Tag Archives: 2006

289. WOOL 100% (2006)

“I will not let the non-knitters of the world decide how normal I am.”–Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, “At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much

DIRECTED BY: Mai Tominaga

FEATURING: , Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Ayu Kitaura

PLOT: A pair of packrat sisters have their perfectly dis-ordered world turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious girl. Dubbed “Knit-Again” by the sisters, she is caught in an obsessive cycle of wrecking their home, knitting a large collection of red yarn into a massive shroud, and unraveling her creation and beginning anew. Their attempts to rid themselves of Knit-Again lead the sisters to reconsider an event from their shared past.

Still from Wool 100% (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wool 100% is director Tominaga’s first feature. Her previous works were animated short films.
  • Kyôko Kishida is probably best known for portraying the title role in Woman in the Dunes. This was her final film; she died the same year as the film’s release in Japan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Waves of knitted red yarn, filling the screen and undulating like blood, as two young women try to knit a romance (and a baby) into being.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “I have to knit again!”; living scrapbook; rooftop dollhouse fire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wool 100% is the purest kind of fairy tale: unsettling and unforgettable images of characters caught in fantastically unusual circumstances. You might knock it for ultimately following a retroactively logical progression, but the journey there is perplexing, and the final explanation is just as surprising as the quixotic tale that precedes it.


Original Japanese trailer for Wool 100%

COMMENTS: I’ve called Wool 100% a fairy tale, and I stand by that. Continue reading 289. WOOL 100% (2006)

239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually Continue reading 239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ellen Burstyn

PLOT: In the present day, a scientist searches for a cure for his wife’s brain tumor; two other stories are interspersed, one about a conquistador’s search for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and another about a tree-tending bald guru in a space bubble floating towards a nebula.

Still from The Fountain (2006)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A spiritual allegory told in three different timelines, one of which is set almost entirely in a traveling golden space bubble, The Fountain is far out by Hollywood standards. The final ten or fifteen minutes, when Aronofsky goes all 2001-y, may push the film onto the List. I expect to see lots of readers stumping for this; it feels like a burgeoning cult movie, one whose momentum is still building.

COMMENTS: The Fountain has an extraordinarily tight script, with reflections of each of its three different stories showing up in the others. Rings, trees, and immortality are just a few of the recurring symbols. Some viewers—even a few critics who should be better equipped to parse unconventional narratives—found the story baffling. I didn’t think it was especially confusing (except, perhaps, for the very end), nor do I think that anyone who’s seen a weird movie or two will find The Fountain too challenging to follow. I won’t spoil the plot—uncoiling it is the movie’s greatest pleasure—but I’ll give a single hint if you get stuck. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all three stories are of equal weight; one of them clearly has what we might call a higher degree of reality than the other two.

As hinted, that script is tight up until the ending, where the movie stretches its weird credentials in a pan-religious finale that crashes a spaceship of Buddhist philosophy into a temple of Mayan mysticism to unlock a door to Judeo-Christian symbolism. The lotus position is assumed, conquistadors get stabbed, and trees bleed spermlike sap as a golden nebula explodes. Not bad for a trip sequence, but the visual fireworks play more like a substitute for a conclusion than as a culmination of the movie’s philosophical themes. Back on planet earth, I think a key element of allegory is missing. The movie’s message of acceptance does not seem profound enough to justify the preceding bombast, and it all leads to an abrupt, none-to-satisfying final scene.

Although the glory of the movie’s visuals can’t be denied—the fantasy scenes look like embossed gold foil is running through the projector—emotionally, The Fountain does not always achieve its aims. Weisz is too mannered and inhuman in her scenes as the Queen, and too much on the sidelines in her present day role. Her dying-of-a-tragic-disease-that-leaves-her-weak-but-still-pretty character never seems like a real, independent person; she’s just a motivation for Jackman’s obsession. We sense how amazing she is only by her effect on her husband, by the lengths to which she drives him to travel to the ends of the earth, the limits of medical knowledge, and the ends of the universe. For Jackman’s part, he certainly acts his heart out, gnashing his teeth and steeling his brow as he buckles down for another bout of uncompromising, denial-based medical research, but the performance is nothing transcendent. Emotionally, the film feels a little hollow, taking its theme of eternal love too much as a stock situation rather than something to be demonstrated onscreen. These complaints only take a little away from the beauty of the film’s construction; the movie was inches away from being a great one. I can see what The Fountain‘s partisans see in it, but I don’t feel what they feel.

