Tag Archives: Angel

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

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

CAPSULE: NORTHFORK (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Polish

FEATURING: , Duel Farnes, , Mark Polish, , Robin Sachs, Anthony Edwards

PLOT: In 1955, officials try to convince reluctant residents of Northfork, Montana to leave before the town is flooded due to new dam construction; meanwhile, a dying orphan sees a ghostly family and tries to persuade them to adopt him.

Still from Northfork (2003)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Its monster-dog-on-stilts and odd angel quartet put it in the weird wheelhouse, and it is a well-made movie, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. There are better weird movies out there, including at least one movie made by the twin brother team behind Northfork.

COMMENTS: Set in a dusty and doomed, mostly abandoned Montana community that’s about to be buried under a deluge thanks to a public dam-building project, Northfork cultivates a feeling of quiet desperation. An evacuation committee, who dress like undertakers and drive hearse-like black Ford sedans, glide about town trying to convince stragglers to leave town. Meanwhile, in an even less cheery plot, an angelic young orphan lies dying, cared for by the town’s priest, too sick to adopt. His deathbed hallucinations involve visions of a quartet of ghostly beings who may or may not exist outside of the boy’s head. As befits the parched, deathly setting, Northfork is a slow and restrained movie. The performances, especially by Woods as the bureaucrat struggling with the memory of his wife’s death and Nolte as the melancholy orphanage priest, are stoic. Their weathered Western faces are pinched with sadness; their performances are appropriately and affectingly world-weary, but also one-note. Visually, the film is washed out and drained of color—although simultaneously full of sunshine and light, just like the Great Plains during a drought.

This reserved sense of departure is consistent throughout the film, but the one thing that isn’t at all subtle are all the angels. Despite the fact that one of the town’s residents has built his own ark, the celestial symbolism is laid on even thicker than the Great Flood imagery. Wings pop up everywhere, and so do feathers, passing between the dream world and the real world. The orphan is referred to as an angel, and in fact believes himself to be one. Actually, the nods to angels are made so literal that they cease be symbols, and simply become a feature of the plot landscape. The angelism becomes almost kitschy, and works against the restraint shown by the rest of the movie.

While I’ve managed to find a lot to complain about here, Northfork is really a beautiful looking and meditative movie, and one that is capable of pulling out a few weird surprises from time to time (like the wooden dog creature on stilts, and the odd guessing game the evacuators have to play to order a meal at the diner). The setting of the nearly abandoned town, with floodwaters about to descend upon it, is wonderful, but suggests more meaning than the script is capable of delivering. The parallelism between the dying town and the dying boy is thought provoking, but upon consideration the story doesn’t lead us anywhere. Norfolk displays the trappings of spirituality, but it doesn’t have a real spiritual message to convey. The best I can come up with is that the film is pro-immortality, at least in theory.

The scenario was inspired by Northfork Dam, a hydroelectric project instituted during the Depression that buried several small farming communities under a man-made lake. Northfork Lake is in Arkansas rather than Montana.

Michael and Mark Polish are twin brothers; Michael directs (and sometimes acts) while Mark writes and acts. The Metropolitan DVD of Northfork is out of print and fetching a pretty price, so the curious viewer may prefer to try it on instant video instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has that vintage Polish pace, their signature arch pomposity and rhythmless weirdness, only this time the brothers had to go and make a cosmic allegory of American dreams.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat Doherty, who recalled that it’s “the boy’s trips back and forth between two realities which make up some of the most haunting parts of the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

98. IDIOTS AND ANGELS (2008)

“The look of the film is very Eastern European – something like what Jan Svankmayer might make, or David Lynch if he made animation – very dark and surreal.”–Bill Plympton, Idiots and Angels Director’s Statement

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Bill Plympton

PLOT:  A loathsome man spends his days in a dingy, depressing bar where he lusts after the blonde barmaid, who is also the bartender/owner’s wife.  One day he discovers he is growing wings on his back; initially, he’s thrilled to be able to fly, but comes to hate them when they develop a mind of their own and force him to do charitable acts.  Other, equally venal, men plot to steal the wings to use them for their own selfish purposes.

