Tag Archives: Recommended

CAPSULE: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time.  Comments on this initial review are closed. Please leave any comments about the movie on the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edgar Wright

FEATURING: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, Jason Schwartzman

PLOT: Slacker bassist Scott Pilgrim must defeat seven evil exes in order to win the girl of his dreams.

Still from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  An alternate reality comedy that at times feels like something Monty Python would have come up with if they’d been raised on video games and graphic novels instead of “The Goon Show” and Oscar Wilde, Scott Pilgrim has substantial cult movie potential.  The movie dispenses with logic scene by fractured scene, but probably its weirdest joke is casting Michael Cera as an action hero.  It’s shiny surface sheen is fascinating, but at heart it’s a conventional coming-of-age tale for the PlayStation set; despite it’s comic leaps of illogic, it’s weird-ish, at best.

COMMENTS:  With its role-playing game quest to defeat seven escalating opponents (right up to the final “boss” battle) and it’s onscreen scoring system (defeated enemies turn into piles of coins as a digital score rises from their corpses), Scott Pilgrim becomes the first film in history to use the video game as a metaphor for growing up.  The movie milks maximum mileage from this conceit: when Scott goes to the bathroom, we watch a pop-up pee meter go from full to empty so we can stay informed on the condition of his bladder.  The viewer is stuffed inside a video game console, treated to constant text updates on the characters’ status.  But even beyond that basic technique, director Edgar Wright piles on the artificiality and stylization whenever an idea crosses his mind: multicolored valentines bloom from young lovers locked lips at first kiss, 1960s Batman-style “KAPOWS!” accompany fight scenes, and when a character’s profanity is bleeped out on the soundtrack a black bar also appears over her mouth.  The bent humor sports a pop-absurdist tone; this is the only movies where a villain sets up a duel to the death by email, then brings his own Bollywood backup singers to the fight.  Sometimes Wright’s choices become overly referential and fall flat, as when one expository scene is announced by the “Seinfeld” theme song, but you have to admire his willingness to try absolutely anything, and there are more hits than misses in the mix.  The film moves almost too fast at times, with dream scenes emerging back into reality with no warning (there’s little difference between the two states anyway), and jarring leaps forward in time.  But Wright embraces the short-attention span aesthetic and makes one of the cornerstones of the film; it’s neither a satirical jab at youth culture nor an unconscious adoption of its rhythms, but a stylistic choice that works in the context of the zeitgeist he’s trying to evoke.  The fast-cut style is also necessary to fit in all the film’s teeming ideas:  Scott Pilgrim is delightfully overstuffed, a real bargain for your matinee dollar.  There are six big, comic fight scenes, multiple romantic subplots and back stories,  a Battle of the Bands, and so many quirky supporting characters you almost need a scorecard to keep up.  Besides everyboy Pilgrim, there’s cool love interest Ramona Flowers (whose shifting dye jobs call to mind Kate Winslett’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), jailbait romantic rival Knives Chow, wisecracking gay roommate Wallace Wells, Scott’s band-mates in the awkwardly named “Sex Bob-omb,” evil exes who’ve become Hollywood action stars or Vegan bass players… and even with that list I’ve still omitted somebody‘s favorite of the dozens of significant characters.  The film is anarchic and ramshackle in spirit, but it’s actually tightly controlled and easy to follow and connect with.  With it’s ADD edits, it’s geeky embrace of everything pop culture and willful ignorance of any other type of culture, and its amiable twenty-somethings who act like John Hughes’ teenagers of an earlier era, Scott Pilgrim suggests either that the onset of adulthood is slipping ever closer to 30, or that the film is aimed at a demographic aged much younger than its protagonists.  I prefer to believe the latter; and, like the aforementioned Mr. Hughes’ film, the movie’s innocence about love and the easy answers about life’s big lessons creates a nostalgic crossover appeal for adults, even if they don’t get every NES video game system reference.

