Tag Archives: Made for Television

279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

LIST CANDIDATE: LI’L QUINQUIN (2014)

P’tit Quinquin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruno Dumont

FEATURING: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron

PLOT: A big city detective with facial tic disorder comes to a remote French beach village to investigate a bizarre double murder: parts of the victims were found inside the bodies of cows.

Still from Li'l Quinquin (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete.

COMMENTS: Because of its quirky dark humor and strange-outsider-in-a-stranger-town mystery plot, L’il Quinquin almost always dubbed “the French ‘Twin Peaks.'” Indeed, it shares many of that series’ strengths and weaknesses: absurd, dark humor; meandering subplots that can become more interesting than the main thread; fascinating rural eccentrics; a hint of the supernatural; and an unsatisfactory resolution.

That last part bears keeping in mind. Although L’il Quinquin is presented as a mystery, beginning with the macabre discovery of human body parts inside of cows, the murders are, most frustratingly, not solved at the end. This fact is in accord with the director’s wishes—he presents a world where evil is allowed to triumph, even to the extent of remaining anonymous—but, after such an amazing buildup, the anticlimax inevitably leaves a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

That disappointment won’t arrive until the very end, however, and there is much to savor up until then. We’ll start with the performance of Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a detective who looks like Albert Einstein with uncontrollable facial tics—his expression changes an average of two times per second. Pruvost projects a weird sort of competence, and serves as the film’s disapproving moral center, but shares the limelight with Alane Delhaye as the titular Quinquin, a mischievous “bad kid” who absorbs the town’s unreflective racism, but is redeemed by his innocence and his genuine love for a neighbor girl (Lucy Caron, whose penetrating stare recalls the blank intensity of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom). There’s also an African Muslim boy who snaps when a popular white girl rejects him; a beautiful and talented young chanteuse who seems bound for the big city; Carpentier, Van der Weyden’s dim and nearly toothless second-in-command; Quinquin’s uncle, a speechless, nearly catatonic wreck just back from the institution, given to wandering around in circles; and dozens of other weirdos in brief bits (like the developmentally-disabled English man who throws dishes in a restaurant while the detective is giving a status report to his superior officer). Offbeat comic touches, often quite absurd, break up the serious dramatic sections: a pair of priests preside over an awkward funeral and giggle inappropriately; Quinquin is bedeviled by a costumed younger boy calling himself “Speedyman!” who shows up on his doorstep without explanation; a car careens down the street on two wheels. But in the midst of all this everyday madness, things grow ever darker, as secrets are uncovered and more and more bodies are found, leading the detective to his eventual, apparently final, conclusion: “l’enfer, ici” (“this is Hell, here”).

But for all L’il Quinquin‘s assets, it ends on little more than that involuntary eyebrow shrug by our detached detective. I appreciate an ambiguous ending, when well done, but the idea of a mystery that is never resolved, yet is wrapped up in a way that the audience will find emotionally satisfying, remains cinema’s elusive white whale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wonderfully weird and unexpectedly hilarious murder mystery.”–Scott Foundas, Variety (festival screening)

PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (2016)

Forget Batman, Pee-wee is back.

Exclusively for Netflix, Pee-wee Herman () returns with his first feature in 28 years. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016) could be (and has been in some quarters) dismissed as “Pee-wee’s Next Big Adventure.” Is it as original as that -helmed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)? No, but it’s a welcome return. Actually, Pee-wee has weathered pop culture better than Burton, who lost his mojo in the 90s.

There are a few pleasant surprises here, such as not-so-subtle homage to ‘s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Still, mostly Reubens plays it safe, giving us exactly what we expect of him.

Pee-wee Herman comes from a very small cinematic tradition of the “creepy man-child,” which introduced in the silent era. Primarily under the direction of and , Langdon initially kept his character’s more disturbingly childlike qualities in check. However, eager to expand that characterization, Langdon eventually let loose—which quickly destroyed his career, even if the results were artistically satisfying.

Stan Laurel, very much influenced by Langdon, learned from his mentor’s populist misstep and kept the baby-face half of Laurel and Hardy forever innocent. , also influenced by Langdon, had more freedom with a European audience. In 1979, Steve Martin introduced his take on the naughty child. However, after a few experiments that unfortunately failed at the American box office, Martin took the safer route of growing up, which eventually rendered his body of work both disappointing and inconsequential. Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman character first emerged around the same time as Martin’s. After Burton and Rubens produced the masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee  was a disaster. This flop hardly mattered due to Reuben’s award winning “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” TV show (which earned 15 Emmys in 5 years). Reubens was undoubtedly the most original small screen personality since Ernie Kovacs.

Of course, we all know about Pee-wee’s rapid rise and fall, and television has been all the more bankrupt since its departure in 1991. That is not to say there is not good or even imaginative TV programming, but there is little with the aesthetic quality of Reubens[1].

At 63 years old, Reubens had his face digitally enhanced for Big Holiday, in order to retain that child-like mask ( did not have 21st century technology and had to give up on her little girl lost act at the age of 34). Still, although treading narrative familiar ground, Reubens retains the character’s edge in this belated return. There is even a latent same-sex attraction undercurrent between Pee-wee and Joe Manganiello (it’s so latent, kids will not be privy to it).

Still from Pee Wee's Big Holiday (2016)Pee-Wee is still very much a fixture in a surreal suburbia—as usual, he is the only one who realizes just how off-kilter the ‘burbs are—when he meets Joe. Sharing a love for root beer barrel candy, Joe and Pee-wee hit it off. Joe, soon to have a birthday party in New York, invites Pee-wee, encouraging the suburban Peter Pan to step outside of his G.O.P. mecca of Fairville and “live a little.” Reubens is savvy enough to poke fun of the retreaded plot: “I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new.” He could be Fairville’s poster child for Donald Trump’s desire to “Make ‘Murica Grate Again,”  (AKA, let’s return to the oppressive past), except that Pee-wee does have a tad bit of the eternal bad boy Reubens under his skin. Of course Pee-wee heads to the Big Apple, embarking on his next big adventure as if 1985 was just a few days ago.

Between a hexagon of biker outlaw udders (Alia Shawkat, as one of the trio, shines and has genuine chemistry with her co-star) and nine man-meat craving farm girls who have used a tad too much butter on the grits, Pee-wee makes it clear that he is not interested in the fairer sex “that way.” With all those pheromones, Pee-wee runs for New York cover and Joe’s ripped, saving arms. Of course, there are some mildly weird diversions along the way that never get quite phantasmagorical enough. A traveling snake oil salesman who literally takes hitchhiking Pee-Wee to a snake farm, a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying car (occupied by Diane Sallinger[2]), an Amish village of balloon deflators ( an amusingly extended gag), and an odd musical number all add up to subdued eccentricity, but never on the natural scales of or the late Tim Burton.

Still, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a charmer that may lead to Reuben’s reviving the character and taking him into more innovative terrain.

  1. 2013-2105’s “Hannibal” was both aesthetically and dramatically superior to any of the Hannibal Lecter character’s films, including the overrated Silence Of The Lambs, but audiences, having understandably overdosed on wretched sequels and prequels, never gave this television exercise in noir surrealism a chance []
  2. Sallinger is a veteran Reubens co-conspirator, having starred with him in both Batman Returns and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure []

CAPSULE: SHARKNADO (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Anthony C. Ferrante

FEATURING: Ian Ziering, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simmons, Tara Reid

PLOT: Global warming causes shark migrations and storms with heavy winds that pick up angry sharks and hurl them through the streets of L.A.

Still from Sharknado (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: C’mon… Sharknado? Really? When you’ve got the weird movie review sites scoffing at the ridiculousness of your premise, you know your movie has issues.

COMMENTS: There have been high concept movies before, but Sharknado has streamlined the process by inventing a title that’s so high concept it makes the rest of the movie superfluous. In case you missed the point of the clever portmanteau, the movie is about a tornado that contains sharks. The problem here for the filmmakers that you really can’t fit more than five, ten minutes at most of actual sharknado footage into your movie, and you have an obligation to fill out the rest of the running time with a plot that doesn’t suck. Not to spoil Sharknado, but they can’t. In Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Mary Lambert at least included a Tiffany/Debbi Gibson rivalry subplot (culminating in an old-fashioned hair-pulling catfight that actually one-upped the giant reptiles). Here, we only get a lame, barely realized domestic drama to fill in the stretches between flying shark attacks. The two male leads are bland. Alleged protagonist “Fin” (groan) acts like a self-sacrificing hero who values his family’s safety above his own life, but his ex-wife and daughter keep insisting that he’s a selfish jerk. It’s like they’re reading their lines from a different draft of the script. Fin’s surfin’ sidekick, “Baz,” is Tasmanian, and that’s all there is to say about his character. Tara Reid’s only purpose in the story is to be miffed and bitchy—she doesn’t even kill a single shark—and she looks bored in an underwritten role that will do nothing to get her stalled acting career back on track. Other than beach barfly John Heard, who seems like he will have a major role until he becomes an early victim, only Cassie Scerbo (who looks fantastic in a bikini, even with a shark scar on her upper thigh) gives it her all and has the kind of fun an actor should when romping around in something called Sharknado.

Besides the suspiciously selective-for-sharks cyclones (why couldn’t a tornado dump a bunch of lobster on us, preferably during a drizzle of drawn butter?), there are many deliberately dumb moments in the script that will have you shaking your head in either delight or disgust. For example, there’s a scene where the heroes are driving around the flooded streets of L.A. in their SUV and we are told that a full grown tiger shark is swimming under the car. Later, these geniuses scheme to destroy the sharknadoes by flying a helicopter into them and dropping a bomb, reasoning that “tornadoes happen when cold and warm air meet. If you drop a bomb head right in the middle of it, you just might equalize it.”

But, you must resist testing your wits by looking for the plot holes in Sharknado. That’s just what the filmmakers want you to do—to congratulate yourself for being smarter than the people who made this movie, while they in the meantime lounge on the Santa Monica beach, drinking fruity beverages with umbrellas and slices of pineapple in them and texting their financial advisers to see what investments they should buy with the money people like you paid for the DVD. Although these shark movies made by the studio known as the Asylum can be fun in a junk-food cinema sense, they are basically a scam; they profit off hastily churning out shoddy shark product and marketing it as camp. Critics were surprisingly kind to Sharknado. But the praise only rewards the filmmakers for being dumb, and encourages them to try to be even stupider next time out. I very nearly gave this schlock a “” rating, and only relented because, if by some miracle you have managed to avoid the Asylum’s other aquatic monstrosities like Mega Piranha and Sharktopus, Sharknado will seem original and mildly amusing. Enough said.

Much like contemporary children can’t comprehend how “Fonzie” could ever be considered cool, future generations will find it hard to believe that the television debut of Sharknado was a pop culture event. Archive this report from The Verge of this compendium of tweets from the Huffington Post and show them to your grandchildren to prove to them that, yes, a movie about a tornado full of sharks was a big deal for a couple of hours in 2013. Hopefully, that generation will look back at Sharknado as the point at which the seafood horror genre (please forgive me) jumped the shark.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie signals its determination to efficiently get you the balls-out-crazy mayhem you want and not let narrative, budget constraints, or the laws of science get in the way.”–James Poniewozik, Time (TV broadcast)

CAPSULE: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1973)

DIRECTED BY: James MacTaggart

FEATURING: Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, June Taylor, Judy Parfitt, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Pearson, Raymond Mason, Anthony Collin, Douglas Milvain

PLOT: On a boring, snowy afternoon, young Alice discovers that she can walk right through the large mirror over her fireplace; there, she finds herself in a parallel universe, competing in a life-size chess game ruled over by the Red and White Queens, and meeting such strange characters as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Still from Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even though this is actually one of the better film or television adaptations of the “Alice” books, it’s extremely low budget and bare-bones, shot-on-videotape look prevents the visuals from getting as wild or fantastical as they might be.

COMMENTS: Although most filmed versions of Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) include elements of his sequel “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), this production is one of just three or four adaptations of the second book standing alone. Some consider “Through the Looking Glass” to be the better of the two “Alice” tales, being simultaneously stranger and more sentimental than its predecessor. Aired by the BBC on Christmas Day 1973, this trip through the mirror really looks like a 40-year-old television show; that is to say, the budget is rock bottom. The lack of fancy special effects means that this is basically all (brilliant) dialogue all the time, which may strike some as boring. For those who have read the novel, however, this is actually one of the few adaptations that is genuinely amusing (at least in fits and starts), as opposed to just odd. During the sequence depicting the “Jabberwocky” monster, for instance, the combination of threadbare effects (the monster resembles a sock puppet) and gesticulating, posing actors, renders the silliness almost -esque, which seems to have been intentional. The lack of big name actors also makes this version somewhat unusual, since most other “Alice” productions are chock-full of luminaries (the biggest names here did their notable work later, Red Queen Judy Parfitt in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and Humpty Dumpty Freddie Jones in ‘s The Elephant Man and Dune). The performers (including future “Doctor Who” sidekick Sarah Sutton, who looks about eleven years old here) stand in front of primitive blue screen backgrounds that resemble John Tenniel’s original book illustrations, and generally have a fine old time, particularly Jones, who is basically just playing a giant head. This is also the only “Looking Glass” I’ve seen where the White King (Richard Pearson) is more memorable than the White Queen (Brenda Bruce). The droll performances, including Geoffrey Bayldon’s unexpectedly acerbic White Knight, almost make up for the shoestring production values in this 74-minute program (not 66 minutes, as it says on the box). There are flaws to be sure: the calamitous dinner party finale is nowhere near as crazy as its counterpart in Hollywood’s 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example.  But although this production is unlikely to please the kids, it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience for oldsters who’ve been raised on the original books.

Since this is a DVD of a little-known television program, the disc has no extras and is presented in mono sound. The image, while a little soft, looks presentable enough for a video that has probably been sitting in the BBC vaults for four decades.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Very free and dreamlike at times… . The pacing is strange, but then, so is the story being told so somehow that seems appropriate even if in some ways it does hurt the movie. All in all, as dated as it is and as stagey as it is, this is worth tracking down simply because it’s quite an effective take on the book and one that treats the subject matter seriously and without the need for parody of or modernizing of the original text.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Barry Letts

FEATURING: Kate Dorning

PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from ‘s dreamlike 1966 version to ‘s stop-motion nightmare interpretation—that seeing an authentic retelling of this Victorian fairy tale aimed at kids is almost a shock to the system. It serves as a reminder that, as much as Surrealists love to appropriate Carroll for their own nefarious ends, the prototypical “Alice” is kiddie fare, not entertainment for grown up weirdophiles.

COMMENTS: With so many competing interpretations of Alice in Wonderland out there, it’s difficult to find a compelling reason to recommend this straightforward adaptation that originally aired as four separate episodes on British television. On the plus side, it is one of the most accurate filmed versions of the story, staying true to Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue and neither omitting any major episodes nor (as is often done) folding in popular incidents and/or characters from the Wonderland sequel “Through the Looking Glass.” This production attempts to breathe new life into the old story by setting some of Carroll’s nonsense poems to music; but, although the classical-styled compositions are competently rendered, they’re hardly memorable and, like much of the show, feel a little stodgy. Each episode is framed by a sepia-toned introduction featuring Carroll at a picnic making up the story for the historical Alice and her sisters; this ploy is fairly neutral, though some may appreciate the attention to the backstory. Cast as Alice, Kate Dorning is appropriately wide-eyed, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s not a little girl. I can’t find the actress’ date of birth, but she is clearly at least in her teens here, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she had already entered her second decade when she played the role. Her performance sometimes reminds me of those children’s shows where adults play childlike characters and talk directly to the camera, which brings us to the main issue with this production: the children’s’ TV-show budget. Although I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had available, there is inevitably a blasé “good enough for kids” sort of vibe to the proceedings. The presence of the green screen is often frightfully obvious: Alice’s stiff tumble down the rabbit hole and the Cheshire cat’s dissolve to a smile are particularly cringe-inducing. The animal characters (White Rabbit, Dodo, Frog and Fish footman, etc.) wear masks that, while well designed, are stiff and rubbery. A few of the setups do manage to find ways around the budgetary limitations, as when the poem/song “Father William” is dramatized as a shadow play performed by acrobats. In general, however, the filmmakers don’t have the means to recreate Wonderland, and they are too dedicated to literally showing actual hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on toadstools to devise a stylized rendition that could come in under budget. If you can overlook the unspecial effects, and tolerate the songs, this Alice is worthwhile as an authentic rendition of the text that will probably hold the interest of younger children. Of course, Disney’s animated offering, while less accurate, is far more enchanting for youngsters, who aren’t interested in scholarly fidelity to the text anyway. It almost seems that the BBC felt obligated to produce a straightforward, canonical Alice to atone for the fact that Jonathan Miller’s experimental 1966 adaptation was their lone take on this national classic. This rendition is more respectable, but less magical; and that hardly seems in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Director Barry Letts and producer Terrance Dicks were mainly known for their involvement with “Dr. Who,” and several actors from the Who troupe show up here. In fact, a survey of the blogosphere suggests this release may garner as much attention from curious “Who” fans as from “Alice” devotees.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “Pip Donaghy makes for a weird Mad Hatter, but really, there shouldn’t be any other kind. Despite the fact that it’s dated and a bit creaky in terms of its production values, this adaptation of Alice In Wonderland generally works quite well.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

141. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966)

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

–William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (Alice’s first words and last words in this rendition of “Alice in Wonderland”)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Miller

FEATURING: Anne-Marie Mallik, , Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Alison Leggatt, Peter Sellers,

PLOT: Young Alice has her hair roughly brushed by a nurse before she heads out to sit by a riverbank with her sister; as her sister reads she falls asleep. She wakes to see a man in formal Victorian dress walking through the woods and follows him into a strange deserted building where she discovers potions that shrink her and cakes that maker her grow larger. As she continues wandering about she meets many odd characters, including a Duchess in drag and three men caught at an endless tea party, and eventually a King and Queen who put her on trial.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1966)


BACKGROUND:

  • This version of Alice was produced for the BBC and first aired on December 28, 1966.
  • The BBC scheduled Alice in Wonderland to play only after 9 PM, the slot usually slated for “adult” content, leading to some minor public controversy about whether the film was appropriate for children. (There’s nothing inappropriate in Miller’s adaptation of “Alice,” but this treatment is aimed at adults and kids would probably find it boring).
  • 30 minutes of the film that were cut by the producers appear to have been lost permanently.
  • Director Jonathan Miller was a founding member of the stage comedy troupe “Beyond the Fringe,” which also included Dudley Moore, Alan Bennet (who appears in a small role here as the mouse), and Peter Cook (who appears in a large role as the Mad Hatter).
  • Alice in Wonderland was the only film appearance for star Anne-Marie Mallik.
  • This was future Monty Python mainstay Eric Idle’s first appearance on film (he has a small, uncredited part as a guard).
  • Ravi Shankar provided the lovely, meditative sitar score; it has never been released separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many quietly sublime moments in Johnathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland: Alice chasing the White Rabbit through a corridor lined with billowing white curtains, a shot of the overgrown girl dominating the foreground with the bedroom behind her subtly bent by the wide-angle lens, the Mock Turtle and Gryphon capering silhouetted against the sunrise on a rocky beach at low tide. We chose to highlight the instnat when the Cheshire Cat appears in the sky above the croquet game. This is the movie’s only special effect and one of the few moments when something overtly magical actually happens in Wonderland; such a moment sets off the minimalistic strangeness of the rest of the production. (Alice’s indifferent, emotionless reaction to the apparition only adds to the oddness).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jonathan Miller exhumes a Wonderland without magical beings: the White Rabbit is just a stuffed shirt in a waistcoat, the Cheshire Cat is an ordinary house cat, the drowned animals by the pool of tears are a soggy band of Victorian citizens. By unmasking the story’s anthropomorphic animals, he de-cutifies the fairy tale; the result is, unexpectedly, one of the weirdest and most dreamlike Alices ever put on film.

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Short clip from Alice in Wonderland

COMMENTS: There are layers and layers to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”: the original book was simultaneously a children’s fantasia, a Continue reading 141. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966)

CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

AKA Bathory: Countess of Blood

DIRECTED BY:  Juraj Jakubisk

FEATURING, Karel Roden, Vincent Regan, Hans Matheson, Deana Horváthová, Franco Nero

PLOT:  Fictionalized chronicle of the life, loves, and political struggles of the infamous 17th century Hungarian countess.


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Clashing cross-genre elements and facts interposed with fiction and fantasy create an oddball portrait of an already bizarre historical figure and her horrific crimes. If not tedious, the end effect is certainly weird.

COMMENTS: Bathory is a dreamy, odd mix of historical fact, fiction, speculation, and whimsy surrounding the life of notorious sexual serial murderess, Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed (1560 – 1614).

At 141 minutes running time, this cut of the film is condensed from a three part TV miniseries. It’s a Slovakian film produced in the Czech Republic about Hungarian history, with British actors, and the mixed production values, uneven tone and ambiguous, confusing story make for an unusual, entertaining, but disjointed viewing experience. The sets and costumes are colorful and imaginative, yet in places smack of a television budget.

Relying heavily on speculation and fancy, Bathory‘s plot combines elements of mystery, thriller, historical drama, and Renaissance steampunk adventure. Part of the movie focuses on the Countess’s personal life, her youth, her marriage to a Hapsburg dynasty heir, and fictionalized romance with painter Merisi Caravaggio (who in real life, never traveled to Northern Hungary.) The story also surveys the politics of Bathory’s dynasty, the Hapsburg empire, their battles with the Turks, and the interplay of power posturings between Bathory and her Hapsburg in-laws. This comprehensive coverage is fine for a TV miniseries, but becomes tedious and complicated in a feature-length movie, especially given the film’s sojourn into fiction.

While some of the political and historical plot points in the film are accurate, others are not, and the remainder of the picture features a murky, often conflicted depiction of Countess Bathory which attempts alternate explanations for the gruesome legends about her. This aspect of the movie is deliberately ambiguous.

Bodies of mutilated teenage girls indeed pile up, girls are found captive in the dungeons of Csejte Castle, and Bathory is seen murdering a couple of servants. Conversely, it is indicated that conspirators drugged the Countess with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and her Gypsy mystic soothsayer, a secret Hapsburg confederate, had Elizabeth so brainwashed with suspicious medicinal potions and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that Bathory had no clear conception of reality. In other words, the filmmakers seem to be saying of her dreadful transgressions, “it wasn’t her fault.”

Bathory’s infamous bath of blood (drawn from her victims) turns out to be an innocent aquatic suspension of scarlet herbs. Or was the herb bath just a decoy to fool spies? The film hedges as if the producers are too timid to take a firm stance, yet they raise the question of whether long established historical facts are in actuality nothing more than trumped-up charges.

The Hapsburgs are depicted as doing their best to blame a string of mutilation killings on Bathory for political reasons, while fostering exaggerated Continue reading CAPSULE: BATHORY (2008)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

FEATURING: Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, , Karl-Heinz Vosgerau

PLOT: A computer programmer assigned to run a virtual reality world after his superior goes insane finds himself paranoid about the motives of his government bosses, and wonders if someone else might ultimately be behind the project.
Still from World on a Wire (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: World on a Wire is hard science fiction, but with a seriously disorienting edge. On the surface it’s ultra-rational, but it peers into a disintegrating world existing underneath ours, undermining our sense of reality.

