“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau
DIRECTED BY: David Blair
FEATURING: David Blair
PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.
Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by William S. Burroughs (in a non-speaking role).
First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.
FEATURING: Aaron Long, Simon Sokowlwoski, Laura Marklew
PLOT: A down-on-his-luck fighter with anger issues and a penchant for bringing his dog everywhere with him is killed; instead of going to Heaven or Hell, he is left in a Purgatory that looks like Birmingham and must find his place in a brutal, unforgiving afterlife.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Every film that has been both excellent and unique enough to make it onto the List of the 366 weirdest films of all time has been guided by a strong sense of purpose, or at least a sense of identity. The Last Road is hopelessly lost on the very road it sets out on; it is the film equivalent of listening to someone decide out loud what they want to eat for dinner.
COMMENTS: It wasn’t that long ago that when people said the words “independent picture” in conversation, the image brought to mind was of a navel-gazing, impenetrable vanity project from someone who hadn’t had the career or life experience to demand a moviegoer’s attention span. With the explosion of pop culture indie-centrism in the early ’00s and the digital camera revolution, indies have come a long way since then, but a stigma still remains in the public consciousness from decades of snoozers like Smilla’s Sense of Snow and twee-fests like Garden State. The Last Road is an ambitious independent feature from first-time writer/director/key grip John Wheeler about life after life, and while it is obvious that the spirit here is willing, the body, unfortunately, is weak.
Set in the arsehole of Britannia, which will henceforth be referred to as Trainspotting-ham, it chronicles the misadventures of Toby, the angriest bloke who ever bloked. This guy is the worst; imagine an unemployed Morrissey with short hair who binge-watches MMA bouts and thinks he looks good in tank tops. He is a fighter with a nasty temper, a temper that is affecting his relationships at home and in the ring. His ill mother is subject to one of his tantrums and has a pint of milk dumped on her head as a result, and when his anger gets the better of him while talking to his shady underworld boss, it leads to his dog being viciously killed in front of his eyes (!!!). This sets him up for an (ultimately final) outburst in the ring, whereby his overwhelming explosion of violence leads his opponent, in desperation, to slash Toby’s throat with a nearby broken beer bottle and end his life. This is only the beginning of the story, however, as we are taken to the afterlife, where Toby is confronted with his poor life decisions by a shrewish blonde angel driving a Mini. She tells him that he has to find his own way to salvation, otherwise he can never be redeemed in the eyes of God. So Toby wanders the wastes of Limbo, meeting new friends, inciting bitter rivalries, and reuniting with familiar faces from his previous life.
…at least, I think so. The Last Road is really very noncommittal about what it wants to say or do. Or perhaps it is covering up a lack of narrative with visuals, strange set pieces, and maudlin introspection. Whatever the case may be, there is not enough happening (truly happening, not just tiresome flashbacks and unappealing static shots) to justify a 90 minute feature. Which is quite a setback, considering this is a 123 minute-long movie! That means lots of time taken up by the INNER TURMOIL of our hero, without context in the story or reasonable explanation.
And this is the most contentious aspect of the whole affair, because Toby’s struggle, the entire impetus of the film and the reason both he and the moviegoer set out on the sojourn that is The Last Road, is an informed attribute. We are not given an ounce of exposition as to why things are so difficult for him, why he is suffering on the inside, or what his motivations are for doing any of the seemingly arbitrary things he ends up doing. He is just an angry guy with a mission to redeem himself. But why? Who is this person? Why does he want to be redeemed in God’s eyes? Why does he need to be redeemed at all? Instead of answers, or something resembling an answer, we are treated to indulgent, laconic moments of on-screen anguish, as if Toby, in a wrestling ring on the seedy side of Trainspotting-ham, had died for our sins.
