All posts by Shane Wilson

DOUBLE CAPSULE: AM I NORMAL?: A FILM ABOUT MALE PUBERTY (1979) / FLOWERS AND BOTTOMS (2016)

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Talking frankly about sex (without becoming lewd or lascivious) is among the most difficult tasks we as a society face, and arguably our failure to do so in a mature and productive manner is responsible for an unconscionable percentage of the world’s problems. And yet we continue to just not do it. Embarrassment and cultural taboos are the chief reasons, but a significant (if rarely discussed) cause has to be that we’re so bad at it. Not for nothing is there an award given annually for the worst description of sex in literature. 

Even in this rarefied air, the awkwardness and supreme un-coolness of the sex ed film is beyond calculation. And one such representative of this genre that has garnered cult recognition is a product of the Boston Family Planning Project that presumably ended up in schools across America at the start of the 80s and accomplished the goal of making sex an even less desirable topic of conversation. “Am I Normal?” lingers in the imagination four decades later because it is so strangely goofy at presenting the subject of sexuality in the adolescent male. We’re already primed to laugh at that which unsettles or disturbs us, like a boggart in the cupboard, so directors Debra Franco and David Shepard make the understandable decision to leaven the awkward nature of the topic with humor. Unfortunately, the nature of the silliness is so over-the-top that it rarely works as humor and barely works as education.

To its credit, the film recognizes its challenges, especially when it comes to teenagers. Having been caught with an untimely physical reaction to an invitation from Susie (Jennifer Adelson) to go to the movies, our protagonist Jimmy (Joel Doolin) and his wrestling champion-sized belt buckle wander around town looking for sex advice like the bird in “Are You My Mother?” He asks anyone and everyone for information about these strange new physical and emotional sensations, and his advisors are a motley crew, including his best pal who sits in the school locker room reading a book entitled Great Moments in Sex, a zookeeper who admits to seeing all kinds of penises in his job (“Animal penises!” he quickly clarifies), and his own father, who compares the private parts of men and women to a baseball bat and a catcher’s mitt. (No points for guessing which is which.)  

The information imparted is benign and actually kind of helpful. (Worth noting that Jimmy gets something closer to straight answers when he turns to authority figures who dispense knowledge, such as a librarian or the school nurse. Also interesting that they’re both women.) But the delivery of each nugget carries with it the blunt Continue reading DOUBLE CAPSULE: AM I NORMAL?: A FILM ABOUT MALE PUBERTY (1979) / FLOWERS AND BOTTOMS (2016)

CAPSULE: DUMPLINGS (2004)

餃子]/Jiao Zi

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DIRECTED BY: Fruit Chan

FEATURING: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Meme

PLOT: An aging woman, eager to recapture her lost youth and the attentions of her wayward husband, patronizes a local maker of dumplings whose creations reverse the ravages of time; however, what she learns about how the dumplings are made force her to confront her own desires and tolerances.

Still from Dumplings (2004)

COMMENTS: The big twist is fully revealed exactly halfway through Dumplings, but in truth, we’ve known what was going on all along. Aunt Mei makes dumplings that restore youth thanks to a special ingredient. Mei’s current client, the former TV actress Mrs. Li, is eager for a therapy that will bring about the return of her youthful beauty quickly, to which Mei replies that the best ingredients are hard to come by. We learn that Aunt Mei used to be a doctor, and on her occasional visits to a local hospital to get illicit supplies, she discusses the ramifications of China’s one-child policy and the procedure some have used to bypass it. Meanwhile, a neighbor has brought her pregnant daughter to Aunt Mei for “help.” You’re with me here, right? There’s not really any mystery about what’s in the dumplings, is there?

Director Fruit Chan is a great deal more artful than that, of course. The camera lavishly chronicles the cooking process with loving attention, in the manner of Babette’s Feast or Big Night, so that you might be lulled into thinking you were watching Hong Kong’s answer to Chocolat. All the while, he is careful to avoid featuring anything too gory until the key moment, even if there are suggestions of something untoward throughout. (A special shout-out is owed to sound designer Kinson Tsang, who helps bring the horror by delivering the alluring, disgusting power of every slurp, chop, and bloody plop.) But there’s no getting past the litany of taboos that Dumplings confronts. Pretty it up all you like, but eventually, you’re going to have to face the facts about what’s in your food.

