Tag Archives: Musical

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy

FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin

PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
  • Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
  • Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
  • This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
  • The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.


Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)

COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

CAPSULE: PLEASE BABY PLEASE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Amanda Kramer

FEATURING: , Harry Melling, Karl Glusman

PLOT: A gender-bending leather gang awaken unfamiliar desires in a beatnik couple.

Still from Please Baby Please (2022)

COMMENTS: Please Baby Please is queer, defiantly so, in both the new and the old senses of the word. This movie is proud to be what it is—which is a perverted, experimental non-binary comedy/melodrama/musical, or something like that. This is a film that describes itself as featuring “bisexual lighting,” and that somehow makes perfect sense when you see it. It seems like the script was written to answer the question, what would happen if the leather daddies from Scorpio Rising took over the set of West Side Story?

That last connection is referenced explicitly in the movie’s opening scene, where a leather clad gang prowls the streets in finger-snapping rhythm. These aren’t the Sharks or the Jets, though, but the Young Gents, an ultra-macho bunch of reprobates with a dangerously non-hetero vibe. When happily (if platonically) married couple Suze and Arthur come across the gang standing over a couple of freshly beaten corpses on the street right outside their apartment, their libidos are separately ignited by the heart-pounding excitement. Please Baby Please doesn’t feature a lot of narrative; there is an arc to the couple’s journey, but most of it is revealed through oddball exposition (most of the characters in this movie talk like Dead End Kids enrolled in NYU’s Gender Studies masters’ program). Much of the rest comes in musical production numbers: Suze’s sexual awakenings are depicted in a series of musical fantasies, including one where the Young Gents take turns ironing her ass.  We’re also treated to interludes like a drag queen in a Bo Peep bonnet and flowery eyelids singing a love song in a phone booth. The fine musical accompaniment ranges from exotica to mellow acoustic bass jazz to poppy torch songs; the choreography is simple but effective, more dependent on the dancers’ outrageous wardrobes than on the moves they perform. True to the 1950s style, everything is repressed, and there’s little actual sex: we come upon two motorcycle dudes doing nothing more than hugging passionately in the men’s room. The characters do talk dirty, but in the context of gender roles rather than personal desires. Only the final scene breaks the no-onscreen sex rule.

Please Baby Please is obsessed with masculinity. Arthur has built his entire life philosophy around how doesn’t want to be a man, doesn’t want the pressure of always having to be a contestant in a toughness competition with other males. That doesn’t mean he’s not attracted to masculine surfaces, though; to the rippling abs, mesh-clad pecs, and leathery bulges of the Young Gents. The motorcycle gang stands for the masculine ideal in all its muscly, sneering, rough-mannered charm. In 1953, Marlon Brando in The Wild One evoked an outlaw desires for rebellion and domination in female audiences; Tom of Finland was simultaneously (and more lastingly) co-opting the same biker imagery for the gay subculture.  Please Baby Please is aware how ludicrous a caricature of manhood all this chrome and black leather is; that’s precisely why it’s fascinated with this iconography. This objectifying beefcake spectacle is especially weird because it’s shot through multiple lenses: a female director looking at men through the homosexual male gaze.

Handsomely geeky Harry Melling ably handles his duties of playing a closeted homosexual in a rewarding but familiar way, but much of the praise for Please Baby Please comes for Andrea Riseborough, whose over-the-top vamping wins over even the film’s detractors. Her acting choices all seem to be formed by asking the question, “how would Nic Cage play this scene if he were a housewife caught in a sexless marriage?” She gyrates in a corset, howls at the moon, breaks into a spontaneous Bert Lahr impersonation, and acts crazier and crazier (and more and more like a man) as the movie progresses. This risky material could sag limply if not aroused by hyperbole, so it’s hard to imagine the movie succeeding without Riseborough’s committed insanity setting the tone.

‘s cameo was much-hyped, but underwhelming; the most significant thing is the vote of confidence she casts by lending her name to this esoteric project. We did notice an old friend showing up as co-writer: . Please Baby Please is currently in a limited run exclusively in theaters; we’ll update you when it becomes more widely available.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s over-the-top approach and awkward pacing prevent this defiantly bizarre concoction from resonating deeper than its surface fascination. “–Toff Jorgensen, Cinemalogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INU-OH (2021)

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犬王

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Voices of Avu-chan, Mirai Moriyama

PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.

COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.

But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.

Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.

While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This anachronistic rock musical promises a return to the playful, literary surrealism of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) and its 2017 spin-off, ‘Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,’ but comes up short… There are individual sequences that reach the psychedelic heights of Yuasa’s best work. But too often, this tale of the liberating power of art is about as mind-expanding as an early-afternoon set at Fuji Rock Festival.”–James Hadfield, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: BAZ LURHMANN’S ELVIS (2022)

Baz Lurhmann’s first film in 9 years is none other than Elvis (2022), as the entire globe seems to know by now. A summer blockbuster with no superheroes? So it would seem. As soon as the film was announced, a good number of American-variety Elvis fans took to the Internet, alternately expressing outrage and excitement, which validated that we have summer blockbuster material here. Most of the outrage focused on star Austin Butler, whom many compared unfavorably to Elvis (without seeing the film) or even hostility, accusing Butler of trying to replace Elvis. A disconcertingly large percentage of Elvis fans scrape the barrel bottom of all fandoms (and, given the competition from Marvel boys, that’s saying a lot).

Still from Elvis (2022)Since Elvis’ death in 1977, he has become a patron saint for rednecks in double wides, so it’s no surprise that a lot of Elvis fans are dyed-in-the-wool Trumpers. Given that, it’s equally no surprise that his posthumous association with a faction of the zealous WASP demographic has done him considerable harm. Over the last several years, Elvis’ sales have dwindled. Many minority groups see Elvis in a disparaging light, accusing him of cultural appropriation and lumping him together with the most deranged of his fan base. When Lurhmann’s film was announced, Butler wasn’t the only one Elvis fans pounced on. Luhrmann was targeted because of his assumed sexual orientation (“How dare one of ‘them’ make a film about our King?”), as well as Hanks, because he supported Hillary Clinton (cue Qcumbers-styled blood libel).

Of course, Elvis’ late in life supposed conservatism has fueled right-wing fantasies about him. Never mind that he once supported Adlai Stevenson, RFK, and MLK (although, reportedly Elvis never voted, and his 1970 rendezvous with Nixon seems to have been mostly born of a bored little boy fantasy about being a federal drug agent). Opinions are divided on whether 1970s Elvis was really the conservative he is sometimes painted to be. Still, one might argue that the 1950s progressive Elvis was far more innovative than the institutionalized Elvis of his last decade. Regardless, Elvis’ reputation has practically been flushed by Grand Old Party fans.

Mighty Mouse cape intact, here comes that madman Baz Lurhmann to save the day (and he has, with the box office approaching 200 million and Elvis product selling at its best levels since 1977). Still, Luhrmann did not set out to make a typical biopic, and has said that all along. He has a focused, if lean, narrative: the relationship between Col. Tom Parker (Hanks) and Elvis (Butler). Of course, not all films make an altar out of narrative, and Lurhmann has always been a maximalist aesthete. That idea that Elvis is not a biopic has been a source of contention for some of star’s ex-girlfriends (who were not Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: BAZ LURHMANN’S ELVIS (2022)

CAPSULE: NEPTUNE FROST (2021)

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Neptune Frost is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams

FEATURING: Cheryl Isheja, Bertrand Ninteretse (AKA Kaya Free), Elvis Ngabo

PLOT: In an alternate-reality African nation, an escaped coltan miner teams up with an intersexed refugee to hack global information systems through their dreams.

Still from Neptune Frost (2021)
COMMENTS: Neptune Frost‘s scenario involves an authoritarian crackdown in an imaginary African country; a resistance movement composed of university students, refugees, and escaped coltan miners; and global hacking accomplished in dreams. With a first act that indiscriminately flips back and forth between two different on-the-run protagonists, one of whom is played by two actors, and dialogue spoken and sung in five different languages, Neptune Frost loses viewers in its thickets early on. And that’s before the first big musical number—in which a dream spirit transports the dreamer into a black-lit, monitor-lined room festooned with spinning rainbow bicycle wheels and advises him (later her) to “hack” into abstract systems like land rights, labor, and greed—even occurs. The film is aware of its own difficulty: a third of the way through, a character addresses the viewer directly: “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”

Persevere through the confusion, or at least get yourself into a headspace where you’re not invested in everything adding up in a rational way, and you’ll find much to appreciate in Neptune Frost. Foremost is the music, which ranges from work songs (which carry over into protest songs) to dreamy electronica-based trance chants, and eventually full-bore hip-hop bashes. The African setting—landscapes, dress, flora and fauna—fosters a unique language of images. The costuming tends to the bizarre: background characters have keyboard parts and diodes glued to their clothes and faces, a spirit has a head enclosed in a semicircular wicker cage, the state’s brutal police favor pink uniforms, and Neptune herself sometimes has a bird’s nest on her shoulder. As it progresses, the movie throws datastreams of glitchy cybernetic psychedelia at the screen to represent its mystical hack of the global order. The narrative remains hard-to-follow all the way to the end, but themes of technology, gender, colonialism, and DIY revolutionary politics (local, global, and imaginary) float in and out of the mix. The film’s aesthetic may be Afrofuturist, but its style is Afrosurrealist.

Truthfully, there is almost too much to process in Neptune Frost: both the characters and the events can be a chore to sort out. The film’s concepts are half-hidden in a haze of impressionistic poetry and song (with phrases such as “binary crime,” “martyr loser king,” and “unanimous goldmine” carrying obscure significance); although at other times, messages are delivered bluntly (one song bears the refrain, “fuck Mr. Google”). It’s no surprise to learn that writer Saul Williams is a poet and musician. If Neptune Frost sometimes feels like a concept album brought to life, that may be because there is one: Williams’ 2016 left-field rap album Martyrloserking (and two sequels), plus a graphic novel. This world is much wider than the slice we see in the film, and further exploration may yield more answers than are given here. Neptune Frost comes achingly close to a general “” rating, and also to a “” rating. But ultimately, while impressive, I think the project’s appeal is decidedly niche: fans of Afrofuturism, proponents pf progressive (verging on radical) politics, and advocates of African film in general (of which we have far too few examples). If you’re not in one of those groups, but have adventurous tastes in cinema and are up for a challenge, then Neptune Frost is also a worthwhile visit: there is truly nothing quite like it out there.

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York City and Dallas, expanding to additional art-house theaters through June. We’ll let you know when streaming options get sorted out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.”–Toussaint Egan, Polygon (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ADAM BY EVE: A LIVE IN ANIMATION (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Nobutaka Yoda, Hibiki Yoshizaki, Yuichiro Saeki

FEATURING: Hanon, Ano, Eve

PLOT: A story about a friendship between two schoolgirls, Taki and Aki, and their shared dream of a one-eyed monster serves as a framing device for a series of songs by the Japanese pop singer Eve.

Still from Adam by Eve: A Live In Animation (2022)

COMMENTS: It begins with two schoolgirls discussing dreams in a diner. (Where would take that premise?) Taki relates a dream of a one-eyed monster, then leaves to get the girls a refill on their tea. Suddenly, Aki realizes she’s had the exact same dream.(Later, she will overhear people on a public bus describing an identical nocturnal vision.) Aki looks up and the diner is deserted; Taki is gone. Aki’s voiceover tells us she never heard from Taki again. A peppy guitar riff begins playing, Aki pines for Taki, and eventually a music video commandeers the screen.

And so it will go: little bits of story alternating with longer stretches of music by Eve. Eve is a camera-shy presence, commonly shot from behind so that we see only his shaggy blond mane, or seen in silhouette, or with his face hidden deep inside a shadowy hood, or with a bullhorn posed before his face as he shouts a particularly enthusiastic verse. The creativity required to constantly find new ways to shroud his identity is impressive. Musically, I suppose he’s competent; his tongue is fluid and precise as he drops cascades of syllables, with every song delivered in the same uptempo style, half-rapped, half-sung. Eve’s voice is pleasant but nothing special, although as a 53-year old American male who favors avant-garde jazz, I’m about as far away from his target demographic of teenage Japanese girls as possible. Despite the bubblegum sound, Eve’s lyrics tend towards the melancholic—not to mention the vague. (“It hurts, this restless center of a flower.”)

Those who aren’t fans in particular of Eve’s music will be tuning in for the animation, which doesn’t disappoint. First, a flock of animated white doves fly before the hooded singer. Then, brief inserts of anime characters pop in, happily hopping along to the beat. With each new song these characters and abstract whirligigs share more of the screen with the singer, overlaid on live concert footage, taking up more and more of the stage, swirling in patterns that obscure Eve almost entirely. The eye symbol, in various forms (e.g. briefly blinking into and out of existence on a skyscraper), begins to dominate the imagery, until we finally arrive at the film’s 6-minute all-animated centerpiece. A city of schoolgirls and schoolboys, equipped with happy-faced masks that flop in front of their real faces, share a city with tall, identical cyclopes: conformist youth flanked by fascist elders. But, using combat skills they learned from first person shooters, the kids revolt and slaughter their monster overlords, in a carnival of carnage recalling Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 scored to a techno beat. More music videos in the accustomed style wind down the action, and as a bonus, a second full-length animated short plays over the closing credits.

The title suggests the story of Adam and Eve, but aside from a few stray apples seen lying about, you won’t find much in that line of inquiry. Clearly, it’s Eve’s poppy music and the psychedelic anime routines that are the draw here. But the thin narrative does at least suggest themes of teen love, teen alienation, teen sexuality, and teen suicide, with a sly queer slant. Good stuff for the young, but even us crusty Gen-Xers could screen a lot worse entertainment in an hour.

Adam by Eve: A Live in Animation currently streams exclusively on Netflix.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… simply looking at its fluid, fascinating collision of dreams with reality, it’s a satisfyingly bold adult animation project, one interested less in clear narrative, and more in visual expression for its own sake.”–Kambole Campbell, Polygon (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GUTBOY: A BADTIME STORY (2017)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Nick Grant

FEATURING: David Homyk, MaryBeth Schroeder, voices of Will Cooper, Nick Reed, Misty Foster, Megan Rosen, Anthony Herrera

PLOT: Goot is tricked into selling his skin to Besto, and seeks revenge with the help of a similarly skinless “mermaid.”

Still from Gutboy: a Badtime Story (2017)

COMMENTS: Gutboy is a strange little creature, and the star of a strange little movie that occupies an odd niche on this site’s recommendation spectrum. The movie is slight and casual and doesn’t feel weighty or significant enough to challenge for a spot on our list of the weirdest films ever; and yet, it’s so darn weird that nearly every serious reader of this site will find something to enjoy in it. The “” tag affixed here is, therefore, an attempt to bring attention to this worthy amateur effort, while acknowledging that it doesn’t fit alongside some of the more serious or professional titles honored here.

Not that the movie doesn’t actually earn that “weirdest!” designation. (In fact, some argue that it works too hard for it.) Framed as a story told by an emcee to a sick boy who’s wheeled out before an audience of insects, the plot involves a fisherman tricked into selling his skin, who then immediately hooks a “mermaid” (a similarly skinless woman given to lines like “you learn a lot of things on the ocean floor… like how to please a man”) who tires to seduce him, and also grants him a wish. Gutboy doesn’t think to ask for his skin back, but instead asks to marry the policeman’s daughter. And the story just keeps getting odder when skin-merchant Besto breaks out his giants (portrayed by a well-toned couple of real live humans spray-painted gold) to wrestle for his amusement. Oh yes, and there are also musical numbers, ranging from show tunes to rockabilly and lo-fi punk and pop.

So yeah, it’s pretty strange. The marionettes are appropriately crude and grotesque: Gutboy and his paramour (who, after a brain-swapping mishap, becomes known as “Sophieguts Prettybutts”) look genuinely bloody, and for some reason have exposed brains. The other puppets are all quite ugly, too, bulbous and vaguely resembling antique Eastern European dolls, with sunken wooden eyes covered in black mold. The puppeteering is not particularly accomplished, but it doesn’t matter, given the project’s insouciant attitude. Any movie in which a wooden hooker on strings sings the line “porking me ain’t easy, and diddling me ain’t fun” isn’t aiming for much beyond cheap amusement.

The kitchen sink approach often turns a would-be weird movie into a unwatchable mess, but here it works to Gutboy‘s advantage, with each new quirk catching your attention, but not completely derailing the loose worldbuilding efforts. The movie is also helped immensely by its economical runtime: take out the four-minute introduction and the ten-minute post-credits “Titus Andronicus”-themed bonus short, and it runs just under an hour. Any longer, and it might have started to try your patience.

It might not surprise you to learn that Gutboy was a crowdfunded project. It played well enough in limited screenings that picked it up for distribution. It can now be seen free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a triplike piece of weirdness that defies all sorts of logic – and that’s exactly why it works so well…”–Mike Haberfelner, (re) Search My Trash