Tag Archives: Absurdism

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAGGIE (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Yi Ok-seop

FEATURING: Lee Ju-young, Koo Kyo-hwan, Moon So-ri, Koo Gyo-hwan

PLOT: Maggie the catfish acts as a piscine confessor for Yoon-yong, who’s going through some problems with her work and home life; the fish predicts the appearance of some troubling sink-holes springing up (er, down) around the greater Seoul area.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A psychic fish narrator, social commentary via sinkholes, and the appearance of a “manic pixie dream boy” all fuel this strange hybrid of dark Wes Anderson and light Quentin Tarantino.

COMMENTS: Many years ago, I was forced to take a seminar class for my degree and ended up enduring a semester-long trial entitled “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience.” It’s not that I don’t want awareness raised about society’s ills, but I had the suspicion before-hand that most of the movies would be heavyhanded and tediously paced. My fears proved correct at the time, but now, having seen Yi Ok-seop’s directorial debut, Maggie, I now must admit that lightning can strike even the smallest targets. And it strikes well, with humor, quirkiness, and pathos (a “p” word that seems to be cropping up a bit this festival).

A pre-penetration x-ray circulates among the staff of a small hospital in the outskirts of Seoul. Rumors fly about whose body parts were caught in the act of lovemaking, with nary a thought as to the who or why behind the snapshot’s existence. The following day, every staff member calls in sick except for the young nurse who’s “in” the photo and an osteopath who’s just about lost her trust in her fellow man. Subsequent events involving sinkholes, unemployment, and relationship dynamics proceed apace, all narrated by the omniscient titular character, Maggie the catfish.

There is a vibrancy throughout Maggie that weds the two dominant themes of whimsy and social commentary. There is brightness everywhere: the outdoor scenes, the well-lit hospital, and even the night-time streets illuminated by the colorful, flashing glow of warning lights surrounding the big holes in the ground that keep appearing. Chapter designations like “Everyone Likes the X-Ray Room” and “The Stairs of Death” act as synopses along the way while also providing wry counterpoint to the events. And though it has a cheerful, meandering nature throughout, everything gets wrapped up nicely—through the convenience of a key character who’s swallowed up by the ground at an important juncture.

Maggie‘s weirdness isn’t “in your face”, but more of a gentle squeezing of the shoulders from start to finish. There are definitely overtly odd things (the catfish, the eccentric hospital, and the ballad to “Maxine” around the midpoint), but it’s all very low key. What swayed me toward inclusion was the fact that all of this is being done for a purpose (and, I learned in a subsequent interview with the filmmakers 1, was funded not only sight-unseen, but script-unseen). My one criticism would be that when the story focuses on the slacker boyfriend, the movie rambles a little pointlessly—but even that’s apt, considering the character we’re following. And though I didn’t quite agree with another choice, I was impressed by the director’s decision to eliminate a character without allowing for an explanation. Director Yi Ok-seop and writer/producer/actor Koo Kyo-hwan strongly feel that violence has no excuse, and they make that point in a memorable way that really lets it… sink in.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“The director is riffing on the idea of how misunderstandings snowball, but, without a solid central idea to anchor the wackiness, the exuberantly nonsensical chaos of this movie is likely to have only niche appeal.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Rant (festival screening)

323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are Continue reading 323. CATCH-22 (1970)

CAPSULE: WAITING FOR GODOT (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

FEATURING: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford, Stephen Brennan

PLOT: Two chatty hobos wait in a landscape of rubble for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, who seems increasingly unlikely to show.

Still from Waiting for Godot (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There is nothing that’s weird about this version of Waiting for Godot that isn’t weird about its source material. The film transplants the surreal masterpiece to the big screen fully intact, serving as a filmed document of the classic play. As possibly the greatest piece of existential theater ever devised, Godot is self-evidently strange in its minimalist approach to the great questions of man’s purpose and the presence of a higher power, and its defiant resistance to straightforward explanation or simple interpretation. The film is respectful, even reverential, and serves as a straightforward representation of the work for anyone who has no other opportunity to experience it live.

COMMENTS: There’s a certain amount of cheeky fun in writing up the plot synopsis for Waiting For Godot. After all, ’s landmark play is probably literature’s finest example of “the story where nothing happens.” There is no arc, no growth, no movement whatsoever. Two men wait for Godot to come; he does not. They say they will leave; they do not. The particulars change from one act to the next (a circumstance that draws notice, if not comprehension, from one of the principals), but the result is the same. The entire play is predicated on nothing happening. Which makes its point all the sharper; there may be no purer expression of the essential, beautiful futility of life. As Beckett wrote in another context, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

As such, Godot doesn’t really gain much from realization in film. The abstract, desolate setting (sometimes rendered as a bare stage) is given a gritty, realistic feel on the screen. Lindsay-Hogg does mix broad overhead shots with attentive close-ups, expanding the emotional vocabulary of the actors. But there’s only so much you can do without wrecking all that is uniquely Godot. It’s not like we’re going to “open it up,” following the characters to a new setting or adding in flashbacks to Vladimir’s life before. The play’s the thing, and film (a medium for which Beckett himself did not think Godot appropriate) is just a means of capturing it in perpetuity.

This Godot is part of an ambitious effort to film all of Beckett’s plays. It stands out from its brethren: lasting longer than any of the playwright’s other works, boasting an unusually large cast (of five), featuring actors who exchange dialogue and are allowed to move about the stage. Beckett was relentless in eliminating anything inessential or ornamental; he wrote the original Godot in French, a language in which he was less skilled, to keep his language simple. Over time, Beckett’s plays get shorter and shorter, he dispenses with names, puts his actors in pottery or buries them in sand, and begins to favor incomprehensible monologues. By contrast, Godot is downright old-fashioned.

It’s also easy to forget how enamored of early film comedy Beckett was (a love borne out in his only venture into the medium, Film). The persistence of innocence in a cruel world, the difference between erudition and wisdom, the bowler hats: all put one in the mind of or . It’s easy to see why comedians and clowns have been drawn to the leading roles, from Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to Steve Martin and . This film’s cast is made up of stalwart Irish actors who had performed the play together many times, so while they tap into the comedy inside the absurdism, the performances are smartly crafted, unaffected, and comfortable with Beckett’s voice. (They even opt for his preferred pronunciation of the title character’s name: GAH-doe.)

But I’m sidestepping the key question: Is it weird? There is a factor that is prodding me to include it, and that is the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the List, which is based on a play that I find greatly entertaining but far more explicable and less “weird” than this. But while Godot is most certainly a challenging play, one which posits any number of unlikely and unexplained premises, and one in which answers are not forthcoming (Beckett argued that the play says everything there is to say), in the final analysis, Godot filmed is still Godot, no more than it was, weird by virtue of its origins rather than anything inherent to the film itself. This Godot is an excellent record of the play, but like a movie of a lobster-and-grape-jelly sandwich, it’s only weird by virtue of what it captures, not what it is. If you’re looking for a Waiting For Godot that does more to take advantage of the unique qualities of the movies, well, you’re going to have to wait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[John Murphy’s] performance is pathetic, heartbreaking, and surrealistically hilarious… Although ‘Waiting for Godot’ is basically a single set piece, Lindsay-Hogg’s camerawork and blocking is so inventive that the theatricality of the work (which bogged down previous televised versions) is carefully reinvented to accommodate the cinematic medium. The result is not a filmed play… but rather a thoroughly cinematic experience. – Phil Hall, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

(This movie, along with the entire “Beckett on Film” cycle, was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here).

262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo

PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.

Still from The Greasy Strangler (2016)
BACKGROUND
:

  • Jim Hosking worked as a music video and commercial director making short films on the side since 2003. His big break came when his bizarre and transgressive “G is for Grandad” segment of ABCs of Death 2 impressed that film’s producers, two of whom went on to produce The Greasy Strangler. and  also served as executive producers on the film.
  • The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
  • This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, ‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or . Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.


Short clip from The Greasy Strangler

COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the Continue reading 262. THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016)

245. THE LOBSTER (2015)

“How do you even act in something like this? It was so bizarre. There’s no human reference that I know of to go, ‘Oh, I remember when something like that happened to me before.’ It’s so out there.”–Colin Farrel on acting in The Lobster

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Léa Seydoux, , Ben Whishah, , Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Jessica Barden,

PLOT: In a future dystopia, every adult must be in a mandatory romantic relationship or they are sent to a state-run hotel to find a mate within 45 days, to be turned into an animal of their choice if they fail. David is a short-sighted architect whose wife leaves him for another man, necessitating his visit to the hotel with his dog (formerly brother) Bob. He tries to find a legitimate match, pretend to fall in love with another resident, or failing either of those options, to escape to the forest where a small band of renegade singles live.

Still from The Lobster (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • This is Greek Giorgos Lanthimos’s first English language feature film.
  • Writer Efthymis Filippou has co-written Giorgos Lanthimos’s last three features (the other two are the Certified Weird Dogtooth and Alps), and actress Aggeliki Papoulia has had a prominent role in each.
  • The Lobster won the Jury Prize (essentially, third place) at Cannes in 2015 (Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme D’or, while the holocaust drama and future Academy Award winner Son of Saul took the Grand Prix).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a tough one, because—the beautiful photography of the County Kerry countryside and the classical elegance of the Parknasilla Resort notwithstanding—The Lobster‘s bizarre situations and crazy concepts hit harder than its imagery does. I considered the scene where the woman shoots a donkey in a field, or a subtle scene where the Loner Leader and the Maid are sitting in the forest and a two-humped camel casually saunters by in the background. Ultimately, I chose David and short-sighted woman’s wildly inappropriate makeout scene, which supplies one of this very drily hilarious movie’s biggest belly laughs.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Donkey assassination; Heimlich theater; psychopath trial relationship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Lobster is Giorgos Lanthimos’s idea of a romantic comedy: a cruel farce with bizarre but relentlessly consistent logic, enacted by a cast who show no emotions. Really, it’s more of a romantic horror/comedy. The style represents one of my favorite types of weird movies: one that takes the world we know, changes one or two of the basic rules, and then runs all the way with its premise to a bizarre conclusion dictated by its world’s rejigged logic.


Original trailer for The Lobster

COMMENTS: The Hotel Manager praises David when he explains Continue reading 245. THE LOBSTER (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Swiss Army Man has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Hank (Dano), a young man on the brink of suicide after being stranded on a deserted island, discovers a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) with life-saving powers. The two forge an unlikely alliance as Hank tries find his way home.

Still from Swiss Army Man (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With a farting, hacking, spewing, talking, singing, dancing, flying corpse front and center of its survival tale, Swiss Army Man is probably bizarre enough for the List based on premise alone. But it’s the film’s kooky charm, black humor, and remarkable feeling that makes me recommend it.

COMMENTS: It is always easier to accept the strange when we are alone, when there is no social pressure to be reasonable or logical, when we can allow ourselves to think, just for a second, that maybe that unexplained feeling or movement is a ghost drifting through our house or a glitch in the Matrix. Swiss Army Man, the debut feature from filmmaking team “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), revels in the idea that in isolation people are free to be as weird as they are, and that maybe that is a beautiful thing. Lost, alone, scared, unsure, Hank not only finds himself immediately opening up to a random corpse (known later as “Manny”), but he accepts his magical properties almost immediately because he has no reason not to. He doesn’t seem to care if this crazy experience is all in his head or not, so the audience doesn’t need to, either.

Hank discovers more and more uses for Manny as the story moves along—he starts fires with spark-inducing fingers, acts as a fountain after collecting rain water all night, moves across the water as a fart-powered motorboat, and points the way with his penis-compass (really), among other things. However, the surprise of the film is that it isn’t really about its titular character’s multi-purpose nature, but more about the strange, surprisingly moving relationship that develops between the two men. Manny is a blank slate, with no memory and no knowledge of the outside world, so much of the dialogue is Hank answering never-ending questions about life, love, work, and bodily functions. They begin to enact a strange love-story-once-removed, with Hank playing the part of a semi-fictional woman so that Manny can learn how male/female romance works, but as time goes on the fantasy blurs into reality. They rely on one another so completely that their symbiotic relationship mirrors a romantic one, and despite the impossibility of their situation it is utterly believable.

Ultimately, Swiss Army Man is an exercise in contradictions. It combines thoughtful, often elegant visuals—a cool blue/green/ color palette, engrossing camerawork, soft lighting—and pairs it with exceedingly low-brow visual and audio gags, with the ever-present fart and dick jokes driving a lot of the humor. It gives us an inventive, gorgeous score from Andy Hull and Robert McDowell and overlays it with nonsense words and goofy lyrics sung by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. It reveals many of the terrifying realities of survival in the forest while eliciting comedy and wonder out of its fantasy elements. Much of its dialogue centers around a heterosexual love story, but it actually works better as a homosexual one. What makes the film work so well is that everyone involved accepts these contradictions wholeheartedly, knowing that something can be beautiful and disgusting and hilarious and strange and emotionally affecting all at once, because weirdness is okay, even after you’ve left the isolation of the woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this movie wears its weirdness as a badge of honor — as well it should.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (festival screening)