Critics were about evenly divided between admiring the film for its audacity and calling it out for its pretensions. But if nothing else, Darren Aronofsky is one of the few directors working today who can actually convince a Hollywood studio to bankroll a weird movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…pic’s hippy trippy space odyssey-meets-contempo-weepie-meets-conquistador caper starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz suffers from a turgid script and bears all the signs of edit-suite triage to produce a still-incoherent 95 minutes.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tim,” who [somewhat misleadingly, in my view] synopsized it as “about a guy [looking a lot like Kwai Chang Caine] who is floating through space in a bubble, with a tree, thinking back on his life as a Conquistador and pharmaceutical researcher.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FOX FAMILY (2006)

Gumiho Gajok

DIRECTED BY: Hyung-gon Lee

FEATURING: Si-Yeon Park, Hyeon Ju, Jung-woo Ha, Jun Gyu Park, Ju-yeon Ko, Cheol-min Park

PLOT: A family of foxes pose as circus performers; if they can eat a human liver on the lunar eclipse, they will become human for good.

Still from The Fox Family (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not especially weird. This is one of those fantasy films whose strangeness to Westerners stems mainly from different cultural expectations.

COMMENTS: “Where can we find a lot of humans?” asks the clueless Fox patriarch at a lonely gas station as the clan makes its way from the mountains to the city. The family of four is actually centuries old, but they’ve been living as kumiho—mischievous shapeshifting fox spirits—in the mountains. According to this movie’s spin on the ancient mythology, if they devour a person’s liver on the night of the lunar eclipse, they can become human forever. Unfortunately for this particular family, they are (mostly) sweet-natured yokels who are completely at sea when it comes to human society. They can’t even seduce lonely humans, supposedly the specialty of kumiho. The brother’s spastic dance floor moves get him ejected from the club, and the sister can’t fathom why her striptease doesn’t work on a particular subway patron. Still, it would be hard for them not to eventually bumble into a victim or two—except for the fact that they unwisely trust a con man who develops a scheme to protect his fellow humans (and save his own liver) while exploiting the clan.

There is a temptation to classify The Fox Family as a black comedy because of scenes like the one where a homicide detective absentmindedly scratches his head with a severed arm he finds at a grisly crime scene; yet, overall the tone is sweet, and even family-friendly. Even the con-artist is a pussycat at heart. The only features that give The Fox Family a whiff of weirdness are the musical numbers. They are mostly love songs from Si-Yeon Park—a South Korean model who is one of the world’s most beautiful women—although each member of the clan gets a moment in the spotlight. The only bizarre show-stopper is the trip to recruit victims—er, circus performers—at a camp for the homeless. Somehow, they dance their way into a complete different musical number, a Sharks vs. Jets vs. riot police style dance-off, complete with 1984-vintage breakdancing. This one scene may make the film worth a view for fans of Asian dementia.

If you want to understand why this film isn’t really weird, just use your imagination to change the fox spirits to something more Western (say, werewolves) and recast it with Hollywood stars: Danny DeVito as the father, Anna Kendrick as the older sister, as the brother, and for the cutie pie younger daughter—are there any Fanning sisters left? Suddenly, what we have isn’t a weird movie, but a light comedy with blockbuster potential. Although you would have to ditch those musical numbers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… nothing quite prepares viewers for the unhinged craziness of Lee Hyung-gon’s The Fox Family… Everything here is manic and mercurial.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as “Shape shifting fox spirits, a street riot that becomes a dance off and the oddest use of a Wonder Woman costume I’ve ever seen [and I’ve seen some odd ones!]. You can’t go wrong really.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

CAPSULE: THE FALL (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: (as “Tarsem”)

FEATURING: Catinca Untaru, Lee Pace, Justine Waddell

PLOT: In a Los Angeles hospital, a young girl with a broken arm befriends Roy, a stunt-man paralyzed by a recent accident. Through her eyes, a beautiful vision of his epic yarn unfolds; and, as a quintet of wronged men hunt for the hated Governor Odious in his story, the crippled Roy slips further into suicidal depression.

the_fall

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fans of the movie will likely kneecap me for this, but by placing the free-spirited story within the framing of the realistic (and touching) “actual” narrative, Tarsem has made a movie that, though beautiful and full of the fantastic, is not wholly weird.

