Tag Archives: 2009

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: AIR DOLL (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Hirokazu Koreeda

FEATURING: Doona Bae, Arata Iura, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji

PLOT: Nozomi, an inflatable sex doll, develops consciousness and comes to life, wandering through the streets while her owner is at work, encountering various lonely souls including a video store attendant, with whom she falls in love.

Still from Air Doll (2009)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The central conceit (and character) of the inflatable sex doll is the only weird element in this film. The people surrounding Nozomi and the contemporary Japanese setting are grounded in naturalism, positioning the film in the genre of magical realism rather than surrealism.

COMMENTS: The concept of an outsider or alien force experiencing human existence is a familiar trope in cinema. Ex Machina (2015), Her (2013), A.I. (2001), City of Angels (1998) and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) all explore similar concepts. In the main, these films present a robot or artificial intelligence evolving human characteristics, whereas Air Doll posits a less likely protagonist: an inflatable vinyl sex doll.

Nozomi, a “sexual surrogate” as she lamentably reminds us through the film, lives with her owner, Hideo, in modern urban Tokyo. She passively listens to his self-important ramblings about work (which we later learn are lies), and then later serves as an equally passive recipient to his sexual advances. The following morning, after Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi inexplicably comes to life (Nozomi describes the process as “finding a heart”) in a sequence where an animated puppet becomes actress Doona Bae, enjoying the sensual thrill of dripping water running over her hand. Her first thoughts on her newfound consciousness are “beau-ti-ful!,” but this will change by the film’s end.

Nozomi is a curiosity to those she encounters, but their reactions are no match for her own wonder at everything she sees. Even the garbage men fascinate her. Nozomi’s wonder and simple satisfaction with life remains a stark contrast to the thwarted happiness of the human characters throughout the film

Nozomi’s position as outsider is reinforced both by her status as an animated doll and the casting of Korean actress Bae in a Japanese film. This is purposeful casting by director Koreeda to throw his observations of modern urban life into sharper relief. Like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satire or analysis of a culture is strengthened the more alien the presence of the other observing it. Bae, the alien in question, seems incapable of delivering a poor performance; even if the film is weak (witness the failed splendor of Cloud Atlas) she is always in top form and her portrayal here is no exception. Nozomi is by turns curious, ebullient, playful, saddened, sensual and emphatic. Her small, staccato, childlike walk in her French Maid’s dress is also a lovely touch, emphasizing Nozomi’s innocence and vulnerability.

Despite the potential here for an incisive and engaging investigation of modern Japanese life—and by extension human existence—the overall tone remains light and humorous , although the film does take a much darker turn in its final act. Even the bleaker aspects of the human characters’ lives fail to inspire sympathy because they are so underdeveloped (many of them we only see once or twice in small cutaways). You could argue the conceit of a sex doll coming to life is farcical and thus the comic tone is appropriate, but elsewhere Koreeda teases us with more involved drama (for example, Nozomi’s boss blackmailing her for sex) without ever really committing to it.

That the film is a slight work that sadly never lingers in the memory is evidenced by the lack of interviews and production materials surrounding it online. Even the links on its Wikipedia page are dead and its archived page on the Cannes Film Festival comes up with an “error.” This is not to say that the film doesn’t have very beautiful and tender moments: for example the gentle touch the old man asks Nozomi to place on his forehead, or Nozomi opening up a tear on her arm in order to smell the breath of her lover; its simply that there is nothing significant about the human experience mined in any great depth. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) (1952) is a much more palpable and urgent examination of what it means to be human and why life is so precious. (I mention it only because the initial pleasure in life Nozomi experiences is similar to the renewed urgency found by Ikiru’s protagonist).

As a rumination on urban loneliness and inertia, defeated dreams and the loss of innocence transitioning to adulthood, this film is arguably successful; however in addressing the larger questions of what it means to human it falls flat, suffering from a lack of focus and peripheral characters in need of further development.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it’s set in a cold and seemingly hollow world.”–Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice Magazine

212. AFTER LAST SEASON (2009)

“This movie makes no sense. I don’t mean the story doesn’t make sense, it almost does. I mean the movie as a thing that exists doesn’t make sense.”–Rob Steele

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Mark Region

FEATURING: , Peggy McClellan

PLOT: Matthew and Sarah are med students with an interest in neurology. A fellow student is knifed to death by a serial killer. Matthew runs a telepathy experiment with Sarah, who sees visions of the killer, and together they try to visualize the murderer.

Still from After Last Season (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • After Last Season made a minor stir on the Internet in 2009 when its nonsensical (but, as it turns out, completely representative) trailer was released on YouTube and other video sites.  The piece was so thoroughly anti-cinematic, with its laughable props and the meaningless minutiae of its dialogue, that many people assumed it was a parody of a low-budget indie film created by an established director. The frenzy reached it’s peak when “Entertainment Weekly” published an article repeating rumors that the trailer was a hoax by notorious prankster Spike Jonze intended (somehow) to draw attention to his upcoming film Where the Wild Things Are.
  • After Last Season got a one week release in four U.S. theaters.
  • Director Mark Region claimed the film cost $5 million to make. Few believed him.
  • After the original run, producer/distributor Index Square stopped offering new DVDs for sale, and actor Jason Kulas said Region has told him there are no plans to produce more.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The astoundingly crude computer-generated animation, which often looks like it could have been drawn in MS Paint. The best moment is when a killer’s knife (which looks like an ice cream cone held upside down) emerges from out of a blank wall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cardboard MRI; Photoshopped telepathy; invisible ghost

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “Huh?,” “um…,” and “whah?” are all equally valid responses to After Last Season.  This movie may go down as this generation’s Beast of Yucca Flats: stultifyingly dull at times, but so full of misguided directorial choices and  failed attempts at cinematic poetry that it takes on a dreamlike character. Watching After Last Season is like trying to follow a old-timey radio serial on an AM station with fading reception: you can tell there’s a voice trying to make itself heard, but the transmission is so garbled that the basics of the story become lost in static and long stretches of dead air. It’s difficult watching, for sure—thus the “beware” rating—but for intrepid curiosity seekers looking to experience the weirdest of the worst, it’s a must see.


Original trailer for After Last Season

COMMENTS: There’s a concept in cinema theory called “film grammar;” it refers to sets of filmmaking conventions that  have been Continue reading 212. AFTER LAST SEASON (2009)

CAPSULE: CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of Bill Hader, , , Andy Samberg, , Mr. T

PLOT: An inventor develops a machine that makes food rain from the sky, rejuvenating his hometown’s formerly sardine-based economy.

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite a visual smorgasbord of semi-surreal culinary situations—checkout the 3-D food avalanche with corn, pizza slices, and tortilla chips, for example—it’s only slightly weirder than your average kids’ movie.

COMMENTS: I believe that future generations will look back on our current Toy Story/Pixar age as one of Hollywood’s golden ages of children’s entertainment. Studios are spending extravagant sums on imaginative projects, and investing their resources not only in animators but in scripts as well. Today, the top-notch children’s films are aimed at crossover audiences, and the challenge of writing for dual audiences of kids and their parents has resulted in some of the tightest, cleverest and funniest scripts of the past decade. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs may not be the pinnacle of the current crop, but it is one of the peaks. The story concerns a hapless inventor who stumbles upon a machine that allows him to generate sophisticated menus from water molecules in the upper atmosphere. This innovation eventually turns around the fortunes of his native island (a tiny speck found hiding under the “A” in “Atlantic Ocean on the map), which formerly had an economy and cuisine entirely built around sardine fishing. (Some of the best jokes revolve around the island’s sardine culture, including a local celebrity coasting on his childhood fame as a diaper-wearing canned-fish mascot). Throw in father/son tensions, a conniving mayor, and an intern weather girl/romantic interest who stumbles onto the raining food story and the script has more than enough meat on it—that’s not even factoring in the delightful sauce of Mr. T in a supporting role as an overenthusiastic cop. The technology predictably goes awry, leading to the brilliant eye-candy set pieces: a hail of cheeseburgers, a pancake flopping onto a schoolhouse, a giant atmospheric meatball that serves as a sort of Death Star, and a small army of chicken carcasses, among other fantastic moments. The pacing is sharp, laughs plentiful, and the sights bizarre enough to keep you hungering for more.