The film is an expansion of Chan’s segment from the horror anthology Three… Extremes, but at 90 minutes it remains taut and effective. The film is buoyed by the pair of stellar performances at its core. Bai Ling cavorts around her kitchen like a mischievous wood nymph, singing and spinning around confidently like a water strider; an Act 3 monologue extolling the virtues of anthropophagy frames her actions as virtually righteous. Meanwhile, Miriam Yeung is the very model of prim propriety pushed to its limits. No Death Becomes Her transformations here; you never once believe she is old or has lost any of her beauty (Yeung is stunning throughout), but you can be certain of her own perception of her failings, and they underline her commitment to the course of action that leads to her ultimate fate.

Dumplings is weird by virtue of its off-limits subject matter, but curiously not weird thanks to its earnest and forthright exploration of said material. A couple key subplots, such as the fate of Mei’s unlucky neighbor or a confrontation between the chef and Mrs. Li’s philandering husband, hint at a greater reckoning that never really arrives. Instead, Dumplings is a sober meditation on what we’re willing to do to get what we think is justly owed to us. No fortune cookie here, but instead this admonition: It’s not what we eat but what we choose to eat that makes us who we are.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiao Zi is a never ending cycle of absurdity leading to comedy leading to absurd reactions leading to more horror… the surreal way in which the horror and comedy of Jiao Zi was implemented ending up being too alluring for me to ignore.” – Bill Thompson, Bill’s Movie Emporium

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M NOT THERE (2007)

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
“(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

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DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes

FEATURING: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, , , , Kris Kristofferson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore,

PLOT: The intermingled stories of an itinerant child blues guitarist, a folk singer-turned-preacher, a philandering movie actor, an indulgent rock star, an aging outlaw, and a poet under interrogation, all of whom represent facets of the life of Bob Dylan.

Still from I'm Not There (2007)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The biographical film is a genre ridden with cliché, perhaps an inevitable result of trying to condense decades of life into a limited running time, as well as the absurdity inherent in calling upon famous people to embody other famous people. I’m Not There sidesteps this issue by shattering its subject’s life into fragments, echoes of Dylan who are never quite Dylan, but united in the spirit of an artist with the soul of a poet and an aversion to being analyzed. You won’t leave the film having learned a single fact about the man, but you will feel like you know him far better than any encyclopedic review of his life could impart.

COMMENTS: Facing down his interrogators, a poet lays before them the seven simple rules for life in hiding. Our protagonists, despite some of their very public lives, seem pretty adept at the first six, having created chameleon-like personalities that defy categorization or understanding. But it is the seventh–“Never create anything”–that trips them up. As much as they want to avoid capture, no matter their revulsion toward fame or notoriety, as much as they want to leave past choices behind them, the urge to create is inescapable.

Todd Haynes is in love with metaphor. His films luxuriate in the power of a thing standing in for another thing. Some examples are more blatant than others (this reviewer has previously chronicled one particularly unsubtle instance), but he always comes back to the idea that coming at an idea directly is rarely as interesting as something more tangential. That makes him a good match for Bob Dylan, an artist who is noteworthy for his refusal to ever say anything right out. In Dylan, Haynes has found a muse who indulges his vision of the world through fun house mirrors. If Dylan is never just one thing, Haynes surmises, then he must be many things. And that’s what he sets out to dramatize.

The result is something of an anthology, with stories that sometimes intersect or echo each other, but are always their own narrative. This procedure permits Haynes to indulge in ambitious flights of fancy. To depict Dylan’s early interest in folk music, for example, the singer is embodied by a young black boy with Woody Guthrie’s guitar, the spirit of an early-20th century bluesman, and a hobo’s life on the rails. None of these things are literally Dylan (and the racial dimension just barely avoids issues of cultural appropriation), but they get at the heart of his curiosity and determination to slip the chains of his past identity to explore a new one.

Sometimes these depictions are very literal, such as Bale’s Greenwich Village troubadour. Other times, the symbolism is extremely heavy-handed, like naming Whishaw after Arthur Rimbaud, a poet who inspired Dylan’s lyrical obfuscations, or Gere assuming the character of Billy the Kid, whose own biography Dylan famously scored. Interestingly, the most Dylan-like character is Blanchett’s Jude Quinn, who takes on the precise look of the star’s “Judas” heyday, and yet occupies a esque fantasy landscape of parties in white rooms and giddy romps with coy models and fawning pop stars. Most of them revolve around music (but not all), many of them incorporate a faint whiff of impersonation of Dylan’s notorious nasal drawl (but not all). The one thing that unites all six version of Dylan is a stubborn refusal to be seen, to be captured and measured and sized up. Haynes wisely turns that inability to present the man into his boldest technique.

The biopic has matured over the decades, as filmmakers have largely abandoned regurgitated womb-to-tomb accounts in favor of more telescopic views of key moments from the life. In so doing, they’ve been willing to play with the form, demolishing linear time (like Chadwick Boseman’s electric embodiment of James Brown in Get on Up) or providing on-screen commentary (as in the to-screen objections of characters in 24 Hour Party People). Haynes does them all better by presenting a biography that doesn’t even feature its subject, Because while my review keeps saying Dylan Dylan Dylan, you’ll never hear that name in I’m Not There. Not once.

I’m Not There is definitely a weird watch because it has completely rethought the language of its genre. The life of the subject here is not character, it’s not plot, it’s not dialogue. It’s theme. And as such, it leaves interpretation to the viewer, even as its subject resists interpretation at every turn. So make of it whatever you will, knowing that you’re on your own. How does it feel?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie looks and sounds so purely pleasurable in isolated moments that I thought, more than once, that Haynes would’ve better served Dylan by putting together a DVD of music videos. In a way, that’s what he’s done anyway, and perhaps the whole weird, scattershot thing might play better when you can skip-search to your favorite bits.”–Rob Gonsalves, Rob’s Movie Vault (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: TIME MASTERS [LES MAÎTRES DU TEMPS] (1982)

AKA The Masters of Time

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DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Voices of , Michel Elias, Frédéric Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry

PLOT: A boy is marooned on an alien world, and a space mercenary encounters many obstacles in his rescue attempt.

Still from Time Masters (1982)

COMMENTS: Like the younger brother of an overachiever, Time Masters has to live up to a mighty pedigree. Director Rene Laloux is already enshrined in these halls for Fantastic Planet, another Stefan Wul adaptation renowned for its trippy visuals and detailed alien worlds. Add in that Laloux’s collaborator this time around is the famed artist Jean Giraud—better known as Moebius—and it’s only natural to assume that the result will hit similarly mind-blowing heights. Alas, the comparison does the newer film no favors. Hamstrung by a plot stretched too thin and production levels of sharply varying quality, Time Masters plays like the Filmation version of its predecessor.

The film’s production seems to be part of the problem. Originally conceived for television, satisfaction with early work convinced Laloux to expand it into a feature film. Unfortunately, the budget did not expand in proportion, and a large percentage of the movie was outsourced to animators in Hungary. (So many co-producers were brought in that it can legitimately be called a Franco-West German-Swiss-British-Hungarian production.) It’s not hard to figure out which parts of the film were animated where; the adventures of Piel on the surface of the untamed world of Perdide are charming and delicate, with the boy interacting with fascinating creatures both friendly and vicious. Meanwhile, the crew on its way to rescue him is flat and inert, completely incapable of demonstrating any emotion, let alone matching the tenor of the vocal performances. Time Masters becomes a tale of two films.

The story isn’t helping matters, as it betrays the effort that goes into delaying the central goal. Having received a subspace message that a small child is all alone on a dangerous planet and in need of rescue, the response of the would-be heroes is to take their sweet time. Stopping to pick up a sage advisor, they go for an extended swim. An attempted mutiny by a deposed royal leads to a suspense-free prison break. The threat of interference by space cops is met with the breathless excitement of a board meeting. (That’s not a metaphor. They all go into an auditorium and talk it out.) You can almost feel the screenwriters making the “stall for time” gesture.

Time Masters is not without its charms. In fact, the cuter the creature, the more interesting they seem to be. Piel and his planetary menagerie are sweet and occasionally even adorable, although they are far outdone by a pair of faceless gremlins named Yula and Jad who offer a running commentary on the foolishness of those around them. They are the Threepio and Artoo of the piece, but they bring more punch than most of the humans do at their most emotive.

Time Masters is commendable as something original, featuring some dramatic visuals and culminating in an ending that is certainly bold, even if it doesn’t really pay off the story in any meaningful way. But there just isn’t a whole lot that happens, and what does happen isn’t compelling enough to be more than a passing fancy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it’s just that until that point there’s a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy – basically, it looks like a kids’ film… It weaves a spell if you’re indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by Nickholas P Michell. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BUDDY BOY (1999)

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DIRECTED BY: Mark Hanlon

FEATURING: Aiden Gillen, Emmanuelle Seigner, , Mark Boone Junior

PLOT: Francis, a lonely, emotionally stunted man living with his stepmother, begins spying on Gloria; after a chance encounter on the street, they strike up a romantic relationship, but Francis becomes increasingly violent and unstable.

Still from Buddy Boy (1999)

COMMENTS: Like the hybrid the world was waiting for, Buddy Boy arrives with a healthy blend of paranoia and violence, neatly planting the man-against-the-world narrative inside a milieu of seediness, squalor, and surrealism. It’s a heady brew, and the success of the whole thing rests on the shoulders of our central character, a simple man who may be deeply mentally disturbed.

Francis’ unreliability is clear from the outset. Coming home to his apartment, he finds his stepmother laid out on the floor dead, an empty bottle of cleaning fluid at her side. He lays the old woman in her bed as if unsure of what to do. But by the next morning, she is quite evidently back among the living with no explanation. Did she ever die? Did any of what we’ve seen actually happen?

This uncertainty is central to the dilemma of Francis. When he watches Gloria through his peephole, he sees her heartlessly chopping up bloody cuts of meat in direct defiance of her professed veganism. And yet, when he confronts her, only vegetables are to be found. He’s understandably confused, and his uncertainty transitions steadily into horror. He scrubs his bloody hands raw with Ajax. He wears gloves and a mask to keep out the germs he imagines are everywhere (more than two decades ahead of schedule). He sees his own head served up as the main course at a dinner party. And at no point does he ever seem to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with him. He’s that most terrifying of victims, the one who is certain he’s the only one who is sane.

At every turn, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Francis has seen the lie he wants to see, proof the world’s mendacity and his own unworthiness. As a result, you start to doubt everything onscreen. Just how likely is his relationship with Gloria? What does she see in him, and why is it enough to overcome his own self-loathing? Is his hideous stepmother (Susan Tyrell, in a performance that starts in fourth gear and accelerates from there) anything like the monster we witness, or is this just his frustration running wild? Meanwhile, the visions compound: he’s positive he’s seen a missing girl in the photographs he develops at a grungy photo processing shop. Guests at a dinner party are openly hostile to his faith, while his own priest seems to be a charlatan. People on the bus seem to be getting sicker and sicker. And what is wrong with the bathtub, anyway?

Trapped as we are inside Francis’ head, it’s ultimately impossible to trust anything we see. That’s damaging to Hanlon’s story, because once we lose the find reality in the things Francis experiences, there’s no suspense or surprise. Aiden Gillen’s central performance goes a long way toward holding the whole thing together; he’s enormously sympathetic, even as he makes choices that are increasingly worrisome. As the stakes heighten, though, it starts to feel artificial. Sure, Francis’ world is driving him mad. But in a life this hollow, a world this grim, any other outcome seems impossible.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fans of serious decadence (you know who you are) are vigorously advised to check out a curious, unsettling, darkly conceived and absolutely fascinating little film opening in a shroud of silence, called Buddy Boy. Not since Roman Polanski at the pinnacle of his European weirdness have I seen a film this strange and riveting leaves you shaken, with a penetrating vision as poisonous as gangrene.” – Rex Reed, New York Observer (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who called it “very weird, very compelling, very memorable.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)