FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Lea Bridarolli, Marion Cotillard, Helene de Fougerolles
PLOT: A coffin mysteriously arrives at a girl’s boarding school; inside is Iris, a six-year old girl, wearing only white panties. Six other girls open the coffin, introduce themselves, and dress the new arrival in the school uniform: all white, pleated skirts, braided ponytails, and color-coded ribbons in their hair identifying their rank by age. As Iris learns the rules of the school from her elders and is trained in dance, older girls hope that they will be “chosen” by the Headmistress during her annual visit so they can leave the grounds.
Director Hadzihalilovic is the wife (and former editor/producer) of Gaspar Noé, to whom the film is dedicated. (Hadzihalilovic also collaborated with Noé on the screenplay to the Certified Weird Enter the Void).
In 2015 Hadzihalilovic completed Evolution, a sort of companion piece to Innocence set on an island where all the children are male.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big moment comes early on: Iris’ mysterious arrival in a coffin.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Coffin cuties; butterfly sex studies; train to adulthood
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful, and troubling, metaphor for childhood.
PLOT: In an alternate history where technology never advanced past 1870, young April seeks to find her scientist parents, abducted by unknown forces with superior technology.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: More than one mainstream critic has referred to April and the Extraordinary World as “wonderfully weird.” Checking my movie reviewer decoder ring, I see that when used as a modifier to “weird,” “wonderfully” translates as “mildly and in the least threatening way imaginable.” April may not be super-strange by our standards, but it is at least playing in the right ballpark. This exciting, imaginative and visually superior cartoon it may be able to make the List on the sliding scale: the better the movie, the less pervasive the weirdness required. (Also, there was one walkout in the theatrical audience of three, and walkouts automatically earn List Candidate status).
COMMENTS: Let’s try an alternate plot synopsis for April and the Extraordinary World: in 1870, Napoleon III’s attempt to create an army of invulnerable monkeys (just roll with it) to fight the Franco-Prussian War goes awry, resulting in a world where technology stalls in the steam age and France goes to war with the United States over timber resources in Canada. The “extraordinary world,” not April, is the star of this French import; and what a world it is! The Eiffel Tower is now a stop on the Paris-Berlin steam line, cars run (badly) on wood-burning engines, and our heroine, April, has a talking cat (although that‘s unusual even by the standards of the time). Whenever a scientist—Fermi, Einstein, the Curies—nears a revolutionary discovery that would drag society out of the Steam Age, they mysteriously disappear, abducted by governments who want to use their talents to build super-weapons to fight the ever-raging wars over scarce resources (when our story begins, the world’s coal supply has been exhausted, and nations’ industries are now burning less-efficient timber). This world is not the quaint, cute utopia imagined in much of steampunk literature; although the tone is adventurous rather than bleak, the world is dystopian and polluted. In Europe, freestanding trees are found only in museums, and the streets are covered in ash. It’s not steampunk, it’s sootpunk.
April has garnered comparisons to everything from The City of Lost Childrento Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with a touch of Metropolis, but I think the most appropriate touchstone here is the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Not just Howl’s Moving Castle, even though this one does feature a house that moves on stilts. It’s actually the fully-realized, impeccably detailed fantasy world, the lovingly hand-crafted animation, and the plot centered on young protagonists making their way through an epic setting that spurs the comparison. Like a Miyazki film, April expertly interweaves world-building episodes and light character development with sequences focused on action and spectacle, while leaving aside animated Hollywood’s emphasis on pat morals, clever pop-culture references and jokes aimed over the heads of kids.
If the word “extraordinary” in conjunction with a fantasy-adventure set in a low-tech France starring a female heroine whose name begins with “A” sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. That’s not an accident, as both movies were based on graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, whose name appears in the opening credits under a drawing of a pterodactyl.
PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.
COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.
Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
FEATURING: Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard, Thibault Verhaeghe, Joséphine Lebas-Joly
PLOT: A boy and girl carry on their childhood contest of dares into adulthood, when the game escalates into life-wrecking catastrophes.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough to make the List, although it is offbeat enough to earn a mild recommendation—especially as non-treacly alt-Valentine’s Day viewing.
COMMENTS: When Love Me If You Dare came out in 2003, most critics pegged it as a flawed and unpleasant attempt to cash in on Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain‘s international success. With distance, Love Me If You Dare doesn’t seem derivative so much as part of an ongoing tradition of whimsical French romantic fantasies. Writer/director Yann Samuell’s twist on the formula is to cut the sweetness, not with the usual melancholy bitter, but with sharper flavors of black comedy that many found too pungent. While Jean-Pierre Jeunet is indeed the main stylistic touchstone here—both the French and American distributors were clearly hoping Marion Cotillard would melt international hearts the way Audrey Tautou had two years earlier—Dare both recalls and anticipates other Gallic romances, while forging its own path. The mix of brightly colored childhood nostalgia and salty adult sensibilities is indebted to Jaco Van Dormael, the unsung père of modern French whimsy. Some fantasy sequences play out on cutified versions of Georges Méliès sets—as when young Julien goes sailing through a sky of cardboard cutout clouds, or the children find themselves as Adam and Eve with a prop apple serving as their lapsiarian music box—while anticipating the crafty handmade worlds of Michel Gondry.
The Amélie comparisons were more of a marketing ploy than an accurate aesthetic description, but many reviewers took them to heart. Samuell’s movie got hit from both sides, simultaneously criticized for being too derivative of the hit fantasy, and for failing to warm hearts the way the previous film had. Critics who hated the film because the two main characters were too cruel failed to give credence to the underlying metaphor—that passion often involves an undercurrent of childish competition—but there is psychological merit in the notion. The increasing stakes of the dares—which move from mere humiliations (like wearing your underwear outside your clothes) to acute psychological cruelty to actual physical peril—take the movie into War of the Roses territory. They provide danger and give us a reason to keep watching, rather than the limp “will they or won’t they?” formalities of typical romantic comedies. Yet, for all the sadism inherent in their bantering, there is no doubt Julien and Sophie share a real bond, a hybrid of all-consuming love and hate that is, in a way, admirable for its purity and fidelity. They may not be a likable couple, but they are strangely believable one. Samuell’s script and direction are very impressive for a debut, and the acting by the four principals (young Julien and Sophie are portrayed by cute and expressive couple of kids) is above standard. Marion Cotillard may have been no Audrey Tautou when it came to launching a million crushes, but she ultimately proved the more versatile actress.
One negative note, though: sad to say, you will be sick to death of “La Vie en Rose” before the final credits roll.
[This movie was nominated for review by “tsross13,” who confessed “I realize this movie might not be weird enough (but the greatness of it, in my humble opinion, cancels that factor out)….” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.]
For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new David Bowie album, at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.
Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”
Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), Luis Buñuel (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.
The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (Marion Cotillard). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.
Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. Lea Seydoux (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.
FEATURING: Zoe Auclair, Berangere Haubruge, Helene de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard, Lea Bridarolli
PLOT: A young girl of about 6 wakes up inside a coffin and finds herself in a strange girl’s boarding school, planted in a forested park walled off from the outside world.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Mining a calmly enigmatic vein of weirdness, Innocence is a graceful metaphor for childhood. The pacing, however, makes Picnic at Hanging Rock feel like a nonstop thrill ride.
COMMENTS: Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s film is an odd one, a quietly menacing reverie about girls blossoming under strict supervision. There are no men in this world, and a limited number of adults; only two teachers guide the girls, demanding obedience in the art of dance. There are no explanations for this school in which girls arrive packed in coffins and graduate only after they meet the mysterious headmistress’ unspoken specifications. The film mimics the atmosphere of disorientation a child might feel when shipped off to a strange boarding school where no one is exactly mean, but everything is distressingly unfamiliar. “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” stresses one of the schoolmarms, but even though the overseers are not cruel, we instinctively root for the disobedient girls.
Butterflies are used as a symbol of the girls’ progress to womanhood. I’ve never been a proponent of the theory that a symbol’s profundity increases in proportion to its obscurity, any more than I’m a proponent of the theory that every image needs to function as a symbol. The best metaphors are bold and obvious, and this one blossoms perfectly. Meanwhile, the school’s other mysteries are allowed to linger without elucidation. Innocence is a rare blend of the allegorical and the inexplicable, satisfying both hemispheres of the brain. It doesn’t feel essential, but it is so verdant and lovely that it should be seen by more people than it has been.
