Tag Archives: Childhood

BORDERLINE WEIRD: HANSEL AND GRETEL (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Pil-Sung Yim

FEATURING:  Jeong-Myeong Cheon, Hee-soon Park, Shim Eun-Kyung, Eun Won-Jae

PLOT:  Eun-Soo, a young man whose girlfriend has just told him she is pregnant, crashes his

Still from Hansel and Gretel (2007)

car on a lonely road and finds himself rescued by a young girl, who leads him to a strange cottage hidden in the depths of  a dense forest.  The family living there tend his wounds and put him to bed.  His gratitude soon turns to fear, as the “parents” disappear and he is left in charge of three children who have no intention of letting him leave.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Much as I love this film I doubt it makes the final cut.  Yes, it’s odd, beautiful and moving, but it could stand more ruthless editing, something it shares with the director’s previous Antarctic Journal.  The storyline is predictable in parts, especially if you’ve seen a number of “bad seed” films.  The style makes it stand out but, honestly, some of the weird scares seem to be a little misplaced.  Hansel and Gretel‘s weirdness seems tattooed on rather than bred in the bone.

COMMENTS: Watching Hansel and Gretel is like settling down to enjoy a nice cup of tea and a fondant fancy, only to discover that your cake is crawling with ants.  The set design is fascinating; wherever you look there is some odd detail  that catches the eye.  The color palette is lush, just the green of the woods is breathtaking.  The score is beautiful, composed by Byung-Woo Lee, who also composed the music for the sublime Tale Of Two Sisters.

In short this is a quality production, clearly made with love.  What prevents it from quite firing on all cylinders is the plot, which is a little predictable.  Sinister children with dangerous powers are something of a staple of the science-fiction and horror genres, and anyone who’s seen or read a few such stories will be fairly confident about where this is headed.  From the moment Eun-Soo sets foot in the fairy tale cottage where every day is Christmas Day and the decor makes your retinas bleed, our suspicions are roused.  They’re all but confirmed by the behavior of the “parents”.  Their rictus grins and desperate eyes scream that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  They handle their “son” as if he’s a box of sweaty gelignite and Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: HANSEL AND GRETEL (2007)

CAPSULE: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

DIRECTED BYSpike Jonze

FEATURING: Max Records, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose,

PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.

STill from Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.

COMMENTS:  It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.

Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character.  Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.

The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

“I’m more interested in truth than in reality.”—Guillermo del Toro, Time Out interview

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Álex Angulo

PLOT:  While blood trickles backwards from the ground into a prone girl’s nostril, a voiceover tells of a princess of the Underworld who escaped to the mortal realm and forgot her divinity. We then meet Ofelia, an eleven-year old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a brutal Captain in the employ of the dictator Franco, who is hunting the Communist/Republican resistance hiding in the forest around a Spanish mill. With her mother’s difficult pregnancy and the cruel Captain’s indifference to her needs, Ofelia’s life becomes intolerable, until she is visited by a faun who promises to restore her to her rightful place as an immortal fairy princess if she can complete three tasks.

Still from Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

<BACKGROUND:

  • Despite the English language title, the faun in the movie is not the Greek nature god Pan.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth is intended as a “companion piece” to del Toro’s 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, which also features the experiences of an imaginative child during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Del Toro has tended to alternate making artistic, genre-tinged, Spanish language movies with smarter-than-usual big budget Hollywood fantasy projects. He followed the innovative Mexican vampire movie Cronos (1993) with Mimic (1997), and the psychological ghost story The Devil’s Backbone [El Espinazo del Diablo] (2001) with Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), before returning to his Latin roots in 2006 with El Laberinto del Fauno. Since then he has made Hellboy II: The Golden Army and is slated to direct the upcoming live-action version of The Hobbit. If he holds true to form, we can expect another daring Spanish language film to follow his Tolkien adaptation.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth was in competition for the Golden Palm at Cannes, but the fantasy lost to Ken Loach’s Irish troubles drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but lost to the German Communist-era drama The Lives of Others.
  • Despite not winning any major awards, eight top critics—including Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and Mark Kermode—selected El Laberinto del Fauno as the best film of 2006. With a 98% positive ranking, Metacrtitic considers it the second best reviewed film of 2006 (trailing only Army of Shadows, a lost 1969 Italian classic re-released in the United States in 2006).
  • Perhaps the most gratifying praise the movie received was a reported 22 minutes of applause from the Cannes audience.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The Pale Man, murderer of children, who sits eternally in front of an uneaten banquet with his eyeballs lying on a golden plate in front of him.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDPan’s Labyrinth is the textbook example of our rule that the better a movie is, the less weird it has to be to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. On one level, by blending a realistic wartime drama with a fairy tale that could almost be viewed as a conventional fantasy, the movie could be seen as merely novel, rather than weird. The way that Ofelia’s “fantasy” terrors bleed into and ominously echo the real world horrors of Franco’s Spain creates a sort of a weird resonance even when we are lodged in the “real” plot. The film is also suffused with weirdness’ close cousin, ambiguity, in that it never proves the realm of fairies and fauns to be a phantasmagoria; the evidence is deliberately conflicting on whether these wonders are all in Ofelia’s  head or not. The film is filled with masterful, memorable, visionary images, such as the moving mandrake root that resembles a woody baby and the giant toad that coughs out its own innards, though such marvels might be glimpsed briefly in a regulation fantasy films. Those elements are enough to nudge Pan’s Labyrinth from a mainstream fantasy in the direction of the surreal, but it’s the nightmare centerpiece with the Pale Man that tips Pan‘s scales into the weird.


Original (and somewhat misleading) trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth

COMMENTS:  You can have brilliant cinematography, masterful acting, awe-inspiring Continue reading 40. PAN’S LABYRINTH [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO] (2006)

37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

“…Gilliam fearlessly brings the logic of children’s literature to the screen.  Plunging headfirst into history, myth, legend, and fairy tale, Gilliam sends his characters—a boy and six good-natured if rather larcenous little persons (i.e. seven dwarves)—careening through time-twisting interactions with Napoleon, Robin Hood, and Agamemnon (played, respectively, by Ian Holm, John Cleese, and Sean Connery).  The landscape is populated by the giants, ogres, and sinister crones of legend and fairy tale, all in the service of Gilliam’s weird, ecstatic vision.”–Bruce Eder, “Time Bandits” (Criterion Collection essay)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, , , Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Sean Connery, , Katherine Helmond,

PLOT:  11-year old Kevin is largely ignored by his parents, who are more interested in news about the latest microwave ovens than in encouraging their son’s interest in Greek mythology.  One night, a gang of six dwarfs bursts into his bedroom while fleeing a giant floating head, and Kevin is swept up among them and through an inter-dimensional portal in their scramble to escape.  He finds that the diminutive and incompetent gang is tripping through time robbing historical figures using a map showing holes in the space-time continuum of the universe that they stole from the Supreme Being; things get complicated when Evil devises a plan to lure the bandits into the Time of Legends in order to steal the map for himself.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Time Bandits is the first movie in what is known as Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” or “Trilogy of Dreams.”  It deals with the imagination in childhood; the second movie, the bleak Brazil (1985), with adulthood; and the third, Baron Munchausen (1989) with old age.  Gilliam did not intend from the beginning to make three films with similar themes; he only noticed the connection between the three films later, after fans and critics pointed it out.
  • Gilliam began the script in an attempt to make something marketable and family-friendly, since he could not find anyone interested in financing his innovative script for Brazil.  The success of the idiosyncratic Time Bandits allowed Gilliam to proceed making imaginative, genre-defying films.
  • The film was co-written by Gilliam with his old Monty Python’s Flying Circus mate Micheal Palin, who is responsible for the snappy dialogue.
  • Ex-Beatle George Harrison helped finance the film, served as executive producer, and is credited with “songs and additional material” for the movie.  Only one Harrison composition is featured, “Dream Away,” which plays over the closing credits.
  • Gilliam shot the entire movie from a low angle to give an impression of a child’s-eye view of the world.
  • Sean Connery was not originally intended to appear in the final scene, but was meant to appear in the final showdown with Evil.  The actor’s schedule did not allow him to appear when the battle was being shot, but Connery suggested that he could play a role in the final scene.  His second, quite memorable, role consists of two shots, filmed in an afternoon.
  • A low budget release, Gilliam’s film cost about $5 million to make but grossed over $42 million.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The avenging floating head of God appearing out of a cloud of smoke.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  As an utterly original blend of history, comedy and theology wrapped in Monty Pyhton-eque verbal sparring and presented as a children’s fable, Time Bandits starts with a weird enough design.  As the film continues and the bandits journey from history into myth, the proceedings get more mysterious and existential, until the flick winds up on a shatteringly surreal climax that is bleak enough to supply the most well-adjusted of kiddies with years of nightmares.  As the tagline says, it’s “All the dreams you’ve ever had—and not just the good ones.”


Original theatrical trailer for Time Bandits

COMMENTS: Sandwiched between the Biblical parody of Life of Brian (1979) and the Continue reading 37. TIME BANDITS (1981)

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat

19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays. He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to Continue reading 19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)