COMMENTS: Set all around the globe, but primarily in a turn-of-the-century hospital, the Fall is both a grand, epic adventure and the intense emotional drama of a sick, suicidal man bonding with an impressionable young girl. Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is an ironically named stunt-man who has worked in countless “flickers”. In his latest, his jump from a train bridge on to a moving horse goes awry. Perhaps he intended to kill himself—the movie is noncommittal—but the result is he becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Now crippled, he is also sick at heart, pining for a starlet who cast him aside. Through a chance encounter involving a secret note and a crate of oranges, he meets the young Alexandria (Catinka Untaru, an amazing find on the director’s part), a 5-year-old Romanian fruit-picker, who is in the hospital because of a fall of her own. She has taken to wandering the corridors of the hospital, carrying a “box of things [she] likes” in her hand.

Moods ranging from wonderment to tragedy and back to joy bubble up and dissipate over the course of the film. As Roy’s situation goes from bad to worse, the heroes of the story he tells, originally poised for a quick triumph, get waylaid and thwarted. Alexandria sees the five heroes of the tale largely as described by Roy, but also through her own subjective lens. For instance, Roy mentions one of the heroes being a brave Indian warrior. Alexandria has no knowledge of the Native Americans he is referring to, so she sees in her mind’s eye a glorious Sikh. The main hero of the group, the Masked Bandit, changes too; first he is her father, then a Frenchman, and then finally Roy himself. The epic’s various characters are all based on the hospital’s denizens and visitors (à la the Wizard of Oz). Alexandria even makes herself appear in the story; when Roy is giving up on life, both in the hospital and in the story, a small masked bandit saves the five heroes. And all the while, dozens of fantastical (and, apparently, real-world) locales are explored as the adventurers pursue their sworn enemy. The movie’s unbelievable locales—a blue city, an endless maze of stairs, a glorious wedding temple, among many others—merit research. Apparently little to no CGI was used (somehow).

While the story-within-the-story is a good one, the truly compelling drama unfolds as we see Roy and Alexandria together. He tries to trick her into bringing him enough morphine to end his life, but she misinterprets his handwriting. As he spirals downward, her entreaties for him to keep telling the story—to keep living—become the film’s driving force. Naturally, I cared about the vengeance of the Bandit and his crew, but even more, I wanted to see the stuntman and the little girl. Their story was so charming and moving that every bit of the mundane hospital world still had magic. All told, this movie is both boisterous and heart wrenching — and has an ending for which we can only be grateful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These rambling scenes then inform the way the fable unfolds, which at best is impressionistic and dreamlike, but for the most part is just haphazard… The end result is like listening to a little kid tell a story: sometimes intriguingly bizarre and surprisingly clever, but mostly just futile and frustrating.”–Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly (midnight screening)

CAPSULE: FUDGE 44 (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Jones

FEATURING: A series of interviewees, each of whom speak for less than a minute

PLOT: Dozens of residents of a Japanese suburb are interviewed about a series of sightings of little men, in a story that gets progressively wilder with every new detail that is revealed.

Still from Fudge 44

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd experiment in how to make a film with almost no money down, but there’s not really enough texture or action here to merit a general recommendation.

COMMENTSFudge 44 might have made a good short story; it’s almost entirely composed of narration by talking heads, with very little cinematic illustration to catch our interest beyond the faces of the interviewees. There is occasional music, but far more noticeable is the audio tape loop which runs for about 10 seconds, ending in a pair of clicks, which accompanies the entire film. This hard-to-explain audio affectation could give the film either a hypnotic or an annoying aspect, depending on your outlook. (I sort of liked it). The plot-heavy nature of the project makes it difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that it begins with reports of sightings of tiny little men in a Japanese suburb, and a backstory is gradually revealed that is as consistent as it is bizarre, bringing in a bank robbery, a puppet show, and a gang of “multicultural assassins.”

