Tag Archives: Drama

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

CAPSULE: CERTIFIED COPY (2010)

Copie Conforme

DIRECTED BY: Abbas Kiarostami

FEATURING: , William Shimell

PLOT: A French antiques dealer and an English author spend a day together in rural Tuscany, discussing (and often fighting about) art, philosophy, and family. As the hours pass it becomes apparent that these supposed strangers may share a much deeper relationship.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While there is definitely a turning point that makes for a very weird, confusing moment, most of this film is well-acted arthouse drama. The questionable nature of the lead characters’ relationship is the only thing about it that’s strange, and in the end it proves to be a comment on the sad nature of a failed marriage.

COMMENTS: Bickering about art, literature, and everyday life while they move around a scenic Tuscan village, the central characters of Certified Copy initially act much like you’d expect a couple in a European arthouse movie to act. They meander through beautiful scenery laced with antique sculptures and architecture, surrounded by jolly tourists and locals who at times provide fodder for their good-natured arguments. They sip cappuccino at a cute cafe. They speak in English, French, and Italian. They visit a museum. At first James (played by opera singer William Shimell) primarily discusses his most recent book, called “Certified Copy,” and Elle (the incomparable Juliette Binoche) talks about her family, especially her problematic teenage son. After a conversation with a nosy but well-meaning cafe server, Elle suddenly becomes furious with James, and he gradually takes on the role of her absent husband.

Whether James really is her husband remains unclear, though it seems possible that these characters are play-acting at this relationship, creating a copy of the missing thing in keeping with their discussions of copies versus originals. James takes on a role and Elle goes along with it, eventually regressing to the giddy romantic girl she was when they married 14 years prior, attempting to understand where their relationship fell apart and perhaps rekindle their long-lost passions. Their conversation continues to wax and wane, moving through lighthearted observations and dark memories, always ambiguous enough to keep the viewer at a distance despite the intimate handheld camerawork.

This is very much an actor’s movie, with Binoche and Shimell shining equally in the lead roles. He is sharp and quiet, always speaking logically and with a cold, intelligent air. She is bright and volatile, shifting from laughter to tears in the blink of an eye as her expressive face betrays a web of complex emotional struggles. His stoic presentation, rarely shaken except for one telling scene at a restaurant, is a perfect foil for her changeable nature. They take turns being sympathetic or aggressive, and while they have so many points of contention it’s a wonder they ever (maybe) had a romantic connection, their chemistry is strong enough to make whatever love they may have shared believable.

It is the mystery surrounding the sudden, unexplained shift in James and Elle’s characters that marks Certified Copy as something special, and keeps its audience focusing closely on every word, every knowing look. Is their relationship just a copy of the real thing, a therapeutic performance piece for Elle? Do they still love one another or are they blinded by nostalgia? Is the medium of film itself only capable of showing copies of true events, shadows of true emotions? Kiarostami does not reveal what is real or unreal, and it is up to us to wade through the wandering dialogue and gorgeous cinematography to find our own truth.

CRITERION SPECIAL FEATURES: The Criterion release includes a new interview with Kiarostami discussing the film, the making-of documentary Let’s See “Copia conforme”, a booklet with an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, and the director’s rare 1977 feature The Report in its entirety.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kiarostami is like a magician who shows you how he does it and still leaves you mesmerized. There’s an effrontery to his method… The film is not so much about reality and fantasy but about deepening levels of reality.” –Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor.

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)/SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965)

Something Weird Video offers up two of the most obscure, absurd, sexually depraved white trash soapers in this 1965 double feature.

Day of the Nightmare was directed by John A. Bushelman. Bushelman’s directorial credits are few, but he was a prolific editor of low budget cult trash. Cat Women on the Moon (1953), Frankenstein 1970 (1953, starring ), the Sinister Cinema favorite Tormented (1960), and Village of the Giants (1965) are among his (ahem) “notable classics.”

Familiar B-actor John Ireland (who had an off-screen reputation rivaling ‘s) virtually sleepwalks his way through what amounts to a supporting detective role, despite receiving star billing. That leaves the rest of the acting chores to unknowns who, with one exception, are not up to the job. The direction and lighting is as bland and anonymous as the acting and the title, which is unfortunate because, despite lethargic execution, Day of the Nightmare teeters on the edge of having real sensationalist potential by mid 60’s film standards.

The plot is related to ‘s more atmospheric Homicidal (1961). Jonathan Crane (Cliff Fields) is an artist with a few loose screws. He is married to Barbara (Beverly Bain, in her sole screen credit). Poor Barb is a much put-upon wife, and Bain is the only actor able to overcome Bushelman’s static direction.  She invests enough into her character to create an interesting portrayal which, alas, does not salvage the film.

Still from Day of the Nightmare (1965)Crane cries (embarrassingly) at his psychiatrist office, Crane has a drag persona, Crane likes to watch lesbos get it on, and Crane has an S & M fetish. The film opens with our hero lashing an unattractive model on her buttocks.  Cliff Fields’ turn as a queen has to be one of worst drag performances ever burned into celluloid. He sports sunglasses at night, a crumpled raincoat and a lopsided dishwater blond wig (he looks a bit like an uncanny precursor to Michael Caine’s transvestite psycho killer in 1980’s Continue reading DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965)/SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965)

SHANTY TRAMP (1967)

Elmer Gantry (1960) with a dose of The Intruder (1962) on a 75 cent budget.”

There is the one-sentence synopsis for Shanty Tramp (1967), written and directed by Joseph P. Mawra. Mawra was a lesser-known director of numerous grindhouse films (such as 1964-1965’s Olga trilogy, produced by Glen or Glenda‘s George Weiss). Movies from this sadosexual school of filmmaking were often referred to as “roughies,” and here the lighting alone justifies that moniker.

After watching Shanty Tramp, you’ll never think of the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” quite the same way. The film opens with a worm’s eye-view of the Shanty Tramp herself (Lee Holland, in her only film role), barely squeezed into a tight white dress and pumps from hell as she shakes, jiggles, and marches her tramp way into a tent revival, choreographed to a gospel tune.

The little incubus-Eve is bound and determined to distract Preacher Man and every other male with red blood, which includes Daniel, a young African American male whose Ma warns him about the wiles of evil Shanty Tramps.

There’s a gleam in Shanty Tramp’s eyes when she spies the tithing basket. There’s a gleam in Preacher Man’s eyes when he spies Shanty Tramp’s popping cleavage. They promise to rendezvous later for a “spiritual lesson,” but Shanty Tramps get easily distracted.

The local rock-n-roll bar is man meat magnet for our heroine. Shanty Tramp grinds. Shanty Tramp flirts. Shanty Tramp gets fought over and the winner is… Savage, the leader of a biker gang! “Come on big man! You promised me a fin! I wanna see it!” She tells Savage. “Shut up and put out, babe!” Put out she does, and darn it, Savage actually lives up to his name and frolics rough.

Meanwhile Daniel’s Ma is still warning her son: “Tain’t good for black folk to be out at night! You get that Shanty Tramp outta your mind! ” “Oh come on Ma!” “Them whites in this town, they’re the same ones who strung up your Pa!”

Still from Shanty Tramp (1967)Daniel’s not listening. He’s hearing the call of that succubus Shanty Tramp. The wise words of Ma can only fall on deaf ears when Shanty Tramp does her mating call. Daniel’s just in time to hear Savage yodel, “You teasing’ little bitch!” Poor Shanty Tramp has lost her top. It’s the exploitation version of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) with Daniel and Savage substituting for  and , They crash into a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Daniel proves the better man and our heroine rewards him with some interracial action. Unfortunately, Shanty’s drunken Pa stumbles in to see Shanty and Daniel sharing a sweaty cigarette.

The redneck villagers, torch in hands, are in full pursuit of the black monster while his Ma has to pay the ultimate sacrifice for her little Cain. Shanty’s Pa gets sober enough to realize his little girl was engaging in consensual interracial sex. Pa grabs the old testament whip and … off with her top again!

Thrown in patricide, exploding cars, racial revenge, and bed-hopping that goes full circle back to Preacher Man, who don’t mind sloppy seconds so long as he gets to save a soul from the Devil’s lair. The sacrifices poor Preacher Man has to make doin’ the Lawd’s work!

Enjoy it with friends, but after shuffling your guests out the door, a tub full of Calgon is strongly advised to take you away from all that Shanty Tramp residue.

CAPSULE: JOHNNY SUEDE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Tom DiCillo

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener

PLOT: Johnny Suede, a young man with a freakishly large pompadour, tries to pay the rent,

Still from Johnny Suede (1991)

keep a girlfriend, and make it as a musician in the big city.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Johnny Suede flirts with weirdness, but can’t commit to it.

COMMENTS: By far, the weirdest thing about Johnny Suede is Brad Pitt’s Fabian-on-steroids pompadour. That said, one early scene promises a high level of creepy surrealism that the body of the movie fails to deliver. Walking home from another night at the club where his stuck-in-the-fifties style fails to impress the nifty chicks, Johnny passes an alley where a woman who appears to be heavily drugged is either being raped or prostituted. Like a good citizen, Suede finds a public telephone and calls the cops, but he is interrupted when a falling projectile shatters the phone booth’s glass ceiling. The box from the heavens contains Johnny’s dream footwear: black suede shoes with rhinestone accents. Johny forgets the alleyway assault, and the movie forgets the atmosphere of urban dread and decay and forges ahead instead with the slightly offbeat story of a delusional young man struggling to find his way to manhood, romantic happiness and self-sufficiency. A few fantasy moments—a wooden hand poking out of a deserted street, bad fried chicken shared with equally-pompadoured but more successful jerkwad singer Freak Storm in an alley, and lightly Lynchian dreams of nude men in diners and being stabbed by a dwarfs with a TV antenna—intrude on what is basically a series of scenes of apartment-painting jobs, band rehearsals, and awkward dates. Johnny is mildly delusional about both his musical talent and his skills as a ladykiller, and generally not as cool as he thinks he is; he’s a braggart, a bit slow, and a bad liar. His out-of-touch, out-of-time greaser perception of what it means to be a man—indicated by his peacock ‘do as well as recurring symbolism involving miniature cowboys and bulletless guns—keep him impoverished financially, morally, and romantically. Suede’s an interesting, complex character, but the script doesn’t give him much of interest to do. He is well-realized by pretty young Pitt, and the supporting cast is appealing and talented, supplying enough interest to make the minimal story watchable. As a schoolteacher with shoe-throwing tendencies, Keener is sexy, in an average-gal-with-needs sort of way. Watch out for small roles by a young but already cool Samuel L. Jackson as the bass playing Bebop, a still-elegant Tina Louise as a romantic interest’s record industry-connected mom, and a platinum blonde Nick Cave as a drunk and coked-out scam artist singer who represents Johnny’s probable future if he doesn’t wise up and let Keener’s good lovin’ into his heart. As a weird movie lover,  you might find yourself wishing the movie had the courage to pull the trigger on that surreal gun it gave us a peek at early on. Like it’s main character, Johnny Suede is indecisive—it’s quirky and can even be a bit weird when it lets its guard down, but it secretly craves acceptance from normal society.

