Tag Archives: Literary

CAPSULE: L’INFERNO (1911)

DIRECTED BY: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

FEATURING: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano, Emilise Beretta, Augusto Milla

PLOT: In the company of the poet Virgil, Dante Alighieri descends into Hell, where he discovers the variety of malefactors consigned to the netherworld by their misdeeds on Earth and the array of torments visited upon them.

Still from L'Inferno (1911)

COMMENTS: When the pioneers of the Italian film industry set about creating the country’s first feature-length motion picture (a format still in its infancy in 1911), they most decidedly did not screw around. No, they went straight for an adaptation of a foundational piece of literature, the one that did as much as anything to establish the language and the national identity. Without hesitation, they turned to Dante.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. “The Inferno,” the first part of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy, is a true horror story, a warning about the torture that awaits sinners in the afterlife. Part of what made Dante’s work so noteworthy was his willingness to name names. Various popes, Holy Roman Emperors, and other notable figures are depicted, along with their crimes and punishments. And his God is a harsh one: Julius Caesar’s assassins undergo perpetual torment, but Caesar himself was relegated to Limbo, an inferior paradise for those who made the terrible mistake of existing on Earth before Christ. It took a very pure life to stay out of Dante’s Hell, and he was only too happy to reveal the consequences of failure.

If all it took to get on our list was the “Indelible Image” category, L’Inferno would make the cut in a cakewalk. The limited practical and special effects of early cinema yield terrific results, conveying Hell as a real and horrible place in spectacular fashion. The harsh landscapes are difficult to navigate, and usually strewn with writhing bodies in some unholy mix of Hieronymous Bosch paintings and Spencer Tunick photographs. Multiple exposures conjure up rivers in the sky composed of thousands of the damned. Forced perspective brings the travelers into the realm of the mighty and rageful Pluto, and blackout techniques permit one doomed soul to carry his own head. The film’s climactic tableau combines these methods and more to present a three-mouthed Lucifer devouring some of history’s most notorious traitors; it resembles nothing so much as Goya’s grotesque classic “Saturn”. This appears simplistic to modern eyes but remains quite powerful in its effect. It’s as though the filmmakers carefully studied the magical techniques of Georges Méliès for the sole purpose of applying them to horror.

But alas, imagery alone is not enough to make a weird movie. The film of “The Inferno” suffers from the format that inspired it: it’s a travelogue. A travelogue through Hell, but a winding, episodic tour nonetheless. Dante visits a new circle of Hell, Virgil explains what the condemned did on Earth and what fate awaits them now, and we see that fate enacted. There’s not much more to it, so that this work of tremendous faith and contrition is reduced to a haunted house. Hell? It’s pretty bad, say the filmmakers. Rinse and repeat.

L’Inferno is a landmark film, and it creates dramatic and powerful screen pictures that most modern CGI-powered spectacles would be hard-pressed to match. Those pictures are often ugly and monstrous, and the rhythms are repetitive, which is probably why it hasn’t endured like more fantastical or pastoral works of the period. But it certainly deserves to be remembered. To abandon it to history would be a sin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anyone with an interest in the history of cinema should make an effort to seek this film out. Rightly famous, it is quite bizarre, unique and — in a way — haunting.” – Richard Cross, 20/20 Movie Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by “Pete.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DANTE’S INFERNO (2007)

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DIRECTED BY: Sean Meredith

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT: A faithful update of Dante’s “Inferno” to modern times, performed with stick puppets, as 35-year-old Dante is led on a tour of Hell to see the ironic punishments inflicted on various species of sinners.

Still from Dante's Inferno (2007)

COMMENTS: Written in the 1300s, Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia was a comedy in the classical sense: as opposed to tragedy, it had a happy ending (at least for the protagonist, if not for the author’s enemies who get written into eternal punishment). Sean Meredith’s puppet take on Dante is surprisingly faithful to the plot structure of the famous “Inferno” cantos, but he adheres to the modern sense of “comedy”: stuff that makes you laugh. Despite the movie’s literacy, some of the jokes can get pretty lowbrow: told Charon will ferry our travelers across the Styx, contemporary Dante remarks, “I love Styx! Ever hear their ‘Paradise Theater’ album?” Other jokes are more clever: Dante’s city of Dis is now a “planned community.” They even throw in a little “Schoolhouse Rock” style parody (the damned flatterers are housed at a Hellish version of the U.S. Capitol).

The updated time period means that Hell now appears much like Los Angeles (a joke in itself). Modernizing the setting allows the filmmakers to make two kinds of commentaries. On the one hand, they can speculate about new residents who might have taken up quarters in Old Nick’s slums since the original poem text-locked in 1320. Some of the newcomers are obvious: Hitler gets in (along with Ronald Reagan, both condemned for consulting astrologers). So does Condoleezaa Rice (although she’s not named), vacuumed up by Judge Minos for lying about WMDs. The other layer of critique occurs due to the culture clash between ancient medieval morals and post-Enlightenment ethics: Dante naturally wonders why his favorite schoolteacher is condemned to dance to house music for all eternity. And a Muslim cabdriver righteously complains about being condemned as a heretic—and, breaking the fourth wall, about being depicted as a stereotype in a puppet movie.

The production leans hard into the artificiality of its puppet-show presentation (which is a type of adaptation that might actually have been made around Dante’s time). In the very first scene, modern Dante rises from a drunken stupor; no attempt is made to hide the string that pulls the paper figure upright. Throughout, rods and wires and popsicle sticks can be seen pushing and pulling the figures across the crosshatched backgrounds of the world. Dante has an Adam’s apple made from a paper tab that moves independently to show fear. At one point, a puppet is quickly flipped from a calm side to an outraged face to express sudden rage. Then there are the graphically pornographic puppets populating the circle of lust, which must be seen to be believed (Dante certainly would not have approved). The team of puppeteers know all the tricks to this limited art form, but after a while you stop noticing the artifice and simply accept this two-dimensional cardboard landscape as a “real” world. Somehow, the producers attracted recognizable talent for small voice acting roles, including Martha Plimpton as a demonic pimp, Tony Hale as Ovid, and Olivia D’Abo as Beatrice.

The movie is not really that weird—although anyone not familiar with Dante’s original schema might find the concept befuddling—but by taking us on an amusing tour of a newly renovated Hell in a brisk 75 minutes, Dante’s Inferno earns a recommendation for English majors with a sense of humor, both those who love and those who hate The Divine Comedy. Released straight to DVD and never reprinted, Dante’s Inferno is a rare find. If you’re searching for it, beware of purchasing the more abundant Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic (2010) by accident.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weirdly reimagined and raucously updated animated excursion through The Inferno…”–Prairie Miller, Newsblaze (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Leslie Rae, who called it “amazing and hilarious and totally ridiculous.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , , , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is Continue reading 229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

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For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new album,  at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.

Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”

Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), (), (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.

The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.

Still from Midnight in Paris (2011)Gil () is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.

Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.

Next week: Zelig (1983)

189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)

The Ruling Class is a rather… unusual film.”–original trailer to The Ruling Class

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Medak 

FEATURING: , William Mervyn, Carolyn Seymour, , Coral Brown, Alistair Sim, James Villiers

PLOT: The 13th Earl of Gurney dies, leaving Jack, a madman who believes he is God, as his direct heir to inherit his seat in the House of Lords. His relatives scheme to trick Jack into marriage so that he will produce an heir to carry the Gurney line, and then seek to have him declared incompetent and have him committed. Unexpectedly, however, his psychiatrist’s drastic treatment cures Jack, and now that he no longer believes himself to be God, his disposition is not nearly as gentle.

Still from The Ruling Class (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • Peter Barnes adapted the script from his own play. (The play is till occasionally performed; at the time of this writing, was starring in a performance at Trafalgar Studios). Peter O’Toole bought the rights from Barnes, and director Medak convinced O’Toole to exercise his option after a night of hard drinking (naturally).
  • O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
  • The original U.S.theatrical release omitted Carolyn Seymour’s striptease scene so that the film could be released with a PG rating.
  • The Ruling Class‘ VHS release was cut by 13 minutes so that it would fit on a single tape. Some TV broadcasts used the same shortened version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some would say it’s Peter O’Toole as J.C. taking a flying leap off his cross on his wedding day, an image the director liked so much he highlighted it in a freeze frame. We prefer the penultimate hallucination, where the House of Lords is seen as a gallery of cheering corpses and clapping skeletons draped in cobwebs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter O’Toole’s literally insane performance (“bless the pygmy hippos!”), accompanied by frequent hallucinations and left-field musical numbers, turn this literate upper-crust satire from a pointed class parable into something eccentric enough to deserve the designation “weird.”


Original trailer for The Ruling Class

COMMENTS: Although only making it onto film in 1972, the Continue reading 189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)

180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade

FEATURING: , , , Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige

PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.

Still from The Double (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
  • intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
  • Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
  • The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.


Original trailer for The Double

COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make Continue reading 180. THE DOUBLE (2013)