Tag Archives: Fantasy

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action1 sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE WANTING MARE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Ashe Bateman

FEATURING: Jordan Monaghan, Josh Clark, Edmond Cofie, Christine Kellogg-Darrin, Nicholas Ashe Bateman

PLOT: Moira, the latest in a matrilineal line, suffers the nightly dream of a hopeful yesterday while enduring the desperate circumstances of her dystopian milieu.

COMMENTS: Imagine yourself outside, idly contemplating the setting sun. You are about to arise to go and do something—anything—when an insect lands on your forearm and begins crawling around. The next thing you know, you’ve been observing it for the better part of ninety minutes, intermittently enthralled by some detail, but mostly in a trance-like state as arm and insect come in and out of focus. Suddenly the insect flies off, heading over the horizon as you gaze placidly in the direction of its escape. So it was with this reviewer and The Wanting Mare.

Moira lives a life of wistful ennui in a rustic hipster’s paradise. Her home is well-worn but soundly constructed. It’s not in the city, but within easy walking distance. And it overlooks a beautiful stretch of coast. Her days are spent milling about, in the house or on the beach, and her nights are spent in town, in the basement of a derelict building. Deep-blue mood bulbs are strung around what was once a dance floor, and a superannuated eight-track player blasts out a live recording of a singer who we eventually learn was Moira’s mother. Moira does not like sleeping, because she always has the same dream.

Nicholas Ashe Bateman (whose full name always showed up wherever I read of him online, so I shall extend this courtesy—up to a point) tips the viewer off right from the start. The film’s opening line, spoken by a dying mother to her infant daughter, is “You’re gonna have a dream.” So will the audience. If “smash cut” refers to scattershot sequences of violence in action movies, then I shall dub whatever NAB is up to “drizzle cut.” Despite concrete scenes of action (mostly dialogue), The Wanting Mare primarily drips micro-scenes together in montages of hypnagogic (a word I looked up exclusively for this sentence) smears of images. Movement along a beach. Swaying to some music. Even the handful of scenes featuring amateur bullet extraction have a lazy, semi-shaky effect.

I’m something of an idiot when in the act of watching a movie, so it took me until the final scene to realize that this story was a parable. I had already begun to forgive the filmmaker for the shambling first half, and this new awareness effectively cleared the faults I had been stacking in my mind. The Wanting Mare‘s plot device is a promise of leaving on a ship that departs this city once a year, a voyage for which you need a white ticket. Time and again, key characters forego an opportunity to escape to a mystical land of horses and winter, in order to live their lives as best they can, and change their world for the better. It took awhile to get there, and I risked falling asleep at times, but when that insect on my arm flew off at the end, I kind of missed it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a gorgeous effort, poetic and somber and dreamlike. But it lacks a central voice, and without that, any real connection with the audience.” -Hope Madden, UK Film Review (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander

PLOT: King Arthur’s nephew Gawain accepts a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight to deliver a blow that will be returned to him in exactly one year.

Still from The Green Knight

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Green Knight reconnects us with the deep weirdness of ancient legends, where even Arthur’s shiny new Christian order cannot banish the strange chthonic magics growing from the world below.

COMMENTS: We find him hungover in a brothel on Christmas morning. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is dissolute, only seated at the Round Table thanks to nepotism. He tells his uncle that he has no stories to tell, but when the half-tree, half-man Green Knight strides into Camelot (summoned, it seems, by witchcraft), he himself will become the tale. Since none of Arthur’s other knights will accept the oaken interloper’s proposed “game” to trade blows—delivered a year apart—with his axe, Gawain, suddenly ambitious to make a name for himself, steps forward and unwisely cleaves the Knight’s head from his trunk. This fails to deter the tree-man, who merely picks up the severed appendage and reminds Gawain of his date one year hence.

Thus begins Gawain’s quest to become a man. The knight’s code of honor Gawain aspires to demands that he keep his word and, although his resolve trembles a bit, he never seriously doubts that he will face his fate. Lowery fills out the sketchy 14th-century poem with some new incidents (which feel authentically Arthurian, like a version of the story of St. Winifred), but his main twist on the ancient legend is to make Gawain human, relatable, a man with feet of clay who nonetheless perseveres in his duty—or one who is pulled forward inexorably by his fate. As with most of The Green Knight, it’s unclear whether Gawain’s willingness to sacrifice himself is noble, or merely predestined. Contradictions abound: the pagan and the Christian exist side by side, an ancient story is told through a modern lens, and green, as Alicia Vikander reminds us in a long poetic speech, is simultaneously the color of life and of death.

There are strange things in the world which defy all logic, and Gawain experiences many of them on his journey. Heads persist separately from their bodies, women pass out magical totems and sashes, corpses hang at crossroads, giants plod along in an inexplicable parade, and a fox joins his quest (and dispenses advice). In every hut and castle along the way, Gawain encounters strange residents who may actually be ghosts, fairies, or magicians. Dreaminess overtakes our hero as he advances towards the Green Chapel, but in the end, only the clear inevitability of the axe-blow awaits. The formalist minimalism of Lowery’s A Ghost Story yields to a fiery maximalism of fantasy, but the dire existential edge remains.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A mystical and enthralling medieval coming-of-age story in which King Arthur’s overeager adult nephew learns that the world is weirder and more complicated than he ever thought possible, ‘The Green Knight’ is an intimate epic told with the self-conviction that its hero struggles to find at every turn. Stoned out of its mind and shot with a genre-tweaking mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it’s also the rare movie that knows exactly what it is, which is an even rarer movie that’s perfectly comfortable not knowing exactly what it is.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

 Ching se

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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu

PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.

Still from Green Snake (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
  • The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.


UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)

COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a Continue reading 18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PINOCCHIO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Matteo Garrone

FEATURING: Federico Ielapi, , Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Maria Pia Timo

PLOT: A traveling puppet show comes to his dusty town, inspiring impoverished Gepetto to make his own marionette; but the wood he uses to craft the boy is alive, and has a deep-rooted wanderlust.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Is it the slow-talking snail-form maid who’s sanguine about the trail of goo she leaves everywhere? Is it the pair of anthropomorphic swindlers, Cat and Fox? Is it that puppets seem to be their own species? Yes, and more: Matteo Garrone’s fusing of fairy tale whimsy with Southern-Italian Gothic realism is what makes Pinocchio so strange. Gepetto crafts a living, sentient son out of wood, and the most the townsfolk can muster is, “We’re happy for you, Gepetto, really, but can stop shouting about it? It’s the middle of the night.”

COMMENTS: Pinocchio‘s climax is a long shot of a boy crashing through a field of wheat, shouting enthusiastically for his father. His joy is palpable; and his many stumbles inspire a chuckle. His reunion with the much put-upon carpenter is heartwarming. And the scene takes a looong time. No storyteller relates the puppet boy’s narrative more thoroughly than Matteo Garrone, which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because, at over two hours, Pinocchio is beyond the patience of its ideal audience; a blessing because the film gives so many wondrous characters and spectacles time to blossom.

Pinocchio’s quest is Homeric in spirit, if not quite in length—though it’s pretty darn close in that way, too. Summary: wooden puppet carved from a magical log, occasional advice proffered by a supernatural cricket, a fairy godmother figure with a pocketful of fresh chances, and much succumbing to temptation. But as in his earlier fantasy (Tale of Tales), Matteo Garrone populates Pinocchio’s world with entities both grotesque and magical. The gloriously named carnival master, Mangiafuoco (“fire eater”) is, in effect, a slave owner. His show’s intricate and well-articulated marionettes are sentient creatures, whose “strings” are merely the restraints of bondage. When a stage puppet spots Pinocchio in the audience, they marvel at his freedom, a freedom Mangiafuoco soon quashes, shanghaiing him first to be part of his act, then to be fuel for his campfire. (“I hated eating half-roasted mutton!”)

These dark entities (the lighter ones, too) inhabit a world best described as “Dust Bowl Fairy Tale.” Beneath a subduing filter, you can see the popping colors used to fill this poverty-stricken milieu. Homes, streets, even the good fairy’s country estate: everything is falling apart. Gepetto is on the cusp of beggary. He uses chisels, adzes, and all the tools of his trade to whittle away at a strange cylinder. We soon learn he is extracting the few remaining edible pieces of cheese from their desiccated wheel. The tragic villains Cat and Fox, who attempt to murder Pinocchio after robbing him, become more desperate and crippled each time we see them.

Carlo Collodi’s original story is a tragic morality tale. While Matteo Garrone scales back the tragedy (a little bit—our boy here, as I’ve spoiled, enjoys a happy ending), his movie is striped throughout with cruelty. It has morality in spades: each time Pinocchio errs—selling his school book to see the puppets; abandoning his father; and, of course, his near-fatal run-in with Mr Butterman, the too-smiling guide to the Land of Toys—he pays heavily for it. But I focus too much on the darkness. Gepetto ridiculously seeks jobs from the innkeeper by nearly breaking his tables, chairs, and door; the young fairy with her snail maid ooze old world wonderment; and Pinocchio laments to Mr. Tuna while in the belly of a giant dogfish, “But I don’t want to be digested!” Pinocchio the film is a bit of slog, but one bursting at the seams with curiosities; not unlike Pinocchio’s journey.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There is so much that Garrone’s Pinocchio appears to resemble: there’s a bit of Tod Browning’s Freaks (and a bit of Frankenstein): echoes of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Old and New Testament… Pinocchio is a thoroughly bizarre story; Garrone makes of it a weirdly satisfying spectacle.” -Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Anonymous, who dubbed it “”a strong Apocrypha candidate, in my opinion.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)