Tag Archives: Old age

190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

“I’m watching this movie, it’s this picture about, uh… it’s really weird. It’s like the guy who took the acid or something, he smoked a marijuana or something before he wrote this picture…”—“The King,” speaking to an unknown party on his cell phone during the Bubba Ho-Tep DVD commentary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

PLOT: Having giving up fame for a simple life and switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, Elvis Presley is now an aging old man with a boil on his penis languishing in an East Texas retirement home. One of his fellow retirees is Jack, an African American who insists that he is actually ex-President John Kennedy. The two old men discover that a mummy is haunting the corridors of the rest home, feeding on the souls of the elderly, and together they hatch a plan to defeat the creature.

Still from Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
BACKGROUND:

  • Bubba Ho-Tep is a faithful adaptation of a novella by cult horror writer Joe R. Lansdale first composed for the now out-of-print anthology “The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem,” which also contained stories and essays by Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
  • The budget was reported to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Although there is a flashback concert scene in the film, the producers could not afford to license any actual Elvis songs, so you only hear generic Vegas-showroom-style intro music. Similarly, the scenes from the “Elvis” movie marathon seen on television are just cleverly-edited stock footage, with no actual Elvis films ever glimpsed.
  • The end credits announce a prequel called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Although intended as a joke, fan interest in such a movie ran so high that Coscarelli, Lansdale and Bruce Campbell tried to get it made, although it never came together. Campbell has reportedly lost interest in the project and it is presumably as dead as Elvis.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aging Elvis, in his trademark rhinestone suit and cloak and a walker, marching off to face off against a mummy.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The only way Bubba Ho-Tep could have failed to be weird is if it lacked faith in its premise of a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy in a rest home, and instead turned the tale into a self-congratulatory parody. Thankfully, everyone involved takes the story and characters at face value, honoring the oddness and humanity of the inherently absurd situation.

Original trailer for Bubba Ho-Tep

COMMENTS: No matter what we achieve in life, whether it’s Continue reading 190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sergio Hernández, Santiago Figueroa, Christian Vadim, Valentina Vargad, Chamila Rodriguez, Pedro Villagra, Sergio Schmied

PLOT: An old man recalls his childhood, when he used to carry on conversations with Long John Silver and Ludwig van Beethoven, as he waits in a boarding house for the man who will kill him to arrive.

Still from Night Across the Street (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a fine, absurd death movie. We suspect Ruiz has fielded better candidates to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time, but this one carries an extra poignancy due to the fact that we are watching an artist sail into the sunset under his own power. Night Across the Street is Ruiz’ posthumous jibe at mortality.

COMMENTS: “Time seems to stumble here,” muses a character (amusingly, the line is delivered immediately following a jump cut). “The hours don’t follow one another.” Our main character, Don Celso, is talking to Jean Giono, a somewhat obscure French writer who died in 1970 but whom he meets in a translation seminar, presumably in the present day. Celso is used to chatting with such apparitions; as a child, he used to hold conversations with Beethoven (whom he takes to see a cowboy movie) and the fictional pirate Long John Silver (who predicts that someone close to the boy will die, only to find that every victim he suggests is already dead).

Night Across the Street‘s sense of being lost in a sea of memory where the distant past shares equal billing with the present should be familiar to anyone who has ever observed grandpa recalling his first kiss in the seventh grade as if it happened yesterday, while simultaneously forgetting where he put his keys and how to operate the remote control. The first forty minutes of the movie are full of flashbacks to Celso’s boyhood, leading us to fear that Night will one of those dull, reverential movies full of the bittersweet reminiscences of an old man reflecting back on a life speckled with triumphs and tragedies; but the last two-thirds of the film, dealing with the approach of death and its aftermath, prove far more interesting than the setup. The forcibly retired Celso is waiting for the man who will kill him to arrive, you see, and when the boarding house matron’s nephew, a poet, comes to stay, he thinks his killer has finally arrived. In a convoluted parody of drawing room murder mysteries and noirish twists, the nephew is planning to kill the old man for his money, while romancing his own aunt and a dancer/prostitute who also lives at the home. Meanwhile, Don Celso is trying to talk an assassin, who is a client of the dancer, out of killing the nephew.

It gets stranger from there, as rumors of murder start to fly and the movie’s dream sequences start having their own dream sequences. In the world of this movie, no distinction could be less important than the one between fantasy and reality (unless it is perhaps the one between past and present). Only the difference between life and death truly matters, but even that line proves difficult to draw. Different permutations of the story coexist, overlapped onscreen: it’s a surreally garbled tale of murder, a young boy’s ominous premonitions of the future, an old man’s dying dream, a self-conscious metafiction, and the memoirs of a ghost, all at the same time. It ends as a haunted house tale set in a cursed boarding house, a place where the ghosts are haunted by their own meta-ghosts. The movie sports a delightful sense of intellectual play, especially wordplay (the lectures on translation, poetry recitations, a running gag about a crossword clue, and the main character’s obsession with the word “rhododendron”). Nothing could be more absurd than death. With his extremely odd and dry sense of humor intact until the end, Ruiz laughs at death—not defiantly, but with genuine befuddled amusement.

Raoul Ruiz made over 100 movies in his lifetime, some in his native Chile and many in France where he lived in exile during the Pinochet regime. In 2010 he was diagnosed with cancer and received a successful liver transplant. He shot Night Across the Street in March of April of 2011; in August of that same year he died of a lung infection. He did preparatory work on one final movie, Linhas de Wellington (Lines of Wellington), a historical drama set in the Napoleonic Wars, which was completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…suffused with the contrast between experience and memory, reality and surreality.”–Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “a splendid and utterly weird movie, released after the filmmaker’s death, which brings a poignant resonance with the subjects tackled in the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)

Smultronstället

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Ingrid Thulin

PLOT: An aging professor has dreams of death and flashbacks to his youth as he drives to a university to accept an honorary degree.

Still from Wild Strawberries (1957)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only the presence of a couple of dream sequences, and the fact that the story emerges from the mind of semi-surrealist auteur Ingmar Bergman, make this character study worthy of a footnote in weird movie history.

COMMENTS: Incredibly, Ingmar Bergman released Wild Strawberries in the same year as The Seventh Seal, and although the overriding theme of both films is death, the approach taken in this quiet character study could hardly be different than the bombast of Seal‘s epic medieval fantasy. Wild Strawberries is an intimate, internalized movie about an ordinary man coping with regret at the end of his life, and, without a couple of dream sequences that Freud-obsessed Bergman couldn’t resist adding, it would belong to a tradition of quotidian dramatic cinema that stands directly opposed to the world of weird film. Many people deeply identify with Professor Isak’s pre-mortem ruminations, but I confess I’m not one of them. This is the kind of realism-based movie that conjures no magic for me, although I can appreciate the craftsmanship and understand why others with different predispositions rate it so highly. The dreams depicted here err towards psychological realism rather than mystery. The initial nightmare comes in quickly, taking pride of place directly after the credits. Featuring a withered man with a squashed face and a hearse accident, it’s obviously Isak’s death-anxiety dream, an easy slam dunk interpretation for any amateur psychotherapist. The second trip into Isak’s psyche takes place after we’ve been exposed to some flashbacks to his youth, and digs a bit deeper, although the symbolism is still fairly simple to grasp. It’s actually a series of dreams, beginning with another flashback to his youthful love. That turns into a common examination dream; Isak has shown up for a test, but he’s not prepared. He looks into a microscope and can’t see anything, he sees only nonsense words scrawled on the chalkboard. (At least he remembered to wear pants). After failing the exam, the experience morphs into a guilt dream; the test is revealed as a trial. The sequence ends on another memory, this time of his wife, and a tryst that may or may not have occurred as depicted but which nevertheless reveals his ambivalence about the woman who fathered his son. There is a conundrum in Wild Strawberries; Isak seeks forgiveness, but he seems rather a good egg than a terrible sinner. We are repeatedly told Isak is cold and unfeeling, but the warmth that emanates from behind Sjöström’s sad and crinkly eyes contradicts that narrative. When his daughter-in-law tells him he’s a selfish old man who only thinks of himself, we are immediately on his side; we know that he’s been misunderstood. Bergman surely could direct cold and unfeeling—see the performances of Jullan Kindahl as the buttoned-up housekeeper and Naima Wifstrand as Isak’s harridan mother—so perhaps the idea behind our instant fondness for Victor Sjöström’s grandfatherly professor is that we, the audience, see the doctor as he sees himself, not as others see him. The movie seeks to redeem a character with whom we begin in sympathy; a strange emotional arc, but one that works for many people. Ultimately, although Wild Strawberries is doubtlessly an excellent movie, I do find it a tiny bit overrated—but perhaps that’s only because it’s being compared to the author’s other masterpieces, like The Seventh Seal and Persona. This is a different species of film, a ruminative and elegiac movie that is focused narrowly on a perfectly realized individual rather than grand existential allegories. One of Bergman’s gifts is that he was comfortable working either on an epic stage or in a small chamber. He could bring a sense of warmth to the one and an echo of universality to the other. Wild Strawberries is clearly on the realistic chamber drama end of his range, and the “recommended” rating here is for general cinema enthusiasts, not lovers of the weird.

The Criterion Collection’s Wild Strawberries DVD includes a commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a ninety-minute Bergman documentary/interview, Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work. The 2013 Blu-ray upgrade (buy) adds a short introduction from the director and new behind-the-scenes footage.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say. As nearly as we can make out… the purpose of Mr. Bergman in this virtually surrealist exercise is to get at a comprehension of the feelings and the psychology of an aging man.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , , Oliver Reed, Valentina Cortese, , ,

PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that  follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.

Still from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTDespite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.

COMMENTSThe hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“..the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame..”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)