Tag Archives: Dysfunctional family

LIST CANDIDATE: SITCOM (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Évelyne Dandry, , Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez

PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”

COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from ‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.

The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.

While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.

One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

“I asked the actor playing the priest, a very nice actor, ‘Would you mind repeating those lines, but this time would you wear this alien fly head?'”–Neil Jordan, The Butcher Boy commentary track

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eamonn Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw, Sinéad O’Connor, Alan Boyle, Aisling O’Sullivan

PLOT: In flashback, the grown-up Francie Brady describes his childhood in a poor Irish village: the son of a drunk and a depressed mother, he passes his days getting into mischief with his best (and only) friend, Joe. As his home life deteriorates, Francie increasingly blames his stuck-up neighbor Mrs. Nugent for his troubles. His escalating attacks on the poor woman result in him being sent first to a strict Catholic boarding school, then to a mental hospital, as he grows more violent and detached from reality.

Still from the Butcher Boy (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was based on Patrick McCabe’s stream-of-consciousness novel “The Butcher Boy.” McCabe co-wrote the adaptation with director Neil Jordan. The writer also appears in a small role as the town drunk.
  • The title comes from an old folk ballad (probably English in origin) that became popular in Ireland in the 1960s.
  • An uncredited Stephen Rea provides the narration as the adult Francie Brady.
  • One of Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll take any of the visitations from the glowing, foul-mouthed Virgin Mary, played with straight-faced seriousness by Sinéad O’Connor.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy in a bonnet; Virgin Sinéad; ant-head aliens

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With schizophrenic nostalgia, The Butcher Boy starts from an intense, uncompromising subjectivity and jumps down a rabbit hole of boyish delusion.


Original trailer for The Butcher Boy

COMMENTS: Shot on location in postcard-pretty County Monaghan with a cast of locals supplemented by stalwarts like Stephen Continue reading 342. THE BUTCHER BOY (1997)

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: DER BUNKER (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller

PLOT: A Student takes a room with a family who lives in a remote bunker and is convinced to become tutor to the very strange son, Klaus, by his even stranger parents.

Still from Der Bunker (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What is it about German movies starting with “Der” and starring Pit Bukowski? On the heels of Der Samurai comes another strange, psychosexual cry from the German underground, this one based around twisted familial dynamics rather than repressed homosexuality. Der Bunker doesn’t quite hit a home run at writer/director Nikias Chryssos‘s first time at bat, but it lands solidly on base, with more than enough surprises to keep lovers of the weird glued to the screen. It’s the kind of debut that makes you suspect great things may come from these quarters in the future. If Der Bunker is the foundation, we can’t wait to see what Chryssos will build once he gets some funds to work with. Get in on the ground floor.

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises hiding in Der Bunker. The film keeps Klaus hidden in the opening reels; he’s first seen in a longshot at the breakfast table. The next time we glimpse him—which is the first time the Student sees him—he is kept in the shadows. Later we only catch sight of him sitting in the corner, or see him from behind in his too-small pajamas, sleeping or brushing his teeth. It’s not until about the 18-minute mark that we get a good look at Klaus. Mother, too, keeps her secrets under wraps until the film’s musty atmosphere has had some time to seep in to the viewer’s consciousness. That means that Der Bunker‘s opening belongs to Student Pit Bukowski—the intruder/hostage from the world outside the bunker—and to Father David Scheller, who serves as a sort of butler who slowly acclimates us to the oddities lurking in the family cellar.

With only four characters (not counting Heinrich, about whom the less said the better) in a single claustrophobic setting, Der Bunker relies on its actors to have any chance of success. Fortunately, they do not let us down. Bukowski, whose last role was a mystical transvestite samurai, proves that he can play a straight lead as well as the eccentric, leaving the scene-stealing to others while serving instead as the audience’s surrogate. Scheller, playing Father, is the comic relief: with his spindly build and mustache his physically recalls a Teutonic it’s like seeing Basil Fawlty show up in Dogtooth. He’s an affable host who washes his new tenant’s feet, but who also keeps a ledger of each individual dumpling his lodger eats. Although Father is the first member of the family the Student encounters, it gradually appears that Mother (Oona von Maydell) wears the pants in the family. A perfectly pale and prim domestic type on the surface, she is gradually revealed to be disturbed, deformed, desirable and manipulative, an Oedipal puppeteer who is perhaps a puppet herself. As 8-year old (?) Klaus, Daniel Fripan, in a blond bowl haircut, gets the plum role. The poor boy is sympathetic as only an underdeveloped child can be: his parents envision him as a future President, despite the fact that he cannot remember a single world capital. A product of a parental love and ambition so overwhelming that it has the same effect as neglect, he’s so doggedly unremarkable that he becomes unforgettable, and the friendship that develops between he and the Student is as touching as it is strange.

As a child, staying over at a friend’s house for the first time is always a slightly weird experience. The wallpaper is different, meal times and bedtimes are all wrong, and your friend’s mom collects strange figurines. You suddenly realize that there are other ways of doing things than the way your family has always done them, that there are other styles of parenting besides the one you are accustomed to. Der Bunker might be a grown up take on that experience, except that in the Student’s case, the whole adventure is not just a sleepover novelty—through adult eyes, he can see that the way this family goes about its business is not just different, but wrong. Der Bunker is a joke on the insularity of the nuclear family and its impenetrability to the outsider. It’s a joke that naturally turns into a nightmare, because even if you’ve been taken into someone else’s home, you’re not really a part of it—unless you adjust to their customs, which can be, let’s say, stressful.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Der Bunker lets you interpret the film’s meaning yourself, but even if you come up blank, the ride is a bizarre enough oddity to keep you wanting more.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival screening)

192. LEOLO (1992)

“Parce que moi je rêve, je ne le suis pas.” (“Because I dream, I am not.”)–Léolo

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Claude Lauzon

FEATURING: Maxime Collin, Yves Montmarquette, Pierre Bourgault, Ginette Reno, Giuditta Del Vecchio, Julien Guiomar

PLOT: Young Léo Lauzon lives in Montreal with his dysfunctional family; he has an active imagination which he uses to escape from his squalid surroundings. He insists that his name is actually Léolo and that he is Italian, inventing a story that his mother was impregnated by a tomato contaminated with semen. He lusts after a neighbor girl (as does his grandfather) and tags along on salvage operations with his bodybuilding older brother in-between trips to the mental hospital to visit other family members; the entire time a mysterious old man hangs around the edges of the story.

Still from Leolo (1992)
BACKGROUND:

  • This was writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon’s second feature film. He died in a plane crash in 1995 while working on his third.
  • Lauzon said the film was semi-autobiographical. Leo’s last name is also Lauzon, which he Italianizes to “Lozone” when he decides he is really Léolo.
  • The “Word Tamer” (or possibly “worm tamer”—“dompteur de vers” in the French may be a pun meaning both “worm” and “verse”) is played by Pierre Bourgault, a Quebecois separatist and professor. Lauzon was once a student of Bourgault’s.
  • Named one of “Time” magazines “All-TIME 100 Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “contaminated” tomato, the film’s most deranged comic invention.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Immaculate conception via imported produce, underwater hallucinations, and bizarre sexual practices reign in the world of Léolo’s imagination. He uses these inventions to escape from an almost equally strange, but far less pleasant, reality.


U.S. release trailer for Léolo

COMMENTS: “Because I dream, I am not,” Léolo‘s young protagonist Continue reading 192. LEOLO (1992)

182. SPIDER BABY (1967)

“In pinning its narrative to a weird family’s desperation to keep its own shadow from touching the outside world, Spider Baby anticipated a score of disparate works… Regardless of what may have inspired it or what subsequent films it may have influenced, Spider Baby remains very much its own animal. Set as it is off to one side of the real world, there’s a timelessness to the film, whose freshness remained sealed in during its decades languishing in obscurity.”–Richard Harland Smith

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, , Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker

PLOT: Merrye Sydrome is a “rare degenerative disorder,” the result of generational incest, which causes mental regression back to a primordial state and… cannibalism! The three Merrye children  are the last of the Merrye line, cared for by their genteel chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney). Together they live relatively peacefully in a dilapidated Gothic mansion, until distant relatives and a sleazy lawyer arrive.

Still from Spider Baby (1967)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although made in 1964, Spider Baby was not released until late 1967, financial difficulties being the primary delay. Director Jack Hill relates that in his first meeting with potential distributors, his entire audience bolted for the exit door within twenty minutes of the screening.
  • Originally, the film was titled Cannibal Orgy: Or, The maddest Story Ever Told, but when picked up for distribution, producer David L. Hewitt changed it to Spider Baby. To add more confusion, it was given yet another title for the drive-in circuit: The Liver Eaters.
  • Jill Banner was only 17 in this, her film debut. Following Spider Baby, Banner she was moderately active in television and, shortly before her death, she was romantically involved with Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, her life and career were cut short when she was killed by a drunk driver in 1982.
  • Hill was so proud of Spider Baby, he planned a sequel, Vampire Orgy. However, the film’s numerous post-production struggles effectively ended those plans.
  • In 2004 Spider Baby was adapted into a successful stage musical, which still plays in large cities.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Veteran character actor Mantan Moreland has a brief field day spoofing his old “spooked black man in haunted surroundings” character as he gets invited to play in Jill Banner’s chilling version of “itsy bitsy spider.” The sight of the dead postman hanging out the window, a victim caught in Virginia’s web, inspires a arched eyebrow from Lon Chaney Jr., and from us.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of Spider Baby is guaranteed right from the opening credits, with a hoarse Chaney singing: “This cannibal orgy is strange to behold/In the Maddest Story Ever Told!” He is not exaggerating.


Jack Hill discusses Spider Baby for “Trailers from Hell”

COMMENTS:  Attempting to describe Spider Baby, critics often compare it to the Little Shop of Horrors, “The Addams Family,” and Eraserhead. Continue reading 182. SPIDER BABY (1967)