Tag Archives: Recommended

309. DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968)

La morte ha fatto l’uovo, AKA Plucked

“I think that’s a peculiar way to put it, men and chickens mixed up like that.”–Death Laid an Egg (dubbed version)

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Gina Lollabrigida, Jean Sobieski 

PLOT: The movie opens with a prostitute killed in a hotel room. The action then moves to an experimental poultry farm, largely automated but overseen by Marco, his wife Anna, and their beautiful live-in secretary Gabri. The plot slowly reveals a love triangle, with multiple betrayals, with Marco’s growing disgust at the poultry business brought to a boil when he finds a scientist has bred a species of headless mutant chickens for sale to the public.

Still from Death Laid an Egg (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was almost certainly inspired by a line from Surrealist icon ‘s “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias“: “Death laid eggs in the wound/at five in the afternoon.” Late in the movie Marco will mutter to himself “At 5 o’clock… the machine… the egg… the work…” and several shots focus on a clock approaching the 5 PM mark.
  • The second of an unofficial trilogy of surrealist movies director Giulio Questi made in “disreputable” genres. For more on Questi’s odd career, see the last paragraph of the Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! review.
  • Death Laid an Egg was restored in 2016 by Nucleus Films from a newly discovered negative that contained a couple minutes of footage not seen in previous releases. The film was available on VHS in a dubbed version, but outside of suspect bargain versions from overseas, it was unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray until 2017.
  • Bruno Maderna, who wrote the atonal score, was an accomplished classical composer and conductor who died of cancer at the relatively young age of 53, a mere five years after Death Laid an Egg was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The exotic Lollabrigida and the nubile Aulin are a tempting pair of birds, but they’re upstaged by the actual poultry in this one. The oddest sight of all is hens stuffed into file folders for alphabetization (?) in a chicken functionary’s office.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Playboy chickens; filed chickens; all-breast chickens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A juicy slice of breaded with a coating of and seasoned with a sprinkling of , Death Laid an Egg was the world’s first (and so far, only) deep-fried, chicken-centric Surrealist giallo.


Original Italian trailer for Death Laid an Egg

COMMENTS: Personal anecdote: the first time I watched Death Laid Continue reading 309. DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, Michael Patrick Jann, Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , Samuel Barnett, Jade Eshete, Hannah Marks, Michael Eklund, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Kaoho, Dustin Milligan

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)

CAPSULE: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Deborah Fallender, Max Wall, John LeMesurier, Harry Corbett

PLOT: Disowned by his father, young Dennis Cooper travels to the big city; through circumstances circuitous and deeds unintentional, he saves the kingdom from the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Still from Jabberwocky (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Long-time stalwart of the strange Terry Gilliam was just getting on his own feet with this, his first solo outing as a director. That said, there are a number of oddball moments, characters, and set-pieces; however, Jabberwocky is more on the straightforward side of things—with spikes of silliness—-than it is an Out-of-Left-Field-Terry-What-Are-You-Doing? spectacular.

COMMENTS: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of Dennis, the mind-blowingly unlikely hero of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, “greatness” clings like a limpet to the rotting potato our hero carries religiously throughout the movie. After an unpleasant experience co-directing with ‘s for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam seems to enjoy his newfound freedom to chaotically putter through a movie that, although occasionally uneven, brims with life in every scene.

A menace lurks in the forests and farmlands, viciously devouring victims before spitting out their skeletal corpses. What brave hero will save the good folk of the kingdom? Why, none other than Dennis (Michael Palin), a bewildered little man obsessed with stock-taking and other trappings of commerce. When his father, a venerable craftsman, casts him from his home, Dennis travels to the capital city to find his fortune so that he might be worthy of the hand of the piggish and unseemly daughter of Mr. Fishfinger, a seller of fish (!) who is, along with the merchants and clergy of the besieged city, keen to see that the rampaging monster keeps the swarms of peasants captured in its walls. Dennis woos the kingdom’s dotty princess (Deborah Fallender), pursues the fearsome Jabberwocky, and reluctantly endures a happy ending.

Not quite modulating his animator sensibilities, Terry Gilliam effectively makes a long-form, live-action version of the cartoons that brought him fame with the Python comedy troupe. The grittiness of medieval life is on full and absurd display as Dennis has run-ins with fanatical penitents, encounters a smilingly self-dismembering beggar, and is ushered around the chaotic city milieu by the director’s smirking machinations. Standing out amongst this cartoonery is a scene where a hungry Dennis pursues a rogue turnip first dropped by a merchant, then batted about by a series of passersby. Jabberwocky bears witness to the silly side of the Dark Ages’ dirtiness. (Indeed, one’s suspicion of ‘toonish buffoonery is confirmed by Terry Gilliam in the movie’s commentary).

No, Jabberwocky isn’t terribly weird. There is too much of a smiling sensibility lying atop, below, and at the surface for any disorientation. And no, Jabberwocky is no landmark directorial debut, but more a qualifying lap for Gilliam’s subsequent projects. A cast of characters who knows no other life and comically shrugs off all adversity undercut the despair of starvation and filth. The end result feels like “Tom & Jerry’s” Hard to be a God. Gilliam would go on to make weird and wonderful movies where his hero’s unlimited humanity blasts through a wall of farcical nihilism; with Jabberwocky, we still see a giggles-take-all attitude from the legendary filmmaker.

DVD INFO: Criterion provides, again, pleasant run-of-the-mill thoroughness. Lifting the charming commentary from the previous 2001 DVD release, they add a contemporary interview-documentary involving Gilliam, Palin, and others (all of whom, separately, go on pleasant tangents about the symbolism of potatoes), as well as a more in-depth bit with the film’s beastie designer, Valerie Charlton. Toss in a few odds-and-ends like the (bizarre) trailer, an audio interview from the late ’90s with  cinematographer Terry Bedford, and the obligatory fold-out essay in the disc case and you’ve got yourself a special release. And, oh yeah, the glorious images of this glorious movie have been upgraded and cleaned up for glorious “4K Blu-ray”. Huttah.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gilliam’s monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol’s surreal poetry.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

Bara no sôretsu 

“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”

“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”

–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto

FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama

PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.

Still from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
  • The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in ‘s Ran.
  • The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
  • The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama.  Matsumoto released it separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.


Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses

COMMENTS: “Each man has his own mask,” says the voice from the Continue reading 308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , Naoto Takenaka; Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Joey D’Auria (English dub)

PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.

COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.

As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.

Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “” status.

To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with , Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an anime made by Bergman or Tarkovsky… pure, wordless cinema, existing in a realm too deliciously mysterious to pull down.”–Sci-Fi Movie Page

307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, , Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey

PLOT: The story of a pseudo-miraculous infant unfolds in an elaborate passion play, which we watch along with 17th-century Italian aristocrats as they take in, and at times partake in, the play’s action.

Still from The Baby of Macon (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Beyond my usual answer of, “quite frankly, every Greenaway movie probably qualifies for the List,” is the less fatalist reason that The Baby of Mâcon should count among the weirdest movies of all time because it makes all other Greenaway films (except, perhaps, The Falls) feel positively accessible and happy. More a recording of a hyper-sumptuous stage production than a film, this movie is such an embodiment of hyper-stylized hyper-formalism it proves that Peter Greenaway can, like Spinal Tap’s guitar amp, “go to eleven.”

COMMENTS: Despite his oeuvre’s opulence, stylishness, and glamour, Peter Greenaway could never be accused of catering to any audience other than himself. I mean this as no criticism. The reception to his films proves that there are non-Greenaways out there who can get on the same wavelength and, if not always enjoy, then at least appreciate the detailed grandeur of his vision. The Baby of Mâcon checks its way down the Greenaway list: stylized setting and dialogue, grandiose presentation, and a vicious current of sadism. We’ve seen that he can be lyrical (The Pillow Book), quirky (The Falls), and, sometimes, even commercially successful (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover). The Baby of Mâcon, however, is Greenaway at his angriest. Watching this film is like watching a back-alley murder scored by Wagner and choreographed by Baryshnikov.

The story is a simple plot of cynicism hijacked by vengeance. Sometime in the middle of the last millennium, a baby is born. The baby’s actual mother was long thought barren, and through some quick maneuverings, one of her daughters (Julia Ormond) claims to have birthed the child through some immaculate conception. A local Bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is, along with his father, skeptical. The baby has his own evil streak and condemns the Bishop’s son to death by ox-goring for having almost taken (consensually) his false-mother’s virginity. The Bishop (Philip Stone) finds his son dead, takes the child, and exploits him further. The boy is killed by his false-mother, who herself is condemned to a fate that would be best left unsaid.

Nonetheless, it must be. Peter Greenaway, through all the pomp, costumery, and stylization of the dialogue, shows his true fury at religion, the aristocracy, and much else about societal order. With the blessing of the in-film audience member Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey), the false-mother of the titular child is doomed to a death by rape. I won’t trouble you with the “logic” behind it, but through one of his beloved lists, Greenaway subjects his character to hundreds of such experiences, consecutively, at the hands of the local militia—all blessed and “pre-forgiven” for their acts by the Bishop. All this is done before and audience who gaze, along with us, at the cruelty. They, however, are observers of a “morality play”; we have the discomfort of acknowledging how immoral the play’s events are. The only blameless character, the Bishop’s son, is the unfortunate catalyst of this evil. He is referred to as a scientist before his demise, and seems of a level head. No room for him in this world of intrigue, superstition, and malice.

There is simultaneously not much more to say about this film, as well as extensive remarks to be made about the reams of allusions throughout. Uncharacteristically for Greenaway, there is often a great deal of on-screen confusion (à la Aleksey German), as the camera is often (seemingly) obtusely placed, mimicking the position of an audience member of a stage play. It is left to us to follow the action, scouring the screen for what is happening where.

A bit of trivia: this was Ralph Fiennes’ second film role. His third, which would make him famous, is substantially more uplifting and, even, more cheerful—Schindler’s List. Released the same year as The Baby of Mâcon, film distributors in North America found it easier to put the evils of the Holocaust on display than to reckon with the malignity found in Greenaway’s offering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not even Ken Russell could have dreamed up the stew of grotesque religiosity, slavering voyeurism and sexual violence that is Peter Greenaway’s 1993 movie, ‘The Baby of Macon’…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (1997 screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic

PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.

COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapolagetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.

Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.

Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.

Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)