Tag Archives: Masculinity

CAPSULE: EVOLUTION (2015)

Also see ‘s “Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantasia Fest 2015” (where Evolution scored an honorable mention).

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

PLOT: A boy grows up on a strange island where all the adults are female and all the children are males; he is told he is sick and is sent to a hospital where he bonds with one of the nurses.

Still from Evolution (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Evolution is a very good, very weird film that won’t get a shot at making the List of the weirdest films of all time for one simple, rather technical reason: it’s thematically similar to, and perhaps slightly inferior to, a previous movie by the same director. Evolution and Innocence are linked, yin-yang movies; you might consider them for a single spot on the List, 1a and 1b.

COMMENTS: Filmed on the rocky beaches of the Canary Islands (standing in for a settlement in a dystopic future or some fairy tale netherworld), Evolution is a stunningly beautiful film. The underwater photography in the opening, capped with a shot from the sea floor of a boy’s lithe body floating in the water framed by a wavery halo of sun, is a skin diver’s dream of paradise. The film knows it’s beautiful, too, and that may be why it takes so much time getting to where it’s going: it’s letting you soak in the sights.

Early in the story, playmates stage a funeral for a dead lobster whose corpse, seen belly-up, looking strikingly vaginal; our boy hero touches it, just to show that he isn’t afraid. Of death, or sex? Is there much difference here? He lives in a village where each “mother” has exactly one boy child in her care. While the boys sleep, the women—all pale and slim, with albino eyebrows—gather at night on the beach for secret rites, performing frightening acts that boys (and audiences) can’t quite wrap their heads around (though a horny might approve). Later, the boy is diagnosed as “sick”—as are all the boys when they reach the cusp of puberty—and transferred to a hospital, where he, along with the others, undergo a series of operations. He also strikes up an (implicitly frowned-upon) friendship with one of the nurses, who is impressed by his drawing abilities.

Evolution is slow-paced, but comes in at a brief 80 minutes—although even so, the overly long silences make it feel a little stretched out. Besides the dreadful atmosphere, it does have some genuine body horror frights, including creepy fetuses. Like Innocence, it ends with a return to the “real world.” The limbo Hadzihalilovic explores in these companion films is pre-pubescent gender, the weirdness of being a male or a female inhabiting a body that’s not yet equipped to carry out its biological role. A very strange situation to be in, when you think about it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird stingless jellyfish of a film. It drifts through an amphibious world of its own, somewhere between nightmare and reverie: intriguing, but never quite arriving at that pure jab of fear or eroticism or body horror that it appears to be swimming towards.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JOHNNY SUEDE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Tom DiCillo

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener

PLOT: Johnny Suede, a young man with a freakishly large pompadour, tries to pay the rent,

Still from Johnny Suede (1991)

keep a girlfriend, and make it as a musician in the big city.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Johnny Suede flirts with weirdness, but can’t commit to it.

COMMENTS: By far, the weirdest thing about Johnny Suede is Brad Pitt’s Fabian-on-steroids pompadour. That said, one early scene promises a high level of creepy surrealism that the body of the movie fails to deliver. Walking home from another night at the club where his stuck-in-the-fifties style fails to impress the nifty chicks, Johnny passes an alley where a woman who appears to be heavily drugged is either being raped or prostituted. Like a good citizen, Suede finds a public telephone and calls the cops, but he is interrupted when a falling projectile shatters the phone booth’s glass ceiling. The box from the heavens contains Johnny’s dream footwear: black suede shoes with rhinestone accents. Johny forgets the alleyway assault, and the movie forgets the atmosphere of urban dread and decay and forges ahead instead with the slightly offbeat story of a delusional young man struggling to find his way to manhood, romantic happiness and self-sufficiency. A few fantasy moments—a wooden hand poking out of a deserted street, bad fried chicken shared with equally-pompadoured but more successful jerkwad singer Freak Storm in an alley, and lightly Lynchian dreams of nude men in diners and being stabbed by a dwarfs with a TV antenna—intrude on what is basically a series of scenes of apartment-painting jobs, band rehearsals, and awkward dates. Johnny is mildly delusional about both his musical talent and his skills as a ladykiller, and generally not as cool as he thinks he is; he’s a braggart, a bit slow, and a bad liar. His out-of-touch, out-of-time greaser perception of what it means to be a man—indicated by his peacock ‘do as well as recurring symbolism involving miniature cowboys and bulletless guns—keep him impoverished financially, morally, and romantically. Suede’s an interesting, complex character, but the script doesn’t give him much of interest to do. He is well-realized by pretty young Pitt, and the supporting cast is appealing and talented, supplying enough interest to make the minimal story watchable. As a schoolteacher with shoe-throwing tendencies, Keener is sexy, in an average-gal-with-needs sort of way. Watch out for small roles by a young but already cool Samuel L. Jackson as the bass playing Bebop, a still-elegant Tina Louise as a romantic interest’s record industry-connected mom, and a platinum blonde Nick Cave as a drunk and coked-out scam artist singer who represents Johnny’s probable future if he doesn’t wise up and let Keener’s good lovin’ into his heart. As a weird movie lover,  you might find yourself wishing the movie had the courage to pull the trigger on that surreal gun it gave us a peek at early on. Like it’s main character, Johnny Suede is indecisive—it’s quirky and can even be a bit weird when it lets its guard down, but it secretly craves acceptance from normal society.

