Tag Archives: 1991

CAPSULE: I KILLED MY LESBIAN WIFE, HUNG HER ON A MEATHOOK, AND NOW I HAVE A THREE PICTURE DEAL AT DISNEY (1993) / SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS (1991)

The calling card. For anyone breaking into the movie business, any and all experience is an absolute must to prove that you’ve got the goods. So having a little piece of your talent to show off could mean the difference between making your career and never getting off the bench. After all, one never knows where they might find the next Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.

Four years before he and buddy Matt Damon would take home Oscar gold for their Good Will Hunting screenplay, and nearly two decades before he would complete his climb back to respectability by directing Argo, Ben Affleck was still a guy looking for a break wherever he could find one. That meant bit parts in movies, appearances in children’s series and ABC Afterschool Specials, and even directing where the opportunity presented itself. Which explains why his IMDb entry contains, 14 years before his ostensible maiden voyage as a director at the helm of Gone Baby Gone, a short with the title “I Killed my Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney,” a title which is both unwieldy and annoyingly inaccurate. If anything, those titular events seem to have transpired in the opposite direction.

This may seem like I’m being pedantic, but it’s an important distinction, because that title is doing the lion’s share of the work here. It suggests something subversive or satirical, but ends up being little more than a slice of the life of a typical Hollywood asshole whose aggressive tendencies are physicalized. Co-writer Jay Lacopo, starring as “The Director,” displays not a whit of subtlety as he histrionically castigates his doomed wife, browbeats his spineless sycophants, and uses a casting call to hunt for a new target for his tantrums. And being such a transparently bad guy, it’s really important that the thing meant to lure you in doesn’t end up trivializing the serious themes it purports to dramatize. Is the wife actually a lesbian? There’s a real possibility that she’s just an enlightened woman who’s not into this guy’s crap. Did Disney bestow a deal upon this jerk as a result of his crimes? No, that just seems to be where he shops for his next victim (and it’s worth noting that no studio is named in the actual screenplay; it frankly looks like a startup production company with an office, some chairs, and a dream). We’re dealing with real livewire issues here like spousal abuse and toxic culture, and those themes are reduced to a joke by the clickbait title. It’s tempting to see an early call-out to the #MeToo movement, with The Director’s bad actions and misogynist views tainting the industry and endangering women. But don’t be fooled. He’s just a creep and a murderer, sucking all the air out of the room.

There’s not much of a directorial voice on display. Affleck keeps a loose camera, and he is smart enough to confine all the violence to Lacopo’s over-the-top ravings, rather than celebrating his heinous Continue reading CAPSULE: I KILLED MY LESBIAN WIFE, HUNG HER ON A MEATHOOK, AND NOW I HAVE A THREE PICTURE DEAL AT DISNEY (1993) / SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS (1991)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RICKY (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Ngai Choi Lam

FEATURING: Siu-Wong Fan, Mei Sheng Fan, Ka-Kui Ho, Yukari Ôshima

PLOT: While in prison for murdering a gang of drug peddlers, Ricky defies the tyrannical authorities as he pursues his freedom.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: I’ll get to that; let me gather my severed thoughts first.

COMMENTS: For those hand-wringing types out there, the future will always be filled with violence, drug use, and bizarre minor-coding. Everyone else, take some comfort: this future is already past. Among the details I only gleaned after the fact, Riki-Oh takes place in 2001, in a world where prisons are privatized, and the preponderance of superhuman resilience leaves contemporary (whether now or at the film’s release) witnesses agog. The enthusiasm behind its narrative ambiguity is the very same which renders what could have been a joyless scrap of torture porn into an eminently silly (and occasionally giddy) ride through a dozen-odd stations of the cross, with Ricky as the unflappable messiah preaching justice, hope, and ultra-violence.

Wrongful imprisonment is a well-worn trope, but Riki-Oh demonstrates individuality the moment its hero is processed for triple murder. After some bureaucrats read his sentence, he passes through a metal detector, immediately setting it off. Manhandling Ricky to a nearby x-ray machine, guards discover the alarm was triggered not by weapons, but by five bullets lodged in the murderer’s chest. When asked why they remain, Ricky answers, in his petulantly bad-ass tone, “I wanted a souvenir.”

Riki-Oh has all the finely chopped ingredients for a z-grade gore-house martial arts revengeance nonsense: an evil warden and his flunky, abusive guards, shower fights, yard fights, crack-thwack sound effects, and gallons of blood. But three factors prevent this film from being tossed aside as derivative. First: the tiny oddities that gather to the point of toppling into fully fledged weird. The assistant warden is missing a hand—a cutesy touch, in its way. But in the next shot, what’s this? Why, he’s missing an eye, too. And he drinks from the cup where he stores the glass prosthetic. And, since it’s hollow, this is where he keeps his mints. Not to mention his flanking lapel scorpion cameos, or the tall shelf of pornography behind his work desk that is never mentioned. The second touch brings Riki-Oh more assuredly onto weirder ground: a twist in the final fifteen minutes reveals the evil warden’s backstory, without any hint of reason. I won’t give it away, but it does explain why the bastard is so nonchalant when staring down the prisoner who has dispatched countless prisoners and other goons.