The Last Road is an independent feature that, while admittedly unique, lives up to that grand old indie tradition of being very difficult to watch. It is a shame, because it exhibits a wealth of potential from a first-time director: the shots are carefully composed, the sound design is remarkable, and the sets are eerie and full of nihilistic expression. But the delivery of these qualities in the form of unlikable characters trudging through a banal narrative ends up feeling confused at best and emotionally manipulative at worst (i.e. anything involving the damn dog). A similar-yet-better experience would be turning on What Dreams May Come with the brightness level on the television adjusted down 50%.
PLOT: A suicide, a jewel thief, and a thug’s girlfriend die and find themselves at an afterlife circus run by the Devil; he reads the stories of their sins retold as fables, which they re-enact to musical accompaniment supplied by carnies.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Devil’s Carnival is a lot like director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous horror musical effort, Repo: The Genetic Opera, only on a smaller scale. If that one didn’t make it onto the List, then logically this one shouldn’t, either.
COMMENTS: Hell is eternal musical theater! I knew it! The Devil’s Carnival looks like refugees from a Fellini circus took over unused sets from Moulin Rouge. Hell’s color scheme is candy apple red and hot dog mustard yellow, and all the demons have mime-white faces with black and red designs equally inspired by medieval harlequins and KISS. The plot to this musical is delightfully warped, in more ways than one. It involves suicide, thievery, and women in masochistic relationships, but it also benefits from a wild narrative that veers between reality, fantasy, and song and dance numbers at a whim. Fittingly, none of the denizens of the carnival seem the slightest bit surprised by any of it; the three hellbound souls receiving their poetic punishments wonder why they’re suddenly at a state fair designed by David Lynch for all of five seconds before they start accepting the dream at face value. I always like it when a movie script takes on too much and mixes its metaphors. Carnival starts off as Dante by way of Cirque du Soleil, then, one-third of the way in, after each of the three stories is already in progress, the Devil starts reading a book of Aesop’s fables which illustrate the sins (adding to the confusion, the last section, “The Devil’s Due,” doesn’t even refer to Aesop—the quote’s from from Shakespeare and the plot’s from nowhere in particular). Along with the three fables, we also get a backstage peek at the Devil’s lieutenant casting the night’s morality plays and a subplot about the Lucifer-God rivalry, all shoehorned in around a dozen songs in a movie that’s only an hour long. The script’s a mess, but I don’t mean that as a criticism: the overabundance of ideas and references in The Devil’s Carnival gives the entire enterprise a loose and crazy feeling that’s appropriate and appealing. The costume and set design is superlative, and the demonic hoofers—the Hobo Clown, the Painted Doll, and plastic-haired greaser Scorpion—are all a morbid hoot. Where The Devil’s Carnival loses me is with the songs. They are impressively staged and consistently performed in a Weimar-era German cabaret style. The Hobo Clown, ragged hat extended for alms, croons a demented doggerel silhouetted by footlights while a topless woman is whipped in the background (like all of Carnival, this is a surprisingly PG-13 rendition of some very dark material). But the melodies, while appropriately carnivalesque, aren’t memorable, and the libretto can’t match the ambition of the mise-en-scene. There’s too much repetition, and more than once the lyrics fall back on the cheap trick of incorporating children’s nursery rhymes to cop a little irony. Songs like “Kiss the Girls,” with a man menaced by a gang of sexy clowns in Bozo’s of Hollywood lingerie, look great, but make little sense. The lip-syncing is also frequently off, providing another distraction. Ivan L. Moody, a veteran of several minor metal bands with a surprisingly melodious baritone, gives the best performance; but the best conceived number is “Prick,” a love badly sung by a painted waif to a bullfrog that makes clever use of the double meaning in the title. Still, there is nothing here that you’d want to put on your I-Pod (Repo cultists, many of whom bought this soundtrack on the release date without having heard a note, may naturally disagree). Divorced from their presentations, the songs are all competent but forgettable, and, like its predecessor Genetic Opera, it’s that lack of memorable tunes that keeps The Devil’s Carnival from making the leap to the next artistic level. If Bousman could just borrow the talents of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even Richard O’Brien, for just a week sometime, he might make something really magical. The film is part of a planned series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Carnival may not have blown me away, but the best compliment I can give it as that it has me looking forward to the next installment—and, it makes me consider looking backward to reassess Repo.
