Tag Archives: 2008

237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

Have you had any interest from distributors?

The sales rep is talking to distributors. He’s saying, ‘Be patient.’ The distributors are afraid of the film because the film is weird. If you noticed.

You’d think that weird might be good.

Yes, weird should definitely be good, especially among these distributors who talk about how they’re into fresh, new original stuff. But they’re not. They’re the most cowardly creatures on the planet. I just got this big wave of good press, so that will make them realize it’s safer.”–Nina Paley, early Sita interview with Studio Daily

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Reena Shah, Debargo Sanyal, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Nina Paley, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

PLOT: The relationship between artists Nina and Dave is strained when Dave relocates to India for a job. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets discuss the legend of Sita (the avatar of the god Lakshmi) and Rama (Vishnu’s reincarnation) from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” introducing animated recreations of the story of the love affair between the two demigods. Portions of the story are further illustrated by musical numbers where a flapper version of Sita sings the ballads of 1930s torch singer Annette Hanshaw.

Still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama, the seventh human incarnation of the god Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon-king; he rescues her but then rejects her, unable to cure himself of the suspicion that she was unfaithful during her captivity. The epic Sanskrit poem is composed of 24,000 couplets, was written centuries before the birth of Christ, and is considered one of the key works of Hindu literature.
  • Paley was inspired to create Sita Sings the Blues by noting parallels between the dissolution of her own marriage and the failed relationship of Sita and Rama as told in “The Ramayana.” After her breakup, she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw while staying at a friend’s house, and incorporated the songs into the narrative.
  • Paley animated the movie almost entirely by herself on home computers (much of it in Adobe Flash); the process took three years. Although she was a working cartoonist before making Sita, she had no professional training as an animator.
  • Although universally praised in the west, Paley reported receiving criticisms from India from both the right (that the film was irreverent) and the left (that it represented a neocolonialist appropriation of Indian culture).
  • Paley originally released the movie under a liberal Creative Commons license, but later took the unusual decision to remove all restrictions and make the work a true public domain release. However, Annette Hanshaw’s music is still under copyright to its owners, so the film is not truly free and clear of restrictions (although no litigation has yet resulted from its continued distribution).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Selecting a single image from this visual smorgasbord is an impossible task. It’s likely that the characters from the Hanshaw musical numbers, with their undulating Flash graphics and comic book coloring, will stick in your memory the most: curvy, -ish Sita and her broad swiveling hips; buff, Hanna-Barbera-blue demigod Rama; and the many-headed, multi-limbed gods and demons who float through the story.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hindu big bang; flapper goddess; flying eyeball stalks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Paley is on record as suspecting that her homemade Hindu jazz epic was too “weird” to get a distribution contract. After Roger Ebert championed the film as “astonishingly original“, and it received overwhelming praise at festival screenings, the “weird” talk died down. It shouldn’t have. Sita is weird. It’s a proud, purposeful, defiant re-connection with humanity’s weird mythological roots, with primordial legends of hybrid god-monsters whose bizarre appearances only serve to magnify their very human foibles. Add in psychedelic animation, torch song musical numbers, and a chorus of unassuming non-omniscient shadow puppets, and you’ve got one strange and spicy stew of a home-cooked movie.


Theatrical release trailer for Sita Sings the Blues

COMMENTS: Sita Sings the Blues is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible Continue reading 237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

227. CHRISTMAS ON MARS (2008)

“‘Eating your spaceship’ became one of the central themes of what the movie meant.”–Wayne Coyne

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury

FEATURING: Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Mark DeGraffenreid

PLOT: It’s Christmas Eve on Earth’s first Mars colony, and Major Syrtis has the job of organizing the festivities. But the colonist tapped to play Santa Claus, Ed-15, has gone mad from space sickness and has committed suicide by running outside into the deadly Martian atmosphere without a space suit. Fortunately, a new arrival at the colony, a silent green man with antennae sticking out of his forehead, mutely agrees to don Santa’s suit….

Still from Christmas on Mars (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • A psychedelic post-punk band, The Flaming Lips were formed in 1983 and released eleven albums before completing Christmas on Mars. Their music frequently contains science fiction references and their stage shows are known for their elaborate theatricality.
  • The idea was sparked by a Flaming Lips Christmas card frontman Wayne Coyne designed featuring a Martian in a Santa suit.
  • The film, written by Coyne, was in development for eight years, as the band worked on it every few months in between other projects. Most of the sets were built in Coyne’s home or backyard. Some of the early production is documented in the Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks (2005).
  • Co-director Brad Beesley also directed many of the Lips’ music videos and the Fearless Freaks documentary. Co-director George Salisbury was also credited as editor and produced the DVD extras.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I wouldn’t want to spoil the hallucination’s impact, but it involves a marching band and an imperilled baby. (That’s not the strange part, though).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Anatomically incorrect space(wo)man; marching band of death; Martian Santa

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although from its lava lamp opening to its twisted happy ending, Christmas on Mars pokes at strangeness time and time again. But what really sets it apart are its many, many vaginas: more vaginas than you would see at a Georgia O’Keefe retrospective organized by the American Gynecological Association. No other movie in existence has so graphically exploited the weird potential of the human (or alien) vagina.


