Tag Archives: 2009

OSCAR WON’T, AND IF CANNES CAN’T, MAYBE MEXICO?

We almost never pay attention to the Academy Awards around these parts. When the weirdest film to get a “Best Picture” nomination in 2008 is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you know you’re dealing with one weird-hating Academy. The last film “Best Picture” winner with even smatterings of weird was Midnight Cowboy (1969). Just a pinch of weirdness, or even a mild, sub-weird flirtation with the experimental, is usually the kiss of death to Oscar.

The international and less commercial-minded Cannes Film Festival, on the other hand, has been much kinder to innovation in film. In 2000 Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark managed to win the highest prize, the Palme d’Or, despite containing musical dream sequences.  Acknowledged weird classics like Wild at Heart (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) have also managed to break realism’s stranglehold on the top awards.

On May 24, 2009, Cannes announced the recipients of its jury prizes.  Let’s see how Cannes did in recognizing cinematic weirdness this year:

PALME D’ORThe White Ribbon [Das weiße Band].  Black and white film set in Germany on the eve of World War I.  The synopsis says, “Strange accidents occur and gradually take on the character of a punishment ritual.  Who is behind it all?”  Although it appears to have a weird element in the form of an unsolvable mystery, at heart it looks like a standard allegorical art film.

GRAND PRIX (I.E., PALME D’OR RUNNER UP)The Prophet [Un Prophete]:  An illiterate young Arab man is thrown into a French prison and becomes a gang kingpin.  Sounds about a weird as a plastic couple on a wedding cake.

JURY PRIZE (I.E., THIRD PLACE):  This year was a tie.  The first film recognized was Fish Tank, an unweird drama about a British teenager, her promiscuous mom, and her mom’s lout of a boyfriend.  The second awardee shows a little more promise: Thirst [Bakjwi], Chan-wook Park‘s take on the vampire legend, although reviews suggest the oft-weird director takes a conventional approach to the subject this time out.

OTHER FILMS IN COMPETITION:  A few interesting, potentially weird films were screened Continue reading OSCAR WON’T, AND IF CANNES CAN’T, MAYBE MEXICO?

CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CORALINE (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning (voice), Teri Hatcher (voice)

PLOT:  A petulant little girl finds a parallel universe behind a hidden door in an old house, a world where her parents are more attentive, her neighbors more fascinating, and the entire universe seems set up to pamper and delight her; she can stay there forever, but of course there’s a catch.

Still from Coraline (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I attended a screening with a ten-year old and asked him if he thought the movie was “weird.”  His answer: “Nah, not unless you think every fantasy movie is weird.”  Smart lad.

COMMENTSCoraline is a welcome dark fantasy for children, although its themes of evil Doppelgänger moms, frightening buttons, and implied eye-gouging are too scary for very little ones.  Since it’s from Hanry Selick, the director of the borderline weird Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect going in that the art direction and stop-motion animation will be the real stars.   Selick does not disappoint, shuffling the viewer through three distinct visual styles: the dingy earth tones of real life, a brightly colored, eye-popping fantasy world, and a sinister, disintegrating universe with an insect trapped in a spiderweb theme.  The storyline, and the unexpected scares once the movie shifts from childhood fantasy to childhood horror in the third act, make Coraline more than just eye candy for the kiddies.

Presented in theaters in 3-D, but the novelty doesn’t add anything significant to experience: I would have been just as happy to watch the same moving pictures tell the same story on an unabashedly flat screen.  Though there’s nothing really weird to be found here, Coraline, in the best children’s’ movie tradition, is worth a trip even for adult fans of fantasy and pure escapism.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Coraline discovers a Wonderland filled with surreal characters and dark implications that make a kid grow up quick… those who tough it out with this twisted, trippy adventure in impure imagination will only be the better for it.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone