All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

CAPSULE: SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS (2018)

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AKA Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh

DIRECTED BY: Vivieno Caldinelli

FEATURING: Kate Micucci, Sam Huntington, Dan Harmon, Taika Waititi

PLOT: Claire and Phil move to a spacious L.A. apartment with suspiciously low rent and discover it’s not a lucky find.

COMMENTS: Liberate yourself from the shackles of your thought.

Or so goes the opening tract from the Book of Storsh. An absurdist comedy that explores the space where “self-help” and “suicide cult” intersect, Seven Stages is another strange baby from the SpectreVision production company. They seem intent on bringing weirdness to the wider world of film, no matter how off-the-wall or bleak its progeny may prove to be. This movie’s relentless energy is to its credit; by the end, though, Seven Stages descends into a nihilistic abyss that papers over human despair with a folksy, up-tempo delivery.

For reasons explained during a bathtub vision, Paul (Sam Huntington) and Claire (Kate Micucci) find themselves in a suspiciously large apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Claire is doing her damnedest to get ahead in the advertising business; Paul is doing his damnedest to loaf around their new home and avoid reality. On their first night in their new home, a fanatic sporting a red spiral mark on his forehead breaks in and engages Paul in a bizarre quotation challenge (somehow involving esoteric civil infraction statutes from Iowa), then tap-dances to the bathroom and slices his own throat with a cake knife. When the police are summoned, Detective Cartwright (Dan Harmon, coming across to me as strangely familiar) explains that it’s just another case of a Storsh disciple knocking himself off (“Didn’t you read the lease?”) Slowly at first, and then dramatically, Claire and Paul embrace their circumstances, eventually becoming followers of Storsh’s teachings.

Seven Stages has the feel of an “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” sketch stretched out a bit too long and never quite hitting top gear. There were a number of laughs (often involving the detective who is hell-bent on pitching his screenplay to Wesley Snipes). And the moment when Paul and Claire decide to follow only the “good” parts of Storsh’s religion was a clear and succinct indictment of the whole self-improvement media complex. But when the final sections—Let the Tub Runneth Over and Change Your Story—begin to unravel, the often-silly, occasionally-funny tone plummets into something far more sinister.

I may be overreacting here, perhaps having mentally shifted into a wholly unintended direction, but the feeling I was left with afterwards was not one of comedic satisfaction (or disappointment, for that matter), but of emptiness. I have more of a fatalistic joie-de-vivre than many, but the lesson hammered home here–delivered glibly in the opening scene by Storsh himself, “That’s what death is: eating that ice-cream on your own terms”–suggest that this movie’s screwball antics merely mask a dark mind. But, I did see Elijah Wood‘s name in the credits, and I know from recent experience that SpectreVision will get up to whatever it wants to. I cannot recommend this movie, but I’ll admit I’m impressed that something so comedically hit-and-miss about something so staggeringly bleak got a green light from anyone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The comedy flickers between playful and obscene, and the story bounces back and forth between strange and absolutely screwed up… if you like your humor with a side of WTF, then this is your film.”–Kristy Strouse, Film Inquiry (festival screening)

CAPSULE: SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937)

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DIRECTED BY: William C. McGann

FEATURING: , Allen Jenkins, Marcia Ralston, John Eldredge, Elspeth Dudgeon

PLOT: Two policemen, an artist, a femme fatale, a pair of captains, a socialite, and a housekeeper are all trapped in a lighthouse with the Octopus, a criminal overlord, and an octopus, a mollusk, menacing them as they investigate a mysterious murder.

Still from sh! the octopus (1937)

COMMENTS: Sh! The Octopus has something for everybody. Its inspired mash-up of screwball comedy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and melodrama defies categorization, and isn’t for those who tend toward dismissiveness. When a feature film clocks in at under an hour, can be found streaming for free on YouTube, and has been buried in a sea of Reader Suggested titles, all the warning signs are there. I ignored these signs and committed myself to fifty-four minutes of wild gyrations between tiresome comedy and middling comedy, ultimately witnessing a witch-y performance and a narrative punchline that made a certain technicolor 1939 classic feel derivative.

