Tag Archives: Academy Award Winner

CAPSULE: ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Fosse

FEATURING: Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, ,

PLOT: A pill-popping, womanizing, workaholic choreographer’s hard living leads to a heart attack.

all_that_jazz
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from camp spectacles like Rocky Horror Picture Show, there aren’t many weird musicals. The musical is an inherently square art form. There are, however, frequently surreal dance sequences in musicals (see ), and All That Jazz finishes up with some of the weirdest; it’s not enough to put the movie on the List of the weirdest movies in history, but it’s worth a watch if you swing that way.

COMMENTS: Joe Gideon, the stand-in for director/choreographer Bob Fosse, begins every day with the same routine: a drop of Visine, a shot of Alka-Seltzer, a cigarette smoked in the shower, a Dexie, and finally he’s ready to look in the mirror and announce, “it’s showtime!” The director, who’s in the early stages of planning a major (and scandalously erotic) Broadway musical while simultaneously cutting a movie about a stand-up comic (based on Fosse’s own Lenny Bruce biopic), also finds time to sleep with as many aspiring dancers as possible, down a few Scotches at night, and candidly chat about his life with his only confidant, a hot gauzy angel (the radiant Jessica Lange).

With its confessional premise of a womanizing artist painting a roguish self-portrait with the aid of fantasy, All That Jazz cannot escape comparisons to the iconic artist autobiopic, 8 1/2. Compared to , Bob Fosse is all sheen and surface. Jazz suggests none of the depths of the Italian’s conflicted Catholicism or his weary existentialism. For Fosse, life is just work, sex, speed, repeat. The two films suggest the difference between an obsessive artist, and an obsessive craftsman. On the cool scale, Roy Scheider is no , so it’s difficult to buy the film’s premise that everyone is in his life is charmed into submission by this smug, glib, self-appointed genius, beyond his unquestioned ability to advance their careers. It’s no surprise that Fosse isn’t as interesting as Fellini (how many people who have ever lived are?), but still, as embodied by Scheider and his arrogant Van Dyke, Gideon’s naughty hedonism manages to keep our interest through a somewhat repetitive first two-thirds.

Although the early reels provide entertainment enough to carry us through, Jazz doesn’t really start high-kicking until the heart attack strikes and Gideon’s anesthesia-induced musical fantasies kick in. The finale builds weight from the context of the character building that’s gone before; when the choreographer’s preteen daughter—dressed provocatively in an evening gown with a cigarette holder and fur stole—vamps “you’ll miss me daddy, if you go away,” the effect is touching and ironic, rather than creepy. The fantasy numbers are produced by a chain-smoking Gideon doppelganger who appears beside the bedridden director: “you don’t have any lines here,” he mocks as the invalid tries to mumble through his gas mask to the loved ones passing before his mind’s eye. It arrives at a show-stopping, heart-stopping finale set to the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” (with altered lyrics). A smarmy Ben Vereen, acting like a telethon host, croons and hoofs his way alongside Schneider  in a disco-age Vegas netherworld complete with flashing colored lights, horrible automaton heads in the audience, and dancers dressed like Slim Goodbody. The number is stretched out for ten minutes, with a couple of false climaxes, but it never drags; it may not be the summation of a life’s work, but it is a masterpiece of its type. Emphasisizing seduction and drug abuse over tap dancing and top hats, All That Jazz is a musical that can appeal to people who hate musicals, which is a valuable service for many of us.

In 2014 the Criterion Collection pried the rights to All That Jazz away from 20th Century Fox, turning what was already a pretty good DVD release into a superlative DVD/Blu-ray package.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an uproarious display of brilliance, nerve, dance, maudlin confessions, inside jokes and, especially, ego. It’s a little bit as if Mr. Fosse had invited us to attend his funeral — the wildest show-business sendoff a fellow ever designed for himself — and then appeared at the door to sell tickets and count the house; after all, funerals are only wasted on the dead.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who noted, “It’s pretty weird at times, but I actually don’t know if that is a weirdness inherent to the genre of musicals, or if that film is truly one of a kind.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1993)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: A tormented Franz Kafka struggles to complete the first line of his story “The Metamorphosis,” and the constant interruptions by wandering vendors and loud neighbors don’t help.

Still from Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It is, as promised, a legitimately Kafkaesque story, but with a cheesy Frank Capra twist at the end that is horrifying because of its complete tonal incompatibility. This beautifully written, acted and shot comic nightmare would be a shoo-in for a list of the greatest short weird films of all time. It’s perfect at a compact 22-minutes: could Peter Capaldi carry off this grimly hilarious mood through feature length, or would it become repetitive and oppressive? On the other hand, at one-fourth the length of an average Certified Weird movie, shouldn’t it be required to be four times as weird to qualify for the List?

