All posts by Scott Sentinella

CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1973)

DIRECTED BY: James MacTaggart

FEATURING: Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, June Taylor, Judy Parfitt, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Pearson, Raymond Mason, Anthony Collin, Douglas Milvain

PLOT: On a boring, snowy afternoon, young Alice discovers that she can walk right through the large mirror over her fireplace; there, she finds herself in a parallel universe, competing in a life-size chess game ruled over by the Red and White Queens, and meeting such strange characters as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Still from Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even though this is actually one of the better film or television adaptations of the “Alice” books, it’s extremely low budget and bare-bones, shot-on-videotape look prevents the visuals from getting as wild or fantastical as they might be.

COMMENTS: Although most filmed versions of Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) include elements of his sequel “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), this production is one of just three or four adaptations of the second book standing alone. Some consider “Through the Looking Glass” to be the better of the two “Alice” tales, being simultaneously stranger and more sentimental than its predecessor. Aired by the BBC on Christmas Day 1973, this trip through the mirror really looks like a 40-year-old television show; that is to say, the budget is rock bottom. The lack of fancy special effects means that this is basically all (brilliant) dialogue all the time, which may strike some as boring. For those who have read the novel, however, this is actually one of the few adaptations that is genuinely amusing (at least in fits and starts), as opposed to just odd. During the sequence depicting the “Jabberwocky” monster, for instance, the combination of threadbare effects (the monster resembles a sock puppet) and gesticulating, posing actors, renders the silliness almost -esque, which seems to have been intentional. The lack of big name actors also makes this version somewhat unusual, since most other “Alice” productions are chock-full of luminaries (the biggest names here did their notable work later, Red Queen Judy Parfitt in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and Humpty Dumpty Freddie Jones in ‘s The Elephant Man and Dune). The performers (including future “Doctor Who” sidekick Sarah Sutton, who looks about eleven years old here) stand in front of primitive blue screen backgrounds that resemble John Tenniel’s original book illustrations, and generally have a fine old time, particularly Jones, who is basically just playing a giant head. This is also the only “Looking Glass” I’ve seen where the White King (Richard Pearson) is more memorable than the White Queen (Brenda Bruce). The droll performances, including Geoffrey Bayldon’s unexpectedly acerbic White Knight, almost make up for the shoestring production values in this 74-minute program (not 66 minutes, as it says on the box). There are flaws to be sure: the calamitous dinner party finale is nowhere near as crazy as its counterpart in Hollywood’s 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example.  But although this production is unlikely to please the kids, it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience for oldsters who’ve been raised on the original books.

Since this is a DVD of a little-known television program, the disc has no extras and is presented in mono sound. The image, while a little soft, looks presentable enough for a video that has probably been sitting in the BBC vaults for four decades.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Very free and dreamlike at times… . The pacing is strange, but then, so is the story being told so somehow that seems appropriate even if in some ways it does hurt the movie. All in all, as dated as it is and as stagey as it is, this is worth tracking down simply because it’s quite an effective take on the book and one that treats the subject matter seriously and without the need for parody of or modernizing of the original text.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK CITY (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Proyas

FEATURING: Rufus Sewell, , , , Ian Richardson, , Bruce Spence

PLOT: J. Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a dingy hotel bathroom. In the adjoining bedroom lies a dead prostitute, and Murdoch is soon suspected of murdering five women, although he has no memory of these events. Inspector Frank Bumstead (Hurt) interrogates Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Connelly), who hasn’t seen her husband in days.

Still from Dark City (1998)

WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: What seems like a typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario gradually turns into something far more complicated and weirder… but not weird enough (in my mind) to be considered one of the 366 weirdest films of all time. I suspect Dark City seems “weird” mainly to people who consider all science fiction weird (and revealing that the film is science fiction may already be giving too much away). Still, it is a truly fascinating and visually stunning production that continually asks the question, “what is reality?,” and does so in a far more sophisticated manner than the similar and much more popular The Matrix.

COMMENTS: At first Dark City seems to be film noir, and the look of the movie is vaguely 1940’s, with almost every scene taking place at night; all of this is somewhat similar to director Alex Proyas’ previous The Crow. The film’s highly impressive art direction (by Battlefield Earth’s Patrick Tatapolous) is reminiscent of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Brazil, although on his director’s commentary, Proyas denies any such influence. Kiefer Sutherland plays creepy Dr. Schreber, Murdoch’s therapist, in a manner that subtly recalls 1940’s character actor Peter Lorre. But the 1990’s-style special effects, produced some 15 years ago, are still flawless. The sight of skyscrapers sprouting out of the ground predates Inception by more than a decade. And the musical score by Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal), part of which was used to advertise the first X-Men film, is electrifying. Dark City is a true gem, and, unlike The Matrix and its sequels, it raises the questioning of reality, and then actually grapples with the idea, instead of forgetting all about it and simply indulging in showy displays of special effects. Dark City presents plenty of visual spectacle, but that spectacle is actually germane to the storyline. It’s well worth seeing.

This Director’s Cut DVD is about 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The changes seem relatively minor, although Sutherland’s opening narration, which gave away too much of the plot, has been removed for this new cut. Also, Connelly plays a nightclub singer, but her singing isn’t very good in this extended version; in the theatrical cut, a woman with a better voice dubbed her. Somehow, the fact that her singing is now rather flat and… sleepy… only adds to the film’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. The DVD extras are quite extensive. There are three audio commentaries, one from Proyas, a rather dull one from screenwriters Lem Dobbs and David (The Dark Knight) Goyer, and another from Roger Ebert, who admires this film a great deal. He has only done two other audio commentaries: for Citizen Kane and Casablanca! There is also an on-screen introduction from Proyas, who explains why he assembled this new cut in the first place, the theatrical trailer, a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, and a Production Gallery of photographs taken by Sewell, who was apparently a real shutterbug on the set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…relentlessly trippy in a fun-house sort of way… Proyas… is a walking encyclopedia of weird science-fiction and horror imagery.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CASINO ROYALE (1967)

DIRECTORS: John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge (uncredited)

CAST: David Niven, , Ursula Andress, , , , Joanna Pettet, Terence Cooper, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, Jacqueline Bisset, Bernard Cribbins, Ronnie Corbett, Anna Quayle, John Huston, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Vladek Sheybal, Burt Kwouk, Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, David Prowse

PLOT: There really isn’t one, but here goes: Sir James Bond (Niven) is called out of retirement by M (Huston) when the new head of SMERSH is revealed to be Bond’s nephew, Jimmy (Allen).

Still from Casino Royale (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird in the way a film by  or  is; nevertheless, it’s another one of those out-of-control, all-star, over-budget fiascoes that leaves you wondering “What were they thinking?” If this website were called 366Self-IndulgentMovies.com, Casino Royale would definitely make the list.

COMMENTS: Not to be confused, ever, with the marvelous 2006 Daniel Craig film (which might well be the finest Bond movie yet), this 1967 boondoggle is based very loosely on the same source material: Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. The product of six different directors, including John Huston (The African Queen) and Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and six writers, among them Ben Hecht (Notorious), Billy Wilder (Ninotchka) and  (Candy, Barbarella), the 007 spoof Casino Royale is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Clocking in at an excessive 137 minutes, it’s a completely incoherent psychedelic mess, which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, can come off as intermittently hilarious.  Reportedly, the film was as chaotic to make as it is to watch, with Sellers and Welles warring on the set, and the former finally walking off the movie before it was finished. The final result, however, comes off as so utterly insane that the abrupt departure of Seller’s character (“Evelyn Tremble”)–who is (SPOILER ALERT!) murdered offscreen–fits right in with the freewheeling, anything goes “storyline” of everything else in the film. This version of Casino Royale is probably best remembered for the two hit singles spawned from the soundtrack: the bouncy, jaunty title song played unmistakably by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and the languid, Oscar-nominated Dusty Springfield ballad, “The Look of Love.” Burt Bacharach’s score is a true relic of the Swinging Sixties, and large chunks of it show up in the third Austin Powers film. In fact, Austin Powers probably wouldn’t exist at all without Casino Royale. If one pays very close attention, it is striking that parts of this movie actually do bear a resemblance to the Daniel Craig “remake.” Bond falls in love with Vesper Lynd (Andress) who is kidnapped and then betrays him. He also plays cards with Le Chiffre (Welles), who later straps him to a chair and tortures him (although not in the notorious way that he does in the 2006 film). When Bond escapes, Le Chiffre –(SPOILER!) is shot in the head by SMERSH. Of course, these plot strands go back to the original novel, but that’s all that is left of Fleming.

By the end of Casino Royale, matters have gotten so out of hand that there are appearances by the Frankenstein monster (Prowse, who later played Darth Vader), a performing seal, a clapping chimp, and a troupe of stereotypical tomahawk-wielding “Indians” dancing the Frug. Since the film opened right before the Summer of Love, one has to wonder; what were the cast and crew smoking?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hideous, zany disaster… a psychedelic, absurd masterpiece.”-Andrea LeVasseur, The All-Movie Review

CAPSULE: 7 WOMEN (1966)

DIRECTED BY: John Ford

FEATURING: Anne Bancroft, Margaret Leighton, Betty Field, Sue Lyon, Mildred Dunnock, Flora Robson, Anna Lee, Eddie Albert, Woody Strode, Mike Mazurki

PLOT: In 1935 China, a group of American female missionaries are startled by the arrival of straight-talking, atheistic Dr. Cartwright (Bancroft). Later, a fearsome Mongolian warlord (Mazurki) invades the mission, and, suddenly, everyone’s lives are in danger.

Still from 7 Women (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s not obviously weird the way a  film is, this, the last project from one of the greatest movie directors of all time, has so many unintentionally (?) strange moments that it deserves to be known as more than just the obscure final picture on Ford’s filmography.

COMMENTS: Running just 87 minutes, 7 Women was dumped by MGM and dismissed by critics when it originally opened in 1966. As the last film of John Ford, who won more Oscars than any other director, it seemed an ignominious end to a glorious career. But, in hindsight, it’s a fascinatingly strange movie. Bancroft’s Dr. Cartwright wears jodhpurs, a leather jacket and short hair, smokes, drinks, curses and proclaims her atheism within a group of missionaries. Bancroft frankly appears to be playing a lesbian stereotype, until she makes a passing reference to having once had an affair with a married man. As Agatha Andrews, the supposed leader of the missionaries, Margaret Leighton sketches an over-the-top portrayal of a bully who completely falls apart after the mission is invaded by “Mongols.” She succumbs to religious hysteria and condemning Cartwright as “the Whore of Babylon,” and worse. But Leighton, who seems to be doing a Katharine Hepburn impression (Hepburn, in fact, turned the part down), appears to be playing a repressed lesbian, as in the scene where, practically trembling with anxiety, she watches the half-dressed Emma (Lyon, of Lolita fame) primping in the mirror, and tentatively helps brush her hair. Emma admires the forthright Cartwright, so one wonders, as the two older women clash repeatedly, whether Andrews is jealous. Later, hysterical British missionary Anna Lee (a Ford regular) watches out the window as a buff, shirtless, oiled-up Mongolian warrior (Woody Strode, from Spartacus) prepares to wrestle another gigantic soldier and, beckoning to her compatriot (Wuthering Heights’ Flora Robson), shrieks, “They’re all naked and greasy; it’s disgusting!”—although the look on her face suggests prurient interest. “Then why do you watch?” is Robson’s reply. Meanwhile, Betty Field (Of Mice and Men) and Eddie Albert (“Green Acres”) play a middle-aged couple as practically mentally disabled. Field’s Florrie, who outdoes Lee in the hysteria department, is supposed to be pregnant with her first child, although she looks about 55 years old. But as Florrie goes into labor, she seems to calm down, while Andrews grows increasingly unhinged as the women deal with the constant threat of rape and murder. Filmed in widescreen and color, although very obviously on soundstages, you get the feeling that the ferociously overacting cast and, maybe, Ford, were simply not the making the same film as the screenwriters. Some of the over-emoting here is worthy of . In Cahiers du Cinema, Ford said of this film,” I think it’s one of my best.” Probably not, but 7 Women may actually hold up better than some of Fords’ more celebrated pictures like The Informer and Mister Roberts.

Incidentally, 7 Women was never released on VHS or DVD (although it did turn up on Laserdisc), but a very faded, battered print occasionally shows up on cable television’s Turner Classic Movies. And, since TCM always shows the best possible prints of everything, 7 Women must be badly in need of restoration.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A maudlin, mawkish, gooey dripping hunk of simpering slush.”–Arthur Knight, The Saturday Review (contemporaneous)

“…reflects Ford’s artistic and ideological maturation and sums up many of his career-long themes within a narrative that transcends its B-movie, role-reversal kookiness.”–Keith Ulrich, Slant (2005)

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , , Oliver Reed, Valentina Cortese, , ,

PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that  follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.

Still from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTDespite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.

COMMENTSThe hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“..the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame..”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: TOMMY (1975)

Scott Sentinella’s writing has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Ken Russell

FEATURING: , Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed , Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Paul Nicholas, , Pete Townshend, John Entwhistle

PLOT: Captain Walker is missing and presumed dead in World War II, but when he turns up alive, his wife’s new lover kills him. Unfortunately, Walker’s son Tommy witnesses this, and the trauma leaves him deaf, dumb and blind. But Tommy can still play a mean pinball, and he becomes an odd messiah to an army of idol worshipers.

Still from Tommy (1975)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because, with that story line, it’s a musical—literally a “rock opera”—and because Ken Russell stages every single scene like something out of a bad acid flashback.

COMMENTS: The Who’s original 1969 album, “Tommy” is wonderful to listen to, but its supposed story is impossible to figure out without, so to speak, illustrations. In this film, one of the first recorded in multi-channel sound, director Russell “illustrates”everything in the most garish hues possible—and that’s a good thing. This grotesque, excessive rock musical was clearly a predecessor to MTV, with its non-stop assault of insane imagery; Russell, not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, is aided and abetted all the way through by an all-star cast. The Who’s lead singer, the great Roger Daltrey, inevitably plays Tommy with a vacant, blue-eyed stare, and belts every song to the back of the theater in the manner that made him famous (on the original “Tommy” album, his singing is much more low-key). Elton John, as the Pinball Wizard, parades around on stilts, while Tina Turner, as the Acid Queen, threatens to rip the screen apart with her intensity (although Paul Nicholas, as Tommy’s physically abusive Cousin Kevin, gives her a run for her money). Meanwhile, Eric Clapton as the Preacher, Keith Moon as the sexually abusive Uncle Ernie, Jack Nicholson (Ann-Margret’s old co-star from 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”) as the Doctor, and Oliver Reed, as Tommy’s stepfather, are relatively subdued (and, yes, the last two are pretty terrible singers). Topping them all is Ann-Margret, in an unforgettable Oscar-nominated performance, as Tommy’s guilt-ridden mother. Obviously, Ann-Margret’s show tune-trained voice is really not suited to singing Pete Townshend’s music, but that only adds to the film’s strange appeal. Ann-Margret manages to be simultaneously brilliant and over-the-top (as she often is—see her Blanche Dubois in the 1984 version of Streetcar Named Desire), but when the part calls for her to roll around in baked beans and chocolate sauce, she doesn’t hold back. Then you have any number of frenzied images: Sally Simpson’s husband—a dead ringer for the Frankenstein monster, Tina Turner transformed into a giant hypodermic needle, Clapton preaching in a church filled with statues of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Nicholas burning Daltrey with a cigarette—this is a musical, all right, but it’s not exactly Meet Me in St. Louis. This version of Tommy may be bizarre to the point of self-parody, but anyone who’s ever seen the disastrous, but similar, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (produced, like Tommy, by Robert Stigwood), will understand the very special talents of the late Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, the Region 1 DVD (as well as the Blu-Ray) of Tommy has no extras, except for a paper insert describing the film’s “Quintaphonic” soundtrack. Luckily, the movie looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Russell correctly doesn’t give a damn about the material he started with… he just goes ahead and gives us one glorious excess after another… Tommy’s odyssey through life is punctuated by encounters with all sorts of weird folks, of whom the most seductive is Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)