Tag Archives: Fantasy

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: PAPERHOUSE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose

FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross

PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.

Still from Paperhouse (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of ’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.

COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.

Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.

As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.

From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).

But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.

One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is….  wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

305. THE LURE (2015)

Córki Dancingu

“Our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney.” –Agnieszka Smoczyńska

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal

PLOT: Two mermaid sisters, Silver and Golden, wash up on the shores of Warsaw. They hook up with a family synth-pop band, joining their act in a seedy nightclub. Their voices bewitch everyone around them, but Golden’s carnivorous appetite and Silver’s infatuation with a young bass player lead to horror and heartbreak.

Still from The Lure (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Robert Bolesto was inspired by his friends Zuzia and Basia Wrońska and their childhood growing up around a nightclub in the 1980s. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska had had a similar childhood experience, and decided to create a horror-fantasy allegory with that setting. The script was initially conceived as a straightforward biography of the sisters, but both the Wrońskas and Smoczyńska felt it was too personal, so the characters were changed to mermaids. Because mermaids are known for singing and the setting was a nightclub, the film easily evolved into a musical.
  • The Wrońska sisters form the Polish-language synth pop band Ballady i Romanse. They composed the music for The Lure. They appear at the end of the film in the wedding scene.
  • Much of the visual style pulls from the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints twisted, adult fairy tale scenes, as well as photographer Nan Goldin, known for her seedy images of the New York club scene and queer subculture in the 80s.
  • Though it was praised at its Sundance debut, in its native Poland the film received a mixed response. According to Smoczyńska, Poland doesn’t have a tradition of musicals (The Lure has been called Poland’s first musical) or horror. Those elements weren’t advertised at all, so incoming audiences did not realize what they were in for.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Smoczyńsky addresses the reality of mer-people anatomy by showing a mermaid-human transplant. Shot from above, a mermaid lies on ice in a long metal gurney and sings sadly, while a surgeon saws through her torso and then stitches on a pair of human legs (taken from an anonymous woman lying on ice next to her). It is at once clinical, tragic, and sweet, made all the more memorable for being part of a low-key musical number.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Merman punk rocker; breastfeeding mermaids; fish labia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though working with some familiar source material, the film manages to feel fresh and strange. The visceral effects and gore matched against the upbeat synth tunes; the fantasy characters in a grimy, all-too-real world; the loss of chronology in the narrative; the sense that nothing is quite what it seems, that there is something under the surface of it all: no single element makes it weird, but rather a host of assorted factors.


Brief musical scene from The Lure

COMMENTS: A simple description of The Lure seems impossible. It’s Continue reading 305. THE LURE (2015)

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST [PANNA A NETVOR] (1978)

AKA The Virgin and the Monster

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zdena Studenková, Vlastimil Harapes

PLOT: A virtuous, virginal merchant’s daughter pledges to live in a magical Beast’s castle to save her father’s life after he plucks a rose from the Beast’s garden; she falls in love and transforms him.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Panna a Netvor is almost a Czech color remake of ‘s more famous film version of the fairy tale, with a few unique weird additions. It makes for an appealing Gothic fantasy, but one which does not distinguish itself enough from its classic inspiration to count as one of the 366 most notable weird movies.

COMMENTS: Identical source material explains a lot, but there are so many similarities between Juraj (The Cremator) Herz’s version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale and Jean Cocteau’s better known classic that Panna a Nevtor almost strikes me as a Czech remake of the French film. The similarities occur especially in the unseen hospitality of the invisible servants of the Beast’s chateau, and shots from a candelabra’s POV and of Beauty running down a dark corridor with billowing curtains seem like direct nods to Cocteau.

The one big difference is that this adaptation takes pains to bring out the story’s horror elements. Netvor starts out like a Hammer film, in a lonely mist-shrouded wood, before segueing into an unsettling semi-animated title sequence of twisted flowers, animal skulls and lost souls that sits somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and ‘s Fantastic Planet designs. The score is a portentous recurring dirge played on a pipe organ. Netvor focuses on the Beast’s cursed role as a reluctant killer; rather than simply seeing Cocteau’s poetically-rendered smoking paws, this Beast gets blood (both human and animal) under his talons. If Cocteau’s cursed prince was sometimes criticized for being too cute to be frightening, Herz solves this problem with a strange bird-of-prey interpretation of the Beast: it might look a little silly, but at least it’s not something a sane Beauty would consider cuddling with.

Bravura surreal moments include Beauty’s drugged dream, where human bedposts lower the canopy until it turns into a coffin-like box, and a second monster who hangs around in the shadows and telepathically encourages the Beast to give in to his animal side. There are not enough of these touches, however, to transform the movie into a Surrealist version of the tale (although Cocteau’s treatment was not literally Surrealist either). All told, Panna a Netvor is a worthwhile variation on the familiar story, one that will appeal to horror fans, but it shouldn’t displace the classic version in your heart.