The story of Fudge 44  is far too absurd to fool you into believing it’s true; rather, it tries to fool you into believing that other people might believe it’s true. And why not, in a world where people believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions? Despite its minimalist format, Fudge 44 has a lot on its mind. It’s a parody of cryptozoological documentaries, and the opening quote suggests that it’s a criticism of the way Western media views Japan through a series of stereotypes. At its core, it’s a whopper, with the trappings of a hoax; and, by the end, it becomes a sort of melancholy elegy for the passage of our childhood ability to believe in such tall tales. “She knew the difference between imagination and reality, but maybe this didn’t fit into either category,” muses one interview subject when describing a child’s reaction to an encounter with the little creatures. It also could be a slogan for Fudge 44, an oddity that doesn’t really fit into any category.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story becomes more and more convoluted as it unfolds by including a bizarre tale of a pair of boys who came up with a secret recipe for fudge and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”–Matt Exile, “Japanese Hollywood File”

CAPSULE: MADEINUSA (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Claudia Llosa

FEATURING: Magaly Solie, Carlos J. de la Torre,  Juan Ubaldo Huamán, Yiliana Chong

PLOT: A stranger from Lima is stranded in a remote hamlet in the Andes where the villagers practice unusual Easter rituals that are definitely not sanctioned by the Pope.

Still from Madeinusa (2006)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd little South American fable about an isolated town, not realist, but not quite magical realist, either. It’s an interesting eccentricity, but not quite weird enough for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: Madeinusa is a drama that’s slow to start, but which gradually drags you in with its rich, imaginary synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions, and with the fate of its quietly sad and oddly named adolescent protagonist. A lower-keyed, Latin-tinged Wicker Man sensibility at work here in the story of an outsider who visits an isolated society where religious traditions have been allowed to breed incestuously without oversight from the civilized world. Painting a portrait of this invented culture and its self-serving indigenous practices is where Madeinusa shines. The movie is set during “Holy Times,” which in the movie’s mythology is the period beginning from Good Friday and ending with the dawn of Easter. The ceremonies indulged in by the villages show the colorful mixture of Latin and Roman Catholic elements that fascinate many first-worlders: maize-colored crucifix mosaics, fireworks during holy processions, a mock funeral procession where pallbearers carry a blindfolded Christ in a glass coffin. The celebration begins with a Virgin beauty pageant, with the town’s adolescent girls dressed like Incan princesses wearing gold crowns, all vying to play Mary in the Easter procession, and gets stranger from there.

Of course, this would not be much of a movie if it were simply an imaginary travelogue documenting an exotic Easter celebration, so there is a darker side to the festivities. When the town’s mayor, who also happens to be 14-year old Madeinusa’s father, catches a stranger in town at the start of Holy Time, he locks him up—perhaps to protect the villagers from the judgmental eyes of outsiders, or perhaps for the stranger’s own good. Young Madeinusa is fascinated by the handsome hazel-eyed wanderer from Lima with the European features, but her father has other plans for the girl. Add in a jealous older sister who has been displaced in Dad’s affections by her younger sibling, and a dangerous sexually-charged dynamic emerges that will only be inflamed by the bacchanalian bonfires of Holy Times. The core cast does well in telling this relatively simple but emotionally weighty story, while the Andean cinematography is sublime.

The origin of main character’s name, “Madeinusa,” is left as a mystery.  It not symbolic of any sort of anti-Americanism (American culture is nowhere to be found in this movie, outside of the title), but instead reflects the villagers’ unsophisticated tendency to misappropriate influences from outside their insular world. “That’s not a name,” explains a distressed Salvador. “You should be Rosa or Maria, not Madeinusa.” One thing is certain, the downbeat, fatalistic ending is not madeinhollywood.

Some Peruvians believe Madeinusa is racist/classist because it depicts poor mountain people of mostly Indian blood as unsophisticated. The idea that weird and dangerous ancient practices persist in remote corners of the world is a common literary tradition, however, and anytime it’s used it’s bound to offend some group that believes they are being singled out for ridicule, rather than appropriated for use in a time-honored plot device.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classically made yet personally accented fable about the clash between old and new in a strange Andean village in Peru.”–Robert Koehler, Variety (contemporaneous)