Tag Archives: 2004

CAPSULE: CUTIE HONEY (2004)

AKA Cutie Honey: Live Action

DIRECTED BY:

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.

Still from Cutie Honey (2004)

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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…those who like their films with a distinctly Western sensibility should be warned – Cutie Honey is loaded with trademark Japanese kookiness, and is at times just plain weird.”–Craig Villinger, “Digital Retribution” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose comment was lost in a server crash years ago. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: I [HEART] HUCKABEES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: David O. Russell

FEATURING: , Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, , , ,

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.

Still from I [Heart] Huckabees (2004)

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 -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)

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

LIST CANDIDATE: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, , 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.

Still from Innocence (2004)
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 debut film as 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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…weird picture of very young girls trained for ambiguous future roles at a woodsy community… genuinely odd and unsettling…”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as a “dreamy, beautifully filmed tale set in an isolated girl’s school .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KILL BILL (VOLS. 1 & 2) (2003-2004)

Reader recommendation by Caleb Moss

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox

PLOT: A woman known only as “the Bride” awakens from a coma and sets off to wreak revenge on Bill and the team of assassins that betrayed her.

Still from Kill Bill
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By the sole merit of being Quentin Tarantino’s most self-indulgent, ambitious and proudly artificial film. Not only is this Tarantino at the height of his formalistic film-making capabilities, this kinetic and entertaining work of ultraviolent pornography may perhaps be the most aesthetically alienating and divisive in his filmography, even to the adamant Tarantino fanbase. It’s therefore worth considering for the List not only as representative of Quentin Tarantino, but as being the seminal representative of the postmodern exploitation genre at its tautest and most entertaining.

COMMENTS: Have you ever been curious what kind of film  would direct if he was perpetually stuck with the brain of a hyper-intelligent, hyperactive 14-year old and had an obsessive penchant for wanton violence, manga, and endlessly deconstructing pop-culture ephemera? This is your movie.

Adhering to the already well-established standard on this website in which the quality of the film discussed can merit inclusion on the List when the degree of weirdness is more or less questionable, I will waste no further time on exalting the blood-drenched beauty of this film, and instead shall provide three reasons why this is Tarantino’s weirdest film:

1. Aesthetic Design: If you’re the film-obsessive type, then every frame of this movie will feel as if you’re being treated to a Nouvelle Vague-themed candy store whose wares are arranged in an array of colorful nods to exploitation and B-movie cinema (see the crimson skies inspired by the Certified Weird film Goke in Volume 1!) The film alternates so frequently between different cinematic modes and filters ranging from anime (a segment animated by  of Funky Forest fame!) to black and white to the striking image of the faces of Uma Thurman’s enemies superimposed over hers in a garish red hue.

2. Unreal and Hyperstylized Violence: Tarantino, a renowned purveyor of aestheticized violence, slices and dices himself a place within the annals of such maestros of perverse, arty carnage among the likes of Sam Peckinpah, , and Sergio Leone. Blood spurts out like ribbons from expertly cut limbs. Our revenge-bent protagonist literally survives a gunshot to her temple simply through the revitalizing force of pure hatred. Uma Thurman dismembers over eighty-eight Yakuza grunts—and then some—effortlessly. A custom-made katana can literally tear down both man and deity alike.

3. Non-Linear Chronology: As in Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series structures itself after postmodern narrative, preferring to splice up its epic story as if the entire film was being projected as the murderous fever-dream of an over-caffeinated geek.

Unlike Pulp Fiction, however, the Kill Bill series manages to achieve what its widely-loved predecessor only aims at: rendering pure, unadulterated pulp into a cinematic showcase for gloriously nihilistic Pop-Art. Motifs of blood, sharpened steel, and fantastical dismemberment recur frequently until it all blurs together, a savage yet strangely mesmerizing poetry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange, fun and densely textured work that gets better as it goes along… Few filmmakers have ever had the freedom and resources to make such a piece exactly as they wished, and Tarantino takes it so far that it becomes a highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal excursion into a world of movie-inspired unreality.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (Vol. 1, contemporaneous)

 

CASPULE: LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, , , ,

Still from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Incidents (2004)
PLOT: After the brainy Baudelaire children—Violet (Browning), Klaus (Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are orphaned, they move in with their closest living relative, the sinister ham actor Count Olaf (Carrey). Soon after turning the kids into his servants, Cinderella-style, Olaf simply decides to kill them so that he can inherit their parents’ enormous wealth. Will the children’s kindly, snake-loving Uncle Monty (Connolly) and severely phobic Aunt Josephine (Streep) come to their aid? Or are their lives fated to be a series of unfortunate events?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While highly enjoyable in a -esque sort of way (more on that later), this black comedy for kids is all too reminiscent of earlier, similar tales from the likes of Roald Dahl, Charles Addams, and Edward Gorey. It’s definitely quirky, but not really all that weird.

