Tag Archives: Independent film

366 UNDERGROUND: MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO (2015)

“I made Rise of Torgo following what I call ‘Hal’s Rules’: very few takes, no shots over 30 seconds, shoot without sound and pay no one up front. There’s no way to copy what Hal Warren did, so I set out to make a film that is a sibling to the original, similar yet different.”–David Roy, 2016 interview with 366 Weird Movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jackie Neyman Jones, Joe Warren, Danny McCarty, Elizabeth Redpath, Matt Rogers

PLOT: In this prequel to the notoriously bad cult film Manos: The Hands of Fate, we learn the origin of iconic characters the Master and Torgo.

Still from Manos: The Rise of Torgo (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Rise of Torgo is an often-striking addition to the Manos world, with several inventive and unique aspects that had potential, but ultimately its slavish devotion to the original and a plodding pace prevent it from being a satisfying prequel. It’s not good enough to be great and not terrible enough to be an entertaining “bad” film, falling somewhere between competent and ordinary.

COMMENTS: Manos: The Rise of Torgo faces two major concerns from the outset: one, it follows up an iconic cult film fifty-something years after the fact; and two, it purposefully sets out to make a “bad” movie. The first concern is similar to the dilemma faced by the recent follow up to 1982’s Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, which I though was plagued by the weight of its highly influential predecessor and was most successful when it strayed from the source material. Similarly, Rise of Torgo is most engaging when building its own mythos, and least successful when recreating or reusing elements of the original film. Obviously there’s no comparison between the two franchises (Blade Runner vs. Manos) in terms of production value or popular success; I mention it only because of the comparable uneven mix of old and new elements, the considerable lengths between installments, and because both films feature actors from the original franchise.

The second concern arises when a competent filmmaker attempts to recreate the errors of people with no concept of how to turn out a polished, coherent product. The errors often feel forced or labored, and the schadenfreude derived from witnessing genuinely misguided filmmaking is replaced with boredom and irritation. The great “terrible” films like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Troll 2 (1990) or The Room (2003) were made by genuinely misguided filmmakers, outsiders like or who seem removed from ordinary human experience and can only write dialogue and cut footage together from their own strange impulses. They show instincts devoid of even the slightest knowledge of how ordinary human beings communicate, or of how filmmakers arrange footage to create meaning and coherence.

The original Manos brimmed with the kind of odd editing choices and bizarre dialogue that truly defines bad cinema. It featured twenty second shots of Torgo stumbling around with luggage, accompanied by his own music cue, alongside his tremulous delivery of lines like, “I meant no harm, Madam, I’ll protect you… I’ll protect you.” Director Harold Warren had no formal film training, and it shows, especially when a shot of the clapperboard is featured in scenes with the kissing couple. The amateur nature of the production is stamped throughout the exasperating length of the film.

Rise of Torgo’s auteur, David Roy, is clearly no slouch at film making. His shots are well composed, the color grading enhances elements for effect, and there are even special effects (admittedly cheesy ones, probably designed as such to fit the Manos universe). This is a capable filmmaker attempting to make a bad film, and as such a lot of the fun is taken out of the picture. What we get instead are elements of garbage woven through a competently produced picture.

Rise of Torgo gets off to a good, campy start, with an introduction to the Master and the God Manos (represented by Jackie Neyman Jones, the little girl from the original), presented as a floating head, like the ghost of Mufasa in The Lion King. We then learn the origins of Torgo’s birth, involving twin midwives (who later turn out to be his grandmothers) and a blessing from a cross-eyed gypsy. She is promptly jettisoned from the rest of the film and her presence never explained. All original and amusing “bad filmmaking” choices so far. A woman in the woods inexplicably sings about her love for goats, and given Torgo’s hinted-at satyr nature in the original film, we might even expect the two to meet and develop a romance. Sadly, at this point in the film Manos “call-backs” take over. The girl merely becomes a victim of the Master’s original caretaker, and an otherwise fresh, surreal characteristic goes unutilized.