Writer/director DeCillo was Jim Jarmusch‘s go-to cinematographer before striking out on his own with this debut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Offbeat, stylish and packed with some wonderfully bizarro moments…”–Jeff Dawson, Empire Magazine

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who argued that it “has a low key, offbeat charm to it that I love” and “would make an excellent triple feature along with Barton Fink and Eraserhead [only due to the humongous hair theme].” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: 44 INCH CHEST (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Malcolm Venville

FEATURING: , Ian McShane, , Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley

PLOT: Four men (presumably gangsters, though it’s never made explicit) kidnap the lover of a cuckolded mate’s wife and try to goad the bereaved man into killing him for revenge.

Still from 44 Inch Chest (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, although it is an example of how an isolated weird scene can creep into a mainstream drama.

COMMENTS44 Inch Chest sets up an intriguing conflict that captures our interest, but it fails to capitalize on the inherent drama and its force gradually dissipates into a wisp.  When sexy Liz (Whalley) announces she’s leaving Colin (Winstone), he first pleads with her not to go, then winds up beating the name of her lover out of her.  Afterward, Colin is so emotionally spent he can’t even get up off the floor or stop listening to Harry Nilsson wail “I can’t live, if living is without you” over and over. His four friends, shady characters at best, kidnap the adulterer and deliver him to their comatose mate so he can extract his vengeance.  There’s no evidence that Colin ever asks for their assistance or that his buddies kidnap the loverboy as a favor to him.  They are prodding him to do his duty; they take it upon themselves to set up the ritual revenge, and as they egg him on, it becomes clear that if the cuckold fails to conform to the code of gangster honor and kill the man who disrespected him, their value system will be undermined.  The problem is that Colin is a clinically depressed, blubbering, lovesick mess who’s barely capable of lighting his own cigarette, much less pulling a trigger and taking another man’s life.  The conflict isn’t between between Colin and his wife’s helpless lover (who spends the movie stuffed into a wardrobe or tied to a chair), but between Colin and the bad angels standing two on each shoulder, each using a different tactic to convince him to uphold his “honor.”  An actor’s movie, 44 Inch Chest unspools like an overextended one-act play, with each of the major characters getting a monologue and a turn in the spotlight.  Winstone’s performance is nuanced, burly and scary, but even more pathetic.  As a suave homosexual, Ian McShane dominates whenever he’s onscreen; despite his sophistication and questionable sexuality he’s one of the gang, as crudely masculine as any of them at bottom (in fact, his “love ’em and leave ’em” sexual philosophy is, if anything, the most authentically guy-ish).  John Hurt is also excellent as the bitter and shriveled “Old Man Peanut,” who’s as dried up a bundle of bigotry and spite as you’d ever have the misfortune of encountering outside of a Mafia nursing home.  Tom Wilkinson does well as Archie, the regular guy of the group and frequently the mediator among clashing egos, and Stephen Dillane is fine, if underused, as the youngest member of the group.   As Liz, Whalley is sexy, elegant and distant; the unknowable (to these guys, at least) feminine.  The F-word and C-word laden dialogue strives for profane poetry and strikes a reasonably nasty rhythm, though it never sails to the heights of a David Mamet.  The problem is the plot, which peters out long before the end and winds up in a philosophically sound but dramatically unsatisfying anticlimax.

A couple of fantasy sequences explain why this vulgar gangster drama is being covered on a weird movie site.  When Colin is left alone in a room with his bloodied-up romantic rival, he begins to hallucinate.  The visions elucidate his psychology and provide somewhere for the movie to go when the droogs seems to have run out of misogynist arguments.  Even when you’ve been warned they’re coming they may catch you by surprise, as its not always completely obvious where the objective world ends and Colin’s internal fantasies begin.  Nonetheless, they’re a diversion and don’t really substitute for a more thoughtful plot resolution.  Watch 44 Inch Chest for the performances by a superlative collection of British actors, and for the brief glimpse a John Hurt in a black cocktail dress; don’t watch it for the story, or for weirdness.

Louis Mellis and David Scinto, co-writers of the 2000 hit Sexy Beast, wrote the screenplay for Chest.  The movie also stars Beast‘s Winstone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors go at the material with obvious relish… On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the picture’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL [KOROSHI NO RAKUIN] (1967)