Tag Archives: 1996

CAPSULE: SPACE JAM (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Pytka

FEATURING: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Wayne Knight; voices of Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, Bob Bergen, Kath Soucie, Danny DeVito

PLOT: Recently retired basketballer Michael Jordan is abducted by Bugs Bunny and the “Looney Tunes” gang to help them avoid enslavement by the evil Swackhammer, corporate overlord of Planet Moron.

COMMENTS: The other night, I let the mid-’90s wash over me like a quarter-century-old wave of dodged memories. They were all there: late-to-new-career Michael Jordan, mid-career Bill Murray, post-career “Looney Tunes,” and radio-friendly basketball hip hop . Wheaties, Gatorade, and KFC all had name drops or slogan references. And there I was: having very little idea who any of these athletes were. However, I did recognize the salient cinematic points of interest. Space Jam is the kind of movie that screams 1990s: the pacing, the musical score, the editing transitions, and the impressively hit-and-miss humor. Growing up, everyone I knew from school had seen this; now, I too can say that I have seen Space Jam, and I find myself utterly unbothered for having done so.

The story takes little more than sixty minutes to tell, which I gather is appropriate for a game consisting of four fifteen-minute quarters. Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan) has just announced his retirement from basketball in order to pursue his dream of mastering the world of baseball. He does badly on the Boston Barons team, but is beloved by the holdover fans. His life evolves from mildly depressing to mildly annoying when Stan Podolak (Wayne Knight) becomes his personal assistant. In the parallel story, alien overlord Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) orders his goons to filch a new attraction for his failing amusement park, sending them lightly brained but heavily armed to the land of “Looney Tunes.” The real and animated worlds collide mid-golf round while Jordan is on the links with Bill Murray and Larry Bird. Soon, the big game comes and…

…and at around the thirty-seven-minute mark, when everything had been set up, I began to worry. There were still fifty minutes of this benign nonsense to go, and I couldn’t imagine how far they might stretch it. However, this being “Looney Tunes,” I should have known to count on it not over-staying its welcome. Before the fifteen-plus minutes of credits, we meet sassy, mid-’90s “Don’t Ever Call Me ‘Doll'” hot bunny girl Lola, view an inordinate number of Bugs Bunny butt-shots, hear a delightful bitch-o-logue from Daffy Duck while he visits our world to retrieve Jordan’s lucky sports gear, and sit in adequately-entertained wonder while a well-paced finale teaches us the importance both of self confidence and having a Murray-ex-machina on the sidelines.

Space Jam is a childhood touchstone for many, and having watched it for the first time in (comparatively) old age, I begrudge them not a jot. This viewing is timely, too, as we brace ourselves for the new Space Jam saga; I know I’m not the only one hoping we can get Alfred Eaker‘s two cents on that forthcoming cultural feast.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weirdly entertaining little curiosity, which seamlessly combines vintage Looney Tunes characters with live-action footage, is dominated by Jordan’s nice-guy personality.”–Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

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

352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

“Whether you take the doughnut hole as a blank space or as an entity unto itself is a purely metaphysical question and does not affect the taste of the doughnut one bit.”–Haruki Murakami

DIRECTED BY: Daryush Shokof, Stefan Jonas

FEATURING: , Sonja Kirchberger

PLOT: Wealthy, elderly Archie is visited in his villa by a mysterious woman who sings an aria to him. Realizing that his death is near, he places an ad requesting young male servants. When the first of these arrives, he tells him he will earn ten thousand dollars if he inserts a finger in the old man’s ear and leaves it there for ten days; he then hires three other men to plug up his other ear and each of his nostrils.

Still from Seven Servants (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Born in Iran but living in the U.S. and Europe, Daryush Shokof is a painter and experimental video artist. He co-wrote Seven Servants‘ script with his wife from a dream he had. This was his first feature film.
  • Shokof considered cinematographer Stephan Jonas’ contribution so important that the opening credits announce it is a film by “Daryush Shokof & Stefan Jonas.”
  • Anthony Quinn said that the finished project was ahead of its time, “a work for the 21st century,” and that release should be delayed. Although it played at two film festivals in 1996, Quinn, who was also an executive producer, decided to delay release after a timid reception. Soon after, the production company went bankrupt, so Seven Servants wasn’t screened again until 2009, and received a DVD release from Pathfinder Entertainment in the same year. Quinn died in 2001, which is why the film’s dedication speaks of him in the past tense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing less than cinema icon Anthony Quinn surrounded by four shirtless young men of different ethnicities, each with a finger stuck in his ear or nostril, with the whole assembly undulating like a dancing octopus as fruit floats over their heads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Death sings an aria; Quinn’s plugged orifices; floating fruit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: One of my favorite species of weird movies is the experiment in taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion. Seven Servants starts in earnest when a man sticks his finger in Anthony Quinn’s ear and doesn’t let up until every last one of his apertures is closed. It’s end-of-life porn, a smooth jazz fantasy of death as an epicurean celebration of life.


Original trailer for Seven Servants

COMMENTS: So, what do you do if you’re an obscure Iranian expatriate artist and you have a dream about a dying man who hires Continue reading 352. SEVEN SERVANTS (1996)

READER RECOMMENDATION: ESCORIANDOLI (1996)

AKA Trash – T.R.A.

Reader recommendation by “Tracian”

DIRECTED BY: Antonio Rezza

FEATURING: Antonio Rezza, Valeria Golino, Claudia Gerini, Isabella Ferrari, Valentina Cervi

PLOT: Five connected stories where the protagonist is always played by Rezza. An affair during a funeral is spiced up by the occasional comments of the deceased; the two lovers of a woman suddenly exchange their ages; a terminally bored girl is forced to join a totalitarian rehab clinic; a poet consumes his life searching for forgiveness for having stepped on a man’s toe; and a professional event-crasher loses control of his own body and is forced to cut it to pieces until only the head remains.

Still from Escoriandoli (1996)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because it is a rare example of an arthouse film that is not pretentious but actually fun, highly committed to weirdness and yet serious in its (admittedly well-hidden) message.

COMMENTS: While you have to understand Italian to fully appreciate the lyrical, offbeat and hilarious dialogues, everyone will be amazed by the physical and vocal contortions of the protagonist(s). Pretty much everything in Escoriandoli (the title itself is a pun that roughly means “confetti-like joy in excoriating them”) is odd: an example may be how all the actors on a bus react to its movements—although the vehicle is explicitly shown as being still—but almost no scene can be considered “normal”.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Italian surreal comedy consisting of a series of satirical vignettes… Fun at times, but the acting is way too silly.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

Spiklenci Slasti

Conspirators is actually a film about liberation, and about gaining a freedom.”–Jan Svankmajer explaining why he considered Conspirators his most Surrealistic film up to that point

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Petr Meissel, Gabriela Wilhelmová, Barbora Hrzánová, Anna Wetlinská, Jirí Lábus, Pavel Nový

PLOT: A man enters a newsstand and furtively buys a pornographic magazine as the owner nods conspiratorially at him. At home, he leafs through the pages but is interrupted by the postwoman, who has him sign for a letter that simply reads “on Sunday.” Over the next several days the man constructs an elaborate chicken costume; meanwhile, the postwoman, his next door neighbor, the newsstand owner, and another couple are all involved in their own strange, surreptitious projects.

Still from Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Conspirators of Pleasure began life as a screenplay for a short written in 1970 but never filmed. That short would have told the parallel stories of the “chicken man” and his neighbor across the hall. Svankmajer resumed work on the project in 1996, thought of four more characters to include, and expanded the film to feature length.
  • In 1975 Svankmajer wrote a (satirical?) essay entitled “The Future Belongs to Masturbation Machines.”
  • Originally known for his stop-motion animated shorts, Conspirators was Svankmajer’s third feature film, and it continued a trend of having less and less animation in each successive film (there are only a few accent scenes here, which amount to about one minute of animation).
  • The end credits list Sacher-Masoch, the , Freud, , and Bohuslav Brouk (a Czech psychoanalyst who wrote up a series of case studies about masturbatory practices) as having provided “professional expertise.”
  • The , animators who paid tribute to the Czech director with the 1984 film “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,” are listed in the credits as “musical collaborators” (although the soundtrack is prerecorded classical music).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The man in a chicken suit doing a ritualistic (and sometimes literally animated) dance in front of a doll-like effigy tied to a chair.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stop-motion submissive; dough-snorting; carp shrimping

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: We follow six people engaged in complicated, intensely personal fetishistic rituals; adding to the odd, voyeuristic atmosphere, there is no dialogue, other than what’s overheard in the background on television. Each of the conspirators crosses the others’ paths, but continue to work on their own private obsessions, until all of them appear to receive their ultimate gratification. Then, Jan Svankmajer launches us into a new stratosphere of strangeness at the finale, when the chickens come home to roost (so to speak).


Short clip from Conspirators of Pleasure

COMMENTS: Case study: a man, Eastern European, balding but fit Continue reading 226. CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE (1996)

216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

“PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen

PLOT: Fletcher Munson, a corporate functionary, is tapped to write a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters, the founder of a pseudo-religious self-help movement called Eventualism. One day, still struggling to come up with a draft, he notices his exact physical double in a parking lot—a dentist who, it turns out, just happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife. Meanwhile, we occasionally peek at the life of nonsense-speaking exterminator and Lothario Elmo Oxygen, whose connection to Munson’s storyline will not become entirely clear until the final act.

Still from Schizopolis (1996)

BACKGROUND:

  • Steven Soderberg served as writer, director, and lead actor. This was his first appearance on film and to date is his only leading role.
  • Soderberg made Schizopolis for about $250,000, shooting in Louisiana with his old LSU film school buddies, in between shooting the big-budget Hollywood movies The Underneath (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).
  • Soderberg did not have a shooting script but wrote new parts each day, and incorporated improvisations from the cast.
  • Actress Betsy Brantley, who plays Steven Sorderberg’s wife in the film, was Soderberg’s real-life ex-wife.
  • Soderberg’s opening narration was added after Schizopolis‘ negative reception at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shot with handheld video cameras in a bland suburbia, often in a vérité style, Schizopolis is very much a work of words and ideas, not images. Therefore, the most representative image is actually a picture of a word: a sign reading “idea missing.” The meta-joke is that Schizopolis is aware it is built out of ideas, and is confident enough to joke about its own dependence on concepts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pantsless titles; nose army; dentist doppelgänger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Schizopolis translates as “divided city” or, informally but more appropriately in this case, “city of schizos.” When the film opens with the director standing on an empty stage, backed by carnival music with periodic changes of focal length as if you were watching the intro through an optometrical device, warning that the upcoming movie may confuse you and you should prepare yourself to see it multiple times,  you should be fairly warned that your mind is about to be toyed with, and toyed hard.


Original trailer for Schizopolis

COMMENTS:  After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on Continue reading 216. SCHIZOPOLIS (1996)

CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Steven Culp, , , Jane Leeves, , Simon Callow

PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
Still from James and the Giant Peach (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited .

COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.

This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief,  did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.

Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves  (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shines with weird, whimsical invention.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)