Tag Archives: Academy Award Nominee

284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”

“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny DeVito,

PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor and by Batman’s alter-ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Bruce and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989),  was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
  • Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
  • Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.


Original trailer for Batman Returns

COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Continue reading 284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

Suna no onna

“TO see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour…”

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eiji Okada,

PLOT: A schoolteacher and amateur entomologist’s search for an elusive beetle takes him to a remote seaside village. Needing a place to stay, he asks the townspeople for lodging and is offered shelter with an odd young widow who lives in a shack at the bottom of a pit. The next morning, as he prepares to leave, he finds that the villagers have tricked him and he is trapped in the pit, forced to shovel sand in return for food and water, presumably for the remainder of his days.

Still from Woman in the Dunes (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kōbō Abe wrote the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” in 1962 and was in the rare and enviable position of adapting it for the screen himself two years later. Abe wrote a total of four screenplays for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, all of which were scored by legendary composer Tôru Takemitsu.
  • Takemitsu’s score was recorded by a string ensemble, then electronically distorted.
  • The film was cut by  about twenty minutes during its original release. The full length film runs about two and a half hours.
  • Woman in the Dunes was nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, and, more impressively for a Hollywood outsider, Teshigahara was nominated for Best Director. Dunes lost in 1965 to Italy’s Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, while Teshigahara was personally nominated for the 1966 awards instead (losing to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music).
  • The nudity and sex in the film were daring by 1964 standards, causing the import to be marketed in the U.S. with the tagline “The most provocative picture ever made.”
  • Teshigahara retired from filmmaking in 1979 to enter the family business—flower arranging!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sand, endless sand. Shifting sand, cascading sand, crumbling walls of sand, grains of sand stuck between toes. But to narrow it down, the dream sequences where the entomologist sees women superimposed over the sand, once with the sand ripples mimicking strands of hair, and once with a dune tracing the curve of a hip.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Feminine mirages; rotting sand; voyeur drum circle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The plot of Woman in the Dunes—a man trapped into slavery in a remote village, forced to labor to earn his keep—is almost plausible, allowing the unimaginative to view it as a dull version of an escape movie. The hypnotic pace, bleakly beautiful cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu’s unnerving score inform this fable’s weird construction, however, creating a sense of strangeness that slowly gets under your skin like beach sand gets under your swimsuit.


Original Japanese trailer for Woman in the Dunes

COMMENTS: A man, a woman, sand: those are the triangular borders of Woman in the Dunes. Within this minimal landscape, the Continue reading 247. WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964)

CAPSULE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra

FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, , Brionne Davis

PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.

Still from Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.

COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.

One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.

The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.

The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD OF TOMORROW (2015)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julia Pott, Winona Mae

PLOT: The third generation clone of a little girl time travels to the present to deliver advice to the four-year old.

Still from World of Tomorrow (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ll cite Don Hertzfeld’s own words, speaking of his inspirations for “World of Tomorrow,” in the film’s favor: “..I’ve always been a big fan of pulpy science fiction, the optimistic yet somehow terrifying science fiction of the 40’s and 50’s, where logic took a back seat to some really giant, weird ideas.” This film was conceived in a weird mindset, but working against this psychedelic stick-figure snippet is—as is often the case with shorts—its length. It’s a stunning work on both the visual and emotional planes, but as good as “World of Tomorrow” is, is it weird and important enough to justify bumping a full-length film off the List to make place for it? If only Hertzfeld would make a proper, weird feature-length film, and end this dilemma for us…

COMMENTS: “Our viewscreens allow us to witness any event in history,” says the visitor from the future with some degree of pride, although she casually concedes that “our more recent history is often just comprised of images of other people watching viewscreens.” Such is the World of Tomorrow as imagined by stick-figure animator Don Hertzfeld. The film is scripted around the recorded utterances of Hertzfeld’s four year old niece Winona Mae, which were later adapted into a screenplay. The girl’s ebullient proclamations of wonder are met with calm acknowledgment by her own clone, who has traveled through time on the eve of the apocalypse to implant this very memory (and to extract another one). Young Emily (referred to as “Emily Prime”) can’t understand the significance of the momentous exchange, focusing on the surface of the vision, delighting her ability to change background colors with a word. For her part, the pontificating clone, who speaks in the emotionless tone of a British Siri, seems oblivious that her words of wisdom are going over the girl’s head. This leads to constant humorous exchanges between the two (“I have no idea what you’re talking about” deadpans the clone in response to some childish gibberish).

Hertzfeld’s characters deliver their mismatched, wistful dialogue against a backdrop of constantly shifting colors. The animator retains the derp-y stick figures that have become his trademark, but digs into digital animation to create futuristic ooh-la-la wonders. Clean, precise geometric figures constantly drift through the frame like technological clouds, with neon static discharges bursting across the screen. Space is a deep purple expanse, and the Earth, seen from the moon, is covered with a grid of girders. Human memories (the kind people of the future will watch for solace) are fuzzy and shown at skewed angles, with unbalanced color that makes a field of grass glow yellow. The eye candy alone more than justifies this trip into the future.

