Category Archives: It Came from the Reader-Suggested Queue

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: STRANGE CIRCUS (2005)

Kimyô na sâkasu

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: , Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Hiroshi Oguchi

Still from Strange Circus (2005)

PLOT: At a surreal cabaret show, 12-year-old Mitsuko tells her story of parental abuse culminating in the accidental killing of her mother and her own attempted suicide; suspecting her story is made up, publishers hire editor Yuji is enlisted to ferret out the truth.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono has a lifetime pass to immediate consideration for our list, and this blend of truly disturbing scenarios, intriguing imagery, and repeated misdirection is exactly the kind of thing to catch our eye. He begins with subject matter so taboo and depraved that he seems unlikely to emerge with any kind of a reputation, but he then tucks it inside such a labyrinthine puzzle that qualms about the material are subsumed by wonder at how he’s going to pull it all off.

COMMENTS: The three-act structure of Strange Circus is almost too simple: Act I is the horrifying tale of an abused girl, Act II is the mystery over whether the girl’s story was made up by a popular novelist or recounts her own terrible upbringing, and Act III is the solution to that mystery. Couldn’t be more basic.

The movie as executed is anything but simple. Sion Sono knows the difference between shock and surprise, and he deploys both in their turn, choosing just the appropriate jaw-dropping image to fit the moment. It’s not merely that he can keep you off balance. It’s that he knows just the right way to do it.

Consider the first third of the film, which is a straight-out horror show. The scenario is utterly appalling: Mitsuko’s father forces her to watch his rough copulations with her mother and then eventually forces her into direct participation. In sync with this moment, Mitsuko’s world becomes visibly grotesque, with blood-red walls and a repeated transference with her mother. The girl’s suppressed turmoil is given form in the staging that makes her school look like an abattoir and her home resemble a crumbling mansion.

The middle section offers up something quite different. We meet Taeko, a mysterious novelist whose idiosyncrasies and domineering behavior are shocking in their own way, but no longer metaphorical. The strange carvings on her wall? The disguises that she uses to masquerade in public? Her habit of writing while wearing a negligee, sitting atop a cello case, and stuffing spaghetti in her mouth? There’s no filter for this strange behavior. What you see is what you get. In fact, only a couple stray trips into the fantasy world are found here, and pay attention to them when they come, because they’re a clue as to what awaits us…

…in the final act, when the true source of the awful tale of Mitsuko is revealed. This is pure Grand Guignol, and while the revelations are completely over-the-top and deliberately outrageous, a look back suggests that Sono has played fair with us all along. Alone, it might threaten to tip over into absurdity, echoing the wild finales of films like Performance or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But as crazy as it gets, it’s unquestionably earned.

Masumi Miyazaki is doing tour de force work here, essentially playing multiple roles and earning the audience’s affections even when her behavior borders on reprehensible. Strange Circus, it turns out, doesn’t just have an unreliable narrator, but is about the making of an unreliable narrator, and her performance taps into mystery, empathy, and beauty to sell you on characters you might have abandoned as irredeemable. A special mention also goes out to Rie Kuwana, who is heartbreaking as young Mitsuko, still radiating innocence even in the face of the indignities heaped upon her. (I made sure to watch the behind-the-scenes documentary for assurance that the actor wasn’t enduring the miseries of her character.)

Strange Circus is not easy to watch, especially in its opening scenes of household terror. But it is utterly audacious, and doesn’t waste its ambitions by coming up short with its revelations. Strange Circus is strange indeed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No matter how weird things get it’s always coherent and we always know that we’re being shown something that is “really” happening, albeit shaded behind denial and mental illness and wishful thinking. Sono’s playing by his own rules perhaps, but he’s still playing fair. When the ending comes, it doesn’t elicit ‘WTF?’ but ‘Oh! I get it!’”–Jeremy Knox, Film Threat

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

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: BIG TIME (1988)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chris Blum

FEATURING: Tom Waits

PLOT: Tom Waits guides the viewer through a surreal concert experience.

Still from Big Time (1988)

COMMENTS: Geometric backdrops, sweat, a hook-light, and pocketsful of confetti litter the screen as a strange presence raspily sings through songs from a time out of time. Tom is a dust bowl mourner, a piano-side crooner, a cabaret djinni, and a gravel-hammer blues man. He swaps guises at the drop of a hat, instantaneously—because Tom waits for no man. A dreamy New Years Eve alternately thwacks in your ears through a pipe rig percussion solo, or floats gently like the bubbles popping up from an on-stage bathtub. All sunglasses, cigarettes, and watches, Waits in ’88 is an amalgam of decades, fashions, and sentiments, and must be seen to be believed.

