Category Archives: List Candidates

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I LOST MY BODY (2019)

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Recommended

AKA J’ai perdu mon corps

DIRECTED BY: Jérémy Clapin

FEATURING: Voices of Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois

PLOT: A right hand, severed from its host body, goes on a harrowing journey in hopes of a reunion.

Still from I Lost My Body (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If the logline, “It’s like The Incredible Journey, but it’s a hand” doesn’t immediately raise an eyebrow, then you are impervious to surprise. But while an adventure tale of a persistent hand would be intriguing enough, the determination to tell the tale with such bittersweet affection and lyricism is a bold and ultimately rewarding choice.

COMMENTS: The five-fingered human hand is probably among the most difficult things to draw. There are many reasons that most cartoon movies opt for a four-fingered variety, including time, expense, and appearance. So an animated feature in which the leading character is a disembodied, fully humanoid five-fingered hand would seem to reach peak hubris. Yet here we are with the earnestly told, irony-free tale of a hand that is violently amputated, and struggles mightily to be reunited with its body. It’s an idea so crazy, and an undertaking so destined to end disastrously, that it just has to work.

Director Clapin does himself no favors by balancing multiple narratives in time. We have to keep up with the present-day Naoufel, an orphaned immigrant who happens to be missing a hand; his backstory as a boy aspiring to be both a concert pianist and an astronaut (complete with lingering closeups of an extremity that is destined to go AWOL); the story our protagonist as an aimless young man hoping to win the affection of a pretty young woman through techniques straight out of a wacky Hollywood rom-com; and, of course, the adventures of a hand loose in the city.

The hand is a riveting character: navigating the Parisian streets like a wily insect, triumphing in battles with the city’s wildlife, and generally overcoming very long odds. It’s worth noting that the title clearly identifies the hand as the star of the show, so when we see flashbacks to Naoufel’s youth, it’s tempting to see the loving closeups as ironic, dryly foreshadowing, manufacturing suspense for the violent event that is sure to come. And it does work that way, sure. But the real point is that this is the hand’s story. Of course, we’re constantly focused on the hand; it’s the hero of its own tale.

It is sometimes said that it is harder for animated movies to seem weird because they are already a step removed from reality. But Clapin utilizes a surprising array of techniques to keep us off balance, and only some of them have anything to do with animation. Some of them are actually anti-animation, like the long, static, dialogue-focused meet-cute that takes place in an apartment building lobby as Naoufel chats with the future object of his affection entirely over an intercom. This is animated! And yet, the details are so lovingly captured—the boy’s hangdog embarrassment, his resigned eating of a piece of mushed-up pizza—that the format becomes completely irrelevant.

I Lost My Body challenges our willingness to take it seriously, as more than some cartoon Thing loose on the streets of Paris. Perhaps that’s what makes a fairly straightforward quest feel so odd. Indeed, sometimes weird is spectacular, with viewers wondering in awe about the kind of mind that could have dreamed up something so fantastical/disturbing. But sometimes weird is a subtle turn of the prism that casts a familiar tale in an entirely new light. I Lost My Body is just such a movie. Instead of asking “What happened to that boy who lost his hand?’ it has the courage to ask, “What happened to that hand?” The answer turns out to be even more affecting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In its finished form, director Jérémy Clapin’s peculiar undertaking (adapted from the novel “Happy Hand,” by Guillaume Laurant) is even stranger than it sounded to me half a decade earlier, and yet, there’s no question he’s pulled it off. In fact, I’d hazard to say it’s one of the most original and creative animated features I’ve ever seen: macabre, of course — how could it be otherwise, given the premise? — but remarkably captivating and unexpectedly poetic in the process.” – Peter DeBruge, Variety

(Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPEED RACER (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers)

FEATURING: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Roger Allam

PLOT: He’s Speed Racer, and he drives real fast; the corporate goons at Royalton Enterprises fail to hire him, and so try to sabotage his family and career.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Made up of equal parts technical prowess, tremendous passion, and mind-boggling stupidity, the Wachowski siblings poured all their knowledge, soul, and their massive bag of Matrix-era goodwill into this videogame-cum-technicolor-comedy-melodrama that, while obviously the movie they had in mind, raises the question of whether or not it actually should have been assembled at all.