But first, the story. Irish-American cops Kelly and Dempsey are cruising around off duty when they are informed via dispatch that Kelly (Hugh Herbert), who spends his time in the patrol car popping pills of unknown provenance, is about to become a father. Meanwhile, “marine artist” Paul Morgan has purchased an abandoned lighthouse from the federal government to focus on his paintings—a lighthouse with the aptly named “Captain Hook” as its caretaker. Meanwhile, Clancy, another Irish-American, has been appointed as the police commissioner tasked with bringing down a gang-lord known as “the Octopus”. Meanwhile, at the lighthouse, more and more people assemble as the plot spirals outward wildly, revealing that the FBI, the “Society for Peace”, the proto-CIA, and the proto-INTERPOL are all interested in the plans for a Radium Ray—a weapon so powerful that, as the inventor’s daughter informs us, “whoever controls it would control the world!”

That’s a lot of “meanwhiles,” and a lot of Irish-Americans. And that’s the kind of movie this is: your basic “haunted house” framework with every conceivable plot-graft bolted on to it (probably by some Irish-American workers). I’m a fan of screwball comedy, and so had more patience for what was going on than most would, but I still was wondering what all these gyrations could possibly be in aid of. However, there was a twist at the end that left me chuckling for a good fifteen minutes after the lighthouse exploded. (Whoops; spoiler alert.) Sh! The Octopus is a barely passable movie, to be sure, but it does have that twist. And it’s a concise bit of nonsense for the more stereotypically minded on St. Patrick’s Day.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the weirdest little film made by a studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat

 

CAPSULE: QUEEN OF PARADIS (2020)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Lindstrom

FEATURING: Reine Paradis

PLOT: After a sold-out exhibit of her “Jungle” photography series, Reine Paradis goes around the United States to find the perfect locations for her follow-up, “Midnight.”

COMMENTS: When I experience art, I try to do so with a degree of ignorance–I typically neither know, nor care to know, anything about the artist. I eschew “director’s commentaries” for films because I want to see the work, and experience the story, on its own. I found Queen of Paradis, a documentary about an artist making art, somewhat awkward going—and knew half an hour in where it was going, and how it was going there.

We follow Reine Paradis, a Surrealist photographic artist, and her husband (who handily fills the roles of driver, prop repairman, photographer, and all around supportive swell guy) across the country as she puts lime plexi-plastic on display, making unreal, still-life vignettes from a real, photographed setup. The tone is typical talking heads-style documentary interspersed with intimate scenes (socially and emotionally intimate, that is)—including more “breaking-and-entering” segments than I was expecting, as Reine and hubby sneak into a salt mine for a white “mountain”top shoot, or onto a fenced-off billboard for a neon-lime-green spaghetti dinner “restaurant” shoot. It is a credit (I presume to director Lindstrom) that the tone never quite veers into satirical—any other movie with the line, ‘Okay! I have the fish!’ shouted by a French woman standing beside a train track would doubtless smack of parody.

But an interesting topic does not an interesting movie make. I also experienced this with the documentary about The Residents. While Queen of Paradis is competent, adequately assembled, and informative about its subject matter, that only hits a documentary’s minimum requirements. (And upon a little reflection, it seems unfair to be so dismissive of a documentary that does those three things; oh well.) Still, all and all, I found Reine’s imagery fascinating and playful and that, ultimately, is the point. Queen of Paradis could be dismissed as an advertisement for the artist, but I don’t begrudge her that. It worked on me.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

reine paradis – The titular artist’s homepage, with plenty of images and information about her, her work, and this movie

Surreal-Chic – In-depth article about Paradis’ first photo-set, “Jungle”

“Interview” by Plastik Magazine – This brief (1:18 minutes) segment conveniently condenses Reine’s process, and results, into a bite-sized chunk

“step into reine paradis’ surrealist adventure land” – Interview and article with the i-D people (a fashion culture, fanzine outfit) featuring many of the photographs from the “Midnight” shoot

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not exactly a massive fan of art documentaries. I prefer watching more of the pop-culture and modern-day artists…the ones with a quirky edge over the traditional. Paradis definitely fits the quirky side of art. Queen of Paradis is an excellent art film.”–Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TOKYO TRIBE (2014)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Kunihiko Kawakami, Young Dais, Nana Seino, Ryôhei Suzuki,

PLOT: When crazy Buppa releases the Waru gang onto the streets of Tokyo, the tribes unite and fight for survival to the sick beats of gangster rap.

Still from Tokyo Tribe (2014)

COMMENTS: If Tokyo Tribe came from any other director, I’d probably say he was trying too hard. However, having seen a few Sion Sono films now, I can see that this is just how the man operates: on a plane with far more mania and extravagance than we mere mortals. Minutes after opening on two urban youths playing with sparklers, dreaming about making a difference, we become fully tuned in to the manga world of Santa Inoue’s serialized epic. Live-action comics, rap battle exposition, and the silliest feud imaginable—Sion Sono delivers all this with his own amped up brand of gusto.

The mean streets of post-post-modern Tokyo are riddled with crime, prostitution, bootleg tapes, ineffectual cops, and close to two dozen gangs of themed thugs. The biggest and nastiest of all the gang lords is Buppa, a man of staggering vulgarity and true psychosis (performed by Riki Takeuchi as if he were a brain-damaged John Belushi). His prime henchman, Mera, holds a grudge against Kai, the leader of the “peaceful” gang, the Musashino Saru tribe. Kai offended Mera in a sauna some years back, and that’s all we’re told. The catalyst for action is the disappearance of the virginal daughter of the High Priest, who needs her for a sacrifice. The plot I’ve just provided is superfluous, and any more would force me to ramble on for some pages. Suffice it to say, you should just check your brain at the door and run with it.

Tokyo Tribe isn’t a weird movie—it is far too accessible for that (and yes, it is a bit weird how accessible this movie feels). But it does stand as one of the most ridiculous films I’ve ever seen (which is something I say neither lightly nor disparagingly). The glorious excess of Sion Sono’s vision of an alternative Tokyo has more than its share of hard R-rated shenanigans, but is somehow approachable throughout (although by the end, we’ll have seen a beat-box tea maid, balloon sex corridors, a case of cigars and fingers, and a black ninja giant who says only, “Bring me! To a! Sauna!”) While Tokyo Tribe doesn’t break the weird ceiling, it does lustily gouge at the plaster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Words can never do justice to the awe-inspiring, brain-eating weirdness of Sion Sono’s Japanese dystopian hip-hop kung-fu musical Tokyo Tribe…  should all be either horrifying or hilarious — or, less generously, ridiculous and offensive — but somehow, it’s not. There’s a strange power to Sion’s filmmaking that goes beyond the midnight-movie oddness of the plot.”–Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN FABRIC (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, , Hayley Squires, Julian Barratt

PLOT: Sheila, a divorcee in the market for a new man, purchases a new red dress for a series of dates; things do not turn out well for her. Separately, Reg Speaks is a washing machine repairman about to marry is longtime girlfriend; after wearing that same red dress on his stag night, things turn out poorly for him, as well.

Still from In Fabric (2018)

COMMENTS: For capsule reviews, we aim to describe the action in one sentence. However, among the number of odd things about In Fabric is the fact that this is really two films in one: a pretty good feature-length story about Sheila’s experiences with a cursed red dress, and a much weirder, shorter film about Reg’s experiences with that same dress. There are plenty of strange things going on in this movie, and in many ways it should qualify for apocryphally weird status. Unfortunately, while the graft is forgivable, it fails overall.

Peter Strickland, who wrote and directed, clearly has an obsession with 1970s exploitation—his two previous films both focus on that decade and that genre—and his penchant for shines through brightly. The red of the dress and the red lighting of the strange advertisements for “Dentley and Sopers Trusted Department Store” are the most obvious tributes, with the movie’s palette generally mimicking whatever evil form of technicolor was used by the original giallists. In Fabric could be viewed as a love letter to that arty vein of horror, albeit a letter with an incredibly long postscript.

I enjoyed watching this, despite a glaring flaw: it was difficult to commit to the characters. Sheila’s tale ultimately left me indifferent, but the story of “Reg Speaks” was more in the transcendent mold, almost literally. Reg’s last name is strange, but apt. Though a lowly washing machine mechanic, he has something of a super power: the ability to bring listeners to an orgasmic trance while speechifying on the finer details of the problems vexing broken machines. In the world of In Fabric his reputation is such that even the bank managers whom he sees about a loan know about it, and want him to do a “role-playing” exercise so they can enjoy his mesmeric talents. (Julian Barratt plays one of these bank managers, with a performance that expertly rides along the razor’s edge of hilarious and mundane. Describing a memo about having a “meaningful handshake”, he explains, “It’s written in a fun, easy language, with a cartoon at the end that summarizes key points.”)

Fatma Mohamed, as the chief store clerk, stands out among the madness. She makes one believe she could be an alien, a demon, or perhaps a mannequin brought to life by some eccentric paranormal force. Her lines (“The hesitation in your voice: soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail” or “dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements”) sound like ornately translated Italian as delivered by a supernatural facsimile of a sales woman.

Strickland will hopefully sort his visions out enough to make that truly weird, and truly worthwhile, movie in the future (under the guidance, perhaps, of Ben Wheatley, executive producer here). But, measuring In Fabric, we find all the pieces are there, but he’s crafted something altogether ill-fitting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s less engaging is the suspicion that neither of these stories was substantial enough for a feature film on their own, and so they were combined to make a justifiable whole. The film’s demented satire of consumer culture and weird diversions into psychosexual nightmare fuel are less reliant on a coherent narrative arc, however, and Strickland’s unique ability to convey the sense of touch in an audio-visual medium isn’t dependent on story at all.”–Katie Rife, The AV Club (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE POINT (1971)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of Ringo Starr, Mike Lookinland, Lennie Weinrib,

PLOT: The Pointed Village is going about its business, as it has for as long as anyone can remember, with pointed people making pointed buildings and pointed goods, until Oblio, a round-headed boy, is born.

Still from The Point (1971)

COMMENTS: I can tell you from experience that The Point is a good way to get on the path toward discovering, discussing, and dissecting weird movies. During my formative years, I watched it again and again (though at the time, I must admit that I was frightened by one of the sequences, therefore using the fast forward button regularly). As with so much of what 366 reviews, in my less aware moments I’d regard this Nilssonian flight of fancy as “normal,” but it is in actuality a strange combination of children’s cartoon and beatnik daydream.

In fine musical style, we are introduced to the “Land of Point”: more specifically, the Pointed Village, the town where everbody’s got ’em (and couldn’t do without ’em). Couched in the framing story of a father (voiced by Ringo Starr at his most paternal) reading to his son (Mike Lookinland), The Point concerns Oblio (also Lookinland), a boy born without a pointed head. Oblio makes the mistake of making a fool of the Count’s bully son in a game of Triangle Toss. When the defeated youth complains to his powerful father, a sham trial results in Oblio’s banishment to the “Pointless Forest.” Oblio’s adventures (with his trusty dog Arrow by his side) bring him in contact with a magical assortment of guides—beatnik Rock Man, capitalist-extraordinaire Leaf Man, the bouncing Jelly Women, among others—and he learns that nothing is without a point.

Nilsson’s concept album is primarily a vehicle for his catchy and charming songs concerning love, life, and death. Fred Wolf’s movie alternates between straight-up story (marked by Starr’s narration) and song animations. This coexistence is impressively seamless, as the tunes bring Oblio’s contemplations to life. Some of them are heady things for a small boy—one of the things that kept me coming to this, aside from my limited video menu at the time, was that it didn’t speak down to me—and in its post-psychedelic way, everything has a fresh, oddball feel to it. Watching it again for the first time in decades, I also noticed the many odd things the filmmakers got up to: drug culture (the Rock Man character, both as a whole, and particularly with the line, “us stone[d] folks are everywhere”), anti-capitalism (the ridiculousness of the “leaf manufacturing” Leaf Man), right down to the strangely vulvic foliage where the fat, naked, jolly Jelly Women cavort mischievously.

With its minimalist-but-quirky animation (and gloriously pointo-gothic-brutalist architecture), mental digressions (contemplating a tear’s life cycle through an ancient whale), and moments of Shakespearean grandeur (the villainous Count could be Iago’s closest friend), The Point hits a lot of great notes, particularly for a primetime-broadcast, made-for-TV cartoon. That such a quirky little movie like this slipped past the watchful eye of the normality police makes it all the more laudable.

Previously available on DVD, MVD Rewind released The Point on Blu-ray in 2020. Although full of extra features and billed as “The Ultimate Edition,” many hardcore fans were disappointed that it lacks the original Dustin Hoffman broadcast narration (Hoffman’s contract was for a one-time performance, and subsequent broadcasts and home video releases used different narrators).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whether Wolf, best known for his work on The Flintstones, took inspiration from Dr. Seuss, I couldn’t say, but there’s a similar sensibility at work in terms of the quasi-surrealistic look of the thing… It’s that unique combination of the expectedly childlike, the surprisingly adult, and the just-plain weird that makes The Point! work as well for me now as it did in grade school when I’d play the album over and over again, flipping the pages of the illustrated booklet all the while.” -Kathy Fennessy, Seattle Film Blog

(This movie was nominated for review by Jeffery, who commented “My favorite scene in it is the one with the fat ladies.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHADOWPLAY (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Pietra Arjuna

FEATURING: Tony Eusoff, Megat Sharizal, Juria Hartmans, Iman Corinne Adrienne, Radhi Khalid

PLOT: Anton Shaw is an unlicensed detective hired to track down a missing college student, but his own traumatic past keeps derailing his investigation.

COMMENTS: Under a glaring neon sign, at the cross-section between pulp-detective and pulp-romance, you will find Tony Arjuna’s Shadowplay—a movie with ambition. Among the themes explored, it primarily focuses on:

  • The effects of childhood trauma
  • The influence of dreams on reality
  • The slipperiness of identity
  • The cross-section between the written word and real life
  • The unreliability of memory

The question then becomes, does Arjuna’s reach exceed his grasp?

The story, as best as one might decipher, involves a would-be private investigator named Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff), as he minds the shop for his friend and mentor (who is busy with a run of the mill adultery case). To kill the time, Anton reads a “choose your own adventure” novel, one with no author credited and no publishing house mentioned. The phone rings. Does he choose to answer? Turning to page 18, he does so, and thus begins the investigation of a young woman’s disappearance—an investigation that neatly mirrors his own past. His choices in the book are shown in real life, or perhaps vice-versa. For Anton, nothing is made clear until the end—and even then, he may have gotten no further than the chair in his friend’s office.

I’ll say right now that there are problems. The acting quality is very inconsistent, particularly with the female characters. As this is a riff on the “hard-boiled detective” story, there needs must be a femme fatale–several, in the case of Shadowplay. This numerousness is fine, but hearing a sultry dame huskily inquire, “Are you of indigenous descent?” strained even my generous incredulity. Perhaps it’s the script: the story is truly novel (so to speak), but many of the players are stuck with platitudinous lines that even the best actors would have difficulty giving weight to. Also, the scattered nature of the narrative leaves a lot of unhelpful ambiguity.

But, Shadowplay succeeds in two key ways. It’s beautifully shot, with a clever lighting and color scheme that creates a genuinely otherworldly aura. The aerial shots—of a very ’80s-looking Kuala Lumpur—ably define the environment, a nighttime hybrid of neon reality and neon dreams. The soundtrack, also very 1980s, enhances this effect, and by the film’s end I was in one of those pleasantly altered states of contemplation; the movie had transported me from my viewing room to its twilight vision of shadowy luminescence.

Shadowplay is, in all honesty, a very amateur outing, but it does give me hope for Arjuna’s future. He’s got a lock on sound and vision, and if he can just tighten his stories (and find better actors), I’ve no doubt he’ll be making great–and, hopefully, weird–movies in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Shadowplay is halfway there thanks to its aesthetic, I cannot stress enough how beautiful this film is to look at. Arjuna deserves praise for turning Kuala Lumpur into a psychedelic neon dreamland and…the soundtrack is outstanding, but this is where the good ends.” -Husna Anjum, EasternKicks.com (contemporaneous)