Original trailer for Christmas on Mars

COMMENTS: Christmas on Mars is a movie made by amateurs, which Continue reading 227. CHRISTMAS ON MARS (2008)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop

DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov

FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova

PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.

Still from Philosophy of a Knife (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.

COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.

And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.

There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.

If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.

But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

CAPSULE: YESTERDAY WAS A LIE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: James Kerwin

FEATURING: Kipleigh Brown, Chase Masterson, John Newton

PLOT: A female private investigator tracks a physics professor and a sultry torch singer while looking for a notebook with clues as to why she’s trapped in a dreamlike film noir world.

Still from Yesterday Was a Lie (2008)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “A lot of people think of it like putting puzzle pieces together,” the mystical “Singer” tells our dame Hoyle, “but I’d like to think of it as more like shutting off your left brain… realizing it’s all disconnected, or connected in a different way.” That’s advice for watching this film, and it also expresses our preferred mode of criticism here at 366 Weird Movies. That sense of camaraderie makes it more painful that we can’t recommend Yesterday Was a Lie for the List of the Best Weird Movies of all time. It’s an overambitious film that has a good heart, and mind; but the slight air of amateurism works against its weirdness. (Ironically, in stupider, sloppier movies, more profound amateurism often enhances the weirdness—it’s a fine line indeed).

COMMENTS: Yesterday Was a Lie is full of half-sketched abstract ideas about Jungian psychology, Surrealist aesthetic theory, quotes from T.S. Eliot, and fringe quantum physics, which makes it seem like it was written during a semester where the writer has yet to decide on a major. Unfortunately, he did not pay enough attention to the characterization lecture in his creative writing course. The story slides by on film references and deconstructionism, but doesn’t make us want to invest our time or emotion in the self-reflective investigations of its cipher detective chasing down arbitrary clues. The flurry of character development and plot connections that occurs in the last half hour will arrive too late for most viewers. Also (and beware that I am getting close to spoiler territory here) the final act slings the movie off in a relationship drama direction that, while organic, is nonetheless disappointing, given the cosmic buildup.

The fact that timelines twist and curl back upon each other—Hoyle keeps waking up in the hospital from the same gunshot in the shoulder, and she keeps seeing ‘s “Persistence of Memory” popping up all over—-adds to the confusion, but embarking on this much weirdness is a weighty task if you’re name is not or and you don’t have much money to work with to compose eye-catching set pieces. Conceptually and budgetarily, stretches of Yesterday remind me of a better-scripted and photographed, but worse-acted, version of the notorious PBS sci-fi production Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Kipleigh Brown and Chase Masterson are statuesque blondes who look great in silhouette, but they lack the resources to tackle these difficult roles. Since we’re dealing with iconic film archetypes, it’s a true challenge to simultaneously evoke Bogey and/or Bacall while placing your own stamp on the characters. Switching the gumshoe gender from male to female scores a few novelty points, but Brown, though game, always looks like a cheerleader with a cute fedora and a prop highball glass as accessories. She never generates a sense of danger. By contrast, the lighting and cinematography are excellent (a gritty 1940s film grain is missed, obviously, but better to go with a crystal clear digital presentation than add an obviously fake effect). A few nicely-lit shots do not a movie make, unfortunately, and I’d be lying if I said Yesterday earned more than a “nice try” rating.

Writer/director Kerwin released an informal “web series” revolving around a minor character on the Internet; it deals with the same subject matter, though not in the same noirish style as the movie. The seven mini-episodes are now available on the production company’s website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

a clunky David Lynchian cosmic mystery… James Kerwin’s conceptually ambitious low-budget debut offers stunning black-and-white HD cinematography, a sultry jazz score and a refreshingly high-minded script, but feels hopelessly amateurish in the acting department.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “BogartsHat,” who said it was “[n]ot only weird, but also a very good movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

RELIGULOUS (2008)

The following is not standard for 366 material, but given the controversial nature of the film, we feel it has an off the beaten path place here.

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

Critic Brian Orndorf wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.

ReligulousMaher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.

Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:

One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.

