Tag Archives: Character study

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 appear to 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)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE VOICES (2014) [PLUS “7TH DAY” AND “ENTER THE DANGEROUS MIND”]

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith

PLOT: A likable schizophrenic struggles to corner reality when he accidentally kills the object of his affections after going off his meds.

THE VOICES
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  The Voices is comic in the black style of Blood Diner (1987), yet unexpectedly hits us with grim, sometimes even poignant, perspectives—then throws us curve balls, such as when the movie bursts into a stylized dance number to represent a character’s transition to the afterlife.

COMMENTS: There’s no shortage of movies about crazy guys who murder women. While I like graphic horror, the violence has to further the plot and the plot has to either make me think, or grandly entertain me. In cinema, the torturing of helpless people presented as a spectacle to make up for a poor story line is sick and boring. That said, three recent and overlooked independent movies about crazy guys murdering women have caught my attention as standout works! These films are similar in that in each of them, the killer is the protagonist, and the character-study plots attempt to show us what’s going on inside his head and why.

In these three stories the slayers are vulnerable and delusional in ways that almost make us excuse their actions. Each misguidedly pursues, and us rejected by, an idealized love interest. Each strives to lead a normal life, but keeps tripping over his own mental illness. In all three films, the murderer is schizophrenic who rationalizes his thoughts and actions to, or is advised by, an imaginary confidant. Each entry in this demented trio of serial killer flicks effectively pulls off this fictitious friend gimmick, which not only adds and extra dimension to their respective stories, but oddly—and unsettlingly—compels a twisted sort of empathy for the homicidal central characters.

Still from Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013)In director Victor Teran’s Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013), featuring Scott Bakula and Jason Priestley, Jim (Jake Hoffman), is an aspiring electronic music composer who goes completely insane. It’s a serious film, and Jim has serious issues with the opposite sex. His low self-esteem and the near perpetual berating he receives over his ineptitude with girls compounds his emotional baggage. The admonishment and abuse comes from Jim’s caustic imaginary roommate. Rejection by his love interest leads to paranoia, exacerbated by the ever escalating timbre of a strange and terrible chorus of discordant sounds in Mark’s head; disembodied voices mixed with the maddening phonic trappings of our total-immersion electronic media culture.

7th Day (2012) is a gritty, low-budget but well-produced effort authored by Mark Leake, the writer/director of the -esque cannibal exploitation film parodies Isle (2008) and Pleasures of the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE VOICES (2014) [PLUS “7TH DAY” AND “ENTER THE DANGEROUS MIND”]

CAPSULE: BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu

FEATURING: , Emma Stone, Edward Norton, , , Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

PLOT: Aging actor Riggan Thomas, who became a superstar anchoring a blockbuster superhero franchise in the 1990s, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist; unfortunately, he’s simultaneously battling the voices in his head, as his old alter-ego presses him to sign up to do “Birdman 4.”

Still from Birdman (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Birdman is a movie that adopts a weird methodology to tell its story, but it’s only weird by the diminished standard of movies that will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

COMMENTS: Birdman starts with a strange conceit. It’s about a former superstar actor, star of a superhero tentpole franchise, trying to be taken seriously as an artist by producing, writing, starring and directing a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. To throw a wrench into things, the actor is also insane, believing that he has telekinetic powers, and he hallucinates that his Birdman alter-ego is taunting him for his artistic pretensions. So, given that this is your story, why not sweeten the weirdness by scoring the film to solo jazz percussion and shooting the entire movie in what appears to be one unbroken take?

Birdman is not like any other film you’re likely to see this year, or anytime soon. It is a movie that (on the surface) insists that plays are more authentic artistic expressions than movies. It’s an extremely theatrical movie, one that’s bursting with smart dialogue, numerous subplots, and memorable monologues. It’s no wonder that a top-notch cast was attracted to the project. Most notable is Edward Norton, in a flamboyant role as an arrogant actor with so much talent he’s compelled to sabotage himself just to keep things interesting. Keeping pace is Emma Stone as Riggan’s wayward daughter, just out of rehab and more adept at spotting others’ b.s. than her own. Even Zach Galifianakis impresses in a rare straight-man turn as Riggan’s lawyer. Still, Keaton, willing to let the camera linger on his thinning hair and explore his deepening crow’s feet, carries an impressive load of the film’s ambition on his shoulders. Keaton, Norton and Stone will all be remembered come awards season.

The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off an Oscar for his work on Gravity) plays as big a role as any of the stars. Unlike long-take record-holder Russian Ark, Birdman is not really a one-take movie, since it has at least a couple of invisible edits (as did Rope). The extended tracking shots, which wander around the labyrinthine theater ducking into various dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces, are nonetheless highly impressive. The long-take gimmick is impeccably realized, but it isn’t really formally necessary. This would essentially be the same movie if it were conventionally edited. You could argue that the one-take technique gives the camera a “gliding” sensibility (like a bird), or that it mimics the dangerous unpredictability of live theater, but I think the real reason the filmmakers did it is simply because it was difficult to do. Like art itself, its very unnecessariness is its justification.

It’s hard to believe that many people will find Riggan Thomas’ struggle—whether to turn his back on his colossal financial success and create something meaningful, or just give the idiots the pabulum they crave—very relatable. The implied insults to fans of superhero movies are a bit much, as is the strawman of a snobby theater critic who plans to shut down the show—sight-unseen—simply because it has the stink of Hollywood about it. (Pre-emptive shots at critics are almost always cringeworthy, and Birdman really should be above such shenanigans).  Birdman is Hollywood insiders navel-gazing, hang-wringing, and soul-searching about how to be taken seriously as artists, sure. But it’s also the best Hollywood has to offer: it’s unpredictable, bold, and unapologetic, manned by a completely committed cast and crew working at their collective peaks. By doing so, they ensure that they are taken seriously as artists, even though their movie has exploding helicopters and a guy gliding through digital clouds in a molded plastic bird costume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.”–Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons (contemporaneous)

177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

“[The Swimmer needed] someone like a Fellini or a Truffaut. It needed some kind of strange, weird approach to capture the audience and make them realize that, in a way, they were not looking at anything real.”–Burt Lancaster

“What the hell does this mean and who the hell would want to make it?“–Unnamed studio executive’s response to Eleanor Perry’s screenplay for The Swimmer

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)

FEATURING: , , Janet Landgard

PLOT: Ned Merrill, a fifty something suburbanite, begins his day with a strange, simple goal of swimming  home through a “river of  pools.” Christened “Lucinda’s River,” after Ned’s wife, our protagonist connects the dots from swimming pool to swimming pool,  speaking to neighbors along the way who reveal a little more about his character. Ned’s odyssey inexorably drains his illusions, rendering his truth an authentic nightmare.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although highly athletic, Burt Lancaster did not know how to swim and prepared for the role with several months of swimming lessons.
  • The Swimmer was the dream project of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry, with Frank directing Eleanor’ s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. Fortunately for them, star Burt Lancaster got behind the project. Although the project was greenlit in the experimental sixties, Columbia Studio and producer Sam Spiegel were skeptical. Spiegel could not grasp the material, and constant fights with Frank Perry lead to the director being fired. Perry was replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose feel for the narrative lacked Perry’s poetic eccentricity. Luckily, Eleanor Perry was on set to the end to counteract Speigel’s clueless demands, one of which included asking for a happy ending. In the end Spiegel had his name removed from the film.
  • According to the documentary The Story of the Swimmer, one of the primary reasons Frank Perry was fired and half his scenes were reshot was a dispute over a scene with actress Barbara Loden. Lancaster and Loden apparently got caught up in their love scene in a pool, and down came Loden’s bathing suit top. Perry wanted the scene intact. Unknown to the director, Spiegel was a good friend to the actress’ husband, Elia Kazan. True to his nature[1], Kazan told the Perrys he was okay with the scene, and then double crossed them by going to Speigel, demanding the director be fired. Spiegel’s reputation was almost as bad as Kazan’s and Loden expected her dismissal, which came when she was replaced by Janice Rule.
  • Spiegel promised to be available on set for Lancaster, but predictably broke his promise, which resulted in numerous problems, including Columbia prematurely pulling the plug on The Swimmer. An additional day of shooting was needed and Lancaster was forced to finance the final shoot out of his own pocket.
  • A young Joan Rivers makes her first cinematic appearance in a small role as a rich suburbanite. Surprisingly, she is quite good. Later, Rivers complained that Lancaster required numerous takes and made her character “unsympathetic,” which naturally inspires a smile from the rest of us.
  • Author John Cheever makes a cameo as a passed-out drunk.
  • This is the first film score by Marvin Hamlisch. Producer Spiegel gave him the gig after hearing him play piano at a party. Hamlisch was still in college at the time.
  • Despite all the production tensions, The Swimmer opened to good reviews, but predictably bombed at the box office. Its financial failure succeeded in quickly cementing a solid cult status.
  • The Swimmer was released in a poor-quality DVD in 2003 that quickly went out of print, and the movie was essentially unavailable on home video until Grindhouse Releasing’s 2014 Blu-ray/DVD edition.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Ned, coming upon an empty pool and a boy who is afraid to swim, believes his”project” has been ruined. Ever the innovator, the swimmer, with young cadet by his side, takes a pantomime dip. They breast-stroke, dog-paddle, and wade their way through a barren basin. Allegories abound in The Swimmer and there is truth, wanted or not, to be found in the cliche “out of the mouths of babes.” This scene is obvious, and in other hands, it would have been too much so. Yet, with assured direction and acting, it makes for a potent vignette here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of The Swimmer is contextual, as opposed to visual or on the surface. Taking place in the course of a day, the film is a phantasmagoric metaphor for an entire life. The final, devastating scene, though expected, will hauntingly linger like the film itself does. The Swimmer’s composition resembles a short story, and is not at all what we expect in a film. The movie beautifully breaks the rules, with David L. Quaid’s cinematography and Marvin Hamlisch’s score enhancing the strange, impressionistic quality. 


Original trailer for The Swimmer

COMMENTS: With its wholly odd, even fragile structure and troublesome shooting, The Swimmer‘s success was dependent on the right actor in the Continue reading 177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

  1. Kazan’s reputation had already been cemented when he was the first to name names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying many lives for merely having leftist affiliations. Kazan never regretted his actions and publicly stood by his behavior []

CAPSULE: ALYCE KILLS (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Jay Lee

FEATURING: Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, , Eddie Rouse, Larry Cedar

PLOT: A young woman unintentionally destroys her best friend while on drugs, then spirals into anti-social behavior, dragging her acquaintances into the dark morass of her twisted psyche.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like a high-speed bullet train to Hell, Alyce is novel and exciting, but it doesn’t take us somewhere we want to go.

COMMENTS: With a cursory acknowledgment of the Lewis Carrol tale, Alyce Kills is as much an entry-level clerical answer to the Fortune 500’s American Psycho (2000) as it is a morbid odyssey of self discov—uh, make that self-destruction. Young, pert Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) toils away in a depressing corporate cubicle for a shrewish boss at a thankless job. After work she trudges home to her cramped apartment to freshen up before some much-needed steam-venting at dingy nightclubs. It’s not much of a life, but Alyce has her friend Danielle (Rena Owen), an alpha-female whose guidance Alyce relies upon.

When the women take the Generation-X drug “ecstasy,” Danielle leads on Alyce. It comes out that Alyce has a crush on Danielle, but Danielle rejects her.

Is it an accident then when Alyce “accidentally” pushes her friend off the roof a short while later? It’s not clear whether Alyce is vindictive and a little crazy, or merely reckless and irresponsible. Danielle stands on the ledge, tempting fate, and Alyce mock-pushes her. Alyce is playing a game and behaves as if she doesn’t intend the result—Danielle’s dive to the pavement. But Alyce definitely intends to make contact, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise when Danielle plunges to her doom.

Despite the fact that the drug led to tragedy,  Alyce decides she likes ecstasy and trades sex for X from a repulsive dealer. Under the influence of the psychedelic, Alyce locks herself in her apartment for marathon-length trips during which she perpetually masturbates to violent videos. Conniving to obfuscate her complicity in Danielle’s misfortune leads Alyce to take increasing risks, until she pulls out all the stops. Traipsing across an urban landscape of bizarre characters, settings and situations, Alyce taunts the family of her victim, and eventually conspires murder against those who annoy and inconvenience her.

Having now lost Danielle’s boundary-defining structure, Alyce’s fragile veneer of sanity falls away like an uncoupled caboose from a speeding express. Her locomotive throttle is wide open and there’s no engineer in the cab. Alyce resolves to take charge of her own life, but her brand of self-assertive, feminist “empowerment” is to embark upon a self-indulgent journey of risky behavior. Yet it’s more like a spree, and it degenerates into a maelstrom of self destruction, dragging those closest to her along for a hell-ride on her crazy train.

The theme of women scheming against men has been around at least since ancient Greece. From Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” to the Biblical Eve convincing Adam to bite the proverbial apple, we’ve seen versions of the femme fatale in various literary incarnations through the ages. A few examples are Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra; Daniel Defoe’s opportunistic Moll Flanders; Oliver Goldsmith’s lighthearted, scheming Katie Hardcastle from 1773’s “She Stoops To Conquer”; the conniving Matilda in Matthew Gregory’s 1796 supernatural Gothic novel “The Monk: A Romance”; and the malevolent man-hater Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

Whereas these feminine plotters employed cunning and sexual manipulation to achieve their aims, their modern counterparts resort to brute force. The concept of the fairer sex outwitting men has evolved into the myth of women’s domination over men, and convoluted orchestrations have given way to the karate kicks and machine guns used by characters such as secret agent Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, or Uma Thurman in the 1998 film version) in “The Avengers,” to Max Guevera (Jessica Alba) in TV’s “Dark Angel,” and La Femme Nikita (Anne Parillaud; Bridget Fonda in the US remake). The latest trend has dark-psyched vixens engaging in just plain psychopathic killing sprees.

Alyce‘s quirky but undeveloped character may be inspired by the leads in May (2002) and Neighbor (2009), two similar stories about loner hellcats who indulge their necrophilic and cannibalistic urges through acts of violence. May () commits her violence via a misguided search for an similarly misfit mate; in Neighbor, “The Girl,” (America Olivo) thrill-kills for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, making a living by robbing her victims and using their homes like motels. Alyce, however, lacks any sensible or even cognizant motivation at all. Her deeds defy logic, her methods are unsound, and Alyce’s lack of planning is sure to bring her only more trouble. We’re not sure if even she understands her actions. This makes her singularly one-dimensional.

The characterization is a profound disappointment, too. What’s engrossing about Alyce’s sexy character is not what she does, but the wry way she does it with her distinctively iconoclastic demeanor. It’s not the revulsion inherent to her wanton acts of sex and violence that catches our attention, but the manner in which her smug, witty bearing holds out the promise of a satisfying payoff. We keep waiting to tumble into an epiphany of insight into her disturbed psyche, or at least some commentary about human nature or revenge. It never happens, and we’re left feeling like the lone passenger on a runaway train with no destination in sight, and no emergency pull-cord to stop the projector.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…might’ve been an invigoratingly gaudy cult classic if Lee’s imagery was more original. Alas, quite a bit of the first hour resorts to standard horror clichés involving dark alleys, strobe lights, and hallucinations of girl corpses with milky white eyes. But the third act is a small triumph, as the requisite violence is a peculiar blend of the cartoonish and the legitimately grisly.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (contemporaneous)

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Alyce Kills movie trailer