While Bousman continues to make horror movies like Mother’s Day within the Hollywood system, The Devil’s Carnival cements his credibility as a cult filmmaker and suggests he’s dedicated to the more interesting, less-marketable horror-musical concept. The mid-range production values, cable TV-friendly naughtiness, cliffhanger ending and hour-long length of Carnival make it look like a pilot for an HBO series, although there’s no evidence it was ever intended for the small screen. The marketing of the film, which was self-financed by Bousman and partner Terrance Zdunich (who wrote the script and plays the Devil), is innovative: a VOD/Netflix streaming release, supplemented by a collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray (limited to 6660 copies) and a “carnival road tour.” Hopefully this nontraditional distribution strategy will work and allow the pair to retain their artistic independence by selling directly to the fans.
PLOT: A pediatrician dies and goes to paradise, but he’s willing to throw away an eternity of
bliss to find his wife, who’s trapped in a far less pleasant afterlife.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Majestic visuals make Dreams worth a gander for most, but due to high levels of sugary sentiment it’s contraindicated for diabetic cinephiles. While it has some unusual moments (and a cool eyeblink cameo from weird icon Werner Herzog as a tormented head), its weirdness isn’t much higher than any other Hollywood-approved fantasy.
COMMENTS: The romantic afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come flopped at the box office, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects. When pediatrician Chris (Robin Williams) dies and goes to heaven, the afterlife manifests as one of his wife’s oil paintings. Williams (joined by spiritual guide Cuba Gooding Jr.) wanders around inside an incredibly detailed landscape that looks like it was literally created out of paint; when his shoe slips on the mud, it exposes an undercoat of iridescent green and orange. It’s a miraculous mise-en-scène that, by itself, makes the movie worth catching. Other visuals pack quite a punch as well, especially when the action moves from a prismatic heaven to a gray hell: we watch a horde of swimming dead menacing Chris’s boat, and see him carefully transverse a field where the faces of the damned grow like heads of lettuce. Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production can’t keep up to the standard set by the visuals, and a vein of sappiness undermines the whole endeavor. What Dreams was made during the period when Robin Williams was still transitioning from a wacky motormouthed comedian to a “serious” dramatic actor, and he received some praise for this performance at the time; looking back, however, it seems too restrained, as if he’s trying to keep his massive personality in check. Gooding Jr. tries to compensate for Williams’ surprising lack of energy, and goes over the top a couple of times (I half expected him to shout out, “show me the salvation!”). Annabella Sciorra comes off best, but she needed a Continue reading CAPSULE: WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)→
“Afterlife” is a dreamlike interpretation of what happens during death. While sharing the same topic as “The Art of Drowning“, “Afterlife” contains a meditative soundtrack instead of dialog, and promotes the idea of quickly revisiting life experiences just before passing away.
PLOT: A murdered 14-year old girl watches her family search for her killer from the afterlife.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few weird visual elements in Susie’s pleasant and candy-colored Purgatory, but The Lovely Bones tells a conventional, if unusual, story at heart.
