Tag Archives: Hollywood

CAPSULE: IMAGES (1972)

“I think, when I grow up, I’m going to be exactly like you.” – Susannah (Cathryn Harrison)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman

FEATURING: , , Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais,

PLOT: An author finds herself plagued by visions of lovers past and increasingly losing her grip on reality.

Still from Images (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Images is a mystery of the mind, providing a striking visual representation of the heroine’s mental collapse. The subject matter provides a platform for unmoored imagery and encourages confusion, which heightens the WTF effect of the movie. But it’s not so strange that it defies understanding or logic, and its oddities now play as innovations for thrillers and psychological horror stories to come.

COMMENTS: Robert Altman is one of those filmmakers distinctive enough to have merited his own adjective. “Altmanesque” sits comfortably on the shelf alongside “ian” and “ian” and “Spielbergian.” But Altman himself seems to resist such easy categorization. You think he’s about sprawling casts, like in Nashville or M*A*S*H? Surely his fingerprints are just as evident in the one-man powerhouse Secret Honor. Appreciate his focus on real but insular universes, as in The Player or Pret-a-Porter? How about the cartoony Popeye or obtuse Quartet? It’s important to remember that defining Altman is as much about his unwillingness to be defined.

Images does not, at face value, seem like a comfortable fit in the Altman oeuvre. Filmed abroad, centered around a single character with a small supporting cast, incorporating surreal and supernatural elements, it doesn’t outwardly share much DNA with, say, Short Cuts. But his trademark use of improvisation (Altman is credited as screenwriter, but evidently he came to the actors with a rough outline each morning as a jumping-off point for the day’s filming, an approach he would use again in 3 Women) and found materials (York herself wrote her character’s children’s book, which serves as a quasi-narrator) are both indicative of the director’s modus operandi. That he was able to marry this decidedly freewheeling approach to a genre and subject matter that would seem to demand deliberate plotting and rigid oversight are a strong measure of his skill.

Altman manages to be both clever and pretentious with some of his stylistic choices. The simple mechanism of having one actor go behind a wall and another emerge from the other side is used to great effect here, constantly surprising us and Cathryn, our increasingly unstable heroine. (She even manages to surprise herself more than once, both literally and figuratively.) On the other hand, tricks like jumbling the actors’ names to come up with the characters’ monikers only call attention to themselves, making the film’s issues seem trite. York’s towering performance manages to meld the excesses of a nervous breakdown with deft emotional subtlety, but her work is frequently undercut with blatantly obvious symbolism, like the prisms, lenses, and mirrors that practically litter the screen, broadcasting her fracturing psyche at the highest volume. For every moment of delightful surprise, there’s also an eye-roll to match.

It’s a sign of York’s strength in the role that she is so convincing and deserving of our empathy, especially considering how her mania is evidently inspired by three very dull men. Marcel is a callous bully, Rene an obtuse void, and Hugh a complete and utter drip. In fact, Hugh is such a dishrag with his cavalier dismissals of his wife, his perfunctory affections, his witless repetitions, and his truly wretched jokes, that his ultimate fate does not hit as hard as it probably should. These vacuous men only serve to highlight her much more interesting relationship with adolescent Susannah, who pulls off a mix of precociousness and mystery while still being believably young.

Altman has crafted a perfect atmosphere; the breathtaking Irish countryside is an appropriately solid spooky backdrop for the story, while the combination of John Williams’ jump-scare score and the jarring soundscape (credited with weird bluntness thusly: “Sounds – Stomu Yamash’ta”) keep everything on edge throughout the film.

For a time, Images was thought to be lost, and its rediscovery and availability on Blu-ray and streaming video is welcome, both for completists Altman fans and for anyone who wants to see how a cinema legend tackles an unexpected genre. But it’s ultimately good-not-great, and whatever else we may expect of Robert Altman, we definitely don’t anticipate landing somewhere in the middle.

One piece of verisimilitude to which I must tip my cap: the opening credits depicts Cathryn trying to write her latest book. In the process, she drapes herself over the couch, curls up on the floor, turns everything into a writing desk, contorts herself every which way in her search for the right words. I recognize all of these actions, all of these behaviors, as part of the agonizing process of turning thoughts into text. Writing is a physically taxing struggle, she seems to say. Girl, I feel you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

”’Oh, we’re in for one of those movies,’ I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgangers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren’t there at all, or are taking the place of real people. It’s frustrating until Susannah York’s sensitive performance starts to sink in. These Twilight Zone-inflected weird tales usually end up in a trite twist of fate, or fold in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images has real intelligence beyond its cleverness… It’s not a picture for a lazy viewer, that’s for sure.”–-Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant (DVD)

348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”–Zen koan

Must See

DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A yuppie actuary with chronic insomnia  becomes obsessed with going to self-help groups for ailments he doesn’t have. At one, he meets a woman who shares his obsession, but resents her for infringing on what he thought was his unique form of self-therapy. Later, he meets and is befriended by a soap-maker named Tyler Durden; together, they form a “fight club” where men reassert their masculinity with bare-knuckle fighting, but the group’s activities grow into a cult.

Still from Fight Club (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel of the same name. The genesis of the novel came when Palahniuk got into a fight over the weekend. When he returned to work with two black eyes, he was surprised that no one asked what had happened; instead, everyone avoided looking him in the face. He theorized that if you looked bad enough, no one would ask what you were doing in your free time, because they’d be scared to find out the answer.
  • Pepsi provided product placements for this anti-consumerist movie. Fincher also claims to have hidden a Starbucks cup in every scene.
  • Budgeted at $63 million, Fight Club lost money in its theatrical release, but quickly became a cult film and recouped its cost on video.
  • Fight Club placed #5 in Rolling Stone‘s poll of readers’ favorite movies of the 1990s, #17 on Empire‘s readers’ poll of the best movies of all time, while American Movie Classics named it the 20th best “guy movie,” among other lists the film made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one (any) of the many scenes of brutal bare-knuckle boxing, overseen by a shirtless, cigarette-smoking Brad Pitt, oozing sweat, blood, and raw liquid testosterone.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: D-cup dude; penguin spirit animal; subliminal Durden wang

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Yes, it’s possible to be popular and weird. Often misunderstood as a simple adolescent anti-consumerist message movie aimed at impressionable young men, Fight Club is actually a movie-length hallucination about the painful process of becoming a man.


Original trailer for Fight Club

COMMENTS: How do you talk about Fight Club? I first saw it in a Continue reading 348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

338. FREAKS (1932)

Recommended

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT – – – – STRANGE AS IT SEEMS. In ancient times, anything that deviated from the normal was considered an omen of ill luck or representative of evil.”–prologue to Freaks

Freaks is one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio.”–David Skal

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Leila Hyams, Henry Victor, Daisy Earles

PLOT: At a circus, an evil performer intends to marry a sideshow midget to exploit him for his wealth. Eventually her plans extend to attempted murder. The midget’s fellow sideshow denizens have his back, exacting a primitive form of carnival justice.

BACKGROUND:

  • Freaks was based on Tod Robbins’ short story “Spurs.”
  •  Director Tod Browning started out as a contortionist performing in the circus himself, an inspiration from which he drew for this movie.
  • Browning leveraged his clout from helming the previous year’s hit Dracula to get Freaks made. The controversial film nearly ended his career, however; he would direct only four more projects (working uncredited on two of them) before retiring in 1939.
  • MGM stars Myrna Loy, Victor McLaglen, and Jean Harlow all turned down parts in the film due to the subject matter.
  • Freaks was often banned by state censors in its original form when it first came out. It was not allowed to be exhibited in the United Kingdom until the late 1963. It’s since been cut from a reported 90-minute running time, leaving us with the modern edit that runs just over an hour. The original full length may forever be lost. The cut version was a dud at the box office.
  • Although Freaks bombed on its original release and was pulled from theaters, it survived when (Maniac) bought the rights and took the film on tour (often using alternate titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes) in the late 1940s. Freaks was screened at Cannes in 1962 and received positive reappraisals, sparking its second life as a cult film.
  • “Entertainment Weekly” ranked Freaks third in their 2003 list of the Top 50  Cult Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sing it along with us, Internet: “We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!” The Wedding Feast (it gets its own title card) is an omnipresent meme for very good reasons. Fast forward to it if you must, because this is the true beginning of Freaks.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sensually connected twins; “Gooble-gobble!”; half-boy with Luger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Life is not always fair; sometimes you’re born with no legs. But sometimes your movie comes along at the precise pinpoint in history where it could get made. We will always have exactly one Freaks, because even substituting CGI for actually disabled people, nobody in a modern day Hollywood studio would have the balls to remake this.


