Tag Archives: Musical

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CATS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tom Hooper

FEATURING: Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan… (Indeed, the cast list is so talent-heavy you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone with an entertainment award.)

PLOT: Meow.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Not only did “they” pull the trigger on this one, they emptied all six of the chambers. From the opening nonsense of cat-people-cats spouting the word “jellicle” like it was going out of style, up through to the finale where I swear they send off one of their own to her death, the cataclysm just wouldn’t stop.

COMMENTS: As might be expected of a man of my disposition, I am the owner of cats–two, to be precise. One of them featured in a review of mine some months ago. The other has joined me on a number of occasions while I watched other assignments. So perhaps it was this that led me to volunteer my time and sanity, and sit through a musical that I had mostly knew about from the context of a classic Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. But the transformation I underwent during the movie was comparable to that which bunches of A-list actors and celebrities went through to become Cats.

I could discuss the finer points of the plot here, but I’ll spare you my narrative discourse. If you know anything about Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s iconic work, you’ll know there isn’t really a story. It’s merely a showcase for descriptions of various “types” of cats found about London. (This geographic limitation may explain why the particular archetypes of my own cats weren’t explained to me in song form.) Moreso, you knew whether or not you were the kind of person who’d want to see Cats by the time the first hints of its production sprang up.

And why was this movie made? In a way, I think that it had to be. Some critics complain ad nauseum that everything these days is a remake, sequel, or adaptation, but this has been the norm since the earliest days of cinema. As to how the producers got all these big names on board, I do not know; but then, perhaps you have to agree to performing in Cats if you are asked. However, I can say that I didn’t leave the cinema thinking any less of any of the parties involved, and was actually quite pleased with Idris Elba’s performance as the only two+ dimensional character of the bunch.

I was in a something of a manic state during the drive home as I reflected what I had just gone through. About fifty-five minutes into the movie, I glanced at my watch for the first time and nearly recoiled in terror. After all the song and dance I had watched these “jellicles”1 go through, I was only half-way through. Around that time I noticed two things: first, there was an intermittent but persistent clicking coming from one of the right-hand speakers; second, the latter half went by far more quickly than the first. I don’t know if it’s a testament to the powers of Eliot + Webber + Hooper, or testament to brain damage I suffered five-and-a-half years ago, but I actually started to care about these things. The end of times, to be sure.

So to the other staff at 366, I apologize for putting us on the hook for this. To everyone else: Happy Christmas, Io Saturnalia, and Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cathulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In fairness to the general Cats reaction, the trailer—and indeed, I can say now, the whole movie—is bizarre-looking and freakish and garish and off-the-rails/all-over-the-place and bombastically beyond the scope of fanbrat respectability/acceptability. But here’s the thing: those are points of praise.” -Mike McPadden, Daily Grindhouse (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: K-12 (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:  Melanie Martinez, Alissa Torvinen

FEATURING: Melanie Martinez, Emma Harvey

PLOT: A girl with superpowers is sent to “K-12,” a school run by despots who control the students with propaganda and medication.

Still from K-12 (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s basically an elaborate music video aimed at teenage girls, a lesson in lightly weird fantasy that will hopefully prime them for much stranger stuff later on.

COMMENTS: One of the unanticipated benefits of aging is that you’re no longer involuntarily exposed to pop music of the day and (unless you’re cursed with a teenage daughter) you can proceed through life blissfully unaware of the beats that set young feet to dancing. So, it’s with some perverse pride that I can say, until stories about her releasing a free movie—a reputedly weird one—started dropping on social media, I didn’t know who platinum-selling artist Melanie Martinez was.

Martinez is 24 years old, but her music aims at a younger audience. Her trademark look is her two-toned hair, split into brunette and blond (sometimes pink) hemispheres. K-12 is her second full-length album, and this accompanying feature-length movie version incorporates all the songs. In K-12 Martinez plays a character named “Cry Baby,” (also the title of her first album) a childlike alter-ego of uncertain age. The songs deal with topics like bulimia, body image, pervy teachers, and boys.

It’s not G-rated fluff; there’s plenty of casual cussing, cannabis references, and adult content. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter (and kids today do have it hard), this is not quite the tween girl’s version of The Wall. But it does have a reasonable amount of music video-inspired strangeness to it. There’s not a lot of plot—it’s more a series of grammar school-based tableaux—but it’s not just an abstract “visual album,” either. Martinez creates a linking narrative, and it can be bizarre. Despite the fact that she’s a beautiful woman, she successfully casts herself as an outsider by focusing on her one physical flaw: she’s teased for her gap teeth. She’s not one of the cool girls, but an actual freak; along with some of her outcast friends, Cry Baby has Carrie-like telekinetic powers (although don’t look for any buckets of pigs’ blood, which would be a little too gross for the aesthetic she’s going for here). Mean girls and despotic administrators provide foils. Cry Baby also has plenty of potential male suitors, although her most important relationships are with her female friends.

The art direction is aggressively pink, right down to the school bus that hauls the kids away to the sleepaway school. Wardrobe and decor is wistfully Victorian (it’s all inspired by Lolita fashion). The hare-headed proctors suggest “.” is an obvious inspiration for the look. The politics are naively progressive, and sometimes shoehorned in clumsily (Martinez throws in a black lives matter protest, a trans teacher, and outrage over the lack of free tampons in the girls’ bathroom). The choreography starts out slow, but turns into a strong point by the end, even including an aqua ballet a la Esther Williams at one point. The music is… not my thing. And while none of this sounds especially promising, there are a good number of pleasantly surreal bits sprinkled through the production numbers: a flying school bus. A chalk-sniffing teacher. A ghost who gives advice about self-actualization and reincarnation. Melanie’s nipple-free topless scene. Eyeball-swapping. A snap-off skull. Magic spit bubbles. One young fan commented “this had a lot of weird, almost too much.”

I suspect most of our readers aren’t in K-12‘s target demographic. But there’s a wide world of weird out there, and it’s always good to start young. K-12 may not be especially deep or sophisticated, but it is pretty and off-the-wall. Martinez deserves some praise for attempting something with more artistic ambition than her audience requires of her.

K-12 was originally offered for free on YouTube, although that deal expired after a few weeks. You can still catch it with a YouTube Premium or Amazon Prime subscription, however. Martinez promises two followup movies to continue the Cry Baby saga.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’re settling in for a candy-colored PSA, things get very, very weird.”–Mike Wass, Idolator (contemporaneous)

1*. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

Katakuri-ke no kôfuku

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida,

PLOT: The Katakuri clan retires to a remote mountain area to run a bed and breakfast, but the place seems cursed, as every guest who stays there dies. The Katakuris try to cover up the deaths to avoid bad publicity, while frequently bursting into song and dance numbers.

Still from The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Happiness of the Katakuris is actually a remake (some say a “very loose” remake) of a Jee-woon Kim’s (non-musical) Korean black comedy The Quiet Family.
  • Miike made Katakuris the same year as Visitor Q, an even blacker comedy which also deals with the theme of a “happy” Japanese family. Katakuris and Q were two of a remarkable eight movies the prolific auteur released in 2001.
  • The Happiness of the Katakuris received the highest number of total votes in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it arguably the most popular weird movie left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll have to go with that little claymation yōkai/imp that pops out of a random diner’s soup and falls in love with her heart-shaped uvula—with bizarrely comic results.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Claymation infatuation; reanimated corpse song and dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Katakuri clan came about as close to making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made as possible; we held off honoring them partly because their movie, while weird indeed, was overlong and uneven, and partly because Takashi Miike was already well-represented with three Canonically Weird movies, and it was time to give someone else a shot. The movie’s inclusion on the secondary list of Apocrypha titles was assured, and it’s a highly appropriate choice for the inaugural title in our runners-up category.

Short clip from The Happiness of the Katakuris

COMMENTS: The Happiness of the Katakuris begins with a four-minute scene, which really has nothing to do with the rest of the Continue reading 1*. THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

361. TRUE STORIES (1986)

Recommended

“It’s like ’60 Minutes’ on acid.”–David Byrne describing True Stories

“What time is it? No time to look back.” –The Narrator, True Stories

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

PLOT: An eager outsider (Byrne) visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as they prepare for the state’s 150th anniversary with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Acting as narrator and tour guide, he meets various folks around the area, learning about their relationships, their work at the computer manufacturing plant, and their personal hobbies. The most prominent of the “true stories” is would-be country singer Louis Fyne’s search for love.

Still from True Stories (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • After directing several early Talking Heads videos and learning technical aspects of filmmaking from when assisting on the editing of the Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne wanted to try his hands at making his own narrative feature. Though he knew he wanted to do something involving music, he first created hundreds of drawings of scenes and characters, thinking purely in visual terms. He then added a story with the help of Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley (and some advice from Joan Tewkesbury), inspired by tabloid stories from the Weekly World News as well as the landscape and communities of small town Texas.
  • Though the film is very much Byrne’s baby, he was collaborative in his working method: he and cinematographer Ed Lachman studied recent American photobooks for inspiration and together established a specific visual style centered around flat landscapes and balanced compositions. Actors Jo Harvey Allen (“The Lying Woman”) and Spalding Gray (“Earl Culver”) ad-libbed many of their lines, and most of the talent show and parade were real-life local performers. Byrne’s then-wife Adelle Lutz created the larger-than-life costumes for the shopping mall fashion show.
  • Byrne sought to showcase the talents and creativity of so-called “consumers,” those whom elitists would shut out of the larger cultural conversation because they didn’t have the “right” background or status.
  • American photographer William Eggleston, who is known for elevating color photography as an artistic medium in the 1970s, was invited to the set by Byrne, as his work had inspired the look of the production. Eggleston produced a photo series while visiting the areas of Texas where they were filming and it was released as part of a (now out of print) book featuring the movie’s script and related ephemera.
  • While the album “True Stories” features Talking Heads versions of the soundtrack songs, and “Sounds from True Stories” includes instrumental music from the film, Byrne had always wanted the original cast recording to be released in full. Only with the Criterion release of the film in November 2018 has the album finally been made available.
  • True Stories is Alex Kittle’s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Over an idiosyncratic family dinner, Spalding Gray provides an enthusiastic monologue about the problems of modern life, using various colorful entrees and sides as visual aides for his explanations. As the plates inexplicably light up and the music of a string quartet builds, Gray, in his heavy Rhode Island accent, expounds upon the merging of work and play, and the rapidly developing tech industry in Virgil, ending the speech in a dimly lit family tableaux as he and his children bow their heads in prayer.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avant-garde mall fashion show; conspiracy theory sermon at the Church of the SubGenius; David Byrne aimlessly talking to the audience while driving around Texas

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: His goofy, gangly persona—so out of place in the rural Texas setting—is already weird enough, but really Byrne is exposing the weirdness of everyday life, with eccentric characters, loud costumes, eclectic musical numbers, and a lot of fourth wall breaking. It’s a strange merging of artistic experimentation and down-to-earth themes; the combined effect is both charming and bizarre.


Original trailer for True Stories (1986)

COMMENTS: After imparting a brief overview of the history of Continue reading 361. TRUE STORIES (1986)