COMMENTS: With its mix of fantasy, drama, teen girls and murder, Peter Jackson’s latest superficially hearkens back to his wonderful Heavenly Creatures (1994); but the originality and intensity of that early vision is gone now, replaced by Hollywood sentimentality. The Lovely Bones is ambitious in its attempt to juggle many mixed tones, but it can’t quite navigate the tricky terrain from tragedy to mystery to reconciliation while shoehorning in comedy (a nicely campy but unnecessary turn by Susan Sarandon as a hard-drinking granny) and Hollywood spectacle. There some memorable fantasy images, such as a fleet of bottled ships crashing onto rocks, but for the most part the heavenly landscapes Jackson imagines are appealing and picture-postcard pretty, but uninvolving; Susie’s heaven seems like it’s been designed by Terry Gilliam reincarnated as a tween girl. As a thriller, the movie fails. We know from the beginning who the killer is, so our only interest is in seeing how he will slip up and be discovered. No clues are provided that would allow the Susie’s surviving family to out him, however; the revelation comes through supernatural nudging from beyond the grave that feels a lot like cheating. At a key moment, the movie abruptly stops being a thriller—just as excitement should be peaking—to return to exploring family dynamics. It’s a misstep that’s revealing of the difficulty the movie has shifting gears. The ending is cloying; the murder victims gather on the Elysian fields to sing a contemporary pop-music version of “Kumbaya,” followed by Susie’s unlikely return to earth to take care of unfinished business solely of interest to teen girls. The ending is also a cheat, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness while giving the audience a vicarious form of justice that falls flat. The Lovely Bones is not all bad: the performances are excellent, particularly Tucci’s subtle turn as the monster next door who appears to be just slightly odd, and young Saoirse Ronan, who generates tremendous empathy as the victim. There are some heart-tugging scenes, some suspenseful scenes, and some heavenesque eye candy to stare at. Jackson shows tact in not dwelling on the crude facts of the rape-murder, revealing the horror instead with an impressionistic and disquieting, unreal sequence set in a bare bathroom (a minimalist scene that’s a lot more effective than the garish paradises on which he lavishes his CGI budget). But, overall the movie reinforces Jackson’s inconsistency rather than his genius—he has yet to sniff a return to the grandiose triumph of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, while simultaneously he’s lost the punkish grit of his pre-fame films like Dead-Alive.
The Lovely Bones was based on a much-beloved novel by Alice Sebold, and, as is usually the case, fans of the book (including most critics who also read the original) aren’t thrilled with the film adaptation, saying that a subtle reflection on grief and living has been reduced to little more than a supernatural potboiler.
FEATURING: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits
PLOT: In a special afterlife reserved for suicides, three lost souls hit the road: Zia is
searching for his earthly lover, Mikal is convinced she’s here by mistake and is looking for the People in Charge, and Eugene is along for the ride because he has nothing better to do.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the sunglasses-snatching black hole that’s taken up permanent residence under the passenger seat in Eugene’s old beater, Wristcutters never really crosses the shaky border into the land of the weird. A few magical realist touches decorate this otherwise conventional, indie-flavored road movie/love triangle that’s best described as “quirky.” (If you know of a review that doesn’t use the word “quirky” to describe this movie, please contact the proper authorities; the writer needs to have his or her critical credentials yanked).
COMMENTS: Adapted from a story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters is a romantic comedy disguised as a black comedy, a conventional movie disguised as a bizarre movie, and a shamelessly hopeful movie disguised as a bleak movie. None of those disguises are particularly hard to penetrate. “Who could think of a better punishment, really? Everything’s the same here, it’s just a little worse,” newly deceased wristcutter Zia realizes soon after he gets a pizza delivery job in the afterlife. In Wristcutters, new suicides wake to discover a Great Beyond that’s not so great: in fact, it’s set in the middle of the Mojave desert where everything is so run down and recycled, even the automobiles are held together mostly by duct tape. Furthermore, in the most dreadful dissimilarity to the living world, its denizens find themselves unable to smile, a restriction that makes the sympathetic performances of the young principals all the more impressive. Still, the movie always has a hopeful sense that the main characters can find a way out of their existential predicament, and it doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a happy ending (though some may consider it a cop-out). Although Wristcutters sometimes reeks of missed opportunities to explore deeper themes and blacker comedy in a more mystical landscape, it’s also apparent that director/scripter Dukic has hit exactly the lightly offbeat tone he was aiming for, and he has the good sense to wrap the story up quickly after his world runs out of new Purgatorial quirks to offer. A couple of tunes by Tom Waits (who also offers up a memorable turn as ramshackle but wizardly guiding spirit Kneller) and Gogol Bordello bump up the cool quotient considerably.
After this successful debut, Croatian director Dukic is poised between worlds: he could use this feature as springboard to do something even more conventional, or push his offbeat impulses to their logically weird conclusion. We’ll keep an eye on him.