Tag Archives: Musical

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: , 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)

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Trey Parker

FEATURING: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, John Hegel

PLOT: Alferd Packer and a small band of hopeful gold-rushers lead an ill-fated expedition from Utah to Colorado through the snowy Rocky Mountains. Six walk in; one walks out. It’s also a musical.

Still from Cannibal! the Musical (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The base premise of a comedy-musical about a historic cannibal gold-rusher is certainly attractive enough to watchers of weird. Beyond that, Cannibal! The Musical, while funny and charming, doesn’t shoot for the extremes of weirdness commonly seen on the List. It’s not even the first musical western comedy we’ve reviewed here, and it’s way at the end of the line of movies we’ve considered.

COMMENTS: Fans of the animated franchise “South Park” can already tell you how skilled Trey Parker and Matt Stone are at writing musicals; the theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a surprising hit with show-stopping numbers, and then “The Book of Mormon” (the play, not the book) cemented their reputation. And of course, black humor is a given with this creative pair. So it’s interesting to see their work on this low-budget production when they were still students at University of Colorado-Boulder, before “South Park” made them famous. It released originally as Alferd Packer: The Musical in 1993 before Troma Entertainment, spiritual peers to Parker/Stone, picked it up for distribution as Cannibal! The Musical.

For a hopeful few seconds it meets the expectation you have for a Troma movie, when the film opens with a deranged cannibal attacking and taking bites out of hapless settlers in the snowy woods. This turns out to be a flashback from a courtroom, circa 1883, where defendant Alferd Packer (Trey Parker) is on trial for murdering his traveling party. Later, in his cell, a local reporter who’s attracted to bad boys goads him into telling her his story, by segue of talking about his horse, Liane. And so we’re swept into the musical tale of the ill-fated Alferd Packer’s Gold Rush expedition in 1874, accompanied by a ragtag band of optimistic hangers-on—teenagers James Humphrey (Matt Stone) and George Noon (Dian Bachar), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), and twinkle-toed Israel Swan (John Hegel)—none of whom have the slightest clue about gold-mining or surviving treks through the Rockies in the dead of winter.

Of course, for a campy comedy musical, the movie treats the historical Packer’s tale with about as much accuracy as Mel Brooks recounting the Spanish Inquisition. Townspeople and random pioneers on the trail warn the party of grave doom, Indians, and a cyclops (who proves disappointingly un-Harryhausen). The group stays disciplined by putting individuals on time out when things get uncivil. Bad luck haunts the crew in every way from losing the horse (to which Packer will sing an ode) to stumbling into random bear traps, and the crew gets lost enough to chance upon the Grand Canyon on their way from Utah to Colorado. A band of punk-rock trappers taunt the party along the way. Asian kung-fu Indians beset the party. While not a lot makes sense, the story moves at a swift enough clip that you’ll barely mind. Be wary after watching it so you aren’t caught idly singing “Hang the Bastard” in inappropriate contexts.

Formed from the quirky imaginations of the Parker/Stone team, Cannibal! The Musical is an enjoyable romp with plenty of the team’s trademark dark humor. The production at times is patterned after Oklahoma! There’s parody of tropes both musical (songs break down mid-verse as the singers argue about chord theory) and western (“Look at all these teepees we have; because we’re Indians!”), yet despite the gory opening scene there’s barely a whiff of a horror aspect: our Troma expectations fizzle after the first five minutes and don’t rekindle until the final twenty. Considering it was a student effort that started out as a fake trailer for film class before the professor called the team’s bluff, the movie is an excellent, if silly, effort. Its legacy is a cult following, the occasional stage revival, and the introduction of “shpadoinkle” into weirdophile vocabulary. But it only has passing business flirting with the wild west of weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all pretty stupid, but at times, there are refreshingly ludicrous notes that even people old enough to see this movie without a guardian can appreciate. One approach: Imagine the film taking place in South Park animation. If Cartman were ripping that man’s arm off and eating it, it might be cute.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (1998 revival)