COMMENTS: Our weekly to-do list of new and re-released opportunities was sparse, so I instead pondered the Venn diagram of “reader suggested movies” and “movies I have access to.” Three titles presented themselves, and it was Speed Racer that managed to zip to the top of that last. (This may have been, in part, because its alphabetical position meant it was the closest to my Blu-ray player.) I hadn’t seen this movie since before I began working with 366, and it was just a hazy memory of bright colors, flying sparks, and a strange pathos provided by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon. My memory did not disappoint me.

As a facsimile of a racing computer game, Speed Racer has just enough plot to justify the on-screen zip-bang-light-up race shots. Speed Racer (née “Speed Racer”, played by Emile Hirsch at his charmingly blandest) lives up to his name and follows in the Racer Family tradition of racing race-cars. (His older brother, Rex Racer, disgraced the family and died in a horrible explosion during a sketchy rally race.) Purple-clad corporate bad guy E.P. Arnold Royalton, Esq. (played with effete glee by Roger Allam) tries to woo Speed to work for Royalton, Inc.—but Speed has none of it. Not used to being snubbed, Royalton uses his considerable resources to destroy the Racer family, not knowing that in the end, “the truth will out.”

I’m admittedly a sucker for a well-told story, no matter how stupid the underlying material. This movie brings stupid into overdrive with countless “just because” elements. There are Cockney gangsters who act as fixers and enforcers; there is, among other themed teams, a Viking racing crew obsessed with animal fur; and then there’s the thread that boldly attempts to hold this movie together, the “Inspector Detector” character investigating corruption in the racing leagues. (The less said about the recurring deus-ex-Spritle/Chimp-machina, the better.) The Wachowskis then painted all this with halogen colors that would have sent more cynical members of our staff into a tailspin of bitter, whiskey-fueled reproaches.

I am not that sort. I can appreciate the fact this extravaganza had an estimated $120,000,000 poured into it. I can also believe that it did not recoup the outlay. But that’s why it falls so firmly into our orbit. To see two of the best technical film-makers of their day so wholeheartedly stake their years-built reputation with something as confounding as Speed Racer gives me, at least, hope. (What gem might, say, Michael Bay concoct if told he could really do anything?) The Wachowskis did the world a disservice with the whole Matrix nonsense. They made up for it with Speed Racer: a movie that had me rooting for the good guy even as my eyes melted and my brain tried to shout down the cacophony of electro-Singh-visuals, “Lifetime Channel” monologues, and top-tier talent somehow grounding this eye-candy-fluorescence. The stars are likely to never be so aligned again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor succeeds in being, almost simultaneously, genuinely painful — the esthetic equivalent of needles in eyeballs — and weirdly benumbing, like eye candy laced with lidocaine.”–Joe Morgenstren, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill

FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine

PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII,  comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

Still from Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.

COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.

We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul

FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn, , Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of

PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.

Still from Slapstick of Another Kind (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.

COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.

As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.

Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SLAPSTICK OF ANOTHER KIND (1982)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CATS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tom Hooper

FEATURING: Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan… (Indeed, the cast list is so talent-heavy you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone with an entertainment award.)

PLOT: Meow.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Not only did “they” pull the trigger on this one, they emptied all six of the chambers. From the opening nonsense of cat-people-cats spouting the word “jellicle” like it was going out of style, up through to the finale where I swear they send off one of their own to her death, the cataclysm just wouldn’t stop.

COMMENTS: As might be expected of a man of my disposition, I am the owner of cats–two, to be precise. One of them featured in a review of mine some months ago. The other has joined me on a number of occasions while I watched other assignments. So perhaps it was this that led me to volunteer my time and sanity, and sit through a musical that I had mostly knew about from the context of a classic Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. But the transformation I underwent during the movie was comparable to that which bunches of A-list actors and celebrities went through to become Cats.

