Claude Cloutier illustrates the evolution of Earth’s creatures in a bold and just-weird-enough way.
DIRECTED BY: Tarsem Singh
FEATURING: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
PLOT: To find the whereabouts of a serial killer’s impending victim, who is still alive in captivity, the FBI enlists the aid of a psychotherapy group that has the developed the technology to enter and explore the minds of others.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Cell is a visually impressive movie that holds up pretty well after fifteen years. When not inside the mind of the killer, however, the story falls into the formulaic and serendipitous far too often.
COMMENTS: On the face of it, Tarsem Singh’s the Cell would seem an obvious candidate for Certification. The first long-form work of a music video director visually influenced by the likes of H.R. Giger and the Brothers Quay, it features a clip from Fantastic Planet and stars one of the stranger actors of the day (Vincent D’Onofrio). As far as the movie goes with these elements it plows heavily into weird spaces. However, the nightmarish set-pieces are tacked on to a standard serial killer/FBI pursuit procedural. (Or perhaps vice versa—the movie treads a fine line.)
The weird moments are a hoot to watch. Going all-out creepy with the sets and costume, the Cell has wonderful blasts of unsettling vignettes as it explores the mind of Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), first by social worker-turned-psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and, after she gets sucked into that “reality,” by special agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in one of those “straight” roles I really wish he’d return to).The murderer’s mind is dominated by an entity that acts as the all-powerful king of this grim realm, but there is a flicker of humanity personified by a young boy who represents the vestiges of abused goodness inside. Killer Carl— a seriously unhinged man smashed to pieces by guilt over his past acts and his despair at having been so badly mistreated by his father—also appears in his own mind. (Having suffered from a viral schizophrenic disorder brought on by a particularly heartless baptism didn’t help things, either.)
But aside from split-open-but-living equines, macabre doll-people shadow boxes, obvious (but venerable) surrealist art nods, and a chilling performance from D’Onofrio as the mind’s King, you have perhaps the most run-of-the-mill crime thrillers imaginable. Stargher has been murdering for some time, and one suspects he wants to be caught, but the string of coincidences (albino German Shepherd purchased by the owner of just the right truck stands out as one of several examples) become unbelievable, to the point that the phrase “how convenient” can’t help but spring to mind.
That said, the movie is still pretty neat. Jennifer Lopez is somewhere between adequate and good in her role as a social worker. Her attempts to help a young troubled boy, Mister “E” (whose existence acts as the story’s frame around the frame), are touching. Vince Vaughn does the best he can with a one-dimensional character (his FBI agent apparently was originally a prosecutor who saw one-too-many baddies slip the noose because of good lawyering), and reminded me that he does his best work when not pushing for laughs.
Tarsem Singh’s visually striking opus from 2000 proves to be a decent effort as a qualifying time-trial. In 2006 he opted to go all-out, spending many millions of his own cash for the privilege, for his next movie, the Fall. Although the Cell does not quite hit the mark, there are those who feel his follow-up is a Certified contender; stay tuned.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Reader Recommendation by Jason Steadmon
DIRECTED BY: George Romero
FEATURING: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Nina Garbiras, Leslie Hope, Tom Atkins
PLOT: Henry Creedlow works to provide for and please his cheating, social-climbing wife. An event from a masquerade party takes on a real world tangibility, signifying his nobody existence but also allowing him to take forceful and violent control of an out-of-control life.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: George Romero’s filmography has never shied away from the strange, but the lack of an explicit reason for Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: BRUISER (2000)
DIRECTED BY: Ki-duk Kim
FEATURING: Jung Suh, Yoosuk Kim
PLOT: A mute woman who runs a fishing resort becomes obsessed with a suicidal fugitive hiding out in one of the floating cabins.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a bizarre, perverted sadomasochistic love story in a unique setting, made with skill and a few touches of surrealism.
COMMENTS: One of the most unique features of The Isle is the peculiar setting: a fishing resort on a picture-postcard lake dotted with one-room floating cabins for rent. Guests spend their days drinking beer, staring at the misty mountains in the distance, and fishing off their doorstep; while there they are almost completely dependent on the stunningly beautiful, mute proprietress, who ferries them back and forth to the shore and delivers bait, coffee, and prostitutes in her dinghy. (The hideaway appears to make more money off of escort services and wealthy men sailing their mistresses out to a bungalow for some floating hanky-panky than it does off of fishing). One day, the woman pilots a quiet, handsome man out to the yellow float; he catches her eye when she discovers that he is suicidal and has sailed out to the lake to work up the courage to bump himself off. This is the setup for a very odd romance that develops between two lovers with tormented pasts—backstories that are never fully explained but are hinted at by the obsessive fury with which they fall for each other and the self-loathing ferocity with which they mutilate themselves.
For a romantic drama, The Isle has a relatively high body count; but, despite a few horrific moments, no one will confuse this arthouse effort with a slasher. The tone is always straightforward and serious—even solemn—and this matter-of-fact treatment makes some of the bizarre occurrences near the end seem almost believable. The aquatic setting supplies a built-in metaphor for submerged meanings and hidden psychological depths, and beautifully murky underwater shots abound. Particularly lovely is a shot where Jung Suh, whose character moves above and below the waterline at will, peers down into the fathoms while her long jet black hair floats like seaweed behind her. Other strange and memorable moments include what is likely to be the most improbable and painfully gruesome suicide attempt you’ve ever seen, and a mysteriously surreal parting shot of a bushy island of green reeds. Evoking the mysterious power of mutually destructive attraction, The Isle is a movie that just might get its hooks in you—although hopefully not as literally as it gets its hooks inside its characters.
Fair warning to animal lovers: it does not appear that the Korean chapter of PETA was allowed on set for this shoot, as violence against vertebrates is a running theme in the film. The Isle features a frog skinned and pulled apart, sushi made and eaten from a living fish as it flops around, a drowned bird, and a dog choked by a leash and struck. Although some of the cruelty is faked, some of it clearly is not.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by “Spass.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
Otesánek; AKA Greedy Guts
“I do not work with intentions… That has nothing to do with freedom of the imagination… My preference is certainly for subsequent interpretation rather than intention. In Little Otik, the child devours its ‘parents.’ Otik is the product of their desire, their rebellion against nature. This is not a child in the real sense of the world, but the materialization of desire, of a rebellion. That is the tragic dimension of the human destiny. It is impossible to live without rebelling against the human lot. That is the proper subject of freedom.”–Jan Svankamjer, 2006 interview with Peter Hames
DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer
FEATURING: Kristina Adamcová, Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl
PLOT: Karel and Bozena are an infertile couple obsessed with becoming pregnant; one day, as a joke, Karel brings his wife a tree stump that looks a little like a child, but the woman immediately begins treating it as if it were a real baby. Bozena goes so far as to fake a pregnancy, and the husband is shocked when the piece of wood actually comes to life. Parenthood proves difficult when they discover in that the wooden child needs to be fed and has an insatiable craving for red meat; meanwhile, their sexually curious ten-year old neighbor is also obsessed with little Otik and begins to suspect his secret…
- The story is a modern adaptation of the Eastern European fairy tale “Otesánek,” as collected by the folklorist K.J. Erben. The original fable is recounted in a storybook-animated film-within-a-film.
- Jan Svankmajer’s late wife, the painter Eva Švankmajerová, had illustrated “Otesánek” for a children’s book in the 1970s.
- Per Svankmajer, in Czech the word “otesánek” (which is derived from the verb “to hew” plus a diminutive “-ánek” which denotes a child) is used for a person “who devours and digests everything (not only food).”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Crazy-eyed Bozena breastfeeding a log in maternal bliss—particularly when the camera zooms in to show a closeup of Otik hungrily suctioning milk through his stump. (As a footnote, one of Little Otik‘s iconic images isn’t actually in the movie. A bizarre still of Alzbetka licking a fried egg was featured prominently in the Otik‘s promotional material, but that precise shot does not appear in the film).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This modernized fairy-tale adaptation about an insatiable man-eating tree stump baby is actually Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s most conventional and accessible story (by far). Of course, in Svankmajer’s world, a conventional narrative includes scenes where street vendors fish infants out of tanks, wrap them in newspaper and sell them to passersby. There’s something seminal about this freaky film that mixes black comedy with dashes of horror and flecks of surrealism; it’s an excellent, comprehensible-yet-mysterious entry-level bizarre film for the neophyte weirdster.
American trailer for Little Otik
COMMENTS: When erotically curious youngster Alzbetka hides a textbook on sexual Continue reading 125. LITTLE OTIK (2000)
DIRECTED BY: Chris Morris
FEATURING: Chris Morris, Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore, David Cann, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Roz McCutcheon
PLOT: “Jam” was a six episode TV series that originally aired on UK TV Channel 4. Each 25 minute episode was aired without ad breaks or credits. The show featured various “sketches” and faux interviews dealing with suicide, murder, sexual abuse, rape, child death, and medical malpractice. The whole thing was backed by occasionally intrusive ambient music and some segments were filmed or dubbed in an out-of-sync fashion that made them even more awkward and disturbing than the subject matter would suggest.
The show was repeated at a later hour as “Jaaam!” This variation took the original sketches and remixed the visuals to make the viewing experience more tricky and surreal with shots sped up, fed through filters and replaced with stills. Many of the sketches were born in a BBC Radio 1 very late night/early morning show called “Blue Jam” which mixed vocal skits with ambient tracks. Some of the radio sketches were taken directly from the old soundtrack and then lip synched on TV, resulting in another layer in the onion of weird that was “Jam.”
COMMENTS: To mix preserves, “Jam” is like Marmite: you’ll either love it or hate it. Allow me to give you a taster.
A couple believes their young daughter is a 45 year old man trapped in a young girl’s body, so they have the genitals of a 45 year old man grafted to her body.
A woman calls a plumber to her house to fix her dead baby. He is aghast, but she explains the baby is only 3 weeks old and they’re meant to last longer than that, and after all “it’s just pipes really.” In a throwaway comment she reveals that the father has said he will leave if she doesn’t stop “going on about the pipes.” An offer of £1000/hour convinces the plumber to give it a try, and later he takes her up to the bedroom to see his work. He’s plumbed the baby’s corpse into the heating system to make it warm and added a little tap so it will gurgle.
A couple bargaining for a house negotiate a reduction in price in return for sex sessions with the seller. When he receives a better offer, he threatens to renege on the deal, so they offer the services of the husband’s mentally disabled sister.
Some folks will have already decided that “Jam” is not for them, and I can’t really blame them. Continue reading TV CAPSULE: JAM (UK, 2000)
“Maelstrom, from my humble point of view, was inspired as follows: we all have an amazing built-in system of personal and social defense: we interpret the world and construct for ourselves an image of it, which comforts us and eases our conscience, and we do this instinctively. For me, Maelstrom is a playful call to be responsible and to be careful. Some of my friends found this definition childish and tried to convince me that Maelstrom was, instead, a dark and serious drama about a woman emerging from chaos and mythomania. Others consider it a luminous noir fable of a voyage to the limits of reality and myth. That’s ridiculous. Don’t believe a word they say.”–Denis Villeneuve, Director’s Note to Maelstrom
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
FEATURING: Marie-Josée Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Pierre Lebeau (voice)
PLOT: A fish about to be chopped up and made into seafood explains that, with his last breaths, he would like to tell a “pretty story” about a young woman “on a long voyage toward reality.” We then meet Bibi, undergoing an abortion; later that day, she will lose her position in the family business, then leave the scene of the accident after striking a pedestrian while driving drunk. In the guilt-ridden weeks that follow, she tracks down the man she struck to find out who he was and what happened to him.
- Maelstrom swept the 2001 Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards), winning the Best Picture, Director, Lead Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography awards. Other than film festival appearances, the movie received little distribution outside of Canada. A DVD was released in 2003 with little fanfare, and Maelstrom has been largely forgotten since.
- Set in Montreal, Maelstrom was filmed in French, but a small portion of the dialogue is in untranslated Norwegian, as is the opening epigraph.
- Maelstrom was included in film critic Richard Crouse’s book “The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” (coincidentally, this makes the eighth of the titles Crouse chose that we’ve independently reviewed).
- In 2010 Denis Villeneuve scored an international arthouse hit with the (not weird) Incendies, a story about twins traveling to the Middle East to uncover a family secret, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The grotesque, philosophical fish who croaks out the tale between gasps while waiting for the fishmonger (sharpening his blade on a stone and looking like an executioner) to finish him off.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The story is narrated by a dying fish. If you need more than that, there’s the confusing, impressionistic, nonlinear timeline (that replays certain scenes); some incredible plot and thematic coincidences; and the stylishly stoned scenes of Bibi drowning her woes in booze and pills. But I keep coming back to the fact that the story is narrated by a (surprisingly reflective) dying fish. Talk about cod philosophy!
Trailer for Maesltrom
COMMENTS: “You’ll get nightmares from eating stale octopus,” Bibi’s friend warns her Continue reading 87. MAELSTROM (2000)