All posts by James Phillips

CAPSULE: THE ZERO THEOREM (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mélanie Thierry, , Lucas Hedges, , Matt Damon

PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.

Still from The Zero Theorem (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.

COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.

The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels ‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s weird and there’s Terry Gilliam weird, and his latest exploration into the fleeting nature of humanity, The Zero Theorem, may as well have been watermarked with his name… weirdly enjoyable”–Blake Howard, Graffiti with Punctuation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SNOWPIERCER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chris Evans, , Kang-Ho Song,

PLOT: The film takes place eighteen years after a global extinction event has plunged the world into a new ice age. The only survivors are those who managed to board the Snowpiercer, an enormous self powered train that now continually loops around the Earth on a journey with no end or purpose, in time. There is a class system, working from the front to the back, in place to keep social order. But dissent brews amongst the passengers between the haves in the front and the have-nots by the caboose.

Still from Snowpiercer (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s the weirdness, which goes beyond the central science fiction conceit, that actually makes the film unravel. Following an extremely tight and gripping first hour, it’s as if Bong is unsure where to take his film, so he halfheartedly offers a series of -esque impersonations set against increasingly flawed narrative logic. These slips distance and distract the viewer from what could have been an excellent addition to the canon of “great science fiction movies” (a list which in and of itself is a long way away from being 366 movies long).

COMMENTS: Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film generated a lot of buzz in Europe following its popular reception in his home country of South Korea. An ongoing argument between director and the stateside distributor (The Weinstein Company, as usual) over subtitled scenes not being cut means that the film may be sinking without much of a trace in the U.S.A., however, which seems a shame given Bong’s track record. The director of The Host and a segment of Tokyo!, amongst others, Bong is a director with good work to his credit. Snowpiercer, however, doesn’t stand up to critical attention. Without giving anything away, the opening section sets a very tense situation of confined spaces that are a certain class of people’s entire universe. Tired of the same food and the lack of windows, a revolution takes place with the intention of getting to the front of the train, and from here on in the film moves at a breakneck pace which is both tense and exhilarating. Particular kudos must go to Tilda Swinton, who is unrecognizable as a character based on Great Britain’s iconic Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, and is a scene-stealer during her underused screen time. The film works as a high octane action movie, and it works in this manner for quite a while; but as the lower classes gain access to new carriages the dynamic of the film changes for the worse.

Snowpiercer‘s overall fault is that its enormous plot holes are impossible to forgive against its pretensions of an intelligent subtext and analysis of modern class issues. Entertainment-driven popcorn viewing that makes up the mainstay of the Hollywood summer slate can be forgiven for saying things badly, given that it has so little to say; but Snowpiercer has a brilliant central plot device, yet Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterton’s increasingly obscure and irrational narrative comes across as a desperate distraction to take the viewers’ minds off the fact that the writer and director have no clue of where their film needs to go.

Ultimately, despite being a lot of fun at certain points, and certainly being considerably more cerebral than a most Hollywood action films can boast to be, Snowpiercer is a noble failure. More irrational than weird, and with an allegorical political subtext that doesn’t bear close scrutiny from either the left or the right, Bong’s English language debut disappoints, despite the praise being heaped upon it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off.”–Wesley Morris, Grantland (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: FIDO (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Currie

FEATURING: Kesun Loder, ,

PLOT:  The usual cloud of radiation has caused the Earth’s dead to rise from the grave and feed on the flesh of the living, etc. In Fido however, the zombie menace has been domesticated and turned into a loveable underclass of servants. They are at the beck and call of those who survived the apocalypse, now living safely confined in small idyllic suburban towns where zombie slaves bedecked with mind-control collars do their bidding.

Still from Fido (2006)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Fido has a conventional zombie film plot that is handled in an unconventional manner. Let’s get straight in there: it’s Pleasantville with zombies. The town of Willard where the action takes place is a skewed and nostalgic vision of what the 1950s might have been. The apocalypse is over, and those who have survived live in a walled off vision of a ‘utopian’ American where nothing ever actually happens. As an act of rebellion against the husband with whom she is trapped in a loveless relationship, Carrie-Ann Moss purchases a Zombie servant (Billy Connelly!!!). Hi-jinks ensue. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for a combination of a coming-of-age and a loveless marriage drama alongside a healthy mix of the zombie apocalypse, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for. And if you haven’t been looking for that combination, then maybe you should be on a different website?

Not only is Fido gloriously shot and strangely poignant in its handling of the subject matter, it’s a laugh riot to boot. The use of color is rich and vibrant, recalling a nineteen fifties that never was, and the characterization is spectacular in its understatement. The presence of the zombie against the backdrop of  white picket fences is a sublime take on a standard horror trope, and the director has a devilishly macabre sense of humor when it comes to the film’s ‘romances’ (which give new meaning to the notion of suburbia as a living death). I won’t spoil anything, but I will say this: there’s far more to Fido than the panic that results when the zombie-control collars stop working (although that does happen). This film wasn’t cheap to make, but sank without a trace upon its release, leading to a hiatus in director Currie’s burgeoning career (which he has only resurfaced from recently with 2012’s Barricade). A pity, as Fido is surely a modern cult classic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a movie that brings a whole new set of associations to the much-masticated living-dead genre: strangely wholesome, gently splattery and adorably gory.”–Geoff Pevere, The Toronto Star (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “MCD.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner

PLOT: A young girl moves from the city to a big house in the country. Her dreams mirror her dissociation from her surroundings and family, and an examination of her development as a person (and as a girl becoming a woman) follows through increasingly odd studies of gender and of the notion of the werewolf.

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Neil Jordan’s second film is co-written by the sadly deceased Angela Carter, and her literary tralents are on full display here in an extremely layered and artful examination of gender and sexuality set against traditional folk tales such as Red Riding Hood. Ostensibly a single narrative, Company of Wolves loses itself in stories within stories, all held together as one long dream sequence. This film is quite a feverish and nuanced experience that is a must for inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: Angela Carter was a fine writer, and anyone who is a fan of the written as well as the cinematic weird who hasn’t yet discovered her would be advised to do so. Company of Wolves draws on the traditions of spoken word narrative and folktales seen through a modern lens. Its source material is Carter’s short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” which she herself described as an attempt “not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” What the viewer gets is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood with all the sexual connotations not only intact but made explicit for a modern switched-on audience. More than just a straight fantasy and horror, The Company of Wolves is a study of the feminine psyche and its attitudes toward desire and familial responsibility, told through a rich narrative web. Perhaps the most indelible image is “the red wedding,” which gives “Game of Thrones” a run for it’s money in regards of worst end to a wedding possible. Grandma’s inevitable fate in this film takes a visually distinctive and surreal twist on the standard “what big teeth you have” story. One of Carter’s few forays into script writing, this film makes you wish her unique talents were more widely adapted for the big screen; furthermore, it showed Neil Jordan would be a talent to watch out for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie has an uncanny, hypnotic force; we always know what is happening, but we rarely know why, or how it connects with anything else, or how we can escape from it, or why it seems to correspond so deeply with our guilts and fears. That is, of course, almost a definition of a nightmare.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Rick Hearst, John Zacherle, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry

PLOT: One morning a young man wakes to find a small, disgusting creature has attached itself to the base of his brain stem. The creature gives him a euphoric state of happiness but in return demands human victims.

Still from Brain Damage (1988)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The above plot description, which is lifted verbatim from the IMDB, describes the “creature” in question as “disgusting.” Not only is this an offensive description, but it outright ignores the fact that the thing has a name: Aymler, or “the Aymler,” more specifically. The unique little guy is far more than just a “creature”; he’s without doubt one of the most charming and well spoken horror presences to ever grace the silver screen. Or, at the very least, he’s the star of Frank Henelotter’s best film.

COMMENTS: Frank Henelotter’s brief heyday in the nineteen eighties is most well remembered through Basket Case, and the lead and his deformed brother of that mondo horror fest have a cameo here. But it’s Brain Damage that is Henelotter’s best film (to date ?). After befriending the Aymler, a seductively smooth talking parasite voiced to perfection by late night horror host John Zacherle (i.e. Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul), our anti-hero struggles with his own doubts, desire and addictions as he is seduced to corruption by the charming but evil creature. Henenlotter’s trademark gore-filled whimsy is on full display here, benefited by his highest budget to date. The film works as a pretty clear cut metaphor for drug addiction on the surface level. The out-there hallucination scenes, which could be compared to certain points in ‘s Altered States, are where the weird tag comes in. The movie also makes use, though admittedly sparingly, of some well-produced stop motion animation sequences, which are a joy to behold those that love this now largely forgotten art. It’s arguable that the List doesn’t need to be populated with a plethora of oddball cult horrors that may be best left on the dusty VHS rack where we found them, but if one Henenlotter film should go on, this is the one. It combines peculiarity with some actual filmic worth. A must see for weird horror aficionados; if you fall into that category and you somehow haven’t already seen this yet—what have you been doing all this time?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While it would win few prizes for narrative sophistication and visual imagination – the euphoric hallucinations seem to have strayed from a ’60s LSD movie – Brain Damage does display a commendable social conscience in deploring the perils of mindbending substances.”–NF, Time Out London

366 UNDERGROUND: A PUBLIC RANSOM (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pablo D’Stair

FEATURING: Carlyle Edwards, Helen Bonaparte, Goodloe Byron

PLOT: Steven (Carlyle Edwards) is a self-serving, amoral author of very mediocre talent. When he stumbles across a crayon-scribbled “missing child” poster with a telephone number and the words “HLEPP ME?” scrawled on it, he figures it to be harmless. Deciding to base a story around it, he calls the number. This leads to an encounter with Bryant (Goodloe Byron) who claims to have actually kidnapped a girl, stating she will be released only if Steven pays a $2,000 ransom within two weeks. Steven initially dismisses Bryant as a morbid prankster—until Bryant begins a relationship with his only friend, Rene (Helen Bonaparte) and starts popping up in his life in apparently coincidental, yet increasingly invasive and unsettling ways.

Still from A Public Ransom (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: To give it its due, this isn’t a wholly terrible film, though it is lacking in certain important factors. That said, the compelling aspects do not come from anything markedly weird, and as such it has no place on the List of weird movies.

COMMENTS: The central premise of A Public Ransom is fascinating: the wrong person finds a cry for help, someone who doesn’t have an altruistic bone in his body. The events that follow can’t be faulted. Indeed, the writing overall is excellent, and it’s not D’Stair’s failing with a pen which make this difficult to view. He casts an impressive shadow with his scripting, and the small cast largely live up to the characters D’Stair has written and fleshed out so well. Lead actor Carlyle Edwards is teeth-grittingly unpleasant as the utter and complete prick Steven. His performance seems a little too mannered at first, but his overwrought, overbearing and obnoxious personality truly matches that of someone who has no awareness of their own obvious shortcomings. Awful people really are like this. Helen Bonaparte tries her best as Stevens’ foil, but her performance is stilted and flat by comparison. It’s difficult to believe in the friendship between them when it lacks such chemistry, especially in some of the more pivotal later scenes. Goodloe Byron’s turn as Bryant is purposefully bland, which really makes his character work for the better. He is very mild mannered and unobtrusive, which makes him all the more disturbing given the possible nature of his actions.

All this is well and good, but a smart script and a functional cast can’t save a film if the director and photographer’s auteur vision is so painfully marred by an inability to hold a camera. Paul VanBrocklin is director D’Stair’s head of photography, and between the two of them they seem barely able to frame a shot in any workable way. The film itself looks ugly, and is a major turn off. It’s true that an amateur film maker might not have access to a high quality camera or a steadicam or the like to make tracking shots work. But ugly, dull and unimaginatively presented still scenes permeate the film to such a point that, while you can see the intent behind the director’s approach (his desire to imitate his influences such as ), the whole thing ends up being a poorly shot and poorly lit mess that drags the viewer away from the strength of the writing. It’s a film with a lot of heart and D’stair should be proud of it for what it is, as it’s head and shoulders above a lot of amateur independent film, making but if he was to turn out another feature it would need to show marked technical improvement to earn a general recommendation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… D’Stair’s cinematic selection is artistically interpretive to say the least, and may not be for everyone.”–Amy Handler, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

More information on A Public Ransom, including a link and a password to view the movie for yourself (at the time of publication), can be found at the official A Public Ransom site.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BOTHERSOME MAN (2006)

Den Brysomme Mannen

DIRECTED BY: Jens Lien

FEATURING: Trond Fausa, Petronella Barker, Per Schaanning

PLOT: Andreas Ramsfjell awakens after a suicide attempt to find himself in a seemingly perfect city where he is equipped with the perfect life. Unfortunately for Andreas, it doesn’t take long to discover that something is very much amiss.

Still from The Bothersome Man

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The Bothersome Man is a masterpiece beyond its weirdness. It’s a film even the normal crew should watch and enjoy. It’s rich with astute and pointed social commentary on our materialistic society and the importance people place on conformity over freedom in life. Not to mention that it’s devilishly funny!

COMMENTS: Many regular readers of the site must have experienced at least once in their life the curious befuddlement of a friend or colleague asking them why they like something different from general tastes. But that’s so weird, they might say. Or, my personal favorite: but surely you prefer [insert the more popular choice here]? The Bothersome Man tackles this ideal as a political, social and religious allegory.

Everything initially seems perfect in the city where Andreas wakes after his suicide. He is given a great job with plenty of start-up capital. He meets a beautiful woman with whom he quickly forms a relationship. Everything is wonderful. And then, the cracks start to show, in a Kafkaesque fashion. His increasing unease leads him to seek out others who might rebel, who wish to get away by any means necessary, be it suicide or more surreptitious means. It’s hard to escape the machine, though; without giving too much away, the pie eating scene, in this sense, is one of the best moments of the film.

The Bothersome Man‘s strong, tight script is well-paced over its 95 minutes. Muted color is used well, presented in such a way as the viewer doesn’t realize it as such until it’s important enough to do so. Jens Lien’s film is an accomplished piece of cinema which, particularly given its haunting and ominous conclusion, is a strong contender for inclusion on the List.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A surreal nightmare of gleaming surfaces and razor-sharp edges…”-Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tristano, who said it can be “compared to works like Brave New World or Roy Anderssons two last movies.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: HELLEVATOR (2004)

Reader recommendation by James Harben

Gusha no bindume; AKA Hellevator: The Bottled Fools

DIRECTED BY: Hiroki Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawada, Ryôsuke Koshiba

PLOT: A dystopian future civilization lives in a vast underground complex where each floor represents a different part of society, from housing and schooling up to more sinister departments, culminating in the mysterious and never visited “top floor” that is implied to be both above-ground and possibly mythical. A schoolgirl (it’s Japanese after all) with psychic powers (it’s Japanese after all) tries to flee aboard an elevator, but in a world that seems to consist entirely of either up or down, where can she escape to?

Still from Hellevator (2004)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Hellevator is a quite effective ‘trapped-in-a-room’ style movie, one that plays with the conventions of the genre. Working on the theory that what you are shown has far greater effect than what you are told, Hiroki Yamaguchi provides the viewer little direct knowledge or understanding of what this world might be. Clearly subterranean, it’s grimy and oppressively lit. The camera rarely leaves the elevator. The movie is populated by a cast of relatable stereotypes from current and past cultures: the police look like the SS, the attendant is a dedicated servant in a fetishized uniform, not to mention the standard quota of moody and sullen antiheroes wearing sunglasses indoors and the heroic schoolgirl protagonist. Imagine a Japanese  working on a budget.

COMMENTS: Hellevator never gives you the full details of what’s going on in the story, but there is enough suitably engaging exposition that the viewer is never left so confused that they become disconnected from the narrative. What is essentially a straight journey, up, is complicated by the arrival of prisoners from the penal colony floor, who have plans of their own re: their continued incarceration. Each of the characters have their own unfolding back story and a part to play in the greater continuity. A little online research finds comparisons to Cube and Brazil, and whereas the latter certainly applies—‘s dystopia is clearly an influence in both Hellevator‘s visuals and in its depiction of a society collapsing into the last stages of decline—the Cube comparison is misleading. This film doesn’t focus on the fact that people are trapped in an elevator, but instead uses it for a framing device: in flashback, we do see other parts of the complex.

Characterization is the key here, and against the main backdrop of the elevator and its confines we see a wide range of people and observe how they try to make their lives work in such an oppressive environment. The near silent elevator steward delivers an amazing performance as someone totally dedicated to his job, and to his place within the societal order. The convicts are both spectacular despite being quite different personas with differing motivations.

Ultimately, Hellevator leaves the viewer with as many questions as it does answers, but with no lack of satisfaction regarding the narrative. The performances are largely excellent; though quite over the top, they fit well with the dense, claustrophobic aesthetic of the film. There is enough linearity to the events that, as much as the viewer might want to know more about what they have seen, the time spent viewing is a satisfying ride that captures the imagination and attention without ever feeling staid or predictable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stylish and inventive mix of delirium that surpasses most multi-million dollar efforts.. Picture Hitchcock’s Lifeboat through the eyes of Terry Gilliam with the visceral mean streak of Takashi Miike.”–Dread Central (DVD)