Directed by Chris Blum (a man so niche he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page), Big Time kicks off with an alarm clock summoning Tom Waits to sleep. While Waits serenely tosses about on an onstage and rooftop bed, Waits greets us to the show, greasy-haired and hustling time-pieces, running up his arm and set to the trendy times of Paris, Tokyo, Ann Arbor, and Sudan. On stage with his band, Waits shucks to his own quirky performance of his undefinable songs. He charms the audience with stories and quips. “I feel like I can look right into those black little hearts of yours,” he suggests. Later he kicks off a tune with, “The question I get asked the most is, ‘Is it possible to get pregnant without intercourse?’ To answer that, we have to go allll the way back to the Civil War…” Waits operates his own spotlight, and even mans the ticket booth outside—occasionally receiving telephone calls from an unknown agent.

In case anyone here is unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Big Time is the ideal primer for Tom Waits. This “concert film” not only covers a broad range of his musical stylings, but also offers a window into the mind of a man who, by all rights, probably can’t exist. Imagine if the piano bar at the Black Lodge was infiltrated by a radiant imp, or a flare of genteel id rained down over Brecht’s favorite boozer. While many good films inspire you to sit and think, this one makes you want to leap up and create something—anything—so I urge you to watch Big Time, and then smash yourself into that creative project that’s been teasing the corners of your mind.

Right now.

Big Time has long been out-of-print on home video, but is currently available on scattered subscription services, including Paramount+ and Amazon Prime. For whatever reason, it’s still not available for purchase or rental anywhere else.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…elements of vaudeville, burlesque and soulful balladry are orchestrated by what is evidently, for all the downbeat, offbeat imagery, a fantastically energetic imagination.”–Time Out

(This movie was nominated for review by Jake H. McConnell, who argued “from performing on stage and telling odd stories to standing on a roof with an umbrella on fire this is a odd film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: VEGAS IN SPACE (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Phillip R. Ford

FEATURING: Doris Fish, Miss X, Ginger Quest, Ramona Fischer, Lori Naslund, Tippi

PLOT: Space troopers go undercover on the planet Clitoris in the fabled women-only city of Vegas in Space, where a plot to steal Queen Neuva Gabor’s jewels threatens the galaxy.

Still from Vegas in Space (1991)

COMMENTS: Can you critique camp? Is there even any point? The very act of trying to evaluate it immediately denotes you as someone who could never “get it.” If you’re not turned off by the credit “Based on the party by Ginger Quest”, it’s not as though a cogent analysis of the plot is going to scare you away.

So let’s raise a martini glass to the DIY-fabulous vibe that permeates Vegas In Space. For a sci-fi epic, the film is almost deliberately ramshackle, with landscapes that look less realistic than the opening credits of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and sets that rival After Last Season. But who cares about covering the walls with tinsel and tin foil when you’ve got a chance to put your energies where they really count: costumes and makeup. This is first and foremost a drag show, and the queens of Vegas In Space take advantage of the opportunity to go beyond the usual outrageousness of the format, combining the traditional bitchy repartée with an array of colorful skin paints and unusual alien prosthetics. If you paid your money for “intergalactic drag show,” you will not walk away disappointed.

There’s a charmingly catty spirit to the enterprise. The film is loaded with entendres that barely work up the nerve to be single. Snipes are mean but toothless. But the filmmakers seem to actually be interested in the plot, of all things, which leads Vegas In Space to commit the sin that would be most appalling to any self-respecting drag queen: it gets boring. As the space captain and Vegas’ queen of police bicker over who stole the jewels and what the consequences will be for the galaxy, it’s impossible to avoid thinking, “Who cares?” We’re here for the drag queens; do not try to save the cat.

With the main joke of the movie out of the way early on, filling out an hour and a half is going to take some (and I really am sorry for this) padding. There’s an eyebrow-raising interlude in which Captain Tracey and Queen Veneer encounter an ancient creature called a Drag, who is surmised to be the missing link that led to the evolution of womankind. There’s also a creepy dream sequence for one of Tracey’s lieutenants, the secretly competent Sheila Shadows, who has surreal visions of the coming catastrophe. But even the film seems to recognize these are mere distractions, as we quickly get back to the plot development that matters most: the Earth trio’s cabaret show. 