The opening scenes of Freaks

COMMENTS: We all know examples of movies where their hype far Continue reading 338. FREAKS (1932)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Alan Rudolph

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: If this movie had a plot, it would be about a penultimate meeting between a used car salesman going mad and a brilliant but unrecognized sci-fi writer. (That’s what it said on the tin, anyway.)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a list of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time, a designation which requires a length of video to be both (a) weird and (b) a movie. Breakfast of Champions fails at (b). Just because it is on film and has actors and sets does not make it a movie, in the same way a pile of random lumber and bricks is not a house. (And it isn’t even the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation; that honor goes to Slapstick.)

COMMENTS: The present author has put off this review for far too long, because when it comes to director Alan Rudolph’s aborted run at adapting Breakfast of Champions by the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. into a film, there are no right answers. There is no way to talk about a movie that is stuttering mute about itself. Bottom line: Breakfast is white noise, static, not even interesting enough to be called chaos. Even after you take into account that Vonnegut and Hollywood go together like pickles and peanut butter, and even after you grant that of all the Vonnegut novels to pick for film adaptation, this is the one with the big red warning sign saying “DO NOT ADAPT!” on it, and even after you allow that Rudolph the red-assed director worked from a screenplay he wrote himself and was therefore punching about twenty million kilotons above his weight… there, see? We’re out of space already!

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t lend himself to short book reviews, either, so bear with us:

IN THE BOOK: Dwayne Hoover is a used car dealership owner who’s going nuts. Kilgore Trout (a stock character in many Vonnegut novels) is a hack science fiction author who’s a half-mad genius. Eliot Rosewater, another half-mad millionaire philanthropist from yet another Vonnegut novel, writes Trout a fan letter that sends the author on an odyssey to appear at an arts festival in Hoover’s town. Hoover and Trout meet, Trout gives Hoover a copy of his latest novel, Hoover reads it, the book triggers full-blown insanity, and he blows up his life and pretty much exits the story. Vonnegut appears in his own story for the only time in his career, to approach Trout and confront him with the reality that he is himself a character in somebody else’s novel, electing to set him free. On top of this, Vonnegut skips around, telling things out of order, draws cartoon pictures in the story, makes satirical points about consumerism (among many things), and frames humans as vats of chemical reactions with no free will. He also says this novel is intended as a purge to rid himself of mental clutter. It is a unique work in Vonnegut’s career; you can see the seam between his earlier work and later works.

IN THE MOVIE: Some or none or all of the above happens. It is honest to God impossible to tell. If you ran the book through a blender Continue reading CAPSULE: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999)

331. DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

“The fleetingly improvised men are transient figures of human shape, which naturally disappear or slowly dissolve after a short period of existence. Their appearance always is the result of a wonder.

Fleetingly improvised men lead a dream life. As a result, they are incapable of entering a regular conversation with people around them.

Fleetingly improvised men sometimes resemble dead people.”–M. Rautenberg, Daniel Paul Schreber: Beginner’s Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard O’Brien,

PLOT: John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub, remembering nothing: certainly not the reason why the dead, mutilated woman is in the other room. As he travels through a night-cursed city to discover his identity, John is simultaneously pursued by a dogged police detective, a psychiatrist who knows more than he lets on, and a coterie of very pale gentlemen in black coats and hats. Ultimately he discovers that his alleged past is just that—and that the forces behind the frame-up are responsible for something far more grand and sinister.

