Tag Archives: 2017

LIST CANDIDATE: MOTHER (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, , Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, , Kristen Wiig

PLOT: A poet with writer’s block and his younger wife live alone in a remote house until their domestic tranquility is interrupted by an ever-increasing number of guests.

Still from mother! (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Writer/director Aronofsky lets the movie all go to hell—mother! is his most irrational and difficult film, and also his most provocative, with one scene that’s likely to send anyone with maternal instincts packing to the exits. It’s a Hollywood movie with an outsider’s boldness, and it’s going to be punished harshly at the box office for transgressing society’s norms—mostly by blaspheming against coherent realist narrative, the biggest taboo of all. Fans of this site will want to check it out in theaters if at all possible; whether you love it or find it a letdown, it’s a rare “event movie” in the weird genre.

COMMENTS: In its first week of release, the highly anticipated mother! has already been buried at the box office; and even though I have my reservations about the movie’s overall artistic success, let’s pause for a moment out of respect for a fallen brother (er, mother!) who dared to brave the multiplexes with a message of glorious excess, confused metaphor, baby abuse, and general cinematic dementia. Its birth was improbable, its life brief, and we may not see its like for many years.

The scenario is something like a ian joke mixed with paranoia, although the film develops its own crazy identity as it goes on. Wifey Jennifer Lawrence is dealing with a flood of unwanted guests who treat the home she’s trying to refurbish as a bed and breakfast; her husband, grateful for the distraction from his writer’s block, encourages them. It doesn’t help her shaky mental outlook that she’s chugging some sort of urine-colored alka selzer and hallucinating hearts clogging the toilet. Early on, mother! plays like a black comedy, with the audience laughing each time the doorbell rings and a new guest arrives. This black humor contrasts with ongoing gynecological horror imagery: a vaginal bloodstain on her hardwood floor, with the blood trickles tracing a Fallopian diagram on the walls of Jennifer’s womblike basement. The dreamlike flow of the first hour that quickly escalates into the nightmarish once a pregnancy arrives at the same time her poet husband publishes a poetry sensation that brings a horde of cultlike fans to their remote homestead. Over-the-top apocalyptic chaos follows, with a religious wrap-up that left some audience members scoffing out loud. Subtle and focused mother! ain’t; weird, it is.

mother! is susceptible to multiple interpretations, which may be a problem in a movie that appears to aspire to allegory rather than mystification. Apparently, Aronofsky intends the audience to read the film as an environmental parable about Mother Earth. But it can also be seen as a metaphor for fear of procreation (the strangers who sew chaos in the house act just like unruly children), and at the end it becomes a (heavy-handed) Christian allegory (with Lawrence as Mother Mary, paying an even heavier price for humanity’s sins than her son does). And all along, with its poet/God hero, it’s simultaneously playing as an allegory for the artist, and for the way the audience appropriates His work and gives it their own interpretation—yeah, there’s some heavy meta there.

mother! is already infamous for its divisiveness. It was booed by audiences at the Venice Film Festival and CinemaScore audiences gave it a rare “F” rating, while critics have graced it with generally favorable reviews (68% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time, through the usual dissenters are particularly hyperbolic). 2009’s Antichrist (which also refused to give its parent protagonists proper names) may have been the last movie to create a big a chasm between those championing a film as an audacious triumph and those dismissing it as pretentious twaddle. One thing is for sure: simply dropping a superstar like Lawrence into your surrealist movie won’t make mainstream audiences embrace its uncomfortable weirdness. But J-Law should earn a lot of artistic credibility and respect from a role that was quite a bit riskier than ‘s relatively sane and reserved turn in Black Swan.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its dread has no resonance; it’s a hermetically sealed creep-out that turns into a fake-trippy experience. By all means, go to ‘mother!’ and enjoy its roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism. But be afraid, very afraid, only if you’re hoping to see a movie that’s as honestly disquieting as it is showy.”–Owen Gleiberman, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE EVIL WITHIN (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Getty

FEATURING: Frederick Koehler, ,

PLOT: A demon who appears in a mirror tries to turn a mentally handicapped man into a serial killer by threatening him with nightmares.

Still from The Evil Within (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Evil Within is an interesting curiosity, with parts that are authentically creepy bumping up against parts that are genuinely scatterbrained. It doesn’t go quite far enough into dementia to earn a spot on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever—maybe it would have if its director had lived to fiddle with it for another fifteen years—but fans of fruitcake horror films won’t be disappointed.

COMMENTS: “I could never know for sure what was a dream and what wasn’t,” says our protagonist at one point. The Evil Within is as disjointed as a bad dream, but there are also dreams within dreams, including a remarkable and long-extended opening sequence that lectures us on the differences between dreams and stories while showing us surreal visions of a burning key in a light switch, a woman with lips for eyeballs, and Michael Berryman unzipping a boy’s body.