Part of the idea is to satirize American over-consumption; and while the spray of foodstuffs falling from the sky may nauseate adults, it will likely have the opposite effect on tykes in the audience, who will fantasize about the jello palace and ice-cream snowball fights, and whine to be allowed to wallow in the candy bins. Messages about being true to your nerdy nature and the sometimes subtle nature of parental love may digest better, but it’s essentially non-nutritive entertainment. That’s not a problem; nothing’s worse than a preachy kids’ movie, and watching a cartoon should be more like eating sticky candy than mushy vegetables.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“….has a bloated, claustrophobic finale that is, in one respect, downright weird (witness the giant walking headless chooks)… Family flicks, however, are under no obligation other than to entertain, and this often very funny film certainly meets its obligation.”–Annette Basile, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by kengo, who told us the film ” had my ‘weirdy’ senses tingling on a number of occasions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

“Oh, my God, and when you got up in the morning, there was the sun in the same position you saw it the day before—beginning to rise from the graveyard back of the street, as though its nightly custodians were the fleshless dead—seen through the town’s invariable smoke haze, it was a ruddy biscuit, round and red, when it just might as well have been square or shaped like a worm—anything might have been anything else and had just as much meaning to it…”–Tennessee Williams, The Malediction

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Natasha Little, Rhys Ifans, , Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

PLOT: In 2092, after all disease has been conquered through cellular regeneration technology, 119-year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal man left in the world. He recounts his life story to a psychiatrist and a reporter, but his memories are wildly inconsistent and incompatible, and at times fantastic and impossible. In his confused recollections he is married to three different women, with multiple outcomes depending on choices that he makes in the course of his life; but which is his real story?

Still from Mr. Nobody (2009) BACKGROUND:

  • The genesis of this story came from Jaco Van Dormael’s 1982 short film “È pericoloso sporgersi,” about a boy who must make an “impossible” choice between living with his mother or with his father.
  • According to Van Dormael the script took seven years to write, working about five and a half hours a day, every day.
  • Van Dormael published the Mr. Nobodoy screenplay (in French) in 2006, one year before production began and three years before the film was completed.
  • Despite being made in 2009, the movie was not released in the U.S. until 2013, and then only in an attempt to capitalize on the Oscar buzz surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Leto temporarily retired from acting after Mr. Nobody, spending the next four years focusing on his band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
  • Mr. Nobody’s first name, Nemo, means “nobody” in Latin.
  • The movie is full of visual tricks and illusions, some of which are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. For example, watch for a scene where Nemo enters a bathroom then focuses on his own image in a mirror. When he turns around and the camera follows him back out of the room, we now see the perspective as if we had passed through the mirror; the reflection seamlessly swaps places with the real world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mr. Nobody‘s essential image is of branching, criss-crossing railroad tracks; if you want something with a little more surreal zip, however, check out the scenes of a fleet of helicopters delivering slices of ocean, slowly lowering them into place on the horizon.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Essentially an experimental narrative film disguised as a big-budget science fiction extravaganza, Mr. Nobody, an epic fantasia in which the protagonist lives a dozen different lives and a dozen different realities, was doomed to be a cult film from its inception. Even with a healthy dose of romantic sentimentality and whimsy a la , it is far too rare and peculiar a dish for mainstream tastes. The opening is confusing, the moral ambiguous, and reality won’t sit still; it’s got unicorns, godlike children, helicopters delivering the ocean, a future world where everyone has their own genetic pig and psychiatrists are known by their facial tattoos, and a malformed sub-reality where everyone wears argyle sweaters. It’s unique, unforgettable, and utterly marvelous.


Original trailer for Mr Nobody

COMMENTS: One of the enigmatic Nemo Nobody’s many possible past identities is a TV science lecturer who explains such esoteric concepts as Continue reading 168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

READER RECOMMENDATION: CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE [CRANK 2] (2009)

Reader Recommendation by Adam Brodie

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Jason Statham, Amy Smart

PLOT: Chev Chelios (Statham) is an arsehole, and triads stole his heart. Now he must fight to get it back.