As mentioned, the overall vibe is “we’re amazing and we don’t really care what you think,” and for a film allegedly based on a party, that’s fitting. And it’s to the filmmakers’ credit, in light of the considerably more fraught behind-the-scenes tale. Ford and Fish shot the movie in fits and spurts over the course of 18 months at the start of the 80s, and then scrounged up money wherever possible for post-production over the course of the next eight years. Fish actually died of complications from AIDS before the film was finally released, meaning Vegas In Space stands as an unlikely valediction. So there’s a level at which it’s remarkable we got a film at all.

Ultimately, whether or not this ends up being a fun night out likely depends on the audience. For the devoted, Vegas In Space is a long-awaited induction of sci-fi into the drag canon. For the curious, it’s a novel diversion. For weird movie aficionados, it’s probably a busted queen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Vegas in Space certainly earns its cult status just for how weird it is, especially with its intentionally tacky aesthetic… If you’re a fan of campy sci-fi, you might get some enjoyment here, but there are better options. Overall, Vegas in Space might appeal more to drag fans, but it’s only watchable as a curiosity.” – Matt, Film Nerd

(This movie was nominated for review by Baal, who deemed it “Troma crossdressing campsploitation.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ORLANDO (1992)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sally Potter

FEATURING: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, John Wood, Lothaire Bluteau, Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville

PLOT: A young English nobleman looks for his place while exploring the vicissitudes of life over the course of several centuries, delving into love, politics, war, and poetry; eventually, he becomes a woman.

Still from Orlando (1992)

COMMENTS: Tilda Swinton is the Mona Lisa. Not “looks like.” I say she’s the genuine article, galvanized by the muse Melpomene and reveling in the mask of placidity that she uses to conceal any deep feeling she might harbor. With her narrow, skeptical eyes and lips that betray only the barest hint of her bemusement with the world, Swinton is truly the living embodiment of that icon of mystery. What a magnificent piece of luck, then, to secure her services in the leading role of a person who views the trappings of gender and power with a maximum level of detachment and disinterest. An actor perennially dismissive of the limitations of gender, she navigates between sexes with hardly a hesitation. Orlando proves to be an excellent launchpad not only for her talents but also for the way she likes to deploy them.  

We first meet Orlando in 1600 as an aimless boy who comes into the orbit of the Virgin Queen herself (played, in a piece of thematic foreshadowing, by the English raconteur Quentin Crisp). The Queen is eager to welcome this bare-faced boy into her orbit, but under one condition: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” A modest request to be sure, but he will spend the next four centuries honoring the Queen’s command, steadfastly bypassing death or even aging  in favor of a lengthy exploration of love, sex, and self.

If you didn’t know Orlando was adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel published 95 years ago, it might easily be branded as a fantasia of feminism or a revisionist history of transgenderism. As it stands, the film (like its source material) proves to be surprisingly prescient. The film is littered with historical examples of gender fluidity, from the songs performed by castrati to the stunning costumes of Sandy Powell, in which Restoration-era men are adorned with enough frills and artifice to make the patrons of the Met Ball look Amish, while women are sometimes indistinguishable from furniture that has been mothballed for the season. Orlando seeks to demonstrate that if you think androgyny and gender blurring are modern phenomena, well, crack open a history book.

Part of the film’s delight is that it is intensely interested in the strange, but the word is never applied to the things we find most unusual in it. “How strange,” the new-found Lady Orlando notes as she castigates the leading poets of the day for their indulgence in casual misogyny even as they extol the virtues of their feminine muses. “How strange,” she repeats as she apologizes for her failure to acquire the name of the fascinating man who arouses love in her for the first time. But the fact of her femaleness in spite of her previous masculinity? Not weird at all. The fact of the gender shift (which is portrayed less as a binary switch and more as a clarification) is the one thing Orlando seems entirely certain about. The moment where Orlando first lays eyes on her new form is immensely powerful, not for the shock of the change or for any eroticism attached to the nude, but rather for the gentle and pleasant surprise she finds in discovering that her sense of self is fully intact, completely divorced from language or attitude or anatomy.

