APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREENER GRASS (2019)

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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)

CAPSULE: STAR LEAF (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Cranor

FEATURING: Julian Gavilanes, Tyler Trerise, Shelby Trerise, Russell Hodgkinson

PLOT: Ex-Marine James Hunter is stricken with PTSD after a tour of duty in Afghanistan; back home, he finds a trek to discover the legendary “star leaf” strain of marijuana to be less relaxing than he’d prefer.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aliens, drugs, and psychedelia do not a weird movie make. But in the case of Star Leaf, they do somehow make a rather enjoyable exploration of redemption.

COMMENTS: I’ve watched a great many films over the years, both professionally and otherwise, deserving of their IMDb ratings in the low single digits. Some are gloriously inept; others, just straight-up inept. Despite this, it was without trepidation that I sat down to watch Richard Cranor’s stoner/horror/sci-fi outing, Star Leaf. Despite having attended one of those herb-laced, East Coast liberal arts colleges, I’ve never quite understood the allure of marijuana. Fortunately, while Star Leaf is heavy on the cannabis, the weed merely serves as the leafy wrapping over a heart-felt, and fairly funny, musing on PTSD.

James (Julian Gavilanes) is a Marine sniper in the Hindu Kush, stationed with his friend Tim (Tyler Trerise). During a hillside stake-out, Tim encourages James to embrace the “pink mist” and take a shot at a boy whom they witness being fitted with a suicide vest. Fast-forward two years to civilian life in the Pacific Northwest, James, still haunted by this event, joins Tim and his girl Martha (Shelby Trerise) on a different mission: to find, and smoke, the fabled “Star Leaf,” a powerful strain of marijuana allegedly left on earth by extra-terrestrials. Things get crazy and then a little sinister when a strange Park Ranger appears mid-buzz.

There is a lot that Star Leaf doesn’t get right. The extra-terrestrial angle is underdeveloped (or should have been ignored); grey alien-types appear from behind trees every now and again and hassle the drug seekers without much purpose and zero scares. A time-loop/stacked realities “thing” doesn’t stack up logically, even allowing for the speculative physics. And then there’s the final problem that I often have with horror films: having made some fairly interesting characters, the director seems happy enough to kill them off. Or does he?

That final ambiguity is also problematic, but I know I’m giving you the wrong impression. Star Leaf actually hits a lot of right notes: witty banter, a good message, and yet another of those great nightmare-vision police officers (or, as he repeatedly corrects the trio while tapping his shoulder insignia, “Park Ranger”). This sinisterly-stilted entity is played by none-other than director Richard Cranor, and his Ranger Dave goes a long way to making Star Leaf into an odd-ball mix of hipster/stoner “Twilight Zone.” Russell Hodgkinson even appears as the ex-biker, still-Jewish stoner guru (if that name isn’t familiar, he plays a doctor in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle). And then there’s the underlying message: forgiveness of one’s self and others. Star Leaf has all the makings of a “throw-away” movie (as well as a “throw-away” review), but it’s one those gems that makes the trash heap worth sifting through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the biggest qualm is in the form of the film’s second half… It’s unclear whether this is all just a part of the bad trip from the weed (judging from their weird trips after first smoking), or if it’s really happening. As such, there’s a question of whether the situation is a dangerous one or just head games. There’s just never a concrete feeling of real fear for the characters’ wellbeing, which is off-putting when there are aliens and terrorists after you.”–Mike Wilson, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 11/22/2019

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Our weekly look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs and Blu-rays (and hot off the server VODs), and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available at the official site links.

Gwendoline [AKA The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak] (1984): Read our review. An explorer’s daughter tracks her lost father to a remote Asian villahe where he’s being held by a lesbian bondage cult. This Severin Blu-ray release features the uncut original, with the American “Yik-Yak” cut included among the numerous special features. Also available (for a few dollars more) in a limited edition pressing with a reversible slipcover. Buy Gwendoline.

“Message from Space: Galactic Wars” (1978-1979): A band of rebels right wrongs and fight evil in the 15th Solar System in this Japanese space opera. This 27-episode TV series was a spinoff of the incoherent (buy campy) Message from Space feature film previously reviewed in these pages. All episodes apparently fit on a single SD Blu-ray disc. Buy “Message from Space: Galactic Wars”.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979): A fan tries to bring the Ramones to play a concert at her high school against the wishes of the stern principal in this -produced comedy with a cult reputation. This 40th anniversary release in steelbook format, with four separate commentary tracks among the extras, marks the flick’s debut on Blu-ray. This one also made it into the reader-suggested review queue. Buy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Suspiria (1977): Read the Certified Weird review! Dario Argento‘s expressionist witchcraft classic is a feast for the eyes and ears, so it seems a natural for hi-def viewing. Synapse upgrades their restoration to a 4K Ultra HD disc, with the extras from last year’s special edition release housed on a separate Blu-ray. Buy Suspiria (4K Ultra edition).