I could discuss the finer points of the plot here, but I’ll spare you my narrative discourse. If you know anything about Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s iconic work, you’ll know there isn’t really a story. It’s merely a showcase for descriptions of various “types” of cats found about London. (This geographic limitation may explain why the particular archetypes of my own cats weren’t explained to me in song form.) Moreso, you knew whether or not you were the kind of person who’d want to see Cats by the time the first hints of its production sprang up.

And why was this movie made? In a way, I think that it had to be. Some critics complain ad nauseum that everything these days is a remake, sequel, or adaptation, but this has been the norm since the earliest days of cinema. As to how the producers got all these big names on board, I do not know; but then, perhaps you have to agree to performing in Cats if you are asked. However, I can say that I didn’t leave the cinema thinking any less of any of the parties involved, and was actually quite pleased with Idris Elba’s performance as the only two+ dimensional character of the bunch.

I was in a something of a manic state during the drive home as I reflected what I had just gone through. About fifty-five minutes into the movie, I glanced at my watch for the first time and nearly recoiled in terror. After all the song and dance I had watched these “jellicles”1 go through, I was only half-way through. Around that time I noticed two things: first, there was an intermittent but persistent clicking coming from one of the right-hand speakers; second, the latter half went by far more quickly than the first. I don’t know if it’s a testament to the powers of Eliot + Webber + Hooper, or testament to brain damage I suffered five-and-a-half years ago, but I actually started to care about these things. The end of times, to be sure.

So to the other staff at 366, I apologize for putting us on the hook for this. To everyone else: Happy Christmas, Io Saturnalia, and Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cathulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In fairness to the general Cats reaction, the trailer—and indeed, I can say now, the whole movie—is bizarre-looking and freakish and garish and off-the-rails/all-over-the-place and bombastically beyond the scope of fanbrat respectability/acceptability. But here’s the thing: those are points of praise.” -Mike McPadden, Daily Grindhouse (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREENER GRASS (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey

PLOT: In the pastel roadways of an uncanny suburbia, Jill gives her baby away to a friend and then starts losing everything else she holds dear.

Still from Greener Grass (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In case you were thinking that Hell Suburbia was over and done with as a genre, think again. Greener Grass piles the golf carts, dental perfection, tight-femme-mom-chic pinks, and non-sequitur Valley Girl dialogue high on a teetering mound of absurdity, satire, comedy, and dystopia.

COMMENTS: Everyone envies Jill (Joceyln DeBoer). Her best friend Lisa is jealous of her baby immediately upon belatedly noticing it for the very first time. Another friend is amazed at the canapés she brought to her daughter’s birthday party. (“They’re so small!”) Her son is in the school’s elite “Rocket Math” program. Her home is pitch-perfect “Better Homes & Gardens” elegance, complete with a new pool whose oxygen filtration system makes its water, according to her husband, delicious. Her teeth are getting better, too; like every other adult in her town, she has braces.

Beginning with an impulsive effort to please her best friend (Dawn Luebbe, all glorious awkwardness and legs), Jill’s life starts sliding downhill. Handing off her baby to its new owner (cue portentous music) we see Jill’s awkward smile, which continues during the opening credits, filling up the entire screen, the rictus grin quavering throughout, then continuing to quaver on and off through the entire movie. Greener Grass blinds us with its pink and glossy-white vision of a post-utopian Suburbia. These folks have every comfort, and so fall back on one-upmanship and staggering vapidity. Jill’s cracks at the start become fissures during her husband’s 40th birthday party, when their son, himself quavering in his awkwardness, feebly croons the “birthday song” before collapsing into the immaculate pool, emerging as an immaculate yellow retriever. (His father is thrilled at the change.)

I don’t know the history of evilly pristine suburbs, but David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet is as good a landmark as any. While his had an underside of all-too-human unpleasantness, Greener Grass doesn’t allow for a speck of what we’d recognize as genuine humanity. There is no controversy or evil, just pettiness: withering criticism of a child’s tardiness—directed against Jill; dismissiveness of a gift of bean dip (being a mere five layers instead of seven)—directed against Jill; chastisement for being “rude” at a four-way intersection—directed against Jill.

