Tag Archives: Character study

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

CAPSULE: BAG BOY LOVER BOY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Andres Torres

FEATURING: Jon Wachter, Theodore Bouloukos, Adrienne Gori

PLOT: A slow-witted hot dog vendor takes it into his head to become an artist after an uptown photographer uses him in a photo shoot.

Still from Bag Boy Lover Boy (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A throwback to the artier side of grimy NYC exploitation films a la , Bag Boy is unusual because of its odd lead and a few perverse set pieces, but the script ultimately does little to distinguish itself from an ordinary slasher flick.

COMMENTS: John Wachter has a swayback that gives him a pot belly in profile, even though he’s almost painfully thin. He speaks in a nasally voice that sounds like an Eastern European Dudley Do-right. His character, Albert, works at a hot dog cart and has very little sense of hygiene (he drops wieners on the cart floor, then assures a potential buyer not to worry because it’s for “tomorrow’s customers”) and even less range of expression. Those features wouldn’t seem to make him the ideal candidate for supposed uptown star photographer Ivan, especially since most of those personality traits don’t come across in stills. (Would work as a fashion model?) Still, Albert’s supposed to be some kind of Diane Arbus-style “discovery.” Just roll with it. Ivan does, and mooning over Albert in a couple of photoshoots where a busty model in black lingerie feeds him strawberries or where he’s covered in fake blood holding a tiny pitchfork and (literally) grilling a nude model painted up as a pig. You know, “real art.”

Albert is infatuated with a local street girl whom he supplies with free hot dogs, but when she walks off with an amateur photographer (because she doesn’t realize it’s never a good idea to make the psycho jealous), the vendor becomes convinced that a career in the arts is the key to her heart. (Adding to his newfound enthusiasm is the fact that his blood got pumping when Ivan instructed him to place a bag over a model’s head and pretend to strangle her). When Ivan goes off on an assignment and Albert starts hiring streetwalkers as models, you can probably figure out where this is going—no surprises will follow, although a few well-done, short dream sequences and gross-out scenes liven things up. Bag Boy does reasonably well with a low budget, delivers acceptable performances, and never bores despite its predictability, but it’s not essential viewing. More derangement would have helped.

The DVD/Blu-ray features commentary from Torres, Bouloukos, and the editor, plus a couple of very short, inconsequential silent black and white student shorts starring Wachter. One of them has amusing commentary: during one shot of a closed door, Wachter reflects “there were supposed to be a lot of interesting things happening… but that didn’t really happen this time.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this low budget effort (actually made in 2014) ticks all the boxes as a cult hit. Some films, however, try far too hard to win over the hipster cool crowd with bizarreness. We’re happy to report that Bag Boy Lover Boy manages to walk the tightrope of knowing weirdness perfectly.”–Martin Unsworth, Starburst (DVD)

CAPSULE: LEMON (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Janicza Bravo

FEATURING: Brett Gelman, , Nia Long, , Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs

PLOT: A struggling, middle-aged actor/director loses his long-time girlfriend.

Still from Lemon (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lemon is an awkward formalist comedy that’s just weird enough to hold your interest, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot.

COMMENTS: Not much happens in Lemon, a low-key, lightly absurdist comedy (flirting with anti-comedy) that positions itself as a character study of a delusional, narcissistic type working on the margins of the acting profession. Brett Gelman (who also co-wrote) plays sad sack Isaac with so little expression, he makes  actors look like hams. Isaac has a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), but things are going about as well with her as they are with his stalled career. The schlub shamelessly but unconsciously projects his personal life onto the acting courses he’s teaching, where he continually sides with a pretentious actor (Michael Cera, who prepares for scenes by “exploring” colors and animals) while picking on an unassuming actress (poor Gillian Jacobs). (In one of Lemon‘s wry meta-jokes, the editor cuts off her scenes in mid-sentence, the same way that Isaac disregards her attempts to speak to him). Once outside of his petty teaching kingdom, he finds himself judged by two female casting directors who treat him like a piece of meat, but still lands an unflattering role in a commercial campaign. While on that set, he meets an African-American makeup artist (Nia Long) whom he will eventually romance, setting up the film’s only conventional comic situation when Isaac displays clueless racial insensitivity when he attends her Jamaican family’s barbecue. And that’s pretty much it; by the time the credits roll, Isaac has learned nothing and experienced no personal growth, ending up slightly worse off than when he started.

Lemon comes across as much weirder than that synopsis suggests. All of the scenes are “off” to some degree, some more than others. Isaac has his own avant-minimalist music, sometimes with operatic accompaniment, that follows him around. At one point, a man who looks like his approximate double simply walks into the class and sits beside him, saying nothing; it’s never explained. At least one flashback is played out live, without an edit, with the absent character simply walking into the room after the others depart. There is a very strange masturbation scene that seems inspired by James Lipton’s old “Actors Studio” interviews. And a sprightly singalong at a family reunion (“A Million Matzo Balls,” led by patriarchs Rhea Perlman and A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed on piano) is an out-of-place highlight.

Lemon is reminiscent of something might write in a very depressed mood. With its nearly inscrutable, yet mean, antihero, the autistic social interactions, and the jarring transitions from scene to scene, the tone rests just this side of a nightmare. It’s a movie that will have some interest to fans of uncomfortable comedy, but it’s hard to love. If nothing else, however, Lemon is notable for bringing us Michael Cera’s worst onscreen haircut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more tart than sweet, but deliciously weird nonetheless.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

“Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent labouring under the delusion he is a vampire, is a weird film that is kind of great in its weirdness and in which Cage exposes himself fearlessly to ridicule, not least for appearing in a horror movie in the first place.”–from a 2013 Guardian profile on Nicolas Cage

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: Peter Loew is a well-to-do young literary agent with a hedonistic lifestyle, who is also in therapy. One night, he is interrupted while romping with his latest sexual conquest when a bat flies into the bedroom; later, he takes home a one night stand who (maybe) bites him on the neck in the throes of passion. He begins to believe he is becoming a vampire, while at the office he grows increasingly annoyed with and abusive to a junior secretary, Alva, to whom he assigns the task of combing through the agency’s archives looking for a missing contract.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was screenwriter Joseph Minion’s second produced script—the first was After Hours (1985).
  • Cage had originally committed to the part before the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) ignited his career. He tried to back out of Vampire’s Kiss, and Judd Nelson was tapped to play Peter Loew; thankfully, Cage changed his mind and decided to honor his commitment.
  • According to the commentary, a late scene—where Peter is walks down a Manhattan street talking to himself with blood on his shirt and none of the passersby take any notice of him–was filmed with real New Yorkers who had no idea they were on a movie shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the vision of Cage’s manic face as he mocks poor Alva (an image Dread Central’s Anthony Arrigo brilliantly summarized as “the infamous shot of Cage’s eyebrows attempting to flee the insanity that is his face“), a sight so powerful that it birthed an Internet meme. The notoriety of that shot aside, there are probably a dozen Cage expressions or poses that could vie for the honor of most unforgettable image in Vampire’s Kiss. We ultimately went with the view of Cage’s defeated face as he lies under his couch-cum-coffin, with Jennifer Beals’s hallucinated legs perched above him—an image also used for the film’s original theatrical poster.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Alphabet-mastering Cage, cockroach-eating Cage, plastic-fang Cage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cage, entirely Cage. This is Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and it’s this performance as a literary agent who thinks he’s turning into a bloodsucker that’s his strangest. Without Cage jumping onto desks, eating cockroaches, and posing like Mick Jagger after demonstrating his mastery of the alphabet, this would merely be an oddball tale; with him in the role, it’s a totally bizarre one.


Original trailer for Vampire’s Kiss

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just Continue reading 243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

CAPSULE: BUZZARD (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Joel Potrykus

FEATURING: Joshua Burge, Joel Potrykus

PLOT: After his latest con goes bad, a slacker and small-time scam artist goes on the run, taking along his homemade Freddy Kruger glove.

Still from Buzzard (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, although it is an outside-the-box indie with a unique slacking-class take on American society.

COMMENTS: “You’re just trying to cheat the system?” asks an exasperated bank clerk when Marty Jackitansky takes advantage of a loophole to get a bonus for opening a new checking account. “Absolutely,” he responds. “For fifty dollars?,” the clerk continues, incredulously. “Absolutely!” replies Buzzard, with pride. (Although Marty is never explicitly referred to by that avian moniker in the film, the name is perfect for this scavenger). Marty’s completely clueless, utterly unmerited self-esteem is hilarious, and tragic; it seems the smaller the stakes of the scam, the more jazzed he gets. You might conclude Marty’s self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to get by on his wits, but isn’t really self-conscious enough for such vanities. It’s just that Buzzard has little interest in anything beyond video games, junk food, splatter flicks, metal, and the minor adrenaline rush he gets from seeing a two-figure check made out in his name. Lying simply comes as second nature to him. Gaunt and rumpled, with a slouchy swagger, Joshua Burge plays the character as a young man perfectly confident in his own indifference to his social status. Director Potrykus plays cubicle-mate Derek, the Beavis to Burge’s Butthead. He’s a corporate drone whose equally blind to his own beta-male status; he has the temerity to call his basement apartment “the Party Zone” and has such meager social prospects that he longs for approval from big brother figure Buzzard.

The style might be described as “minimalist punk,” with long takes (the already-notorious five-minute spaghetti eating scene) punctuated by bursts of senseless vandalism scored to death metal riffs. The DIY aesthetic is authentic, and the film is as unpretentious and brash as Buzzard himself. Buzzard mixes a bemused, clear-eyed disdain for its title character with a gentle touch of affection for his adolescent antics. Marty scorns the system, but he doesn’t actually oppose it; he just is disinterested in playing the game, and so tries to skate by under the authorities’ radar. Buzzard understands the psychology and sociology of pathologically shortcut-obsessed losers; it also sympathizes with his plight, without endorsing his behavior. Watching Buzzard, we feel some measure of compassion for this blatant con dude, even while he’s staring us in the face with disdain and thinking up ways to rip us off. That’s some scam to pull.

This is the third in an unofficial “animal” trilogy by Potrykus, all starring Burge. The first was the werewolf (!) short “Coyote,” followed by the 2012 feature Ape (about a pyromaniac comic). Buzzard is the best-received and distributed of the three. Both Potrykus and Burge are talents to keep an eye on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The dark, weird and hilarious ‘Buzzard’ is definitely a great slacker movie.”–Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: An abusive literary agent believes he is turning into a vampire.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This may be Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and this may be his strangest performance.

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just maybe—that explains Nicolas Cage’s scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing, cockroach-eating performance in Vampire’s Kiss.  It doesn’t explain Peter Loew’s behavior, however. The emotionally battered Alva (a sympathetically depressed Maria Conchita Alonso) gets more to the point: “this guy is very weird.” Loew is a weird guy indeed. It all starts with his from-nowhere accent, which is not European, New England Brahmin, or even “Mid-Atlantic English,” the made-up dialect spouted by Golden Age Hollywood actors like Katherine Hepburn (though that one comes closest). The accent is insane, but it does reveal Loew’s character: this is the kind of guy who would affect an aristocratic dialect in order to give himself airs, but get it wrong—and stick with it, not caring a bit whether it was accurate or not. When such an arrogant and flamboyant character goes crazy, you can bet that the results will be fiery. Cage holds nothing back. He shouts, slurs his words, breaks stuff, eats bugs, screams obscenities, vomits, puts his hand on his hip and prances like a mad Mick Jagger, rants, and makes insane faces with his huge, unblinking eyes. His furious recitation of the alphabet, which plays like a Sesame Street sketch delivered by a drunk guest star with anger management issues, is itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re wondering why this movie seems weird, even without Cage, reflect that it was written by Joseph Minion, who also brought us 1985’s crazyfest After Hours. With a serious psychology manifesting itself through campy fireworks, the picture’s style is halfway between an art film and a B-movie; it exists in a tonal limbo. There are a number of odd features, even putting aside the performance art mimes who hang out outside of Loew’s apartment. Note that Loew is surrounded by women; girlfriends, pick-ups, office secretaries, his female therapist. His only significant relationships are with women, a surprising number of whom wear black garter belts. Might Peter have issues with the opposite sex? (You think?) How did Loew become such a casual sadist, and why does he obsess about vampires in particular? Why does simple act of “misfiling” irritate him so profoundly? (Seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it?) It’s no surprise that so many key sequences take place in the psychiatrist’s office. With all its unexplained, clashing symbols and preoccupations, the movie itself begs for psychoanalysis.

Cage was not a neophyte actor trying to make an impression at the very beginning of his career here. He was coming off a role as the romantic lead in the mainstream hit Moonstruck. Vampire’s Kiss, along with his equally mannered performance as a hick burglar with Shakespearean diction in the Raising Arizona, gained him the reputation as the greatest ham of his generation.

Although fondly remembered by fans, Vampire’s Kiss has always had a hard time finding a home on DVD. It has never been released in it own, but in 2007 MGM paired it with the insultingly bad early Jim Carrey comedy Once Bitten on the “Totally Awesome 80s” double feature DVD.  In 2015 Scream Factory released Kiss on Blu-ray together with the comedy High Spirits. Both editions include a commentary track from Cage and director Robert Bierman.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… requires a style as darkly comic and deft as its bizarre premise. Instead, the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr. Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance. He gives Peter the kind of sporadic, exaggerated mannerisms that should never live outside of acting-class exercises.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)