The tone is resigned and melancholy, but not despairing. “Tomorrow”‘s morose vision of the future encompasses depressed robot poetry and shooting star corpses among its many ironic wonders. But while the film embodies the postmodern pessimism that concludes that technology is making us gradually less connected and less human, “Tomorrow”‘s direct emotional impact comes from tapping into that well of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. Forget the future; every adult feels like a deteriorating third-generation copy of themselves who feels “a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.” Life is “a beautiful visit, and then we share the same fate as the rest of the human race: dying horribly.” Tomorrow is a mixed blessing, at best, but Emily Prime represents hope and solace.

“World of Tomorrow” is now available streaming on Netflix, or it can be rented directly on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… within the absurdity lurks a sense of longing for a connection, a soulsick-ness.“–Collin Souter, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

204. DESTINO (2003)

“A magical display of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time.”– describing Destino

“A simple story about a young girl in search of true love .”– describing Destino

Must SeeWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dominique Monfery

FEATURING: Vocals of Dora Luz

PLOT: Essentially plotless, but the loose narrative involves a nude woman wandering the desert who comes upon a pyramidal statue with a male figure embedded in it. A bird bursts from the statue and it comes to life. The woman and man try to approach each other but walls and other surreal obstacles constantly grow between them, until the woman is transformed into a ballerina with a dandelion head, and then into a bell housed in a tower.

Still from Destino (1946/2003)
BACKGROUND:

  • After making the (flop) Fantasia, was still looking for opportunities to incorporate high culture into his animated projects. In the 1940s visited Hollywood frequently; fascinated by stars and by filmmaking, and constantly promoting himself, the Spanish eccentric struck up friendships with many Tinseltown luminaries, including Disney. The two men hit it off and conceived the idea of a collaboration on a short film (which would be part of an anthology feature film similar to Fantasia). Dalí worked closely with Disney animator John Hench,  who translated many of the Spaniard’s sketches and ideas into ready-to-film animation cels. The project was begun in 1945 and continued for eight months, but only 17 seconds of footage was actually created before it was scrapped.
  • Secondary sources report that the male statue is Chronos (presumably the god of time) while the female character is named “Dahlia” (a feminization of the artist’s name).
  • The official explanation for Disney’s decision to shelve the project was that the wartime vogue for “package pictures” had passed, and Disney’s distributors were requesting full-length features. The documentary Dalí & Disney: A Date with Destino suggests that Walt may have found the film too “bananas,” citing a report that he blew up one afternoon after seeing that Dalí had stopped painting pictures of ballerinas and had begun drawing baseball players instead.
  • Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew and a Disney senior executive, was looking for material to provide extras for the DVD release of Fantasia 2000 when he discovered the unused material for Destino in a moldy corporate storeroom. He decided to reconstruct the film from the existing storyboards and leftover concept art, largely so that the Disney Company would gain property rights in the underlying artwork. Fortunately, John Hench was still alive at the time to provide guidance for the reconstruction.
  • This was animator Dominique Monfery’s first work as a director.
  • The short briefly played theaters as an unlikely introduction to the comedy Calendar Girls.
  • Destino was nominated for an Academy Award for best short animated film in 2004, but—incredibly, given its provenance and historical value—it did not win. (‘s excellent Harvie Krumpet got the nod instead).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The most impressive of many gloriously hallucinatory moments is the seventeen second sequence that John Hench animated to try to convince a faltering Walt Disney to go ahead with the project. Two grotesque faces, with bulging eyeballs and tattered skin pulled taut and held in place by crutches, are perched upon two turtles who slowly bear them together. In the negative space formed when their noses touch, a perfect, pearly ballerina appears.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dandelion-headed dancer; baguette-wearing bicyclists; ballerina-head baseball

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Destino is Salvador Dalí’s only moving canvas. A slight breeze from Walt Disney Studios nudges it ever so slightly off its already tilted axis. This dream of a Disney princess trapped in Dalí’s delirious desert is something we will not see the likes of again in our lifetimes.


Promotional clip about Destino from the Dalí Museum (in Spanish and English)

COMMENTS: Salvador Dalí was a genius. This fact may seem Continue reading 204. DESTINO (2003)

146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, , Billy Crystal, (US dubbed version)

PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Miyazaki had announced his retirement from directing feature films after 2001’s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
  • One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
  • In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
  • Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.


Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle

COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar Continue reading 146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

SATURDAY SHORT: CHRISTMAS CRACKER (1963)

“Christmas Cracker” consists of three segments that have very little in common with each other, besides the fact that they are Christmas based, and are each introduced by a mime-like jester. Charming and now aged to fine quality weirdness, it may not surprise you that fifty years ago this nearly won an Oscar.

SATURDAY SHORT: I MET THE WALRUS (2007)

A brave 14 year old, Jerry Levitan, was able to sneak into John Lennon’s hotel room in Toronto and talk him into a Q&A session. Thirty-eight years later, Jerry worked with Josh Raskin, James Braithwaite, and Alex Kurina to make an animated video to accompany the recording.

“I Met the Walrus” was nominated for the 2008 Animated Short Academy Award, and won the 2009 Emmy for New Approaches.

64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Continue reading 64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)