The “Them” Torgo’s Mother speaks of is an interesting aspect thrown into his psychology, but ultimately becomes pointless in his transformation into the Master’s slave. That transformation arises from a combination of bullying and the power of Manos. The twin Grandmothers speak and move in sync, an interesting feature that remains merely a curiosity and fails to inform the story in any significant way. It’s a device that had potential, but ultimately falls to the necessity of sticking to the elements of The Hands of Fate. The film occasionally even fails to satisfy this requirement: Torgo doesn’t have the same quavering, tremulous voice as the original, not even after his transformation by Manos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you enjoyed the original Manos, you’ll probably find this to be a worthy sequel, in the sense that it strives to stylistically be as similar as possible. If campiness is your thing, you’re in for a fun ride.”–David Gelmini, Dread Central

Manos: The Rise of Torgo Facebook Site

CAPSULE: ONE-EYED MONSTER (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Fields

FEATURING: Jason Graham, Amber Benson, Veronica Hart, , Ron Jeremy

PLOT: At a porn shoot in a remote cabin, an alien possesses Ron Jeremy’s penis and sets about killing the cast and crew.

Still from One-eyed Monster (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird, just a one-joke premise that might have held five minutes worth of comedy, stretched out to feature length.

COMMENTS: A movie about an animated killer penis? Starring (sort of) Ron Jeremy, as himself? It’s both a can’t-miss and a can’t-hit idea. Sure, people will tune in for the high concept, but even if you do your very best, could an idea that sounds like it was thought up during middle school recess work as more than a passable time-waster?

The answer, of course, is “no.”  You may giggle occasionally, but aside from the “writes itself” gimmick, this is by-the-numbers B-filmmaking about attractive people in a cabin being killed by an unseen presence. And I do mean “unseen”: we don’t get our first glimpse of the titular monster until the movie is 2/3 over (spoiler: it’s not worth the wait). Not only that, but this is a movie about a porn shoot that only has one nude scene. In other words, almost everything the target audience tuned in to see—penis monsters, penis monster kills, sex, nudity—occurs offscreen. That leaves us with a very talky movie relying on a few limp industry jokes—such as referring to an actress who’s only been in a hundred adult videos as a “newbie”—while following the Night of the Living Dead playbook by rote (there’s even a scene where the obnoxious white villain locks the noble black hero out of the cabin).

While One-Eyed Monster is generally unexceptional, there are a few high points: some cute moments with a “neurotactile simulator” and a funny, campy Vietnam flashback monologue from a grizzled Charles Napier. But my feeling is that they should have turned this script into an expensive porn movie instead of a cheap horror movie. We use our “” rating sparingly, but One-Eyed Monster comes close to meriting it. It’s not like it’s loathsome—just puerile. Be warned: watching it is a waste of time. (Its 4.2 IMDB rating supports this thesis). You might be cool with wasting your time, though, and if so, have at it. You might get a couple of chuckles out of the deal. The DVD does include a 35-minute reminiscence about the early days of the adult film industry from veteran porn stars Jeremy and Hart, which is a good bit more interesting than the feature film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is the postmodern thrill of a film-within-a-film and actors playing themselves – and Jeremy proves particularly sporting in allowing his legendary proportions to be reduced to alien bait…  too short to let any of its more flaccid moments bring it crashing down, and funny enough (at least in a drunken crowd) to make your eyes water.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “philbymon,” who called it “[t]he weirdest thing I’ve seen recently.” We bet he’s topped it by now. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

“[Children are] constantly constructing, and then reconstructing and amending and annexing a model of their cosmos, their universe. The real joyous intoxications and wonderment come from building faulty models, and then tearing them down and rebuilding. But you never completely tear down your model, I think you just keep adding on to your faulty model of the way the world works. All if us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have built this really elaborate model, which we feel is right now finally. But at its very foundation, at the very bottom, its very earliest days, there are these errors that run like a motherlode through the ensuing years.”–Guy Maddin, “97 Percent True”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Katherine E. Scharhon, Maya Lawson, Erik Steffen Maahs, (narration)

PLOT: “Guy Maddin,” who has not been home in thirty years, returns to Black Notch, the island on which he spent his childhood, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish: to give the family lighthouse/orphanage two good coats of paint. The trip sparks Guy’s memory; he recalls when celebrity teen detective Wendy Hale arrived on the island to investigate the strange holes found on the back of orphan’s heads. Guy develops a crush on the detective, but Hale goes undercover as her own brother, Chance, and seduces Guy’s sister, all while investigating his dictatorial mother and mad scientist father on her way to uncovering secrets that will tear the family apart.

BACKGROUND:

  • Brand Upon the Brain! was funded (for a reported $40,000) by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization on the condition that Maddin use a local Seattle cast and crew. The film was shot in nine days.
  • This is the middle entry in Maddin’s unofficial autobiographical trilogy, in which each film has a (different) protagonist named Guy Maddin. (The first was 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee and the last was 2007’s My Winnipeg).
  • The script was written with Maddin’s frequent collaborator Geroge Toles, but Maddin regular (who usually appears as an actor) wrote the narration.
  • The idea of narration for a silent film was inspired by “explicators,” people who would be hired by theaters to explain visual and narrative concepts the audience might not get on their own during live screenings of silent films.
  • Originally staged as a live event with a small orchestra (including a “castrato”) and foley artists, different performances featured different guest narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (who does the definitive reading), Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, , , Louis Negin, , Eli Wallach, and Maddin himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The lighthouse lamp, an all-seeing orb, sort of a rotating papier-mâché rendition of the Eye of Sauron. Several of Guy’s family members come to bad ends before it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rumanian womb birthmark; holes in orphan’s heads; the undressing gloves

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s another mad Maddin false autobiography! This time, the director imagines himself as the offspring of a mad scientist and yet another iteration of his domineering mother archetype, raised in a lighthouse among a band of orphans. Absurd but emotionally true memories are jumbled up, with a melange of archaic obsessions each taking their turn in the subconscious spotlight: teenage detectives, confused genders leading to confusing crushes, family members transfigured into zombies and vampires, with all of this lurid melodrama shot on blurry Super 8 and edited by a drunken, psychotic subconscious. Pure madness.


Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

COMMENTS: “The past… into the past!” Memory is the theme of Continue reading 315. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

AKA Paranoia 1.0 (DVD)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson

FEATURING: , Deborah Kara Unger, , Eugene Byrd,

PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.

Still from One Point O (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.

COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.

Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.

Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.

Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.

In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.

There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

CAPSULE: AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Anne Hamilton

FEATURING: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, Zuleikha Robinson

PLOT: A 11-year old girl in Reagan-era America wrestles with her conscience when she discovers a man being held hostage on her farm.

Still from American Fable (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film pays lip service to magical realism and utilizes some striking imagery, there’s nothing especially weird about American Fable, although it does signal some interesting new voices.

COMMENTS: American Fable lays all its cards out on the table before the movie even begins. After all, the name of the movie is American Fable. Our tale will be fantastical, but highly moral, and with the particular shadings of fierce independence and bull-headed determination that flourishes in the United States. Titles, after all, are important.

They certainly nail the “American” part right away, opening on a family farm in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where a father reads a story to his daughter while Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial plays in the background. As that combination would suggest, times are tough, with small farmers struggling to fight off the banks and predatory land barons, with increasingly dire results. Indeed, the family of our hero will eventually turn to crime in an effort to buy their way out of the hole.

The “fable” part, on the other hand, is a longer walk. That father is reading tales of princesses and monsters to his daughter, Gitty, and while she is on the cusp of learning harder truths about the world, she still has a childlike attraction to the trappings of fairy tales. As she learns more about her family’s situation, she is inclined to view them through the lens of fantasy.

This isn’t a “Walter Mitty” scenario, though. Aside from a couple dream visions that portray one of her father’s associates as a fantastical witch queen, the elements of fable come through more as tropes played straight. A lonely farm girl with only a chicken for a friend, the discovery of a man in an abandoned tower, a handsome young man who is revealed to be thoroughly wicked: these would be perfectly at home in a Disney feature, but American Fable never winks at them.

The line this film walks is a tricky one. If you take the story seriously, then the plot immediately falls apart. If you insist that it’s merely an ancient tale transplanted to more recent times, then it’s lacking in any real mystery or magic. Director Hamilton tries to help her own script with a genuine knack for visuals. She has a painterly eye, artfully composing every shot and transforming rural Illinois (standing in for Wisconsin) into a setting worthy of the Impressionists. But her story tries to have it both ways, and never really succeeds at either.

Working in the film’s favor is uniformly strong acting, selling situations and characters that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. In particular, Schiff is expectedly reliable as a man by turns wistful and desperate about his circumstances. But the whole enterprise rests on the shoulders of Kennedy, who succeeds completely. Not an inexperienced actor (I encountered her previously in another weird setting as the irascible doctor on the educational quirkfest Odd Squad), she is completely believable, naïve but not stupid, reacting in the best way she knows how to situations beyond her understanding, and torn when she finds herself on both sides of a moral dilemma. American Fable ultimately doesn’t succeed as either the raw drama or the mystical metaphor that it wants to be. As a showcase for its director and star, however, it’s an outstanding calling card.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anne Hamilton’s first feature as a writer/director… plays out in a landscape aching with beauty and color and strangeness, a vivid Eden about to disappear. Hamilton has created a surreal and magical atmosphere for this melodramatic family thriller, and it is the atmosphere that dominates.” – Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com

CAPSULE: BAG BOY LOVER BOY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Andres Torres

FEATURING: Jon Wachter, Theodore Bouloukos, Adrienne Gori

PLOT: A slow-witted hot dog vendor takes it into his head to become an artist after an uptown photographer uses him in a photo shoot.

Still from Bag Boy Lover Boy (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A throwback to the artier side of grimy NYC exploitation films a la , Bag Boy is unusual because of its odd lead and a few perverse set pieces, but the script ultimately does little to distinguish itself from an ordinary slasher flick.

COMMENTS: John Wachter has a swayback that gives him a pot belly in profile, even though he’s almost painfully thin. He speaks in a nasally voice that sounds like an Eastern European Dudley Do-right. His character, Albert, works at a hot dog cart and has very little sense of hygiene (he drops wieners on the cart floor, then assures a potential buyer not to worry because it’s for “tomorrow’s customers”) and even less range of expression. Those features wouldn’t seem to make him the ideal candidate for supposed uptown star photographer Ivan, especially since most of those personality traits don’t come across in stills. (Would work as a fashion model?) Still, Albert’s supposed to be some kind of Diane Arbus-style “discovery.” Just roll with it. Ivan does, and mooning over Albert in a couple of photoshoots where a busty model in black lingerie feeds him strawberries or where he’s covered in fake blood holding a tiny pitchfork and (literally) grilling a nude model painted up as a pig. You know, “real art.”

Albert is infatuated with a local street girl whom he supplies with free hot dogs, but when she walks off with an amateur photographer (because she doesn’t realize it’s never a good idea to make the psycho jealous), the vendor becomes convinced that a career in the arts is the key to her heart. (Adding to his newfound enthusiasm is the fact that his blood got pumping when Ivan instructed him to place a bag over a model’s head and pretend to strangle her). When Ivan goes off on an assignment and Albert starts hiring streetwalkers as models, you can probably figure out where this is going—no surprises will follow, although a few well-done, short dream sequences and gross-out scenes liven things up. Bag Boy does reasonably well with a low budget, delivers acceptable performances, and never bores despite its predictability, but it’s not essential viewing. More derangement would have helped.

The DVD/Blu-ray features commentary from Torres, Bouloukos, and the editor, plus a couple of very short, inconsequential silent black and white student shorts starring Wachter. One of them has amusing commentary: during one shot of a closed door, Wachter reflects “there were supposed to be a lot of interesting things happening… but that didn’t really happen this time.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this low budget effort (actually made in 2014) ticks all the boxes as a cult hit. Some films, however, try far too hard to win over the hipster cool crowd with bizarreness. We’re happy to report that Bag Boy Lover Boy manages to walk the tightrope of knowing weirdness perfectly.”–Martin Unsworth, Starburst (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE CHUMSCRUBBER (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Arie Posin

FEATURING: Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, , Glenn Close, Allison Janney, William Fitchner

PLOT: In a wealthy California suburb, disaffected teen Dean finds himself snared in an amateur blackmail and kidnapping plot after his only friend, a drug supplier, hangs himself and local high school dealers assume Dean knows the location of the stash.

Strill from The Chumscrubber (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie is indeed weird—partly by design, and (I suspect) partially by accident—but doesn’t benefit by it. It’s worth a look as a curiosity, but doesn’t rise to a Listable level.

COMMENTS: The Chumscrubber is exactly what the title says it is. What, you don’t know what a “chumscrubber” is? That’s OK, neither does the movie. Well, that’s not 100% true. In fact, the “chumscrubber” is a decapitated character from an apocalyptic teen video game—presumably one that scrubs chum when offscreen. But what’s it doing in this movie? What it supposed to symbolize? And why it was deemed a significant enough entity to name the movie after despite getting only a few minutes of screen time? Only the writer knows the answer for sure.

The scattershot script has a lot of problems. For example, what would you do if a group of bullies whom you hated, who had no leverage over you whatsoever, tried to blackmail you into committing a crime? If you said “either ignore them or report them to the police,” congratulations: you just ended the movie early. If you said “go along with their incriminating scheme, obviously,” then you may be target audience for The Chumscrubber. Besides the implausibility of that central plot point, other, more promising gambits, like dueling wedding/memorial parties scheduled for the same day and the surreptitious introduction of ecstasy into a casserole, promise wacky hijinks to come, then fizzle out when they arrive.

Yet, with all it’s issues, The Chumscrubber isn’t a terrible movie experience. The suburban satirical targets may be too obvious, but the you-never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next plot is refreshing, even fun. The movie has a lot going on to keep your mind occupied: Dean’s troubled teen travails, drug abuse (both recreational and prescription), bullying, kidnapping, a hallucinating hero, bad video game CGI, a misguided romantic subplot, and an entire bonus movie shoehorned in about mild-mannered mayor Ralph Fiennes, who is either going crazy or is the victim of an identity shift. The fine cast does their best in individual scenes that work better than the whole, and the auteurial ambition shines through. Embodying passive-aggressive grief-engendered dementia, Glenn Close is ace, as always. She understands that this material only really works as a black comedy, and seems to be acting in a different (and better) movie. Allison Janney, as Dean’s mom, plays against Close well, allowing herself to be guilt-tripped and becoming one of the few three-dimensional characters. Lead Jamie Bell, a poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg, also puts in quality work. The other veterans in the cast do their best, fighting characterizations that don’t have much depth or sense to them (Fiennes seems particularly bewildered and unsure how to handle his bizarre role).

It’s not surprising that Arie Posin (almost) never worked in movies again. But it’s pretty amazing that he was able to make this meandering, would-be cult movie—with A- list talent, to boot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dreamily surreal… recalls David Lynch and ‘Donnie Darko’ while remaining fresh and original…”–David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

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

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed—but she’ll cast one anyway, just to make sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

CAPSULE: THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Adrian Brody

PLOT: Three brothers, each at a personal crossroads, reunite for a spiritual quest through India.

Still from The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Darjeeling Limited comes from Wes Anderson’ mid-to-early period, where he flirted with stangeness in airy, slightly dreamy features like Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and this before floating back to Earth for the family-friendly Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Oscar-friendly The Grand Budapest Hotel. He never became quite untethered enough from the bounds of indie movie reality and character-based comedy to soar all the way to the vertiginous heights of the weird, though he did aim high enough to make movies of this period worthy of some scrutiny by fans of unusual films.

COMMENTS: “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails,” Jack sensibly asks after the trio of brothers have been asked to disembark from the title vehicle mid-trip. The “off the rails” joke seems intended a wry, self-aware comment from Anderson about the shaggy dog nature of his story, but it’s not really accurate. For better or worse—I’d say better—The Darjeeling Limited never deviates from the path it sets. This director is known for his tight formalism, revealed in his immaculate set design—every swatch of geometric wallpaper, every piece of matching luggage covered in palm trees suggesting a proper Old World elegance—and in the distant, detached stiffness he enforces on his actors.

The Darjeeling Limited is a quintessential Wes Anderson movie: carefully composed visuals (with a stunning turmeric and saffron color scheme), quirky characters with muffled emotions, a mildly absurd plot. It’s perfectly capable of absorbing you in its off-center but oddly believable universe. Owen Wilson (as the ringmaster brother swaddled in bandages from his recent near-death accident) and Jason Schwartzman (as the womanizing writer brother) are old hands for Wes; lanky Brody, not known at the time for his comic performances, fits into the ensemble surprisingly well. , naturally, has an amusing sad sack cameo, and old hand turns up in a small role, too. These three brothers are allegedly off on a spiritual journey, but their quest turns out to be more about coming to grips with the legacies of their parents than discovering nirvana. A Wes Anderson protagonist is typically an upper-middle class (i.e., bourgeois) man focused on a peculiar obsession (Rushmore‘s Max and his crush on an older woman, Steve Zissou’s quest for vengeance), whose narcissism is deflated when he comes to realize that the universe will go its own way without yielding to his desires. These characters’ lenses gradually widen to compensate for their myopia, and they end up not with redemption, but with the resigned wisdom that comes from accepting disillusionment. Here, the realization comes in triplicate. Perhaps there is a legitimate spiritual lesson there, after all.

The Criterion disc includes “The Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman (alongside ) that describes an incident just before the beginning of Darjeeling Limited. It screened before the feature in some theaters. It carries the same sense of whimsical melancholy as the main feature, but, despite plot connections to the main story, it isn’t necessary to enjoy or understand Darjeeling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…entertaining and engaging, and also deliberately strange.”–Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

(This movie was nominated for review by “bill,” who said it was “not as overtly strange as some of the movies on this list however there is a certain surreal aspect to the story telling that makes this a masterful cinematic oddity .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []