All posts by Alex Kittle

I like ambiguous video and installation art, experimental comic books, screaming lady bands, and of course, delightfully strange and surreal films. I dig regular stuff, like pizza and The Kinks, too. I also make and sell film-inspired art: http://www.etsy.com/shop/guiltycubicle

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: A TOWN CALLED PANIC [PANIQUE AU VILLAGE] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar

FEATURING: Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar

PLOT: The childish Cowboy and Indian decide to build their roommate Horse a brick

Still from A Town Called Panic (2009)

barbecue for his birthday, but after accidentally ordering 50 million bricks instead of just 50, they launch a spectacular and hilarious chain of events involving sea creatures, catapulted farm animals, music lessons, burning lava, mad scientist overlords, and a giant robotic penguin.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The inexplicable premise sets up a story that escalates into weirder and weirder territory as it progresses.  A lively assemblage of old-fashioned model figures rendered in clay prance about a candy-colored landscape sporting Looney Tunes-worthy voices and completely nonsensical motivations.  Their experiences get funnier as they become more surreal, with frequent disregard of the laws of physics, a range of goofy outbursts, eclectic personalities, and unpredictable changes of scenery.  As a film it’s immensely enjoyable, but completely impossible to explain.

COMMENTS: Belgian writers/directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar adapted A Town Called Panic from their television series starring bickering housemates Horse, Cowboy, and Indian, featuring a wide variety of shenanigans.  In the beginning of this movie, the trio transform a few normal life experiences (running a farm, finding a birthday gift, taking music lessons) into uncategorizable slices of a child’s playtime.  As it moves along, the small connection to reality dissipates in trips to the center of the earth, Antarctic mad science, and underwater department stores.

The animation is incredibly playful and dynamic, and the sets look like they jumped out of a Dr Seuss illustration.  The characters, modeled in clay to resemble plastic action figures, move around with jerky large movements and detailed fine ones, propelling the film forward with an insane energy.  No matter what is happening on screen, it is extremely fun to watch, as well as an impressive technical achievement.  The bursts of garage rock soundtrack perfectly suit the manic atmosphere of the visuals.

It’s immensely funny, and chock-full of surrealistic imagery and wacky surprises.  Many of the voices are high-pitched to match the rapid, anxious dialogue.  The story is crazy, but somehow it all makes sense within the parameters of this imaginary world that Patar and Aubier have created.  It fits that when a house is crushed by a mountain of bricks, it just flips upside down and hangs underwater, or that falling down a deep crevice leads to the earth’s molten core.  Once you’re into the swing of things, just sit back and allow the insanity, cartoon violence, and non sequiturs to unfold across this unplanned epic journey.

While the script is notably zany, it’s quite smart and thoughtful, with various cute details and references that create a good balance between the physical comedy and dialogue.  The characters are adorable and surprisingly relatable in their own ways, offering such delightful antics and madcap conversations that—when taken in together with the bold visuals—multiple viewings are required to fully appreciate the film’s humor and imagination.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Made with an anarchic, anything-goes spirit, this is truly a film, not to mention a town, where you never know what’s going to happen next.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is also published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

BORDERLINE WEIRD: STINGRAY SAM (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Cory McAbee

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Crugie, David Hyde Pierce

PLOT: Ex-con/lounge singer Stingray Sam grudgingly joins his former partner the Quasar Kid

Still from Stingray Sam (2009)

in a quest to save a little girl, with frequent musical breaks featuring songs by The Billy Nayer Show. David Hyde Pierce narrates intermittent segments of animated collage that explain their futuristic society.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: It’s a wacky, memorable space musical with western flair, crisp black and white visuals, and imaginative, nonsensical notions of the future, but all that can be found in slightly more intriguing form in McAbee’s earlier work The American Astronaut, which better serves The List by being a feature-length movie (Stingray Sam is an hour-long serial).  But it certainly contains enough of its own charm and inventiveness to stand alongside its predecessor, and it shouldn’t be wholly dismissed just yet.

COMMENTS: Conspicuously sponsored by the fictional “Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco” and excitedly asking what our heroes will be up to next at the end of every episode, Stingray Sam is a fitting tribute to old-fashioned serials, keeping many of the western and sci-fi elements of such shows while incorporating a wealth of inspired new ideas. There are several weird inventions and convenient technologies to place it in the futuristic space setting, but the sets are wonderfully low-key and familiar. McAbee’s incredible charm seeps through the screen in everything from his performance to the silly dialogue, aided along by the excellent musical numbers and gorgeous animated collage sequences.

By the time the second episode’s explanatory animated piece details the upper class invention of gender-determining drugs, male-on-male baby-making, and a delightful portmanteau naming system, what started out as a fairly straightforward quest to rescue a maiden quickly evolves into a madcap journey through McAbee’s unpredictable imagination.  The layers of references, backstory, character, and pseudo-science wrapped up in a musical comedy-adventure are impressively nuanced.  David Hyde Pierce’s articulate and tongue-in-cheek narration (which delights particularly in the word “Durango”) offers a range of ideas, inventions, and happenings that don’t always make sense but never fail to spark interest.  The first time around some of this information goes by too quickly, as viewers are hit with so many novelties and humorous animation at once, but subsequent watches prove McAbee’s involved story and unique futuristic vision to be unavoidably successful, if preposterous.

With catchy tunes that probably sit somewhere in the rock and roll spectrum yet manage to remain without a definable genre classification, The Billy Nayer Show (who also comprise several main cast members) craft a fun soundtrack that usually leads to manic dancing and wide smiles.  Each episode contains one song, which never encroaches on the action or comedy (and often increases the latter), along with a curt opening theme that reminds us “Stingray Sam is not a hero, but he does do the things that folks don’t do that need to be done.”  They serve to make the strange story even more memorable, describing stingray babies, entertainment on Mars, and peg-legged fathers, and add an extra element of goofy joy to the work.

Looking past the wonky sci-fi premise and western trappings (complete with cowboy hats and “yes ma’ams”), the heart of Stingray Sam lies in the unbridled glee the entire project exudes. As Sam, McAbee swings his way into everyone’s hearts with his jerky dance moves, easy smile, and affable demeanor, while Crugie keeps his cool as the Quasar Kid, offers some gruffer tunes, and frequently betrays a weakness for olives.  Their intricate secret handshake is just icing on this lovable, quirky cake of a partnership.  The beleaguered faces of many supporting cast members seem somehow twisted and plasticine, suiting the off-kilter atmosphere perfectly as they help or hinder our heroes’ proceedings.  There’s not much else like Stingray Sam.

Stingray Sam is currently only available directly from director Cory McAbee at his personal site (click here to purchase).  If the film follows the marketing plan of The American Astronaut, it will eventually be released via normal distribution channels as well.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sounds weird? You bet your ass… Cory McAbee manages to cram enough story and song in to each episode, each more ridiculous than the other and still come out with a coherent story and structure.”–Swarez, Twitchfilm

CAPSULE: TERRIBLY HAPPY [FRYGTELIG LYKKELIG] (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Henrik Rubin Genz

FEATURING: Jakob Cedergren, Kim Bodnia, Lene Maria Christiansen

PLOT: After a mysterious nervous breakdown, city cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is

Still from Terribly Happy (2009)

re-assigned to a claustrophobically small, rural town as its only marshal. He quickly discovers the town’s frightful dynamic: its inhabitants all aware of resident bully Jørgen’s (Kim Bodnia) adulterous and abusive antics, but no one takes a stand against him.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though riddled with strange characters and unexpected darkness, for the most part Terribly Happy is played as a straight thriller with Coen brothers-style humor.  There are a few weird and creepy moments to create tension, but nothing truly unreal.

COMMENTS: Poor Robert.  As played in an understated performance by Jakob Cedergren, he’s a stand-up guy whose darker side is persistently tested as he meets with more and more obstacles.  The more he pushes for change, the more the town’s internal politics and penchant for keeping secrets rise up against him.  The old marshal spent most of his time drinking and allowed a lot of “accidents” and petty crimes to go by undocumented.  After Jørgen’s desperate wife Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christiansen) comes to Robert with evidence of her husband’s physical abuse, he is determined to convict him, but is frequently hindered by both the town’s strict social structure and his own conflicting passions.

This movie feels as if it’s made by someone whose biggest cinematic influences are Blood Simple and Fargo, and that isn’t a bad thing.  Most of Terribly Happy does seem like the Coen Brothers appropriated the premise of Hot Fuzz with Danish actors and more dramatic intent.  A lot of the story plays as an extremely black comedy, but as the film progresses, the development and uncovering of Robert’s character become more focused, and it twists itself into a somewhat bleak but gripping drama.

The narrative is filled with a number of comedic moments placed up against truly unsettling ones, with certain simple visual cues to either send a shiver down the spine or elicit a knowing smile.  Director Henrik Ruben Genz utilizes the expansive boggy fields surrounding the town to create a slightly desolate atmosphere, which results in some visually interesting scenes.  The script, while well-written, is a little uneven and doesn’t do anything especially new, but the strengths of the cast and twisted tone make this film a cool experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It may not sound funny, but there’s a bleakly comic air about the story, and a bit of surrealism, suggesting the most caustic side of the Coen brothers.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is also published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

MICMACS [MICMACS À TIRE-LARIGOT] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Pierre-Jeunet

FEATURING: Dany Boon, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié

PLOT: After video store clerk Bazil gets a stray bullet to the head and survives, he joins

Still from Micmacs (2009)

up with a ragtag group of trash sorters who help him conspire in a prank war against rival arms manufacturers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Micmacs is a sweet, whimsical, and slightly surreal comedy, but it never reaches truly bizarre status.  For the most part its story and characters make sense, all set in a world not exceedingly different from our own.

COMMENTS: Once again Jean-Paul Jeunet effortlessly slips his audience into an anachronistic, slightly off-color world with wacky characters and ingenious devices, and this time he even manages to work in some anti-war (or at least, anti-weapons) statements.  As a filmmaker his strengths reside in his fantastic visual aesthetic and dedication to interesting characters, but not necessarily effective storytelling.  These characteristics apply to Micmacs, as the story is interesting but confusingly structured and underdeveloped.  It takes a while to really come together, with several curt scenes following one right after the other until the fun fully starts when Bazil joins the energetic trash heap crew.  Once everything gets going, the movie becomes a very enjoyable and unpredictable comedy complete with goofy disguises, high-concept stratagems, and plenty of breaking and entering.

The characters are fun and detailed—quirky but not in the annoying “indie-cliche” way.  They all have their own talents and interests that lend them their nicknames, and there are some imaginative schemes that involve everyone working together and putting their specific skills to use in unexpected ways.  The cast is excellent, as everyone imbues his or her personage with emotion and a good dose of silliness.  Dany Boon exudes a sort of hapless confusion coupled with a go-to spirit, while Dominique Pinon manages to always stand out in anything.  Omar Sy has some of the best comedic moments as Remington, a wannabe anthropologist obsessed with idioms.  Julie Ferrier shines as the outspoken contortionist, and both Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier put in delightfully devious turns as the villainous CEOs.

While clearly the film is quite character-heavy, the ensemble works so well together that no one is lost in the shuffle, and the focus remains on Bazil to ground the story. The script is funny and lighthearted but not fluffy, and of course the visuals are breathtaking: it’s filmed in slight sepia hues with an array of innovative gadgets and home-made clothes, and everything has a very homey, lived-in feel.  The atmosphere is slightly surrealistic and kooky and the characters are instantly lovable. Incorporating a clear penchant for high-concept stratagems and offbeat humor, Micmacs is an unavoidably cute diversion from the real world with a few narrative weaknesses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of the extravagant visual eccentricity of [Jeunet’s] debut feature, ‘Delicatessen’ (still his best and strangest film), of which he was co-director, is echoed in the smoky streetscapes, weird mechanical gizmos and comic-grotesque human figures on display here.  But his pacing is more deliberate, almost classical in its precise calibration of cause and effect… the film roams and rambles and sometimes stalls, straining for a charm that should come effortlessly.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

READER RECOMMENDATION: HOUSE [HAUSU] (1977)

The third submission in the June review writing contest: by Alex Kittle.

DIRECTOR: Nobuhiko Obayashi

FEATURING: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Yôko Minamida

PLOT: A group of fun-loving Japanese school girls plan to spend their summer at a

Still from House [Hausu] (1977)

beautiful, isolated mansion, but after experiencing some paranormal activity they eventually realize the house itself may want them DEAD!

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST
:  “Weird” doesn’t even begin to describe this movie.  A floating head, a ravenous piano, sporadic animation, a laughing watermelon, a dancing skeleton, a glowing cat, gusts of wind that only affect one person, a host of aggressive, mobile objects, and a group of girls who REFUSE to acknowledge the weirdness: it defies explanation, really.

COMMENTS
House is a wondrous sight to behold, with delightfully trippy colors, spontaneous animated sequences, and experimental horror imagery; several sequences are reminiscent of home-made youtube music videos.  The effects are noticeably antiquated, but that just adds to the fun!  The entire film is really a collection of incredible, strange, and under-explained moments that left me as incredulous as I was tickled pink.  Cats fly, clocks bleed, mattresses, logs, and floating heads attack, skeletons dance, and a score of other ridiculous, unexpected things happen at every turn.

The bluntly-nicknamed characters are hilariously one-dimensional, each one relegated to her specific interest/trait.  Mac talks about nothing but eating, while Melody is only the focus when there’s a piano in the room (a very… hungry piano).  Fantasy is the only one who plays witness to most of the strange occurrences, and of course no one believes her for her overactive imagination.  Kung-Fu is by far the best character, handling every obstacle with badassery and no questions asked.  Also: she has the best hair.  Supporting characters include the girls’ heavily-sideburned teacher en route to the House but finding an impediment in bananas (that will make sense when you see it, I promise- well as much sense as it can make), a pudgy salesman with talking watermelons, and Gorgeous’s new step-mother, who literally cannot go more than 2 seconds without a gust of wind blowing romantically around her.  It’s a remarkable talent.

The dialogue oscillates between being frivolous and insanely over-dramatic, but the best part about it is its frequent insistence on completely ignoring what’s happening in its own movie.  Most of the weirdest scenes are just passed over by the characters without comment, and that just makes the “WTF?!” factor that much better.  House is a strange, strange, strange film and I absolutely loved it.   It’s hilarious, inventive, utterly unexpected, and lends no comparison to any other movie I’ve seen.  Look for it on Criterion in September 2010!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You, my friend, lover that you are of the obscure, the grotesque, the inscrutable, and the just flat-out funky and awe-inspiringly eccentric, have never, ever seen anything like House (aka Hausu). Even by my permanently warped standards, House is beyond the pale: a surreal, indefinable piece of proto-Japanese horror/comedy that was made in 1977 (it was director Obayashi’s debut feature), only to find a second life at Austin’s Fantastia International Film Festival, Sitges, Fantasia Fest, and wherever connoisseurs of the outré, the outrageous, and the seriously freaky gather.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (rerelease)