Tag Archives: Willem Dafoe

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: NYMPHOMANIAC, VOLUME I & II (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  , , , ,

PLOT: A sex addict tells the story of her troubled life to an older man as he tends wounds left from a violent assault.

Still from Nymphomaniac (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although horrific, there is nothing here that stretches too far beyond the extremes of real-life addiction. It’s shocking, even grotesque, but not all that strange.

COMMENTS: Despite his reputation for pushing boundaries and drawing attention, I often found myself wondering what all the fuss was over the movies made by Lars Von Trier. I felt that he too often focused on raw, sometimes unbearable footage—female genital mutilation just isn’t all that fun for me to watch on screen—to get the desired effect from audiences, and that his use of weighty concepts (the death penalty, Christ allegories) to balance shock with substance was contrived. It seemed cheap to me to play on the emotions of a person simply for the sake of effect or to make the movie more memorable. This particular perception of Von Trier as an artist changed for me after watching Nymphomaniac, and I began to become more engaged with his stylistic techniques, as well as become fascinated by his (and the casts and crews that he works with) sheer bravery. I suddenly became hooked on this man’s work and his unusual talent for getting his audience to connect with characters in his films. I paid closer attention to the psychological terrorism of Antichrist and got in touch with why Von Trier chooses to be so shamelessly relentless: for sheer effectiveness I believe. He respects us by refusing to censor the human experience in any way.

Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s longest (considering parts I and II as the same movie), most polished, brutal, and memorable film to date. I would rank it among the all-time epically foul sex sagas. It really is a horror film that presents itself in the form of an intense relationship-based drama. The horrifying elements of the film stay true to form for a von Trier outing; they are deeply psychological. Instead of gasping at Joe’s (the protagonist, played by Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) lack of self-control (which is depicted in fully pornographic sex scenes of varying intensity), the audience is rather pulled towards terror by witnessing the sheer destruction that comes forth from the actions committed by all of the film’s characters. It is a labyrinth of hurt. A noteworthy example would be when Joe inadvertently convinces a man to leave his wife (played by a nearly unrecognizable Uma Thurman) and kids to come live with her. What follows is a mental breakdown by the Mrs. in front of her young children, all while Joe stares indifferently at the whole scene, totally unaffected and in the darkness of the void of addiction. It’s disturbing to watch.

The entire movie unfolds as a single conversation held between an older, seemingly asexual man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, in his best performance yet) and Joe. We then watch and listen to the story of Joe’s life as an active sexual addict, including the horrors of her decisions and the abuse that circles through and around her. Skarsgard’s Seligman gives the movie an academic, non-sexual grounding that counters the brutality on display. He is nearly a saint to her throughout the film, a kind of hope that exists in the murk of brutality. We watch him show compassion and understanding while he comforts her, never judging, frequently quite forthcoming and innocently curious. The dynamic development and conclusion of this central relationship is one of the most interesting (and surprising) parts of the film, serving as a kind of base from which Joe’s story can grow its ugly, gnarling branches.

The depraved behavior that we see these characters engage in is ghastly and cruel, but it’s all so beautifully shot and presented that the pornographic elements become more like a reflection of reality than a means of cheaply shocking viewers. It all remains fairly wacky and demented, with a gradual progression into complete despair that left this reviewer dumbfounded. It is perhaps too grounded in reality, too obsessed with raw humanity to be considered “weird,” but it in no way lacks edge. It’s filled to the brim with raw, brutal violence, actual porn, and consistently amoral characters. It is often mean-spirited, in a comic way. Von Trier is still a prankster, and he pulls the rug out from under us more than once here. In some ways, Nymphomaniac is like a four-hour long, beautifully disgusting joke. It’s a sexy void. I have only seen it once, and I don’t really plan on watching it again, but I’m absolutely positive I will never forget it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s very weird, given, but it’s also effective.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (Vol. II, contemporaneous)

72. ANTICHRIST (2009)

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“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made.”–John Waters, “Artforum Magazine”

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: He and She (the characters are nameless) are making love when their child tumbles to his death out of a window. She falls into inconsolable grief, and He, a therapist, unwisely decides to take her under his personal care. When He discovers the root of She’s anxiety and irrational fears centers around a woodland retreat they call Eden, He forces her to go there to face her fears; but when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Von Trier says that he was suffering from extreme depression when he made Antichrist and that working on the script and the film was a form of self-therapy. Von Trier was still depressed at the time of screening and sometimes had to excuse himself from the set.
  • In the title card and much of the promotional art, the “t” in “antichrist” is suggested by a figure combining the Christian cross and the symbol for “woman.”
  • The therapy He employs in the film is called “exposure therapy” (where an anxiety-ridden patient is gradually exposed to the source of their irrational fear); von Trier had undergone this treatment for his own anxiety problems, and thought little of the practice.
  • The idea for the fox came from a shamanic journey taken by von Trier.
  • Besides this film, British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also shot Slumdog Millionaire, for which he received the 2009 Academy Award, in the same year. Of the two, Antichrist, with its extreme slow-motion photography, was the more difficult and magnificently shot film.
  • Von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, which caused jeers at Cannes and gave critical wags the opportunity to take deserved, if obvious, potshots (Jason Anderson’s “we now know what it would’ve been like if Tarkovsky had lived to make a torture-porn movie” was a typical dig).
  • The film’s Cannes reception was tumultuous, with audience members reportedly fainting, and hostility between the press and von Trier (who proclaimed himself “the world’s greatest director.”) Charlotte Gainsbourg won “Best Actress” for her brave and revealing performance. The film received a special “anti-humanitarian” prize from the ecumenical jury (a Cannes sub-jury with a Christian focus), who called Antichrist “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without doubt, the searing image is of the encounter between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s intimate prosthetic and a pair of rusty scissors. However indelibly gruesome this scene may be, however, it comes out of von Trier’s shock toolbox rather than from his weird shed. For an image with a power to make us do more than squirm, we turn to the scene where He and She are copulating in the woods, with her head resting on a bed of roots from a massive oak tree. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal a number of disembodied human hands sticking out at various places from between the oak limbs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do. The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a story of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.


Trailer for Antichrist (WARNING: contains non-explicit sexual content)

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier deserves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with four Continue reading 72. ANTICHRIST (2009)

CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, , Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier,

PLOT: The story of a young man’s mental breakdown is told in flashbacks as friends and family are interviewed by a detective outside the home where the killer is holed up with a couple of hostages.

Still from My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s twice as weird as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s other 2009 offering, but only half as entertaining.

COMMENTS:  No movie in the world that could live up to the promise of the credit, “David Lynch Presents a Werner Herzog Film.”  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is among those movies.  Based on a real-life case with the details changed drastically, the film begins with a gruesome murder then proceeds to explain the mystery through flashbacks and trips inside the diseased mind of the killer.  The main problem with the movie is that the answer we get for the slayer’s motivation amounts to little more than “because he’s nuts.”  There’s a top-notch weird cast here, but the performances are uneven.  With his intense eyes under a lowering brow and odd non-sequiturs, Michael Shannon (last seen ’round these parts as the paranoid insectophobe in Bug) is credibly crazed.  In fact, Shannon’s been acting so off-kilter since returning from a kayaking trip to Peru that fiancée Chloë Sevigny and pal Udo Kier don’t appear at all shocked to find themselves being interviewed by homicide detective Willem Dafoe outside the flamingo-pink home where the madman has holed up with two hostages.  Kier, who’s just replaced Shannon in his avant-garde production of the Oresteia because the actor was getting too excitable when asked to play the scene where he murders his mother, is more an outside observer of the man’s madness than a participant, so his cool, politely dismayed reaction to the tragedy is understandable and even a little amusing. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out why Sevigny is going full steam ahead with honeymoon plans after Shannon tells her he sees Continue reading CAPSULE: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (2009)

CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Doyle, Oliver Schmitz, The Coen Brothers, , Wes Craven, , and others

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, , , Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, , Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, , Li Xin, and many, many more

PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.

Still from Paris Je T'aime (Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" segment) (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).

COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place.  Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets.  The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch.  A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results.  Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality.  Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths.  Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.

The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid.  His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image.  Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.

The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Continue reading CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANTICHRIST (2009)

Antichrist has been promoted to the List of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. This page is left here for archival reasons. Pelase go to 72. Antichrist for more in-depth coverage of the film and to make comments.

DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: After the death of their only child, a therapist takes his grieving and anxiety-ridden wife to a retreat in the woods to face her irrational fears; when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Actually, von Trier’s troubled and troubling Antichrist is almost a shoo-in to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do.  The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a filmic depiction of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.  While worthy of consideration, Antichrist finds itself in the same situation as the Coen brothers A Serious Man; we’re not going to officially certify it for the List until it receives its home video debut and we have a chance to scrutinize it more closely than is possible in a cinema.

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier desreves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with approximately four transgressive, shocking scenes: not because such sights should never be shown, but because these tasteless displays dominate our experience and force every viewer (and reviewer) to deal with them first and foremost.  Their sole artistic function are to serve as obstacles to appreciating the grim beauty of the remaining film.  Whether their inclusion is a calculated act by a prankster director, or a lapse in judgment resulting from psychological impairment (von Trier claims to have written the script as self-therapy to help him deal with a crippling bout of depression much like the one suffered by Charlotte Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANTICHRIST (2009)

HEART OF THE BEHOLDER (2005) & THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

Still from Heart of the Beholder (2005)In 2005, Ken Tipton made a labor of love; an indie film called Heart of the Beholder, regarding the true story of the initial video release of Last Temptation of Christ and the effects it has on a family who owned a small video chain in St. Louis, Missouri during the 1980s.

The CFD, Citizens for Decency, arrived when the owners of the chain chose to carry  Martin Scorsese’s controversial film.  These God-loving red, white and blue, flag- waving Americans came out in droves to harass, bully and literally threaten their employees, family, business, and life.

These are the same Americans who undoubtedly burned Dixie Chick albums when that group criticized God’s ambassador here on earth, little George W, and are the same Americans who still visit the Heart of the Beholder website telling Mr. Tipton and company that they are going to  hell while undoubtedly pleasuring themselves at the thought of the filmmakers frying  for all eternity.  Heart of the Beholder is a damned important, desperately needed film.

Although Heart of the Beholder got good reviews and even won some festival awards, predictably, no distributor would touch it.  One would surely think that the making of the film would have brought in some support, perhaps from Temptation‘s producers, Scorsese, etc.   Continue reading HEART OF THE BEHOLDER (2005) & THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)