Tag Archives: Quirky

CAPSULE: THE PLANTERS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder

FEATURING: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna

PLOT: Emotionally-stunted Martha Plant is a terrible telemarketer and prefers her side hustle of burying junk in the desert for treasure hunters to dig up; things change when she offers her spare room to a recently released mental patient with multiple personalities.

Still from The Planters (2019)

COMMENTS: The appropriately named Martha Plant is an odd woman with an odder passion: she shoplifts souvenir shop trinkets, buries them in the desert, posts the GPS coordinates on a lonely bulletin board, and then digs them up later to find the cash left behind by grateful treasure hunters. (“It’s one of the most successful enterprises in the area,” she brags.) Martha is such a great crackpot that all she needs is an equally oddball sidekick, and the script almost writes itself. Enter Sadie, who literally comes careening down a sand dune, padlocked into a bicycle helmet and carrying a red suitcase, and crashes into Martha, the only landmark visible for miles. Laid-back, whimsical wackiness ensues.

Well, there are a couple more complications. One, Sadie has been released—or rather, cut loose—from a mental hospital that’s gone bankrupt. And she has multiple personalities, which show up over the course of the film. Two, while working at her day job selling air conditioners by phone, Martha develops a friendship with a lonely widower who’s just as socially awkward as the two women. And three, when Sadie peeks into the tins Martha buries, she sees biblical scenes (which play out in claymation): Jesus carrying on a casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, Moses parting the Red Sea, that sort of thing. Sometimes Sadie sees herself inside these little clay parables. These hallucinations are obviously the weirdest feature of a movie that otherwise merely leans to the absurd side of quirky, but it sets up a final scene that, for what it’s worth, indeed goes all the way into the surreal.

With its squared-off mise en scene, bright colors, deadpan line deliveries, twee musical selections, and eccentric characters, comparisons to are inevitable. And although that’s a great touchstone to determine if this might be your bag, Anderson rarely gets anywhere near this weird. Readers of this site might instead find connections to a similar mismatched-oddball desert buddy comedy, Rubin & Ed (although The Planters never gets quite that wild or aggressive). At any rate, it’s unfair to write this original comedy off as simply ersatz Wes. It’s its own weirdo thing.

The Planters has a terrific DIY backstory. It was created almost entirely by the two lead actresses/co-directors, from scriptwriting to costumes, sets, lighting, props, and sound, with no other crew. Begun in 2016, it took half a year to shoot, and spent a couple more years in post-production (Sam Barnett’s claymation creations took a while), finally arriving at film festivals in late 2019, and getting a very limited theatrical release in December 2020. The best part about it all is that, watching the film, you have no idea that the actresses are alone on set; everything seems to flow naturally from deliberate stylistic choices rather than result from filmmakers scrimping to cram their vision within their limitations.

The Planters is currently free on Amazon Prime for subscribers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Odd. Quirky. Deliberately stilted at times. Colourfully shot with interesting camera angles. Filled with eccentric characters.”–Carey, OrcaSound (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAGGIE (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Yi Ok-seop

FEATURING: Lee Ju-young, Koo Kyo-hwan, Moon So-ri, Koo Gyo-hwan

PLOT: Maggie the catfish acts as a piscine confessor for Yoon-yong, who’s going through some problems with her work and home life; the fish predicts the appearance of some troubling sink-holes springing up (er, down) around the greater Seoul area.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A psychic fish narrator, social commentary via sinkholes, and the appearance of a “manic pixie dream boy” all fuel this strange hybrid of dark Wes Anderson and light Quentin Tarantino.

COMMENTS: Many years ago, I was forced to take a seminar class for my degree and ended up enduring a semester-long trial entitled “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience.” It’s not that I don’t want awareness raised about society’s ills, but I had the suspicion before-hand that most of the movies would be heavyhanded and tediously paced. My fears proved correct at the time, but now, having seen Yi Ok-seop’s directorial debut, Maggie, I now must admit that lightning can strike even the smallest targets. And it strikes well, with humor, quirkiness, and pathos (a “p” word that seems to be cropping up a bit this festival).

A pre-penetration x-ray circulates among the staff of a small hospital in the outskirts of Seoul. Rumors fly about whose body parts were caught in the act of lovemaking, with nary a thought as to the who or why behind the snapshot’s existence. The following day, every staff member calls in sick except for the young nurse who’s “in” the photo and an osteopath who’s just about lost her trust in her fellow man. Subsequent events involving sinkholes, unemployment, and relationship dynamics proceed apace, all narrated by the omniscient titular character, Maggie the catfish.

There is a vibrancy throughout Maggie that weds the two dominant themes of whimsy and social commentary. There is brightness everywhere: the outdoor scenes, the well-lit hospital, and even the night-time streets illuminated by the colorful, flashing glow of warning lights surrounding the big holes in the ground that keep appearing. Chapter designations like “Everyone Likes the X-Ray Room” and “The Stairs of Death” act as synopses along the way while also providing wry counterpoint to the events. And though it has a cheerful, meandering nature throughout, everything gets wrapped up nicely—through the convenience of a key character who’s swallowed up by the ground at an important juncture.

Maggie‘s weirdness isn’t “in your face”, but more of a gentle squeezing of the shoulders from start to finish. There are definitely overtly odd things (the catfish, the eccentric hospital, and the ballad to “Maxine” around the midpoint), but it’s all very low key. What swayed me toward inclusion was the fact that all of this is being done for a purpose (and, I learned in a subsequent interview with the filmmakers 1, was funded not only sight-unseen, but script-unseen). My one criticism would be that when the story focuses on the slacker boyfriend, the movie rambles a little pointlessly—but even that’s apt, considering the character we’re following. And though I didn’t quite agree with another choice, I was impressed by the director’s decision to eliminate a character without allowing for an explanation. Director Yi Ok-seop and writer/producer/actor Koo Kyo-hwan strongly feel that violence has no excuse, and they make that point in a memorable way that really lets it… sink in.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“The director is riffing on the idea of how misunderstandings snowball, but, without a solid central idea to anchor the wackiness, the exuberantly nonsensical chaos of this movie is likely to have only niche appeal.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Rant (festival screening)

343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

Cha no aji

UNCLE: It’s a pretty good story, right?

HAJIME: Yeah, weird… but cool.

The Taste of Tea

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, , Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya

PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.

Still from A Taste of Tea (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
  • (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
  • This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for ‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.


Clip from The Taste of Tea (2004)

COMMENTS: The family in The Taste of Tea do drink tea, occasionally, but they never comment on its taste. The film itself, however, Continue reading 343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

CAPSULE: LEMON (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Janicza Bravo

FEATURING: Brett Gelman, , Nia Long, , Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs

PLOT: A struggling, middle-aged actor/director loses his long-time girlfriend.

Still from Lemon (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lemon is an awkward formalist comedy that’s just weird enough to hold your interest, but doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot.

COMMENTS: Not much happens in Lemon, a low-key, lightly absurdist comedy (flirting with anti-comedy) that positions itself as a character study of a delusional, narcissistic type working on the margins of the acting profession. Brett Gelman (who also co-wrote) plays sad sack Isaac with so little expression, he makes  actors look like hams. Isaac has a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer), but things are going about as well with her as they are with his stalled career. The schlub shamelessly but unconsciously projects his personal life onto the acting courses he’s teaching, where he continually sides with a pretentious actor (Michael Cera, who prepares for scenes by “exploring” colors and animals) while picking on an unassuming actress (poor Gillian Jacobs). (In one of Lemon‘s wry meta-jokes, the editor cuts off her scenes in mid-sentence, the same way that Isaac disregards her attempts to speak to him). Once outside of his petty teaching kingdom, he finds himself judged by two female casting directors who treat him like a piece of meat, but still lands an unflattering role in a commercial campaign. While on that set, he meets an African-American makeup artist (Nia Long) whom he will eventually romance, setting up the film’s only conventional comic situation when Isaac displays clueless racial insensitivity when he attends her Jamaican family’s barbecue. And that’s pretty much it; by the time the credits roll, Isaac has learned nothing and experienced no personal growth, ending up slightly worse off than when he started.

Lemon comes across as much weirder than that synopsis suggests. All of the scenes are “off” to some degree, some more than others. Isaac has his own avant-minimalist music, sometimes with operatic accompaniment, that follows him around. At one point, a man who looks like his approximate double simply walks into the class and sits beside him, saying nothing; it’s never explained. At least one flashback is played out live, without an edit, with the absent character simply walking into the room after the others depart. There is a very strange masturbation scene that seems inspired by James Lipton’s old “Actors Studio” interviews. And a sprightly singalong at a family reunion (“A Million Matzo Balls,” led by patriarchs Rhea Perlman and A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed on piano) is an out-of-place highlight.

Lemon is reminiscent of something might write in a very depressed mood. With its nearly inscrutable, yet mean, antihero, the autistic social interactions, and the jarring transitions from scene to scene, the tone rests just this side of a nightmare. It’s a movie that will have some interest to fans of uncomfortable comedy, but it’s hard to love. If nothing else, however, Lemon is notable for bringing us Michael Cera’s worst onscreen haircut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more tart than sweet, but deliciously weird nonetheless.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Adrian Brody

PLOT: Three brothers, each at a personal crossroads, reunite for a spiritual quest through India.

Still from The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Darjeeling Limited comes from Wes Anderson’ mid-to-early period, where he flirted with stangeness in airy, slightly dreamy features like Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and this before floating back to Earth for the family-friendly Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Oscar-friendly The Grand Budapest Hotel. He never became quite untethered enough from the bounds of indie movie reality and character-based comedy to soar all the way to the vertiginous heights of the weird, though he did aim high enough to make movies of this period worthy of some scrutiny by fans of unusual films.

COMMENTS: “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails,” Jack sensibly asks after the trio of brothers have been asked to disembark from the title vehicle mid-trip. The “off the rails” joke seems intended a wry, self-aware comment from Anderson about the shaggy dog nature of his story, but it’s not really accurate. For better or worse—I’d say better—The Darjeeling Limited never deviates from the path it sets. This director is known for his tight formalism, revealed in his immaculate set design—every swatch of geometric wallpaper, every piece of matching luggage covered in palm trees suggesting a proper Old World elegance—and in the distant, detached stiffness he enforces on his actors.

The Darjeeling Limited is a quintessential Wes Anderson movie: carefully composed visuals (with a stunning turmeric and saffron color scheme), quirky characters with muffled emotions, a mildly absurd plot. It’s perfectly capable of absorbing you in its off-center but oddly believable universe. Owen Wilson (as the ringmaster brother swaddled in bandages from his recent near-death accident) and Jason Schwartzman (as the womanizing writer brother) are old hands for Wes; lanky Brody, not known at the time for his comic performances, fits into the ensemble surprisingly well. , naturally, has an amusing sad sack cameo, and old hand turns up in a small role, too. These three brothers are allegedly off on a spiritual journey, but their quest turns out to be more about coming to grips with the legacies of their parents than discovering nirvana. A Wes Anderson protagonist is typically an upper-middle class (i.e., bourgeois) man focused on a peculiar obsession (Rushmore‘s Max and his crush on an older woman, Steve Zissou’s quest for vengeance), whose narcissism is deflated when he comes to realize that the universe will go its own way without yielding to his desires. These characters’ lenses gradually widen to compensate for their myopia, and they end up not with redemption, but with the resigned wisdom that comes from accepting disillusionment. Here, the realization comes in triplicate. Perhaps there is a legitimate spiritual lesson there, after all.

The Criterion disc includes “The Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman (alongside ) that describes an incident just before the beginning of Darjeeling Limited. It screened before the feature in some theaters. It carries the same sense of whimsical melancholy as the main feature, but, despite plot connections to the main story, it isn’t necessary to enjoy or understand Darjeeling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…entertaining and engaging, and also deliberately strange.”–Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

(This movie was nominated for review by “bill,” who said it was “not as overtly strange as some of the movies on this list however there is a certain surreal aspect to the story telling that makes this a masterful cinematic oddity .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John Hawkes, Miranda July, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff

PLOT: A cross-section of humanity, led by a shoe salesman and an aspiring performance artist, struggles to make connections in a world dominated by digital barriers to humanity.

Still from Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the weirdness here comes from the unusual situations that seemingly ordinary people find (or put) themselves in. Ultimately, the outrageousness of some of July’s premises are unexpected and threaten propriety, but they’re not really weird in and of themselves.

COMMENTS: Richard and Christine walk down a street; at the end, they will part company to go separate ways to their cars. But they can see the end coming, and the walk becomes much more. One of them views the stroll as a surrogate first date; the other sees it as an entire relationship encapsulated in these few fleeting minutes. The stakes are high, but leavened with artifice. It’s a meet-cute and a relationship-cute all in one.

July is an artist, so there are plenty of moments like this in her debut feature. In fact, Me and You and Everyone We Know (and that’s the last time I’ll type out the whole title) is a movie of moments, and each of those moments is carefully observed. A magic trick with a flaming hand, the pending demise of a goldfish, an explanation for an inspirational t-shirt… these bits and more are treated with great importance and gravity. Your answer to the question of whether films need to spend more time exploring the inner lives of the characters will ultimately determine whether you view this as unusually fulfilling or as tedious and self-indulgent.

In the spirit of filmmakers like or , everyone is connected in Everyone We Know, but no one can connect. In particular, the lead roles stand as stark opposites in their relation to the world around them. Hawkes’ Richard clearly wants connection, but has been so unsuccessful in making it happen that he’s essentially written it off. July’s Christine, meanwhile, is determined to reach out to others, and is willing to bypass conventional norms to make it happen. She creates artwork that places herself in front of invented throngs of attentive viewers or among people she barely knows; she ferries the elderly around town in a personal driving service, and facilitates a romance for one of her patrons; she even accosts Richard’s ex in a department store and persuades her to buy a picture frame. She’s essentially made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into the star of the movie, instead than a construct to facilitate a hero’s awakening. We see her desperation as pure, but it’s also not surprising that she comes across as inappropriate, even oppressive, in her determination to break through to others.

Interestingly, while the central romance is viewed purely through emotional need, most of the people in their orbit see love exclusively through the prism of sex, and that’s where the film plays with surprising and incendiary material. A man sidesteps laws about pedophilia by posting his dirty thoughts on signs he hangs in his window. Two teenage girls attempt to prove their maturity by performing oral sex on a neighborhood boy they don’t even much like. In the most shocking interlude, that same boy’s much younger brother unwittingly engages in a corprophilic chatroom session and then arranges an assignation with his online partner. At every step, the same question arises: “Are they really going to go there?” July absolutely is going to go there, because she wants to show how inarguably deluded these people are, mistaking kink for being grown-up, crudeness for connection.

It’s tempting to say Me and You features adults acting like children and children acting like adults, but that undersells the dangerous behavior everyone finds themselves engaging in. These are all children, some chronologically, all emotionally. July sees a way for all them to grow up, but it’s something they’re going to have to do together. As the film closes, some of them are going to try, and from July’s perspective, that’s cause for hope.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In an age of formula films, writer/director/actor Miranda July has discovered the priceless value of people – ordinary people who behave in a magnificently bizarre fashion. Yet every single one of them in Me and You and Everyone We Know seems highly credible, more real than imagined. A clever screenwriter and inspired director, July takes us places no other filmmaker has ever visited.” – Bruce Feld, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA (2016)

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DIRECTED BY: Dash Shaw

FEATURING: Voices of , Reggie Watts, , Lena Dunham,

PLOT: An antisocial sophomore writer for the school newspaper becomes a hero when an earthquake causes (as the title suggests) his entire high school to sink into the sea.

Still from My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The central premise is more macabrely whimsical than surreal, and while the animation is out there, it’s not enough to advance this underground comic come to life to the grade of “weird.”

COMMENTS: An offbeat collision between “Daria” and The Poseidon Adventure, Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (adapted from his own comic) dips its toe into the waters of weirdness, but never wholly submerses itself. That’s fine, because it really isn’t aiming at all-out satire or savage surrealism. It’s content to be what it is: a quirky, amused, and almost-but-not-quite nostalgic look at horrors of high school cliquiness. Dash Shaw (yes, the protagonist is named after the writer) is a pretentious high school sophomore only recently recovered from a plague of freshman acne, with high hopes for the upcoming school year. He writes for the school paper and quarrels with his only friend, Assad, when the latter strikes up a romantic relationship with their editor, Verti, proving that just because you’re a nerd doesn’t mean you can’t also be a jerk. When an earthquake sends their precariously-perched school sinking into the sea, the three junior journalists team up with the sophomore class president and an ass-kicking lunch lady to save as many of their fellow students as possible.

Characterization, plot and comedy take a back seat to the visuals, which, while generally crude squigglevision-style inkings, are at the same time enormously inventive and constantly shifting so that the eye is never bored. Cut outs, silhouettes, and a yogic lung-cam are among the styles Shaw assays, along with undersea lava lamps and a psychedelic scene that features super-closeups on individual pixels. Among the visual gags are tributes to “Mortal Kombat” and “the Peanuts,” and Shaw gives even the “normal” scenes unreal color schemes to further liven things up.

Satirical highlights include a popular girl eaten by sharks and a senior football star who sets up his own fiefdom, but the plot is just a serviceable frame on which to hang the animation. As a comedy, it doesn’t produce a lot of laughs, but the gently snarky, tongue-in-cheek tone is pleasant. It comes close to earning a “recommended” tag, but while High School easily earns a passing grade—we’ll say a B+ average—it’s not graduating with honors. It’s a bit of a slacker, honestly, skating by on natural intelligence and outsider charm. It does earn a qualified recommendation for experimental animation fans, high school satire completists, and anyone looking for an amiable way to kill 90 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A super-fun, bananas-weird tale of thrilling heroics and life-defining friendships animated with collage, line art, paint, Sixties liquid-light effects, and realistic botanical and animal sketches.”–Ashley Moreno, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)