Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Kalle (Lars Nordth) was a furniture salesman who had recently gone out of business because his store was set on fire. His fears of not making ends meet permeated through other aspects of his life. Specifically, his frustration regarding his son’s recent psychological break was magnified because his child didn’t seem to show signs of improvement. But fear and frustration were not the only emotions that the picture tried to explore. It had a certain tenderness, a proclivity, for the absurd. For instance, the interminable traffic jam where all cars seemed to go in one direction, a group of people willing to murder a little girl for opaque reasons, and buildings that moved on their own. “Sånger från andra våningen,” written and directed by Roy Andersson, was ambitious because it attempted to tackle the big questions, events, and feelings prior to the year 2000. However, the messages weren’t clearly communicated because most of its symbolism took precedence. It didn’t help that there was little dialogue for the characters to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. I was desperate to piece together all the information it threw in the air but when I looked back at the big picture, I found it to be a rather confounding experience. I would have preferred if the film focused on Kalle as a guilty father and an even guiltier businessman with the strange vignettes either minimized to a side thought or excised completely. The vignettes, though visually appealing, disrupted the momentum of Kalle realizing that perhaps he was leading a rather empty life. To him, a meaningful life meant being financially successful. When his occupation was taken away, he didn’t know what to do with himself. I felt his pain through the way he treated his son. Instead of trying to understand his son’s condition by being a little more sensitive, Kalle screamed at him, ironically, like a madman. Being a businessman, he was used to being forceful to customers but such an approach was ineffective when dealing with a person who wasn’t quite there. When the picture focused on personal struggles, I found it engaging. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the movie’s attention to detail in terms of imagery. The walls were always grayish green, devoid of paintings, and an overall sense of warmth. Kitchens and bars resembled the impersonal feel of hospitals. People sat in restaurants but there was no food to be found. It looked like no one was ecstatic to be alive. “Songs from the Second Floor” was a challenging film. Although it completely embraced its bizarre nature and occasionally contained scenes that made me think, its walls at times were too high for me to climb. Perhaps when I reach middle age, I will come to appreciate it more. One of the characters emphasized the importance of having life experiences. It was a humbling reminder that perhaps I have a long way to go.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four men with unconventional careers, Dave Hoover, a wild animal trainer, Raymond A. Mendez, a mole rat specialist, Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist, and George Mendonça, a topiary gardener, were the subjects of Errol Morris’ bizarre but magnetic documentary. It was a particularly challenging film to pull off because how the men defined their lives couldn’t be more different from one another. The director’s task was to find a way to highlight their similarities without being heavy-handed or reaching for something that wasn’t quite there. By constructing a collage of clips from classic serials released in theaters, playing in black and white and color gradients, using various types cameras, it successfully established an argument that even the most mundane could be transformed into something interesting given the right perspective. I was particularly interested in the fact that mole rats were mammals but they lived like termites. Most of us are familiar with the archetype of a mammal so the picture was a nice and humbling reminder of two things: How we take certain rules for granted in order to make some sense of the world and the mysteries of life ultimately help to drive our curious minds forward. Not fully knowing keeps us guessing so we have room to grow. Another layer added on top and around the mole rat scenario were the robots designed to act like insects. Unlike biology, how robots work is something I’m just not interested in despite my dependence on technology. When the robots were introduced, I expected to lose interest. But I didn’t. It surprised me because the film took a specific stance and stuck with it. That is, robots may be non-living but they are inspired by the living. Ironically, we could learn more about the living by observing and learning how the non-living worked. I never thought about it that way. The weaker half was the animal trainer’s fond memories of Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who eventually went on to star in motion pictures, and gardener’s passion for cutting plants into images of animals. The former discussed the dangers of controlling creatures, like tigers, lions, and bears, that normally shouldn’t be controlled but I failed to grasp the implications it wanted to convey. There were too many old footages from the circus which didn’t help elevate the messages it wanted to bring to us. On the other hand, the latter felt more like a recollection of a man in his twilight years. I’m sure that filmmakers didn’t mean to but every time the fanciful plants appeared, I was reminded of the man’s obsession instead of his passion. There’s a subtle difference and I wish the filmmakers had a more solid grasp in terms of connecting Hoover and Mendonça’s careers to Mendez and Brooks’. Nevertheless, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” had many wild ideas worth hearing and jaw-dropping images worth watching. If anything, it made me wish I had a pet mole rat.
Babysitter Wanted (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nice girl Angie (Sarah Thompson) had recently moved away from her devoutly religious mother to live in an apartment closer to college. While looking for offers of beds for sale on a bulletin board, she stumbled upon an ad regarding a babysitting job. Since she wasn’t doing anything on weekends, she figured a job wouldn’t hurt. But Angie felt that something was wrong. She had a feeling that someone had been following her. Cut to the night of Angie’s first day on the job, when the boy’s parents (Bruce Thomas, Kristen Dalton) left, the telephone started ringing. Angie answered but the person on the other line just relished her voice. Without a car, all she could do was express her concern via telephone to a friend (Matt Dallas) and a cop (Bill Moseley) she met earlier that day. “Babysitter Wanted,” directed by Jonas Barnes and Michael Manasseri, was quite a surprise because it wasn’t afraid to experiment within the horror genre. It started off uninspiring with typical phone calls and no one answering on the other line. All that was missing was some rain and thunderstorm. But when Angie’s stalker made it inside the house in the middle of the film, a fresh idea because those pesky serial killers usually enter the premises only during the final few acts, it was just the beginning of the bizarre and darkly comedic second half. I enjoyed that the movie took its time before Angie actually got to the house. We learned that her faith was important to her as well as being independent even in the smallest ways. She seemed weak at first glance but she was our heroine because she held back her complaints. I thought she was a saint when she didn’t say a word to Erica (Jillian Schmitz), her inconsiderate and druggie roommate, about the fact that their place looked like a pigsty. When we finally got to the meat, so to speak, of the film, Angie’s patience was tested. The first weird detail she noticed was the boy (Kai Caster) never seemed to get out of his cowboy costume. The second was he didn’t say much other than the word “hungry.” Even a shy person can manage to say an appropriate greeting. The third was his special diet of really raw meat. Angie claimed that the boy’s diet was “a heart attack waiting to happen.” It brought a smile on my face because it was she who was about to have a heart attack when the intruder found a way inside. My favorite scene was a slow burn. It was great suspense when the stalker just stood in the hallway (the background), completely unaware that Angie was only a couple of steps forward (the foreground). She had no weapon and we could almost hear her heart racing. I held my breath in anticipation. To divulge any more secrets of “Babysitters Wanted” would be a crime. I suspect Christians would enjoy this film for all of its wicked glory.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Panique au village,” written and directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, was an oddball of an animated film. The characters in the film were toys but they didn’t necessarily play the role of the figure they inhabited. Humans and horses were equal beings, horses could play the piano, while cows were used as either food or weapons against intruders. When Indian (voiced by Bruce Ellison) and Cowboy (Stéphane Aubier) had forgotten that it was Horse’s (Vincent Patar) birthday, they panicked and tried to brainstorm for a gift. They figured it would be a nice if they built a barbecue set for Horse before he returned home from picking up the neighbor’s kids, but they accidentally ordered millions of bricks instead of the fifty they had in mind. The delivery of the bricks was a catalyst for an adventure that awaited the three friends which led them to the center of the earth, a land of ice, and an underwater dwelling. As much as I enjoyed the protagonists’ dizzying energy, I think the picture would have been better off as a short film. The first twenty minutes was spot-on; it reminded me of the simple days back when I would just sit in front of a TV and watch Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner’s formula of the former setting a trap in which he was convinced would work without a glitch and the latter escaping and not breaking a sweat. This animated picture had an easy formula to follow, too. A tragic thing would happen, like a house being demolished, and the characters would rebuild from the ground up without making a big deal out of the situation. This was highlighted when one of the characters stated, “There’s always tomorrow.” In a series of simple scenes and without saying the actual words, it was able to highlight that hard work, perseverance, and forgiveness were important aspects of a successful life and maintaining meaningful friendships. Although unconventional, I thought the movie was beautifully shot. Close-ups revealed the flaw of the animation so the majority of the scenes were shot from afar. To recompense, there was always something happening on the background particularly when such a shot was indoors. One should take notice of the amusing details during Horse’s birthday celebration when everybody was dancing like it was high school prom or disco in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the sudden change of pace near the middle made the film feel highly uneven. I felt like it eventually ran out of creative ideas to keep us entertained. The toys were more than plastic things in “A Town Called Panic.” They might not have felt pain when landing from a hundred-foot fall but people who love the idea of just being alive will love these toys and find this bizarre film fun and zany.
The Hanging Garden (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
William (Chris Leavins) returned to his hometown for his sister’s wedding (Kerry Fox) after leaving without a word and not visiting for ten years. William used to be an obese teen with a low self-esteem. His father’s (Peter MacNeill) expectations, if not met, often led to physical abuse while his mother (Seana McKenna) kept herself at bay. What I found so effective about the film was the situations that the characters had to deal with were as realistic as possible but there were some bizarre elements that forced us to think about the possible reasons behind the odd images thrown on our laps. For example, in the first scene, it was amusing and refreshing to see people who attended the wedding as bored and impatient, maybe even angry and stressed, during the ceremony. It was a familiar feeling but it was nice to see that on screen because it was a complete opposite from movies that showcase weddings as always exciting and fun. It’s not fun when you’re forced to sit in silence for about an hour. You look forward to the food and perhaps the bottomless wine (if you’re lucky). Then the realism was countered with fantastic elements. That is, there was an alternative universe in which William hung himself in the garden where the wedding occurred. The characters were able to see William as an obese (as he was in the past) dead teen. They were able to touch him, cry in front of him, miss him. William was able to see and grieve for his former self, too. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the lost time William didn’t get to share with his family and vice-versa. Maybe the family felt that the William that returned was not the William that left them. The William that they knew wasn’t skinny, confident, and strong. He was weak, insecure, fat. William tried to forget his past but his family kept holding on to it. There was another strand in the plot which involved William’s homosexuality and love for his best friend (Joel S. Keller). Coincidentally, Fletcher, William’s best friend, married William’s sister. The sister was aware of her husband’s possible bisexuality but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if she encouraged her brother and husband to get together. Most would probably label her as having a liberal perspective, but I think her actions were more meaningful than what was shown. I thought she had a deep understanding of the pain and trauma her brother went through when they were young. She felt that her brother needed and deserved some sort of closure. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, “The Hanging Garden” was a simple but beautiful film about two worlds moving away from each other and the tension building from the divide. Some characters were given little time to develop but I was surprised they were complex regardless.
★★ / ★★★★
The main actress for an upcoming play for “Macbeth” was hit by a car. Betty (Cristina Marsillach), much to her surprise, was offered and almost immediately accepted the role despite her reluctance due to the popular curse that surrounded the production of the play. It wasn’t long until a sadistic killer emerged and started murdering members of the crew. Dario Argento, the writer and director, had a strange fixation for the bizarre. For instance, he would constantly move his camera to achieve an extreme close-up to revel every drop of emotion from his actors and animals, in this case, crows. I also noticed that he had a penchant for playing soothing music directly after a scene in which someone was killed in the most gruesome way. The way he used opera and heavy metal music reflected the contrasting elements between opera and horror. Without a doubt, the film was stylish but I’m afraid, when I look underneath its technical achievements, it was just another slasher flick. Finding out the identity of the killer was the main purpose. Was it the play’s director (Ian Charleson)? The detective (Urbano Barberini) in charge of solving the killing spree? Betty’s fiesty publicist (Daria Nicolodi)? Betty’s harmless romantic interest (William McNamara)? It was also mentioned that Betty had dreamed of the killer’s activities ever since she was a child. However, the identity of the killer, his or her motives, and the childhood nightmares did not come together in way that made sense, let alone in a meaningful and rewarding way. When the characters struggled for their lives, their common sense were out the window as they tried to weigh the pros and cons between, for instance, trying to get the telephone sitting in a dark corner and getting out of the apartment. The obvious answer would be to get out of the apartment and run like one was competing in a 100-meter dash in the Olympics. No one in their right mind, when pushed in a corner to be gutted, would waste time thinking about the “smarter” decision. It’s all about instincts. However, I did enjoy some moments of creativity. I thought it was creepy how the killer forced Betty to watch the murders by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes to “motivate” her not to blink (if she does, her eyelids would touch the needles) and the way the crew found out the killer’s identity. Still, I can’t quite recommend “Opera” because its lack of cohesion in terms of its story made it painfully average.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen a lot of really weird pictures but György Pálfi’s “Taxidermia” is probably one of the most bizarre. The story was about three generations of men: a hospital orderly who impregnanted a woman that had a child born with a tail, the child who grew up as a man who loved to participate in eating contests, and that man’s son (Marc Bischoff) who loved to preserve dead animal carcass. Although I thought all three were entertaining to watch (to some degree), it wasn’t until we got to Bischoff’s story that things picked up and really became engaging without sacrificing consistency and purpose. The common theme of this film was obsession and it nicely tackled the strange fixations that each of the characters had. At first I didn’t understand what was happening because the first twenty minutes subjected us to watch a creepy man spying on women while masturbating. I was aware that the film was supposed to be a dark comedy but those scenes made me wonder what the director was trying to portray. Were there symbolisms that he wanted us to realize in each generation or did he just create such images for mere shock value? I think it had elements of both; I may not have understood all of it because perhaps the cultural barrier was the problem (it was set in Hungary). Nevertheless, I was absolutely horrified when the camera would fixate on people eating like there’s no tomorrow and regurgitating the food they just ate. (It didn’t help that I like to snack while watching movies.) I was really disgusted but I couldn’t stop watching because I was curious what would happen next. Although the movie was far from anything I expected it to be, I’ve got to give it credit for doing something creative and unpredictable. This is definitely not the kind of film for mainstream audiences because it’s easy to label it as pointless or unnecessary. Speaking of, there were some scenes that depicted animal cruelty. I don’t mind much the taxidermy scenes but actually showing a live goat or a pig getting stabbed and things like that (you see the animals struggling) made me angry. I think those could’ve been taken out and the story wouldn’t have changed whatsoever. If you are feeling like watching something morbidly dark and funny in a very twisted sort of way, “Taxidermia” is a good choice because it wasn’t afraid to push the limits. Just don’t eat before watching the film.