Tag Archives: Comedy

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

Recommended

“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

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REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

Alfred Eaker has the week off. This column originally ran May 14, 2009.

Approaching ‘s Three’s a Crowd is a loaded task. This film, possibly more than other from silent cinema, comes with an almost legendary amount of vehemently negative appendage. One time collaborator played the self-serving spin doctor in film history’s assessment of Langdon and this film. He characterized Langdon’s directorial debut as unchecked egotism run amok, resulting in a career destroying, poorly managed misfire and disaster.

That assessment is a grotesque and clueless mockery of film criticism.

The startlingly inept critical consensus, in it’s failure to recognize this dark horse, existentialist, Tao masterpiece, reveals far more about reviewers than it does this film. The complete failure of that consensus to rise to Langdon’s artistic challenges, to appreciate his risk taking towards a highly individualistic texture of this most compelling purist art of silent cinema, only serves to validate the inherent and prevailing laziness in the art of film criticism.

Capra’s statements are frequently suspect. As superb a craftsman as Frank Capra was, he also made amazingly asinine, disparaging remarks regarding European film’s penchant for treating the medium as an art form as opposed to populist entertainment. So, likewise, Capra’s inability to fully grasp Langdon’s desired aesthetic goals and intentions is both understandable and predictable. and James Agee are considerably far more trustworthy and reliable in regards to the artistry of Harry Langdon.

Capra credited himself for developing Langdon’s character through several shorts, along with the features The Strong Man and Long Pants. Actually, Langdon had thrived as a vaudeville act for twenty years and had appeared in over a dozen shorts before he and Capra began their brief, ill-fated collaboration.

Aesthetically, Langdon was Capra’s antithesis, and the surprise is not that the two artists would have a falling out, or that Langdon’s stardom would be over almost as soon as it began, but that he ever achieved stardom in the first place. Langdon began edging his character into darker territory in the Capra-directed Long Pants, and it was this that lead to their inevitable break.

Three’s a Crowd is quintessential Langdon unplugged, and it’s existence is almost a miracle.

Cubist, minimalist, enigmatic, avant-garde,personal, painterly, static, dream-like, lethargically paced, performance art: all these terms apply to Three’s a Crowd.

Still from Three's a Crowd (1927)The set pieces immediately convey the film’s genteel, surreal aura.  A milkman, making his early delivery at dawn, is the only sign of life in an otherwise empty city street. Inside Harry’s apartment, an alarm clock vibrates. The camera seems eerily frozen on the clock, almost Continue reading REPRINT: HARRY LANGDON’S “THREE’S A CROWD” (1927): SILENT CINEMA’S MALIGNED DARK HORSE

359. THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

Cet obscur objet du désir

“One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina, (voice)

PLOT: A man boards a train, followed by a younger woman with a bandaged head; he sees her coming, hides, and dumps a bucket of water over her. When he returns to his passenger compartment, he explains to his shocked fellow travelers that she was the “worst woman on earth.” He then spins the long tale of how he tried to court the young Spanish dancer over many years, but she always led him on, professing to love him but repeatedly refusing to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • That Obscure Object of Desire was adapted from the 1898 novel “La Femme et le Pantin” (“The Woman and the Puppet”) by  Pierre Louÿs. Buñuel had tried, and failed, to adapt the novel in the 1950s. The story had been adapted to film three times before, most famously as The Devil is a Woman (1935, d. ) with .
  • This was the sixth collaboration between screenwriter and Buñuel. All but their first effort (Diary of a Chambermaid) have been Certified Weird here. This was Buñuel’s final film before he died. Carrière continues to write scripts to this day.
  • According to Carrière, the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the actress chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role. Buñuel, however, seemed to remember it differently, saying that he came up with the idea of casting two women in the part during a discussion with producer Serge Silberman about the fact that Schneider wasn’t working out; although he immediately thought the idea was “stupid” the moment he said it, Silberman loved it and insisted they try it.
  • An uncredited third actress dubbed both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.
  • Michel Piccoli dubbed Fernando Rey’s voice; so technically, two actors portrayed the male lead as well.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our choice is notable not only for its mystery, but also because, coincidentally, it was the last scene Buñuel shot in a career of 48 years. Mathieu and Conchita, reunited and apparently happy, walk through a shopping gallery. In a window, they observe an old woman take a bloodstained lace scarf and begin mending it. Both seem fascinated by the display as the camera focuses on the needle penetrating the fabric. A voice on the loudspeaker describes a bloody assassination attempt on an Archbishop, then switches to a Wagner aria. The significance of this scene is puzzling; more so because we do not know if the couple has slept together, or if Conchita’s virginity is still intact.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Private-lesson dwarf psychologist; Revolutionary Army of the Baby Jesus; pig baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In my original review, I prematurely dismissed Obscure Object for consideration from the List, calling it “one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest.” Fortunately, readers corrected my lapse in judgement in a 2013 poll. Obscure Object has occupied my mind for years after I first saw it; a true confirmation of its classic status. I still hold it’s one of Buñuel’s best; and if it’s not one of his weirdest, then we have to allow for the fact that Buñuel’s weirdest includes the prototypical surrealist film and Obscure Object‘s plotless immediate predecessor Phantom of Liberty, among other amazements. Invoking the sliding scale of quality, I rule that a cinema classic where two women play the same role and no one notices qualifies as weird enough to earn our notice. Add that it’s the swan song of one of weird cinema’s founding fathers, and a damn fine piece of cinema to boot, and its inclusion is assured.