While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have Continue reading RELIGULOUS (2008)

LIST CANDIDATE: AEGRI SOMNIA (2008)

DIRECTED BY James Rewucki

FEATURING:  Tyhr Trubiak, Mel Marginet, Warren Louis Wiltshire, Nadine Pinette, Daryl Dorge, Johnny Marlow

PLOT: A man is hounded by his peculiar friends and haunted by disturbing visions.

AE6 450


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Aegri Somnia is surreal, somewhere between Carnival Of Souls and Eraserhead (which it stylistically quotes). Combined with it’s strange story, exaggerated camera angles, and oddball characters, Aegri Somnia delivers a 100 percent weird viewing experience for even the most jaded bizarre movie enthusiast.

COMMENTS: Light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, Aegri Somnia (which literally means “a sick man’s dreams” in Latin), is an offbeat, visually stunning, independent effort by Winnipeg director James Rewucki. Effective and foreboding, it is almost visually overpowering in the way it pours across the screen like the gush of a blood bucket accidentally kicked onto a canvas. Rewuckie describes the film as an existential arthouse horror movie. Fans of German Expressionist filmmaking will draw comparisons to Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari enthusiasts will immediately be reminded of Eraserhead.

In the story, Edgar (Trubiak) is a simple man, cowed by his surroundings, scared of his own shadow, seemingly terrified by … life itself! Edgar is hostage to a morbid, crippling anxiety. His outlook is that the very world is a giant machine that seeks to grind him up in its gears and mash him beneath its wheels, to consume and obliterate him.

Edgar just wants to be left alone, to go to work and come home to seek the refuge of a peaceful evening in the security of his domestic surroundings. But it’s not to be.

Edgar’s coworkers, who seem normal on the surface, reveal themselves to be creeps, quiet lunatics who either marginalize or manipulate and victimize him in the course of their bizarre exploits. Edgar’s wife is a hostile nag, his boss is verbally abusive, and everyone around him draws him into unpleasant, precarious situations. When Edgar’s shrewish wife prepares a nice supper for him, unfairly berates him, and then kills herself in the bathtub, Edgar is plunged into a waking nightmare of heightened anxiety, loneliness and frightening “what-if”s?”

Edgar falls captive to malignant visions. In the shadows, unsettling shapes are lurking, and from them, dreadful whispers emanate. Edgar’s acquaintances speak in cryptic codes and symbolic double entendres, alluding to .. what? Something awful. At night, monsters visit Edgar in sickening nightmares. Why?

What is happening to him? He has somehow managed to crack open a portal between this world and some twisted, alternate dimension. It’s a dreadful door that should have remained shut. Can Edgar find a way to close it? Or will this new, loathsome reality continue to envelop him until it swallows him up?

Aegri Somnia is an optically engrossing bit of modern art, bearing obvious influences from other films. Plot-wise, it’s an odyssey in a similar vein to Carnival Of Souls (1962), but there’s more dialogue and more twists and turns. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) it’s a surrealistic story about a man struggling to keep his sanity. A final plot twist is right out of Angel Heart (1987).

Aegri Somnia is captured in black and white with periodic dramatic accents of crimson. Color sequences chronicle Edgar’s hallucinatory nightmares. The movie is filmed in a gritty, plodding, semi-documentary style, as if the camera is an appalled, mute witness. The resulting effect is not only strikingly reminiscent of Eraserhead (1977), but Edgar’s entrapment among hellish creatures of abomination also reminds us of In The Mouth Of Madness (1994). The digital special effect of rapid head-shaking is prominent throughout the film. We first saw this effect in Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and since in fare such as the remake of House On Haunted Hill (1999). Many movies openly sport such borrowed elements en masse, and too often they amount to little more than pasted together fragments of better films. Significantly, this isn’t the case with Aegri Somnia! Director James Rewucki concedes his cinematic influences. And it’s true that Aegri Somnia says nothing profound. It’s a visual exposition. Yet Rewucki imaginatively employs well-worn conventions and techniques to produce a memorable horror movie which feels fresh despite it’s derivative roots. And it’s so visually dramatic!

Aegri Somnia is unusual, disturbing, grotesque, and genuinely arty. Unsettling characters, eerie settings, and oddball events create a gruesome funhouse. But we don’t dare step out of the carriage until the end. We want to see where the ride takes us. Imaginative frames and images persist in the mind’s eye like negative aftervision, long after the tab of the final film strand disengages and flap-flap-flaps against the empty reel.

Aegri Somnia (2008)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite the fact that Rewucki may have tip-toed down the slightly contorted path of a predictable plot, he managed to do so with such stealth as not to disturb the wondrous weirdness that bleeds through this monochromatic visual masterpiece of virulence.”–Lacey Paige, Cinesploitation (DVD)