COMMENTS: The plot twist of World on a Wire won’t shock modern audiences, but that hardly matters. The movie’s sanity-questioning themes may have been shopworn even in 1973, but rarely have they been delivered with such depth and artistry. Besides, the “big revelation” happens at the end of Part I, the midpoint of this three and a half hour epic, leaving us with another entire movie to develop the consequences. Wire‘s double length provides ample time to explore and flesh out an expansive cast of characters, including two separate love interests for our paranoid protagonist: Eva, the daughter of his deceased superior, and Gloria, his statuesque, almost impossibly blond and voluptuous secretary. The plot sets up computer scientist Fred Stiller as a Socrates figure, running about the virtual agora questioning the nature of reality, raising uncomfortable doubts that are no more welcome in the world of World on a Wire than they were in ancient Athens. The powers that be would like to assure that Stiller meets the same fate as the Greek gadfly, but the scientist isn’t willing to go quietly. The film is visually advanced for television, with arty angles and elaborate 360 degree tracking shots. The wide lapels on plaid sports jackets belie the film’s 1970s origins, but the sets have a gleaming metallic modernism that makes them timeless. Mirrors and distorting lenses are everywhere to reinforce the sense of doubling and reflected realities. Sonically, the movie challenges the audience with abrasive, distressing music queues suggesting a rupturing synthetic reality: sometimes, it sounds like Fassbinder’s recorded a classical orchestra soldiering on while being attacked by an ever-growing swarm of electronic bees, and at other times like he’s scraping a theremin across a chalkboard. Although the visual and audio techniques here express the ontological ambiguity of Stiller’s predicament, a number of subtle and not-so-subtle surreal touches bring across the point as effectively. Most of the performances have a detached and stilted quality, with minor characters found staring out into space blankly when not engaged in direct dialogue. The entertainment venues in this world are genuinely peculiar, including a party at an indoor pool with aquatic male gymnasts, a bar where topless Africans dance to fado ballads, and a shadow-theater cabaret with waiters in whiteface and shirtless chefs. Of course, none of those sequences are as odd as the moment when Stiller asks a woman on the street for a light, and a load of bricks suddenly falls from the sky and buries her. That early sequence, a weirdly blasé tragedy, rates as World‘s strangest scene, but at the time Stiller is too immersed in his own reality to recognize how bizarre it is. He still has another two hours of movie to develop his slow-dawning epiphany about just how weird the world around him has become. It takes time to fully explore this World on a Wire, but the trip down this rabbit hole is well worth it.

World on a Wire was based on Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel “Simulacron-3,” which was also adapted by Hollywood in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor. Wire was only broadcast on German television twice and never released theatrically during Fassbinder’s lifetime. The Fassbinder Foundation saved the movie from its undeserved obscurity, restoring the lost classic and releasing it to film festivals in 2010. The Criterion Collection followed with a DVD/Blu-ray release in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The full feature runs close the three and a half hours and is fraught with bizarre formal elements. What separates it from the aforementioned high-concept movies is the utter weirdness that is imbued throughout.”–Zachary Goldbaum, “Brightest Young Things” (theatrical re-release)

THE PAUL LYNDE HALLOWEEN SPECIAL (1976)

When it comes to Halloween entertainment there are perennial television special favorites.  Like most fans of the holiday, I would rank Charles Schulz’ It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966) and Rankin and Bass’ Mad Monster Party (1967) near the top of the list.  A few years ago, however, a friend sent me a slice of heaven in the greatest ever hour of Halloween entertainment : The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976).  Lynde, for the unenlightened, was a comedic entertainer who got his break in Bye Bye Birdie (1962), which lead to his popular role as the warlock Uncle Arthur on Bewitched (1964), to the The Paul Lynde Show (1972), and most famously to his entrenchment as the “Center Square” in the game show “Hollywood Squares.”  Lynde’s Halloween special is so stunningly beautiful, so representative of its era (and what an era the 70s was: the last great decade of American pop culture), that I felt a pronounced nostalgic lump in my throat.  This Halloween bash seriously belongs in one of those time capsule thingys that we occasionally shoot into space for Martians to peek at.

Of course, with the banality of reality TV and unimaginative attachment to hyper-realism, some will pooh-pooh my blushing exclamation as misplaced nostalgia.  Others may see the show as a bizarre curio from a long gone era (these are the boring and predictable types who think of everything pre-existing their entry into the world as relics from tens of thousands of years ago).  On my end, I will utterly dismiss the naysayers as being hopelessly constipated.  You know the type.  They prefer angst-ridden X-Men to Jack Kirby’s fun lubbin’ Jimmy Olsen who teamed up with Goody Rickles and the Hairys.  Stay far, far away from these people.  They will only bring you unhappiness.  They will turn you gray, incorporate you into their bourgeoisie, status-quo painted white picket fence world, or, heaven forbid, get you a job in a faceless institution.  Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

Still from The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976)Now that we have that settled, you can kick back and immerse yourself in the glories of quintessential 70’s camp! Just think of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special like one those Roselyn Bakery Cakes with six inches of icing atop an inch of cake and indulge in this one-of-a-kind hallucination.

Paul bitchily rummages through the closet because he knows there’s a holiday of some kind around the corner.  Nope, it’s not Santa (love the wig).  No, it’s not Peter Cottontail (Lynde literally becomes a flaming bunny!).  Dagnabbit, Continue reading THE PAUL LYNDE HALLOWEEN SPECIAL (1976)