Tag Archives: Must see

CAPSULE: TOUKI BOUKI (1973)

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DIRECTED BY: Djibril Diop Mambéty

FEATURING: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang

PLOT: A young misfit and his girlfriend take off for Paris, committing a series of petty thefts on the way to fund their trip.

COMMENTS: This landmark film from Senegal, newly released by the Criterion Collection in a stunning HD restoration, begins with cowherds leading their flock through the pasture. An idyllic scene, but it soon turns dark… dark red, to be exact. The cows are on their way to be slaughtered—a scene that we are made to witness in all its gory detail. As the blood splatters and covers the slaughterhouse floor, the screen turns a sickening red usually reserved for grimy 1970s pseudo-snuff films. Although we never learn the exact circumstances, it’s a memory burned onto the protagonist’s psyche that will be recalled later at a crucial moment.

The central story of Touki Bouki is straight out of films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But director Djibril Diop Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting. After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-conscious French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris,” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order.

Even so, Touki Bouki isn’t a political film, either. Although he didn’t have any formal film school training, Mambety had a knack for visual poetry, observing his surroundings and making evocative connections without the need to impose any explicit political ideology on top of it. For example, in another graphic scene not suitable for the squeamish, a goat is slaughtered—likely for sacrificial purposes. A woman takes off her coat, revealing nothing underneath. An inverted cross-like ornament glimmers in the hot desert sun. Waves crash beneath the edge of a cliff. There is a feeling of mystery, danger, and desperation. Mambety doesn’t feel the need to explain, distilling his imagery into poetry–conveying life as a waking dream not easily understood.

As the story begins to unfold, these dreamlike qualities take over. Mory and Anta embark on a road to nowhere, committing petty crimes and entertaining imaginary admirers. A deranged Tarzan disciple, one of the few white people in the film, is seen caterwauling at birds in a tree, only to come down and steal Mory’s motorcycle. Mory and Anta are able to steal a huge amount of money from a tribal benefit to support the building of a monument for Charles de Gaulle, right from under the eyes of the police officer in charge of guarding it. We don’t see the crime itself, only the lovers’ triumphant escape with a gigantic trunk full of cash. Later, Mory steals an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from a gay playboy’s mansion, as a decadent party goes on outside.

The line between the real world and the lovers’ fantasy world is always blurred. Memories collide with the present, and time is all but nonexistent. When Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses an allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dream sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic-defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.

Even for those who have seen Touki Bouki before, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release upgrades the experience. Along with a vivid 2K restoration of the film itself, there are interviews with admirers such as and Abderrahmane Sissako, as well as Mambety’s brother, Wasis Diop, who worked on the production. But the biggest revelation here is Contras’ City, Mambety’s debut short film from 1968. A feverish tour through the city of Dakar, this tongue-in-cheek city symphony explores the clash between different cultures and religions. There are soaring views of architecture, occasional moments of harsh realism, but always laced with the sharp sarcastic edge that also defines Touki Bouki.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

FEATURING: André Heller, Peter Kern, Heinz Schubert, Hellmut Lange, narrated by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

PLOT: Hitler’s youth, rise, fall, and aftermath are all explored via inter-related vignettes, monologues, stage props, and puppets.

Still from Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Syberberg’s epic is a documentary with an impossible task: capturing the full scope and legacy of the 20th-century’s most dangerous maniac. Eschewing the standard “narrated historical footage interspersed with talking heads,” the film instead aims to recreate the febrile mindset inspired by Adolf Hitler by dabbling in surrealism, cosmic imagery, mundane detail, historical cinematic allusions, and ironic counterpoint. There are also puppet facsimiles of all the Reich’s leading men.

COMMENTS: This film from Germany is, on the surface, very simple. It has no elaborate special effects. Its main set is a theater strewn with props. It uses widely available historic footage and broadcasts. It states from the start that its mission is impossible. The events leading up to Hitler’s rise, and the fallout from his catastrophic machinations, cannot be recreated in any conventional way. So Syberberg takes advantage of both his limited budget (some half-a-million dollars) and his task’s inherent difficulties to craft a reverie that fuses cosmic grandeur with the tedium of minutiae. In doing so, he has created not so much a documentary of events as a dreamscape that lands the viewer face to face with the 20th century’s greatest evil.

A ring master invites the viewer to the forthcoming spectacle, encouraging us to take part at home. Barking through a megaphone, he promises outlandish sights and sounds. Entertainment, through sketch, monologue, and marionettes, awaits. Vintage radio broadcasts blast breathtaking news of conquest and hate, while a young girl clad in a celluloid headdress wanders amidst symbolic props and across idyllic rear-projected landscapes. Academics chime in, typically directly at the camera, other times in conversation with a carved wooden Führer. Various actors play various iterations of Himmler. Hitler’s valet leads us on of his bunker and explains the Führer’s exasperating disinclination to wear the correct shoes. A likeness of Doctor Caligari presents his own side-show of esoteric relics, from the historical spear that stabbed Jesus Christ to the bottle of Hitler’s semen—not the real thing, mind you, as that has been preserved in a capsule frozen in an alpine glacier and protected by elite guards. For over seven hours, Syberberg builds a mindscape from snippets of Wagner, snatches of Goethe, and reams of autobiographical testimony from those closest to the Führer.

There is a climactic scene of sorts, involving a conversation between a scholar and the little Hitler perched upon his knee. The academic argues that, despite all Hitler’s ambitions, and with all the idiotic mistakes he made (for example, rallying against the Jews instead of co-opting them), he failed. During Hitler’s lengthy rejoinder, in which he expounds upon the reality he established even upon his death, the academic removes coat after coat from the doll, taking its garb backward further and further along Hitler’s historical sartorial path. This contrast of contemporary and future with historical delving is Syberberg’s primary tool. Despite virtually all the facts available to us—the thousands of hours of film, the unending radio transmissions, the millions of words written by observers from all sides—there is a disconnect, as if the catalyst is missing. There was a time before Hitler, there was a time after Hitler.

By the end, I was well and truly transported. Watching Hitler: a Film from Germany is, despite the bare-bones production, a transcendental experience. Each of the four acts is the length of any one standard feature film, but Syberberg had his hooks in me—so much so that I watched it all in one sitting. The art-house speeches, effective in their matter-of-fact tones and melancholy delivery; the fusion of man and doll when the Reich’s ministers expound on their greatness; the conventional drama of the scenes that still subvert with their dissonant aural cues or ironic back-projection; this all adds up to a heady experience that should be mandatory viewing for any student of history, contemporary politics, psychology, or cinema. Hitler: a Film from Germany deftly and thoroughly examines how one man’s dream of destroying the world order succeeded despite his own downfall.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism.” -Susan Sontag, The New York Review (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HAPPINESS (1998)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dylan Baker, , Cynthia Stevenson, , , , Louise Lasser

PLOT: An examination of the lives of three sisters, their extended families, and their neighbors reveals an elaborate network of secrets, sickness, perversion, and chronic unhappiness.

Still from Happiness (1998)

COMMENTS: Happiness presents a challenge to reviewers, but as difficult as is to write about, it’s not half as hard as it is to watch. Filled with reference to rape and pedophilia, along with near-constant mental cruelty and depression, the movie is one long trigger warning. Happiness doesn’t hold back; it always “goes there.” Side characters who initially seem like they might be oases of sanity and kindness turn out to be just as rotten inside as the principals. It is, technically, a black comedy, but the few grim jokes only highlight the nightmarishness of the character’s existence. The ironies only start with the title, a main character named “Joy,” and a soundtrack of schmaltzy soft-rock including Barry Manilow, Air Supply, and a version of “You Light Up My Life” performed by a Russian cabbie on the make. This is one dark movie.

With those warnings out of the way, the “must see” rating is warranted, for those with just a little bit of courage. Happiness is masterfully manipulative, totally assured in its execution, and totally ruthless in its worldview. The script is wicked and nuanced, the actors expert in nailing the difficult tone. It is a triumph of fearless cynicism; and yet, while it clearly hates its characters, it also oddly empathizes with them. They are allowed to feel guilt, suffering for their sins, while simultaneously being powerless to change their own destructive behaviors. This makes the movie as sad as it is scathing.

