Offbeat Movies

I love movies that are quirky and well made and well acted. Here you will find reviews of movies you may not have heard of (I will try to avoid commercial successes, but some of them are good) that caught my attention because they are thought-provoking, have interesting story lines, unique characters, and good acting.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Final Member

Normally I wouldn't write a review of a documentary, but what I look for in a movie is good story, and this documentary tells a story. That the story is true only makes better.

The Final Member is the story of a collector, Sigurður Hjartarson, who needs only one piece to complete his collection. What he needs is not rare, but it is difficult to obtain: no one who has one really wants part with it. Hjartarson is aging, his health is declining and he wants to complete his collection before he dies.

 Hjartarson began collecting as a teenager in 1974. Thirty years later his collection grew so large, that, with his wife’s help (and insistence) he moved it out of his house and started a museum.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Sigurður Hjartarson collects penises.

At this point you might think this is a mockumentary. It is a real museum:

There are two men willing to give Hjartarson their penises. One is Páll Arason, famous Icelandic adventurer whose member enjoys quite a reputation in his homeland. He plans to leave his penis to Hjartarson when he dies.

The other is American Tom Mitchell who covets the spot as first (if not only) human specimen in the museum. Mitchell has always known that is penis, Elmo, was destined for greatness. He is so eager to get Elmo into the coveted spot in the museum that he considers having Elmo removed and sent to Iceland before he dies in order to beat out nonagenarian Arason.

This movie runs the gamut from ridiculous to sublime and back again. There is lots of dramatic tension. Will Mitchell come through on his proposed contribution? Will Arason’s shrinking member meet the legal length (a whole story in itself)? Can Mitchell find a doctor who will perform a phallectomy? Which man’s member will take pride of place in the collection?

The story is never about penises: it is about human beings. It shows us something about ourselves (whether we have penises or not). You will be entertained, but you may also be moved. Devotion, no matter how silly the thing one is devoted to, is still an emotion we can all identify with.


Think the world needs a Vagina Museum too? You aren’t the only one: Just think, if these two museums got together, what other little museums they could spawn?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Netflix’ Dorian Gray

Most book lovers will cringe when presented with the movie version of a book. There are a few exceptions. I am not sure if Netflix’ Dorian Gray is one of them or not.

Dorian is a pretty and naive young man who arrives in London to claim his inheritance. Aside from a few hazy flashbacks of violence at his Grandfather’s hands as a child and a talent for piano, we know nothing about his life before London - it is almost as if he didn’t have one.

Beautiful Dorian has been seized upon by artist Basil Hallward as a subject. Basil has just completed a portrait of Dorian, with which Dorian is enraptured. Basil is clearly obsessed with drawing and painting the young man, but Dorian is growing bored of being an artist’s model.

Enter Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton.

Harry, an atheist and hedonist, and liberally seasons the movie with Wilde’s witticisms. We get a measure of his character early on when he casually burns a rose petal in the candle flame: other pretty things should beware.

Harry sets out to corrupt Dorian as an experiment in human nature, beginning with gin and prostitutes. The movie isn’t full of gratuitous sex, but we get enough of a look into brothels and opium dens and see what was available to Londoners in the late 1800s. Especially Londoners with money, social standing and good looks, who prove to be able to get away with a lot that people who are older, uglier and poorer would not - like schlepping dead bodies in trunks across London in the middle of the night.

And not only does Dorian have looks, youth and money—he has a magical portrait which absorbs the effects of any sin, crime or damage. If Dorian cuts himself, the portrait bleeds; if he is cruel, his face remains serene and mild, but the portrait changes; Dorian does not age, but his portrait turns into the likeness Riff Raff on a bad day. When Dorian commits an act of callousness and cruelty, his portrait reacts with signs of corruption in the visceral sense: a worm wriggles out of the corner of his painted eye and falls to the floor, where Dorian stomps on it in disgust (a really great scene). Dorian sees the magical portrait as carte blanche to commit any sin, any crime, and take any risk.

Harry sets out to corrupt Dorian, but the student soon outstrips the teacher, progressing from a youthful love affair with a girl far below his social standing, to opium, sadomasochism, and finally murder. He leaves England to seek sensations and pleasures that cannot be had on the sceptered isle.

Twenty years later when Dorian returns his friends are shocked that he has not aged. It seems that the portrait cannot absorb everything, however. Maybe it’s full. Dorian is bitter. He tells Harry, “Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.” Dorian sees ghosts and is dogged by a would-be assassin.

Just as Harry sought to corrupt Dorian, Harry’s now-grown daughter, a New Woman of 1910’s, sets out to save him and Dorian resolves to be good. But is that enough to redeem his soul?

So, here we have an entertaining movie, well acted, interesting characters, great period sets and costumes. Dorian is corrupted by the father and redeemed by the daughter. Evildoers are punished; the innocent escape. It has a nice story arc, and a satisfying ending.

And then there is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This books suffers from too many words (to paraphrase the Archduke in Amadeus). A liberal seasoning of Oscar Wilde’s paradoxes and witticisms is entertaining; page after page of them is like being bludgeoned with the OED. Wilde proves himself a playwright rather than a novelist: his scenes are either all dialogue or monologue, or they are stage direction. All in all I would rather watch the movie.


Wilde’s book has insight that the movie lacks, and which makes the movie amateur by comparison. In the movie Dorian learns that debauchery is bad and that you have to be good to deserve the good things in life. Very black and white, very Puritan, and not very thoughtful.

In the book Dorian’s crimes are not those of debauchery. Oh, he screws around and smokes opium, but that isn’t the point. His sins are in the way he treats other people. He is callous and cruel. He ruins young girls and leaves them to a life of prostitution (it is Victorian England, remember). His male friends (with the notable exceptions of Basil and Harry) are shunned by society, estranged from their families, broken, and some commit suicide. And through it all Dorian remains unscathed and unrepentant. It is his constant and selfish search for pleasure and his refusal to own his reprehensible actions that leads to him to self-destruct.

Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray gives us a portrait of someone with borderline personality disorder in a time when that term wasn’t even coined. Netflix' movie Dorian Gray is a morality play we’ve seen before.


Friday, March 24, 2017

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is a movie in which nothing happens.

Hospice nurse, Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), moves into a large, sunny house in Maine--”the house at the end of Teacup Road”--to care for an elderly writer who had lost her mind, but is really no trouble as a patient. Teacup Road? What could be scary about that?

What sets you up is the incongruity of the opening scene, and many scenes that follow. We begin with a monologue in which Lily solemnly talks about ghosts, and we see a pretty woman in Victorian dress walking slowly backwards across the screen in the dark. Wilson has great delivery for the line (about ghosts), “this is how they rot.”

When Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road, on a July day the house is clean and sunny and not the least bit frightening, but the man who brings her (lawyer?) doesn’t seem to want to go any farther into the house than the front door. The patient, someone who should clearly not be left alone, is alone in the house.

Reality in this movie, is just off-kilter enough not to be trusted. Things molder and decay, including (briefly) the heroine’s arms. There's an inconsistency with the dates. She arrives in July at one point mentions 11 months passing, but the lawyer says he is happy all the vacation people are leaving (implying it’s late August). Time does not seem to pass in this story. The heroine makes a telephone call that is interrupted by the ghost yanking the cord out of her hand. More disturbing than that is that our heroine picks up the phone and seems to begin the conversation over again with a slight variation, as if she is play-acting the call. You wonder if there is really anyone on the other end of the line.

Lily’s nervousness will set you on edge too. She admits that she is timid, too scared to read the horror novels her author-patient once wrote. She moves through the house, arms and sweater wrapped around herself, as if she is expecting a bogey man to jump out at any minute.

This is an understated horror that doesn’t rely on gore or monsters to frighten, and as such the little things are magnified. The ghost, Polly, is very pretty, but her body is put together wrong. Mold on a wall is ominous, as is the repeated song on an audio cassette playing, at odd times, in the patient’s room. The little incongruities add up to a surreal experience.

If you have a hard time making sense of all of it, or reconstructing the timeline of exactly what happened, it is because Lily, our narrator, has the same problem. Go back to the beginning and listen to her opening monologue again, and you will understand why.


Thursday, June 16, 2016


If ever there was a movie to deglamorize crime, this is it.

Fargo opens with Jerry Lundegaard driving through a near white-out pulling a flatbed trailer to an epically tragic soundtrack. The thing on the trailer might well be a coffin instead of a tan Sierra. This sets the tone for the whole movie.

Dante’s Inferno is often criticized because the Devil is far more interesting than God. A lot of stories about the fight between Good and Evil have this problem, and the usual cure is the anti-hero, like the Dark Knight (Batman).

You won’t find that in Fargo.

Good in this movie is ordinary people doing ordinary things, epitomized by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), seven-months-pregnant Chief of Police. Ordinary life in this movie is really....ordinary. It's about things like eating lunch, shovelling the drive, making breakfast for your wife before she heads off to a crime scene, checking into a hotel, and jumpstarting the car.

Think the homespun, quiet life of the local yokels is boring? Try spending some time with criminals Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stomare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi). They are holed up in an unheated cabin, eating TV dinners. One of them barely speaks and the other one won't shut up. Their kidnap victim (Kristin Rudrud) is hooded and bound and reduced to a token to be redeemed for ransom money.

In a brilliant scene the camera flips faster and faster between the silent and slack-jawed Grimsrud, the dehumanized victim, Showalter cursing and banging on the TV trying to get reception, and the snow and white noise on the TV itself. And just when you have had enough of that the camera moves seamlessly to the Gundersons, snuggling and dozing in bed. Unless you are a real masochist, my bet is you would rather snuggle up with the Gundersons than hang out with Grimsud and Showalter, much less be their victim. This perfectly illustrates the message of Fargo, which Marge sums up at the end for Grimsrud (which I won’t share here in case you are one of the few people who have not seen this movie yet).

The appeal of this movie is the character development. You may not like the characters but you will find them fascinating to watch. The acting is so good that Steve Buscemi will forever be known as “the funny looking guy” and Peter Stormare has a band called The Blonde from Fargo. (Look him up on IMDb. He is a totally different person when he smiles.) And it’s not just the acting, it’s the characters themselves. No cliches.

Character is what drives the plot in this movie and not the other way around, unlike most of what comes out of Hollywood passing for entertainment. Fargo’s outcome is inevitable but not predictable.

There are lots of great shots in this movie. An overhead shot of a snow-covered parking lot dotted with trees in diamond shaped planters would be perfect as a print for curtains. Stark images of the white and empty Minnesotan winter abound. What does it represent? Well, you can figure that out for yourself.

I want to avoid commercial successes (because, let's face it. you've heard of them and probably seen them) but Fargo is just too good and fits the bill too well to overlook. It is timeless. I was thrown a bit by the CRT TVs and landlines and 90s hair because otherwise this movie isn't dated at all.

Jah, Margie.

On IMDb:

Buy this movie

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Fountain

The Fountain is my favourite movie of all time. I have watched it several times, and it makes me cry every time. It’s appeal has not worn off.

The first time you watch the movie it is a bit hard to follow. It helps if you know that there are three parallel stories going on. The first is a novel that Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is writing, in which Queen Isabel of Spain has sent Conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman) to find the Fountain of Youth for her. It will save her from the Inquisition, which is taking over Spain. She gives him a gold ring and promises that they will be together, like Adam and Eve, when he returns from his mission.

The second story is set in present day. Dr Tommy Creo is desperate to find a cure for the brain cancer that is killing his wife Izzy. So desperate the he alienates his colleagues and neglects Izzy. He refuses to accept her fate.

The third story is a continuation of the first, set in the future, in which a virtually immortal Tommy Creo, in a bubble-like spaceship, is trying to resurrect Izzy. He has abandoned science for spirituality, and this is an all-or-nothing quest. It is his last resort.

Tommy has his own quest in each storyline, but Izzy has given him another one: to finish her novel. This request plagues him. He doesn’t know how the story ends.

If you can’t follow the story very well on first viewing, you can just sit back and be dazzled by the visual beauty of the film. Everywhere is golden light - lamps, candles, stars, sparks from welding, torches, sunrise. Tomas/Tommy is perpetually in gold-lit gloom. Brilliant daylight is available to him, and Izzy goes toward it, but not Tommy.

There are also repeated motifs: the straight line of roads and highways (watch for the crossroads); the stylized flower pattern/Mayan depiction of the star Xibalba; the fine hairs on the back of Izzy’s neck; the wedding band that Tommy loses while scrubbing up for surgery. If you are an English student and you want to analyze symbolism, this movie is rich with it. 

The love between Isabel/Izzy and Tomas/Tommy is profound and unshakeable. It is romance without mushiness or melodrama - the kind that the kid in the Princess Bride would find acceptable, despite some kissing. Watch it with someone you love.

And yes, Hugh Jackman can act.


Buy this movie

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Perfect Host

I hate movies/shows/stories that are predictable. If you do too, then The Perfect Host is the movie for you.

The movie begins with John (Clayne Crawford) who is having a bad day. The cops are on his tail and he needs a place to lay low. Fortunately John is also a master con artist and talks his way into the opulent home of Warwick (David Hyde Pierce) with a sob story about being mugged and claims that they have a mutual friend.

I have to confess I have thought that Pierce was brilliant ever since I first saw him in the short-lived sitcom The Powers That Be, so this review might be biased. His role as Niles Crane on Frasier is almost a reprisal of that role. And you might think he is playing the effete and mild-mannered Niles again as Warwick.

But you won’t think that for long. John’s day is about to get so much worse.

There isn’t too much I can say about this movie without giving away the twists and turns of the plot. Go watch The Perfect Host and then come back and reflect on these questions:

What happened to Warwick’s dinner guests?

Do police lieutenants really make enough to live in that style?

Did you take a close look at the photos in Warwick’s album?

What will happen to Morton?

Now watch it again. Pierce's performance holds up on second viewing. The movie is still enjoyable, even though you know what happens, because now you are in on it from the beginning. You become a co-conspirator.

So...what did happen to Warwick’s dinner guests? 


Buy his movie

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Only Lovers Left Alive

If age brings wisdom, what would happen if you lived for centuries? What kind of a library could you amass? How well could you hone your creative skills, like writing or composing music?

Only Lovers Left Alive explores the question: what makes life worth living? Vampires Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (John Hiddlestone) have different answers to that question. Eve’s diet might be limited to blood, but she is an intellectual omnivore. The secret of Eve’s longevity is her curiosity, and her ability to see the beauty in everything. Eve is white-haired, dresses in light colors and lives in a city of close, white-stuccoed buildings. Adam is “romantically suicidal,” an artist who wants his music to be played, but can't risk being in the limelight. He dresses in black and drives aimlessly around the “wilderness” of a decaying and abandoned Detroit. Opposites attract. Sorrow needs joy, and day needs night. Adam and Eve’s love spans centuries and continents.

The vampires in this movie are the antithesis of Dracula. They don’t revel in death and debauchery; they don’t want melodrama (especially in the person of Eve’s little sister Ava [Mia Wasikowska]). They want to live quiet and anonymous lives, Eve with her books, and Adam with his music. Blood, at its best, is a drug; at its most basic it is necessary sustenance. It is not obtained by stalking scantily clad virgins. Adam’s and Eve’s sources are more circumspect than going to the grocery store, but not much more exciting.

But, as in the lives of mere mortals, shit happens, and hard decisions have to be made in the interest of survival.

Only Lovers Left Alive is an atmospheric movie, rich with visual details and a moody soundtrack. Eve’s home in Tangiers is full of books and tapestries and beautifully embroidered robes; Adam’s house in Detroit is cluttered with a marriage of antiques and electronics, rare and beautiful musical instruments and kick-ass sound equipment. Both are the kind of place you want to explore, like an exotic market or an antique shop.

In the middle of this richness is a strikingly stark image of the lovers, naked and asleep, their bodies white against black satin sheets. What does that image mean? I will leave that up to you.

Note: I am deducting half a star for the cheesy font used for the title.


Buy this movie