Tag Archives: 1995

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, , Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)

PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.

COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although it’s never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.

The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9” says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.

Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.

Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.

Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer mind-expanding sci-fi strangeness this is hard to beat.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (2014 re-release)

127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

AKA Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream One Calls Human Life

Recommended

“We wanted to give both the banal side of being a student and the magical side of passing through a blackboard. So you have extremes from the banality to the imaginary, and that was part of the voyage that we created in this film.”–The Quay brothers on Institute Benjamenta

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Marc Rylance, ,

PLOT: Having no ambition in life, Jakob applies to a school that trains men to be servants, run by a brother and sister with the surname Benjamenta. Although Jakob fails to fit in well at the institute, pleading for his own room and quarreling with another student, both headmaster Herr Benjamenta and Lisa, the instructor, take a personal interest in him. Eventually Jakob develops an ambiguously sexual relationship with Lisa, and his presence changes the Institute in ways imperceptible to outsiders.

Still from Institute Benjamenta (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Quay brothers, identical twins, began their filmmaking career as successful surrealist stop motion animators, following in the footsteps of their confessed idol Jan Svankmajer. Institute Benjamenta was both their first feature length film and their first movie to use live actors.
  • The Quays were born in the United States but after studying at the Royal College of Art and developing a working relationship with Channel Four, who commissioned their seminal early short films, they are now based in London.
  • The story was loosely based on the 1919 novella Jakob von Gunten by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Three of the Quay’s previous shorts were also based on Walser stories.
  • The Quays asked composer Lech Jankowski to create the score for the movie first, then shot the scenes of the film to fit the existing music.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A bullet’s slow-motion journey through a forest, clipping the bark off an oak and passing through a pine cone, alternated with shots of Alice Krige’s stockinged feet.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come, let the servant monkey enroll you in the school of abnegation. Make your way to the hidden chamber and discover the goldfish at its heart. The Institute’s secret lessons are unlearnable by those trapped outside of its dream walls.


Original trailer for Institute Benjamenta

COMMENTS: Institute Benjamenta begins with a German woman intoning a series of Continue reading 127. INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA, OR THIS DREAM PEOPLE CALL HUMAN LIFE (1995)

SATURDAY SHORT: ODILON REDON (1995)

A father and son witness a train wreck, and compete for the affection of the only survivor. Like much of Maddin‘s work, this short was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival.  This film is also known by the long title The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity: Odilon Redon.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (Odilon Redon) from Guy Maddin on Vimeo.

THREE GUY MADDIN SHORTS: “A TRIP TO THE ORPHANAGE” (2004)/”SOMBRA DOLOROSA” (2004)/”SISSY-BOY SLAP-PARTY” (1995)


Though most folks (who know him at all) know him thanks to his feature films, Guy Maddin is a master of the short film format, having birthed more than two dozen shorts in his career, many under five minutes.  The Heart of the World, his apocalyptic valentine to Soviet constructivist cinema, is the director’s best known and most impressive brief work, but anything by Maddin is worth looking at for a few minutes.  Therefore, we thought the three short films included on MGM’s The Saddest Music in the World DVD deserved their own synopses.  At their best these mini-movies are like a shot of pure rye whiskey: they burn going down, but they give your soul a jolt, and you want another as soon as you’ve digested the first.

Still from "A Trip to the Orphanage"“A Trip to the Orphanage” appears to be an outtake from Saddest Music, reimagined as a pure mood piece.  The finale of “Orphange”—when Maria de Medeiros kisses a sleepwalker on the cheek, and he says “goodnight, mother” to her—actually appears in the film.  There, the episode has no explanation.  You won’t get one in “Orphanage,” either.  The man walks through a wintry street with a sleepy, dazed expression.  We also see shots of de Medeiros’ China doll face, and briefly view her posing with an anonymous child.  A woman appears and sings a generic aria of lament: “so fraught with pain his yearning soul…”  A sparse piano accompanies her.  Snow falls over all the characters, and lace curtains billowing in the wind are superimposed on the picture; sometimes there’s one set of drapes waving in the foreground and a second set in the background.  Singer Sarah Constible’s voice is opera-trained and lovely, and “Orphanage” is a Canadian saudade that’s as melancholy as a lone snowflake drifting on the wind.  It’s also just as light, and in a mere four minutes it’s there and gone, just like a dream.

Still from Sombra Dolorosa (2004)“Sombra Dolorosa” returns us to more familiarly comic Maddin territory, with a deranged plot, hysterical intertitles (“to save your daughter you must defeat… El Muerto!!”), and the same psychotic editing that characterized Cowards Bend The Knee.  It tells the story of a bereaved widow who must defeat death in a wrestling match, before an eclipse arrives, in order to save her daughter from suicide (“FROM SUICIDE!”, the titles Continue reading THREE GUY MADDIN SHORTS: “A TRIP TO THE ORPHANAGE” (2004)/”SOMBRA DOLOROSA” (2004)/”SISSY-BOY SLAP-PARTY” (1995)

LIST CANDIDATE: CODEX ATANICUS (1995/1996/1999)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes

FEATURING: Carlos Atanes, Arantxa Peña, Diana de Guzman, Antonio Vladimir Fuenzalida, Manuel Solas, Scott Fitzpatrick

PLOT:  Three short films: a man seeks to collect a debt in a bar with strong S&M overtones;

Still from Codex Atanicus (2007)
the director struggles to complete the film we’re watching while a fawning actress tries to keep him from hanging himself in despair; and a man returns to Spain from the U.S., only to find himself trapped in an orgy/melee on a staircase.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s weirdness is unquestionable; in these perverse short films, Carlos Atanes illustrates a profound understanding of the theory of surrealism—including its ability to piss off not only the average audience member, but the average critic as well.  But, although the various casts and crews appear enthusiastic, the technical constraints of low-budget filmmaking hold these three pieces back from cinematic magnificence.  It’s probably a matter of individual taste as to whether the rough edges should rule Codex off of the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, or whether the unpolished underground grit adds a charm that works in the compilation’s favor.

COMMENTS:  Though born in Paris, Surrealist cinema was conceived in Spain, the love-child of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.  If either patriarch had lived to see the mirror succubi, the crab-armed women and the staircase orgies of Codex Atanicus, they’d be proud to claim Carlos Atanes as their offspring.  Today, when pure surrealism has been almost abandoned in movies, it’s refreshing to see someone who remains dedicated to probing the mysterious subconscious and carrying on the tradition of Continental Surrealism, despite lack of funding and public indifference.  The three films that comprise Codex Atanicus showa a passion for the irrational and a knack for nailing down the way dream concepts follow their own logic, morphing into new entities and images. Like his spiritual grandfather Dalí, Atanes is unabashedly egotistical to the point of self-parody, coining the adjective “Atanic” to describe his own movies; he’s also unafraid to tap into his Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: CODEX ATANICUS (1995/1996/1999)

86. DEAD MAN (1995)

“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”

–William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, , , Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.

Still from Dead Man (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
  • Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
  • Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
  • Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
  • composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
  • Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
  • Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out.  It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.


Original trailer for Dead Man

COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE FILMS OF SUZAN PITT (1979/1995/2006)

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Suzan Pitt

FEATURING: Jose Luis Rodriguez Avalos (“El Doctor”)

PLOT: A collection of three surreal animated shorts.  In “El Doctor”, a Mexican doctor visits odd patients while dreaming of a long dead love.  “Joy Street” contrasts a the life of a whimsical anthropomorphic ashtray with its suicidally depressed owner.  “Asparagus” is a totally abstract surrealist film featuring a faceless woman and obscene iterations of the titular vegetable.

Still from Asparagus (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  It’s a question of classification, not of weirdness or quality.  Counting these three short films, made decades apart, as one “movie” for List purposes would clearly be cheating.  That means that we’re really only considering the compilation’s main event, “Asparagus,” for inclusion on the List, which raises the metaphysical question: how good/weird does a short have to be take away a spot from a deserving feature length presentation?  Some shorts will eventually make the List.  “The Heart of the World,” though a “must see” weird film, was eliminated from consideration for being too slim at just over three minutes long.  Pitt’s impressive work clocks in at 18 minutes—should that be enough to put it on equal footing with films that run four or five times as long?

COMMENTS:  Considering the shorts included in The Films of Suzan Pitt from most recent to oldest, and coincidentally from least favorite to most highly recommended:

“El Doctor” sports the crudest animation of the three shorts; deliberately, because the style means to evoke Mexican folk art.  We find the title character slumped at a bar, dreaming of riding into the sunset on horseback with a señorita, but soon the world-weary médico is called away to his strange and melancholy rounds.  These appointments—which take the form of miracles—don’t do too much for the main narrative; mainly, they supply Pitt with the opportunity to take mini-flights of fancy.  There’s not much to the story other than these surreal digressions.  One patient is pocked with holes from which flowers grow, giving Pitt the opportunity to film a field of flowers as if they were a rainforest (an image which pervades all Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE FILMS OF SUZAN PITT (1979/1995/2006)