Tag Archives: Family

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida,

PLOT: The Katakuri clan retires to a remote mountain area to run a bed and breakfast, but the place seems cursed, as every guest who stays there dies.

Still from The Happiness of the Karakuris (2001)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: They don’t come any closer to making the List on the first ballot than Katakuris. The only thing that holds it back is a dreadful unevenness, combined with the fact that there are already so many Takashi Miike films either already on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made or still out there in contention.

COMMENTS: The Happiness of the Katakuris begins with a four-minute scene, which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, in which a claymation imp rises from a woman’s soup, falls in love with her heart-shaped uvula, and flies away with it. Unlike the serious and searing Audition, where the director springs the weirdness on an unsuspecting audience in a blistering last act, Miike does not allow anyone here to complain of stealth weirdness. After this bizarro prologue, the story about clan of hoteliers who break out into song whenever their guests die seems refreshingly sane and conventional.

The movie settles down into a narrative after that introduction as we meet the Katakuris: a patriarch and matriarch still very much in love, a feisty grandpa, a son with anger-management issues, and a desperate-for-romance daughter and her love child (who serves as the film’s narrator). The characters are well-drawn and likable, but ill-starred, as the location of their bed and breakfast proves too remote for foot traffic (and also too near an active volcano). When they finally do get a paying customer, he’s only checked in to commit a gruesome suicide (also the occasion for the film’s first musical number). The songs are definitely Karakuris’ high points; the dancers aren’t professionals, but neither that fact nor the unfamiliarity of the language to non-Japanese speakers impedes Miike’s imaginative stagings, which are decorated with simple special effects and colorful, kaleidoscopic green-screen backgrounds. The most memorable moments are a matrimonial fantasy that sends the bride spinning through space with her dashing half-Japanese sailor groom; a disco-ball love ballad between Masao and Terue with the cheesy production values of a 1980s K-tel records commercial; the final number, a direct parody of The Sound of Music; and any time the corpses peek out of their graves and try to dance along.

It may seem strange to criticize a project this deliberately loose and goofy for its aimlessness, but it really is a weakness in this case. Katakuris has energy, but lacks focus. It never decides whether the semi-serious family drama or mordant black comedy is most important, and the claymation action interludes just knock it farther off its axis. There isn’t much of a conclusion, just a series of incidents that eventually fizzle out. It’s much better in its parts, especially the musical numbers, then it is as a whole. But those parts are strange enough to make it a hard-to-forget oddity.

The Happiness of the Katakuris is actually a remake of a Jee-woon Kim’s (non-musical) Korean black comedy The Quiet Family. Miike made it the same year as Visitor Q, an even blacker comedy which also deals with the theme of a “happy” Japanese family. Arrow Video just released a 2-DVD or 1 Blu-ray special edition of the film, although most of the extra features appeared to be recycled from the 2003 Eastern Star DVD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As weird movie openings go, this one’s in a class of its own. The rest of Miike’s musical extravaganza isn’t exactly your usual collection of song and dance numbers either.”–Mark Stevens, BBC (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RICKY (2009)

DIRECTED BY: François Ozon

FEATURING: Alexandra Lamy, Mélusine Mayance, Sergi López

PLOT:  A single mom factory worker gives birth to a very special baby; of course, every mother thinks her baby is miraculous, but in this case the press thinks so, too.

Still from Ricky (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A minor but sometimes effective meditation on motherhood, Ricky might not be good enough to make this exclusive list even if it were extremely bizarre. Its “what if” premise and strange, vacillating tone is just off-normal enough to place the movie within the weird genre, but it in no way pushes the boundaries of the bizarre.

COMMENTS:  If you’ve read other reviews of Ricky, you might have already discovered what it is that makes this baby special; only a few critics have managed to keep the film’s turning point a secret. I don’t think it’s necessary to give away the surprise to discuss the film, but you might be able to figure it out anyway from context. It’s less important precisely what it is that makes Ricky a special baby, which is mainly a matter of concern for the special effects crew, then it is to consider the role Ricky’s “specialness” plays in the story: a metaphor for the wonder with which a mother views her own offspring. The wizardry that brings the baby to life is inconsistent—the analog elements are neat looking, if unconvincing, while the digital realizations are just unconvincing—but that’s not what most people will find unsatisfactory about the film. Ricky begins life as a dreary domestic drama, then shifts gears about halfway through and tries to be a whimsical semi-comedy before gliding into a mystical, suspiciously happy ending. As the movie gets weirder the tone gets lighter, but the hard realities of the earlier drama still weigh it down. The two hemispheres of the movie work against each other; the part of the movie that’s well done is kind of boring, while the more intriguing portion often seems thrown together on the fly.

As stressed lower-middle class parents Katie and Paco, Alexandra Lamy and Sergi López are believably flawed: they bicker and accuse each other, they sometimes neglect Katie’s older child Lisa, and they can be irresponsible parents (no pediatrician for Ricky?), but in the end they fight through their own limitations to do the right thing for their offspring. Lamy sells the film’s potentially ridiculous emotional climax and makes it affecting; a poor performance would have turned it into pure camp. It’s a serious and thoughtful movie with points to praise (particularly Lamy’s performance); but, even as an experiment in deliberately inconsistent tone, it’s hard to say the film works on the whole. In the end, Ricky never really gets off the ground.

The movie begins with an out-of-sequence prologue that’s incompatible with the rest of the story. Although the scene frustrates and confuses some viewers, it’s a great tear-jerking moment for Lamy; and, more importantly, by it contrasting the grim reality of single parenthood with the fantasy that follows, it’s the key to the film’s psychology.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is bewildering. I don’t know what its terms are, and it doesn’t match any of mine. I found myself regarding it more and more as an inexplicable curiosity.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: A FAMILY PORTRAIT (2009)

Joseph Pierce has a knack for not only coming up with powerful stories, but also making them ever more indelible through his grotesque animation. In his latest release, “A Family Portrait”, a photo shoot turns to chaos when the bottled up emotions of a dysfunctional family are released.

If you like what you see here, and aren’t offended by adult content, be sure to check out Pierces’ previous short “Stand Up” (2008).

79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

“SOCRATES: Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets… men [pass] along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

SOCRATES: Like ourselves…”–Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Christos Stergioglou, Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou

PLOT: A Father and Mother raise their three children—two girls and a boy, aged somewhere between their late teens to twenties—in an isolated country estate with no knowledge of the outside world.  The children spend their days playing odd games, engaging in strange family rituals, or learning new words with incorrect definitions; they are taught that “sea” means an armchair, a “motorway” is a strong wind, and so on.  The one outsider they know of is Christina, who Father brings in weekly to satisfy Son’s sexual urges; inevitably, she discloses facts about the outside world that disrupt the family’s artificial harmony.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” prize (which recognizes works that are either “innovative or different”) at Cannes in 2009.
  • Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011 (only the fifth Greek film so honored).
  • According to writer/director Lanthimos, the three actors who played the children got into character by inventing games (like the “endurance” game the kids in the film play) to pass the time.
  • Mary Tsoni, who plays the younger daughter, was not an actress prior to this role; she was a singer in a band.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dogtooth is a movie made more from concepts than from imagery.  Most likely, the scene that makes the biggest impression is the one that best encapsulates the family’s strange rituals.  To celebrate their parent’s wedding anniversary, the two girls perform an awkward, shuffling dance, as invented by two children who have no knowledge of choreography, while their brother accompanies them on guitar.  After the younger girl bows out, the rebellious older one begins throwing her body around with bizarre, manic abandon, until her parents object to this display of individuality.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beginning with the conceit that the meanings of ordinary words have been changed, Dogtooth presents us with an unsettling vision of an “ordinary” family where the basic rules of social behavior have all been unpredictably altered, for reasons that can only be guessed at.


Original trailer for Dogtooth [Kynodontas]

COMMENTS: “Dogs are like clay, and our job here is to mold them,” the dog trainer explains to Continue reading 79. DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

CAPSULE: HOME (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Ursula Meier

FEATURING: , Olivier Gourmet, Madeleine Budd, Kacey Mottet Klein, Adélaïde Leroux

PLOT:  The idyllic existence of an isolated family is shattered by the re-opening of an abandoned highway that runs through their front yard.

Still from Home (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the absurd rot at its core, Home is structurally sound; but it’s too low-key and lacking in zing to be counted among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  There’s not much plot to Home—a highway opens in a family’s front yard, the fumes and endless noise bug them, and they eventually put cinder blocks and cement over their windows to keep the outside world out. The idea could have packed a compact wallop in a short; but here, there’s ninety minutes to fill up. Promising first time director Ursula Meier saturates the empty spaces with acting; thankfully, she has Isabelle Huppert and a pro cast on her side. Home will work best for those who find the carefully observed intimate details of other people’s family lives fascinating, but the leisurely pacing will make this thin allegory something of a grind for others. Early scenes establish the bucolic Eden that’s about to be paved over: the family plays hockey in the abandoned highway, watches TV on a couch outdoors, and bathes together. (Meier makes a major point of the family’s unselfconscious, unsexual nudity; Huppert is the only one in the film who keeps her clothes on). External pressure on the happy family arrives when the highway reopens (allowing Meier the opportunity for a nicely absurd parody of the “incredibly specific news broadcast” movie cliché: the only radio station the family receives focuses exclusively and obsessively on the new thoroughfare, tracking the progress of the first motorist as if he were a national celebrity). Amusingly, at first the brood attempts to go about its normal routines despite the intrusion of the motorway; college-age Judith continues her full-time bikini sunbathing career (to the delight of passing truckers), and the two younger kids dodge cars as they cross the highway on their way to school each morning. Eventually the pressure starts to get to the family unit; the incessant freeway noise causes sleepless nights, and fatalistic middle child Marion takes to wearing a homemade gas mask and filling her younger brother’s head with tales of how the gasoline fumes will stunt his growth. Father Michel (Gourmet) reasonably suggests relocation, but mother Marthe (Huppert) digs in to preserve the homestead. Under stress the family’s behavior takes a turn for the bizarre (especially Mom’s). When they decide to wall up the house, the heat inside becomes stifling and the air stale; they spend most of their time sleeping, lacking the strength to do more. The film’s symbolism is open-ended, which can be a very good thing, but which works better when coupled with a stronger narrative. Critics seem to be focusing on the happy pastoral family vs. poisonous industrial society theme and the environmentalist subtext, but there’s also a metaphor about growing up at work here. At each stage of the story, the tone reflects one of the three children’s perceptions of family life. At first there is a childish innocence and fun to the home, with nothing of too much importance existing outside it. The outside world (represented by the highway) begins to encroach on the family sanctuary and penetrate its four walls, reflecting the anxiety and disillusionment of the early teen years. Finally, the home becomes a stifling prison run by madmen whose walls must be torn down in order to become an adult.

This Home is often confused with Home (2008), a mother-daughter cancer drama, and Home (2009), an environmental documentary narrated by Glenn Close. I have no theory to offer as to why the filmmakers gave their French language film shot in Bulgaria an English title.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the engaging, darkly funny, surreal story of what happens when people who have thrived by keeping civilization at a safe distance suddenly find themselves pushed right back into its headlights… an absurdist pit stop on the order of ‘Bagdad Café,’ but with more edge and less charm.”–Janice Page, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MIRRORMASK (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Dave McKean

FEATURING: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon

PLOT: A bratty teenager who works as a juggler in her parents’ circus is transported to a devious world of her own imagination after her mother falls ill.  With the help of a cowardly juggler, she navigates a crumbling surrealistic city where everyone wears masks in search of a charm that will help bring her back to her own life.
Still from MirrorMask (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Dave McKean’s impressively out-there creature and set design certainly gives MirrorMask some memorable visuals, the story and characters are lifted right out of typical fantasy stock, resulting in a beautiful but ultimately conventional movie.  366weirdmovies adds: I agree that MirrorMask shouldn’t go on the List; but, I will admit that when the androids popped out of their pods and gave the heroine a “bad girl” makeover while singing a weirdly harmonized version of the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” I was strongly tempted to nominate it as a Candidate.

COMMENTS: Popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman teamed up Dave McKean, the cover artist for his “Sandman” comics, delivering a script that revisits themes from his young adult book Coraline (which itself draws on archetypes found in The Wizard of Oz and “Alice in Wonderland“) for a movie that recalls the wild, inventive imagery of “Sandman” and his Neverwhere BBC miniseries.  MirrorMask is an allegorical adventure about a girl who grows up quickly, redeeming her past selfish actions through new-found respect for her parents and her own talents.  It’s a family film, and is at times bogged down by patronizing, simplistic dialogue and obvious symbolism, including a world literally divided by “Light” and “Shadow.”  There’s even a girl whose clear displays of “evilness” are fishnet stockings, cigarettes, and (gasp!) kissing a boy.

For all its narrative flaws, the film still charms with the help of a talented cast.  Stephanie Leonidas is excellent as Helena, effectively capturing the many moods of a teenage girl while still creating a sympathetic character.  Jason Barry works well with his chatty, comic-relief sidekick character, despite the inherent cliches in his personality.  But it’s Gina McKee in her triple role as Helena’s mother, the “Queen of Light”, and the “Queen of Darkness” who really Continue reading CAPSULE: MIRRORMASK (2005)

GUEST REVIEW: DOGTOOTH [KYNODONTAS] (2009)

UPDATE 2/16/2011: Dogtooth was placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the Certified Weird entry is here.

Imagine a world where up is down, hot is cold, red is black, dandelions are zombies and that mysterious slit between a young girl’s legs is called a keyboard.  Welcome to the bizarre world of Giorgos Lanthimos’ deep black comedy-cum-Greek tragedy oddity, Dogtooth.

Still from Dogtooth (2009)The strange story of a father who keeps his three adult children locked away on their country estate, allowing them no knowledge of the outside world other than what he and their mother (almost a prisoner herself) let them know—most of which is a twisted version of reality.  Never allowing the children (and though they all seem to be in their twenties, they are still very much children emotionally) to set foot outside of the family gate, the father tells them no one can venture outside the home except in the family car.  Only he ever does.  He drives his car ten feet past the gate to retrieve the son’s lost toy airplane.  Down on all fours and barking at unseen terrors lying in wait just outside of the family compound, these are not your normal cinematic children.  Though they live in what they perceive to be reality (and the only world they know) they could very well be living on another planet.

Essentially prisoners, these children are like experiments to the father (much like the dog training he is introduced to at one point in the story).  Each day they learn new words that have no correlation with what they actually mean in the outside world.  They are told that they can leave home only once their canine teeth fall out—a thing that of course we know does not happen without a bit of forceful persuasion.  At one point, the father begins bringing home a young woman he works with (blindfolded, of course) to have her engage in sexual relations with the son—a thing that is done without emotion, without fanfare and without any seeming pleasure on either end—only to have her betray his confidence by beginning to have a sexual relationship with the youngest daughter in exchange for presents.  Again, this is done without any semblance of emotion or passion; the daughter simply tells the girl if she licks her “there” (pointing to the obvious spot) she can have a gift.

Playing off Shyamalan’s The Village (though without the ridiculousness of that film) but done in a very matter-of-fact style typical of Greek cinema (or any Balkan cinema really) and especially of the nation’s cinematic icon Theo Angelopoulos, Lanthimos’ odd little movie reeks of possible exploitation, both in character and in style.  But, instead, it comes off as almost experimentation—as much as the father’s experimentation (i.e., the dog-like training) upon his unknowing children.  Yet, even with the passionless approach to characterization (including the most banal sex scenes ever filmed) we can feel the tremors begin beneath the surface, and we know that eventually there is going to be a deeply felt emotional explosion from at least one of these children.  Of course this emotional A-Bomb does eventually come (culminating in that aforementioned forceful persuasion) and we are left with a haunting final image that may be the inevitable conclusion to a psychologically dangerous tale such as Lanthimos’ bizarre Dogtooth.

This review was originally published at The Cinematheque in a slightly different form.