 COMMENTS: After the staggering success of the Harry Potter franchise, every movie studio in town was looking for a series of fantastical young adult novels that could profitably be filmed. One of the most artistically and commercially successful films of this period was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a delightfully mean-spirited good time but also a terribly episodic 107 minutes. This movie is based on Daniel Handler’s first three “Snicket” novels—“The Bad Beginning” (1999), “The Reptile Room” (1999) and “The Wide Window” (1999)—and therein lies the problem. The film, written by Robert Gordon (responsible for the great Galaxy Quest), and narrated in the dulcet tones of Jude Law, is all too clearly an adaptation of three separate books, so that the story seems to resolve itself, than starts up again, than resolves itself again and so forth. There were eventually 13 novels in the series, so sequels to this movie could have been made, but never were. As it is, the film’s curiously stop-and-start pacing is its one great flaw, but almost everything else about it is stellar, particularly the art direction. The movie is set in an indeterminate era; the cars are from the 1950’s, but Meryl Streep dresses like a Dickensian matron. Lemony Snicket features eye-catchingly monochromatic cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, impressive costumes by Colleen Atwood and stunning production design from Rick Heinrichs (indeed, the film was shot entirely on soundstages, like The Wizard of Oz). This is the same cinematographer/costume designer/production designer team that did Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the movie, with its decidedly Grimm sense of humor, is definitely an imitation of Burton’s style— even has an unbilled cameo—but it’s a highly skilful imitation. (Casper’s Brad Silberling was the actual director.) In fact, Silberling’s movie is more “Burton-esque,” and superior to, some actual Burton films like Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland.

The deadpan performances from the kids, whose characters are constantly threatened with death by train, snake, fire and hurricane, and the delightfully over-the-top turns from Carrey (at his manic best), Streep (who matches his nuttiness), and the always delightful Connolly make the pitiful waste of the all-star supporting cast (including Timothy Spall, Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jane Adams, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Handler, Jane Lynch, and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried) easier to take. (As recently as 2014, Craig Ferguson used his talk show to good-naturedly grouse about how his “Person of Indeterminate Gender” character was practically cut out of the film). There is also some extremely impressive animation over both the opening and closing credits, which makes the movie worth sitting through in its entirety. It’s all good, dark, unpleasant fun, but not all that much weirder than the average episode of “The Addams Family.” In fact, director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the film Addams Family Values, was originally supposed to direct Unfortunate Events. He later criticized Silberling’s movie for spending too much time on Carrey’s scenery-devouring Count Olaf and not concentrating enough on the Baudelaires.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Brad Silberling has essentially made a Tim Burton movie, but without the weird shafts of adolescent pain.”—Ty Burr, “The Boston Globe” (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wes Anderson

FEATURING: , , , , ,

PLOT: An aging underwater nature documentarian assembles a team to hunt down the jaguar shark that ate his partner, including a pregnant journalist he has a crush on and a pilot who may or may not be his illegitimate son.

Still from Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Oh, Wes Anderson, you come so close to making weird movies, but you just can’t take that final step over the brink of madness, can you? Set in a skewed, child’s-eye reality where aquatic documentarians are major celebrities and decorated with toy-like animated glow-in-the-dark sea creatures, Life Aquatic is probably the closest thing to a weird movie Anderson has made. Looking at the direction of his latest projects like Grand Budapest Hotel, which are moving towards the mainstream, if ever so marginally, it seems unlikely that he’ll ever go full-out surreal. But his singularity makes him a director we will have to continue to monitor for signs of weirdness.

