Tag Archives: 1996

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)

CAPSULE: THE DRESS [DE JURK] (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Alex van Warmerdam

FEATURING: Alex van Warmerdam

PLOT: The scenario follows the lifespan of a woman’s dress, from it’s design to it’s eventual shredding, and the various wearers to whom it brings bad luck.

Still from The Dress (1996)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Dress definitely nudges the needle on the ol’ weirdometer every now and then, but they may be false positives, as the movie is filled more with a gloomy quirkiness than true weirdness.

COMMENTS: The dress itself is parrot-blue and covered in abstract leaves of red, gold and orange; it’s eye-catching enough for a summer frock, but it’s not going to be the star of any woman’s wardrobe.  The design is conceived in a moment of desperation and despair, inspired by a street argument; the prototype is created by a pervert.  The women who buy it hope that it might brighten their lives for a brief moment, but it only leads them to sorrow instead.  The plot wanders off Phantom of Liberty style to each new owner of the dress, but perhaps one of the weirdest things about the movie is that it feels neither unified nor fragmented.  From segment to segment, the tone of downbeat drama alternating with bittersweet comedy remains the same, and characters even recur, but there isn’t a strong thread holding the tales together—other than, perhaps, the way they all illustrate the futility of the pursuit of erotic happiness.  Writer/director van Warmerdam gives himself the best role, as a train conductor who becomes obsessed with the wearer of the dress.  He gives the character an effective creepiness, with a sheen of respectability hiding an unhinged romantic who’s darting daringly close to becoming a rapist.  The film exhibits an uncomfortable, though not tasteless or mean-spirited, undercurrent of hostility to the fairer sex.  A wardrobe executive’s wife, and every other woman he encounters, refuses him normal tenderness; in another masculine nightmare, the dress designer’s girlfriend humiliates him with a laundry list of complaints about his manly deficiencies as she’s leaving him, only pausing her harangue momentarily so he can take a threatening call from his irate boss.  To provide balance there is one scene of domestic happiness, scenes where men are cold towards their girlfriends, and many others where men are depicted as vicious, if unsuccessful, predators.  Still, the script, while not exactly misogynist, still feels like might have been written by a jilted lover as self-therapy after a bitter breakup.  It’s a comedy, but the humor is of the nervous titters breaking up tense situations variety. For example, a dangerous argument inside borrowed home is broken up by a common enemy, the returning owner (carrying a shotgun in one hand and a baby in the other, she could have stepped right out of a Dutch John Waters film).  Though they don’t fit together into a movie in a completely satisfactory way, the individual scenes are all well-crafted, acted with nuance and a studied observation of human nature (the characters’ behavior seems real even when its elicited by an absurd stress).  In one bedroom scene, for example, van Warmerdam does an excellent job of convincing us that one of the dress’ owners might actually take a terrible romantic chance on a man. The setup has no right to work, but somehow it doesn’t stick out as merely laughable.  Other memorable scenes include the fashion designer’s startlingly suggested perversion and an exceedingly sad assignation between an old man and a public park prostitute.  Most effective, perhaps, is the make-of-it-what-you-will finale that offers up a matter-of-fact interpretation of the dress’ symbolism—from a professional art critic, no less—then dramatically undercuts the proffered explanation with a puzzling surprise conclusion.

Van Warmerdam has made six features, only half of which are available in the U.S. (and even those can be difficult to find).  Though it’s not great, The Dress is interesting, well-crafted, and original enough that it convinces you that the director may have a great movie in him somewhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I can think of few things more appropriate to call The Dress than absurd. It’s a bizarre comedy with a brand of humor that, despite making fun of normally-serious issues like rape and sexual harassment, can inspire bouts of uncontrolled, politically-incorrect laughter.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

“Body piercing.  Kinky sex.  Dismemberment.  The things that made Shakespeare great.” –Tagline for Tromeo and Juliet

DIRECTED BY:  Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING: , Jane Jensen, Lemmy, Debbie Rochon

PLOT:  Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation.  Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet.  The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.

tromeojuliet

BACKGROUND:

  • Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
  • Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
  • Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack.  Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
  • Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills.  The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to…  a surprise.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a low-budget, offensive farce is a promisingly weird, if obviously gimmicky, premise. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team were inspired by the concept, however, and put more creativity into the project than they did in their usual formula schlock fare. The typical Troma anarchy and bad taste reign again here, but the producers add a healthy dollop of bargain-basement surrealism (Juliet’s disturbing sex dreams) and some on-the-cheap arthouse effects (the lovemaking scene in a plexiglass box against a starry backdrop). The result is a movie that’s completely unpredictable, despite a plot known to every high schooler. Tromeo is revolting one moment, and oddly sweet and beautiful the next, an incongruity that only adds to the weird atmosphere.

Short promotional clip for Tromeo & Juliet

COMMENTS: Troma is a low-budget film producer/distributor formed in 1974 to promote Continue reading 12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times