Tag Archives: Independent film

LIST CANDIDATE: UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

UPDATE (3/5/2014): Upstream Color has been officially inducted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Here is the Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Upstream Color

PLOT: After a man known as the Thief drugs a young woman and steals most of her money, she loses her job and some of her memory, and needs to start an entirely new life; a year later she is romantically pursued by an incorrigible businessman, but their relationship is hindered by her traumatic experience and the enterprising man behind it.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Approaching the narrative in a dreamlike state, Upstream Color is a surreal and beautiful journey through lingering trauma, tinged with elements of science-fiction and romantic drama. Its convoluted, unstructured story is at first distancing, but the imaginative visuals, strong performances, and compelling use of sound make for a weird movie that’s also emotionally resonant.

COMMENTS: Opening with choppy shots of a mysterious drug operation involving white worms with unique mind-altering properties, Upstream Color devotes most of its first act to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a special effects coordinator who is knocked out, drugged up with a worm, and essentially taken hostage in her own home for a few days. The worm has a kind of brainwashing effect, allowing the Thief (Thiago Martins) to coerce Kris into signing away all that she owns. Left alone and discovering the living worm crawling around inside her skin, she is sonically drawn to a pig farm where the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) cuts it out of her and harvests it for future use. She wakes up at home with no memory of the experience, and only an empty bank account and unemployment to look forward to. It is a deeply unsettling sequence, played out in short, calculated bursts that emphasize the strange and harrowing process of Kris’ mental infiltration. The Thief remains faceless and monotone while she unquestioningly follows his every command, which primarily involve making her repetitively perform mundane tasks as a means of keeping her weak and controlled.

Fast-forwarding: after things have settled down, Kris, with a new haircut and an unexciting job at a copy shop, is harsh and distrustful. Her first interactions with Jeff (Shane Carruth) are halting and unsure, choppy and without resolution, and as their relationship grows deeper their scenes together become repetitive and disjointed. Both seem to have confused memories. The soft-glow blur of their romance is cut through with an otherworldly hum that seems to take over Kris, and she and Jeff begin to realize there are greater forces at work here. Their unconscious repetitive actions echo each other, and they see connections in each other’s fragmented psyches. Through it all the Sampler watches them, maintaining the pig farm where he harvests the mind-altering worms, with each pig serving as some kind of psychic link to the humans he’s operated on. His stony, unreadable demeanor makes him an ominous figure, and his sound-gathering trips are fascinating while also somehow menacing.

Upstream Color is notable for its combination of different genre and story elements that are blended and transformed through Carruth’s innovative narrative and filmic techniques. Diffused light and extreme close-ups mix with quick-cut editing and microscopic natural wonders, along with some graphic medical procedures and animal abuse. The loving attention to sound—both effects and background score—is clear, effectively creating an at-times anxious and at-times comforting atmosphere. The film is composed of little details that may or may not be important, as the bigger picture gradually, partially reveals itself, so that every scene is equally gripping and enigmatic. While the story is often ambiguous, Carruth does not lose sight of his characters, and in fact the performance of Amy Seimetz as the central figure grounds much of the film. As a whole it is certainly obscure and utterly dreamlike, and most viewers will likely leave unsure of exactly what went on, but certain that whatever it was, it was beautiful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “To watch the haunting, disturbing ‘Upstream Color’ is to feel like you’re inside not one of your own dreams but someone else’s, a dream that’s both compelling and unnerving in ways you can’t put your finger on.” –Kenneth Turan, LA Times.

CAPSULE: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, , Judy Geeson

PLOT: An overnight DJ is drawn into a web of witchcraft when she plays a mysterious record.

Still from The Lords of Salem (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird, to be sure, but it’s not weird enough to make us forgive all of the script’s missteps. I saw Salem in a theater with a quartet of teenagers as the only other patrons in the audience. They were far more thrilled by the Iron Man 3 trailer, which made the girls and boys alike squeal with delight. They were less impressed by this movie: one of them complained afterwards that it wasn’t even a “horror movie” (what kind of movie she thought it was, if not horror, I didn’t overhear). Yet, they stayed through the entire thing. If you can’t get teenagers who think Iron Man 3 looks awesome to walk out on your movie, then I’m afraid you haven’t made it weird enough to make the List.

COMMENTS: The Lords of Salem wants to be a rock and roll Rosemary’s Baby, but most of the time it’s just a bunch of dream sequences floating around in space, looking for a movie to latch on to. Of course, 366 Weird Movies doesn’t object to the use of dream sequences—hell, make your entire movie one long dream sequence and we’ll eat it up—but we do object to the clumsy, clichéd fashion in which they are handled here. If you’ve seen a horror movie before, you know the kind we’re talking about: everything seems normal and then suddenly the protagonist sees some dreadful apparition, bony fingers reach towards her neck, and then—poof!—she wakes up, it was all a dream. Do it once, and you’re just relying on a genre convention. Do it twice, and the audience may start to get annoyed. But play this trick three times or more, as Salem does, and you’ve broken a bond of trust between viewer and director. But let’s back up for a moment. These recurring hallucinations take up most of the pictures second act. The first act sets up the essential story: DJ Heidi lives alone with a dog in a Salem, Massachusetts apartment. Played by Sheri Moon Zombie, Heidi is unglamorous: skinny like a junkie, with bad tattoos, blond dreadlocks and hipster glasses. (Despite what you may have heard, her acting is not bad; the character is just underdeveloped. It was created in makeup and wardrobe, not in the script). Heidi interviews an expert on the Salem witch trials (for some reason, the late night classic rock show she co-hosts invites only Satanism-related guests) who provides historical background on local witchcraft cults. Then she receives a mysterious LP record, plays it on the air, and we drift into that seemingly never-ending series of dreams inside dreams which serve no plot purpose, but only showcase the director’s ability to construct a fake scare scene. Although it turns out all those second-act hallucinations (including a nasty bit involving a priest) were just padding, the story starts to improve in the third act, when three villainous witches start actively corrupting events. As the end draws near, the hallucination sequences become both more intense and more meaningful. Directed by the delightfully nasty and foul-mouthed hag trio, they take on a purposeful ritualistic character that makes it clear (well, somewhat clear) what’s going on with Heidi. The scenes turn operatic as Heidi’s efficiency apartment transforms into a grand ballroom. We meet a wonderfully creepy fetus-looking demon with a bifurcated umbilical cord who’s up to no good. And Rob Zombie goes all-out crazy in the final moments, creating a grand surrealistic horror montage that’s reminiscent of the kind of psychedelic apocalypses was putting up on big screens in the 1980s. The bottom line is I can’t recommend, or recommend avoiding, watching Lords of Salem. If you go you’ll see a fairly standard horror movie setup, a muddled middle, and an ambitious ending; you’ll see demons of every shape and size (including one looks like Chewbacca), corpses and rats and goats, psychedelic effects, blasphemous Satanic sex rituals, nude hags, cameos by minor genre icons like Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn (the credits say  and  are in there somewhere too, though I didn’t spot them), and Sheri Moon’s skinny butt. If that kind of hodgepodge sounds it worth it to you, and you don’t need a coherent story or artistic vision to tie it all together, than by all means have at it.

Rob Zombie is a difficult director to get a handle on. On the one hand, he is almost certainly the most talented director to ever bear the name “Zombie.” On the other hand, each of his movies contain moments of visionary inspiration marred by deep flaws and missteps. He displays the aesthetic sensibilities of an Iron Maiden album cover combined with an overweening sense of self-importance (his rambling, half-mad director’s statement claims that “only the goat knows free will” and warns against some “dangerous old conceptual fiction so near to the silver screen”). He’s a true American weirdo for our sick times.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film eventually abandons psychological subtlety for hallucinatory garishness, which is too bad.”–Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SPRING BREAKERS (2012)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ashley Benson, James Franco, , Selena Gomez

PLOT: Four college girls head to Fort Lauderdale for a week of binge drinking, drugs and sex and wind up teaming up with a local gangster for a crime spree.

Still from Spring Breakers (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It isn’t in the same league of weirdness as the other two Korine movies that have already made the List, although in many ways the deliriously debauched Spring Breakers is this director’s best film.

