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WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 2/27/09 February 27, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Birdsong [El Cant dels Ocells] (2008):  Nearly silent, nearly plotless tale about the Three Kings journey to visit the newborn Jesus.  This minimalist approach won’t bring in the punters, but the critics believe it to be a work of high visual art.  No official site.  Birdsong IMDB link

Dillinger is Dead [Dillinger è Morto] (1969):  A sixties absurdist/existentialist/leftist drama about an engineer who discovers a gun that may have belonged to John Dillinger.   Art film archivists Janus films have given this film a belated American release, to play at very select theaters throughout the country this spring and summer, beginning this week in Brooklyn. Dillinger is Dead press release from Janus Films

NEW ON DVD:

Four Flies on Grey Velvet [4 mosche di velluto grigio] (1971): From Dario Argento, the master of stylish grue, comes this twisty early giallo about a rock musician who is blackmailed for killing a stalker. It’s described as one of Argento’s odder films. A very belated and highly anticipated (by Argento fans) DVD release.

Requiem for a Vampire (1971):  Another of Jean Rollins surreal, cheap, and unabashedly exploitative vampire sex films. 

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Akira (1988):  This mindblowing cyberpunk feature about a mystical apocalypse in Neo-Tokyo helped launch the anime cult in America.  Definitely weird stuff.

The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1969): Another early giallo by Argento (see the Four Flies on Grey Velvet entry). Many consider this straightforward thriller debut to be one of Argento’s best, although it’s not weird.

Vanishing Point (1971):  Another in the short-lived cycle of Western existentialist road movies (see also Two-Lane Blacktop) inspired by Antonini’s Zabriske Point (1970).

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

12. TROMEO AND JULIET (1996) February 26, 2009

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“Body piercing.  Kinky sex.  Dismemberment.  The things that made Shakespeare great.”  –Tagline for Tromeo and Juliet

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY:  Lloyd Kaufman

FEATURING:  Will Keenan, Jane Jensen, Lemmy, Debbie Rochon

PLOT:  Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation.  Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet.  The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.

tromeojuliet

BACKGROUND:

  • Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
  • Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
  • Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack.  Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
  • Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills.  The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to…  a surprise. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a

Short promotional clip for Tromeo & Juliet

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11. JACOB’S LADDER (1990) February 23, 2009

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“Something weird is going on here.  What is it about us?  Even in ‘Nam it was always weird.  Are we all crazy or something?” –line in original screenplay to Jacob’s Ladder

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Adrian Lyne

FEATURING: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello

PLOT:  Jacob Singer (nicknamed “Professor” by his army buddies due to his glasses and Ph.D.) is wounded in Vietnam after a harrowing, disorienting battle.  While he is on duty in Vietnam, his young son dies; years later, he works in New York City as a postman and has a sexy new girlfriend, Jezzie.  Jacob begins suffering flashbacks of the day he was wounded, along with hallucinations in which everyday people take on demonic forms–catching brief glimpses of tails, horns, and howling faces with blank features–and eventually discovers that the other members of his unit are experiencing similar symptoms.

jacobs_ladder

BACKGROUND:

  • The script for Jacob’s Ladder shuffled between Hollywood desks for years, impressing executives but not being viewed as a marketable project.  The script was mentioned by American film magazine as one of the best unproduced screenplays.
  • Before he asked to direct Jacob’s Ladder, British director Adrian Lyne was best known for sexy, edgy, and profitable projects such as Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987).
  • Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who later wrote Ghost [1990] and other commercial properties) has stated that his script was partly influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
  • Adrian Lyne states that some of the hellish visual cues in the film, including the whirring and vibrating head effect, were inspired by the woks of grotesque painter Francis Bacon.
  • Lyne deleted scenes and changed the ending after test audiences found the film to be too intense.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A blurred, whirring human head which shakes uncontrollably from side to side at tremendous speed, seen several times throughout the film.  The effect seems mechanical, as if the head were an unbalanced ball attached to an out-of-control hydraulic neck.  It was achieved by filming an actor casually shaking his head from side to side at four frames per second, which produced a terrifying effect when played back at the standard twenty-four frames per second.  The technique has been imitated in movies, video games, music videos, and even a porno flick since, but has never since been used to such fearsome effect.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Like many psychological thrillers, Jacob’s Ladder

Original Trailer for Jacob’s Ladder

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WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 2/20/09 February 20, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

NEW ON DVD: 

Choke (2008): Black comedy about a sex-addict and his demented dying mom (Angelica Huston) doesn’t sound especially strange, but in a slow week for the weird the fact that it’s another adaptation from cult novelist Chuck (Fight Club) Palahniuk makes it worth mention. Also, this may be the most heavily advertised movie on IMDB ever, and the first I’ve seen to come with its own MySpace-style layout–an unwelcome marketing trend.

Dead Like Me: Life After Death (2009): A feature length film revival of the short-running Showtime comedy about ordinary folks who become Grim Reapers.  Seems squarely aimed at fans of the now cancelled TV series. 

The Outrage (1964): This is a remake of the classic Japanese film Rashomon, with a screenplay by Kurosawa himself, set in the old West.  Four witnesses give vastly different, incompatible accounts of a rape.  The intriguing cast includes Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson, and William Shatner!

Rachel, Rachel (1968):  This low-key drama with some fantasy interludes was the directorial debut of Paul Newman, who gave the lead role of the melancholy middle-aged spinster to wife Joanne Woodward.

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

10. ARCHANGEL (1990) February 17, 2009

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“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.” 

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach (quote originally intended to introduce Archangel)

 threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Kyle McCulloch, Kathy Marykuca

PLOT: In 1919, one-legged Canadian airman Lt. John Boles finds his way to the Russian port of Archangel in the endless night of Arctic winter.  There, he meets Veronkha, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of Iris, his dead love.  Veronkha has problems of her own, in the form of an amnesiac husband who believes everyday is the day of their wedding, but Boles tires to woo her as Archangel’s ragtag militia continues to fight both the Germans and the Bolsheviks without realizing that both World War I and the Russian Revolution are over.

archangel

BACKGROUND:

  • The city of Archangel was the port of entry for Allied soldiers during World War I; therefore, soldiers from America, Canada, and the European allies might very well have been found gathered there (although probably not East Indians and Congolese, as depicted in the film).  Many Allied soldiers were sent to Russia, partially to help assist the Imperial (White) Russians against the Bolshevik Communist rebels (Reds). 
  • Some reports say that the version presented on the “Guy Maddin Collection” DVD is a different cut from the theatrical and original VHS version, with tinting and intertitles added.  I haven’t been able to confirm whether differences exist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  As his dying act, a lifelong coward strangles a bestial Bolshevik with a length of his own intestine (which is obviously a sausage link). 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tale of an obsessive, grieving soldier who

Short clip from Archangel (French subtitles not in original)

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WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 2/13/09 February 13, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

Polanski [Polanski Unauthorized]:  The controversial director of Repulsion (and other weird flicks) gets his own limited-release biopic.  The trailer makes it look like a hatchet job focusing on Polanski’s sex scandal… not that that’s necessarily an unfair tack to take on the subject.  Polanski Official Site

NEW ON DVD:

Blindness: An English language film with Julianne Moore by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, this fable about a town where (almost) everyone is suddenly struck blind escaped notice in its theatrical run.  A long, brutal rape scene in this otherwise philosophical picture seems to have alienated mainstream critics.

The Exterminating Angel (1962):  Cause for celebration: The Criterion Collection has released a 2-disc special edition of the 1962 Luis Buñuel surrealist classic about guests who can’t seem to leave an opulent dinner party.

My Name is Bruce: Directed by cult star Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead series), starring Bruce Campbell as Bruce Campbell, this horror-comedy about Bruce Campbell saving a Bruce Campbell fan from an ancient Chinese demon is like a Valentine from Bruce Campbell to Bruce Campbell.  Needless to say, it’s by a Bruce Campbell fan, and squarely aimed at Bruce Campbell fans.

Simon of the Desert (1965):  Not content with bestowing The Exterminating Angel on the weird masses (see above), The Criterion Collection also gives Buñuel’s bizarre pseudo-religious short feature the special edition treatment, and adds a 50 minute documentary on Buñuel in Mexico as an extra.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Donnie Darko (2001):  This lovably fascinating mess of a movie (see review) gets its Blu-Ray debut.  The good news is that both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut are on the disc!

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

CAPSULE: TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS (1997) February 10, 2009

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twostar
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEAUTURING: Shelly Duvall, Frank Gorshin

PLOT: A prisoner returns to his childhood home on an ostrich farm in a

twilight_of_the_ice_nymphs

mythical northern land during the constant daylight of the summer season, where he becomes involved with two mysterious women.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  Actually, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is plenty weird enough, although it’s such slow going that many folks will probably tune out before discovering it’s weirder points.  Truth is, Twilight just isn’t good enough to make the list.  With some of director Guy Maddin’s more effective films already slated for inclusion, it makes little sense to allow a lesser effort to take space away from a more deserving contender, weird though it may well be.

COMMENTSTwilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a suitably colorful and mythic locale, an imaginary land with Nordic overtones and ostriches, but it’s dragged down by an uninspiring hero in an uninvolving storyline, ponderous dialogue, and uneven acting.  The protagonist, Peter, is subject to bouts of sleep-hunting, and also it seems to episodes of sleep-acting.  For most of the movie his emotional range is so low-key that it barely registers: he covers a scale from glum to mildly perturbed.  It probably doesn’t help that his dialogue was delivered by a different actor in post-production after what Maddin hints was a very nasty incident between the director and actor.  Peter strikes up no real chemistry with either of his potential lovers, Juliana (whose personal history is obscure) and Zephyr (a wandering woman three months pregnant with her lost husband’s child), so there is little for the audience to root for in this three-way romance.  Besides Peter, Pascale Bussières as Juliana is cute but forgettable, Alice Krige’s performance as Zephyr seems on loan from a BBC teleplay, and R.H. Thompson’s evil Dr. Solti is little more than a distracting, hammy faux-Russian accent.  Veteran movie actors Shelly Duvall and former Riddler Frank Gorshin put the others to shame, but unfortunately they are pushed into a background subplot.

That said, the film’s visual sensibilities are truly wondrous.  Maddin built his magical fairy-forest inside a Winnipeg warehouse, maintaining meticulous control over every aspect of his mise-en-scene.  Particularly noteworthy are his brash color schemes: he uses “jewel tones” throughout, and seems particularly fond of placing surrounding emerald hues with bright pinks, magentas, and tangerines, as in a sunset setting over a forest canopy.  This makes the movie somewhat effective as a slide-show of gorgeous stills; Twilight would probably work well on a big screen TV with the sound turned off as visual wallpaper for a hoity-toity wine-and-cheese party.    

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection”, along with the feature film Archangel and the award-winning short The Heart of the World.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Maddin’s fictional world is… so infused with such a delightful weirdness, such a disorienting, overwrought absurdity, that its artificiality and peculiarity give it a marvelous flavor that is a real pleasure to savor.” -Keith Allen, movierapture.com

SHORT: THE HEART OF THE WORLD (2000) February 6, 2009

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fourandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

PLOT:  “State scientist” Anna studies “the heart of the world” and learns it is in

the_heart_of_the_world

desperate shape, all while trying to chose between suitors: brothers Osip (a mortician) and Nicolai (an actor playing Christ in a passion play), along with “dark horse” industrialist Akmatov.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Maddin pulls out all the stops in this dreamlike, hyperkinetic tribute to silent films (especially Soviet Constructivist films such as Aelita, Queen of Mars). 

COMMENTS:  This six minute minor masterpiece was produced for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000, where it became an immediate sensation and the hit of the festival.   The Heart of the World is an incredible technical achievement.  The film uses simple camera tricks such as multiple exposures, creative use of intertitles, expressionist shadows, and blaring lighting to creates auras or halos around the actors, techniques which were largely forgotten or abandoned when films moved from black and white to color.  Add angular 1920s costumes and sets inspired by Metropolis and Aelita, a propulsive, minimalist theme from Soviet composer Georgi Sviridov, and a blazing fast editing style (it is said that the film averages two shots per second), and you have a film that is packed full of pure cinematic images, almost exhausting to watch, yet all too brief. 

There is not time to develop much plot in this fabulous sprint.  The Heart of the World is more an exhibition of virtuoso visual technique than a narrative film.  Although the overwhelming emphasis is on visual style, Maddin does include boldly drawn, archetypal characters to help guide the viewer to the film’s triumphant end.  Their presence begs an allegorical interpretation of the film, although I’m not sure a coherent interpretation can be formulated.  Osip the mortician seems to represent the body, and he is blatantly associated with sexuality (he’s seen dragging a knife across a naked woman’s torso, then later builds a phallic cannon to try to impress Anna).  Nikolai represents the spirit (again rather obviously: the chap dresses like Jesus at the crucifixion).  Anna must chose between the body and the spirit, though its not clear why.  And it’s also not clear what Anna may represent: she begins as a scientist, and ends, presumably, as a self-sacrificing artist.  And why does Akmatov, the capitalist antagonist, suddenly appear to seduce Anna away from the other two with money?  And what does all of this have to do with saving the heart of the world, anyway?

In the end, all that’s clear is this: Maddin has taken the style of a Soviet propaganda film, and turned it into propaganda for the art of cinema.

The Heart of the World is available on the DVD, “The Guy Maddin Collection”, along with the feature films Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and Archangel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experiment oozing with creativity, layered in a knowledge of cinematic theory, history, and artistry.” –S. James Snyder, The New York Sun

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 2/6/09 February 6, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

Coraline:  An animated fantasy film about a little girl who discovers a parallel universe in which her childish desires are satisfied, but at a price.  Previews look “visually stunning.”  Also showing in 3-D in some venues.  From Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, with the voices of Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher.  Coraline Official Site 

IN THEATERS (LIMITED RELEASE):

2008 Academy Nominated Animated Shorts:  Ten of the Academy-Award nominated shorts will be shown as a program in a limited number of theaters (probably on the coasts),  an interesting concept that I don’t remember happening in other years.  Directors often have far more latitude to be as weird as they want with shorts, which are often self-produced and not subject to studio demands to normalize things for a mass audience.   The slate includes 5 animated films and 5 live actioners.  The British This Way Up, a macabre stop-motion animated film about two funeral home workers, may be the biggest draw for fans of the unusual.  No official site.

Memorial Day:  Feature length film debut of experimental theater director Josh Fox.  Young revelers engage in shameful debauchery at a Spring Break style party, then are magically transported to the Iraqi battlefield where they continue in the same style.  Lambasted by critics for being morally and politically simpleminded and uninsightful.  No official site.

NEW ON DVD/BLU-RAY:

Being There (Deluxe Edition):  Hal Ashby’s enigmatic satire about a simple minded gardener (the great Peter Sellers) who becomes elected President.  A great weird movie, but there doesn’t seem to be much special about this special edition, which includes no commentary, only a 15 minute documentary and a few deleted scenes and outtakes.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XIV: The fourteenth box set release of the cult-TV phenomenon wherein a man marooned in space and his wisecracking robots make live-time jokes at the expense of some of the worst movies ever made.  The movies skewered are The Mad Monster (1942), Manhunt in Space (1956), Soultaker (1990), and Final Justice (1985).

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.