“When I’m making my art, it really doesn’t help me to think about the definitions of what I’m doing. So what I do comes out ridiculous, or funny, or weird. That’s because the world is ridiculous, funny, and weird.”–Boots Riley
DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley
FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover
PLOT: Cassius Green can’t find a job and needs to pay bills, so he hires on at a telemarketing firm. Once he learns to use his “white voice,” he discovers he has a preternatural gift for selling, and while his co-workers stage a strike, he is promoted to a “Power Caller” selling questionable services to obscenely wealthy clients. When he reaches the top rung of the corporate ladder, the CEO of the company offers him a morally repugnant deal.
Director Boots Riley was a rap musician, music producer, political activist, and former telemarketer for more than twenty-five years before writing and directing this, his first feature film. It was workshopped at the Sundance writing lab.
The idea for Sorry to Bother You originated from an unused song concept where Riley would rap as a telemarketer selling slave labor. In 2012 his hip-hop band The Coup produced an album of the same name inspired by the then-unfinished screenplay.
An early version of the screenplay was published in McSweeney’s magazine in 2014.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We don’t want to describe it, because it’s a spoiler. Just prepare for a shock after Cassius snorts a huge line of—cocaine?—off a plate decorated with a horse. Besides that, the iconic image for marketing purposes is Cassius in a business suit with his head bandaged and a circle of red soaking through, iconography suggesting a blend of the corporate and the revolutionary.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Commentary by earring; Mr. ___; equisapien MLK
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9.
Alternate promotional trailer for Sorry to Bother You
“I’ve never been so high in my life!”–Bibi in The Apple
DIRECTED BY: Menahem Golan
FEATURING: George Gilmour, Catherine Mary Stewart, Vladek Sheybal
PLOT: Alfie and Bibi are a naive duo of musicians from Moose Jaw, Canada. Mr. Boogalow, a Faustian music producer who controls the entire world’s music industry with his BIM corporation, tries to sign them to a contract; Alfie refuses, but Bibi is seduced by the lure of fame. Bibi becomes the world’s biggest pop star as Boogalow extends his influence to government, forcing all citizens to wear a “Bimmark” or be fined; Alfie tries to win her back.
Together with his cousin, Yolam Globus, The Apple screenwriter/director Menahem Golan ran the Cannon Group, which produced hundreds of B-movies in the 1980s. Golan personally directed 46 films and produced or co-produced over 200. Some of the films Cannon later produced or distributed included Jean-Luc Godard‘s King Lear, The Company of Wolves, andLifeforce, along with exploitation movies featuring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and a handful of lucrative ninja movies. Their story is told in the 2014 documentary The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. The Apple was made near the beginning of their moviemaking careers.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Alfie’s vision of glam-rock Hell, featuring Napoleon, a dancing chorus of the damned, and a giant plastic apple, with a Roger Daltrey clone in a gold lamé G-string serving as master of ceremonies. It’s all capped off by the moment when an actual, actual, actual vampire (with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and a sheer periwinkle scarf) pops into the frame, displaying her fangs and jazz claws, cocking her head, and generally acting like a vampiric village idiot.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: An actual, actual, actual vampire; pop dictatorship; deus ex Cadillac.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This science-fictiony musical satire/religious allegory is an attempt to cash in on the camp credibility of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with the disco sensibility and glittery production values of Xanadu (also made in 1980). The results are spectacularly uneven: the bizarre costuming, choreography, and psychedelic production numbers are actually pretty good in their deliberate excess, the songs range from annoying to hummable, and the rushed, out-of-left-field messianic ending is an unforgettable cinematic disaster.
“The reason Fox found it unwieldy — the scabrous humor about the music industry, the unhappy love story and the weirdness of some of the characters — are exactly the reasons why people love it now.”–Gerrit Graham on Phantom of the Paradise (quoted in the New York Times)
PLOT: Swan is the world’s most powerful music producer, who dreams of opening a grandiose concert venue called the Paradise, while Winslow is a composer who has created a rock cantata version of “Faust.” Swan steals Winslow’s work; while seeking revenge, an accident disfigures Winslow’s face and destroys his vocal cords. Now wearing a mask, Winslow takes up residence in the basement of the Paradise and strikes a deal with Swan to rewrite the opera for Phoenix, a female singer whom both men lust after.
Although Brian De Palma became famous for thrillers and action movies like Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission Impossible, he began his career making subversive underground comedies, and his earliest films for major studios were oddball farces. Phantom of the Paradise marks the apex of De Palma’s comedic phase; his next film would be the horror hit Carrie, following which he would largely abandon his burlesque and experimental impulses.
De Palma was inspired to write a satire on the commercialization of rock music when he heard a Muzak version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in an elevator.
Paul Williams, a successful songwriter who had penned hits for The Carpenters, wrote and performed the soundtrack (dubbing in William Finley’s singing voice). Williams was originally cast in the role of Winston, but asked to play Swan instead, and proved a natural for the role.
The movie was a financial flop, but Williams’ score was nominated for an Academy Award.
A bizarre bit of trivia: although Phantom was a box office bomb, for some reason it was immensely popular in Winnipeg, Canada, where it played screens on and off for over a year. (I like to imagine famous weird Winnipegian Guy Maddin, who would have been about 18 at the time, was a repeat customer).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the assassination of Beef, who is killed in improbable fashion by a neon lightning bolt. To ecstatic applause from the spectacle-hungry audience. Not only is it an unforgettable sight, it’s also the moment when the operatic Phantom solidifies its weird credentials.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a wadded-up plot of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Faust,” with a bit of “Dorian Gray,” rolled up into a music biz satire ball and sprinkled with a dusting of crazy.
Edgar Wright commentary on the original trailer for Phantom of the Paradise (from Trailers from Hell)
FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Clémence Poésy, Nikita Mistry, Eddie Marsan
PLOT: A photographer with a disfiguring heart-shaped birthmark on his face sees demons on
the streets of London, then is drawn into a Faustian bargain with a sinister being known as “Papa B.”
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not weird enough. Although the ending delivers a sudden load of psychological ambiguity, and the middle section contains great eerie moments and dreamlike images, Heartless‘ odd tone too often results from the uneasy attempt to mix an arthouse character study with standard horror film tropes.
COMMENTS: For better or worse, expectations make a difference in appraising movies. If Heartless had been the work of a first time director, it would be a promising debut; as Philip Ridley‘s first new film in 14 years, it actually arrives as a very slight disappointment. Whenever Heartless falters, there’s the temptation to ascribe the failing to directorial rust rather than to inexperience, and to wonder what Heartless might have amounted to if Ridley had kept up his cinematic chops all these years. That’s not to say Heartless is a bad film, just one that fails to live up to its promise. It starts off with an intriguing setting: London (in the near future?) is literally Hell on Earth. The urban decay on display goes way beyond shoplifting chavs and the litter of graffiti covering every public surface; the gangs prowling the streets setting little old ladies on fire are actually demons, wearing hoodies to cover their reptilian features. Our protagonist, photographer Jamie, is one of a few who has accidentally caught a glimpse of their real visages; this supernatural vision doesn’t make as much of an impression on him as you might guess, however, as he’s more preoccupied with his own problems, in the form of a disfiguring birthmark which makes him hide his face from all but his closest relatives. After a long, but not particularly deep, session of character development, things start cooking 40 minutes in when out of the blue Jamie gets a call from a mysterious “Papa B.” Papa B lives in an apartment in a tenement tower building in London (the one with the eerie green glow coming through the window) where he recruits new hoodie-wearing hoodlums to go out and spread chaos in the streets in return for the favors only he can provide. Papa B’s lair, with its distressed walls and bizarre lighting schemes, is a masterpiece of low-key nightmare set design; the entity himself is portrayed by a scary-as-hell Joseph Mawle with a narcotic detachment. Living with him in the flat is Belle, a young East Indian girl who seems to know Jamie’s family history intimately and immediately bonds with him; she plays good cop to Papa B’s bad cop, and the pair’s seduction of Jamie is Heartless‘ high point, dreamlike and freaky. Things cool off down the stretch, however, as the deal not unexpectedly turns rotten for Jamie, and the script dabbles in gratuitous jump scares and other horror movie clichés (including a victim whose incomprehensible stupidity makes him complicit in his own demise). A visit from a Satanic Cockney bureaucrat known only as “the Weapons Man” livens things up before the movie trickles to a conclusion. Suddenly abandoning the supernatural for a symbolic psychological explanation of Jamie’s torments, the ending proves unsatisfying because we don’t actually know his psychology well enough to respond emotionally to the resolution. The threat from the once omnipotent Papa B simply fades away, and we get a flashback to a maudlin speech from Jamie’s dead father about darkness and stars that illuminates nothing. Heartless winds up as a familiar Faustian fable with a trio of extraordinary diabolical characters (Papa B, Belle and the Weapons Man) and some wonderful sets (the mad tenement apartment, the streets of London glowing sickly yellow as midnight approaches). The results are worthwhile, and individual scenes are knockouts, but it feels like there’s a classic weird horror tale lurking inside this movie that just can’t quite burst out if its shell.
Director Philip Ridley debuted in 1990 with the Certified Weird The Reflecting Skin, the strange story of a troubled boy who believes his neighbor is a vampire. In twenty years Ridely has only completed three feature films, but the polymath has kept busy, writing nine children’s novels, thirteen plays for adults and children, and seeing three major exhibitions of his photographs.
PLOT: A grim “Everyman” is lured to a decaying theater and prompted to re-enact an adaptation of the Faust legend, with the lines of reality and fiction frequently skewed.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Svankmajer offers a strange and twisted version of the famous story with little in the way of exposition or explanation. Humans interact with claymation figures and life-size puppets, the scenery changes without warning from theatrical sets to real-life exteriors, and mysteries and ambiguities abound. While the foundations of the Faust tale are definitely there, they’ve been contorted and disguised into true Svankmajer surrealism.
COMMENTS: I haven’t actually read any of the multiple versions of the Faust legend (most notably adapted by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe), so Svankmajer’s film was my introduction. The wordless opening depicts a sullen middle-aged man who is given a map with a red dot. After some strange happenings in his apartment, he decides to follow it and ends up in a dark theater populated by a silent crew and an array of stop-motion oddities. For reasons unknown, he dresses himself up as Faust and begins reading the script aloud, eventually making his way to a stage facing a recently-assembled audience. He gets stage fright and abandons the costume and stage, but continually finds himself back in character, summoning the devil’s demonic aid Mephisto, signing away his soul, and generally making a black magical mess of things. His real life merges seamlessly with his performance, as he switches back and forth between puppet form and human form, painted backdrops and the streets of Prague.
What makes Faust so puzzling is the lead character’s complete refusal to question what is happening to him—the viewer is in the dark for the entirety of the film, left to either coax out some explanation for the events onscreen or abandon any attempt at making sense of things (I opted for the latter). Our Everyman is compelled to act out the legend, with demonic apparitions and mysterious sights appearing in both the “stage” version and his supposedly real life, casting a dreamlike shadow over all of the proceedings. Two silent and conniving fellows follow him around, manipulating his actions without clear motivation. Like a more horrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the protagonist seems lost and aimless until he is speaking pre-penned lines out of a Faust script, eventually becoming the character he speaks for simply because there is little other choice. His strange experience is revealed to be cyclical: a host of unassuming “Everymen” have surely fallen prey to Faust‘s allure.
Regardless of the story’s meandering, perplexing structure, the imagery alone is enough to captivate any weird viewer. A clay baby forms itself out of an hourglass and proceeds to evolve through all the stages of life; huge wooden heads roll down a mountain path and assemble themselves into puppet forms of an angel and a devil; a restaurant table inexplicably spouts wine; a host of puppet royalty drowns in a painted sea; Mephisto takes on the eerily sculpted appearance of Petr Cepek when he speaks; a team of ballerinas harvest hay in unison; a human man gets down and dirty with a wooden devil disguised as a female puppet. It’s all there, and more! Along with, of course, Svankmajer’s noted ear for terrific and often unsettling sound effects.
It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s imaginative: Faust transforms a familiar tale into a strange and compelling dream. The words remain true to the source material, but all of the visuals are wonderfully bizarre and often without precedent.
FEATURING: Vladek Sheybal, Catherine Mary Stewart, George Gilmour
PLOT: An innocent pair of Canadian folk singers/lovers split up when the female falls under the spell of a Mephistophelean pop music promoter in this “futuristic” (set in 1994) musical fantasy.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: How do you solve a problem like The Apple? This science-fictiony musical satire/religious allegory is an obvious attempt to cash in on the camp credibility of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with the disco sensibility and glittery production values of Xanadu (also made in 1980). The results are spectacularly uneven: the bizarre costuming, choreography, and psychedelic production numbers are actually pretty good in their deliberate excess, the songs range from annoying to quite hummable, and the rushed, out-of-nowhere messianic ending is an unforgettable cinematic disaster. With RHPS already taking up a spot on the List in the “fantastical outré musical” category, I’m not sure that this similar (but less entertaining) movie is worthy of making it on the first ballot. It’s more of a second tier midnight movie; but I wouldn’t rule The Apple out altogether.
COMMENTS: The Apple pulls you in many different directions: you’re never quite sure whether to tap your toes, roll your eyes, drop your jaw, or bring up your lunch. The plot, which mixes old MGM backstage musical themes with the Faustian corruption of show-biz innocents and a touch of dystopian literature, is familiar and easy to follow; it’s the production numbers that strangify things. The easiest way to simulate the insanity of The Apple is to take a track-by-track guided tour of the film.
“BIM’S on the Way.” (Representative lyric: “there ain’t no shame…”). A full scale glam rock concert anthem, complete with dozens of backup singers, flashing multicolored lights, a disco ball, and a sheep-like chanting audience armed with green glowsticks, as two pop stars in sequined skullcaps screech out a propaganda ode to their corporate sponsor (B.I.M. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE APPLE (1980)→
PLOT: A 1000 year-old mystic enlists the help of a seedy amnesiac to save his daughter, whose life he exchanged for eternal youth, from the clutches of the Devil.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a return to extreme fantasy for Terry Gilliam, who hasn’t delved so deep into the realm of untethered imagination since The Adventures of Baron Muchausen. It is a madcap vaudevillian escapade that is anything but ordinary, a rekindling of the fires of whimsy in modern cinema that has not been lit in some time. Gilliam conjures a tale that comes from the divine and the pedestrian, fills it with colorful, albeit thin, characters, and lets the magic happen as the elements coalesce into a Victorian sideshow of epic proportions.
COMMENTS: Set over a thousand years of the titular character’s life (although it’s mostly set in modern day England), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical meditation on choices: good ones, bad ones, the weight-laden overabundance of decisions we all face at some point, and the demeaning lack of options we also experience. From literal metaphors involving people choosing their destinies in a realm of imagination to the figurative posturings of the opposition between that which is right and that which is merely easy, director Terry Gilliam muses in this film on the ages-old dilemma of free will and how these characters will go about using it.
But forget about that! What everyone wants to know is how well they shoe-horned in all of Heath Ledger’s stand-ins during post-production! As you’re well aware, I’m sure, this is the final performance of the late, great Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died during the production of this feature, leaving his role, that of the amnesiac Tony, woefully incomplete. Gilliam, being ever the professional, and no stranger to ill circumstances Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009)→
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