A word of warning: animal lovers may want to boycott this feature, which definitely would not have been approved by the ASPCA due to a scene of a horse trampling a frightened doe. It’s an unnecessary lapse of good taste in a film that is otherwise elegantly appointed. Also be aware that the only available DVD, while not region coded, is in PAL format, meaning some U.S. players will not be able to handle it; and although there are English subtitles for the film, the menus and extras are all in Czech. Check your system’s compatibility before ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many viewers may takes issue with the unusual Beast design, which does take some getting used to, as do such odd sights as what is essentially a giant bird galloping around on a horse. Thankfully, that ends up hardly even mattering in the long run. The film is so beautifully-crafted, visually arresting and richly atmospheric the Beast could have been wearing a paper bag over his head and I still would have bought it.”–Justin McKinney, The Bloody Pit of Horror

(This movie was nominated for review by “Leaves,” who advised “[f]or crazy Czech films… Beauty and the Beast is a great choice.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

277. INDECENT DESIRES (1968)

“[Wishman] seemed genuinely surprised, even skeptical, that anyone could find her work worthy of study, probably because at first glance her films often reveal such trademark low-budget production values as dodgy lighting and interiors resembling rundown motel rooms. Yet behind her economically deprived visuals lie a wealth of imagination: wildly improbable plots, bizarre ‘method’ acting and scripts yielding freely to fantasy.”–“Incredibly Strange Films

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sharon Kent, Michael Alaimo, Trom Little, Jackie Richards

PLOT: A nebbishy pack rat finds a ring and a blonde doll in a trash can; soon after, he sees secretary Ann walking to work, then sees the image of the doll overlaid on Ann’s body. Returning to his dingy apartment, he puts on the ring and gropes the doll, and Ann feels invisible hands on her as she stands by the water cooler. The stalker follows Ann home after she leaves work, discovers she has a steady boyfriend, and takes out his jealousy on the doll.

Still from Indecent Desires (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Doris Wishman, who had worked in film distribution, began her directing career after her husband died at a young age as a way to keep busy. She originally began working in the brief nudist camp genre, movies that rushed to exploit nudity after a New York judge ruled that stories set within the nudist lifestyle were not per se obscene. After the fad for nudist films, and the “nudie cutie” sub-genre that grew out of them, died out, Wishman moved into the production of “roughies,” a sexploitation genre with less actual nudity but more violence and kink. She was one of the only women directing such films at the time. Indecent Desires comes from the middle of this period, which lasted roughly from 1965’s Bad Girls Go to Hell to 1970’s The Amazing Transplant.
  • Wishman’s 1960s movies were mostly shot without sound. Dialogue was dubbed in later. She often directed longtime cameraman C. Davis Smith to focus the camera on ashtrays,  potted plants, or an actress’ feet instead of the person speaking in order to make the sound syncing easier later. This technique initially confused audiences, but later became recognized as a Wishman trademark.
  • Like most of her work of this period, Wishman used “Louis Silverman” as her directing pseudonym and “Dawn Whitman” as her writing pseudonym.
  • Terri McSorley‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The image of the blonde trash can doll superimposed over Ann as she walks to work. This sight is the closest thing to a special effect to ever appear in one of Wishman’s movies.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Doll-groping transient; Babs makes out with herself; nude leg lifts

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Doris Wishman made sleazy sexploitation movies marked by their strange camerawork, unsynced sound, grimy settings, amateur acting by curvy models in lingerie, odd plots, burlesque house jazz soundtracks, and a weird, pervasive sense of erotic guilt. Indecent Desires features her usual shenanigans delivered in one of her most inexplicable stories: a tale of a symbiotic relationship between a stalker, a doll, and a beautiful woman that is so context-free it serves as a fill-in-the-blank sexual parable. It’s perhaps her strangest and most disconnected plot, which makes it the perfect item to represent Wishman on the List of the Weirdest Movies of all Time.

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Short clip from Indecent Desires

COMMENTS: Whatever her filmmaking talents, or lack of same, Continue reading 277. INDECENT DESIRES (1968)

265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie

“Simultaneously erotic, horrific and funny… This is one mother of a film.”– on The Saragossa Manuscript

Must See

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zbigniew Cybulski

PLOT: During a battle in Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a soldier wanders into a house and discovers a large book which enthralls him (and his captor). In it, he reads the story of the Walloon captain Alfons Van Worden, who meets, and is seduced by, two princesses while sleeping at a haunted inn, only to wake up under a gallows between two hanged men. Van Worden’s further adventures include meeting a hermit, a cabalist, a gypsy leader, and other colorful characters, each of whom have tales to tell—often leading to stories inside of stories.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saragossa Manuscript is a mostly faithful, if necessarily abridged, adaptation of Jan Potocki’s massive 19th-century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” (occasionally translated as “The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales”). Potcoki was a fascinating character, worthy of his own novel. A Count, adventurer (he was the first Pole to fly in a hot air balloon) and polymath, he published The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in fragments during his life. Legends revolve around his spectacular 1815 suicide: he shot himself with a silver bullet he made himself, and which he had blessed by his castle chaplain beforehand.
  • Noted fans of the film include and David Lynch.
  • The restoration, which included the addition of about an hour’s worth of material cut from previous prints, was initially financed by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died before it was completed in 2001. Filmmakers  and (who included it in his series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”) took up the cause after Garcia’s demise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Near the film’s climax, Van Worden stares out through an gap in a castle wall and sees a vision of himself receding into the distance with the two princesses, headed towards a poster bed standing alone in the middle of a desert. The only other features in the landscape are a cow’s skull and a dead crow half buried in the sand. There’s a wonderful trick to the shot, indicative of the film’s obsession with misdirection and game playing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Between hanged men; incestuous Islamic princesses; five levels of flashbacks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Saragossa Manuscript winds through a Gothic journey replete with gallows, ghostly seductresses, duels, occult symbols, Inquisitors in bondage gear, and more, an epic tale told in the ever-receding stories-inside-of-stories style that Guy Maddin would later adopt (in a more fetishistic fashion) for The Forbidden Room. Wojciech Has’ 3-hour adaptation of Jan Potocki’s grandiose novel is storytelling in its purest form; it’s a world cinema classic that has been unfairly neglected, out-of-print in the USA for far too long. The film’s design unfolds slowly, wandering through a disorienting labyrinth of stories that eventually resolve, only to dissolve again in a mystical finale in the Spanish desert.


Re-release trailer for The Saragossa Manuscript

COMMENTS: “All that has made me confused,” complains Captain Continue reading 265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Recommended

 

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)