CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction.  Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper

28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

“You’ve seen all kinds of movies, but you’ve never seen anything like The Rocky Horror Picture ShowThe Rocky Horror Picture Show is wonderfully weird.  It’s fabulously freaky… The story is strange…  the scenery is smashing… the cast is completely crazy!”–ad copy from the extended 3 minute trailer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, ,

PLOT:  In this musical, Brad and Janet, a very square, newly engaged couple, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a rainstorm and seek shelter in a nearby castle.  Inside, they find the building populated by a strange assortment of characters dominated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania.”  Frank-N-Furter has created a blond bodybuilder named “Rocky Horror” for his own erotic enjoyment, and when the cast starts bedding each other jealousy rules the day—until a rival scientist in a wheelchair complicates matters even further when he arrives looking for his murdered son.

Still from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was an adaptation of writer/actor Richard O’Brien’s hit stage show that began in London in 1973.  The show also played Los Angeles with Tim Curry starring with a mostly American cast, including singer Meat Loaf as Eddie.  The play opened on Broadway shortly before the film version debuted and was a flop, closing after a mere forty-five performances.
  • Fox Studios wanted to cast popular musicians of the day in the main roles (including Mick Jagger as Frank-N-Furter), but the producers accepted a lower budget in order to keep the cast from the stage production mostly intact.  Meat Loaf had recorded a top 100 single years before, but would not become a major rock star until 1977 with the release of “A Bat Out of Hell”.
  • The film bombed on release, but gradually found cult audience through midnight screenings.  As early as 1976 audiences had begun shouting their own dialogue back at the screen.  This gradually developed into the unprecedented Rocky Horror audience participation ritual, where the audience is not only an active part of the movie experience, but the main attraction.  Fans come to screenings dressed as their favorite characters, speak their own scripted counterpoint dialogue to the screen (being particularly rude to Barry Bostwick’s Brad) and bring along props (e.g., water pistols to simulate the rainstorm).  In the more elaborate productions, amateur actors appear on a stage in front of the screen, dancing and pantomiming the lines during the musical numbers.
  • Rocky Horror has shown continuously in theaters since 1975, making it the longest running theatrical release of all time.  The film has taken in almost $140 million in receipts, making it the 215th highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation).
  • MTV Networks has announced plans to remake the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No question; Tim Curry in full femme makeup and black leather and satin drag, dressed to make glam-era David Bowie look as macho as an NFL defensive lineman by comparison.  The image will never leave your mind; for some, it will haunt your nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a rock n’ roll musical inspired by old sci-fi and horror B-movies

Original trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show

about an alien transvestite. From the moment Richard O’Brien conceived the idea, there was no doubt that it would be weird; the only question was whether he could mold it into something that was even mildly watchable.

COMMENTS:  Because we’re interested in weird movies here, not in weird sociological Continue reading 28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: CURE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Masato Hagiwara

PLOT:  A detective with a mentally ill wife seeks to solve a series of murders committed by ordinary people, each of whom has come into contact with a strange, amnesiac man.

Still from Cure (1997)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: There’s no doubt Cure is a weird one, what with its unexplained creatures tied to shower rods, its ambiguous antagonist, and its head-scratching ending.  It’s also a good psychological thriller, but it doesn’t quite throw the knockout punch needed to give it an undisputed place on the 366 weirdest movies of all time (although I admit the general critical consensus disagrees with that position).  Cure does seem like a movie that could well age into an outstanding vintage if it’s left to ferment in the cellar of the viewer’s subconscious for a time, which is why I suspect I’ll be returning to sample it again someday.

COMMENTSCure is a movie that seeks to sink into the lowest, darkest depths of the human subconscious and wallow there.  It’s no doubt an intriguing, and a weird, movie, but I found it somewhat unsatisfying by the end: it pulls itself apart by moving in too many different directions.  The premise is that ordinary people commit atrocious murders, using the same modus operandi, an “X” cut into their victim’s chest.  Their reactions after they’re apprehended vary from maniacal bereavement to calm detachment, but the perpetrators uniformly report that their horrific actions seemed normal at the time.  The tie that binds these unwitting criminals together is that they’ve all encountered Mr. Mamiya, an amnesiac young man who has a short-term memory span somewhere between thirty seconds and one minute, and who answers almost every question put to him with the same response: “Who are you?”