While watching Orlando, there’s an inclination to feel that not very much is happening, and Swinton’s nonplussed vibe can feel at odds with the engagement you might expect as a viewer. But she’s a sly one, that Orlando, and her tale has a vivid afterlife in the brain as you consider the whole of their experiences and realize that nothing has lingered in quite the way you expect. You feel pity for the deluded Archduke Harry rather than anger at his effrontery. You find unexpected grace in the romantic overtures of Billy Zane. And most of all, you discover that the seemingly empty gaze of Tilda Swinton is in fact triumphant, because she knows so much that you never will. And to demonstrate it, all she needs is the hint of a smile.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sally Potter’s marvelous 1992 film of this undeniably strange, altogether wonderful book now makes its way back to theaters after a digital restoration, and in a bleak cinematic landscape, this oddball film feels especially vital.” – Chris Wisniewski, Reverse Shot (2010 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by wuzzyfuzzums, who describes it thusly: ” Based on an equally weird novel by Virginia Woolf, our hero/heroine is an immortal aristocrat who transforms half-way through the movie from a man into a woman, for no particular reason.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THEY CAME BACK [LES REVENANTS] (2004)

AKA The Returned

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DIRECTED BY: Robin Campillo

FEATURING: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot, Victor Garrivier

PLOT: A small French town struggles to cope with the sudden appearance of thousands of people who have mysteriously returned after having died years ago; initial bureaucratic problems give way to uncertainty about the motives of the newly resurrected.

Still from They Came Back (2004)

COMMENTS: In a film with arresting imagery, there may be no scene more powerful than that which opens They Came Back: the once dead slowly making their way into town, clean and outwardly healthy and dressed in light pastels and creepy as all get out. It is a high concept made manifest: all those we have lost over the past decade, back in the world as if they’d never been gone. It’s a powerful notion, given strength through the haunting visuals, and it’s something the film will struggle to get back to for the length of its running time.

In contrast to the visceral scares of the many risen-dead flicks that have graced screens in recent decades, They Came Back is more interested in a looming atmosphere of dread. By all appearances, the dead look and behave normally, but everyone begins to notice that they are somehow… off. Indeed, the medical community issues repeated warnings that the resurrected are not quite right (and develop a drug to render them unconscious), and one doctor in particular takes an interest in strange late-night meetings the undead are holding. From the get-go, we’re distinctly aware that there is an unseen threat that no one can understand. But that mystery is only about half the tale.

Writer-director Campillo is equally concerned with how individuals cope with this unprecedented situation. There’s the town’s mayor, who can barely stand to look at his wife when she first beckons to him. Or a couple who have very different reactions to the reappearance of their 6-year-old son. Most prominent is Rachel, a bureaucrat who avoids her lost love Mathieu until he follows her home one day like a beloved puppy. All show a determination to pick up where they left off, but each seems filled with deep and rueful reservations.

This is where the movie’s struggle to balance an examination of people pushed to their limits with a straight-out horror film becomes most acute. There’s still juice in the sight of humans moving resolutely in sync, and in particular, a scene where the mayor is confronted by a group of returnees comes as close as any moment in the film to outright shock, and even then it is far more horrifying to contemplate its ideas than to look upon anything on the screen. The movie knows it has to build to something big, that it needs to throw in something momentous to justify the journey. But it’s just not that kind of movie.

And ultimately, that dictates the finale; it just sort of ends. The dead are gone again, and the living are left to reckon with the impact of what they’ve experienced. It’s nice that the film doesn’t feel pressured to manufacture something big, but it also feels like a cheat. If you’re going to offer a “what if” premise, you probably need to offer some suggestion as to what the “if” would be. As it stands, we have a mix of character study and sci-fi mystery that doesn’t ever fully invest in either.

Like many ideas that are promising but not fully explored, the notion behind They Came Back is solid enough to have returned from the dead itself. There seems to be agreement that a single film doesn’t have the space to explore the conflict and the characters with sufficient weight, and that TV might be a more effective platform. An attempt in 2007 to adapt the material to television in the US didn’t make it past its pilot, but a French series in 2012 was a substantial hit, and eventually the concept finally went stateside with a different Americanized version. Our fascination with the frustrating permanence of death is animating a lot of popular entertainment, so we surely can expect more takes on the idea to return at any time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eerily elegant ghost story, all the more surreal for the realist mode of its telling… Campillo’s astonishing debut is as unnervingly oneiric as it is oddly moving.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (originally published in Film4)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “creepy in an unusual way.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)