All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

CAPSULE: SYNCHRONIC (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides

PLOT: New Orleans paramedics discover that a series of bizarre deaths are linked to a new designer drug called “synchronic.”

Still from Synchronic (2019)

COMMENTS: The designer drug “Synchronic” is not “red marijuana,” as some (including us) had speculated, but comes in pill form and is passingly described as “bath salts.” The “chronic” in the drug’s name doesn’t reference weed at all, but has a different derivation, and the movie doesn’t have any relation to the story shared in Moorhead and Benson’s Resolution and The Endless. Synchronic is, instead, a slightly bigger-budgeted turn towards the mainstream for the pair, with two moderate movie star leads in Anthony Mackie (Marvel universe’s “Falcon”) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray).

Unusually, I found Synchronic‘s dramatic setup more entertaining than its sci-fi twist. Steve (Mackie) drinks a lot and pops codeine pills. Is he turning into a “junkie paramedic cliche,” as his partner fears, or is there a deeper reason? While Steve is an aging bachelor still playing the field, Dennis (Dornan) long ago settled down with a wife and kid. Each partner envies the other’s lifestyle just a little.  Dennis’ daughter, Tara, is a good kid but, like a lot of 18-year-olds, unsure what she wants to do with her life; right now, her passion is for staying out all night partying. Meanwhile, the two paramedics are called into scenes where they find zonked-out druggies with strange, sometimes inexplicable injuries—like the skull-faced voodoo practitioner who won’t stop laughing despite his compound fracture—all linked to a new designer drug that’s plaguing the city.

So the characters are likable, their situations dramatic and relatable, and they’re all set up for a speculative blast that will blow the hinges off. The problem is that when the sci-fi twist arrives, it’s basic and contrived, and not weird enough to compensate for its unbelievability. The drug’s mechanism is revealed in explicit detail less than halfway through the movie, taking away a potential source of mystery. If you accept the silly premise, what follows is logical—too logical. Even the characters’ emotional arcs are predictable. The trippy promise of the opener, with reality dissolving and reassembling as the synchronic kicks in on an elevator ride, never materializes. All in all, it’s like a run-of-the-mill episode of the “X-Files”; watchable, but nothing special. Synchronic would have been a promising debut film from a new director, but it’s a bit of a letdown from a duo who looked like they were pushing boundaries and getting weirder and weirder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With believability being pushed too far, and the film’s direction needing a tighter pace, even the surreal visual effects and trippy weirdness aren’t quite enough to make it work.”–Zoe Margolis, CineVue (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE ANTENNA (2019)

Bina

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DIRECTED BY: Orçun Behram

FEATURING: Ihsan Önal, Gul Arici, Levent Ünsal

PLOT: A building supervisor deals with strange occurrences after a satellite antenna is installed in his apartment building to broadcast new government-sponsored news bulletins.

Still from The Antenna [Bina} (2019)

COMMENTS: Set in a Kafkaesque cinder block, but clearly inspired by life in Erdoğan’s Turkey, The Antenna establishes its propaganda theme right away. Mehmet, an unassuming apartment building supervisor, listens to a government-sponsored radio broadcast as he dresses. Posters of a generic middle-aged strongman decorate the concrete pillars he passes as he walks to to work through gray, deserted streets. The morning report declares that the government will be rolling out an elaborate communications system intended to integrate all media, one which will require the installation of a satellite dish on the roof of Mehmet’s building. This achievement will be celebrated with a special midnight broadcast—one which all citizens are strongly encouraged to watch.

Although the contemporary relevance is obvious, The Antenna is set in an indeterminately authoritarian time and place. Along with the drab utilitarian architecture, the celebration of satellite antenna television as cutting-edge technology suggest a Communist country in the 1980s. The film’s aesthetic is grimly Stalinist: residents wardrobes are almost all shades of black, white or gray (Mehmet is praised for the “seriousness” of his utilitarian, monochromatic suit). Only the younger characters, not yet fully integrated into this society, wear the occasional splash of brown, or even dull yellow or red. The cinematography favors shallow-focus shots, with background characters blurred, emphasizing each character’s isolation. Strong sound design contrasts with the grim visuals. Horror movie music plays from the pipes in the walls, and the noise of the outside world subjectively mutes when characters are in moments of crisis. At one point Mehmet’s ears are overwhelmed by a welter of staticky, overlapping propaganda broadcasts.