COMMENTS: Aside from their acknowledged “quirkiness,” Wes Anderson’s comedies are distinguished by their deadpan style: the characters are detached and weary, expressing profound feelings of love or betrayal while fighting off an overwhelming urge to nap. The other thing that makes an Anderson movie is the heightened, obsessive sense of design; each individual scene is costumed and decorated like a diorama exhibit. This mixture results in a highly artificial oeuvre, and Life Aquatic may be his most formalistic movie. Aside from the hard-to-believe plot, a mashup of “Moby Dick” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” which involves the laconic Zissou searching for a possibly mythical “Jaguar Shark” while dealing with family squabbles and fending off pirates and rival oceanographers, Aquatic features a deliberately fake (but extremely colorful) marine fauna—peppermint-striped crabs, rhinestone-studded stingrays—almost the types of fish designs you’d expect to see at an “Under the Sea”-themed prom. (These creatures are often stop-animated by none less than ). The running soundtrack supplied by a Team Zissou sailor (Seu Jorge) with a guitar and a David Bowie obsession, who performs amazing acoustic renditions of “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” and “Changes” in Portuguese, adds to the movie’s one-of-a-kind feel. Poker-faced Bill Murray is a natural match for Anderson’s dry style. Murray’s Steve Zissou is an impressive portrait of the artist in a midlife crisis: he’s still competent, but showing cracks. Maybe he’s gone mad: is the jaguar shark he seeks revenge upon real, invented as a publicity stunt to stir up interest in his faltering career, or a hallucination brought about by nitrogen narcosis? Murray makes Zissou complicated, flawed, and sympathetic. The cast of supporting characters is sprawling and the adventure epic. There’s a topless script girl, a three-legged dog, and a seahorse in a champagne glass for additional color. All around, it’s hard to be bored, and I’d say Life Aquatic is Anderson’s most interesting and strangest movie.

Anderson’s style can be frustrating—why does he insist on inserting so many layers of “look at me!” between the audience and the material?—but his meticulous craftsmanship is undeniable. I’m not a part of the Anderson cult, but I find it impossible not to appreciate his vision.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[The script’s] bittersweet weirdness leaves a residue even as the narrative disintegrates.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeffrey Licon, Elizabeth Shue, Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Chase Ellison, George Webster

PLOT: Brian, who is missing memories from part of his childhood, believes that he was abducted by aliens; his investigations lead him to Neal, a street hustler who may have had a similar experience.

Still from Mysterious Skin (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This searing and graphic drama about two damaged boys and their opposite approaches to dealing with trauma is Gregg Araki’s masterpiece, his best movie by a wide margin. Ironically, however, it’s also his least weird film, with only a few dreamlike moments thrown in to relieve the harsh reality.

COMMENTS: Alternating stories in the lives of two former Little League teammates, one now a teenage hustler and the other a UFO-abduction fanatic, Mysterious Skin plays something like Midnight Cowboy with a touch of “The X-Files.” The performances of both young leads are astounding, and it’s actually a little unfortunate that Brady Corbet’s turn as nerdy, asexual Brian is overshadowed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (literally) sexier performance as a prematurely dissipated teenage prostitute. Gordon-Levitt’s role interacting with the various johns, from lonely middle-aged businessmen to touchingly pathetic AIDS sufferers to the inevitable angry sadist, is simply meatier than Corbet’s, who only spars sexually with a frumpy fellow alien-abduction enthusiast. Gordon-Levitt, in his first major part after concluding his run as an alien inhabiting the body of a precocious kid in the sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun,” announces himself here as one of the great upcoming actors of his generation in his dark performance as a cocky boy-stud who isn’t nearly as in control of his life as he believes himself to be. Each kid has a very different character arc, but they have more in common than it seems. The story’s big “secret” will probably become obvious very quickly, but the drama doesn’t come in the mystery of the big reveal. This is more of a dual character study depicting opposite but equally dysfunctional strategies for dealing with the unthinkable. It’s difficult to watch at times, but it’s played with exceptional compassion and insight that steers well away from survivor clichés—the hustler’s story, in particular, reveals a disturbing but credibly sick psychology. Scenes with cornfed Kansas grotesques finding mutilated cattle with their genitals removed make the Midwest look a little Lynchian; but, other than a misty shot of a Fruit Loop shower and hallucinatory glimpses of an actual UFO, Akari makes very few departures from raw reality here. The supporting performances are all excellent, as is the unobtrusive shoegaze score. This is filmmaking at its most humanistic.

Araki wrote the Mysterious Skin screenplay from Scott Heim’s novel. According to a Heim interview included on the Blu-Ray edition, the director consulted the original author on the adaptation, although Heim decided to get out of the way and not meddle unless asked after the contract was signed. Heim was then invited to tour with the cast and crew as they took the film on the festival circuit. The dynamic between the original author and the adapter here appears to be a model working relationship.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film has a weird buoyancy…”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

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

READER RECOMMENDATION: HELLEVATOR (2004)

Reader recommendation by James Harben

Gusha no bindume; AKA Hellevator: The Bottled Fools

DIRECTED BY: Hiroki Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawada, Ryôsuke Koshiba

PLOT: A dystopian future civilization lives in a vast underground complex where each floor represents a different part of society, from housing and schooling up to more sinister departments, culminating in the mysterious and never visited “top floor” that is implied to be both above-ground and possibly mythical. A schoolgirl (it’s Japanese after all) with psychic powers (it’s Japanese after all) tries to flee aboard an elevator, but in a world that seems to consist entirely of either up or down, where can she escape to?

Still from Hellevator (2004)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Hellevator is a quite effective ‘trapped-in-a-room’ style movie, one that plays with the conventions of the genre. Working on the theory that what you are shown has far greater effect than what you are told, Hiroki Yamaguchi provides the viewer little direct knowledge or understanding of what this world might be. Clearly subterranean, it’s grimy and oppressively lit. The camera rarely leaves the elevator. The movie is populated by a cast of relatable stereotypes from current and past cultures: the police look like the SS, the attendant is a dedicated servant in a fetishized uniform, not to mention the standard quota of moody and sullen antiheroes wearing sunglasses indoors and the heroic schoolgirl protagonist. Imagine a Japanese  working on a budget.

COMMENTS: Hellevator never gives you the full details of what’s going on in the story, but there is enough suitably engaging exposition that the viewer is never left so confused that they become disconnected from the narrative. What is essentially a straight journey, up, is complicated by the arrival of prisoners from the penal colony floor, who have plans of their own re: their continued incarceration. Each of the characters have their own unfolding back story and a part to play in the greater continuity. A little online research finds comparisons to Cube and Brazil, and whereas the latter certainly applies—‘s dystopia is clearly an influence in both Hellevator‘s visuals and in its depiction of a society collapsing into the last stages of decline—the Cube comparison is misleading. This film doesn’t focus on the fact that people are trapped in an elevator, but instead uses it for a framing device: in flashback, we do see other parts of the complex.

Characterization is the key here, and against the main backdrop of the elevator and its confines we see a wide range of people and observe how they try to make their lives work in such an oppressive environment. The near silent elevator steward delivers an amazing performance as someone totally dedicated to his job, and to his place within the societal order. The convicts are both spectacular despite being quite different personas with differing motivations.

Ultimately, Hellevator leaves the viewer with as many questions as it does answers, but with no lack of satisfaction regarding the narrative. The performances are largely excellent; though quite over the top, they fit well with the dense, claustrophobic aesthetic of the film. There is enough linearity to the events that, as much as the viewer might want to know more about what they have seen, the time spent viewing is a satisfying ride that captures the imagination and attention without ever feeling staid or predictable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stylish and inventive mix of delirium that surpasses most multi-million dollar efforts.. Picture Hitchcock’s Lifeboat through the eyes of Terry Gilliam with the visceral mean streak of Takashi Miike.”–Dread Central (DVD)

BILL MORRISON’S LIGHT IS CALLING (2004) AND JUST ANCIENT LOOPS (2012)

’s Light Is Calling (2004) opens the prestigious 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium at Indiana University, setting an avant-garde tone for the event.

Morrison’s credentials as a experimental filmmaker are considerable, having received widespread critical recognition for the feature Decasia (2002). Morrison’s collages are composed and juxtaposed to music, often by his frequent collaborator composer, Michael Gordon. This technique, combined with Morrison’s obsessive use of decaying silent film and newsreel footage, makes him one of the most startling, original homegrown artists since New Englander Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives. Comparing this twenty first century filmmaker to an early twentieth century composer is not as fanciful as might be first imagined, since inherent musicality abides in both, as does a shared aesthetic of deconstructionist Americana.

Light Is Calling will be shown Thursday night at 830 pm. It is part of an evening of film and music, which will include Just Ancient Loops (2012) and the world premiere of Morrison’s All Vows (2013). Israeli American cellist and Bang On A Can founding member Maya Beiser will supply live musical accompaniment. (Beiser’s reputation for collaborating with composers such as Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno may prove to be refreshing in a city whose symphony rarely defines progressive art-music beyond the nineteenth century).

Light is Calling, like many of Morrison’s films, follows an existential arc witnessed through layer after layer of resplendently cruel textures produced by severely decomposing nitrate film stock. Here, Morrison uses footage from The Bells (1926), focusing on stars Lola Todd and Edward Phillips. Slithering through the visceral sepia gangrene is the haunting fragility of love, life and, ultimately, meaning. Once fully fleshed, figures become as fragmented and as meaningful as the simple images of riders we find in a late Gauguin canvas. Through the cinematic milieu, accompanied by Gordon’s shimmering, haunted music, Morrison demands more than the lack of attention one might succumb to while whisking through an art gallery; he takes us deeper than the surface paint, to the very texture of the burlap canvas.

Just Ancient Loops breaks down into three sequences: Genesis, Chorale, and Ascension. It is a collaborative work between composer Michael Harrison, soloist Beiser, and Morrison. Nineteenth century symphonist Anton Bruckner described Harrison’s work as “boundlessly expansive.” The Harrison/Beiser opus, “Time Loops,” constructs a homogenous, Brucknerian cathedral. The artists’ refreshing consistency of purpose embraces the transient station of a paradisaical hour. From a solar eclipse to consummating cells, and the expulsion from paradise, the three artists dance with their putrefied avatars: hand tinted witnesses to the resurrection and ascension.

CAPSULE: GARDEN STATE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Braff

FEATURING: Zach Braff, , Peter Sarsgaard,

PLOT: A small-time actor, doped up on heroic doses of antidepressants, returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and finds love with a quirky lady while working through his family issues.

Still from Garden State (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It ‘s quirky, not weird (and, by the end, it’s barely even quirky anymore).

COMMENTS: Originality is hard. There’s a moment in Garden State where Sam, Natalie Portman’s epileptic paralegal, stands up and spazzes out while babbling randomly in an attempt to do something completely original. Andrew Largeman, our narcotized small-time actor protagonist, is skeptical, and asks “so no one’s ever done that?” Sam’s response is “no, not in this spot.” Garden State gives us a meet cute, a manic pixie dream girl, and the power of love as an instrument of personal growth; the unavoidable stuff of its genre we’ve seen many, many times before. To make up for being unoriginal, the movie also gives us Kenny Rodgers funeral covers, knights speaking Klingon, and Method Man as a peepshow-running bellhop. No one’s ever done any of that before—at least, not in that exact spot on the quirk spectrum. Garden State is really two different movies. Before it launches into the romantic comedy, the first third is a deadpan comedy of alienation a la The Graduate (it’s no accident that Simon and Garfunkel appear on the soundtrack). So deadened that he’s unable to enjoy playing spin the bottle with a beautiful, possibly underage girl during an ecstasy-fueled orgy, Braff conveys some idea of what it must be like to have your emotions submerged under an ocean of lithium. This part of the film is the most interesting. Dysfunction makes for better stories; the healthier Largeman gets, the less interesting the movie becomes. He goes from seeing the world as bizarre and threatening to bizarre and welcoming—a saner, but less dramatic stance. Still, it would have been difficult (and possibly pointless) to sustain the initial mood of aimlessness for an entire film (The Graduate also had to leave it behind). What follows is Largeman slowly waking up from his pharmaceutical coma, helped by Sam and a stoner pal played by Peter Sarsgaard, as he goes on a therapeutic journey searching for the root of his emotional dislocation (which is where the excellent but underutilized comes into the picture). It may not be completely original (except for superficial quirks), and it’s not weird, but it is a good movie. Braff and Portman are hygienic and lovable, bringing an infectious spirit of youth that captures what its like to be lost and hopeful in your twenties. Add a Grammy-winning folk-rock soundtrack, and it’s no surprise that Garden State has become minor cult film.

The Garden State DVD is a lavish affair, with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, another half-hour “making of” featurette, and two separate commentaries (one with Braff and Portman, the other with Braff and the crew).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Stormy twentysomething emotions seethe under a deft quirkfest.”–Ed Park, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy” who even wrote it up as a reader recommendation. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)