On one obvious thematic level, the film deals with the question of identity, although it does so superficially (i.e., “who is” Takabe, really: the single-minded professional, or the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: CURE (1997)

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 7/17/09

A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

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

Once again, there’s nothing of weird interest debuting in theaters this week.  However, Moon (the “intelligent” science fiction movie mentioned in the Weird Horizon for 6/12/09), is coming to town here and is likely to get a capsule review next week.

NEW ON DVD:

Faerie Tale Theatre: Tales from Hans Christian Andersen (1982): Fairy tales are perhaps the oldest form of weird literature, so we always perk up our ears when a fairy tale title is released. This disc collects four episodes from the short-lived but critically acclaimed children’s television show hosted by Shelly Duvall. Included in this set are the episodes “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Nightingale”, “The Snow Queen” and “Thumbelina.” The show always attracted major acting talent: Alan Arkin, Art Carney, Mick Jagger, Edward James Olmos, Lee Remick, and Carrie Fisher star on this disc. Buy from Amazon.

For All Mankind (1989): OK, this impressive documentary about the moon landing probably isn’t technically weird, but it is a noteworthy release from the Criterion Collection.  The visuals are said to be spectacular, and images of takeoff and landing on the moon from the astronaut’s perspective certainly aren’t run of the mill; it’s also told in a non-linear, collage-like fashion and features an ambient soundtrack by Brian Eno. Buy from Amazon.

Grey Gardens (2009):  The original Grey Gardens was a 1975 documentary about two eccentric female relations of Jackie Onassis who became recluses and lost touch with the outside world (and with reality) at the decaying titular estate.  This version is a dramatic recreation of that documentary, produced by HBO and starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.   Adapting a documentary into a dramatic film seems pointless, but reviews were actually very good. Buy from Amazon.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)/Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)/House of Flying Daggers (2004): The recent run of Chinese epics tend to be colorful, magical, and fantastical, even when they’re not full-on weird (and even when they’re directed by Chinese-Americans rather than natives). If you’re a fan of the genre, and you probably should be, here’s your chance to snag a triple-featurenotable titles on Blu-ray at a bargain price. Also, Crouching Tiger is currently only available on Blu-ray in this bundle (a fact that has frankly pissed off many fans who already own the other two titles). Buy from Amazon.

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

CAPSULE: MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985)

DIRECTED BY:  George Miller, George Ogilvie

FEATURING: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner

PLOT:  Loner and reluctant hero Mad Max wanders out of the desert and into a crossroads of post-apocalyptic vice known as Bartertown, and later discovers a colony of innocent children in a peaceful oasis who believe him to be a messiah.

Still from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  If costuming alone could earn a film a place on the list of the 366 weirdest films of all time, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome‘s raggedy punk centurions and Tina Turner’s post-aerobic post-apocalyptic fashions would easily qualify it.  Thunderdome is also the weirdest of the Mad Max series because of its emphasis on new post-civilization rituals: for example, the bizarre legal system of Bartertown, administered by a philosophical hunchback Magistrate of Ceremonies, where tort disputes are resolved by gladiatorial battles and a breach of contract results in a random punishment spun from a wheel of fortune.  But, even though Thunderdome is the oddest of the trilogy, it’s still basically just a creative Western dressed up with sci-fi trappings; it’s weird by summer blockbuster standards, but fails to sneak across the mass appeal genre-piece border.

COMMENTS:  The “Mad Max” series was the most inventive sci-fi/action hybrid of the 1980s, one which sparked a brief but fun post-apocalyptic cycle (which produced a few genuinely weird low-budget Mad Max knockoffs).  Each Mad Max film inhabited the same fascinating universe, a world of scarce resources, shaky alliances, and dying machines held together with spit and twine, but each was very different in tone.  All are recommended.  The original Mad Max was a dark, character-driven revenge drama that gained a cult following.  Mad Max 2, more commonly known as The Road Warrior, was a rollicking action piece that caught lightning in a bottle and inspired Hollywood to pump money into a sequel.  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was… well, it was what happens when the series gets a big head and tries to be a summer blockbuster.  The Tina Turner pop song that plays over the opening credits is shamelessly anachronistic and completely inappropriate for a Max movie, but it sets the tone of confused priorities that defines Thunderdome.  The movie flits uncomfortably between the exaggerated, radioactive Casablanca of Bartertown and the brave new Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan world of the children’s tribe.  It’s also a movie that recycles and steals from other movies.  Popular elements from the Road Warrior are reused here.  The feral child has been transformed into an horde of tribal ragamuffins, Bruce Spence from Warrior reappears as a pilot (the character may be the same one from the previous movie; it’s never explained), and the finale is a shameless remake of Warrior‘s climax with a train substituting for the tanker.  There are also blatant references to Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and the children’s mangled language (“Time counts and keeps countin’, and we knows now finding the trick of what’s been and lost ain’t no easy ride”) is reminiscent of the made-up nasdat cant of A Clockwork Orange.  Maybe this reusing of old bits and pieces is appropriate in a movie about an emerging society being built on the ruins of another.  The overall effect is a movie that’s jumbled and uncentered, more than a bit loopy, but still lots of fun.  That overall goofiness, combined with the unique ramshackle look of the punk-barbarian world nearly, but not quite, tilts Thunderdome into the weird zone.

Rumors of a fourth Max movie have been circulating for over twenty years now, and continue as strong as ever.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a movie that strains at the leash of the possible, a movie of great visionary wonders.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)

27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

“I think the movie is fun.  It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’  Who cares.  It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener

PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling.  When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant.  He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.

Still from Synecdoche, New York

BACKGROUND:

  • Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade.  His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
  • Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.  Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
  • Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGESynecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Charlie Kaufman.  More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution.  Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd.  The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.

Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York

COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an Continue reading 27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

GUEST REVIEW: JESUS AND HER GOSPEL OF YES (2004)

Guest review by Kevin Pyrtle of WTF-Film

Here in Minneapolis there’s a strange little show [you’ll have to forgive me for not remembering the name of it] that plays the public access stations every week or so. It features a host of young talent who frolic in front of a blue screen in various stages of undress while ancient video effects are laid over top of it all in a random fashion. It goes on for an hour, reaching ever dizzier heights of incomprehensible nonsense and leaving you puzzled as to what, if anything, you were meant to take away from the experience.

Still from Jesus and Her Gospel of YesAll of the above could rightly be said for this Alfred Eaker film as well, which the director describes on the IMDB as ‘a surreal, complex, modern, psychedelic film retelling the life of Christ as woman and leader of the Gospel of Yes.’ The main difference between the two is that Jesus runs slightly longer, around seventy three minutes before the lengthy credits roll.

Complex it is, indeed – there’s never a moment [credits included] in which Jesus has nothing going on. We get endless loopy dialogue, re-interpreting the Gospel with frequent pop culture references and commenting on the various ills of contemporary society all the while. Not that there’s time to soak any of it in, as the words pile up in ungainly multitude and start to sound like inarticulate mush after a while. It’s akin to a rambling political address. I know that there’s a point to all of it somewhere, but the manner in which it’s put across leaves me with no interest in finding out what it is.

If interpreting the dialogue is difficult on its own, then the accompanying visuals make the task doubly so. Jesus is populated by an endless parade of excruciatingly bad visual effects that could have originated from the plugin archives of any prosumer video editing application. Most of them involve people doing random things while other people, through the magic of digital process photography, do random things in front of them. There is some interesting artwork on display [all credited at the end], but you have to look closely to even see it through the multiple layers of visual obfuscation. There is also some not-so-interesting artwork, much of which could have been accomplished in MS Paint.

Still from Jesus and Her Gospel of YesFar be it from me to say that Jesus, in spite of its obvious faults, is not a creative enterprise. Creativity is one thing its producers obviously have in spades. There’s no telling how many long days and sleepless nights went towards its realization, making it all the more a pity that something easier to appreciate didn’t result. There’s some good substantive meat to the rambling narrative [like commentary on drug abuse, abortion, and sexual dynamics], but you have to dig through piles of aesthetically repellent gunk to find any of it. I doubt that most, regardless of their artistic sensibilities, will have the patience for it.

Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes is undeniably weird and original to the max, but its crude brand of no-budget shot-on-video mayhem just wasn’t for me. While I didn’t enjoy it, I have to admire that Eaker was at least trying something new here – a rare thing in these days of utterly barren mass marketed entertainment. I have a feeling that the world would be a far better place if even a hundredth of a percent of the box office earnings from the latest Hollywood action debacle was to find its way into the pockets of the Eakers of the world.

Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes is currently available exclusively for download at DownloadHorror.com.

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