The Antenna builds a strong atmosphere of dehumanization and quiet despair, full of subtle threats, such as the way Mehmet’s boss playfully slaps his face to remind him of their respective ranks in the power structure. It springs some effective horror moments: black goo oozing from the wall and ceiling tiles, Mehemt seeing a column of anonymous identical silhouettes peering out of their compartmentalized windows. Angry synthesizers and VHS quality satellite broadcasts speak to the influence of Videodrome and other 1980s dystopias. For all of these virtues, however, the script lacks some urgency. It spends too long introducing us to the desperately bland lives of the tenement dwellers; even though the first kill comes 30 minutes in, it still feels slow. Nor does the two-hour journey build to a powerful climax. The ending is a series of weird visual and auditory metaphors, which happen to the characters rather than developing as a consequence of their actions. The grand finale is a confrontation with a lackey; we never burrow down to the source of the evil. Despite these reservations, debuting director Behram shows obvious skill in building fear. It’s a talent that might be better harnessed in service of a more propulsive script in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this atmospheric nerve-jangler tips its hat to David Lynch’s gothic surrealism and David Cronenberg’s squirmy body horror, with pleasing detours into Dario Argento-style lurid giallo mania, too… [a] hauntingly weird debut.”–Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter (festival review)

CAPSULE: POSSESSOR (2020)

AKA Possessor Uncut

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , ,

PLOT: In the near future, secret elite assassins carry out their work by possessing the bodies of innocent parties through a neural implant; Taysa, a top Possessor, has trouble on her latest assignment when the subject proves capable of sporadically suppressing her control.

Still from Possessor (2020)

COMMENTS: “This film has not been modified from its original version” is an odd notice to see on a movie in its first run. Releasing Possessor as Possessor Uncut is meant to play on the fact that Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature was refused an “R” rating, and the director declined to make the cuts (involving both sex and violence) required for the “restricted” rating. Thirty years ago that would have been a big deal, meaning no advertising in newspapers and boycotts by mainstream theaters (and Blockbuster Video). Nowadays, unrated movies—especially provocative art-house pictures and sordid genre films (Possessor fits both categories)—get theatrical releases all the time with little hoo-ha. Still, after watching a possessed hostess plunge and twist a knife repeatedly into her privileged white male target in Possessor‘s opening sequence, you will understand why they are making a big deal out of the “uncut” nature of this project. Possessor‘s violence is graphic, well-done, and fits the film’s disturbingly sociopathic tone.

Specifics of the technology that allows Possessor‘s assassins to ply their gruesome trade are left largely to our imagination. Some details are plot-important, however: possessors are psychologically tested to make sure their individual memories remain intact after a job, and technicians warn that it’s safe to inhabit the host bodies for only about 72 hours. Storywise, there is actually not a lot to follow: top hitwoman Taysa Vos (Risenborough, looking like she’s inhabiting the body of a young ) is feeling the stress of her lifestyle, spontaneously recalling scenes from her work life as she’s trying to re-establish her bond with her estranged husband and son. Her chillingly businesslike boss (Jason Leigh) calls her in for a lucrative job that involves possessing a man to murder his CEO father-in-law-to be as part of an extremely hostile takeover scheme. Things go badly, naturally, as Taysa finds that her neural connection with target Colin (Abbot) isn’t as steadfast as usual. The subject regains some measure of free will, complicating the job.

Like his father, Cronenberg fils knows when to ratchet up the unease with subtle touches (an establishing shot of skyscraper slowly spinning along the frame’s axis) and when to unleash the hounds. One of the odd features of this film is that our putative protagonist is, by necessity, off screen for most of the action. Her psychological motivations are equally absent; we don’t get any overt explanation as to why she does what she does, what makes her good at it, and why she’s willing to risk her family—and her sanity—for her distasteful job. This blankness makes her seem all the more of a monster, a perfect psychological parasite. The trippy sequences where she and her target battle for control of the body’s will feature images of molded mannequin heads melting and reassembling, and of Risenborough trapped in an ill-fitting mask. The imagery suggests not so much a Persona-styled existential crisis as it does a metaphor for a character battling for her own humanity. While not as aggressively weird as his unsettling debut film Antiviral (no celebrity steaks on offer here), Possessor is dark in the best/worst way, and will satisfy your desire for soul-freezing chills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This Cronenberg’s work is just as odd, bloody and twisted as that of his old man, but he’s not imitating the twistedness… whatever else it is, ‘Possessor’ feels authentically weird.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and its possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DEAD ONES (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Rose Harper, Brandon Thane Wilson, Katie Foster, Torey Garza

PLOT: Four seniors are locked inside their high school at night as punishment for vandalism; characters dressed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stalk them.

Still from The Dead Ones (2019)

COMMENTS: I’m not the first one to describe The Dead Ones as some variation of “The Breakfast Club goes to Hell,” and I won’t be the last. It’s hard to ignore the high concept premise: high schoolers alone, sentenced to detention, but done as a horror movie. But The Dead Ones is a good bit more than that belittling description suggests, digging into the issue of teen bullying and its too-frequent apocalyptic consequences, while satisfying the bloodlust of its horror demographic with gore, shocks, and—yes—weirdness.

To continue the Breakfast Club metaphor for a moment… it should be no surprise that this one won’t end with a Don’t-You-Forget-About-Me-fist-pump. (Instead, we get an ironic recitation of the title, which is as close to redemption as The Dead Ones can come.) Rather than collection of brains, athletes, princesses, etc., what we have here are two basket cases and two criminals. Three out of the four are fleshed out with decent, if sad, backstories of abuse, humiliation, and mental illness. Emily, for example, is a cutter, and the bizarrely calligraphed scarring patterns on her arms and back are the first hints of true weirdness in the film (not counting some high school chatter about the ancient Egyptian god Ammit). What begins as a haunted high school spook show is interrupted by scenes of a far more realistic horror: four masked figures (the same ones who have locked the teens inside for the night) go on a daytime shooting rampage. The Dead Ones starts alternating between these two stories, and it’s not clear whether scenes are flashbacks, flash-forwards, or alternate realities altogether. Meanwhile, really weird stuff continues to happen at Midnight Breakfast Club: warping floor tiles, rag-eating ghouls, a precariously perched column made of classroom furniture. The teens’ reactions are rarely commensurate with the horrors they experience: one delinquent responds to being pushed around by a classroom of zombies with a defiant middle finger, rather than by wetting himself in terror.

The acting is not bad, with Sarah Rose Harper holding down the main duties (and delivering one fairly chilling monologue). The sound mix is thick and oppressive; I vacillated over whether it was too intrusive or not. Effects are done on the cheap. Kasten throws a lot of different styles into the film, from horror movie standard like flickering lights, various CGI and post-production tricks, homemade masks, crude stop-motion monsters, and scenes that play out on security cameras or YouTube videos, or on TV monitors that talk back to the characters. The welter of techniques keeps you off balance, but it probably would have been a stronger film had they stuck to a couple of key stylistic motifs. Still, it’s hard to complain about a horror movie that has the courage to go full weird.

Surprisingly divisive, The Dead Ones garnered positive reviews from critics while earning a shockingly low 3.1 rating on IMDB. Based on the few reader reviews available, it seems that most of the detractors missed a couple of relatively obvious clues that left them confused (or perhaps they didn’t watch all the way until the end, by which time everything should be crystal clear). Zach Chassler’s script is full of classical allusions that may fly over heads of those seeking a slash-’em-up teen thriller, so maybe it’s just a case of the film not finding its way to the proper audience yet. (Our readers are the proper audience.)

The Dead Ones was shot way back in 2009; some have speculated that the sad plague of school shootings in the following years scared off investors and distributors who thought the subject matter was too raw for the moment. Once finally completed, it only played a couple of stops on the festival circuit, but Artsploitation rescued it and put it out on the Internet and Blu-ray. The disc comes with two short behind-the-scenes featurettes and two commentaries, which are worth listening to in order to catch all the tiny, almost subliminal details that will probably escape you on a first viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“From within this structure, though, a weirdly intriguing picture flows… The Dead Ones is quite the madhouse and you have to admire Kasten’s journey into teen darkness.”–Elias Savada, Film International (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hideaki Itô, Yūsuke Iseya, Kōichi Satō, Kaori Momoi, Yoshino Kimura, Masanobu Andô,

PLOT: A nameless gunman rides into a town where two rival gangs of samurai scheme to find and seize a hidden cache of gold.

Still from Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

COMMENTS: A hawk grabs a snake in its talons and flies off into a painted sunset. A man wrapped in a Navajo blanket (Quentin Tarantino) rolls onto his back, shoots the bird out of the sky, catches the snake as it falls, and in one swift motion uses a knife to slit the body and remove a bloody egg from the serpent’s neck. While he’s absorbed in that operation, three Japanese gunslingers get the drop on him. Tarantino, using a fake Western accent, then describes a rivalry between the red Heike and the white Genji clans, as he slips into an even weirder take on a cowpoke with a southern drawl mimicking a Japanese accent. Not surprisingly, the nameless man turns the tables on the three interlopers and kills them all, without breaking the egg.

This opening suggests a level of stylized surrealism that Sukiyaki Western Django doesn’t quite maintain. Tarantino’s character is not the non sequitur narrator he initially appears to be, and the rest of the movie generally takes a more straightforward tone. Essentially, it’s a series of spaghetti Western archetypes, clichés, and homages—a Man with No Name, a hidden cache of treasure, a weapon stashed in a coffin—wrapped in a gimmick: the action all takes place in a mythical version of feudal Japan where desperadoes pack both six-shooters and katanas. In the strangest directorial decision, the Japanese cast delivers their cowboy dialogue (“you gonna come at me… or whistle ‘Dixie’?”) entirely in heavily accented English (learned phonetically, in most cases).  Because the actors’ English pronunciation ranges from passable to difficult to understand to nearly incomprehensible, this odd, distancing choice will be an insurmountable barrier for some.

If you can clear the dialogue bar, the rest of Sukiyaki‘s recipe will be familiar to Miike fans: fast-paced action, absurd comic violence, heavy doses of morphing style, and throwaway bits of surrealism. Holes are blown through torsos, through which crossbow bolts are then fired; bright flashback scenes are graded toward the extreme yellow and green ends of the spectrum; babies are found curled up in hybridized roses. We also learn that, in old West saloons, samurai were fond of interpretive dance performances scored to didgeridoos. All this nonsense leads to a heart-pounding, if hackneyed, finale that proves the old maxim that the more important a character is to the plot, the more bullets they can take without dying. After the gunsmoke clears from the village-sized battlefield, a silly closing epilogue will make Spaghetti Western fans groan.

Tarantino’s involvement in Sukiyaki is a testament to the mutual admiration between he and Miike, and it’s noteworthy that his role here comes five years before his own revisionist take on Spaghetti Westerns in 2012’s Django Unchained. As for Miike, in some ways Sukiyaki marks the beginning of the winding down of his weird movie period; his next major work seen in the West was the excellent but entirely realistic Thirteen Assassins (2010), and since 2015 has been spending more time on Japanese television series aimed at elementary school girls than on making weird cinema.

In 2020, MVD visual released Sukiyaki Western Django on Blu-ray for the first time (in the North American market). All of the extras—a 50-minute “making of” featurette, six minutes of deleted scenes, and a series of clips and promos—are also found on the 2008 DVD. The one thing that makes this release special is the inclusion of the extended cut that played at the Venice Film Festival and in Japanese theaters. The box cover claims this extended cut is 159:57 minutes long—a typo for 1:59:57, as the cut clocks in at almost exactly two hours. There are no significant differences between the two versions; Miike simply snipped away insignificant bits from many once-longer scenes, resulting in a shorter, faster-paced, and improved film. (A detalied list of the differences can be found at the always-excellent movie-censorship.com).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly deranged homage to westerns all’italia… dialogue is delivered in phonetic English so weirdly cadenced that self-conciously cliched lines like ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ approach surreal poetry.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide