s film is an odd one, a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two teachers guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they meet the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.
Butterflies are used as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to function as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries are allowed to linger without elucidation. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It doesn’t feel essential, but it is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.
Innocence barely received any distribution in the United States, and has only been released on a region-free French DVD (with English subtitles for the film, though not for the extras). Part of the reason for its poor exposure may be the minor controversy revolving around some topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the perceived fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affects mainly over-sensitive Americans. While concerns over child sexualization are valid, I suspect most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.