Tag Archives: Alcoholism

CAPSULE: WINTER IN THE BLOOD (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith

FEATURING: Chaske Spenser, , Saginaw Grant, , Casey Camp-Horinek, Julia Jones

PLOT: Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic half-breed Blackfoot, wakes up from a blackout and is told that his wife has left him, taking his rifle and electric razor with her and setting him off on a boozy, hallucinatory quest to recover the items.

Still from Winter in the Blood (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A vision quest seems like the perfect plot structure for a weird movie, but although there is a lot to enjoy in this slightly surreal, unusual Indian-themed movie, it isn’t strange enough to overcome its narrative shortcomings.

COMMENTS: Waking up from a bender in a ditch, seeing visions of his dead father, Virgil First Raise complains he is “caught in an in-between place… vulnerable to the spirits.” Though not entirely successful as cinematic psychoanalysis, Winter in the Blood does capture Virgil’s physical and psychological tipsiness and vulnerability to the spirit world, which bleeds into reality. Flashbacks frequently interrupt the present-day action, often introduced in interesting ways; for example, Virgil fishes in a river and sees his childhood self and his (now absent) brother frolicking on the opposite bank. The movie also incorporates the rhythms of hard drinking; we see Virgil tippling in a bar, following up on a lead, and suddenly he wakes up in a strange bed, leaving us with a suspicion that crucial plot information may have been irretrievably lost to a blackout. That structure of memories and ellipses would be confusing enough for the average viewer, but then there are also entire subplots that are probably imagined, such as Virgil’s dalliance with a Canadian “airplane man” who is being tailed by mysterious men in suits and who wants to enlist the Indian in an obscure smuggling plot, the details of which keep shifting. The quirky and sinister airplane man scenes, particularly one where Virgil finds a fellow diner at a lunch counter inexplicably falls face-first into his soup, give the film an exciting Twin Peaks-on-the-reservation sensibility that it could have used more of.

Virgil suffers from a horde of demons—too many for a single movie—from alcoholism to survivor guilt to incompetent parents to the manhood ritual he never completed to fretting over the Caucasian impurities in his blood. His troubles materialize in an equally numerous series of symbols: the rifle, a mysterious blonde barmaid who sometimes has a tattoo and sometimes doesn’t, the airplane man, a stuffed teddy bear, a rabbit in a haystack. As a work of Native American cinema, a field that’s not overly crowded, Winter in the Blood ranks as a minor standout. The performances are mixed but generally good, the soundtrack is alt-melancholy, and the excellent widescreen cinematography captures the agrarian grandeur of Big Sky country. But all of the floating symbolism, subplots and narrative loose ends, together with the impressionistic style and some fumbling at the finale (the emotional climax feels misplaced, with Virgil’s despair unexpectedly peaking after the scene that should have brought him insight and redemption) result in a film that ends with an unfortunate lack of closure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Real and surreal weave together, and an impeccably chosen soundtrack — by, among others, the Heartless Bastards and Robert Plant — reinforces a mood that veers from dreamy to violent with shocking suddenness.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS [STORIE DI ORDINARIA FOLLIA] (1981)

DIRECTED BY: Marco Ferreri

FEATURING: Ben Gazarra, Ornella Muti

PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on

Still from Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)

whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.

COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures.  The first sequence illustrates the method.  Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall.  “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket.  That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife.  Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube.  Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself.  Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels.  Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film.  With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script.  Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel.  The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology.  The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you.  The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one.  He only vomits once.  But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.

Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal.  More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005).  Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony.  I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly.  Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings.  This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere inside its unworkable blend of pretension and pornography, there’s a serious film about art and sexual abandon struggling to get out… concentrates solely on the lurid aspects of Mr. Bukowski’s writing and exaggerates these so greatly that all else is lost.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

DIRECTED BYJames Felix McKenney

FEATURING: Don Wood, Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm, Reggie Bannister, Debbie Rochon, Michael Berryman, Larry Fessenden

PLOT: In this re-imagining of the “Christ-sploitation” films shown in churches and

Still from Satan Hates You (2009)

probably a few Southern gynecologists’ offices of the 60s and 70s, we follow a young man and woman who make all the wrong choices in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and rock music while unknowingly under the influence of two demonic imps.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Satan Hates You, while initially very jarring in its lack of self-explanation, is a satisfying experience in terms of its Troma-esque shock horror and its acute satirical edge.  But its freaky imagery leans too often on a bland naturalistic style that mars its individuality and chokes the weirdness out of the movie.

COMMENTS: Satan Hates You is a very hard film to place.  Being a satire, a dark comedy, and a horror film is no ordinary pedigree, and Satan Hates You maniacally shifts from one of these genres to the next every few minutes.  It is a wicked send-up of those fear-mongering Christian PSA films that pop into existence every generation about the dangers of doing ungodly things like having abortions and doing drugs.  But it honestly doesn’t hit you that way when you watch it if you don’t do your research.  The first time watching it, I felt this to just be a dark, meandering horror-comedy about two idiots who make a lot of bad choices.  Director James Felix McKenney doesn’t really go out of his way to make this idea pop out at the audience with staples of the “Christ-sploitation” genre, like cheesy acting, an oversimplification of right and wrong, and loads of self-righteous condemnation.  We are instead tossed quite objectively into these people’s lives, full of sex, murder, and self-sabotage, and don’t get dropped many hints that we’re supposed to be in on a joke.

Once one understands the idea, everything falls into place a little more, and it does Continue reading CAPSULE: SATAN HATES YOU (2009)

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times