Edgar Wright’s previous two films were cultish genre spoofs: the zombie film parody Shaun of the Dead and the cop burlesque Hot FuzzScott Pilgrim sees Wright stretching his talents with a far more baroque, but equally hilarious, approach.  With Scott Pilgrim Wright’s no longer exaggerating the conventions of an existing genres to ridiculous lengths; he’s inventing an entirely new genre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The style is Sega surrealism, the narrative strategy 30% Bunuel and 70% Bally.”–Andy Klein, Brand X Daily (contemporaneous)

64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Continue reading 64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes,

PLOT: While investigating the slaughter of an immigrant family, a pill-popping and coke-

Still from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

sniffing New Orleans cop’s penchant for gambling and for rolling his escort girlfriend’s clients gets him into deep trouble with his department and with dangerous men; to save his life, clear his name, and crack the case, he must pull off several double crosses while strung out and sleep deprived.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watched with a doggedly literal mind, this version of Bad Lieutenant could almost be seen as a straightforward thriller/police procedural, but most who check out this flick will come away with the nagging feeling that there’s something exceptionally strange afoot in NOLA these days.  Less than a handful of hallucinations dog our drug-soaked antihero through the port, but the visions that do appear pack one hell of  a wallop.  Cage’s jittery, over-the-top performance and the enigmatic, dreamlike ending Herzog supplies notch two more points in the “weird” column.

COMMENTS: In 1992 underground auteur Abel Ferrara made a notorious movie about a corrupt New York City cop who shoots heroin, smokes crack, molests teenage girls, shakes down criminals for bribes, and tries to solve a case involving a raped nun while hallucinating and dodging a bookie he owes an unpayable debt.  Bad Lieutenant was an overwrought, magnificent Christian parable that sought to demonstrate God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness by presenting a character that audiences couldn’t forgive.

In 2009 renowned German auteur Werned Herzog made a movie about a corrupt New Orleans cop who snorts heroin, smokes crack, molests young women over the age of 21, rolls johns for drugs and money, and tries to solve a case involving a murdered family while hallucinating and dodging a mobster he owes an unpayable debt.  Herzog defiantly claimed never to have heard of Ferrara or the first Bad Lieutenant movie, but screenwriter William M. Finkelstein notably kept his mouth shut.

It’s a good thing that Herzog, who apparently wanted to title the film Port of Call New Orleans, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

CAPSULE: ODDSAC (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Danny Perez

FEATURING: The music of Animal Collective and a bunch of unknown actors.

PLOT:  Zilch.  ODDSAC is completely without narrative, or much coherence.  The only line of

Still from Oddsac (2010)

dialogue is, “Yeah, he hates chocolate.  He hates everything but green beans,” spoken by a young girl with a southern drawl.  Oh, and there is a vampire.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  While it is certainly one of the weirdest pieces of film-making I’ve encountered in awhile, it is not a movie.  It is an extended performance art video piece for a new, unreleased Animal Collective album.  Although it has some very cool visuals and the weirdness never lets up during the 52 minute running time, I say the art form of music videos should be separate from a list of the best 366 weird movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  If you are familiar with the oddball musical stylings of Animal Collective, you would expect a visual album from these guys to be an “out-there” extravaganza.  Well… it is.  The film is a barrage of acid-fueled, kaleidoscopic visuals that may melt your retinas if you stare too long.  Like the band’s music, ODDSAC does not follow conventional structure in its visual montages.  At times, it is reminiscent of the experimental art films painstakingly crafted by Stan Brakhage in the early 1960’s. Whereas Brakhage was a pioneer in the experimental film field, Danny Perez is just really good at quick-cut editing and manipulating his visuals into a trippy panorama.  At an open-discussion forum after the screening of the film in Los Angeles, Perez and the Collective gang mentioned the influence of John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Say what?!? There are elements of horror interspersed with the craziness, but I don’t see any connection to a straight-forward slasher film.

The film is divided into 13 chapters.  Each segment features a different song, so essentially it is 13 music videos.  The first segment sets a tone of darkness and dread with the creepy song “Mr. Fingers,” which writhes its way around images of a towel-headed man with a red-painted face.  Ropes of fire rhythmically swing around him, brightly lighting the pitch black sky.  Elsewhere, a young woman claws into a wall, only to be immersed in a stream of oil that Continue reading CAPSULE: ODDSAC (2010)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, , Ken Page

PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.

Still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.

COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of  Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.

The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs.  She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?

The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.

Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

SHORT: VINCENT (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Vincent Price

PLOT: A seven year old boy wishes he could be just like the Vincent Price he sees in old movies.

Still from Vincent (1982)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  It’s not quite weird; more mildly macabre.  But it sure is cool.

COMMENTSVincent is a 5 minute poem, narrated by the mellifluous Vincent Price, about a morbid boy (also named Vincent) obsessed with emulating the horror icon’s tormented screen persona.  It’s told in a singsong, storybook cadence and given a superlative reading by Price (who was so flattered by the tribute that he proclaimed it a greater honor than a star on Hollywood Boulevard).  There are some specific references to Price’s work for the actor’s fans, though the short prefers to evoke their general atmosphere than to cite specific movies. Young Vincent’s daydreams involve dipping his aunt in wax, turning his dog into a zombie, and slowly being driven mad by his guilt over his unspeakable crimes.  A representative stanza: “Such horrible news he could not survive/For his beautiful wife had been buried alive!/He dug out her grave to make sure she was dead/Unaware that her grave was his mother’s flower bed.”  Vincent is visually impressive, deliberately shot in luminous black and white and drawing on the gloomy Gothic style of the old Universal horror movies with a powerful dose of German Expressionism.  (Burton denied being directly influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he’s the only one who doesn’t notice the similarity to the silent psychological horror classic in the geometrically warped sets).  The look and childishly ghastly tone bring to mind a lighter version of the macabre black and white lithographs of Edward Gorey (who once created a primer where each letter illustrates the death of a tot).  Burton’s visual sensibility is already fully formed here, and the elements of his classic style—his comic, cathartic synthesis of fresh childhood innocence and the must of the grave—are already in evidence.  In fact, there may be no better example in the director’s entire body of work of than this crisp five minute exhibition of his talent for mixing the chuckle with the shudder.

Disney has traditionally made Vincent and Burton’s other pre-fame short Frankenweenie as extras on all their editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  The film is also included on the anthology Cinema 16: American Short Films (buy) alongside  Maya Deren‘s “Meshes of the Afternoon” and works by Andy Warhol, Todd Solondz and Gus Van Sant, among others.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a pastiche of styles lifted from the writings of Dr. Seuss and Edgar Allen Poe, and a range of movies from B-horror films, German expressionist works and the films of Vincent Price.”–Michael Frierson, Animation World Magazine (DVD)

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Maxwell Stewart.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

Recommended

“You don’t have to tell me how weird you are. I know how weird you are… Even sex is a mystical experience for you. You carry on like a flagellant, which can be very nice, but I sometimes wonder if it’s me that’s being made love to. I feel like I’m being harpooned by some raging monk in the act of receiving God.”–Blair Brown to William Hurt in Altered States

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: William Hurt, , Charles Haid, Bob Balaban

PLOT: Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks.  His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals.  When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Still from Altered States (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Dr. Jessup was based on the real life Dr. John Lilly, who invented the isolation tank and experimented with using hallucinogens in combination with it before moving on to research on communicating with dolphins.
  • Lilly tells the tale of a fellow researcher who took the drug ketamine and believed that he had turned into a “pre-hominid” and was being stalked by a leopard, which was presumably the kernel for the the idea of genetic regression.
  • This was William Hurt’s first starring role.
  • A young Drew Barrymore, in her film debut, briefly appears as one of Jessup’s children.
  • Paddy (Network) Chayefsky, the three-time Oscar winning screenwriter, adapted his own novel for the screen; he was so displeased with the final results that he had his name removed from the credits.  Chayefsky had originally written the story as a satire of the pretensions of the scientific community.  The original director, Arthur Penn, resigned after disputes with the writer.  Russell and Chayefsky reportedly argued on the set over the actors’ line readings and performances.  Chayefsky’s original novel is long out of print.
  • The seven-eyed lamb that appears in Jessup’s first vision comes straight from the Book of Revelations: “…in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes…” (Rev 5:6).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  One of the two major trip sequences (you can take your pick).  The crucified seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb from the first  is a popular favorite. In a sense, however, the quick-cut surrealistic montages play as a whole images that can’t be chopped up into constituent parts.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ken Russell makes it weird. There’s no director more eager or better suited to make a science fiction movie about hallucinogenic drugs that bring about religious visions.  With its long, intense episodes of druggy delirium, Altered States may well be the greatest trip movie ever made (and it’s certainly the most expensive). Put it this way: you know the movie’s weird when the sight of a naked, simian William Hurt gnawing on a bloody gazelle is one of the film’s more humdrum visions.

