Tag Archives: Must see

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Must See

“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

AKA 12 Monkeys

Must See

“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Madeleine Stowe,

PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.

Still from Twelve Monkeys (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • This feature was inspired by La Jetee, ‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
  • One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
  • Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
  • Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
  • On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
  • There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
  • Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
  • The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS:  “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery;  giraffes galloping down the freeway

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.

Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys

COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all Continue reading 344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1 The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

337. STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

Must See

Weirdest!

“Late one night, down in my parents’ split level suburban basement, channel-surfing the old-fashioned way, I hit my first taste of Quay— like an electric shock—like nothing I’d ever seen. The mystery of the Quay Brothers got its hooks into me. I spent two years wondering what the hell I’d seen.”–Christopher Nolan on his first viewing of “Street of Crocodiles”

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

FEATURING: Feliks Stawinski

PLOT: Eerie reminiscences unfold when a gaunt man is brought to life after a globule of spittle activates a machine. He explores dusty, encrusted back streets and shop fronts teeming with rusted machines while being followed by a young boy. At length, a quartet of funereal tailors offers him a refashioning of uncertain merit.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Street of Crocodiles” is inspired by a short story (and story collection of the same name) by Bruno Schulz. It was financed by the British Film Institute, which produced and distributed the Quay’s early works. The BFI insisted that the film be based on a literary source as a condition for funding.
  • The final (and only) narration in “Street of Crocodiles” is voiced by Leszek Jankowski, the film’s composer and a collaborator of the Quays.
  • Film-maker Terry Gilliam regards “Crocodiles” as one of the ten best animated films of all time; film critic Jonathan Romney one ups him, saying it’s one of the ten best films of all time. 1
  • The Quay Brothers style in general, and “Street of Crocodiles” in particular, influenced many music videos; for example, Nine Inch Nails’ Closer (directed by ).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: During the twenty-one minutes of the film, the only “disposable” image is perhaps that of the live actor entering the opening frame and counting some unseen items on the ceiling. Virtually everything else sticks out like a rusty thumb. Forced as I am to choose, I’ll plump for the “memory inducement” sequence during which everything goes backwards as the protagonist (played by a marionette) peers through a square peephole. Ice cubes rise from a trapdoor, having un-melted; whispering seeds of a ripe dandelion reassemble into their fragile orb; and even the pointless workings of the rubber-band “Bachelor Machine”2 flip into reverse.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Life-giving luminescence; skittering screws; meat map, mapped meat

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDStreet of Crocodiles checks off a lot of boxes for a general “weird” survey: creepy visuals, stop-motion, dissonant score, defiantly vague plot-line, and pirouetting tailors. It’s hard to put it in words, as you might have guessed, but this is a Weird one. If you’ve seen anything like it since you first watched it, it’s probably because you just re-watched it.

Brief clip from Street of Crocodiles

COMMENTS: The difficult task of capturing a memory becomes Continue reading 337. STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster

FEATURING: , Alex Wolff , Milly Shapiro,

PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.

Still from Hereditary (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.

COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.

Cluck

The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like ‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.

Feels/Mechanics

The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.

The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

CAPSULE: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

Must See

Låt den rätte komma in

DIRECTED BY: Tomas Alfredson

FEATURING: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

PLOT: A lonely, isolated boy finds a kindred spirit in a new neighbor, who turns out to be a vampire responsible for a series of strange deaths in the small suburban community.

Still from Let the Right One In (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let the Right One In is a savvy addition to the vampire canon, placing much that is familiar in a bracingly new context. Unexpected as it may be, this reinvention isn’t so much weird as it is refreshing.

COMMENTS: When we celebrate the centennial of Nosferatu in a few years, it will be a great opportunity to reflect on how the vampire film has become a genre unto itself. In the course of its century, we have seen a multitude of variations on just what a vampire can be: sparkling teen crush, hoodlum slacker, inappropriately tan, habla hispana, African prince, space vixen, thin white duke, legitimately crazy, or even the star of the century-old classic Nosferatu itself, to name but a few. The enemies of vampires have similarly become diverse and varied: everything from cheerleaders to great emancipators to lords and saviors. The fact that I’ve left out so many in this extremely short listing indicates how pervasive the vampire has become and how vast the possibilities are for exploring its legend, and explains why filmmakers as idiosyncratic as Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Guy Maddin have filtered the vampire through their own distinctive worldviews. The vampire is more than a mere monster. It is a full-fledged entity unto itself, through which we can refract our understanding of society and history.

When that vampire retrospective does come around, there should be a sizeable chunk of time devoted to Let the Right One In, a thrilling synthesis of the familiar tropes of the vampire mythos into something wholly new and surprising. Everything you expect from a vampire movie is here, but delivered in a deceptively measured tone that gives new shadings to familiar clichés, while also lulling the audience into a quiet reverie that gives the film’s inevitable shocks even greater punch.

Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) smartly centers the story on Oskar, the lonely boy who comes to fixate on the strange girl who has moved into his neighborhood. (I’ll be using female pronouns for Eli in acknowledgement of the talented young actress in the role, although the film suggests Eli’s gender should be very much in doubt.) Oskar has so many unfulfilled needs: an attentive family, an engaged educator, a protector from schoolyard abuse. But he is not cowed in the face of these obstacles. When threatened, he stiffens his spine and waits for the moment to pass. So when he meets Eli, confident enough to march around in the snow in short sleeves but unfamiliar with a Rubik’s Cube, it is hardly surprising that he bets his entire soul on her.

Oskar’s sweetness is essential, because Eli is essentially an amoral creature, a fact he seems to recognize but is grateful to overlook. Although she gives off a childlike innocence in Oskar’s presence, she is both a feral animal, as seen in her vicious and intense attacks on random townspeople, and a wily schemer, as demonstrated by her manipulation of Håkan, the simple man who appears to be her caretaker. We know something is up when we see the elaborate-yet-ramshackle method in which he kills and drains victims in order to feed his charge, and when we see his meekness in the face of conflict and the abuse she heaps upon him when he fails, we learn much about her true nature.

Given both its locale and its tone, it’s tempting to view Let the Right One In as the vampire movie Ingmar Bergman never made. But when Alfredson is ready to pour on the horror, he does so with gusto, invigorating the most common elements of vampire tales with new power. Vampires must be invited into a home? We see the disturbing consequences when they aren’t. You’ve heard that sunlight is bad for vampires? You may not be prepared for the suddenness and violence of the sun’s wrath. And the film’s final set piece at a swimming pool is a justifiable favorite, a masterful demonstration of the value of showing just enough action to let the mind fill in the rest.

Let the Right One In boasts one of the most disturbing happy endings you’re likely to come across. Oskar and Eli escape, and the affection he feels for her is evident even with her in hiding. They will look after each other, you can be sure. But then you recall who else took care of Eli, and what that relationship became. It’s fair to wonder how many years will pass before he, too, will be packing up his kit to go rustle up food for the sweet child who befriended him so long ago.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some movies, while never quite attaining masterpiece status, nonetheless have a monumental WTF-factor. This is one such… thoroughly macabre, maintaining a downbeat, realist lugubrious air, like a cop procedural…very satisfyingly bizarre scenes.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

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

330. AFTER HOURS (1985)

“Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s like, after hours.”–After Hours

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , John Heard, Linda Fiorentino, Terri Garr, , Verna Bloom, , Tommy Chong

PLOT: Paul meets an attractive woman in a Manhattan coffee shop after he gets off work. Under the pretext of his buying a paperweight from her roommate, she gives him her number. He calls her, is invited over to her SoHo loft, loses his money on the cab ride over, and is plagued by a bizarre series of missteps and coincidences that result in a dead body and his pursuit by a lynch mob as he tries in vain to make his way back home.

Still from After Hours (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally titles Lies, the script for After Hours was Joseph Minion’s thesis project for Columbia Film School. His professor was . He got an “A.”
  • Minion lifted about a third of the film (much of Marcy’s character) from a radio monologue by Joe Frank, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers.
  • Minion would go on to write the script for another Certified Weird pick: Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
  • Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, then-struggling actors who took up producing, optioned Minion’s screenplay. They pitched the project to Martin Scorsese, but when they did not hear back from him they began negotiations with , who had yet to make a feature film at the time. Months later, when Scorsese’s first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart, he expressed interest in the project. When Burton heard this news he gracefully withdrew, saying he did not want to stand in the way of Scorsese.
  • The ending of After Hours had not been decided on when shooting began. (One proposed, and unused, surrealistic ending had Paul climbing into Verna Bloom’s womb and being reborn uptown). The first cut used a downbeat attempt at a conclusion that bombed with test audiences. Scorsese then went back and re-shot the ending we see today. (Director suggested the resolution Scorsese finally used).
  • Scorsese won the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival for After Hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Kiki’s papier-mâché sculpture of a man staring up at the sky, mouth agape and gnarled fingers held before his face, like a flash-fried Pompeii victim preserved in ash. Paul thinks it looks like a three-dimensional version of “The Shriek.” The statue turns up unexpectedly later in the night, and an eerily and ironically similar piece plays a key role in the climax.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Burn victim?; “Surrender Dorothy”; mummified escape

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: No other black comedy has ever captured such a perfect mix of unease, absurdity, melancholy, and danger with the light, unforced touch that Scorsese does here. Man’s fate in an uncaring universe ruled by the iron fist of coincidence has never seemed so horrifyingly hilarious.


Original trailer for After Hours

COMMENTS: Years ago, I wrote an article for this site about Continue reading 330. AFTER HOURS (1985)