Happiness‘ alchemical majesty comes from successfully mixing strong emotions that should be incompatible. It’s not just the paring of comedy with dark situations. In truth, the movie isn’t all that funny, although it has a couple of conventional comedy moments (such as the psychiatrist zoning out while his patient complains that people find him boring, or Joy becoming a “scab” at an ESL program). Happiness‘ brand of bone-dry humor is really a precursor to contemporary anti-comedy, exemplified by an exchange between sisters Helen (Boyle) and Joy (Adams) that could be the movie’s comic manifesto. After Joy makes an innocent comment that Helen thinks is stupid, the elder sister bursts out in mock laughter, then consoles the younger: “Don’t worry,” she hisses, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you.” Her sister’s confused response: “But I’m not laughing.”

Even more than its juxtaposition of humor and horror, the film succeeds by mixing its meanness with sorrow: Dylan Baker’s climactic tear-stained confession is simultaneously bone-chilling and heartrending. (The performances are uniformly excellent, but it seems odd that standout Baker never landed another major role: playing a child molester must be career suicide in Hollywood.) Happiness is, as noted, a very sad movie.

Is it a weird movie? I’d say no, although it is a unique one. Its unflinchingly downbeat, relentlessly derisive tone puts it well outside of mainstream entertainment. To the extent that we might claim it for the weird, it’s only due to its often exaggerated nature. Scenes play as the tiniest bit unreal: Bill’s conversations with his pre-adolescent son are perverted parodies of “Leave it to Beaver” chats. Catty conversations between the sisters are franker and more biting than they would be in reality. Horrible things are said in deadpan, and received with ambiguous expressions suggesting a mixture of alarm and bamboozlement. Detached artifice is pierced by real human emotion. That is not, in my mind, enough to get Happiness all the way to “weird” (though it certainly passes the “offbeat” marker); but at least I can see what the movie’s proponents are talking about.

Strangely, although it’s remembered by everyone who saw it and critically acclaimed, at the present time Happiness is nearly unobtainable. No streamer seems brave enough to take it on, the DVD has gone out of print, and it has never been issued on Blu-ray. I wouldn’t expect this sad situation to last forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… funny, sad, sincere, ugly, tough, weird, occasionally horrifying.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine, 2016 reassessment

(This movie was nominated for review by “CheapSwillBill” who commented “A list of weird movies that doesn’t mention Happiness? That’s weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

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La casa lobo

“Like in dreams, where one person can assimilate the attributes of another, the story and characters of the film take on different materialities. All of the changes in the house, characters and objects emphasize the permanent under-construction reality of the film.”–from the director’s statement to The Wolf House

DIRECTED BY: Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León

FEATURING: Voices of Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause

PLOT: A prologue purports to be a documentary on a Chilean commune founded by Germans; we are told that the film that follows has been restored from their vaults. Those reels tell the story of Maria, a girl who strays from their community and finds herself hiding from a wolf at a mysterious house in the woods. There, she finds and nurtures two piglets, who gradually turn human.

Still from The Wolf House (Las Casa Lobo) (2018)

BACKGROUND:

  • The scenario was inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a colony founded by ex-Nazis in Chile. The colony was often described as a cult and was insulated from its neighbors by barbed-wire fences. From 1961 to 1996 it was led by Paul Schäfer, a refugee wanted for child molestation in West Germany. The colony became the subject of dark rumors among the locals, rumors which were validated after escapees told tales of systematic child abuse inside the compound. The cult survived by allying with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who used the colony as a detention and torture camp.
  • Cociña and León had worked together, and sometimes separately, on a number of award-winning animated shorts before tackling this, their first feature film. The Wolf House took five years to complete.
  • Cociña and León took their sets on the road and worked on The Wolf House at various museums across the world, where visitors watched as they created the animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Due to the sheer volume and continually shifting nature of The Wolf House‘s liquid visuals, picking a single image is an imposing task. We will go with the grayscale eyeball that materializes on the house’s wall like a sketch drawn by an invisible pencil, complete with a semitransparent eyelid, a pulsating pupil, and the ability to shake the furniture with its glance.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Pigs with human hands; magic Aryan honey

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Wolf House‘s experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse: Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. The fascist-fairy tale tone is dreamily calm, and inescapably horrific.


Original trailer for The Wolf House

COMMENTS: It’s probably enlightening to have some background Continue reading 11*. THE WOLF HOUSE (2018)

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)