All posts by Bryan Pike

CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks

FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell

PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.

It Takes from Within (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.

COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.

Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.

Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain Continue reading CAPSULE: IT TAKES FROM WITHIN (2017)

BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST COLORING BOOK ON THE LEFT (2017)

“To avoid fainting keep repeating: it’s only a coloring book, it’s only a coloring book, it’s only a coloring book…”–-Front cover blurb, Last Coloring Book on the Left

WRITTEN & ILLUSTRATED BY: Jimmy Angelina, Wyatt Doyle

FEATURING: Likenesses of Michael Caine, , , and many others

PLOT: A coloring book for adults, and more specifically, cinephiles. Every page features a new rendering of an iconic character from a film, with some of their dialogue underneath.

Last Coloring Book on the Left

BACKGROUND:

  • The second publication from the team behind 2016’s “The Last Coloring Book.”
  • The Author Wyatt Doyle worked at Delco Five Star Video, then Computer and Video Exchange and Pizza and Video To Go. His years at the family shop, Doyle’s Premiere Video, overlapped with his tenure at Movies Unlimited—a job that continued into his time at Video Showcase IV. He has published several books. His favorite theaters are the Lansdowne, the Egyptian, Eric Twin Barclay Square, the New Beverly, and the Old Town Music Hall. But he saw Meatballs at the Waverly.
  • The Illustrator Jimmy Angelina swapped studying filmmaking for drawing pictures. His illustrations have appeared in various publications and on theater posters. He once spent an unforgettable evening watching movies and eating pizza with comics legend Gene Colan. His favorite artist is . Angelina is currently assembling a collection of his early work and ephemera, provisionally titled A Portrait of the Idiot as a Young Moron. He loves dogs.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Every page features an iconic face from a movie.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: as renegade repairman Harry Tuttle in Brazil (1985); during his “Jesus Christ Savior” tour (1971); and son in El Topo (1970)

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With no context other than the drawing of the character and a line or two of dialogue, you have to know which film the illustration is referencing to make sense of the page. Without this foreknowledge, it presents some striking illustrations of film moments that will be beyond the reader’s comprehension. Readers are also very unlikely to ever actually color in said drawings, effectively rendering the book non functional.

COMMENTS: What a strange, yet delightful, occurrence to be called upon to review a coloring book for 366 Weird Movies. Obviously this isn’t a List contender (it’s not a film!), but it is a refreshing and unexpected change of pace.

This is an odd book: a publication celebrating cinema without any historical context, production notes, or insight into any of the films included; a coloring book never intended for children but which adults are unlikely to ever actually color in; and a tome without any major slabs of text or narrative. Unless you’re familiar with the films themselves you’re unlikely to comprehend the images on each page, and no context is given for the movie the image comes from—most likely for legal reasons.

While definitely an appropriate title for this site, featuring some obscure gems from the Midnight Movie genre, retro horror films, and odd dramas like 1999’s The Straight Story, this purely a curio for the coffee tables of lovers of cinema. A quick read that can be finished in under half an hour, the shelf life of this book rests entirely on how often the owner will bring it out at parties for the curiosity of others. Unless you intend to actually color in the images, you will be unlikely to revisit it often.

Still, the images themselves are striking ink drawings rendered boldly in black and white, and the quality of the paper and jacket is impressive for an independent publication. Celluloid lovers will delight in spotting moments from their favorite films including Chow Yun-Fat cradling a baby in Hard Boiled (1992), as Ben in Blue Velvet (1986), as Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969), as Sir Guy Grand in The Magic Christian (1969), Sterling Hayden as Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and as Alonzo in The Unknown (1927) among many, many others. This reviewer considers himself a dedicated patron of the cinematic arts and yet was still hard pressed to place all of the images and films contained within.

A novelty piece with perhaps little reuse value, it remains a highly original and polished publication celebrating the best of cult and alternative cinema. A welcome addition for collectors and movie buffs looking to fill their shelves with a unique conversation piece.

OFFICIAL SITE: “The Last Coloring Book” official Facebook page

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Last Coloring Book on Amazing Colossal Podcast! – The original “The Last Coloring Book” featured on Amazing Colossal Podcast with Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre

WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Don Hertzfeldt

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT: “Episode Two” picks up some time after the events of the first film, with a previously unmentioned spare Emily clone seeking out the original Emily Prime. This “back-up copy” clone, recognized only by a 6 on her forehead, travels back through time to capture Emily Prime’s memories, as she will never receive third generation Emily’s memories due the Earth having exploded, thus destroying Emily’s bloodline. Confused? As with the wealth of ideas in the first episode, there is a lot to digest here.

