Three elderly flamingo-women visit Robert for his sixth birthday.
Three elderly flamingo-women visit Robert for his sixth birthday.
DIRECTED BY: Kim Nguyen
FEATURING: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda
PLOT: Rebels abduct a 12-year old girl from her African village and force her to become a soldier; when her military commanders decide she has magical powers, she is declared the army’s “war witch.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The tiny dash of magic realism that’s added to soften the blow of the tragic realism isn’t enough to turn this all-too-believable drama into a weird movie.
COMMENTS: The blank-faced girl begins narrating her story to her unborn baby, in the process praying, “I hope God will give me the strength to love you.” It’s a harsh opening for a hard movie, but despite the themes of war, cruelty, and child slavery, War Witch finds ways to not be a complete downer. The plot has three clearly defined acts, each tracking a year of Komona’s life. It begins at the age of 12, when armed men in canoes storm the riverside shantytown she lives in, killing most of the residents and carrying her off as a slave. By 13 she has found a beau and hope for the future in the person of a young albino magician (named “Magician”) who courts her according to folk traditions, and by age 14 she is a woman of the world, having suffered enough pain and heartbreak for two lifetimes. Writer/director Kim Nguyen delivers plenty of gruesome and cruel moments but chooses not to linger over them, and lets beams of light pierce the darkness. The sunny Congolese locations, from the mysterious forest full of ghosts to the field of boulders (also full of ghosts) can be sublime. Komona and Magician (first time actors Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) both do well and share a touchingly naïve romance, especially in light of the awful things they have suffered and the awful things they have been forced to do. There is a minor fairytale ambiance to the proceedings, what with the child witches and wizards, accusatory ghosts, and an evil warlord (known by the sobriquet “the Great Tiger”) ensconced in an improbably grand tower in the middle of the jungle. A visit to a hidden albino village to find a semi-mythological creature provides another fable-like moment. The movie accepts the existence of magic and never questions local superstitions; for example, a man casually asks for a gris-gris to protect him against war as payment for helping the children. After drinking “magic milk” (the hallucinogenic sap of a local tree), Komona gains the ability to see ghosts. The apparitions, corpses caked in white clay with blank eyes, are simple and effective, and they begin to haunt the girl everywhere. They warn her of an ambush set by government soldiers, allowing her alone to escape and giving her the reputation of a witch. The movie never gives us any reason to question the accuracy of Komona’s visions, which in the end take on a crucial psychological importance for the girl. Nguyen mixes childish imagination and voodoo practices with military reality to brew up a unique world we have not seen on film before. Unfortunately, with the fantasy elements stripped away, this world is far too recognizable from cable news broadcasts. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mourned Rachel Cooper in Depression-era Appalachia in Night of the Hunter; on another continent, in another millennium, her pronouncement still rings sadly true in War Witch.
At no point in War Witch does the movie explain what country it is set in, or who the rebels are or what they are supposedly fighting for. The movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), however, and clues suggest that the action is set there, including the fact that the rebels fund their insurgency by mining coltan, an exotic mineral found mostly in the Congo. The Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2003, still lingers on with outbreaks of ethnic violence and warlordism to this day; it has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some 30,000 children have been conscripted to shed blood for both sides. The notorious Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has operated out of the DRC, and may be the model for War Witch‘s Great Tiger.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
–William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (Alice’s first words and last words in this rendition of “Alice in Wonderland”)
DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Miller
PLOT: Young Alice has her hair roughly brushed by a nurse before she heads out to sit by a riverbank with her sister; as her sister reads she falls asleep. She wakes to see a man in formal Victorian dress walking through the woods and follows him into a strange deserted building where she discovers potions that shrink her and cakes that maker her grow larger. As she continues wandering about she meets many odd characters, including a Duchess in drag and three men caught at an endless tea party, and eventually a King and Queen who put her on trial.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many quietly sublime moments in Johnathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland: Alice chasing the White Rabbit through a corridor lined with billowing white curtains, a shot of the overgrown girl dominating the foreground with the bedroom behind her subtly bent by the wide-angle lens, the Mock Turtle and Gryphon capering silhouetted against the sunrise on a rocky beach at low tide. We chose to highlight the instnat when the Cheshire Cat appears in the sky above the croquet game. This is the movie’s only special effect and one of the few moments when something overtly magical actually happens in Wonderland; such a moment sets off the minimalistic strangeness of the rest of the production. (Alice’s indifferent, emotionless reaction to the apparition only adds to the oddness).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jonathan Miller exhumes a Wonderland without magical beings: the White Rabbit is just a stuffed shirt in a waistcoat, the Cheshire Cat is an ordinary house cat, the drowned animals by the pool of tears are a soggy band of Victorian citizens. By unmasking the story’s anthropomorphic animals, he de-cutifies the fairy tale; the result is, unexpectedly, one of the weirdest and most dreamlike Alices ever put on film.
COMMENTS: There are layers and layers to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”: the original book was simultaneously a children’s fantasia, a Continue reading 141. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1966)
“…unique perspectives and self-sufficient lifestyles are sacred things that should be fought for and preserved. So-called ‘eccentrics’ were my earliest heroes, and one of my biggest influences.”–Benh Zeitlin
DIRECTED BY: Benh Zeitlin
FEATURING: , Dwight Henry
PLOT: Six-year old Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a community that turns into an island isolated from society when floodwaters cut it off from the mainland. After a second flood nearly destroys the Bathtub, Wink decides that he must destroy the levee so that the water will recede. This plan brings the attention of the authorities, however, who forcibly evacuate the defiant pair from their ramshackle home, all while Wink’s health is getting worse…
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hushpuppy coming face to face with the apocalyptic aurochs of her imagination.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Quvenzhané Wallis’ childish explanation, “once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” turns out to be a literal description of the plot in this ridiculously original fairy tale that resembles The Tree of Life set in a post-apocalyptic bayou.
COMMENTS: Although many movies purport to view reality from a child’s perspective (including Curse of the Cat People, My Life as a Dog, and Pan’s Continue reading 132. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)
RKO was both surprised and elated over the success of Cat People (1942). Predictably, they ordered a sequel, and handed the title to producer Val Lewton: Curse of the Cat People. Lewton, eyes-rolling, took the assignment, but said: “What I’m going to do is make a very delicate story of a child who is on the verge of insanity because she lives in a fantasy world.”
Even today, viewers are split about the sequel. It’s akin to Ridley Scott delivering a prequel to Aliens without a plethora of H.R. Giger monsters. The bourgeois genre fanboys, wanting only the familiar, will aggressively bellow like the unimaginative and artless Neanderthals they are when confronted with something as fresh as Curse of the Cat People (1944). Although flawed, Curse is a haunting, sublime, cinematic dreamscape.
Irena’s widower from Cat People, Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), is even duller now that he has been married to Alice (Jane Moore) for several years. Upsetting poor Ollie’s Hallmark view of the world is a highly imaginative young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who is the occupant of a surreal interior terrain.
Oliver Reed may well serve as a metaphor for a conservative fan base, executive film producers and Promise Keepers. Ollie’s reaction to Amy’s fantasies is archaic hostility. Amy’s preoccupation with the magical constitutes all that is a threat to Ollie. Amy is fully effeminate, artistic, independent, free of the binding status quo.
First, Ollie attempts to mold Amy into a socially acceptable child. Highly introverted, Amy is spurned by the potential friends Ollie tries to force upon her. When chasing after those who reject her, Amy stumbles upon the garden of a faded, elderly actress Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean). Slowly, Amy befriends the lonely woman. Amy reminds Mrs. Farren of a deceased daughter. Mrs. Farren has a grown daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), but Barbara is consistently rejected by her mother. Mrs. Farren, in a mentally deteriorated state, imagines Barbara to be an impostor and rejects her, withholding maternal love. Barbara, jealous of the attention her mother is showing the stranger Amy, reacts with jealousy.
Amy discovers a photograph of Irena (Simone Simon). Shortly afterwards, a wishing well grants Amy a new friend: Irena. Amy’s garden shimmers with Debussian light when the radiantly passive Irena enters and is welcomed into a picturesque domain.
The edginess of childhood is not glossed over, and a retelling of Irving Washington’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” offers a memorable moment of adolescent dread. Amy’s further descent into the magical sends Ollie into a machismo fit. The artistically bankrupt office manager reacts by administering a thrashing. Eventually, Ollie and Barbara accept Amy. Irena has fulfilled her function.
RKO, predictably, reacted to the film with Oliver Reed-inspired hostility and mandated ill-fitting sequences. Gunther von Fritsch, the original director, was replaced by a young Robert Wise, working on his first film. While Curse lacks Jacques Tourneur‘s assured touch, it is, together with The Body Snatcher (1945, also directed by Wise), the best of the non-Tourneur Lewtons.
The great critic James Agee championed Curse of the Cat People. Captivated, Agee wrote that Lewton’s films “are so consistently alive, limber, poetic, humane, so eager toward the possibilities of the screen, and so resolutely against the grain of all we have learned to expect from the big studios.”
Curse of the Cat People was another unexpected critical and box office hit. Yet again, RKO was dumbfounded. Hit or not, they felt betrayed by their producer and Curse, inevitably, served as a prominent nail in Lewton’s RKO coffin.
Next week: The Body Snatcher (1945).
DIRECTED BY: Jim Henson
PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.
COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).
There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)
“If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of ‘2001’ could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be ‘Tree of Life.'”–Film critic Andrew O’Hehir after the Cannes screening of Tree of Life (via Twitter)
“If you didn’t care for Tree of Life then genetically you are not a human being.”–Tim Heidecker (via Twitter)
DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick
PLOT: A couple learns about the death of one of their three sons. Then, a flashback covers events from the birth of the universe to the birth of the couple’s first son, Jack. A series of impressionistic scenes show Jack growing up in a small Texas town, afraid of the stern father who wants to toughen him up to face life’s trials.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Thanks to its cosmic visuals, The Tree of Life is compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey more often than any other movie. That should tip you off that selecting a single indelible image is no easy task. I could cheat and include the entire twenty minute birth of the universe montage. I could select my personal favorite image: the child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom who swims out the window to be born as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine. But I believe we will be forced to anoint the “gracious dinosaur” scene as the film’s most unforgettable gambit. It’s Malick’s “chaos reigns” moment, the juncture at which you either get out of your seat and leave the theater, or experience your first weirdgasm of the evening.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Sometimes, when you spend your cinematic time immersed in the surrealistic worlds of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s easy to forget how uncompromisingly radical and bizarre a film like The Tree of Life appears to someone whose idea of an “out there” movie is of Cowboys and Aliens. In our initial assessment of Malick’s grandiose God picture, we concluded that “surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as ‘poetic’ rather than ‘weird’” while acknowledging that “[a]ny movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.” In the months since that initial review, however, The Tree of Life‘s empyrean strangeness has continued to impress us as 2011’s best weird work. The clincher came when co-star Sean Penn complained to the French press, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” That’s all the endorsement we need: when a movie is too weird for its own Hollywood stars, we have to accept that it’s just weird enough for us.
COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for Continue reading 99. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)