It gets weirder from there, in ways that are sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional. It turns out that in the waking world our protagonist, Dennis, is mentally handicapped, despite the fact that in the opening narration he described a haunted house ride as “the snow-capped summit in the topography of juvenile taste.” Frederick Koehler’s performance as Dennis isn’t terrible, although at times it does uncomfortably approach Donald Trump playing a disabled reporter. The plot is set into motion when Dennis’ reflection begins talking back to him, and gradually talks him into becoming a serial killer. The steps by which the alter ego accomplishes this—by convincing poor, slow Dennis that people will respect his newfound intelligence if he follows his increasingly horrifying instructions—are legitimately chilling. Meanwhile, Dennis suffers more Michael Berryman boogeyman nightmares, which are what the film does best, until a final “reveal” that explains (to some degree) his condition. The conclusion is also fairly bonkers, with animatronic monsters deployed as study aids to help decode the plot.

in many ways The Evil Within is a standard horror film, with serial killer tropes and impressive hallucinatory monsters. It also at times seems like the work of an outsider, one who doesn’t always grasp normal human motivations (why is the social worker so hell-bound on rescuing Dennis from his loving family? Why does the outrageously hot ice cream girl say “Of course it’s nice to see me, I’m outrageously hot?”) Overall, it’s an interesting and brutal, if raw, trip through the mirror: a unique blend of Nightmare on Elm Street, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Rainman. It shows a promise that suggests that, had he lived, Andrew Getty might have developed into a distinctive horror voice; if he’d been able to tame his own demons and channel his weird impulses, he might have become a genre maverick like .

The story behind The Evil Within is actually odder than the movie itself. The writer/director, who was a grandson of J. Paul Getty and heir to his oil fortune, self-financed the project, spending an estimated $5 million of his inheritance and endlessly tinkering with it in post-production for 13 years, all while battling a methamphetamine addiction. He died in 2015 at 47 years of age, before completing his work. His editor finally compiled the version we now see before us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s already garnering a reputation as one of most singularly strange films to come along in a good while. And rightly so.”–Travis Johnson, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Russ,” who called it “A flawed film, to be sure, but even moreso: an absolutely fascinating film, a grand example of uncomfortable, outsider art.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ENDLESS (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple

PLOT: Brothers who escaped a cult a decade ago receive a videocassette with a strange message and return to their old compound, where it becomes clear that behind the friendly facade of their erstwhile “family” lurks a hazard beyond contemplation.

Still from The Endless (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTThe Endless starts out a little creepy, with altogether too-friendly cult members interacting with the two runaways that defamed their group, before evolving into something skin-crawlingly foreboding. An unnamed, immaterial, but ever-present Entity generates a recurring circumstance found throughout Arcadia Park that puts a new spin on the idea of being “lost in time.”

COMMENTS: A moral found in The Endless is well reflected by the filmmaker’s methods: keep moving. Acting as a veritable two-man band, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do virtually all the heavy lifting in this science fiction(ish)/horror(ish) drama (no “ish”): they direct, star, write, and do the cinematography. They also reach back and pull their previous features (Resolution and Spring) forward along with them in subtle ways. Paradoxically combining pinpoint focus with immense scope, Benson and Moorhead squeeze an infinity into one story comprised of, for lack of a better phrase, many narrative wheels.

An opening montage introduces us to Justin and Aaron Smith (Benson and Moorhead), two brothers barely making ends meet by doing dead-end work, in desperate need of a new car battery. Their rut is interrupted by a parcel containing a camcorder videotape with a message from their past. The “alien death cult” they escaped apparently didn’t pull the trigger. Their visit to their old digs at Arcadia Park starts well enough, but unnerving details begin to accumulate: multiple moons in the sky, hazy atmospheric barrier walls, and ominous rock pillars scattered not-so-randomly around the camp. As Aaron becomes more enamored with cult life, Justin’s aversion spikes. Diving to the base of a buoy in the camp’s lake, he finds two things underwater: another camcorder cassette, and something unimaginably horrific that he barely escapes. Despite this, Aaron decides to stay. As Justin begins his journey home, he stumbles across the true nature of the problem at Arcadia Park, and returns to save his brother.

One could use any number of adjectives to describe how wonderful this movie is—gripping, mysterious, surprising, funny. I’m handicapped because were I to provide any more details, the film’s twists would be revealed. Suffice it to say, temporal manipulation plays heavily in The Endless; the title itself, perhaps, provides a clue. Arcadia Park’s citizenry do not seem to have aged much since the brothers’ departure. Is it merely healthy country living? There’s a heavily locked cabin under the watchful eye of an Arcadian elder. Does it contain guns, or something far more troubling? And as for that mental patient who wandered on to the cult’s grounds, how real are her charcoal drawings of a monstrous nebula looming over the camp? Unfortunately, I can only pose questions to make hints. Surprise is key.

At its screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a point where every audience member was dead-silent, and I’m convinced we were all holding our breath at the same time. Throughout the bizarre adventure of Justin and Aaron, there is a delicate balance of mundane, humorous, and menacing—with a palpable shift toward the latter as the movie progresses. The film’s world and people are self-contained (in more ways than one), and no line is out of place or without purpose. And then there’s the moral to The Endless, as I said before: keep moving. I’d suggest there is also a second moral here: never put off replacing a car battery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie…”–Tasha Robinson, The Verge (festival screening)

CAPSULE: A GHOST STORY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: David Lowery

FEATURING: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his  house and silently observing his wife’s grief.

Still from A Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond it’s guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.

COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.

The plot is so simple its almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another besheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician ) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for an emotional release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.

A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Interrupted by death, a couple’s love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking… Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Cara Delevingne, , Rihanna

PLOT: A pair of hotshot space cops flirt with each other as they stumble upon a conspiracy surrounding a lost race that threatens the survival of the massive spaceport that serves as the hub of galactic peace and commerce.

Still from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Valerian is an optical feast, presenting settings and creatures that push the edge of the imagination. However, that same imagination has hung these visual treats upon a story that is strictly by-the-numbers, with characters who are stock at their best and unfathomably shallow at their worst, rendering the film all frosting, no cake.

COMMENTS: The audience was quiet. Respectful. No laughing. No chitchat. Definitely no cheering. A candidate for blockbuster of the summer unspooled before us, and we could have easily been transplanted to a golf tournament without causing a disturbance. We sat in silence, staring at the screen like we were on a field trip to the art museum.

Actually, Valerian wouldn’t be out of place in a museum; it’s a lovely piece of pop art. Luc Besson has crafted a green-screen wonderland, ranging from the impressionist beauty of an alien beach world to a mind-bending cross-dimensional duty-free bazaar. Sometimes he is unable to restrain himself and piles the settings on top of each other; one chase scene barrels through a half-dozen environments in the space of a couple minutes. From start to finish, the film is a visual stunner.

Which is why the audience’s silence, while not necessarily reflecting quality, is so devastating. Valerian is a lot to look at, but is ultimately an uninvolving experience. The action set-pieces have no kick, the story feels boilerplate, and the leads are dangerously lacking in chemistry. People like spectacular visuals, but they’re not inclined to cheer for them alone.

At times, it feels like Besson has extracted the spine of the story from his earlier sci-fi venture, The Fifth Element, and grafted new visuals on top of it. Dane DeHaan’s hero’s journey from callow to committed is clearly intended to mirror that of . The overstuffed metropoli, aliens both corpulent and sinewy, the overwhelming power of *love*…they’re all straight out of Element’s playbook. Valerian even stops, like its older cousin, for a musical number. This one features Rihanna dancing (but not singing) and acting (but not, um, acting). What he hasn’t carried over includes any sort of stakes, much of a sense of humor, or charismatic characters. We’re supposed to take all those on faith.

Not that he only borrows from himself. The trio of duck-billed creatures who fence information feel like escapees from Labyrinth. A benevolent blue-hued race seems to have stepped directly out of Avatar (and brought some of their environmental and cultural issues with them). And overall, the film is surprisingly reminiscent of The Adventures of Tintin, another adaptation of a beloved French comic book that sacrificed character and story in favor of wondrous CGI visuals and a breakneck pace. Of course, Tintin is entirely animated, so perhaps our expectations for rich character development there are diminished. But Valerian has real actors, and this is where the trouble truly begins.

Design, as noted, is impressive, and there’s enough logic to the plot to earn a pass (ignoring, of course, the scene where a computer explains that the massive space station has traveled 700 million miles from Earth over the decades, which would put it somewhere just shy of Saturn). However, character is the gaping void of the center of the film, and the two leads bring absolutely nothing to the table. DeHaan is a black hole, delivering lines that are intended to mark him as a hard-bitten mercenary, but doing so in a voice cribbed from and bearing a look that suggests “bored 8th grader.” Cara Delevingne is marginally better, having the advantages of (a) being very pretty and (b) having only one emotion to play: cold irritation. The two are laden with banter, written to demonstrate their wit and cool under pressure, as well as to place them in the pantheon of great wisecracking romantic couples of the cinema. But DeHaan and Delevingne are nowhere near pulling it off. Their dialogue feels utterly false in their mouths, and because Besson puts their will-they-won’t-they dynamic at the forefront from the moment we meet them, the thud of their relationship is more than the film can overcome.

Besson’s instincts bend toward the weird. (Why else would you cast jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a futuristic bureaucrat?) But while his vision is undeniably heterodox , here he seems utterly unable to apply it. Perhaps the best indication of his failure of imagination comes in the very opening sequence, a montage chronicling the origin and growth of the City of a Thousand Planets. To accompany the growing alliance of humans and a variety of unusual extraterrestrials, he summons the ultimate alien: . But what song from the catalog does Besson choose? “Space Oddity.” Gifted with the limitless power of creation, he settles for the cliché; the most obvious, expected choice. And no one cheers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Little splashes of a weirder, kinkier, much better movie kept popping up throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and even though they tended to vanish as quickly as they appeared, I still found myself missing them. They’re like phantasms making quick cameos from the nether, a brief flicker of a more adventurous, less compromised movie that perhaps could have been…” – Will Leitch, Paste Magazine (contemporaneous)