Still from World of Tomorrow 2: The Burden of Other People's Dreams (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The original “World of Tomorrow” remains a long shot due to its short running length, and this sequel only improves on that aspect by about five minutes. It is equal, but not superior, to the quality of the first episode, and as a result will not be a List contender.

COMMENTS: The first “World of Tomorrow” arose from a series of audio recordings of Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, then four years old, rearranged to form a script. The recordings for the sequel were made when Mae was five, and the dialogue was considerably more difficult to sculpt into a coherent work: “It turns out that writing a story around the unscripted audio of a four-year-old is pretty easy compared to writing around the unscripted audio of a five-year-old. Where once I had short and expressive reactions that could be gracefully edited, suddenly I was facing down long, rambling monologues from a small crazy person.” Difficult or no, Hertzfeldt has crafted another elegant and irreverently funny work here that captures much of the same resignation and melancholy of the first, while narrowing the focus of the narrative.

Where the first short took us to robot mining colonies and museums where living clones aged on display, here Hertzfeldt limits our gaze primarily to back-up clone “6’s” experiences. We see the distant planet where 6 grew up, and the friendship she formed with back-up clone 5, called “Felecia” to discriminate her from other Emily clones. Together Emily Prime and 6 explore 6’s mind and memories. A particularly poignant moment comes when Prime discovers a shining thing in a stream, which 6 identifies as “a glimmer of hope,” something that has become much rarer in 6’s mind. 6 informs Prime that her mind used to be young and idealistic like Prime’s, but then 6 grew up and she hasn’t “seen a new glimmer of hope… in many years.” Scenes like these conjure up the wistfulness for childhood that characterized much of the first film, that yearning for dreams that went unrealized, marred by the disappointments of adult life.

The disconnect between Prime and her clone’s perceptions of the same moment greatly informed the comedy in the first film, and this element returns in the sequel. Prime doesn’t understand the significance of much of what 6 describes, and her innocent, childish reactions are often hilarious. When 6 plaintively asks Prime if she recognizes the planet where Felecia is exiled, Prime innocently suggests it might be “near Kitty land?” before offering other imaginative possibilities. In between these moments of disconnect, Hertzfeldt expertly weaves affecting dialogue (“The closer I look at things, the less I know”) as characters move across a backdrop of digitally conjured imagery. This feast of kinetic eye candy takes the form of swirling, nebulous particles, replacing the  geometric patterns of the first episode.

Does Hertzfeldt’s description of a difficult second birth translate to the film emerging as a flawed outing? No, there are no major sequel shortcomings here: “The Burden of Other People’s Dreams” captures the tone and aesthetic of the first, pushing them in a slightly different, more specific direction. Perhaps narratively it is less than the first film’s full course meal (the glimpses of the larger world and story sidelines are missed), but ultimately “Episode Two” is even more intimate and affecting due to its limited scope. Without distractions from her story, we come to genuinely feel for 6, so that when the film reaches its climax and her current consciousness dissolves and Prime fulfills 6’s childhood hopes, we are moved on the same level as we would watching a live action film. The emotive power of Hertzfeldt’s films continues to be the strongest element of his uncompromising, independent oeuvre.

“World of Tomorrow, Episode Two” is available exclusively on Vimeo on Demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If ‘World of Tomorrow’ was a journey outwards to the furthest reaches of thought, ‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts’ is an epic voyage inward, a dizzying spin down the rabbit hole of the human subconscious.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: MANOS: THE RISE OF TORGO (2015)

“I made Rise of Torgo following what I call ‘Hal’s Rules’: very few takes, no shots over 30 seconds, shoot without sound and pay no one up front. There’s no way to copy what Hal Warren did, so I set out to make a film that is a sibling to the original, similar yet different.”–David Roy, 2016 interview with 366 Weird Movies

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jackie Neyman Jones, Joe Warren, Danny McCarty, Elizabeth Redpath, Matt Rogers

PLOT: In this prequel to the notoriously bad cult film Manos: The Hands of Fate, we learn the origin of iconic characters the Master and Torgo.

Still from Manos: The Rise of Torgo (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Rise of Torgo is an often-striking addition to the Manos world, with several inventive and unique aspects that had potential, but ultimately its slavish devotion to the original and a plodding pace prevent it from being a satisfying prequel. It’s not good enough to be great and not terrible enough to be an entertaining “bad” film, falling somewhere between competent and ordinary.

COMMENTS: Manos: The Rise of Torgo faces two major concerns from the outset: one, it follows up an iconic cult film fifty-something years after the fact; and two, it purposefully sets out to make a “bad” movie. The first concern is similar to the dilemma faced by the recent follow up to 1982’s Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, which I though was plagued by the weight of its highly influential predecessor and was most successful when it strayed from the source material. Similarly, Rise of Torgo is most engaging when building its own mythos, and least successful when recreating or reusing elements of the original film. Obviously there’s no comparison between the two franchises (Blade Runner vs. Manos) in terms of production value or popular success; I mention it only because of the comparable uneven mix of old and new elements, the considerable lengths between installments, and because both films feature actors from the original franchise.

The second concern arises when a competent filmmaker attempts to recreate the errors of people with no concept of how to turn out a polished, coherent product. The errors often feel forced or labored, and the schadenfreude derived from witnessing genuinely misguided filmmaking is replaced with boredom and irritation. The great “terrible” films like Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Troll 2 (1990) or The Room (2003) were made by genuinely misguided filmmakers, outsiders like or who seem removed from ordinary human experience and can only write dialogue and cut footage together from their own strange impulses. They show instincts devoid of even the slightest knowledge of how ordinary human beings communicate, or of how filmmakers arrange footage to create meaning and coherence.

The original Manos brimmed with the kind of odd editing choices and bizarre dialogue that truly defines bad cinema. It featured twenty second shots of Torgo stumbling around with luggage, accompanied by his own music cue, alongside his tremulous delivery of lines like, “I meant no harm, Madam, I’ll protect you… I’ll protect you.” Director Harold Warren had no formal film training, and it shows, especially when a shot of the clapperboard is featured in scenes with the kissing couple. The amateur nature of the production is stamped throughout the exasperating length of the film.

Rise of Torgo’s auteur, David Roy, is clearly no slouch at film making. His shots are well composed, the color grading enhances elements for effect, and there are even special effects (admittedly cheesy ones, probably designed as such to fit the Manos universe). This is a capable filmmaker attempting to make a bad film, and as such a lot of the fun is taken out of the picture. What we get instead are elements of garbage woven through a competently produced picture.

Rise of Torgo gets off to a good, campy start, with an introduction to the Master and the God Manos (represented by Jackie Neyman Jones, the little girl from the original), presented as a floating head, like the ghost of Mufasa in The Lion King. We then learn the origins of Torgo’s birth, involving twin midwives (who later turn out to be his grandmothers) and a blessing from a cross-eyed gypsy. She is promptly jettisoned from the rest of the film and her presence never explained. All original and amusing “bad filmmaking” choices so far. A woman in the woods inexplicably sings about her love for goats, and given Torgo’s hinted-at satyr nature in the original film, we might even expect the two to meet and develop a romance. Sadly, at this point in the film Manos “call-backs” take over. The girl merely becomes a victim of the Master’s original caretaker, and an otherwise fresh, surreal characteristic goes unutilized.

The “Them” Torgo’s Mother speaks of is an interesting aspect thrown into his psychology, but ultimately becomes pointless in his transformation into the Master’s slave. That transformation arises from a combination of bullying and the power of Manos. The twin Grandmothers speak and move in sync, an interesting feature that remains merely a curiosity and fails to inform the story in any significant way. It’s a device that had potential, but ultimately falls to the necessity of sticking to the elements of The Hands of Fate. The film occasionally even fails to satisfy this requirement: Torgo doesn’t have the same quavering, tremulous voice as the original, not even after his transformation by Manos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you enjoyed the original Manos, you’ll probably find this to be a worthy sequel, in the sense that it strives to stylistically be as similar as possible. If campiness is your thing, you’re in for a fun ride.”–David Gelmini, Dread Central

Manos: The Rise of Torgo Facebook Site

297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

Braindead and Meet the Feebles…were wisely overlooked by the Academy…”– Peter Jackson, accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mark Hadlow, Donna Akersten, Peter Vere-Jones, Stuart Devenie, Bryan Sergent

PLOT: A group of puppets, “the Feebles,” prepare for their first live TV broadcast. Unfortunately fragile egos, double-dealings, accidental killings, pornographic sidelines, rohypnol-aided assault, and drug and sex addictions plague their rehearsals. This ain’t no kid’s film.

Still from Meet the Feebles (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jackson’s second film after 1987’s surprise low-budget hit Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles was originally conceived as a TV series until Japanese investors convinced Jackson to transform it into a feature. It was then hastily re-written and shot in twelve weeks.
  • The dialogue was recorded before filming began.
  • The film went over budget and over-schedule, forcing Jackson and crew to submit what they had so far to satisfy the New Zealand Film Commission, and then film a remaining scene (the Vietnam flashback) by breaking into the Studio at night. This sequence was then submitted as a separate film to the NZFC entitled “The Frogs of War.”
  • Won Best Contribution to Design for Cameron Chittock, for the puppets at the 1990 New Zealand Film Awards.
  • Bryan Pike’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The big finale where Heidi massacres fellow cast members with a machine gun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chicken/elephant baby; heroin-injecting flashback frog; “Sodomy” massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are no human beings in front of the camera whatsoever (with the exception of Abi, a human-esque contortionist puppet), only a lusty rabble of puppet misfits all clamoring for television stardom. Somewhere between “Avenue Q” and “The Muppets” lies this unseemly purgatory of puppet scheming, murder and mayhem.


Meet the Feebles opening theme song

COMMENTS: Like Dead Alive (1992), Meet the Feebles is another Continue reading 297. MEET THE FEEBLES (1989)

268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

Known as Dead Alive in North America, Braindead elsewhere

“You know what they are saying about you don’t you? You’ve got funny in the head! A real bloody weirdo!”–Roger, Dead Alive

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie

PLOT: An explorer discovers a Sumatran “Rat-Monkey” on Skull Island; the creature is safely housed in a Wellington zoo. The animal escapes and bites Lionel’s overbearing mother, who becomes a zombie and infects anyone she comes across. Lionel then juggles the advances of the local shop owner’s daughter Paquita and the machinations of his blackmailing uncle with the zombies mounting in his basement.

Still from Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written before the controversial puppet black comedy Meet the Feebles, but filmed afterward. This was the first script co-written with longtime Jackson collaborator and partner Frances Walsh. The story originated with the third credited co-writer, Stephen Sinclair, who originally conceived of it as a stage play satirizing New Zealand society.
  • Partly funded by taxpayer dollars through the New Zealand Film Commission.
  • The film won Best Screenplay at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1993. It won Best Film (and Best Special Effects) at the 1993 edition of the Fantasporto Film Festival for genre pictures.
  • Released as Braindead in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries, but as Dead Alive in North America to avoid confusion with the practically identically titled 1990 horror film Brain Dead (directed by Adam Simon).
  • The uncut version was banned for extreme violence in several countries, including Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
  • Came in it #91 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the greatest horror movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Grand Guignol finale where Lionel cuts down a horde of zombies with a lawnmower. Three hundred liters of fake blood were used in this scene.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sumatran Rat-Monkey; zombie baby; the Lord’s ass-kicker

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: From the seemingly benign and placid surface of 1950’s New Zealand society, director Peter Jackson spews forth undead geriatrics consuming German Shepherds, amorous zombies who impregnate each other, sentient viscera, oedipal vaginal imagery on an epic scale, and an inexplicable excursion to the local park with a zombie baby. The invention and gory slapstick of this film are comparable to a Looney Tunes episode where Wyle E. Coyote falls into a spool of razor wire. Or perhaps the antics of and the Keystone Cops defending themselves from an undead invasion after ingesting speed-balls.


Original trailer for Dead Alive

COMMENTS: I fondly remember Braindead from my 1990’s adolescence, days of VHS and weekends spent with friends, trying to outdo Continue reading 268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker, Lauren Wolkstein

FEATURING: Will Blomker, Ryan Cassata, Frank Mosley, Tonya Pinkins

PLOT: In this experimental compilation, five filmmakers adapt each other’s dreams into short films.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As both a film depicting dreams and as a formal experiment, the project presents a pressing case for inclusion on the list of the weirdest films ever made. There are a number of arresting images within this film and some truly bizarre moments.

COMMENTS: Dreams have always proved a tantalizing subject for filmmakers. Arriving from the unfettered unconscious mind with surreal imagery and associations to codify our thoughts, feelings and memories, dreams have forever enticed filmmakers to realize these bewildering experiences on screen. However, translating this phenomenon presents a number of challenges. One is budgetary, because of the opulent settings and fantastical creatures that can be found in a dream. Another is sensory: despite film’s ability to engross us it remains an outside object, never as immersive as the internal, subjective experience of dreaming.

Successful translators of the experience, such as , recognize the limitations of film immersion and focus on pacing and juxtaposition of image and sound to recreate the atmosphere and “feel” of dreams. Surrealism as an artistic movement is deeply tied to the unconscious and dreams, so it is hardly surprising that one other successful interpreter is Surrealist filmmaker , who overcame budgetary restraints through jarring combinations of everyday objects and people in unconventional ways.

Film compilations also come with their own separate challenges. Unless there is a strong through line each segment will have a different tone and pace, and invariably some episodes will be more satisfying than others. Throw in some deeply personal dreams as subject matter and you could have a hotchpotch of cinema that doesn’t gel together as a whole. Despite the technical sophistication and invention of each filmmaker—none of whom are familiar to me, so I can’t comment on the clash/serendipitous mix of subject and filmmaking styles within—I’m afraid this is the case here.

The film opens with its linking device, a man addressing the camera and attempting to hypnotize us, luring us to sleep and imploring us to lower our resistance, as dream logic demands. It is an effective device to prep us for the experience, if, like most wraparounds, narratively weak on its own. There follows some pretty if perfunctory animation from Maya Edelman before the film begins proper with arguably its most successful segment, “Black Soil, Green Grass,” directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone from a dream by Lauren Wolkstein. Combining Lynch and Buñuel’s techniques, it successfully creates a surreal, dream-like atmosphere through unusual juxtapositions of the everyday: a watchtower that inexplicably pipes a recording of a man counting sheep through loudspeakers, a man encircled Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (2016)

CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

PLOT: A successful, hedonistic screenwriter lost in the indulgences and vacuity of Hollywood searches for love and meaning.

Still from Knight of Cups (2015)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: While Malick’s approach to cinema remains characteristically unconventional, despite the philosophical narration and existential questions, the film still charts as a fairly standard dramatic narrative.

COMMENTS: “To be a philistine or not to be a philistine?” That is the question that troubles reviewers when approaching the films of Terrence Malick. When a film maker is consciously addressing questions such as the meaning of life –a question in which every person on this planet has a stake—if the reviewer’s response isn’t positive, they can find themselves asking the questions: did the film not speak to me because it was poorlyexecuted, or because the message was over my head? Is it a load of pretentious rubbish, or did I simply not get it?

All questions of framing, scripting and pacing aside, the answer––particularly when it comes to films that address existential concerns like those of Malick, or —is always subjective. The film either meant something to you, or it didn’t. (I am thinking of this site’s controversial review for Possession, a film I personally loved but which the reviewer hated). Where I saw a visceral film with an impassioned performance from and unsettling, demonic imagery depicting a relationship imploding, the reviewer saw a pretentious, vapid stream of hollow images. Technique aside—which thankfully isn’t so subjective and can be argued—the film either spoke to you, or didn’t.

Did Knight of Cups speak to me? To perfectly honest, no. Does this mean I simply didn’t “get it”? Possibly, but again, considering how subjective a film experience is, not to mention how subjective and open-ended Malick’s images are, does it matter? Every filmgoer brings their own meanings to a film based on their own experiences, very often bringing associations that are far removed from the filmmaker’s original intent, if they’re even prepared to talk about that (and we all know how Malick has addressed this question: radio silence). Is Cups a load of pretentious rubbish? Again, the question of meaning-making is entirely dependent on the viewer. I was able to find meanings and recurring messages in the film, even if I didn’t particularly respond to the actual film experience.

So what is Cups about? On the surface, this is a straightforward tale of a successful screenwriter Rick (who doesn’t do a lick of actual writing in the film, mind you), who experiences inertia and nihilism among various mansion parties and trappings of Hollywood. He has relationships with six women, including his ex-wife (Cate Continue reading CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)

LIST CANDIDATE: SYMBOL (2009)

Shinboru

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli

PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.

Still from Symbol (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.

The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.

Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.

There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.

A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like , Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.

I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)