Innocence barely received any distribution in the United States, and has only been released on a region-free French DVD (with English subtitles for the film, though not for the extras). Part of the reason for its poor exposure may be the minor controversy revolving around some topless preteen nudity in the film, especially when combined with the perceived fetish value of the schoolgirl uniforms. These aspersions of exploitation seem to affects mainly over-sensitive Americans. While concerns over child sexualization are valid, I suspect most pedophiles have “better” things to do than to scan slow-paced surreal art films looking for brief glimpses of the types of pictures they could find in their neighbors’ “childhood memories” photo albums. This material is provocative, but thematically appropriate and largely innocent.
I believe a “thank you” is in order for all the companies that are making advertisements less monotonous for their viewers. David Lynch was, once again, commissioned to make a short to promote a product, and this sponsor, Dior, seems just as unlikely as the last (42 Below Vodka).
To avoid disappointment, be informed that Lynch held back a little on his eldritch style. It has an otherworldly feel to it, but it’s weirdness pales in comparison to some of his more famous work.
PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?
WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).
PLOT: Celebrity director Guido Contini finds he can’t get started on his latest movie script because the women he’s romantically entangled with keep bursting into song whenever he’s around.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Musicals, by their very nature, are a little weird, because in everyday life people very rarely ask you for the time in the key of A-flat minor. The musical genre traditionally atones for the sin of departing from reality by doubling over backwards to be reassuringly conventional in narrative and thoughtlessly blithe in message. Nine is no exception to the general rule; we only cover it here because it was inspired loosely by the great weird film 8 1/2 and it’s fascinating director, Federico Fellini.
COMMENTS: First things first: Nine, while inspired by Fellini’s 8 1/2, is obviously aimed at those who never saw the original film, or who saw it but didn’t like it much. Keeping that in mind off the bat makes the film feel much less like an insult to the maestro’s memory, and much more like what it is: a highly fictionalized puff piece that aims solely to entertain, while presenting the artist’s struggle to create as just another two-dimensional backdrop for the song-and-dance spectaculars. Except that these songs and dances are not really spectacular, so much as acceptable. The tableaux—which range from minimalist tinker-toy girders to a sequined Folies Bergère nightclub to a fashion runway strobe-lit by paparazzi flashes (the irony!)—are all flashy, pretty and eye-catching enough. The problem is that it would be, for the most part, an act of charity to describe the melodies as memorable, so that most of the numbers come across as all sparkle and no spark. The one exception is provided by Stacy Ferguson (better known as Fergie). Putting the only professional singer in the cast together with the movie’s only hummable melody (“Be Italian”) is an eggs-in-all-one-basket strategy that gives audiences something to remember, but also highlights the mediocrity of the rest of the musical performances.
As for the rest of the star-studded female cast, none can really sing or dance, and there is an unrelenting sameness to their lyrics (which are mostly about how each dame would rather be sleeping with Daniel Day-Lewis than doing whatever she’s doing now). At some point the musical numbers become numbing interruptions that make the melodrama interesting by comparison. Day-Lewis’ Italian accent is passable and he does invest his Guido with a charming childlike quality that almost makes his irresistibility to women believable; but, though he’s game enough, he just can’t carry a tune, and having him half-sing/half-talk through the climactic songs is no solution. Still, the razzle-dazzle of the production numbers, numerous cameos (i.e., Sophia Loren) and Fellini references, Fergie’s musical triumph, and a vampy song by Cruz—whose lingerie-clad tramp around a mirrored floor while wrapping pink ropes around her willowy frame is sultry enough to make her song and dance talents irrelevant—are enough to transform Nine into passable, if forgettable, entertainment. Plus, it features more corsets and fishnet stockings per minute than you’ll see outside of a fetish video, which can hardly be considered a bad thing.
Nine isn’t really inspired so much by 8 1/2 as it’s inspired by the most famous scene of 8 1/2, the harem/lion tamer sequence, where Guido famously envisions himself as being adored, then harried, by the various females in his life. The fact that the movie’s psychology ignores all other aspects of the director’s creativity and inner artistic torments in favor of the reductionist “it’s all because he’s conflicted about his unrealistic image of women” is disappointing, but hardly surprising considering this is squarely middlebrow Hollywood stuff. After all, what else would you expect from a movie whose title announces its intentions by rounding up an inconveniently weird partial number to a nice, easily digestible integer?