Tag Archives: Meta-narrative

CAPSULE: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Stephen Plunkett,  Charlie Korsmo

PLOT: While starring in a low budget period horror film, Mabel makes the acquaintance of some affable “freaks” brought on set for authenticity; while the main cast and crew’s away, the freaks pass the time making their own movie vignettes.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Made as a rejoinder to the infamous Freaks (1932), Aaron Schimberg’s movie is non-exploitative, clever, funny, and professional. While the meta-narrative gets a little odd at one point, Chained to Life really boils down to being a feel-good comedy in the very best possible way.

COMMENTS: I found something very odd about my viewing experience of Chained for Life, and it wasn’t the subject matter. After the brief introduction by the soft-spoken director, I was feeling nervous, for some reason. Admittedly, I’ve had difficulty coping with the sight of deformity (in person and otherwise), but having thought about it—and having now seen the movie—it was the wider critical interpretation that I’d read beforehand that made me apprehensive, and afterwards made me confused. I’ll talk about what other critics saw later; me, I saw a charming, character-driven comedy.

When a busload of disabled people show up at the shoot for a period horror film, there is a hiccup of apprehension on the part of the “normals” already present. The leading lady, Mabel (Jess Weixler), plays the movie’s movie’s leading lady, a woman blinded by some unexplained accident who is promised to be cured through radical surgery. However, Chained for Life focuses primarily on the actors and crew involved, in particular on the blossoming friendship between the physically self-conscious Mabel and the physically self-accepting Rosenthal (Adam Pearson). While primary filming progresses by day, the “freaks” lodge in the hospital by night, eventually deciding to play around with filmmaking themselves. One twist leads to a cute reveal after a ways, but the story is pretty simple.

That’s not to say it isn’t well done. By using the pretentious “art-house” nonsense being filmed by a hyper- stand-in (billed only as “Herr Director”) as a counterpoint to the day-to-day scenes of people interacting with people, Aaron Schimberg crumples up any fear of “the Other” by focusing on the lighter side of the banality everyone faces. There are also moments of considerable hilarity scattered throughout. At one point, Herr Director demands Rosenthal “emerge from the shadows”. When asked the simple question, “What am I doing in the shadows?,” Herr Director goes off on a lengthy, increasingly impassioned tangent concerning The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ epic quest, and the big reveal of . This handily reveals the director’s obsessions without providing Rosenthal with any good reason why his character would just be kicking around in the dark, while also nicely linking the two phenomena together: as Schimberg remarked in an interview, whenever there’s a big reveal (chair swivel, shadow emergence), it’s either a celebrity or a “freak”.

But what of those other critics? One used the term “black comedy” , and the only interpretation I can make of that being any comedy involving these kinds of people must be subversive somehow. Another’s mind was blown by a modest twist found in the final act; it was as if he watched a far more complicated movie than I had. But despite the unsettling undercurrents discovered by other reviews, I found Chained for Life to be as pleasing as it is witty. As the credits appear, they spool over one long take on the bus of the variously disabled actors after the in-movie movie shoot. After so deftly undermining preconceptions about disfigured people, this stunt pays off handsomely. What do we see when we watch them on the bus? Totally normal people being totally, normal, bored. It was an excellent flourish and a perfect way to underline the film’s thesis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It all culminates in an odd, almost surreal sequence in the back of a hired car, shot in a single long take. This deeply weird finale, both humorous and moving, strikes an uncanny note I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — something mesmerizingly close to the sensation of a waking dream.”–Callum Marsh, The Village Voice (festival screening)

336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

“The expanse of humour in American life has historically shown the health of the democratic system in its ability to absorb criticism and analysis, even in their most pointed, satiric, sardonic, or absurdist forms, or when cast solely as entertainment.”–Russel Carmony, “The rise of American fascism — and what humour can do to stop it”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, , Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Lewis Howard, Shemp Howard, Richard Lane, Elisha Cook Jr.

PLOT: The film begins with the projectionist (who will play an active role in the story) loading a reel of film: a musical number set in Hell. That scene ends with the arrival of “our prize guests,” Olsen and Johnson, who are in turn interrupted by the director who objects to their series of gags and demands that they have a story “because every picture has one.” The director presents them with a script for “a picture about a picture about ‘Hellzapoppin”, which loosely revolves a love triangle among socialites who are also staging a play (with disastrous results).