Still from Dark City (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • The opening narration, included over Alex Proyas’ objections, was included at the insistence of producers who feared the audience would be confused by being thrown into this world. Many fans think it’s a spoiler of the worst kind. Proyas’ director’s cut of the film excises the exposition.
  • Proyas based the Strangers’ looks and mannerisms on Richard O’Brien’s “Riff Raff” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Proyas also wrote the role of “Mr. Hand” specifically for O’Brien.
  • The Matrix not only ripped off did a variation of Dark City’s central premise, it also re-used a number of its actual sets after Dark City‘s production had wrapped up.
  • Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Daniel Schreber, was named after an early 20th-century schizophrenic who wrote a memoir of his illness.
  • Proyas intended the final showdown between John Murdoch and Mr Book to be an homage to the famed manga comic (and anime) Akira.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll cast aside the montages of warping buildings, stylish noir streets, and sinister Stranger gatherings in favor of the mirroring scenes of Mr. Hand and John Murdoch after their respective imprints. Both rise from the gurney with comparable looks of grim determination, after painfully twitching through a series of forced memories.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Steampunk brain syringes; quick-rise concrete; creepy kid with teeth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About five years ago we argued that Dark City shouldn’t make the list. Since then, our minds have been changed—possibly while we were asleep. Any movie the plot of which can be described as “telekinetic collective memory space jelly bugs abduct tens of thousands of earthlings to populate a jumble-Noir cityscape in perpetual darkness in order to find out more about us” deserves a slot on the list of the weirdest movies ever made. The fact that it follows its dream logic into uncanny valley Gothic visuals is to its credit as well.


Original trailer for Dark City

COMMENTS: Focus. Focus. Every event flows into, bolsters, and undermines every other event. John Murdoch can defeat the Strangers Continue reading 331. DARK CITY (1998)

330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”–After Hours

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , John Heard, Linda Fiorentino, Terri Garr, , Verna Bloom, , Tommy Chong

PLOT: Paul meets an attractive woman in a Manhattan coffee shop after he gets off work. Under the pretext of his buying a paperweight from her roommate, she gives him her number. He calls her, is invited over to her SoHo loft, loses his money on the cab ride over, and is plagued by a bizarre series of missteps and coincidences that result in a dead body and his pursuit by a lynch mob as he tries in vain to make his way back home.

Still from After Hours (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally titles Lies, the script for After Hours was Joseph Minion’s thesis project for Columbia Film School. His professor was . He got an “A.”
  • Minion lifted about a third of the film (much of Marcy’s character) from a radio monologue by Joe Frank, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers.
  • Minion would go on to write the script for another Certified Weird pick: Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
  • Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, then-struggling actors who took up producing, optioned Minion’s screenplay. They pitched the project to Martin Scorsese, but when they did not hear back from him they began negotiations with , who had yet to make a feature film at the time. Months later, when Scorsese’s first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart, he expressed interest in the project. When Burton heard this news he gracefully withdrew, saying he did not want to stand in the way of Scorsese.
  • The ending of After Hours had not been decided on when shooting began. (One proposed, and unused, surrealistic ending had Paul climbing into Verna Bloom’s womb and being reborn uptown). The first cut used a downbeat attempt at a conclusion that bombed with test audiences. Scorsese then went back and re-shot the ending we see today. (Director suggested the resolution Scorsese finally used).
  • Scorsese won the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival for After Hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Kiki’s papier-mâché sculpture of a man staring up at the sky, mouth agape and gnarled fingers held before his face, like a flash-fried Pompeii victim preserved in ash. Paul thinks it looks like a three-dimensional version of “The Shriek.” The statue turns up unexpectedly later in the night, and an eerily and ironically similar piece plays a key role in the climax.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Burn victim?; “Surrender Dorothy”; mummified escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No other black comedy has ever captured such a perfect mix of unease, absurdity, melancholy, and danger with the light, unforced touch that Scorsese does here. Man’s fate in an uncaring universe ruled by the iron fist of coincidence has never seemed so horrifyingly hilarious.


Original trailer for After Hours

COMMENTS: Years ago, I wrote an article for this site about Continue reading 330. AFTER HOURS (1985)