Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat

19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays.  He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to Continue reading 19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

CAPSULE: EDMOND (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Stuart Gordon

FEATURING: William H. Macy

PLOT:  A latently racist and mentally addled accountant leaves his wife, spends

edmond (2005)

an impossibly long night touring the NYC commercial sex trade and meeting lost souls, and finally ends up in prison.


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEdmond isn’t so much weird as terminally confused.  It’s true foreboding Tarot cards keep popping up in impossible places, that Macy’s wild night out is almost impossibly long so the script can fit in all the necessary episodes, and that it’s extremely odd that the prison wardens would march new meat past inmates’ cells in the buff.  Still, even with these departures from reality, the movie still doesn’t seem in-your-bones weird so much as it feels like the author (playwright David Mamet) is trying to force events into a meaningful symbolic line, but failing to communicate that meaning to his audience. 

COMMENTSEdmond is only for William H. Macy fans and for those who equate vagueness with profundity.  Macy creates some interest, though no sympathy, through his performance as a sad sack salaryman who thinks he’s found a temporary fix for existential bafflement by tapping into his tribal bloodlust.  After whoremongering, assaulting women and minorities, threatening old churchgoing ladies, and other more serious crimes, he finds himself under arrest.  In prison he’s forcibly stripped of his recently adopted macho facade, and spends his time in stammering attempts to articulate some profound philosophy of life (“every fear hides a wish”).  Unfortunately, Macy wanders through a script that doesn’t know what to make of Edmond any more than Edmond himself does.  Those recurring Tarot cards and the closing monologue suggest that it was all just fate anyway, and Edmond’s search for meaning and the choices he made never made a difference.  In the end, all that happens is we passively witness an inexplicable tragedy happen to an unlikeable man.

Although Edmond‘s angry white male sociopath seems like a faded nth-generation variation of Michael Douglas’ D-Fens from Falling Down (1993), Mamet’s original play was actually written during the first term of the Reagan administration.  The concept of the angry white male (who Democrats theorized jumped the fence to get Reagan elected) would have had more resonance in that era.  That theory may also explain why Edmond is named after Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher/statesman who is looked upon as the father of modern conservatism.  Maybe that explains why both the character Edmond and the movie Edmond seem strange and unmotivated to us today, viewing the film in a different political context.  It also demonstrates why writers should not write to their times (or, at least, should not resurrect old pieces without revising them).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal spiritual fable that riffs on a notion voiced by Edmond that every fear hides a wish. Mr. Mamet shows no interest in offering a tidy psychological explanation for Edmond’s behavior. Hurled at you like a knife, the movie is as reasonable as a panic attack.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

17. TIDELAND (2005)

“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird.”–Terry Gilliam

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher,

PLOT:  Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies.  When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices.  She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and a childlike mentally retarded man who also lives in his own fantasy world.

tideland

BACKGROUND:

  • Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
  • Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005).
  • Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.
  • According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage.  But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain.  The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World,” and, though unacknowleged, also from the 1990 film The Reflecting Skin (which had an almost identical look as well as an eerily similarly child protagonist). Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world.  This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gilliam has described the movie as a cross between “Alice in

Original trailer for Tideland

Wonderland” and Psycho, which sounds weird enough on its own terms.  He pushes the envelope of weirdness even further with his trademark visual flair for phantasmagorical set pieces, for example, with a gloriously imaginative sequences of Jeliza-Rose falling down a rabbit hole full of tumbling syringes.  But even if the audience wasn’t planted firmly inside the skull of the 9-year-old heroine, peering out onto this grotesque world through her child’s eyes, the scenario would have been weird, as the world of Tideland is peopled by grossly exaggerated lowlifes who live out their lives on the lonely fringes of plausibility.

COMMENTS: Tideland is a misunderstood film, which is not automatically the same thing Continue reading 17. TIDELAND (2005)