Original trailer for Altered States

COMMENTS: There are fishes swimming in the sky behind William Hurt’s head.  He offers his Continue reading 62. ALTERED STATES (1980)

CAPSULE: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood

PLOT: More than thirty Beatles songs illustrate a romance between a working-class Liverpudlian and a New England WASP during the tumultuous 1960s.

Still from Across the Universe (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a sentimentalized Sixties, it’s inevitable that Across the Universe heaves to that decades psychedelic squalls. Spectacular director Julie Taymor relishes slathering lysergic pigment on her CGI canvas for five or six of the thirty plus songs, but the ultimately the story is more about how all you need is love than it is about girls with kaleidoscope eyes.

COMMENTS: In a career of a mere eight years, the Beatles probably cranked out more memorable melodies than Mozart. It was a minor stroke of genius to adapt that songbook into a musical.  he script of Across the Universe, which tells the story of a pair of young lovers and their friends with the Vietnam War protests and the Summer of Love as a backdrop, can be viewed in two ways. It could be seen a complete failure, built out of equal parts of romantic cliché and self-congratulatory Baby Boomer nostalgia. Or, it could be looked at as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, considering the fact that the scriptwriters had to weave a coherent epic tale from a relatively small catalog of three-minute song-stories containing no recurring characters.

Like most musicals, however, the story is almost beside the point; it only needs to be good enough to set up the next production number. Fortunately for weirdophiles, the numbers Universe‘s story sets up are frequently cosmic, though you will have to wade through an hour of character setup before it starts coming on. This being an archetypal 1960’s tale, there’s a nod to acid culture: more than a nod, it’s a magical mystery tour through an extended three song medley. It starts with the principals sipping LSD-spiked drinks at a party while a Ken Kesey type (played by Bono) lectures on mind expansion using “I Am the Walrus” as the holy text; whirling cameras and and tie-dye colored solarization gives their trip to the countryside via magic bus the requisite grooviness. This sequence segues into “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” where another acid-guru (Eddie Izzard) takes the crew inside his magic tent for a twisted computer-generated carnival complete with a roller skating pony, a dancing team of Blue Meanies, and contortionists in spooky wooden tribal masks. The scene’s an impressive visual spectacle whose impact fizzles thanks to Izzard massacring the lyrics through an off-the-beat, spoken-word delivery with some unfortunate improvisations. The dreamy comedown features the flower children staring up at the sky, imagining themselves tastefully nude and making love underwater.

Psychedelia intrudes into other numbers, as well: the carefully layered images of “Strawberry Fields Forever” feature bleeding strawberries that morph into fruit bombs splattering on the jungles of Vietnam. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” includes a cameo by Salma Hayek as five sexy dancing nurses, and a bliss-giving syringe filled with a nude dancing girl. The best and weirdest segment may be “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” which addresses the draft board and stars a talking poster of Uncle Sam, dancing sergeants with square plastic chins, and a platoon of soldiers lugging the Statue of Liberty. Standout non-weird numbers include a gospel version of “Let It Be” set during the Detroit riots and a funky “Come Together” performed by Joe Cocker, who sings as three different characters, including a natty pimp backed by a chorus of hookers. Hardcore Beatles fans will rate Universe a must see (and they’ve probably already seen it); unless you’re some sicko who absolutely can’t stand Lennon-McCartney compositions, you’ll want to check it out just for the visuals. It can get pretty far out.

Despite its weird parts, Across the Universe was able to secure a mainstream release. Audiences were willing to accept the unreal scenes because they were presented in the lone format where the average person expects and accepts surrealism—the music video. Unfortunately, however, even the Beatles fan base couldn’t make Taymor’s experiment profitable at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A cameo by Bono as a sort of godfather among hippies (delivering a forceful cover of ‘I Am the Walrus’) shifts the movie into a hallucinatory realm, with a tie-dye color scheme that suggests scenes were shot during an acid trip with Baz Luhrmann. Viewers who like movies to reflect their out-of-body experiences will gladly inhale, but for others, the excess may seem off-putting.”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: TOKYO! (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-ho Bong

FEATURING: Ayako Fujitani, , Jean-François Balmer, , Yû Aoi

PLOT: An anthology of three short films set in Tokyo: an experimental filmmaker’s girlfriend feels useless until she undergoes a strange transformation; a bizarre man-creature crawls out of the sewers and terrorizes the city; and an urban hermit falls in love with a pizza-delivery girl with buttons tattooed on her body.

Still from Tokyo! (2008)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It suffers from the curse of most anthology films: unevenness.  Leos Carax’s “Merde” is almost weird enough to carry it across the finish line, but the other two entries, while interesting, drag the film down to the borderline.

COMMENTS: If Paris’ tradition earns it an anthology film dedicated to love, then teeming, tragic Tokyo gets a triptych on the theme of weirdness.  But even though Tokyo is top-billed, this exercise is hardly about the city at all.  The Japanese metropolis is depicted as too practical, too generic, for a love letter; it instead becomes a metaphor for urban absurdity and anxiety.  Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is up to bat first.  His “Interior Design,” about a couple sleeping on a friend’s floor while searching for an apartment, starts out so slow that mainstream viewers may be tricked into thinking it’s a conventional drama.  The character development and performances are good, although these particular people—a struggling experimental filmmaker and his passive, too-sacrificing girlfriend—don’t seem quite interesting enough to make a movie about, so we wonder what exactly he’s up to.  Along the way there’s a subtle and funny parody of a parody of the sort of pretentious art-school films that don’t really exist anywhere, but that people like to imagine anyway when dismissing the avant-garde (the beams from the headlight of a motorcycle driven by a skull faced man form a swastika, among other absurd jokes).  The third act brings a metamorphosis that lets Gondry indulge his talent for weird and striking visuals; it ends with a disturbing and humorous metaphor for depersonalization that makes the sly point that there may be greater things to aspire to in life than just being useful.

Joon-ho Bong’s “Tokyo Shaking” is the closer, and the weakest outing.  His story concerns a “hikikomori,” or urban hermit, living on takeout pizza in a self-imposed exile from human contact and sunlight.  It’s an interesting character and there are some bizarre incidents along the way, but in the end the story misses the universal pathos at which it was aiming.

The centerpiece, Carax’s “Merde,” is a change of pace in tone and an upping of the ante in weirdness.  The scenario involves a nasty man named Merde with a twisted red beard, milky eye and a shuffling gait who randomly arises from the sewers and makes an extreme nuisance of himself, embarrassing and assaulting the proper Japanese bystanders, before descending back under the city as quickly as he came.  Eventually his provocations go beyond the merely gauche and he’s hunted down and put on trial; his defense lawyer is a civilized Frenchman who shares the same physical characteristics and inexplicably speaks his language of grunts, whines, hops and slaps.  Merde himself is reminiscent of one of those socially obnoxious “Saturday Night Live” sketch characters that Will Ferrel used to specialize in, if Ferrel had been willing to play mute and push the character’s oddness to scary limits.  On the way to a mystical conclusion the script takes satirical jabs at Japanese xenophobia and the death penalty, and parodies the frenzies created by TV news broadcasts.  Fans have interpreted this strange story as everything from a spoof of Godzilla films to a twisted Christ allegory, and both theories fit the film; it’s that kind of parable.  Although Gondry and Bong’s offerings fit into the weird genre, it’s “Merde” that makes this omnibus of unease worth the watch for fans of the absurd.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a defiantly odd picture — its middle portion, in particular, directed by the always strange Carax, isn’t out to win any friends. But the refusal of ‘Tokyo!’ to proffer even the most perfunctory air kiss is what makes it so intriguing… Perhaps ‘Merde’ is just too aggressively bizarre, for no good reason. But sometimes a movie that makes you ask, ‘What the hell was that?’ can be its own reason for existing.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com