CERTIFIED WEIRD (AND OTHER) REPERTORY SCREENINGS:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). We’ll only list irregularly scheduled one-time screenings of this audience-participation classic below. You can use this page to find a regular weekly screening near you.

WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE: In honor of H.R. 3884, Giles Edwards devotes next week’s reviews will be Star Leaf (the story of a PSTD-afflicted soldier seeking relief via extraterrestrial strain of marijuana) and Greener Grass. Inhale deeply.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working on a little something behind the scenes:

Kindle cover for 366 Weird Movies 2019 Yearbook

On schedule for a first-week of December release. Stuff the stocking of your favorite weirdo in 2019. (Shout out to cover designer Irene E. O’Leary: www.ioleary.com).

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that we have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FOREST OF LOVE (2019)

Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki, , Kyoko Hinami, Sei Matobu

PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.

Still from The Forest of Love (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.

COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.

The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).

Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.

Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity.  Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).

The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.

It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.

Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: K-12 (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:  Melanie Martinez, Alissa Torvinen

FEATURING: Melanie Martinez, Emma Harvey

PLOT: A girl with superpowers is sent to “K-12,” a school run by despots who control the students with propaganda and medication.

Still from K-12 (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s basically an elaborate music video aimed at teenage girls, a lesson in lightly weird fantasy that will hopefully prime them for much stranger stuff later on.

COMMENTS: One of the unanticipated benefits of aging is that you’re no longer involuntarily exposed to pop music of the day and (unless you’re cursed with a teenage daughter) you can proceed through life blissfully unaware of the beats that set young feet to dancing. So, it’s with some perverse pride that I can say, until stories about her releasing a free movie—a reputedly weird one—started dropping on social media, I didn’t know who platinum-selling artist Melanie Martinez was.

Martinez is 24 years old, but her music aims at a younger audience. Her trademark look is her two-toned hair, split into brunette and blond (sometimes pink) hemispheres. K-12 is her second full-length album, and this accompanying feature-length movie version incorporates all the songs. In K-12 Martinez plays a character named “Cry Baby,” (also the title of her first album) a childlike alter-ego of uncertain age. The songs deal with topics like bulimia, body image, pervy teachers, and boys.

It’s not G-rated fluff; there’s plenty of casual cussing, cannabis references, and adult content. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter (and kids today do have it hard), this is not quite the tween girl’s version of The Wall. But it does have a reasonable amount of music video-inspired strangeness to it. There’s not a lot of plot—it’s more a series of grammar school-based tableaux—but it’s not just an abstract “visual album,” either. Martinez creates a linking narrative, and it can be bizarre. Despite the fact that she’s a beautiful woman, she successfully casts herself as an outsider by focusing on her one physical flaw: she’s teased for her gap teeth. She’s not one of the cool girls, but an actual freak; along with some of her outcast friends, Cry Baby has Carrie-like telekinetic powers (although don’t look for any buckets of pigs’ blood, which would be a little too gross for the aesthetic she’s going for here). Mean girls and despotic administrators provide foils. Cry Baby also has plenty of potential male suitors, although her most important relationships are with her female friends.

The art direction is aggressively pink, right down to the school bus that hauls the kids away to the sleepaway school. Wardrobe and decor is wistfully Victorian (it’s all inspired by Lolita fashion). The hare-headed proctors suggest “.” is an obvious inspiration for the look. The politics are naively progressive, and sometimes shoehorned in clumsily (Martinez throws in a black lives matter protest, a trans teacher, and outrage over the lack of free tampons in the girls’ bathroom). The choreography starts out slow, but turns into a strong point by the end, even including an aqua ballet a la Esther Williams at one point. The music is… not my thing. And while none of this sounds especially promising, there are a good number of pleasantly surreal bits sprinkled through the production numbers: a flying school bus. A chalk-sniffing teacher. A ghost who gives advice about self-actualization and reincarnation. Melanie’s nipple-free topless scene. Eyeball-swapping. A snap-off skull. Magic spit bubbles. One young fan commented “this had a lot of weird, almost too much.”

I suspect most of our readers aren’t in K-12‘s target demographic. But there’s a wide world of weird out there, and it’s always good to start young. K-12 may not be especially deep or sophisticated, but it is pretty and off-the-wall. Martinez deserves some praise for attempting something with more artistic ambition than her audience requires of her.

K-12 was originally offered for free on YouTube, although that deal expired after a few weeks. You can still catch it with a YouTube Premium or Amazon Prime subscription, however. Martinez promises two followup movies to continue the Cry Baby saga.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’re settling in for a candy-colored PSA, things get very, very weird.”–Mike Wass, Idolator (contemporaneous)

Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!