Tag Archives: Apocalyptic

CAPSULE: AIMY IN A CAGE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Hooroo Jackson

FEATURING: Allisyn Ashley Arm, Michael William Hunter, Sara Murphy, Terry Moore,

PLOT: While a mysterious virus ravages the outside world, a quirky teenage girl is forced to undergo brain surgery to become “normal,” then imprisoned by her family. Still from Aimy in a Cage (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Weird? Yes, indeed. But this stylish debut, while pretty, doesn’t quite pull all its ribbons together into the tidiest of bows.

COMMENTS: Allisyn Ashley Arm may headline, and Crispin Glover’s name may sell tickets, but the real star of Aimy in a Cage is Chloe Barcelou, the production and costume designer. She creates an arresting world that looks like a post-apocalyptic “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” Set in a single sprawling flat that recalls visual icons like , , and even or a wacked-out at times, the movie looks like a trippy graphic novel come to life. In Terry Moore’s first scene, she wears improvised beer can rollers in her hair. Aimy earns herself headgear that looks like added several extra feet of ductwork on top of the Robot Monster‘s helmet. I adored the faerie mushrooms embossed on the outside of Aimy’s door. The barrage of stylistic techniques—Fleischer brothers cartoons, mad pans and angles, circular masking, fisheye lenses, paint dripping over the lens—can be a little much, but they are all well executed and add to the film’s ramshackle, cluttered charm.

Unfortunately, the story does not engage us nearly as much as the film’s visual milieu does. The problem is with Aimy herself. Not with the performance of Arm, an ex-Disney Channel star who seems like she would be lovable in another project. She does exactly what she is asked to do here, which is to act bratty and scream a lot. Aimy is totally narcissistic, in that bright teenage girl way; she’s the kind of character who complains, “why can’t you all just accept me for who I am?” while doing an interpretive dance and throwing fistfuls of candy into the face of her long-suffering boyfriend. The movie starts out with misunderstood Aimy breaking her grandmother’s treasured vintage doll and getting into a shrieking contest with the old bat, and it just gets more and more shrill as it goes on. Aimy is abused, its true, but in the opening reels she gives as good as she gets, and we can totally understand and sympathize with the family’s decision to tie her to a chair and gag her. When the girl taunts her grandmother, hateful though the old harridan may be, about her fiancé’s recent abandonment and laughs that the old woman will die alone, are we really supposed to take her side? It’s as if the script simply assumes we will side with the young against the old and the artist against the conformist, and so doesn’t feel the need to make Aimy likable in any way.

Does that mean the girl earns the torture that is heaped on her in the later reels, which ranges from psychological abuse to lobotomy to being tied in a chair and force-fed while begging to die? Of course not. But successful antiheroes, from Alex deLarge to the Comedian of Entertainment, have two things Aimy doesn’t: they are given some redeeming, humanizing characteristic for the audience to latch on to, and their suffering is treated seriously, as something real, no matter how unreal their surroundings may otherwise be. Aimy’s chaotic character is closer to abrasive roles in ‘ early comedies, but she doesn’t have the drag queen’s perversely lovable outrageousness.

Glover’s character, a sort of southern gentleman gigolo in a fur coat, is decent, but the role’s subdued nature means his casting takes more advantage of the actor’s weirdo cred than his gonzo energy. For Glover, however, not spazzing out all over the screen is stretching as an actor, and it’s interesting to see him take on a subtler weird role. is prominently billed, but her appearance amounts to a forgettable cameo that makes no difference in the story.

In Aimy‘s defense, it does effectively capture a budding teenager’s sense of self-absorption and paranoia; that alone does not, however, make for a pleasant or rewarding moviegoing experience. Still, there will be those who will want to uncage Aimy for the visuals alone, and I won’t dissuade you: as long as you have a high tolerance for abrasive adolescent antics, it may be worth a VOD rental. Aimy in a Cage does not have an official release set yet, although a Blu-ray is listed with the possibly specious date of April 1, 2016.

There is one additional weird point to make about Aimy in a Cage, but it relates to the film’s funding rather than its content. Writer Hooroo Jackson invested almost everything he had in Bitcoin in 2012, when the price of a digital coin stood at $10, and cashed out when the virtual currency rose to $650. He used the proceeds to fund a movie version of his own graphic novel. I can’t think of any nobler way to dissipate a lightning-in-a-bottle windfall than that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not just that the always quirky Crispin Glover is featured in Aimy in a Cage that makes it weird… Fans of twisted independent cinema might celebrate Aimy in the Cage (it won the Director’s Prize at the Portland (Oregon) Film Festival), and it is a beautiful film to behold, but the damn thing is madder than Alice’s Hatter!”–Elias Savada, Film International (contemporaneous)

191. GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968)

Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro

“A fiendish vampire from a strange world in outer space drains his victims’ blood and turns them into weird corpses!”–U.S. tagline for Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

DIRECTED BY: Hajime Satô

FEATURING:Teruo Yoshida, Tomomi Satô, Eizô Kitamura, Hideo Kô, Kathy Horan

PLOT: A Japanese airliner crash lands in a remote mountain area after a close encounter with a UFO during a hijacking attempt. On the ground, the hijacker flees but is drawn to the glowing flying saucer, where the blob inside splits open his forehead and possesses his mind. Meanwhile, on the crashed plane the survivors squabble in a power struggle between an arms dealer, a senator, and the take-charge co-pilot.

Still from Goke Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Goke was the most notable of four horror/science fiction films made by Shochiku studios (previously best known for Yasujirō Ozu’s award-winning chamber dramas) in the late 1960s to attempt to replicate the success of rival Toei’s smash hit Godzilla.
  • Goke wasn’t shown in the U.S. until 1977, when it played on a drive-in double bill with 1965’s Bloody Pit of Horror.
  • This movie is a favorite of , who paid tribute to Goke‘s blood red skies in an airplane scene in Kill Bill: Volume 1.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to pick the scarlet heavens the airliner cruises though in the opening scenes, which makes it look the the clouds are saturated with hemoglobin and about to rain blood. After all, this was the image Tarantino chose to homage in Kill Bill. Instead, we’ll go with the vertical slit that forms in the assassins forehead at the climax of his psychedelic encounter in the alien spacecraft, a look affectionately know to the film’s fans as “vagina face.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Goke is a run-of-the-mill alien-blobs-in-glowing-orange-UFOs-turn-airplane-crash-survivors-into-vampires-by-crawling-inside-bloody-slits-they-carve-into-their-foreheads flick, but with a delirious psychedelic twist.


Japanese trailer for Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro

COMMENTS: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is frequently described Continue reading 191. GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968)

CAPSULE: THE BIRDS (1963)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Alfred Hitchcock

FEATURING: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, , Veronica Cartwright

PLOT: Without explanation, birds begin attacking the quiet seaside town of Bogeda Bay, interrupting a burgeoning love affair between a socialite and a lawyer.

Still from The Birds (1963)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A great movie, but only the raw inexplicability of the avian attacks makes this Hitchcock worthy of any particular weird notice.

COMMENTS: The crow has long been an omen of death, but never have our fine feathered friends been so conspicuously thantatotic as in Alfred Hitchcock’s first true horror (as opposed to suspense) film. Hitch’s typical plotting trick—beginning with one situation, then springing a twist in the movie’s first half that makes the opening irrelevant—has never worked as well thematically as it does here. Melanie and Mitch’s coy flirtations, cultured as they may be, are rendered ridiculous midway through the film in light of the raw realities of the assault from above. And yet, by the time the first wave of pecking finches swoop through the chimney, we’re invested in the pair. The birds—natural, inexorable, and inexplicable, brooding on their makeshift roosts—are the perfect images of death, looming for all of us. Thoughts of romance may occupy the early reels, but as the story moves on, the birds’ inevitable victory over our heroes becomes clear, and the tale turns to the desperate, if doomed, fight for survival.

Incredibly, you will sometimes hear people complain that the movie is flawed because it does not explain why the birds are attacking. Providing an explanation would have turned The Birds into the silliest type of B-movie fare. How unsatisfying would it be if  it turned out the birds had gone mad from drinking water contaminated with waste from an experimental nuclear reactor? The heart of The Birds‘ horror is the incomprehensibility of the attack, which reflects the incomprehensibility of our own mortality. The inconclusiveness of the scene in the restaurant where the townsfolk debate the cause of the catastrophe is the centerpiece of the film, dramatizing the residents’ utter failure to come to grips with the situation and the futility of their plight. One citizen theorizes that, unmotivated, the birds have suddenly declared war on humanity; a scientist absurdly spends her time explaining why what is happening can’t be happening; the crazy old coot in the corner warns that it’s the end of the world. (That last guess is probably the closest to being correct, though there’s no Biblical element to the story).

One woman assumes that, because there were no bird attacks before Melanie came to town, the disaster is the interloper’s fault. Perhaps; Melanie’s reaction (slapping the woman) suggests guilt. Melanie’s arrival stirs the Freudian pot between Mitch and his widowed mother, and brings schoolteacher Annie’s buried feelings back to the surface—she’s a destabilizing sexual force. (Curious that almost all the major roles in the film go to females, with Mitch alone at the center of a web of women). Besides those psychological teases, there’s also an inevitable Cold War subtext the film. When the birds strike and the family is holed up in their homes, seeking any news of the disaster on the radio, it surely must have struck a cord with American audiences still on edge from 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. The chilling final shot of a bird-strewn pre-dawn landscape is like a post-apocalyptic world covered in feathered fallout.

Universal’s 2014 Blu-ray release is essentially the single disc version of The Birds disc from the “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” 15-disc box set. It’s packed with extra features too numerous to list here; there are actually more minutes devoted to the bonuses than to the two-hour movie itself. Hitch’s blackly ironic trailer where he “lectures” on humanity’s historical relations with his fine feathered friends is typically droll and brilliant.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Few films depict so eerily yet so meticulously the metaphysical and historical sense of a world out of joint.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Chuck Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic  could never have competed.

“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

Continue reading BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

THE OMEGA MAN (1971)

I recently saw two films for the first time since childhood. If there is ever proof that we are not born with taste, that taste is a reflection of our willingness to move past what we know or are exposed to, then the proof is in this proverbial pudding. Two of the coolest movies to an adolescent in the early 1970s were Elvis On Tour (1972) and The Omega Man (1971). However, the sight of a pasty Rock and Roll King, dressed as a lounge lizard Batman, bejeweled in a string of rhinestone Christmas lights, with a shoe-polished football helmet for hair and sideburns reaching down to his collarbone, singing Sinatra’s “My Way”, is the stuff of nightmares.

Even more horrific is Omega Man‘s  as a doomsday martyr with a Savior complex, dying for our sins. Boris Sagal’s apocalyptic oater is a delightfully dated and tacky fantasy. Who better to fill that role than all-American, granite-jawed Heston? The dialogue is jaw dropping. Omega Man was one of several ideologically right-leaning science fiction films that Heston gravitated to. (His choice of roles revealed a shrewd awareness on the actor’s part towards development of a public persona). It was a natural to follow epic Biblical melodramas with parts casting him as a messianic loner. The essence of American power and strength, highlighted by his carved-in-marble Roman profile, Heston was built for adolescent males to emulate and females to swoon over.

Throughout the 60s and 70s Heston gravitated to roles that called for him to be impaled in the arc of the drama. El Cid (1961), Khartoum (1966), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Will Penny (1968), Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and The Last Hard Men (1976) all find Heston in St. Sebastian-mode.

Omega Man was (poorly) based on Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The story had been previously filmed with a femmy  in Last Man on Earth (1964), and would be later with Will Smith in I am Legend (2007). No version got it right, but the closest was ‘s Night Of the Living Dead (1968), which was merely inspired by Matheson’s novel, rather than a direct adaptation.

Still from The Omega Man (1971)Heston never looks more like an old man Jesus figurine than he does here, in his polyester white Baptist dress shirt and Fred Mertz-style high trousers, oozing blood. Heston is Neville, the lone survivor of the 1975 apocalypse.He shoves in an 8 track tape of Strangers In The Night as he cruises through the ghost town that used to be New York City (of course). He steps into a theater, turns on the projector, and watches Woodstock (1970) “showing in its third straight year.” Neville has every line of dialogue memorized.

He hears the city’s imaginary phones all ringing simultaneously and does his best James Franciscus impersonation: “There is no phone ringing, dammit! There is no phone!” (a line which echoes Jimmy’s’ “Get out of my head!” in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Neville sees a shadowy figure running behind a skyscraper window. Continue reading THE OMEGA MAN (1971)

CAPSULE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, , Victor Wong

PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.

Still from Prince of Darkness (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.

COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.

That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”

Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…an endearingly odd, consistently creepy film… met on its own bonkers terms, Prince Of Darkness proves satisfying.”–Keith Phipps, The Dissolve (Blu-ray)

158. AKIRA (1988)

“Otomo, who wrote and directed the movie, has told interviewers that he set out to ‘make a film that would be a jumble of images, instead of just showing the highlights of each scene’, and on that score, he succeeded.”–The Los Angeles Times, in a dismissive review entitled “High-Tech Hokum From Japan”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Katsuhiro Ohtomo

FEATURING: Voices of Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki, Mami Koyama (original Japanese); Cam Clarke, Jan Rabson, Lara Cody (1988 English dub); Johnny Yong Bosh, Joshua Seth, Wendee Lee (2001 English dub)

PLOT: Tetsuo, a delinquent and member of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo, crashes his bike after seeing a strange child; black helicopters sweep onto the scene and armed men seize the boy and the injured Tetsuo. Doctors in the military hospital discover that Tetsuo has strong latent psychic powers and begin performing experiments on him, but he proves more adept than they could have imagined. Using his incredible newfound telekinetic abilities, Tetsuo escapes confinement and ventures out into Neo-Tokyo searching for the secret of Akira, the original subject of the military’s experiment, which he believes will grant him ultimate power.

Still from Akira (1988)
BACKGROUND:

  • Akira was an adaptation of the director’s own six-volume manga (serialized comic) of the same name, begun in 1982. Ohtomo did not complete the written work until 1990, and it has a different conclusion than the movie.
  • Akira cost a reported 1.1 billion yen (or about 8-10 million dollars) to produce, making it the most expensive animated Japanese film made up to that time.
  • After becoming a cult hit on video, Pioneer Entertainment restored Akira and commissioned a new (widely considered superior) English language dub of the film, re-releasing it to theaters in 2001.
  • Voted #440 on Empire’s List of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time and 51 on their list of the Greatest Non-English Language Films, number 15 on Time Out’s 50 Greatest Animated Films list, and number five on Total Film’s 50 Greatest Animated Movies.
  • Warner Brothers acquired the rights to the film in 2002 and have been planning a live action remake of Akira; at various times , the Hughes brothers, and others have been attached to the project, which has reportedly been shut down and restarted four times.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select what may be Akira‘s weirdest moment, a bizarre hallucination where a teddy bear and a toy rabbit grow and threaten bedridden Tetsuo—while inexplicably leaking milk from their faces. Tetsuo’s transformation into a giant roiling blob of limbs, tissues, tentacles and malformed organs, however, probably tops all of the psychedelic imagery that has come before. He becomes a Nameless Thing out of an H.P. Lovecraft story; it’s a grandiose vision that could only be brought to us in animation.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In 1988, Western eyes had never seen anything like Akira: violent, profane, mystical, and a cartoon. It was a foreign assault on the eyes, ears, sensibilities, and the part of the brain that processes plot. With its pallid middle-aged psychic kids, psychotic toy box hallucinations and mutating telekinetic antihero ripping apart futuristic Neo-Tokyo, Akira still packs one hell of a punch today. The Japanese have been trying to recapture Akira‘s cyberpunk spirit for twenty-five years now, but they have yet to devise a hallucination delivery device to top Ohtomo’s original animated masterpiece.


25th Anniversary DVD/Blu-ray trailer for Akira

COMMENTS: Watching Akira again for the first time in over twenty years, it occurred to me that the plot was even more disjointed than I Continue reading 158. AKIRA (1988)

132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

“…unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved. So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”–Benh Zeitlin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: , Dwight Henry

PLOT: Six-year old Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a community that turns into an island isolated from society when floodwaters cut it off from the mainland. After a second flood nearly destroys the Bathtub, Wink decides that he must destroy the levee so that the water will recede. This plan brings the attention of the authorities, however, who forcibly evacuate the defiant pair from their ramshackle home, all while Wink’s health is getting worse…

Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted from the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar (who also collaborated on the movie screenplay). The action was moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and Hushpuppy’s character was altered to fit the personality of actress Quvenzhané Wallis.
  • Hushpuppy was originally conceived of as 9-12 years old, but Quvenzhané Wallis was so perfect for the role that the character’s age was changed. Wallis beat out a reported 4,000 other kids for the role. She was only five when she first auditioned and, since the minimum age to be considered was six, her mother lied about her age.
  • Dwight Henry (Wink) is a New Orleans baker; this was his first acting role. He originally turned down the role in order to focus on opening a new bakery.
  • The aurochs in the movie are actually pot-bellied pigs with horns glued on.
  • Won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes (given to the best first film screened at the festival).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hushpuppy coming face to face with the apocalyptic aurochs of her imagination.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Quvenzhané Wallis’ childish explanation, “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” turns out to be a literal description of the plot in this ridiculously original fairy tale that resembles The Tree of Life set in a post-apocalyptic bayou.


Original trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild

COMMENTS: Although many movies purport to view reality from a child’s perspective (including Curse of the Cat People, My Life as a Dog, and Pan’s Continue reading 132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

CAPSULE: THIS IS NOT A MOVIE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Olallo Rubio

FEATURING: Edward Furlong, Peter Coyote

PLOT: A man checks into a Las Vegas hotel room on the eve of the apocalypse to ponder the meaning of his fading existence.

Still from This Is Not a Movie (2011)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not good enough. Although it’s technically well-made considering its budget, it’s full of stoned, faux-profound ruminations and (often explicit) references to much better, more original movies.

COMMENTS: Peter Nelson is holed up in a suite at the Dante-themed Apocalypse Resort and Casino “…trying to solve a deep existential conflict before I drink myself to death. It’s a very ambitious and pretentious goal.” Writer/director Olallo Rubio is at least aware that his own movie is “ambitious and pretentious,” and tries to deflect criticism by making his movie self-aware of its own limitations. The gambit doesn’t work, but we do have to grudgingly admire his roundabout honesty and sincerity. The script plays like a series of incidents and revelations jotted down in notebooks by couple of sophomore English majors during an all-night bull/sensi-smoking session. This one room chamber piece made up mostly of a single actor conversing with different versions of his own split personality, tied together by a weathered metafictional conceit and interspersed with movie trailer parodies, is the kind of pitch any Hollywood producer would immediately nix unless  and Angelina Jolie were already attached. But that fact alone makes the movie interesting as a curiosity; pot-smoking humanities majors bursting with ideas their forebears already came up with years ago comprise a legitimate demographic, and their visions almost never reach the big screen. Pete Nelson worries about “the System,” a vaguely conceived capitalist conspiracy composed of politicians, corporate propaganda, and general American vulgarity (a spoofy propaganda film-inside-a-film suggests that the conspiracy encompasses the Catholic Church, the Beatles, Hitler, and Gene Simmons of KISS). He argues with his drunken cowboy alter-ego that the System is responsible for his memory loss, until a surfer dude version of himself pops up to supply a more metaphysical explanation for his dilemma. The first part of the movie is unpredictable (who saw the ghost coming?), which is its biggest strength. Unfortunately, a finale that is even talkier than the rest of the film lays all the cards on the table, with disappointing results. Visually, the movie is interesting, with large portions shot in arty black and white, liberal use of split screens, and psychedelic CGI; the soundtrack (by Slash) is also pro. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Leaving Las Vegas (mentioned by name), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Holy Mountain (seen on TV), among other films, are all referenced either explicitly or implicitly: Rubio clearly has good taste in influences, but constantly reminding your audience of similar but vastly superior movies is seldom a good idea. I can see why many people hated This Is Not a Movie, and it’s hard to argue with them, except to aver that at least it achieves its badness by being infuriating rather than by being boring. Late in the movie, Rubio again anticipates his critics through dialogue, when Pete describes what he thinks a movie is (and isn’t): “…it’s a form of entertainment that enacts a story based on a dramatic arc. It has plots, subplots and storytelling devices to maintain the interest of the viewer. It needs a story, not just moments of conflict, witty talk, activity, and fucking symbols.” Characterized that way, This Is Not a Movie is not a movie; but Pete’s constricted definition is a challenge to the viewer to expand their own notion of “movie” to something beyond a mere carrier for a story. So, This Is Not a Movie is a movie—it’s just not a very good one, because its solipsistic conceits aren’t novel, fresh, or particularly clever. Still, This Is Not a Movie illustrates my pretentious movie theorem: an intellectually ambitious failure is more interesting than an unpretentious failure. I may not have been impressed by this film’s grandiose ideas, but I was happy to see it at least had some.

This Is Not a Movie (2011) should not be confused with This Is Not a Film (2011), the documentary shot by Iranian director Jafar Panahi while under house arrest for propaganda against the state, which was smuggled out of the theocracy on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake and screened at Cannes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To call This is Not a Movie weird is disingenuous. Rubio’s film is a simulacrum of weird, a copycat approximation of what the mass public perceives as being so… True visionary weirdness comes from creating original iconography and doing something no one else could ever conceive of. That’s what all the people Rubio is ripping off did.”–Jamie S. Rich, DVD Talk (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana, Lowell Landis, Levy Easterly

PLOT: A young girl named Hushpuppy lives in an isolated bayou community known as “The

Bathtub”, cut off from the rest of the world by levees. A massive storm destroys much of her home and she, her ailing father, and their friends must find a way to survive in a flooded, dying land.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Benh Zeitlin offers a unique fantasy that is grounded in the reality of global climate change and environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina. There is little exposition, and our understanding of this world comes through a six-year-old girl, resulting in a dreamlike and perplexing story that might just be weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: Filmed in an intimate style and focusing solely on the perspective of the defiant but loveable Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild presents an alternate way of living, one that is in harmony with nature even in the challenging landscape of a flooded bayou. Hushpuppy and her father care for numerous animals, residing in two separate trailers made up of composite parts and mementos of her long-lost mother. Their town frequently holds large celebrations, honoring a lifestyle free from the constraints and responsibilities of civilization on the other side of the levee. Hushpuppy is taught that everything in the universe is connected to everything else, and she believes the great storm that destroys her home has unsettled the world’s harmony. It is her mission to restore balance, working together with the Bathtub’s remaining denizens as they escape on ramshackle boats, hoping the land they’ve loved for so long won’t betray them.

With the lines between reality and fantasy artfully blended and fascinating waterlogged landscapes, the film is as much a visual treat as it is an environmental parable. Everything is familiar and yet somehow unreal, with slight dystopian elements that open the film up to myriad possibilities. Zeitlin’s camera sticks closely to Hushpuppy, with intermittent cutaways to the rampaging beasts of the title: great, ancient aurochs awakened after centuries encased in ice, who may or may not be figments of her imagination. Many of the film’s ideas and themes are epic in scope, but smartly distilled into something more accessible through the eyes of a small child.

Wallis is exceptional in the lead role. We see and feel her experiences so completely, though her precocious nature makes us wonder just how much she understands. She perfectly embodies this resilient, fierce character who loves her standoffish father but longs for the kind of tender affection she imagines her mother would give. Her relationship with her father is complex; he is volatile and at times abusive, tormented by a heart disease he can’t fight and an unwillingness to show weakness. He wants to imbue Hushpuppy with independence and self-sufficiency, pushing her to age rapidly while remaining emotionally distant to shield himself. Hushpuppy recognizes what is happening but cannot accept it, believing part of her mission for the universe is saving her father from the wild beasts coming to claim him.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful, ambitious, and strange, with a strong emotional center that resonates long after the credits roll. It is advertised as a kind of apocalyptic adventure story but in truth it is more focused on relationships and themes of community and responsibility. The cinematography is intimate and dreamlike, with a clear vision that rarely relies on special effects to impress viewers. The script is steeped in social commentary but never resorts to preachiness, as Zeitlin wisely maintains focus on the wonderful little fireball that is Quvenzhané Wallis. It is a thought-provoking and heartfelt tale of survival with unique touches of ambiguity and fantasy that keep it compelling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its fertility and its terror stem from the same truth: To the young mind, there is no sealed barrier cleaving reality from fantasy. Not yet. The wall hasn’t been built.” –Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle