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17. TIDELAND (2005) April 6, 2009

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“[Producer] Jeremy [Thomas] knew [raising money to make Tideland] would be difficult, particularly because the film is very, very weird. “–Terry Gilliam

threehalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher, Jeff Bridges

PLOT:  Jeliza-Rose is a nine year old girl with an active imagination who is being raised by a pair of junkies.  When her father spirits her away to a lonely, dilapidated farmhouse, then takes an extended “vacation” on heroin, Jeliza-Rose is left to her own devices.  She retreats into an intricate fantasy world where her four doll’s heads are her closest companions, but reality is scarcely less bizarre than her imagination: her neighbors are a witch-like one-eyed woman with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy and her childlike, mentally retarded brother who lives in a fantasy world of his own, spending his days hunting a shark from his homemade submarine.    

tideland

BACKGROUND:

  • Tideland was adapted from a critically praised novel by Mitch Cullin; ironically, this faithful movie adaptation was critically panned.
  • Gilliam made Tideland while on a six month hiatus from directing the big-budget commercial fantasy, The Brothers Grimm (2005). 
  • Tideland was a commercial disaster, earning less than $100,000 in its initial domestic run.   
  • According to Gilliam, the French distributor did not want to screen this film at Cannes because there is a scene involving farting, which the French find objectionable. 

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Many will remember Jeliza-Rose’s doll’s heads, who make memorably fantastic appearances in an underwater house and flying about inside a man’s ribcage.  But the more indelible image, because it’s repeated so many times, is the view of the broken down farmhouse in front of amber waves of grain.  The look was inspired by the Andrew Wyeth paining “Christina’s World.”  Gilliam often emphasizes the tall gold grass towering over tiny Jeliza-Rose’s head, as if it were surf and she was living in an undersea world.  This ubiquitous aquatic imagery helps to explain the title “Tideland“.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gilliam has described the movie as a cross

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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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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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CAPSULE: HABIT (1996) December 12, 2008

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threehalfstar

PLOT:  Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam–still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend–finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT’S NOT WEIRD ENOUGH:  Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird.  The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story.  It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity.  Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography as Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast.

COMMENTS:  Habit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters).  The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story.  The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary. 

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role.  She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

2. SILENT HILL (2006) September 18, 2008

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“Je me suis drapé dans ma conception du fantastique, et ce n’est pas celle de tout le monde.” – Christophe Gans

 

PLOT:  After her adopted daughter’s sleepwalking problem turns hazardous, her concerned mother decides to investigate the name of the town that she mutters in her narcoleptic fits: “Silent Hill.” The pair travel to the titular locale, a modern ghost town that has been abandoned for decades due to a coal fire that continuously burns underground.  Once inside the city limits, mother and daughter are separated, and the mother’s search for her lost child leads her through increasingly bizarre and portentous adventures in the haunted town.

BACKGROUND: This film was adapted from the cult/horror Sony Play Station video game, “Silent Hill”.  Movie adaptations of video games were (are) a relatively new phenomenon, and had generally not been well received by either movie critics or fans.  Although these movies debuted with the advantage of a built in fan base, Super Mario Bros. (1993), Wing Commander (1993), and Doom (2005) had all been massive critical and box office flops, and that’s leaving aside the efforts of Uwe Boll.  Although the Lara Croft and Resident Evil franchises became minor hits, by 2006 the entire video game adaption genre had already become a critical punchline, synonymous with diminished expectations.

 Director Christophe Gans, a French b-movie film-geek turned director, was a fan of the “Silent Hill” game series and convinced that he could fashion the first truly successful game adaptation.  He had previously had a surprise international (and modest stateside) hit with Brotherhood of the Wolf [Le Pacte des loups] (2001), a weird but energetic historical/detective/horror/kung fu hybrid.  Screenwriter Roger Avary assisted Quentin Tarantino on the scripts for Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994),  as well as handling both screenwriting and directing duties on his own projects, such as Killing Zoe (1994).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Blankets of ash falling over a deserted town like snow, until the eerie stillness is broken by the shrill wail of a 1950s era air raid siren. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gans paints his murky canvas with the expected

Original trailer for Silent Hill

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