Tag Archives: Susan Sarandon

CAPSULE: MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Dash Shaw

FEATURING: Voices of , Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham,

PLOT: An antisocial sophomore writer for the school newspaper becomes a hero when an earthquake causes (as the title suggests) his entire high school to sink into the sea.

Still from My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The central premise is more macabrely whimsical than surreal, and while the animation is out there, it’s not enough to advance this underground comic come to life to the grade of “weird.”

COMMENTS: An offbeat collision between “Daria” and The Poseidon Adventure, Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (adapted from his own comic) dips its toe into the waters of weirdness, but never wholly submerses itself. That’s fine, because it really isn’t aiming at all-out satire or savage surrealism. It’s content to be what it is: a quirky, amused, and almost-but-not-quite nostalgic look at horrors of high school cliquiness. Dash Shaw (yes, the protagonist is named after the writer) is a pretentious high school sophomore only recently recovered from a plague of freshman acne, with high hopes for the upcoming school year. He writes for the school paper and quarrels with his only friend, Assad, when the latter strikes up a romantic relationship with their editor, Verti (proving that just because you’re a nerd doesn’t mean you can’t also be a jerk). When an earthquake sends their precariously-perched school sinking into the sea, the three junior journalists team up with the sophomore class president and an ass-kicking lunch lady to save as many of their fellow students as possible.

Characterization, plot and comedy take a back seat to the visuals, which, while generally crude squigglevision-style inkings, are at the same time enormously inventive and constantly shifting so that the eye is never bored. Cut outs, silhouettes, and a yogic lung-cam are among the styles Shaw assays, along with undersea lava lamps and a psychedelic scene that features super-closeups on individual pixels. Tributes to Mortal Kombat and the Peanuts are among the visual gag, and Shaw gives the “normal” scenes unreal color schemes to further liven things up.

Satirical highlights include a popular girl eaten by sharks and a senior football star who sets up his own fiefdom, but the plot is just a serviceable frame to hang the animation on. As a comedy, it doesn’t produce a lot of laughs, but the gently snarky, tongue-in-cheek tone is pleasant. It comes close to earning a “recommended” tag, but while High School easily earns a passing grade—we’ll say a B+ average—it’s not graduating with honors. It’s a bit of a slacker, honestly, skating by on natural intelligence and outsider charm. It does earn a qualified recommendation for experimental animation fans, high school satire completists, and anyone looking for an amiable way to kill 90 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A super-fun, bananas-weird tale of thrilling heroics and life-defining friendships animated with collage, line art, paint, Sixties liquid-light effects, and realistic botanical and animal sketches.”–Ashley Moreno, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)

CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Steven Culp, , , Jane Leeves, , Simon Callow

PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
Still from James and the Giant Peach (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited .

COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.

This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief,  did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.

Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves  (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shines with weird, whimsical invention.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PEACOCK (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lander

FEATURING: Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, Susan Sarandon, Bill Pullman

PLOT: After a train accident destroys his privacy, a mentally ill bank employee leads

a double life, playing himself and his own wife, as he navigates his relationship with a poor single mother and his own worsening psychological state.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Peacock‘s gender-bending premise suggests all kinds of weird possibilities, the film’s execution doesn’t capitalize on any of them, and the final product is a muddled, small-town drama with only the occasional hint of slight weirdness.

COMMENTS: Set in the fictional Nebraska town that gives it its name, Peacock begins with an average day in the life of its disturbed protagonist, John Skillpa (Murphy), as he eats the breakfast prepared for him by his wife Emma. The twist, however, is that John is Emma, and that he’s built an illusion of idyllic family life within the house he inherited from his abusive mother. The first few wordless minutes set this up promisingly, as Murphy capably portrays both halves of this quiet household going about their daily business.

Then a train caboose flies off its tracks, knocking Emma unconscious while she’s hanging laundry; instantly, the Skillpas become the talk of the town, and a rallying point for local politicians. This could be the start of a tense psychodrama… but instead, it soon fizzles out and degenerates into half-baked histrionics. Although Murphy is commendable in his dual roles, switching back and forth between the ultra-jittery John and demure Emma with a convincing change of personality, his performance can’t overcome the often shaky writing. This worsens considerably toward the end, as a series of out-of-left-field twists and turns torpedo the film’s already questionable logic.

The other actors also fare poorly. Most unfortunate of all is Ellen Page, brutally miscast as a hash-slinger and sometime prostitute who also happens to be raising John’s child. Although Page has found phenomenal success playing precocious teenagers in movies like Hard Candy and Juno, she sounds hopelessly out of place as the put-upon, provincial Maggie. Susan Sarandon, as the mayor of Peacock’s feminist wife, brings some well-needed warmth and humor to the film, but she too is wasted as the film quickly stops using her interactions with Emma to explore gender roles, and becomes a dour, poorly paced thriller instead—one without any real suspense or fear of discovery.

Outside of Murphy’s oddball, over-the-top performance, Peacock is disappointingly conventional and just as mixed-up as its protagonist. Sometimes it acts like a satire of wholesome small-town values, as its supporting cast members all speak in the same exaggeratedly folksy dialect and share the same dull conversation topics. But by the end, it’s clear that Peacock is just an anemic rehash of Psycho‘s less plausible parts, with plot holes deep enough to bury a body. First-time director Lander, who also co-wrote, drops every potentially interesting angle by the wayside, and in so doing squanders a plum cast. If you want to see Cillian Murphy in drag, you should probably just watch Neil Jordan‘s Breakfast on Pluto instead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lander’s thriller wannabe is a confusing jumble of badly developed ideas which happen to be acted out by a talented group of actors who are squandered away in a film that is so concerned with creating a mystery that it overlooks the fact that it also needs to be a good movie. A sad waste of a great cast.”–Marina Antunes, Quiet Earth

CAPSULE: THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

FEATURING: Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, , Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon

PLOT: A murdered 14-year old girl watches her family search for her killer from the afterlife.

Still from The Lovely Bones (2009)

 

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are a few weird visual elements in Susie’s pleasant and candy-colored Purgatory, but The Lovely Bones tells a conventional, if unusual, story at heart.

COMMENTS:  With its mix of fantasy, drama, teen girls and murder, Peter Jackson’s latest superficially hearkens back to his wonderful Heavenly Creatures (1994); but the originality and intensity of that early vision is gone now, replaced by Hollywood sentimentality.  The Lovely Bones is ambitious in its attempt to juggle many mixed tones, but it can’t quite navigate the tricky terrain from tragedy to mystery to reconciliation while shoehorning in comedy (a nicely campy but unnecessary turn by Susan Sarandon as a hard-drinking granny) and Hollywood spectacle.  There some memorable fantasy images, such as a fleet of bottled ships crashing onto rocks, but for the most part the heavenly landscapes Jackson imagines are appealing and picture-postcard pretty, but uninvolving; Susie’s heaven seems like it’s been designed by Terry Gilliam reincarnated as a tween girl.  As a thriller, the movie fails.  We know from the beginning who the killer is, so our only interest is in seeing how he will slip up and be discovered.  No clues are provided that would allow the Susie’s surviving family to out him, however; the revelation comes through supernatural nudging from beyond the grave that feels a lot like cheating.  At a key moment, the movie abruptly stops being a thriller—just as excitement should be peaking—to return to exploring family dynamics.  It’s a misstep that’s revealing of the difficulty the movie has shifting gears.  The ending is cloying; the murder victims gather on the Elysian fields to sing a contemporary pop-music version of “Kumbaya,” followed by Susie’s unlikely return to earth to take care of unfinished business solely of interest to teen girls.  The ending is also a cheat, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness while giving the audience a vicarious form of justice that falls flat.  The Lovely Bones is not all bad: the performances are excellent, particularly Tucci’s subtle turn as the monster next door who appears to be just slightly odd, and young Saoirse Ronan, who generates tremendous empathy as the victim.  There are some heart-tugging scenes, some suspenseful scenes, and some heavenesque eye candy to stare at.  Jackson shows tact in not dwelling on the crude facts of the rape-murder, revealing the horror instead with an impressionistic and disquieting, unreal sequence set in a bare bathroom (a minimalist scene that’s a lot more effective than the garish paradises on which he lavishes his CGI budget).  But, overall the movie reinforces Jackson’s inconsistency rather than his genius—he has yet to sniff a return to the grandiose triumph of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, while simultaneously he’s lost the punkish grit of his pre-fame films like Dead-Alive.

The Lovely Bones was based on a much-beloved novel by Alice Sebold, and, as is usually the case, fans of the book (including most critics who also read the original) aren’t thrilled with the film adaptation, saying that a subtle reflection on grief and living has been reduced to little more than a supernatural potboiler.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Other elements, including ‘The Lovely Bones’ imaginative notion of what Susie’s afterlife looks like, are strong, but everything that’s good is undermined by an overemphasis on one part of the story that is essential but has been allowed to overflow its boundaries.  That would be the film’s decision to foreground its weirdest, creepiest, most shocking elements, starting with the decision to give a much more prominent role to murderer George Harvey.”–Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

“You’ve seen all kinds of movies, but you’ve never seen anything like The Rocky Horror Picture ShowThe Rocky Horror Picture Show is wonderfully weird.  It’s fabulously freaky… The story is strange…  the scenery is smashing… the cast is completely crazy!”–ad copy from the extended 3 minute trailer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, ,

PLOT:  In this musical, Brad and Janet, a very square, newly engaged couple, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a rainstorm and seek shelter in a nearby castle.  Inside, they find the building populated by a strange assortment of characters dominated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania.”  Frank-N-Furter has created a blond bodybuilder named “Rocky Horror” for his own erotic enjoyment, and when the cast starts bedding each other jealousy rules the day—until a rival scientist in a wheelchair complicates matters even further when he arrives looking for his murdered son.

Still from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was an adaptation of writer/actor Richard O’Brien’s hit stage show that began in London in 1973.  The show also played Los Angeles with Tim Curry starring with a mostly American cast, including singer Meat Loaf as Eddie.  The play opened on Broadway shortly before the film version debuted and was a flop, closing after a mere forty-five performances.
  • Fox Studios wanted to cast popular musicians of the day in the main roles (including Mick Jagger as Frank-N-Furter), but the producers accepted a lower budget in order to keep the cast from the stage production mostly intact.  Meat Loaf had recorded a top 100 single years before, but would not become a major rock star until 1977 with the release of “A Bat Out of Hell”.
  • The film bombed on release, but gradually found cult audience through midnight screenings.  As early as 1976 audiences had begun shouting their own dialogue back at the screen.  This gradually developed into the unprecedented Rocky Horror audience participation ritual, where the audience is not only an active part of the movie experience, but the main attraction.  Fans come to screenings dressed as their favorite characters, speak their own scripted counterpoint dialogue to the screen (being particularly rude to Barry Bostwick’s Brad) and bring along props (e.g., water pistols to simulate the rainstorm).  In the more elaborate productions, amateur actors appear on a stage in front of the screen, dancing and pantomiming the lines during the musical numbers.
  • Rocky Horror has shown continuously in theaters since 1975, making it the longest running theatrical release of all time.  The film has taken in almost $140 million in receipts, making it the 215th highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation).
  • MTV Networks has announced plans to remake the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No question; Tim Curry in full femme makeup and black leather and satin drag, dressed to make glam-era David Bowie look as macho as an NFL defensive lineman by comparison.  The image will never leave your mind; for some, it will haunt your nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a rock n’ roll musical inspired by old sci-fi and horror B-movies

Original trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show

about an alien transvestite. From the moment Richard O’Brien conceived the idea, there was no doubt that it would be weird; the only question was whether he could mold it into something that was even mildly watchable.

COMMENTS:  Because we’re interested in weird movies here, not in weird sociological Continue reading 28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)