FEATURING: Jim Henson, Frank Oz (puppeteering); Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw (voice acting)
PLOT: A meek Gelfling sets out on a journey to fulfill the prophecy that he will heal the Dark
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its advanced puppetry and dazzling color, The Dark Crystal is a visually spectacular movie. The standard-issue quest story, however, is nothing unusual; just recycled Tolkien, watered down for kids.
COMMENTS: The Dark Crystal may be the most elaborate puppet show ever staged. There are no human actors in the film, and the sets—from the spiny castle rising from a bleak landscape to the twisted interior corridors of the Skeksis’ lair to the forests of walking plants—are all fairy tale artifice, storybook illustrations adapted into three-dimensional scenery. A menagerie of imaginatively designed creatures parade in front of these beautifully textured backdrops. Most impressive are the evil Skeksis, hunched bipeds who simultaneously resemble reptiles, dinosaurs and birds of prey. They are opposed by the gentle Mystics, four armed, droning sloths with kind wizardly faces, and Gelflings, the “human” characters, who look like an experiment in breeding J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves with chimpanzees from The Planet of the Apes. The meticulously molded puppets–each turkey-faced Skeksis’ beak is individually gnarled—have expressive eyes, and their jaws move when they speak. The rest of the puppet faces, however, are immobile; so despite the minute detailing, the mix of animatronics with static features makes the creatures overall appearance unreal and somewhat uncanny—maybe even “weird.” (The fact that the puppets move at about three-quarters the speed of a human actor, while seriously hampering the action sequences, also adds to the movie’s artificial reality). The simplistic, muted emotions conveyed by the creatures’ features aren’t terribly jarring, however, because their puppet shells are inhabited by one-dimensional characters. Lack of character depth isn’t a problem for the villainous Continue reading CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982)→
“Nothing in [critic’s] educations or experiences can have prepared them for The Holy Mountain. Here is a film completely outside the entire tradition of motion picture art, outside the tradition of modern theater, outside the tradition of criticism and review. Criticism is irrelevant.”–film critic Jules Siegel, a quote chosen for The Holy Mountain‘s trailer
PLOT: A thief, who looks like Jesus Christ, silently wanders through a bizarre and depraved city with an armless and legless midget companion, participating in a lizard circus where toads are dressed like conquistadors, bearing a crucifix through the streets and eating from Jesus’ body, and meeting a prostitute with a chimp. He comes to a giant tower in the middle of a busy highway and rides up a hook to the top, where a mystic with a menagerie introduces him to seven companions and purifies him by burning his feces and turning it into gold, among other rituals. After preparation the assembled nine set off the find the Holy Mountain where the immortals are said to live, so they can displace them and become like gods themselves.
In preparation for making the film Jodorowsky studied with two a Zen master and with a disciple of Gurdijeff. Part of his training involved sleep deprivation (he claims he went a week without sleep) and taking LSD for the first time.
During filming, the Catholic church in Mexico was not happy with The Holy Mountain because of its apparent blasphemy, and the President Luis Echeverría’s regime was also angry with Jodorowsky because soldiers in Mexican uniforms were depicted massacring civilians. There were public marches protesting the filming. Per Jodorowsky’s DVD commentary, he left Mexico with the footage he had already shot to finish the movie in New York after receiving threats from government officials and paramilitary groups.
John Lennon partly financed the film. The budget was $750,000, a fairly extravagant sum for a film largely made in Mexico in 1973.
According to Jodoworowsky’s DVD commentary, George Harrison wanted to play the role of the thief, but balked at playing a nude scene where the character has his anus scrubbed. Sources at the time reported that it was Lennon who wanted the role and that he could not follow through due to scheduling conflicts.
Jodorowsky dubbed the voice of the thief.
Various “masters” the characters meet as they prepare for their ascent of the Holy Mountain were played by actual Mexican shamans and witch doctors.
Due to disagreements between Jodorowsky and producer Allen Klein, The Holy Mountain did not receive any sort of legitimate home video release until 2007. The same issues plagued Jodorowsky’s previous film, El Topo. According to Jodorowsky, Klein became angry and vindictive when, thinking it was too commercial, the director abandoned a project to adapt the erotic classic The Story of O with the producer and instead pursued an opportunity to make George Hebert’s cult science fiction novel Dune (a project Jodorowsky never completed—David Lynch was hired instead to film Dune, which ended up as a flop and an embarrassment).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many candidates—the apocalyptic toad and chameleon circus with amphibians dressed as conquistadors and missionaries, the giant mechanical vagina art installation stimulated by a nude woman with a probe, the hermaphrodite with leopard head breasts that squirt milk onto a proselyte—that choosing a single representative image seems like an almost arbitrary exercise. Still, there is one trick so stunningly beautiful and effective that Jodorowsky essentially uses it twice: the live birds that fly from out of the gaping wounds of corpses mowed down by fascist soldiers.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Holy Mountain plays like a cut-up version of the world’s sacred texts. If you tore out pages from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Golden Bough, and a dozen other esoteric works from the Kabbalah to Gurdijeff—throwing in a couple of sleazy pulp novels for good measure—and put them together in a giant cauldron, stirred them up and pulled out sheaves at random and asked a troupe of performance artists, carnival freaks, and hippies tripping on peyote to act them out, you might come up with a narrative something like The Holy Mountain. Here, the cauldron is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s skull, and the stirrer was LSD, and an ex-Beatle gave the director and master visual stylist a small fortune to bring any elaborate and depraved fantasy he could dream up to shocking life. The singularly bizarre results—the pure, undiluted essence of mad Jodorowsky—are unlike any film that has ever existed before, or ever shall be, world without end.
Short clip from the “Neptune” sequence of The Holy Mountain
PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.
COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning. Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet. This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone. She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room. The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.
The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure. To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter. The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit. The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances. The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world. Oversize metal samurai? Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby? Nazi zombies? It’s been done.
The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can. The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.
Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film. Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack. Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll. Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.
It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre. While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation. In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.
PLOT: About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not weird enough. Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.
COMMENTS: Alice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting. The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads. Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious. But the story—ouch! Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever. In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day. The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy. But who cares about such details? They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”). We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords. Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls. Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale. Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party. But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues. It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle. I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash. Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario. It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget. Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.
To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations. Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story. His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did. The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles. If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.
“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring. Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring. Alas, those laws are never violated. They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting. Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker
PLOT: A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country. The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it. A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.
For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives. All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography. Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer. Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant. He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions. A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released. The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence. One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream. The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream. A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.