Writer/director DeCillo was Jim Jarmusch‘s go-to cinematographer before striking out on his own with this debut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Offbeat, stylish and packed with some wonderfully bizarro moments…”–Jeff Dawson, Empire Magazine

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who argued that it “has a low key, offbeat charm to it that I love” and “would make an excellent triple feature along with Barton Fink and Eraserhead [only due to the humongous hair theme].” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PEARLS OF THE DEEP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Jirí Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Vera Chytilová,

FEATURING: Pavla Marsálková, Milos Ctrnacty, Frantisek Havel, Josefa Pechlatová, Václav Zák, Vera Mrázkova, Vladimír Boudník, Alzbeta Lastovková, Dana Valtová, Ivan Vyskocil

PLOT: Short adaptations of five stories from Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal: racing enthusiasts

Still from Pearls of the Deep (1966)

are obsessed with crashes, two old men in a nursing home reminisce, functionaries try to sell insurance to a mad artist, the discovery of a corpse causes a restaurant to close, and a timid apprentice plumber falls for a fiery teenage Gypsy girl.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Only two of the five segments in this anthology are significantly bizarre, and a paltry 40% weird rate is not going to get your omnibus movie onto the List.

COMMENTS: The Czech New Wave was part of a fascinating period of creativity that resulted from an unprecedented liberalization of film and literature in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s; the movement brought the world the novels of Milan Kundera and the films of director Milos Forman. During this time writers and filmmakers often turned towards surrealism as a way to implicitly critique the absurdity of the totalitarian status quo while maintaining deniability about their political aims (after all, they were merely writing obscure nonsense fiction in the tradition pioneered by national icon Franz Kafka). The New Wave essentially ended in 1968 when, concerned that the rapid pace of democratization might lead Czechoslovakia to exit the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union invaded the country and installed a hard-line regime. Based on short stories by New Wave writer Bohumil Hrabal and featuring entries from five of the top directors of the New Wave, Pearls of the Deep is a sort of sampler of this moment in history when Iron Curtain artists briefly wiggled out of the shackles that had bound them to an ideological wall for decades.

In the wild, you have to open a lot of oysters to find a single pearl; something similar is true of feature length anthology of short films, where the entries have an inevitable tendency to average out. Although even Hrabal’s straightest stories contain small doses of absurdism (which show up in non sequitur dialogues or little narrative oddities), only two of these adaptations have conceits peculiar enough to form surrealistic pearls. Since our focus is on weird films, we’re going to briefly open and reject three out of these five New Wave oysters before looking more Continue reading CAPSULE: PEARLS OF THE DEEP (1966)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Kelly Reichardt

FEATURING:  Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, , Shirley Henderson

PLOT: A small group of settlers faces an indefinite fate when they gamble their survival on the veracity of two diametrically opposed guides, each of questionable character.

Still from Meeks Cuttoff (2010)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: On its face, Meek’s Cutoff appears to be a steady, plodding historical-fiction drama, a slow, tense tale about the perils of trust and the tedium of uncertainty. And it is…to an extent. But there’s something going on under the surface. When the film refuses to relinquish it’s heavy, solemn tone by employing a musical score or comic relief as the unrelentingly grim and heavy nature of the characters’ conundrum intensifies and hangs on our conscience like dead weight, and as the subtly surreal nature of the setting and the situation sinks in, the weirdness mounts. The effect combines the absurdist, futile tedium of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the eerie sense of a malignant grand design of Yellowbrickroad (2010), and the pensive, serenely surreal atmosphere of Housekeeping (1987). The result is unique and unsettling.

The sudden, quietly shocking ending and the location in the story in which it occurs appalls the viewer with a sickening insight. This epiphany reveals that the movie is not about the drama which has been unfolding up to this point, or about how it is to be resolved, but that it concerns something entirely different. Upon grasping the filmmakers’ message, we realize we have had a genuinely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: From the first frame, it’s obvious that Meek’s Cutoff is a serious, authentic, carefully crafted story. As is the case with so many independent art films, a majority of viewers may reject it. Audiences who are pining for a reprise of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider should skip Meek’s Cutoff and instead opt for something like True Grit. They will find Meek’s Cutoff  boring, and it’s climax confusing, unsatisfying and disturbing.

Viewers who enjoy artfully cerebral movies with ambiguous conclusions however, will like Meek’s Cutoff. The clever ending dramatically drives home the thrust of the film, revealing it to be much Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)