Still from Hellzapoppin' (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hellzapoppin’ was the film version of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s stage variety show, which opened on Broadway in 1938. The show had no running plot, but consisted of a collection of comedy sketches, musical numbers, and audience participation routines that played off current events and would change from performance to performance. Olsen and Johnson often improvised their routines. With 1,404 performances, it was the longest-running show on Broadway up until that time.
  • The original show closed on December 18, 1941; the film debuted on December 26, 1941. Olsen and Johnson revived the show many times, and it went on road tours (with rotating casts, often without Olsen and Johnson) throughout the 1940s.
  • One of the few bits that was recycled from the play for the movie is the man who wanders through the scenes carrying a potted tree, which grows bigger as the production progresses.
  • Hellzapoppin’ received an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Song” for “Pig Foot Pete.” The song “Pig Foot Pete,” however, doesn’t appear in Hellzapoppin’.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The rapid pace of the visual gags makes this one almost impossible to pick. The opening seven minutes in Hell alone could probably yield half a dozen respectable candidates. We’ll go with the moment that Olsen (I think) blows on his diminutive taxi driver, transforming him in a flash of smoke into a jockey on a horse (with, for some reason, a tic-tac-toe game stenciled on its side). The fella is immediately launched from his saddle on a trip into Hell’s sulfurous stratosphere—but that’s already another image altogether.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Canned guys and gals; Frankenstein’s monster hurls ballerina; invisible comedian hemispheres

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A staircase collapses, dumping socialites into Hell where devils with pitchforks do somersaults off trampolines and juggle flaming torches. Women are roasted on spits. Farm animals tumble out of a taxicab like it was a clown car. The projectionist runs the film back and plays a scene again, to a different conclusion. And that’s just the first five minutes! “This is Hellzapoppin’!”


Fan-made trailer for Hellzapoppin’

COMMENTS: I can’t tell which one is Olsen and which one is Johnson. This may seem like a small point of confusion in a movie in which Continue reading 336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

CAPSULE: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE (1967)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGUISH (1987)

Recommended

 

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Zelda Rubinstein, , Talia Paul

PLOT: An audience watches a movie about a serial killer under hypnotic control by his mother killing off patrons of a movie theater, while themselves being victims of an obsessed killer prowling their own theater.

Still from Anguish (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: You are getting very sleepy, back and forth, watch the metronome. Once you were like a snail, hiding in your shell. Now you’re on an elevator, going down to the twentieth floor, the nineteenth, the eighteenth… when you land, you will become one with us in nominating this unique thriller onto the List as one of the weirdest film experiences to be fooouuunnnd.

COMMENTS: As you read this review, if at any time you feel your mind leaving your body, you should cease reading immediately. Your humble author didn’t follow this warning, and look how I turned out. No really, we’re just passing along the William Castle-like warnings from the beginning of the film. But it’s good advice anyway, because this horror flick starts out invoking standard slasher fare, but ends up reminding you more of The Cabin in the Woods. We meet the creepy old lady Alice (Zelda Rubinstein) and her grown adult son John (Michael Lerner, also in Barton Fink) who live together in a house otherwise occupied by pet snails and pigeons. John is an eye doctor who is ironically going blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and his mother hypnotizes him into murdering people so he can harvest their eyes for her. Not that she’s motivated to cure his ailing vision; oh no, the eyes are just to increase her witchy powers. Among her many talents is the ability to remotely hear conversations by listening to a seashell, and project her own consciousness into her son’s mind when he’s out and about. And for a man losing his vision, John throws a pretty mean scalpel anyway.

But did you think that was the whole movie? Ha, just kidding, this is actually a movie about a theater audience watching the above movie, and getting melodramatically distressed at it. As the hypnotic scenes commence, the audience falls under the spell, variously swaying into a trance, or squirming uncomfortably as if they were held against their will to watch. Ah, but we go back to the movie they’re watching, and now John, in a quest for fresh victims at his mother’s behest, invades yet another movie theater showing The Lost World. Even this black-and-white dinosaur adventure holds its audience enthralled enough to provide great cover for John to quietly off the victims and collect the eyeballs, in between dinosaur roars. A young lady leaves what is revealed to be the theater showing The Mommy, where we’re now starting to get lost as to which layer of of movie we’re in. As we follow the distressed girl getting her bearings in the theater bathroom, we realize that she wasn’t watching The Lost World, but The Mommy, the movie we’ve been mostly concerned with up until now.

Just when we’re begging not to get anymore confused, a new murder plot forms around the people watching The Mommy. As the events of The Mommy continue, the movie theater staff and eventually the audience watching it are preyed upon by a new killer, even as John in The Mommy scalpels victims in his own theater while this new killer prefers a trusty gun. From here on out, events blur between the two theaters, as the film practically dares you to keep up. The new killer huddles in the bathroom and also babbles “mother”; it turns out he’s a fan obsessed with The Mommy. Both killers barricade the doors of their respective theaters, the better to trap victims for an all-out rampage. At times you’re watching an audience watching an audience, at other times you’re asking which bathroom we’re in, and at times even The Lost World’s events blend with the various audiences’ experiences. And guess what? We’re not done shifting points of reality yet, because it turns out we were watching a movie in a movie in a movie… or something. And you thought Inception was hard to follow!

If you’re a big fan of Zelda Rubinstein, who also plays the spooky psychic from the Poltergeist series, then this is your party. Rubinstein dominates the earliest film, her dulciloquent baby-doll voice rasping away and chanting hypnotic spells as her face fills the screen in between shots of whirling spirals, ticking metronomes, rocking lights, and sometimes shots filmed with a spinning camera—bring your barf bag. This goes on for most of the inner movie (and the movie’s movie, and the movie’s movie’s movie…), and when it’s not, the visuals establish artistic motifs around eyes and spirals until it switches to the stacked-movie premise, which invites us to ponder the thin wall between violent movies and obsessed fans (which gets uncomfortably close to later real-life events, even). Anguish does everything it can to drill itself into your conscious. It’s a corkscrew roller-coaster ride through a hall of mirrors, smartly setting you up for an expectation and then veering off into a new curve. While it has some flaws, such as the secondary cast at times giving  performances so wooden they smells like lemony furniture polish, Anguish works its ass off to end up giving you several movies in one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well, after seeing it in an actual movie theatre (one eerily similar to the two featured in the film), I can safely say that this deeply weird endeavour definitely needs to be seen at a proper movie theatre.”–Yum-Yum, House of Self-Indulgence

244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

Jigoku de naze warui

“We’re in reality, and they’re in the fantastic. Reality is going to lose!”–Ikegami, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hiroki Hasegawa, Fumi Nikaidou, Jun Kunimura, , Gen Hoshiro, , Tomochika

PLOT: Director Hirata leads a group of anarchic filmmakers who dub themselves “the Fuck Bombers”; he wants to make one great movie in his life, or die trying. Meanwhile, the Muto clan is at war with a rival bunch of yazkuza, and Boss Muto’s daughter, Mitsuko, is starting her career as a child actress with a popular toothpaste commercial. Ten years later these two plotlines collide when, through a string of coincidences, Boss Muto hires Hirata to film his raid on rival Ikegami’s headquarters, in hopes that the footage will be used in a movie that will make Mitsuko a star.

Still from Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shion Sono belonged to an amateur filmmaking group in high school and drew on those experiences for writing the script. (Future director was also a member of the group). The character of Hirata is based on an acquaintance, however, not on Sono himself. (Sono relates that he was cast in the “Bruce Lee” role in their amateur productions).
  • Sono wrote the script about fifteen years before it was produced.
  • Many viewers incorrectly assume that the yellow tracksuit Tak Sagaguchi wears is a reference to ‘s outfit in Kill Bill. In fact, both and Sono are referencing Bruce Lee’s costume from Game of Death. Sono was so irritated by the constant misidentification that he included an explicit reference to it in his next feature, Tokyo Tribe (2014).
  • Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was the winner of this site’s 6th Readers’ Choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s a close call between the scene of a darling little Mitsuko singing a toothpaste commercial jingle while standing ankle deep in a pool of blood in her living room, or the rainbow-colored jets of blood that stream from yakuza hearts punctured by adult Mitsuko’s katana as she stabs her way through a field of flowers. Take your pick.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Singing in the blood, vomiting on a prayer, rainbow arterial spray

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until the final thirty minutes, Hell appears only mildly unusual; the characters and situations are exaggerated, but besides one bloody hallucinatory memory and a broken-bottle French kiss, not too much happens that you couldn’t see in a Japanese version of Get Shorty. When it comes time for the movie-within-a-movie to roll, things change: decapitated heads fly about like bats and stylish machismo flows as freely as blood as logic flees the scene in abject terror.


U.S. release trailer for Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

COMMENTS: Ambitious high-school director Hirata addresses the Continue reading 244. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (2013)

CAPSULE: THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

Die Unendliche Geschichte

“I was doing a tattoo in Seattle, and a girl came in and had the whole side of her buttcheek was the Auryn. So she pulled her pants off and asked if she could get a picture with me next to the Auryn, so I stuck my head right next to her butt.”–Noah Hathaway, star of The NeverEnding Story and tattoo artist, on the nexus of his past and current lives

DIRECTED BY: Wolfgang Petersen

FEATURING: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, voice of Alan Oppenheimer

PLOT: An orphaned boy discovers an epic story about a young hero’s quest to find the cure for a mysterious force that is destroying the kingdom and killing a princess, only to discover that he is more integral to the story’s outcome than he had imagined.

Still from The Neverending Story (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A fantastical milieu is always good for unusual characters and settings, and the story’s propensity for bleak and even nihilistic ideas goes well beyond the usual expectations for “children’s fare.” However, the weirdness is mostly concentrated in the Mobius strip plot (which inspires the title), making the film primarily weird for the sake of itself.

COMMENTS: Director Wolfgang Petersen parlayed his success directing the global smash Das Boot into a seat at the helm of this movie, which would wrap as the most expensive film in German history. As regards what’s up on the screen, it shows. In our CGI-rich present, the effects may appear dated, but they are surprisingly effective and charming. Petersen creates a fully-realized fantasy world, from the crystalline castle of Fantasia to the dour Swamp of Sadness. The stop-motion, animatronic, and puppeteered creatures are also quite spectacular, with the fatalistic Rockbiter and the treacherous Gmork coming across as especially believable.

All those expensive special effects mean that the burden of acting falls almost entirely upon the two child leads. Noah Hathaway (previously sighted as Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica series) is particularly strong, doing his best hero’s quest despite being prepubescent. Barret Oliver (soon to be seen as D.A.R.Y.L.) has a harder time, since so much of his role involves reacting to reading. He’s acting by himself opposite events happening to other people, which turns out to be at the heart of the movie’s bait-and-switch.

The true weirdness of The NeverEnding Story lies in this ultimate twist: the Nothing, an encroaching void that is destroying the world of Fantasia, is the personification of the apathy of a disinterested human readership, and the world can only be saved by the imagination of Bastian, the boy who stole and is now reading this very story about how the world is dying because he’s not imagining the story. It’s hardly a coincidence that the hero’s amulet, the Auryn, is a double ourobouros. The movie itself tells us that there is no real world/fantasy world dichotomy to unpack; it’s all fantasy, feeding upon itself. Which certainly goes a long way to explaining some of the story’s more puzzling mysteries, such as why Bastian’s unsympathetic, egg-swilling father (a very grim cameo by future Major Dad Gerald McRaney) isn’t out scouring the city looking for his son in the midst of a storm hours after he should have come home from school.

(Evidently, that metatextual mindplay is an even greater component in the source material. The movie draws on roughly the first half of Michael Ende’s novel, and the author was so incensed by the adaptation that he sued twice: first to stop the production, and then to have his name removed).

Ultimately, the film has major problems articulating what is really important. Characters are introduced only to have no impact on the story at all. A major death is wrung out for every tear it can muster before we’ve ever had a chance to meet the character or understand his importance to the hero. And the ending is a borderline travesty. Given the awesome power to create worlds, the most Bastian can think to do is turn the tables on his bullies and torment them in return. It’s an ending that works (my son laughed uproariously), but it doesn’t fit the philosophical, high-minded tone of all that has come before. Which is perhaps why it’s best to assume that the story never really ended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… comes off as a Reading Rainbow episode covering existentialism… The NeverEnding Story’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

LIST CANDIDATE: R100 (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nao Ohmori, Lindsay Hayward

PLOT: A Japanese furniture salesman pays a secret bondage society so that dominatrixes will attack him at random times in public, but things go too far when they start showing up at his work and home.

Still from R100 (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By the end, after a relatively conventional beginning, R100 has gone from a one-joke lashing to full-fledged absurdist pummeling. This black sex comedy is demented enough to make the List, but we do wonder whether one of Matsumoto’s other movies might better represent his weird movie legacy.

COMMENTS:The first half of R100 is rather ordinary. Relatively so: most people would consider a movie where a man’s date kicks him in the face at dinner, and where a dominatrix stands beside him and smashes each course of sushi the mortified chef places before him, very strange indeed. R100 begins its life almost as a drama, doling out hints of backstory about our masochistic salaryman, who struggles as a single parent of a young boy with a wife in a coma. The movie eschews the chance to explore his psychology, however; we never gain any insight as to how ritualized pain and humiliation helps him deal with his problems. Instead, R100 spirals off into crazier and crazier directions, as the dominatrix attacks he’s contracted for intensify, start to interrupt his normal life, and threaten the one thing he loves more than a good beating from a merciless leather-clad mistress: his child.

The public attacks on our hero get repetitive, as if R100 doesn’t know how it wants to develop its premise. Then, in the middle of the film, Matsumoto springs a number of oddities and radical tone shifts. There are metamovie interludes which explain the movie’s title: we are watching the work of a 100-year-old director who considers this material inappropriate for anyone younger than himself (thus R100—restricted to those over 100 years of age). The main narrative takes a turn into B-movie territory when our hero is forced to turn against the bondage club after an botched session with the “Queen of Saliva.” You know the movie is completely off the rails by the time the ridiculous “Queen of Gobbling” shows up (and when the film’s producers debate cutting her out of the movie). The climax, which features our formerly meek hero lobbing grenades at an army of dominatrices commanded by a foul-mouthed blond Amazon stuffed into a tight rubber teddy, seems like it could have been choreographed by a team consisting of , and Mel Brooks. And the coda takes the weirdness to the next generation.

The way R100 starts out off-kilter and slides into greater and greater absurdity will thrill many who view the film as a simple comedy. It’s enjoyable enough on that level, but there were hints of depth in the character and themes that were never explored, and this is something of a missed opportunity. Masochism is easily stated as a philosophy—from pain comes pleasure—but it’s nearly impossible for an outsider to comprehend this most counterintuitive of fetishes. Maybe that’s why Matsumoto depicts it as an incomprehensible enigma. Or maybe you just have to reach the century mark to get it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…connoisseurs of weird, twisted sex comedy will revel in its transgressive, audacious mischief.“–Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star-Tribune (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by purplefig, who said it was “weird in that wonderfully insightful weird way only japanese cinema can deliver..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JAKE SQUARED (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Howard Goldberg

FEATURING: Elias Koteas, Mike Vogel, Kevin Railsback, , , Jane Seymour

PLOT: A director makes a self-indulgent autobiographical movie about his failed love life, and, “Twilight Zone”-style, versions of himself in his teens, thirties and forties show up in unwanted cameos.

Still from Jake Squared (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jake Squared is like 8 1/2 done as a romantic comedy by a Hollywood phony. It’s a little weird, sure, but mostly you just feel embarrassed for the screenwriter.

COMMENTS: 50-year old, semi-successful indie film director Jake Klein is a helpless romantic, as he himself announces to the viewer minutes before kicking out his lead actor so he can perform the hot tub scene with the three bikini-clad bimbos himself. Later, he bemoans the fact that “some people want to deny the poorest children health care and nutrition so the richest people won’t have to pay a few thousand in extra taxes” while doing his morning breaststroke in his backyard pool. It hardly seems possible, for a movie that boasts about its self-awareness and meta-conceits, but Jake Squared doesn’t really seem conscious of these ironies. It expects us to honestly sympathize with the internal struggle of its wealthy, balding, chick-magnet protagonist, this achingly wounded Lothario, while reserving its scorn for humbler targets, like the airheaded aspiring starlet who wants to convert to Judaism to further her show business career.

Jake admits his autobiographical film project is self-indulgent, expecting us to forgive him his self-indulgence because he’s up front about it. But it doesn’t work that way. When is self-indulgent we forgive him not because he’s candid about it, but because the self he is indulging is so fascinating. Jake, on the other hand, is more like a second generation, not-as-funny cross between and Larry David (boasting the same incomprehensible sex appeal with which these writers endow their surrogates). Elias Koteas does a reasonable job as most of the Jakes (unless we were supposed to like the character, in which case even his workmanlike job can’t overcome the script). The acting in general is a high point; landing the trio of Jason Leigh, Madsen and Seymour as potential paramours was a coup, though again, why these women would be fascinated rather than fed-up with Jake’s agonized narcissism is unclear.

Weirdness is not an issue. The opening introduces us to the primary Jake, the dashing twenty-something actor he’s hired to play Jake, and several of his earlier selves wandering around a party, and then switches to new scenes from Jake’s life (being acted by the hunky stand-in) which he views on his cell phone. For further confusion’s sake, the young actor in the cellphone scenes can also see himself in the party scenes. It gets so convoluted that fifteen minutes in, a new character comes in and explains the premise directly to the camera. The problem is that this is a romantic comedy with an unlikable protagonist, no clear love interest (besides himself), and almost no laughs. It was 45 minutes in before I registered my first chuckle, and that was at a visible boom mic (to be fair, it was visible on purpose). Jake Klein isn’t a terrible person, but we should be paid the same rate as a therapist would to listen to him go on and on about his struggles with commitment; we shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Given Jake’s lack of notability, raising him to an exponential power was probably not a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If only Federico Fellini had lived long enough to direct Hot Tub Time Machine, he might have made something like this self-indulgent but agreeably ambitious anti-romcom.”–Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)