Still from Idiots and Angels (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Bill Plympton has been nominated for Oscars twice for his animated short films.
  • Plympton made Idiots and Angels independently with a small team of four assistant artists for an estimated $125,000.
  • Per Plympton, the film consists of 30,000 drawings.
  • Per Plympton, the film was rejected by thirty distributors.  The animator is self-distributing the movie.
  • Idiots and Angels won the Best Film award at the Fantasporto festival in 2009 (previous Fantasporto winners that were Certified Weird are Toto the Hero and Pan’s Labyrinth).
  • Idiots and Angels is “presented by” Terry Gilliam.
  • The amazing soundtrack, featuring Pink Martini, Nicole Renaud, Tom Waits and others is not available for purchase at this time—and due to licensing issues probably never will be.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The obvious choice would have something to do with wings: maybe a manacled butterfly, or a fat stripper showing off her wingspan to a crowd of leering males, or an angel mooning a passing airliner.  More shocking and unforgettable, however, is the moment near the film’s climax when a full-grown man, wrapped in a placenta, emerges from another man’s navel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Plympton sets his pitch-black parable about a wicked man who grows angel wings in a dialogue-free barroom Purgatory.  Fantastic daydreams mix with increasingly surreal realities to paint a wordless portrait of the eternal, internal struggle between good and evil.  A hip, hypnotic art-pop soundtrack helps sweep the viewer away into Idiots and Angels‘ weird world of bitter cocktails and unexplained appendages.


Scene from Idiots and Angels

COMMENTS: The unnamed antihero of Idiots and Angels (the official plot synopsis calls him Continue reading 98. IDIOTS AND ANGELS (2008)

CAPSULE: PASSION PLAY (2010)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Mitch Glazer

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A trumpet player discovers a woman with wings at a freak show while hiding out from a

Still from Passion Play (2010)

gangster who wants him dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because it’s the most predictable and obvious movie about a jazz trumpeter saving an angel from a gangster it would be possible to make.

COMMENTS:  There’s almost nothing that Passion Play gets right, starting with its pretentious, inappropriate title: if Mickey Rourke is a Christ figure, then I’m a sex symbol.  The scenario starts out promisingly enough, positioning itself in a twilight netherworld somewhere between film noir and fairy tale.  Junkie jazz musician Nate, who gets by providing bump ‘n grind accompaniment for strippers in pasties at the Dream Lounge, is seized by persons unknown and taken to the desert for summary execution.  After an incredible escape from certain death, he stumbles upon an equally improbable carnival that has pitched its tents in the middle of nowhere and where yokels pay a dollar to peep at a beautiful “angel” with eagle wings.  So far, your suspension of disbelief is strained but not broken, but then the movie goes too far: 59-year old Mickey Rourke, with his stringy unwashed hair falling in clumps around a face that looks like the beaten-up mug of an ex-boxer experimenting with Botox injections, knocks on Megan Fox’s trailer door, and she asks him in for a drink.  From there the movie just gets worse and worse, as the mobster who ordered Nate’s execution also becomes obsessed with Fox and the pic turns into a conventional, obvious and boring love-triangle that begs us to care whether angelic Megan Fox will choose old, sleazy, poor Mickey Rourke or old, sleazy, rich Bill Murray.  Rourke, whose look and backstory are modeled on Chet Baker in his heroin-ravaged final days, is acceptably gruff, and you’ll believe he shoots junk and sells out those dearest to him.  The fact that there’s nothing sympathetic or likable about his character is a serious problem, though.  Watching the sex scene between Rourke and Fox is guaranteed to make your skin crawl; wondering where she’s going to position her wings as they roll around on the hotel room bed isn’t the only thing that’s awkward about it.  “Happy” Shannon’s laid back, almost emotionless mien may have been a deliberate acting choice by Bill Murray to make his character seem cold and calculating, but in the context of a film this bad, it makes it look like he’s acting under protest.  You feel more sympathy for Fox as an actress than you do for her character; after starring in one awful movie after another, she tries to expand her horizons with an ambitious art film, but winds up in yet another bungled disaster (and this time, it’s not even her fault).  Passion Play‘s target audience seems to be creepy old guys who like to daydream that they’d have a shot at Megan Fox if only she had some sort of easily overlooked physical deformity.  So when I, as a creepy older guy who wouldn’t kick Ms. Fox out of bed if she sprouted wings, tell you that this movie sucks, it should carry extra weight.

Mickey Rourke made waves for openly criticizing Passion Play after its release, publicly calling it “terrible.”  I can’t say I disagree with him, but openly and proactively trashing your own film seems like the kind of classless move Passion Play‘s crummy trumpeter might make.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…though the movie is both too strange to take seriously and not weird enough to live up to [David] Lynch’s macabre surrealism, you have to credit writer-director Mitch Glazer (co-author of ‘Scrooged’) for being daring.”–Kyle Smith, New York Post (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: $9.99 (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal

FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia

PLOT:  A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,

Still from $9.99 (2008)

including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice.  But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film.  By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone.  The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background.  Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.

COMMENTS:  Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view.  In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch.  The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion.  It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film.  These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between.  Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are.  The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director.  A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story.  The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme.  Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action.  The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors.  These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment.  This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.

$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans.  It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience.  It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)