Greener Grass is something of a feminist movie, but it points out that some of women’s worst enemies can be their fellow women. Jill’s friend attempts to take over her life from the start, beginning with the baby, before moving on to subtly co-opting everything else. This Mean Girls reality—one seen through (ominously) rose-colored lenses—creates something entirely unexpected: a sympathetic character amidst the dross of upper-middle class nothings. I couldn’t describe the tone simply as being “heavy-handed”; although it’s like a shotgun to the face for ninety minutes, it’s saturated as much by weirdo, “Upright Citizens Brigade”-style comedy as it is with social criticism. “Miss Human”, the second-grade teacher, with her Oregon Trail-style lesson plans; the “French”-style bistro replete with beret-wearing waiter fops; and the father’s beaming pride at his son’s new speed and charisma as a dog: these are all odd, and well executed—and taken as far as possible without letting up. Jill’s torment never ceases, but she never stops smiling. Ever.

Greener Grass was expanded from a 15-minute short (a Saturday Short selection, natch)—you can view it here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…future cult favorite — a fate that seems all but guaranteed for this weird and wonderful comedy of manners…” –Peter DeBruge, Variety (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BIRDS WITHOUT FEATHERS (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Wendy McColm

FEATURING: Wendy McColm, Alexander Stasko, Lenae Day, Cooper Oznowicz, William Gabriel Grier, Sara Estefanos

PLOT: The lives of six odd characters intersect in increasingly surreal ways.

Still from Birds Without Feathers (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Wendy McColm’s debut feature is a defiantly odd duck; a near-comedy about self-absorbed young people desperate to connect and perversely unable to get out of their own way. It seems like the kind of script you might write in the aftermath of a post-breakup acid trip.

COMMENTS: Each of the characters is alone, talking to themselves, when we first meet them. A depressed-sounding man (with an effeminate voice) recites bad advice into a tape recorder (“sometimes, you have to put others down to give yourself a boost in self-esteem”). A Russian immigrant practices saying “nice day” in front of a mirror, trying to erase his accent. A woman takes selfies in her underwear and uploads them to Instagram.  A stand-up comic recites his (not funny) routine and pumps himself up for a performance. A nurse practices saying the word “ow.” One other character pops up (or at least, is properly introduced) after the opening scenes: a chameleon-like woman who lives in the desert and is easily the strangest of them all. Even though these people will spend the rest of the movie bumping into each other, they remain, for the most part, alone; locked inside themselves by their own insecurities.

Social interactions in Birds Without Feathers often make little sense. In one scene, the stand-up is sucker punched by a passerby, then verbally abused by the passing nurse; he then asks for, and receives, her number. Several of the characters do “successfully” hook up together (never more memorably than in one scene that may change the way you think of Jeff Goldblum forever). But more commonly, social intercourse involves a coworker complaining that the dead look in your eyes is making him feel weird, or someone using “you know the awful thing about you?” as a first date conversation starter. A sense of lonely, uncomfortable melancholy pervades.

Writer/director Wendy McColm plays the Instagram model, and congrats to her on giving herself such an unflattering role: not only is Neil/Janet pathetic, she’s also the only character with (bizarre) nude scenes, and she gets her face spackled with white goop while making an uncomfortable confession. McColm’s character is probably the closest thing to a central presence, but the stories are fairly well-balanced between the six main players, with no one performer overly dominating the narrative. Although their lives all intersect at some point, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Birds Without Feathers is really about a cast of eccentric characters put into a series of sketches. Some are dramatic, and even touching; some are funny (or almost funny, in an awkward shaped-like-a-joke-but-lacking-a-punchline way); and some are just flat-out weird. They’re not all hits, but there are enough good moments and perspective switches to keep you interested. It should go without saying, however, that this one is not for normies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like ‘Mulholland Dr.’ and ‘Magnolia’ took a detour through Silver Lake, emerging worse for wear from the journey.”–Kimber Myers, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)