Tag Archives: Imagination

210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

“We realized why Debora and I have such extraordinary telepathy, and why people treat us and look at us the way they do. It is because we are mad—we are both stark raving mad!”–Pauline Parker, diary entry

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Melanie Lynskey, , Sarah Peirse

PLOT: Pauline, a socially awkward young teen, finds a friend in Juliet, a new arrival at her girls’ school in 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand. Juliet is witty and has traveled the world, and together she and Pauline invent a rich epic about the royal family of the fictional kingdom Borovnia, complete with stories chronicling the dynasty’s adventures and clay figurines Juliet molds to represent the main characters. As their relationship grows closer and develops a sexual component, the girls shut out the rest of the world, living out a fantasy of shared hallucinations and referring to each other by invented names, until their parents grow concerned and try to separate them.

Still from Heavenly Creatures (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a real-life murder that shocked New Zealand in the 1950s. The film’s voiceovers are direct quotes from Pauline Parker’s diaries.
  • After being released from prison, Juliet Hulme became a successful writer of mysteries working under her new name, Anne Perry. She publicly revealed her identity as Heavenly Creatures was being produced. Pauline Parker did not wish to be found, but was later discovered working with handicapped children.
  • After the film was released Perry stated that the two girls had never had a lesbian relationship, as had been commonly supposed, although this denial was not public information when Heavenly Creatures‘ script was written. Pauline’s diary entries clearly hinted at a sexual relationship, but these could have been a young girl’s confused fantasies.
  • Heavenly Creatures was a totally unexpected arthouse outing from New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose previous works had all been outrageous exploitation films: the gory Bad Taste, the transgressive puppet show Meet the Feebles, and the zombie comedy Dead-Alive [AKA Brain Dead].
  • Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (where it lost, understandably, to Pulp Fiction).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The plasticine Borovnians, particularly the homicidal Diello, who decapitates a homophobic psychiatrist, among his other crimes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Fourth World; deflowering hallucination; hideous Orson Welles.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Adolescent melodrama blossoms into mature tragedy in the delirious Heavenly Creatures. Odd, overdramatic lighting schemes and a flighty camera track two young girls’ trajectory from obsessive daydreaming to outright madness. Peter Jackson’s stunning, surreal realizations of the girls’ fantasies about celebrity heartthrobs and a kingdom of killers sculpted from clay put the film over the top.


Trailer for heavenly Creatures

COMMENTS: In 1994, if you imagined Peter Jackson directing a Continue reading 210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

LIST CANDIDATE: 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964)

DIRECTED BY: George Pal

FEATURING: Tony Randall, Arthur O’Connell, Barbara Eden

PLOT: A mysterious “Chinaman fakir” rides into a small western town of Abalone and shows the cartoonish townspeople a variety of colorful wonders to teach them that life is a mystery and a marvel. Still from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although a sappy message-movie about the power of imagination, any film that shows you a faun in cutoff shorts drawing out the lust in a priggish school teacher, and then minutes later unveils a mustachioed serpent telling his human likeness that the man is the most imperfect creature he’s ever seen, at least deserves some consideration for the List of the 366 best weird movies.

COMMENTS: “Ye ever see a catfish ridin’ on a yellow jackass before?”

Although at first glance 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a contrived, tedious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-esque story of the purity and wonder of a young boy befriended by a whimsical fantasy-lander among the hee-hawing bumpkins and self-absorbed dowagers, that message gets lost in the excessive phantasmagoria that suffuses the film. We see a bunch of campy characters in western attire living contentedly in the realm of stereotype: there’s the domineering husband and wife (“No no, dear. I don’t mean to give you the jitters”); there are the bigoted goons (“only good Injun’s a dead Injun!”); then there’s tight-lipped prude of a librarian, Angela Benedict (“the section on courtesy and good manner is over there”), destined to fall in love with the blockheaded newspaperman, Ed Cunningham, who’s found a home among the plastic cacti and tumbleweeds. The solution to shake up these trite archetypes appears to be another one: a comedic white man playing a Chinese mystic, with a painful vehemence lacking in Sidney Toler’s Charlie Chan or ’s Fu Manchu. The sound of Chinese bells and Pipa strings replace the music of banjos and harmonicas. Dr. Lao shows up to awe and confound the Abalonians with a variety of disguises, including an organ-grinding yeti and a Medusa in a stop-motion-animated wig. Inside his circus tent (that’s much bigger on the inside, naturally) Dr. Lao turns women to stone and tells the sad futures of blithering widows. He opens his show with a stock footage barrage of fireworks that represents the colorful but tame cabinet of wonders. A wavering-voiced Merlin makes flowers grow instantly and an inch-long sea serpent swims in fishbowl. But then things get crazy: behind one curtain a seductive faun beguiles the librarian with a dizzying tune on the pan pipes, and behind another, the evil real estate mogul encounters a serpent with his face. After yokels pause their “What in Tom Thunder?!” astonishment or skepticism, we return to the strained message movie when Dr. Lao befriends a torturously acted little boy, Mike, in whom he sees an active imagination and appreciation for life. That sickeningly artificial message encapsulates the film, and dismisses the genuine weirdness of Lao’s creations.  However, stop-motion animator turned director George Pal seems far more interested in the lavish set pieces than teaching kids life lessons. The film most drastically diverges from kiddie-matinee flick with the sexual awakening of the librarian love interest who unbuttons her shirt, panting while the well-oiled faun twirls lasciviously. The film further ignores the corny confines of the message with a climax that includes a rocket-powered rain making machine and some drunk bumpkins fighting an ever-growing Lochness monster in the desert, all underscored by a soundtrack of anarchic bagpipes. When Lao leaves in a plume of smoke, much to the dismay of Mike, we’re left stranded with the Abalone bumpkins wondering: “What in the heck was that all about?”

But who is Doctor Lao anyway? Is he a whimsical Chinese guru capable of transforming into six circus entertainers, or is his “Chinaman” persona a role like all the others? At times he drops the “velly solly” accent when speaking to Mike, explaining that he talks in “whatever dialect the mood requires.” This statement explains his divine talent for manifesting himself in a form specifically attuned to whoever’s observing. It is only to Mike that he drops his cadre of disguises, because he sees no need for artifice in the presence of a boy fertile with imagination. His role as master of deception to the dull-minded Abalonians explains his need for fantastical disguises, but the reason for Dr. Lao’s brief stay in the middle-of-nowhere burg remains a mystery left unsolved, due to his seeming lack of effect on the town. Instead of leaving the Abalonians blessed with ability to see life as a circus despite their mundane lives, he leaves the desert ruffians dazed and spouting the same tiresome exposition as always. The only changes Dr. Lao makes in Abalone are galvanizing the townspeople to vote against selling their land to Stark, and chemically developing a romance between Ed and Angela. Lao has the power to catch fish in dry rivers and render the local bigots senseless (with the help of some twinkling music), so obviously he has some ulterior plan beyond running a fabulous circus. Why did he come? Why does he care about Abalone? Why does a man with supreme power charge five cents for fortune telling? Dr. Lao, false god or just brilliant entertainer, leaves us with only a phony moral and the memory of a phantasmagorical circus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious concoction of superb effects and makeup (William Tuttle won the first ever Oscar for makeup design for his work here) and a schmaltzy, moralising tone that doesn’t immediately speak to all audiences.–Graeme Clark, “The Spinning Image” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by kengo, who said that the movie “has a lot of weirdness in it.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

THREE TAKES ON ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

Escape from Tomorrow has been promoted to the List. Comments are closed on this preliminary review; please visit the official entry.

We received an unprecedented three separate reviews of Randy Moore’s controversial surrealist satire Escape from Tomorrow, the independent feature which was shot guerrilla-style at Disney World and which many originally supposed would be unreleasable thanks to Disney’s notoriously aggressive legal department. We have decided to compile these three individual takes into one giant mega-post for your enjoyment and edification. So here’s everything you need to know about Escape from Tomorrow, at least for now…

DIRECTED BY: Randy Moore

FEATURING: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady, Annet Manhendru, Allison Lees-Taylor, Lee Armstrong, Stass Klassen

PLOT: A day in the life of an American family vacationing at Disneyland… or Walt Disney World… or at least some Disney related theme park. Only the day starts out with Jim (Roy Abramsohn) getting a call from his boss, who tells him that there’s no job for him to return to. Things can only go downhill from there, but everything is filtered through a cheerful veneer. From a spreading cat-flu epidemic, to stalking teen-age girls, brainwashing by Park cyborgs, it just goes to show that “bad things happen everywhere”… even in the Happiest Place On Earth. (synopsis by L. Rob Hubbard)

Troubled family man Jim White and his family try to enjoy their final day in Disney World, but he becomes distracted by a pair of pretty French teenagers, blackouts, and visions of sinister happenings in the idyllic theme park. As the intensity of White’s visions grow, so too do tensions between him and his family, and soon it seems he might lose them and himself altogether to the weird power of Disney World. Would he really miss them, though, or does Disney offer him something better? (synopsis by Ben Sunde)

A middle-aged man (who looks an awful lot like a husky Tom Cruise) gets promptly fired via telephone amidst a family vacation to Disneyworld, and proceeds to break down mentally and physically with his family while he covertly follows two barely-legal Parisian teenagers during his waltz through the happiest place on earth. (synopsis by Ryan Aarset)

1. L. Rob Hubbard

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Aside from the accomplishment of actually shooting on Disney property completely in plain sight, the film’s subversive commentary on Disney’s hold on the collective imagination has a solid bite that has not been previously approached as directly as it is here.

COMMENTS: “Jim, listen to me. Don’t let your imagination run wild. It’s a transitional period.”

This is the first full sentence of Escape from Tomorrow, and it’s a key—if not the key—to understanding exactly what writer/director Randy Moore is up to in this groundbreaking film. Thanks to its impressive and unique origins, Escape from Tomorrow now occupies a spot analogous to that The Blair Witch Project held over a decade ago (leaving aside the latter film’s massive box office) in independent film. And, like Blair Witch, Escape is starting to encounter backlash in reaction to the hype that accompanied its debut at Sundance as “the best film that you may never get a chance to see.” Most of that backlash centers around a perceived lack of bite in the satire, and to criticism of the acting and filmmaking as “amateurish” and “just plain awful.” To each his own, but since most of the initial discussion centered around the film as a cause célèbre when it appeared to be waiting to be crushed by Disney’s corporate paw, now that it has been released with very little reaction from The Mouse House, some are feeling cheated that perhaps the film didn’t go as far as it could taking on Disney… that it’s a missed opportunity.

Still from Escape from Tomorrow (2013)Those who hoped for a harsh slash and burn attack on Disney and its park practices will need to seek satisfaction elsewhere, but those who feel that the satire is too soft and too on the surface are missing the point entirely. Escape from Tomorrow is a comic nightmare of the subconscious: “Lynchian” has been used many times in descriptions of the film. But Moore isn’t a -style surrealist; his take in presenting the paranoia and sexual tension that lurks in the corners of The Happiest Place On Earth is closer to the work of .

“Imagination” is a word that is repeated throughout Escape from Tomorrow, and it is the coin of this realm. After all, the whole function of amusement parks such as Disney World is to provide a playland. What could be better than having your playland already thought out for you—characters, scenarios, every little thing? Disney may not have been at it the longest, but they have certainly been very thorough in “imagineering” characters and places that have Continue reading THREE TAKES ON ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

LIST CANDIDATE: 1 (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Pater Sparrow

FEATURING: Zoltán Mucsi, László Sinkó, Vica Kerekes, Pál Mácsai

PLOT: When all the rare books in a bookstore are mysteriously replaced by an anonymous book titled “1,” the “Reality Defense Council” steps in to investigate.

Still from 1 (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: 1 aggressively aligns itself with the irrational by making a fascistic institution dedicated to the defense of reality into its chief villain. It’s a professionally made little sleeper of a movie with some outrageously bold and inventive ideas; it would fit comfortably alongside other candidates on the List. Better visibility would help its case.

COMMENTS: 1 is a partial adaptation of the short story “One Human Minute” by the Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote the novel on which Solaris was based). The story was a fictional review of a fictional book that purported to describe, in voluminous statistical tables, all of human activity that occurs on Earth during one minute’s time (including, for example, the suicide totals, subdivided into the number of hangings, gunshots, and so forth, reports on gallons of blood spilled and sperm ejaculated, etc.). The original story may seem like an insanely ambitious project, but, although 1 quotes extensively from “One Human Minute” and illustrates Lem’s sardonic prose with extensive stock footage montages, the film takes the idea merely as its launching pad. 1, the movie, posits that “1,” the book described by Lem, has been published by some godlike force, and that it has a mystical power to drive men mad. The book appears in a rare bookstore one day, replacing every other volume on the shelf. The store is locked down by a detective and the four people who were present during the event—the wealthy owner, the beautiful clerk, a mute janitor, and an elderly customer who is a “citizen of the Vatican”—are sequestered for questioning. Eventually a copy of “1” finds its way into the streets and is uploaded to the Internet. Those who read the book riot. Meanwhile, the quartet of suspects is whisked away to a government installation/dolphin habitat run by the Reality Defense Institute, where they are drugged and interrogated. Then pears start showing up everywhere. Then things get a little weird. 1 covers a lot of ground: formally, it’s a dark and dystopian parody of a police procedural with surrealist touches, and the original novella’s warning about humanity being swallowed up by statistics is still there. But more than anything 1 seems to be about the notion that reality is subjective, taking the idea that we can do whatever we can imagine to literal extremes. To me, that’s not that inspiring or original of a philosophical concept; then again, so few movies have any ideas at all that it hardly seems fair to criticize 1 for having a weak one. What really matters isn’t the novelty of the idea but of the execution, and here 1 is a winner: it’s constantly fresh, surprising and amusing. It’s clever to see reality grilling imagination in an interrogation room. It’s bizarre when a government agent tears down a poster of a pear, but doesn’t notice that by doing so he has just revealed a real pear hidden in a recess of the wall. The entire notion of a government-sponsored “Reality Defense Institute” dedicated to investigating and prosecuting offenses against reality is a beautiful mockery. 1 is baffling, but its surprises are almost always rewarding. It’s 1, weird movie.

Perhaps ironically, 1 is not available on DVD (or any other format) in Region 1. There is a Spanish Region 2 DVD out there somewhere. According to director Sparrow, “…the main production house, Honeymood Films, for reasons unfamiliar to me stayed aloof from the dvd release… since the distributional rights belong to them, the only thing that I can do is to accept the fact that my first feature will not be officially released on dvd.” This being the digital age, 1 can still be seen by those with rudimentary Google skills (with the director’s blessing). Sparrow has moved on and is currently working on a second feature, Heartsnatcher, an adaptation of a Boris Vian novel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reminiscent of the works of Peter Greenaway (especially 1980’s The Falls) in its vast referential breadth, its mannered blurring of fact and fiction, and the beauty of its tableau-like images, this fever dream of a film conjures up the ineffable presence of God alongside the whiff of dog turd, and defies viewers to determine for themselves both what’s what and what it’s all about.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

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

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”

Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to  delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.

Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.

Still from Curse of the Cat People (1944)Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.

First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.

Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.

The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.

RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks ‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.

The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”

Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.

Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).

104. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

“What is this, a freak out?”–Violet Beauregarde

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Mel Stuart

FEATURING: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole

PLOT:  Charlie is a poor boy supporting his mother and four bedridden grandparents with the earnings from his paper route.  When eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka announces he will be awarding a lifetime supply of chocolate and a tour of his mysterious candy factory to the finders of five golden tickets, Charlie wants to win more than anything.  When he, along with four bratty companions, finally meets the exceedingly odd Mr. Wonka,  Charlie finds the factory, and its owner, far stranger and more magical than anything he could have imagined.

Still from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A note for those who believe product placement and corporate tie-ins are a recent phenomenon in movies: although this film was based on Roald Dahl’s bestelling children’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it was retitled to incorporate the Wonka name in order to promote the release of real-life Wonka candy bars (which were still made up until 2010) by Quaker Oats, who financed the production.
  • Dahl himself wrote the original script, but it was extensively rewritten by an uncredited David (The Hellstrom Chronicles) Seltzer, reportedly to Dahl’s displeasure.  (It’s worth noting that Dahl, like most authors, pretty much hated every adaptation of his work).
  • This was the only movie Peter Ostrum (Charlie) ever acted in.
  • The movie just broke even at the box office, but became a cult sensation thanks to television screenings and home video.  In 2003, Entertainment Weekly ranked Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the 25th biggest cult movie of all time.
  • The score was nominated for a “Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score” Oscar but lost to Fiddler on the Roof.
  • Despite the fact that he was rejected for the role of the candy shop owner in the film, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 rendition of the film’s first musical number, “The Candy Man,” became a #1 hit and a staple of his live shows.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton‘s 2005 adaptation of the same material with as Wonka, is somewhat closer to Dahl’s original novel.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wonka’s face, bathed in flashing red and green lights, as he shrieks incoherently at the end of his terrifying trip down a psychedelic tunnel of horrors.  It’s the capping image of a horrifying scene that’s been scarring unsuspecting children for 40 years now.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Is it Gene Wilder’s ultra-eccentric performance as the charming but vaguely demonic candyman in a purple velvet jacket and burgundy top hat who suavely arranges for wicked children to hang themselves with the licorice ropes of their own vice? Or the chorus of orange-faced, green haired, dwarf laborers who sing moralizing “Oompah Loompah” tunes after each victim ironically offs him or herself? No, we all know it’s the bad trip boat ride, where Wonka recites Edgar Allan Poe inspired verse (“By the fires of Hell a’ glowing/Is the grisly reaper mowing?”) as the craft careens down a tunnel of horrors while colored strobe lights flash and avant-garde footage plays on the walls that tips this celebration of imagination into the weird column.


Original trailer for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

COMMENTS: When I was a kid, they used to play Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on Continue reading 104. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

85. BRAZIL (1985)

“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust.  Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black.  The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful.  The contrast was extraordinary.  I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’  The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”–Terry Gilliam on his inspiration for the title Brazil

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughan, Bob Hoskins, Charles McKeown

PLOT:  Sam Lowry is a lowly, unambitious bureaucrat working in the Records Department in an authoritarian society “somewhere in the Twentieth century” who frequently dreams he is a winged man fighting a giant robotic samurai to save a beautiful woman.  An error results in the government picking up a Mr. Buttle as a suspected terrorist instead of a Mr. Tuttle; Buttle dies during interrogation. Sam visits Buttle’s widow to deliver a refund check for her dead husband, and finds that the upstairs neighbor, Jill, looks exactly like his dream woman; he transfers to the “Information Retrieval” Department to access Jill’s personal files and learn more about her, but ends up running afoul of powerful government interests.

Still from Brazil (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Brazil is the second part of Gilliam’s unofficial “Imagination” trilogy, which began with Time Bandits and ended with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  Time Bandits is told from the perspective of a child, Brazil from that of an adult, and Munchausen from an elderly man.  Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm and Monty Python buddy Michael Palin all appeared in Time Banditsas well.
  • Terry Gilliam co-wrote the script for Brazil with Charles McKeown (who also plays Harvey Lime here, and would later collaborate on the scripts for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and playwright Tom Stoppard.  The three together were nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  Novelist Charles Alverson also worked on an early version of the script, but he and Gilliam had a falling out and he was not credited for his work, although he was paid.
  • Besides Best Original Screenplay, Brazil was also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar.
  • The movie is named after its theme song, Ary Baroso’s 1939 “Aquarela do Brazil” [“Watercolors of Brazil”].  “Brazil” represents the exotic, colorful world (with an amber moon) that Sam dreams of escaping to. According to one story, the film was originally to be titled 1984 1/2, but the title was dropped over worries about lawsuits from George Orwell’s estate (a fine adaptation of 1984 had been released the previous year).
  • Robert De Niro read the script and lobbied to play the part of Jack, but Gilliam turned the star down because he wanted Palin in the role.  De Niro accepted the role of Tuttle instead.
  • Brazil has a legendary distribution story.  The film was released overseas in Gilliam’s original cut, but in the U.S. Universal Studios did not like the unhappy ending and attempted to recut the film, reducing it from 142 minutes to 94 minutes and editing the ending in an attempt to give it a happy ending.  (This studio cut of the film later played on television and has been dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil).  Gilliam opposed the changes and feuded publicly with Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, blaming him personally for holding up the movie’s release, appearing on the television program “Good Morning America” and holding up a picture of Sheinberg, and paying for a full page ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie?”  Against studio orders, Gilliam screened the uncut film for free at the University of Southern California.  Curious critics attended the screenings, and before the movie had been released to U.S. theaters, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Brazil Best Picture of 1985.  In a compromise agreed to by Gilliam, Universal cut only 11 minutes from the complete version, left the unhappy ending largely intact, and released the movie soon after (reportedly so as not to jeopardize its chances at winning an Academy Award).
  • Calling its style “retro-futurism,” Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet credit Brazil‘s art design with influencing their vision for Delicatessen and The City of Lost ChildrenBrazil’s junkyard of the future look also directly inspired the visual sensibilities of movies such as Dark City, Tim Burton‘s Batman, and 2011’s Sucker Punch.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some may nominate Sam’s dream of soaring as a mechanical angel battling a giant robotic samurai, or the torturer posed in his decrepit doll’s mask in the foreground with his tiny victim chained in the center of a massive open-air tower in the distant background, but it’s Katherine Helmond’s personal plastic surgeon gripping and stretching her facial flab impossibly tight that’s the most striking, incisive and unexpected of Brazil‘s many visual non sequiturs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Terry Gilliam explained his vision for the milieu he molds in Brazil as one that’s “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.” He was shooting for an atmosphere that’s uncannily familiar, something just strange enough to shock the viewer while still highlighting the absurdities of modern existence. Watching Brazil‘s many surreal touches—as when what appears to be a giant boozing tramp peers over a horizon dominated by cooling towers painted sky blue with white clouds—most viewers will conclude Gilliam overshot the five degrees at which he was aiming. But in the unlikely event the rest of the film isn’t strange enough for you, wait for the finale in which Gilliam pulls out reality’s remaining stops, including a scene where a man is literally killed by paperwork.

Original trailer for Brazil

COMMENTS:  Terry Gilliam wasn’t kidding when he located Brazil “somewhere in the Continue reading 85. BRAZIL (1985)

CAPSULE: SUCKER PUNCH (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING: , Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, , Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac,

PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
Still from Sucker Punch (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.

COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning.  Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet.  This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone.  She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room.  The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.

The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure.  To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter.  The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit.  The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances.  The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world.  Oversize metal samurai?  Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby?  Nazi zombies?  It’s been done.

The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can.  The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.

Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film.  Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack.  Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll.  Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.

It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre.  While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation.  In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Spastic, bombastic, and incoherent, Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a baroque, highly polished chunk of pop culture vomit. A nonsensical mash-up of Shutter Island, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Kill Bill, it doesn’t even have the decency to have fun with its cartoonish obsessions, instead delivering a somber, moody, metafictional melodrama that that thinks it’s about female empowerment but instead has all the philosophical heft of Maxim Magazine.”–Jeff Meyers, Detroit Metro Times (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp,

PLOT: A 1000 year-old mystic enlists the help of a seedy amnesiac to save his daughter, whose life he exchanged for eternal youth, from the clutches of the Devil.


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a return to extreme fantasy for Terry Gilliam, who hasn’t delved so deep into the realm of untethered imagination since The Adventures of Baron Muchausen. It is a madcap vaudevillian escapade that is anything but ordinary, a rekindling of the fires of whimsy in modern cinema that has not been lit in some time. Gilliam conjures a tale that comes from the divine and the pedestrian, fills it with colorful, albeit thin, characters, and lets the magic happen as the elements coalesce into a Victorian sideshow of epic proportions.

COMMENTS: Set over a thousand years of the titular character’s life (although it’s mostly set in modern day England), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical meditation on choices: good ones, bad ones, the weight-laden overabundance of decisions we all face at some point, and the demeaning lack of options we also experience. From literal metaphors involving people choosing their destinies in a realm of imagination to the figurative posturings of the opposition between that which is right and that which is merely easy, director Terry Gilliam muses in this film on the ages-old dilemma of free will and how these characters will go about using it.

But forget about that!  What everyone wants to know is how well they shoe-horned in all of Heath Ledger’s stand-ins during post-production! As you’re well aware, I’m sure, this is the final performance of the late, great Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died during the production of this feature, leaving his role, that of the amnesiac Tony, woefully incomplete. Gilliam, being ever the professional, and no stranger to ill circumstances Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, David Warner, , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)