Clip from That Obscure Object of Desire

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357. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

“When I’m making my art, it really doesn’t help me to think about the definitions of what I’m doing. So what I do comes out ridiculous, or funny, or weird. That’s because the world is ridiculous, funny, and weird.”–Boots Riley

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley

FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover

PLOT: Cassius Green can’t find a job and needs to pay bills, so he hires on at a telemarketing firm. Once he learns to use his “white voice,” he discovers he has a preternatural gift for selling, and while his co-workers stage a strike, he is promoted to a “Power Caller” selling questionable services to obscenely wealthy clients. When he reaches the top rung of the corporate ladder, the CEO of the company offers him a morally repugnant deal.

Still from Sorry to Bother You (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Boots Riley was a rap musician, music producer, political activist, and former telemarketer for more than twenty-five years before writing and directing this, his first feature film. It was workshopped at the Sundance writing lab.
  • The idea for Sorry to Bother You originated from an unused song concept where Riley would rap as a telemarketer selling slave labor. In 2012 his hip-hop band The Coup produced an album of the same name inspired by the then-unfinished screenplay.
  • An early version of the screenplay was published in McSweeney’s magazine in 2014.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We don’t want to describe it, because it’s a spoiler. Just prepare for a shock after Cassius snorts a huge line of—cocaine?—off a plate decorated with a horse. Besides that, the iconic image for marketing purposes is Cassius in a business suit with his head bandaged and a circle of red soaking through, iconography suggesting a blend of the corporate and the revolutionary.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Commentary by earring; Mr. ___; equisapien MLK

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9.


Alternate promotional trailer for Sorry to Bother You

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354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”–J. R. Ross, “Constraints on Variables in Syntax”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Toshio Furukawa, Fumi Hirano, Machiko Washio, Akira Kamiya, Takuya Fujioka; Wayne Grayson (as Vinnie Penna), Roxanne Beck, Marnie Head, Draidyl Roberts (English dub)

PLOT: Students in the town of Tomobiki prepare for a fair the following day. One of the teachers, suffering from exhaustion, develops a strange feeling of déjà vu, finds his apartment covered in dust and mushrooms, and hypothesizes that the entire town is living the same day over and over. As the school nurse launches an investigation, people gradually begin disappearing from the town until only she and a small group of high schoolers are left.

Still from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Urusei Yatsura” began as a manga (by Rumiko Takahashi) in 1978 and was adapted as a long-running animated television show in Japan starting in 1981 and ending in 1986. It was also known as “Lum, the Invader Girl,”  titled after its main character, when it played on the BBC. The series incorporated a wide variety of influences and was especially known for mixing science fiction with Japanese folklore. It had an “anything can happen” quality to it; eating mysterious candy might make hearts appear over your head, or one of the characters might find a camera that sent those it photographed to alternate dimensions. Even so, Beautiful Dreamer was a radical departure from the series’ comic formula.
  • Mamoru Oshii worked on 106 episodes of the “Urusei Yatsura” television series and was credited as lead director on two. He is also the credited director on the first Urusei Yatsura movie, For You, but was only brought in after a previous director quit, and considered his work on that film a “rush job.”
  • This excursion departs from the series’ usual focus on Lum and aliens, but is partly inspired by a previous episode of the series, “Wake up to a Nightmare.”
  • Beautiful Dreamer contains many references to the Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, about a fisherman who marries a spirit princess and spends what seems like a few years in her kingdom, but returns to his village to find that centuries have passed. This is an old and recurring theme in folk tales, which Washington Irving took as the basis for America’s “Rip Van Winkle.” In Urashima Tarō’s story the fisherman is originally rewarded for rescuing a turtle, which is why there are so many references to turtles in the movie.
  • Beautiful Dreamer also references the baku, a mythological monster who eats dreams and nightmares. It has no Western equivalent.
  • Beautiful Dreamer was Eric Young‘s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The main characters briefly escape Tomobiki on a Harrier jet, only to look back and see that their city rides on a turtle’s back, à la Hindu cosmology.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Nazi tea shop; copyrighted piglet; town on a turtle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beautiful Dreamer co-stars an amorous flying turquoise-haired alien in a tiger-striped bikini. Not only is that not the weirdest thing in the movie, it’s the touchstone of normality in a film that drops the romantic slapstick conventions of the TV series it was adapted from in favor of a mind-bending trip, bearing its characters into dreamlike worlds on the back of a cosmic turtle.


Original trailer for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

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