Tag Archives: Winona Ryder

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, , Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones

PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.

COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, .) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s.  This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of . (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One problem is that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as [Edward] is: Everyone in this film is stylized and peculiar, so he becomes another exhibit in the menagerie, instead of a commentary on it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE TEN (2007)

DIRECTED BY: David Wain

FEATURING: , Winona Ryder, , Famke Janssen, , A.D. Miles,

PLOT: A series of short comedic stories, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments.

Still from The Ten (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has a few bizarre moments, but The Ten is nowhere near consistently weird enough to number among the 366.

COMMENTS: It’s both easy and difficult to review an anthology movie like The Ten. There are ten mini-movies, so going in you realize that there are inevitably going to be hits and misses, and that spread over ninety minutes the quality is likely to average out. Actually watching the movie is just a matter of confirming that there’s neither exceptional brilliance or exceptional incompetence at work here, and that the whole does indeed converge towards the predicted mean. Although the segments span some stylistic territory, including one obscenely animated Commandment, there are more similarities than differences. Scripted by two of the co-creators of the MTV sketch comedy show “The State,” the pieces here don’t have a “short film” feel so much as a “TV sketch” sensibility, only with mild blasphemy, cuss words and (way too many) jokes about prison rape added to take advantage of the fact there are no advertisers to alienate. The sketches all begin with an absurd premise—a woman is erotically obsessed with a ventriloquist’s dummy, Jesus has returned for the Second Coming but is procrastinating about starting the rapture, a clueless doctor has a dimwitted excuse for killing one of his patients—and then develops it for seven to nine minutes before moving on to the next segment. Two of the ten stories are done in a radically different style. One is a spot-on parody of a -style scene involving urbane ex-lovers meeting on a Manhattan street. Then there’s the weirdest bit, an X-rated animated sequence (recalling Fritz the Cat) involving depraved anthropomorphic animals, including a heroin-dealing rhino who inexplicably poops flowers, ending in an interspecies orgy. The framing device involves a narrator whose domestic problems keep spilling over into his introductions, and the movie ends with the entire cast singing a musical recap (“I introduced each story, there were ten, you couldn’t have missed ’em/I was surrounded by gigantic prop tablets, but I didn’t heed their wisdom…”) To make The Ten seem less disjointed, some of the main characters from one tale play a supporting role in other stories. All of the sketches are irreverent, but there isn’t a consistent satirical outlook across the entire movie, and so the “Ten Commandments” hook never becomes more than a gimmick. The connection between the gag and the illustrative Commandment is often stretched; for example, “thou shalt have no God before me” inspires a silly spoof on celebrity worship. The writers managed to draw major talent to the project: Wynona Ryder features prominently in two of the stories, the late Ron Silver shows up in an actor’s dream vengeance role as a talent agent, Jessica Alba appears as a bimbo, and Oliver Platt gets the movie’s best bit as an impressionist who specializes in doing a mediocre Arnold Schwarzenegger (although it’s better than his Eddie Murphy). But despite the infusion of name-value movie stars, The Ten remains televisionesque; it’s missing that extra “oomph” needed to justify feature film status. Basically The Decalogue re-imagined as a grossout sketch comedy series, The Ten is sporadically amusing, but non-essential viewing.

Written by David Wain and Ken Marino, alumni from MTV’s minor cult hit “The State,” and featuring many of that series’ regulars, The Ten might have been banking on “State” fans showing up a decade after cancellation for what almost amounted to an uncensored reunion show. That didn’t happen, as the film debuted to tepid reviews and went on to recoup less than a million dollars of its $5.2 million budget at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a series of stone-tablet-based short films — from the gross to the surreal to the certifiably nuts… A ‘Decalogue’ for special-ed students, ‘The Ten’ leans too often toward the bizarre and the bewildering.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kallisti, who conceded it “might not be the weird you’re looking for but it’s worth watching.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

“It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”–Vincent Cassell

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, , Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

PLOT: Nina, a goody two-shoes ballerina, wants to dance the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake,” but although she’s perfect for the role of the White Swan, she lacks the seductiveness to portray the Black Swan. Lily, a sexy, irresponsible dancer newly arrived from a San Francisco troupe, becomes her primary competition for the part, but also helps her loosen up by talking her out on the town for a night of drinking and meeting guys. Nina starts physically break down and hallucinate as the stress of preparing for the role takes its toll; by opening night, she can’t distinguish reality from the story she dances of the princess trapped in the body of a swan who takes her own life.

Still from Black Swan (2010)

BACKGROUND:

  • Natalie Portman danced many of her own parts, and actually dislocated a rib while dancing during the shoot. More difficult moves were performed by professional ballerinas, and for two sequences Portman’s face was digitally superimposed on dancer Sarah Lane’s body. There was a minor controversy over how much of the dancing Portman actually did herself and how much was performed by doubles; Aronofsky estimated that the actress executed more than 80% of the dance moves that appear onscreen.
  • Portman won the 2010 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Nina. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing.
  • Aronofsky received “The Understudy,” the original script that became Black Swan, while he was making Requiem for a Dream (2000). He described the script as Dostoevsky’s “The Double” meets All About Eve. Aronofsky combined that script, which was set in an off-Broadway production, with an idea he had to shoot a movie in the New York ballet world to create Black Swan.
  • Aronofsky and Portman had discussed doing a ballet movie together 8 years prior to shooting.
  • Made on a relatively small budget of about $12 million, Black Swan has grossed more than $300 million worldwide as of this writing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nina’s “triumphant” onstage transformation into the Black Swan: as she pirouettes, feathers sprout from her arms, thickening with every swirl, until her limbs have been replaced by wings.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Up until opening night, Black Swan is a backstage melodrama about backstabbing ballerinas, with an exaggerated, lurid psychopathology that’s thrust even further over-the-top by lesbian love scenes, hints of horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.  When the curtain rises on the big night, we experience the performance through the subjective perspective of an overworked, paranoid, demented dancer, whose psychology has been shattered by the film’s sledgehammer symbolism.  No avant-grade choreographer could stage as disorienting a “Swan Lake” as the one she hallucinates for us through her obsessed eyes.

Promotional Music Video for Black Swan

COMMENTS: Black Swan is the weirdest movie ever to win a major Academy Award (Natalie Continue reading 90. BLACK SWAN (2010)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)