COMMENTS: Making an arthouse movie that critiques American trash culture starring a cast of gun-toting barely legal starlets in bikinis is a tall order. With Spring Breakers, Harmont Korine is shooting for something like a topless La Dolce Vita for the rave set, but it ends up more along the lines of “Girls Gone Wild” on acid. Not that that’s a bad thing; far from it. Spring Breakers isn’t profound as satire or anything—you mean these blunt-huffing sluts aren’t good role models for today’s suburban youth?—and the plot’s about as substantial as a string bikini, but the glitzy neon visuals and impressionistic narrative style synergize to create a uniquely American nightmare of trippy titillation and regret. Unannounced flashbacks, narrated montages and drug-trip sequences (there’s a nice pixelation effect where the image shifts unpredictably as Selena Gomez smokes a joint) disorient the casual viewer looking for nothing more than T&A. Add in a grungy gonzo performance by James Franco as Alien, an arrogant small-time dope and gun seller with pretensions of rap greatness, and you have an entertaining, if messy, trip through the dark side of contemporary collegiate consciousness. In Trash Humpers, Korine manifested the nihilism of the humpers’ lives through their horrid wrinkly rubber masks and glitchy low-tech videography, but here he focuses his camera on the improbably gorgeous; it’s all bikini crotch shots with arty lighting and Dutch angles. Despite all the beautiful bodies, the director’s trademark amateur grotesques also show up, in the form of a pair of scabby-looking thug brothers (the real-life “Atlanta twins,” inexplicable local mini-celebrities). With his trash tattoos (pot leaf on the back of his hand, dollar sign on his neck), grill of gold teeth, and cornrows, Franco’s scummy Alien looks like a typical Korine creation, too. You can almost smell the mix of b.o., reefer smoke and cheap cologne rising off him. Alien gets the best lines; his speech about how he’s living the American dream encompasses the film’s entire social agenda (plus he has Scarface running on an endless loop in his bedroom). The film’s maddest moment occurs as Alien sits at his beachside grand piano surrounded by the bikinied breakers in pink ski masks and croons a Britney Spears ballad that segues into a crime spree music video. Potty-mouthed hotties, psychologically sadistic threesomes, a vast variety of bongs (including one shaped like a baby), a magical bikini massacre and reams of general debauchery round out the shock action. Korine has previously worked almost entirely in anecdotes, and it’s nice to see him challenge himself with an attempt at a semi-coherent full-length narrative, even if he doesn’t quite have a grasp on how to tell a story (or, to be fair, much interest in telling one). The action is nonsensical; character development is nonexistent. The bad girls start and end the movie as bad girls, the good girls start and end as good girls. Really, Spring Breakers is a portrait of a mindset—the idolatry of ecstasy-popping suburban white kids towards the ideal of amoral freedom embodied by the hip hop gangster—but the drift towards more conventional storytelling suits the director. For all its faults, the movie works because Harmony Korine finally embraces the fact that he is at heart an exploitation movie director working with an arthouse movie toolkit, not the other way around.

In promoting the film, Korine conducted a bizarre, typo-laden “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on Reddit. Among his pithy gems was this response to the question “is Harmony short for Harmonica?”: “yo mommaica.” BTW, Spring Breakers perv scorecard goes like this: Gomez keeps her swimsuit on, Hudgens and Benson are briefly seen nude underwater, and the director’s wife goes all out, appearing in a shower scene and having cocaine snorted off her torso. Extras provide plenty of boob flashage to fill out the sleaze quotient.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a weird, day-glo fusion of trashy exploitation thriller and arthouse pretension, enlivened by game performances from a trio of former squeaky-clean TV stars and a deliriously brilliant turn from James Franco.”–Matthew Turner, View London (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SLACKER (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: The citizens of Austin, Texas

PLOT: Slacker spies on the aimless exploits of the slackers of Austin, TX; the camera follows one character for a few minutes, then veers off to chase another through a series of comical, philosophical, and absurd vignettes involving hit-and-run drivers, elderly anarchists and video fetishists.

Still from Slacker (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Slackers is a seminal, interesting, and at times incisive storytelling experiment, but it’s of interest to weirdophiles mainly as the spiritual prequel to Waking Life, which is virtually Slacker remade as a dream.

COMMENTS: The batty cast list—credited characters include “Dostoevsky Wannabe,” “Recluse in Bathrobe” and “Hit Up for Cigarettes”—accurately reflects the mix of mundanity and eccentricity on display in writer/director Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life tour of the coffee shops and crash-pads and on the fringes of Austin, Texas in 1991. Slacker is a character study of the subculture of bright but unambitious dropouts and unemployed postgrads bent on extending their undergrad lifestyles that exists in every college town. At the time of its release it was seen as emblematic of “Generation X”‘s alienation and withdrawal from mainstream culture, but in reality this Bohemian substrata of unmotivated aesthetes and anti-establishment hedonists has always been with us under various names (if the movie had been made in 1291 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence it would have been entitled Goliard). For this peripatetic essay Linklater borrows the elegant but seldom used narrative device invented by Luis Buñuel for The Phantom of Liberty: two characters walk down the street discussing whether they should leave the country, then the cameraman suddenly gets bored and starts following a man who enters a coffee shop where an insane woman advises him that he should “never traumatize a woman sexually,” then decides instead to see where the guy who just entered the shop wearing a bathrobe is headed to, and so on. The result is a series of vignettes which are occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing, and often repetitive, but which capture a peculiar, laid-back, mad energy of a particular place at a particular point in time. Still, as the film’s oldest character rhapsodizes when remembering Charles Whitman, “this town has always had its share of crazies—I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Memorable characters range from the UFO enthusiast who accosts passersby to explain his theory that we’ve been on the moon since the 1950s to the tomboy who’s looking to fence stolen celebrity gynecology artifacts, cheap. Linklater, who delivers the first of the film’s many discursive monologues himself in the role of “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Stop,” shows an attitude of fond disdain for a town where everyone sleeps in late and is working on an unfinished novel or playing in an unsigned band. The director may have arisen out of the Austin milieu, but if he’s a slacker, then he’s a type-A personality slacker; he’s obviously a much harder worker than the guy who earnestly muses “who’s ever written a great work about the tremendous effort required not to create?” over a cup of cappuccino. If Slacker has one downside (besides excusably spotty acting by the amateur cast), it’s that the movie turns repetitive and arguably outstays its welcome. Somewhere between twenty and forty-five minutes in we start to get the picture; although the UFO guy and the JFK guy have totally different obsessions, ultimately they’re both just proselytizers with a passion for explaining stuff we don’t care about to us in ridiculous detail. The overall portrait Linklater manages to paint is still very impressive; Slacker may be the most passionate and invigorating movie about doing nothing ever made.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see Slacker in Austin, TX in 1991 in a theater in a strip mall (I lived in Dallas at the time but had a friend attending UT with a couch I could crash on). The movie, which was playing nowhere else in the country, had been held over for a second week, and the afternoon matinee showing was standing room only; everyone in the audience but me probably had a friend or two who was an extra in it. I had an aisle seat; a middle-aged woman came in late and stood next to me during the entire show, shooting me nasty looks as she shifted from foot to foot. I recall thinking it ironic that the Austinite had to stand through the whole performance simply because she had slacked off on getting to the show on time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…funny, surreal and weird… Linklater traces the dehumanized weirding of America — as collectively defined by David Lynch, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch and others. But he does it with a detached, yet sympathetic sense of irony.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who suggested that all of Linklater’s films were “pretty weird and deep with one or two exceptions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Evan Neumann

PLOT: Scenes from the life of schizophrenic Julien and his bizarre family.

Still from Julien Donkey-boy (1999)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made between his startling debut Gummo (1997) and his acerbic comeback movie Trash Humpers (2009), Julien Donkey-Boy is the Harmony Korine experiment that falls through the cracks. Sure, it’s got its fertile weird moments—Korine puts Werner Herzog in a gas mask and has him swill cough syrup—but its indifference to narrative or structure makes for a lot of dry patches, resulting in a frequently dull movie that’s of interest to hardcore Korine-ophiles only.

COMMENTS: Switching from familial underwear wrestling matches to hidden camera thrift store excursions to snippets from a freakshow talent contest, with all the footage apparently shot by a drunk and edited by a psychotic, the movie Julien Donkey-boy is as schizophrenic as its protagonist. Julien himself is ably, if unpleasantly, portrayed by Scottish Ewan Bremner, who drools and slurs ridiculous monologues from behind a grill of gold teeth (presumably the source for the “donkey-boy” title reference). Julien’s brother is an aspiring wrestler; his sister practices ballet in her room at night, but she’s in her third trimester. Lording over this motley brood is pop Werner Herzog; he swigs cough syrup (from a slipper), listens to Dock Boggs and occasionally wears a gas mask. He has given up on Julien and his sister and focuses all his hopes and attention on their athletic brother. We absorb these relationships slowly as the movie weaves from one improvised incident to another. Julien spies on his sister dancing, then takes a bath and gibbers out a prayer, then the family has dinner and Herzog discusses the false-teeth cleaning habits of famous people, and so on. Other scenes are simply impressionist camera experiments, with out-of-focus, seasick handheld shots and experimental lighting. Korine keeps up his obsession with grotesqueries and freaks, finding ways to shoehorn a dwarf who plays drums with his feet, a rapping albino, and a human ashtray into the story. One bizarre, disconnected scene shows a nun masturbating. The deliberately undisciplined technique of stitching together sketches shot in various styles is carried over from Gummo, but the collage approach doesn’t work as well for painting a portrait of an individual as it did for a town. By repeating words like mantras and babbling nonsense syllables to fill in the empty spaces in his monologue stream, Julien’s speech resembles a real schizophrenic. But, like a real schizophrenic, although you feel sorry for him, you also don’t want to spend a lot of time with him. The character manages to be simultaneously irritating and boring, which are not the defining characteristics you want in a movie protagonist. In a key scene, Julien proudly recites a poem at the dinner table: “morning chaos eternity chaos midnight chaos noon chaos eternity chaos…” It goes on for several stanzas before Herzog interrupts, explaining he doesn’t like the poem because it’s too “artsy-fartsy.” He then describes the climax of Dirty Harry as his idea of great art. Korine seems to be mocking the public preference for meaningless exploitation over artistic ambition, but the irony is that anyone would consider Dirty Harry a greater achievement than Julien’s nonsense poem. Julien Donkey-boy emerges as the least interesting of Korine’s experimental features, which is a shame because it’s also his most humanistic pictures, and the only one where he seems to truly like his characters (Julien was based on Korine’s uncle). The scene where Sevigny pretends to be Julien’s dead mother while talking to him on the telephone is unexpectedly touching, and the shots of the pregnant blonde meandering through a golden field of sunlit grain while singing hymns counts as the most legitimately beautiful thing Korine has ever filmed. It’s too bad these few sympathetic moments are drowned out by a cascade of babble.

Julien Donkey-boy starts with a certificate (signed by ) proclaiming that the movie was produced in accordance with the Dogma 95 movement. Dogma was a set of rules set forth by von Trier and other Danish filmmakers intended to make filmmaking more naturalistic: i.e. there should only be handheld cameras, no music added, only natural lighting, etc. In practice, almost no Dogma film ever followed all of these arbitrary rules (although, as Armond White incisively pointed out, almost every amateur porn movie did). Julien Donkey-boy includes a non-diegetic musical score and lots of optical trickery that should have precluded it from being certified as a Dogma film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Korine emerges more clearly this time as a filmmaker exploring the territory where the circus sideshow meets the avant-garde.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who rhapsodized that it was “frickin’ weird… Korine’s finest/weirdest accomplishment to date.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

John-Dies-at-the-End


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“…[a] spontaneous creation without thought to logic, reason or consequences.”–Richard Elfman on Forbidden Zone

DIRECTED BY: Richard Elfman

FEATURING: , , Marie-Pascale Elfman, Phil Gordon, Matthew Bright (as “Toshiro Baloney”), Viva, Danny Elfman

PLOT: A curious girl wanders into the surreal “Sixth Dimension” located behind a door in her basement. There she encounters all manner of strange creatures and characters, including a lascivious dwarf king and his jealous wife, while her family members and a hapless schoolmate search for her. Numerous silly musical numbers are dispersed through their adventures.

Still from Forbidden Zone (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Forbidden Zone was initially developed as a short film project for the cabaret performance troupe Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which included brothers Richard and Danny Elfman. They wanted to capture the essence of their live performances at their most grandiose; afterwards, their musical style and stage show moved toward a smaller-scale, New Wave sound (at which point they shortened their name to just Oingo Boingo and became especially popular on 80’s comedy soundtracks, but that’s another story).
  • Composer and singer Danny Elfman, who also appears as the Devil, eventually went on to become a highly successful film composer, known especially for his collaborations with .
  • Several of the songs are reworkings of jazz and swing tunes from the 1920’s and 30’s, including songs by Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker.
  • Marie-Pascale Elfman, who stars as Frenchy, was married to director Richard Elfman at the time, and also designed the playful sets and backdrops.
  • The violent, rowdy school scenes are inspired by Richard Elfman’s Los Angeles high school, which is located in the same neighborhood where Boyz n the Hood later takes place.
  • Warhol superstar Viva was convinced to play the small role of the Ex-Queen because she was able to write her own lines, which mostly consist of a drawn-out monologue about her imprisonment.
  • Hervé Villechaize was once roommates with co-writer Matthew Bright (who plays siblings Squeezit and René) and had dated his co-star Susan Tyrrell. He helped fund the film through its constant financial woes, and in fact most of the actors fed their paychecks back into the production.
  • The film was met with controversy upon release due to its use of blackface and Jewish stereotypes, but eventually it gained cult status.
  • Richard Elfman has mentioned working on Forbidden Zone 2 since 2005, but nothing concrete has materialized—yet.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A lot of scenes stand out in my mind, especially the musical numbers. While Danny Elfman’s “Squeezit the Moocher” sequence is a personal favorite, Susan Tyrrell’s solo song, “Witch’s Egg,” exemplifies a lot of the film’s visual ingenuity, sexual abandon, and lyrical fun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Between the puzzling storyline, psychedelic sets and animated sequences, frequent gender-bending, old-timey jazz/new wave fusion musical numbers, lighthearted sado-masochism, laughably terrible acting, and strange creatures, it’d be more of a challenge to discuss what’s NOT weird about Forbidden Zone. Its cartoonish visuals, eclectic cast, and memorable musical sequences make for a compelling experience, peppered with utterly bizarre additives throughout.

Short clip from Forbidden Zone

COMMENTS: Opening on a lopsided two-dimensional house, Forbidden Zone‘s prologue explains in text-format that a dealer who stashed his drugs Continue reading 135. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)

THE BOOK OF DALLAS (2012)

The Book of Dallas, Season One is a 10 episode web series from KoldCast TV. The series comes from the production team of Joe Atkinson, , and Marx H. Pyle. Atkinson wrote the series in response to a crisis in faith. The directing is divided between the three producers.

Dallas McKay (Benjamin Crockett) is a young Catholic atheist (is there any other kind?). Dallas gets into a theological debate at a bar (something akin to theology on tap). His lack of belief offends the self-proclaimed Christians (surprise), then fate takes the upper hand when speeding vehicle meets Dallas on the street.

Still from The Book of Dallas Season1 (2012)Heaven is a coffee shop where Dallas meets a highly emotive St. Peter (David Ross) and a quirky God (Kristine Renee Farley). Yes, God is a girl who likes to eat lots of waffles. I knew it all along. With a mouthful of syrup, God asks Dallas to write a new bible, one which will not inspire people to judge and kill one another. After writing it, Dallas is to go on a book tour and sell it. Real simple.

Now back on Earth, Dallas needs some cash to get started. God gives him the winning lottery numbers. Dallas and his roommate Hank (Clay Evans) are on a mission from God. After finally finding a publisher, Dallas’ book, “The Word,” creates publicity and controversy. The evangelicals predictably hate Dallas, but he does attract a follower named Benjamin (Kevin Roach), who fills in for Dallas after a fundamentalist nut job sends Dallas back to heaven for a spell. Benjamin creates The Church of Unitism. Yes, a new religion.

The Book of Dallas starts off as an overly familiar revisionist look at the state of religion, the likes of which we have seen before (Dogma, Religioulous, et al). The best humor in the series is provided by actors David Ross and Kristine Renee Farley. Aside from these, the comedy is too subdued for this topic. More problematic are the plot solutions, which are too simplistic (a convenient lottery win, miraculous surviving of near-death experiences).

Something more complex would have been more rewarding. The fact that the protagonist survives his ordeals, virtually unscathed, nullifies any real questioning of his supernatural encounters (for Dallas and the audience—the only nonbelievers are the certifiable Christians of the film, which, come to think of it, is probably all too apt).

The biggest issue I take with the series is in “The Word” itself. What does “The Book of Dallas” actually say? We are never really privy to that information. Therefore, Dallas’ actual message is so vague that it fails to connect with us emotionally, intellectually, or theologically. Likewise, the fundamentalist outrage towards the book never quite registers beyond surface. The angry religious mob is merely taken for granted.

The Book of Dallas starts to live up to its complex potential by the 10th episode. Of course, every successful revolutionary movement faces the possibility of becoming  an institution. The Unitist movement veers dangerously close to that fatal error. Upon seeing this, the fire within Dallas is sparked. For the first time, close to the season finale, we sense the prophetic nature swelling within Dallas, along with narrative possibilities for richer, provocative exploration.

Atkinson’s sincerity and effort is to be applauded, despite the occasional “too safe” missteps. The series feels like an opening spark, which may reap rewarding challenges in the second season (and, hopefully, that second season will come to fruition).

Bilinski, a director previously covered here, directs the first, fifth and seventh episodes. The first episode has a texture and pacing similar to elements of his previous Shade of Grey (2009).


. “The Book of Dallas” trailer.

133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Recommended

“In my mind, it’s so much fun to have something that has clues and is mysterious — something that is understood intuitively rather than just being spoonfed to you. That’s the beauty of cinema, and it’s hardly ever even tried. These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people’s minds stop working.”–David Lynch

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia

PLOT: Fred is a free jazz saxophonist who finds that mysterious videotapes are being dropped off on his doorstep. After an encounter with a mysterious pale man at a party, he blacks out finds himself accused of the murder of his wife. In prison Fred begins having headaches, and then one day he disappears and a completely different man—a young mechanic—is discovered in his death row cell.

Still from Lost Highway (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay to Lost Highway was co-written by Barry Gifford, who also wrote the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted into a film in 1990.
  • Lost Highway received two “thumbs down” ratings from Siskel & Ebert’s “At the Movies” syndicated movie review program. Lynch insisted the movie poster be rewritten to highlight the critics’ dual pans, describing the bad ratings as “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway.”
  • The film cost about 15 million dollars to make but grossed less than 4 million at the U.S. box office.
  • Lost Highway boasts a number of cameo roles, including rockers Henry Rollins as a guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn actor,  mainstay  in a voiceover, and Richard Prior as one of Pete’s co-workers.
  • This film marks the last onscreen appearance of , who appeared in all of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man,” an eyebrow-free, perpetually grinning pasty-faced ghoul who likes to crash L.A. cocktail parties and whose idea of small talk is to call himself on his cell phone to deliver obscure metaphysical portents of doom.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine you’re on a desert highway. It’s long past midnight and you can ‘t see anything but the onrushing yellow traffic lines a few feet in front of the car’s headlights.  is crooning “funny how secrets travel” from the stereo. David Lynch is at the wheel, he’s jittery from drinking too much coffee, and neither you nor he has no idea where you’re going. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.


Original trailer for Lost Highway

COMMENTS: Made five years after the divisive mixed blessing that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway marks the beginning of the Continue reading 133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

“…unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved. So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”–Benh Zeitlin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin

FEATURING: , Dwight Henry

PLOT: Six-year old Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a community that turns into an island isolated from society when floodwaters cut it off from the mainland. After a second flood nearly destroys the Bathtub, Wink decides that he must destroy the levee so that the water will recede. This plan brings the attention of the authorities, however, who forcibly evacuate the defiant pair from their ramshackle home, all while Wink’s health is getting worse…

Still from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted from the play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar (who also collaborated on the movie screenplay). The action was moved from Georgia to Louisiana, and Hushpuppy’s character was altered to fit the personality of actress Quvenzhané Wallis.
  • Hushpuppy was originally conceived of as 9-12 years old, but Quvenzhané Wallis was so perfect for the role that the character’s age was changed. Wallis beat out a reported 4,000 other kids for the role. She was only five when she first auditioned and, since the minimum age to be considered was six, her mother lied about her age.
  • Dwight Henry (Wink) is a New Orleans baker; this was his first acting role. He originally turned down the role in order to focus on opening a new bakery.
  • The aurochs in the movie are actually pot-bellied pigs with horns glued on.
  • Won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes (given to the best first film screened at the festival).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hushpuppy coming face to face with the apocalyptic aurochs of her imagination.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Quvenzhané Wallis’ childish explanation, “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” turns out to be a literal description of the plot in this ridiculously original fairy tale that resembles The Tree of Life set in a post-apocalyptic bayou.


Original trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild

COMMENTS: Although many movies purport to view reality from a child’s perspective (including Curse of the Cat People, My Life as a Dog, and Pan’s Continue reading 132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)