COMMENTS: Writers find writer’s block to be the most horrific condition they can conceive of (see also Barton Fink), and although readers may not be able to directly identify with the existential dread emanating off a blank page, writers attack the notion with such fervor that they convince the viewer of the existential torment of white space. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds at conveying the clammy pallor of the nervous artist’s soul through bitter comedy, both subtle and obvious. In the “obvious” bin goes Kafka’s rejected imaginary scenarios about what gigantic forms his fictional protagonist, Gregor Samsa, might be transformed into (e.g., a kangaroo). At other times, however, the atmosphere of anxiety Kafka finds himself breathing is so thick and melodramatic, with shadowy blue lighting and an ominous orchestra and strangers with intense stares and precise enunciation, that the paranoia plays as a parody. And even as we giggle uneasily, we wonder if the danger to Kafka is serious and real: a creepy door-to-door vendor fencing knives and scissors keeps hanging around his door, looking for his “little friend” who has disappeared…  The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction

The final Capra-esque coda, coming after Kafka’s complete emotional breakdown and the very real threat of physical mutilation, is a cruel, ironic slap in the face to pie-in-the-sky optimism. The unreality of the happy ending makes the unreality of the preceding nightmare seem authentic by comparison. Richard E. Grant, always a treat when playing a theatrically unhinged lunatic, makes for a perfectly twitchy Franz Kafka. Although better known as an actor, Peter Capaldi’s writing and direction are so confident and forceful that it makes you queasy to think of the many wonderful films he never directed. There’s a deliberately slanted Cabinet of Dr. Caligari quality to Kafka’s apartment block, and shots and scenes naturally evoke The Trial. Although the short could have been structured as nothing more than a series of insane gags, the script makes it flow from one incident to the next, with characters weaving in and out of the short tale and everything connecting by the end. This mini-masterpiece of alienation carefully walks that same line between fantasy and reality, dream and nightmare, that its namesake trod, but with an added dash of dry British wit.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life tied for the 1995 Best Live Action Short Film Oscar with Peggy Rajski’s Trevor—the Academy just couldn’t let a weird film have the spotlight to itself. It’s available on a Vanguard DVD entitled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life… and Other Strange Tales together with three other comic shorts. None of the others are exceptionally strange. Seven Gates features two squabbling brothers returning to their elderly parents home for Christmas, while Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder is a Southern Gothic period piece (shot in sepia) about a field hand and his albino girlfriend. The best of the rest is The Deal, written by standup comic Lewis Black, which satirizes the macho posturing of capitalism’s movers and shakers, who begin by plotting world domination but end up admiring each others’ designer testicles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has all the dreamlike menace of Kafka’s writing, while the story-line sends it up shamelessly… [a] midget gem of post-modern cinema.”–Alison Dalzell, Edinburgh University Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who called it “a wonderful short Kafkian movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , , Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

137. THE TIN DRUM [DIE BLECHTROMMEL] (1979)

“[Günter Grass] called our [first draft] script ‘Protestant and Cartesian.’ It was lacking the irrational dimension of time, the nodal points where everything becomes confused and collapses in an illogical and tragicomic way. He wants more hard realism on the one hand, and on the other, more courage in the unreal. Imagination as a part of unreality –Oskar’s reality… Another visit to Grass, almost a year after the first, this time with the finished script. It is now more ‘Catholic,’ and less rational…”–Volker Schlöndorff, in his Tin Drum production diary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Volker Schlöndorff

FEATURING: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach

PLOT: At the age of three, Oskar, a boy who always carries his beloved tin drum and whose scream can shatter glass, decides that he does not want to grow up, and throws himself down the cellar stairs to stunt his growth. As Hitler rises to power, his mother becomes depressed and kills herself by eating raw fish; his uncle, who may be his real father, is killed by the Nazis. Still looking like a child, Oskar lives through Fascism and World War II and has love affairs, eventually joining the Nazis and entertaining the soldiers with his drum.

Still from The Tin Drum (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] is based on Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’ schizophrenic 1959 novel of the same name. The film adaptation only covers approximately the first half of the book.
  • Prolific screenwriter  was a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel; scripts for the Certifed Weird films Belle de Jour and The Milky Way count among his 138 writing credits. Carrière appears in the film (in the director’s cut) as Rasputin.
  • Actor David Bennent had a “growth disorder” and was actually twelve years old when the movie was filmed.
  • The Tin Drum is set in Danzig, which at the time of Oskar’s birth was a Free City located between Germany and Poland, although the population was mostly German.
  • The Tin Drum shared the 1979 Palme D’Or with Apocalypse Now. It also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
  • In the United States, New World Pictures—s company—distributed the picture. Some of New World’s other releases that year were Humanoids from the Deep and Shogun Assassin.
  • The movie ran into censorship problems due to brief sex scenes between David Bennent and Katharina Thalbach (then 24 years old, but portraying a 16-year-old). The oddest case occurred in Oklahoma in 1997, almost twenty years after the film’s release, when a judge ruled that the film violated state child pornography laws which banned even non-explicit depictions of sex between minors. Police seized videotapes from the homes of people who had rented the movie. The documentary Banned in Oklahoma, included on some editions of The Tin Drum as an extra, details the controversy. The film was later vindicated, and today Oklahomans no longer need fear being labeled as pedophiles for watching 1979’s Best Foreign Film winner.
  • In 2010 Volker Schlöndorff created a director’s cut of the film, restoring about 20 minutes of footage which had been removed to shorten the running time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wild-eyed Oskar pounding away on his drum in an insane, trance-like fury is undoubtedly the film’s emblematic image, although the horse’s head filled with eels is probably the most shocking one.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Tin Drum is a comic nightmare about “little people’s” acquiescence to Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s; as Germany goes insane, children refuse to grow up, eels breed in horse’s heads, and Santa Claus turns into the Gas Man.


English language trailer for The Tin Drum

COMMENTS: Many people believe that Oskar’s decision in The Tin Drum not to grow up past the age of three is a refusal to succumb to adult Continue reading 137. THE TIN DRUM [DIE BLECHTROMMEL] (1979)

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.

GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale, , Edra Gale

PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
  • This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
  • After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
  • 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
  • The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
  • Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).


Opening scene from 8 1/2

 

COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s Continue reading 121. 8 1/2 (1963)