And the third thing. Brief research clarified that Riki-Oh is closely adapted from a manga (no surprises here), and it may be simply mirroring themes from that source. However, the ardor of its twin social justice philosophies manages to outdo its over-the-top violence. Oddly for a martial arts blood piece, it has something to say about the societal evil of drug dealers (with sympathy for users), and has a whole lot to say about treating prisoners humanely. In its way, Riki-Oh advocates for penal rights as fervently as Nagisa Ôshima‘s Death By Hanging did—but instead of ratcheting up sociopolitical surreality into an absurdist climax, Riki-Oh climaxes with the warden ground up into a couple hundred pounds of hamburger. That said, perhaps they’re more alike than I had thought.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here… While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Horst,” who called it “An absolute must-see, really weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EDWARD II (1991)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Steven Waddington, Tilda Swinton, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Upon the death of his father, Edward II lifts the banishment of his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston; in response, his royal court rebels and civil war ensues.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Unlike many period pieces, this has homoerotic dance interludes, a serenade crooned by Annie Lennox, and a chilling scene in which Tilda Swinton’s Queen Isabella lustily bites the neck of a disloyal nobleman. But beyond the obvious oddities, Edward II‘s narrative pinches more than flows, its disjointed scenes rendering the film’s array into a garment that juts out in disquieting spikes at the observer.

COMMENTS: To fully appreciate what is going on in Edward II, one must have a decent grip on England’s 14th-century history, 16th-century theatre, and 20th-century cinema. History’s pertinence pools sickly within the bumps and cracks of Derek Jarman’s austere sets, casting its gloomy but far-reaching glow under the director’s harsh lighting. The doomed players—the king and his lover; the queen, and hers—are archetypal tragic figures attired in smart modern dress. Gilded glamor and radiant red splatters the creaking, decaying artifice of the seat of English power as the flawed monarch fights vainly to secure first the safety of his lover, Gaveston, and then his own. Through Edward II, Jarman grinds his axe in the Middle Ages before taking it to the neck of contemporary England.

Three times it is read that Edward II’s father has died, and three times it is read that Piers Gaveston’s banishment has thus been rendered null and void. To the chagrin of all but the new king, Gaveston returns from France, enchanting Edward anew, and infuriating the establishment. Edward sees nothing but beauty in Gaveston, and feels nothing but his love. Edward’s queen, Isabella, feels spurned, and considers self-exile until Mortimer, the commander of England’s armed forces, convinces her that he has a plan. His plan unfolds, and Edward grudgingly banishes Gaveston once more. But the plan folds in on it itself, and the murky doings of the discontented nobles trigger a series of upsets, turn-abouts, and murders.

This is a juicy tale, to be sure, and that juiciness is reinforced by Jarman’s aesthetic. King Edward’s private haven is a square pool of murky water, tucked away in a basement chamber with rusted-steel walls; upon his second banishment, Gaveston endures a gauntlet of spitting nobles; and blood, when it appears, is ample, particularly after the queen renders harmless an erstwhile ally. The lines are delivered wetly, as well. The actors are not slurping and sputtering, but the sound design emphasizes the wetness of the lips, the throaty fullness of exhortations. The slick-slap of words is brought forward in the sound design and rendered at full volume—dialogue delivered in drenched sorrow.

Whether or not the time-jumping anachronism, accentuated performances, and installation-style shots and sets work for you will hinge on whether you are open to the full Derek Jarman experience. An avid gay rights activist, Jarman eschews any ambiguity about the actual monarch, and is willing, able, and eager to toss aside two things: any cinematic conventions that may stand between him and making beautiful, painterly images, and any staid historicism that may stand between him and his proudly gay point of view. It opens with a conversation between Gaveston and a traveler; two men unabashedly make love behind them. It closes with a lament from Edward playing over shots of assembled, real-life gay rights activists. Derek Jarman had a clear world-view, and in Marlowe’s play, he found the perfect framework to display his classically peculiar visual élan while simultaneously preaching his message.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Derek Jarman’s phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director’s sensibility than its creator’s… In [Jarman’s] hands, Edward II has become a chic melodrama that’s part art object, part The Valley of the Dolls.” -Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KAFKA (1991)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, , Ian Holm, Joel Grey, Brian Glover

PLOT: Franz Kafka is a mid-level functionary at an accident insurance firm whose minor involvement with a group of revolutionaries leads to an unsettling discovery.

Still from Kafka (1991)

COMMENTS: Franz Kafka doesn’t deal in protagonists, technically. The term “Kafkaesque” suggests a main character who moves the action forward. Kafka’s oeuvre is populated almost solely by entities—from men to cockroaches—who shuffle through their environments without adequate comprehension, and without any ability to alter their fate. Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” wiggles back and forth literally on his bed at the start of the tale, then squirms metaphorically as he tries to maneuver through his new circumstances; Josef K. in The Trial (the better translation is “The Process) proceeds from start to finish never learning anything substantial about the nature of his charges. Franz Kafka in Kafka starts out as a mid-level insurance functionary and finishes one pay-grade above where he began. The intervening narrative never quite rises above an elaborate shaggy dog story.1

In this way, Sorederbergh’s Kafka is like its literary inspiration. Beautiful Prague, in beautiful black and white, is a maze of courtyards and corridors. Kafka himself (deftly played by Jeremy Irons) is merely a face in the crowd, albeit striking in his bland way. Kafka’s work chum, Edward, goes missing, is found dead—suicide, suggests an incongruously-accented police detective, one of the film’s only smiling characters—and Kafka makes the acquaintance of some revolutionaries. Ominous rumors abound concerning “the Castle,” seemingly the seat of government, at the very least the seat of bureaucracy. The ostensible doings of the mysterious administrators situated there vex this gaggle of bomb-crafting anarchists.

Kafka succeeds in capturing omnipresent but ill-defined menace, while simultaneously eliciting a shrug both on the part of the audience and the main character. Soderbergh does his best, though, and the whole semi-nightmare feels stylish and important as it briskly shuffles along as if carrying a very important missive for middle-management.

The film’s climax is strange, but it is more thought-provoking than anything else. Kafka travels to “the Castle” by way of a passageway in a false-bottomed tomb, and the film switches from black and white to color. This suggests at least three intriguing interpretative possibilities. Is Kafka (the character) seeing the world as it truly is for the first time? Or is the whole (comparatively) dazzling sequence merely a fantastic dream on the part of the hero?

My preferred view is the most abstract. At the end of the graveyard entrance is a file storage room. The hero emerges from one of its drawers. Is he—and by extension, the viewer—merely an archived history of a failed experiment?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly borrowing from the bravado visual style of Orson Welles’ breath-taking version of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), Kafka is a less intense, more entertaining affair than the former film. Kafka‘s surreal yet strangely familiar fictional worlds have been given a dash of Frankenstein by [screenwriter] Dobbs, which makes for a more immediately enjoyable experience but somewhat diminishes the power of the calculated atmosphere expertly borrowed by Soderbergh from Kafka’s prose.”–Niall McCallum, Eye for Film

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

CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Rüdiger Vogler, ,

PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.

COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.

So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.

In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.

But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.

However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like Continue reading CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (1991)

La double vie de Véronique

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter

PLOT: Stories from the lives of two women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who are both musicians, look identical, and share a vague psychic bond that is never explained.

Still from The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It tends too much to the “arthouse drama” side of the “weird arthouse drama” scale.

COMMENTS: Weronika and Veronique are only present together at one moment, when the French music teacher glimpses the Polish singer in a crowd. Yet, their lives are almost mirror images, or alternate histories. They share a metaphysical bond: Weronika burns herself on a stove as a child, and Veronique dimly senses her pain, and carries a fear of hot surfaces for her entire life. In the early going it can be difficult to tell which of them is which, although the plot makes it very clear who is the main character in the end.

There is no meaningful interaction between the two young women; in fact, it proceeds almost like two separate dramas placed alongside each other, concerning stories from the lives of two superficially similar characters. Small individual moments create more impact than the whole: Weronika singing rapturously as raindrops splash her upturned face, a Lenin statue carted away by truck (an earthbound mirror of La Dolce Vita‘s helicoptered Christ), a cathedral inverted in a handheld crystal ball. The first half focuses on the more likable of the pair, while the second half launches into a skewed love story involving a puppeteer. The incidents are related in the straightforward, mostly realistic way typical of Kieslowski and his arthouse cronies, with the bare mystery of the doppelgangers providing an unsettling subtext. The end result is a Rorschach test (inkblots are mirror images, after all).

Although I’m awarding The Double Life of Veronique a “recommended” rating, it’s a qualified one. Veronique‘s  technical qualities are exemplary: Slawomir Idziak’s lush cinematography, Zbigniew Presiner’s beautiful classical score, and Irene Jacob’s ravishing presence merge to create truly sensuous, quietly seductive film. But the enterprise is also overly enigmatic, in a way that’s not completely satisfying. It doesn’t deliver the surreal magic of a Persona, and as an intellectual exercise, even Blow-Up is easy to parse compared to Veronique. Is it a study of Europe’s East contra its West, or of how the author manipulates the personas of his characters? Scant evidence appears for any particular interpretation, but there’s a too much explication, and too few fireworks, to suggest a mindblowing irrational experience. The mix of mundane and off-center elements make for a movie that, while impressive, may not offer quite enough return per unit of attention it demands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Kieslowski] takes us into a world that merges the most natural with the most surreal and inexplicable happenings. Some critics find the film too cryptic and baffling, since it offers many clues but no easy explanations. Double Life is his most lyrical and beautiful film to date, but it’s also his most mysterious, enigmatic, and elusive—by design.”–Emmanuel Levy, emmanuellevy.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tomash,” who mysteriously said, “this is the BIG movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)