Still from Crank: High Voltage (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The soul of oddity rests in commitment. “Weirdness” is a property of technique and the subversion of technique, Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE [CRANK 2] (2009)

CAPSULE: SUMMER WARS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Hosoda

FEATURING: Voices of Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba

PLOT: Math and computer whiz Kenji battles a rogue artificial intelligence who is wrecking the virtual world of Oz and seizing corporate and government computer accounts, while simultaneously posing as the boyfriend of a classmate he has a crush on during her family celebration.

Still from Summer Wars (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s only during the cyberdream scenes set in the disintegrating virtual world of pixelated mandalas that Summer Wars approaches the fantastical. The light show there inside the Matrix is worth checking out, though.

COMMENTS: The virtual world of “Oz” that makes up the backbone of Summer Wars‘ plot is not that far off. Essentially, it’s the Web 3.0, a 3-D, candy-colored virtual reality mashup of Facebook and Amazon, where everyone gets a cute avatar and all your banking and credit card accounts are merged under one convenient password. (If that sounds like a recipe for disaster to you, just consider what would happen to world commerce if the entire Internet went down for a week). Because Oz was designed by the Japanese, it looks like a constellation of spinning cloud/animal hybrids orbited by blue and pink planetary blobs, with virtual whales floating through the cyberether spouting fireworks from their blowholes. Corporations and government agencies have set up branch offices in Oz, and some folks even work via their avatars at virtual workstations, including our protagonist, high school math whiz Kenji, who has a part-time job as a “code monkey” doing routine programming. Visually, the sequences set in Oz are so psychedelic and startling—including a finale featuring a CGI cousin of the demon from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain”—that the regular anime style used to illustrate reality seems thin and weak by comparison. That optical scenario is reminiscent of the Kansas/Oz dichotomy in The Wizard of Oz, and Summer Wars sports a similar “no place like home” moral; Hosoda’s story values the human above the technological, and champions the organic community of families sitting down to dinner together over the virtual community of atomic individuals connecting via keyboards. The movie is intensely conservative in its reverence for traditional Japanese family values. Kenji, an orphan, finds a sense of purpose when he is unofficially adopted into the Jinnouchi clan after posing as his crush Natsuki’s fiance. The clan proudly traces its lineage back to the feudal period, even keeping ceremonial swords from the period; they revere their elders (represented by matriarch Sakae) and band together to defeat the artificial intelligence’s assault on Oz, with dozens of characters each contributing to the effort according to their own skills and resources. They even enlist other local families into the struggle by reminding them of the historical ties between their clans. The emphasis on the family is so strong, in fact, with great-grandma delivering a heavy-handed inspirational speech on the importance of dining together before the final battle set online, that the movie might be accused of being Luddite in its implicit anti-social media stance. Still, much like L. Frank Baum’s Oz, the virtual Oz is so much more stimulating, fun and dangerous than either Kansas or Japan that the praising the virtues of home become a bit of a hard sell. The sentient program wrecking Oz is given a weakness for gaming, which gives Hosoda an excuse to animate sequences of human-manned avatars facing off against the rogue A.I. (who incarnates first as a grinning Hindu demon, then as a gigantic shadow composed of millions of hacked accounts) in a series of virtual duels. Of course, this is completely ridiculous, but this action conceit is a lot more watchable than looking at a couple of guys on keyboards searching for backdoors in the code or trying to crack hashed passwords; these epic spectacles are the most thrilling and memorable parts of the film. The social media/videogaming demographic for Summer Wars skews young, but the movie is thoughtful enough about the interplay of technology and tradition, and the potential disaster of a massive cyber-terrorist strike, that it can suck adults into its scenario as well.

Summer Wars was picked up and distributed by Warner Brothers in Japan, but failed to become a mainstream crossover anime hit, earning less than $100,000 in US theaters. Despite strong marketing and generally good reviews, even in Japan it disappointed, ending 2009 as only the 38th best performer at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyably trippy Japanese animated feature…”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)