Tag Archives: Drama

45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

FEATURING: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delphy

PLOT:  An unnamed young man appears to be drifting from dream to dream, each animated in a different style. His dreams involve him talking to various college professors who explain their theories on existentialism, artificial intelligence and free will, as well as more typical dreamlike experiences such as floating away and taking a ride in a boat-car. About halfway through the film it slowly dawns on the dreamer that he is dreaming, and he begins to ask the characters he meets for help waking up.

Still from Waking Life (2001)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film was shot on mini-DV video over a period of six weeks. Each frame was then painstakingly hand-drawn by a team of animators using computer software specifically adapted for this film (a 21st century update of the process known as Rotoscoping).
  • Each minute of film took an average of 250 hours to create.
  • Featured actor Wiley Wiggins also worked as one of the animators.
  • The monologues on existentialism and free will were delivered by Robert C. Solomon and David Sosa, respectively, two philosophy professors from the University of Texas.
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy play the same characters in their short scene as they did in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film where thirty different animators each put their own distinctive stamp on the characters, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if thirty different people came up with thirty different answers to the question, “what was your favorite image in Waking Life?” We’ll suggest that final shot of the dreamer floating into the heavens is the obvious take-home image to bring to mind when you remember the movie, however.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Waking Life is a string of vignettes of varying levels of oddness, it’s the animation—which shifts from style to style, with the only constant being the fact that the backgrounds continually shift and waver in a state of eternal flux—that keeps it weird. The concept—that the entire film is a dream from which the unnamed protagonist can’t seem to awake—promises an exemplary level of surreality. In fact, many of the segments are, on their face, completely ordinary: cogent explanations of sometimes difficult, sometimes speculative philosophical concepts. The fact that these heady but decidedly rational ideas are explored in the context of the supposedly irrational world of dreams, might, in itself, be considered just a little bit weird.

Original trailer for Waking Life

COMMENTS: There are at least two ways to conclude Waking Life is an unconditional Continue reading 45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

CAPSULE: THE PERFECT SLEEP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Alter

FEATURING: Anton Pardoe, Roselyn Sanchez, Patrick Bauchau

PLOT: A man returns to dark, nameless city to save the life of “the one who got away,” putting his life at risk and his very soul at hazard while navigating the streets and his own past for clues as to her whereabouts.

Still from The Perfect Sleep (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the features of a shadowy noir city full of hyper-naturally Hammett-esque characters smack of something rather strange, The Perfect Sleep really isn’t all that odd, nor is it really that good. It’s more of a hyperbolic homage, a sort of tip-of-the-hat to the noir films of the 40s and 50s that’s so hard and abrupt that it tips the person under the hat. There’s tribute, there’s parody, and then there’s The Perfect Sleep, both somewhere in-between as well as something else entirely.

COMMENTS: There’s something to be said for the positively assaulting aesthetics that pervade this film. This town The Perfect Sleep exists in, extreme (and extremely hilarious) anachronisms aside, fully commits to the idea of the dark and atmospheric urban sprawl that populated so many crime dramas after World War II. Every alleyway seems dangerous, and nobody is who you think they are once you pass them in the night that seems to last forever. But once one soaks in the impressive scenery, The Perfect Sleep quickly becomes a bland song-and-dance routine that feels like an amalgam of Last Man Standing, Dark City, and Double Indemnity, aped poorly and without the safety net of an exorbitant budget. I feel, personally, that this movie’s prime directive should have been to let me in on the story at hand, what will be happening soon. Instead, we are allowed to get lost while the hero, Anton Pardoe, reads exposition distantly from a poor script. It’s like the story, and what our nameless hero is doing, is none of our business, and we’re supposed to just continue blithely along, hoping it will all get sorted out in the end.

The Perfect Sleep makes for a very passive movie watching experience that could have taken an example from The Big Sleep, a noir that had a rather weak story but a dynamic style that kept everyone engaged, thus making the mile-long plot holes seem to vanish into thin air. Instead of taking a page from that movie, though, we find ourselves locked into a story that the characters take incredibly seriously, but whose meaning is lost on the audience. As a weird movie, I would not even suggest it for its unusual moments. Some scenes, like when a freaky doctor punctures the lungs of a couple of strangers with a scalpel, work as unorthodox thriller moments or unnerving horror. But these bits are insignificant compared to the massive time spent amidst the clichés of a period crime drama/dark gangster flick. The critics were, for the most part, unanimous about The Perfect Sleep‘s banality, and I’m afraid I have to throw my hat into the ring with them, this time. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing very weird about that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, Alter’s often inventive work is kneecapped by a deliriously nonsensical script, which misses the mark as both over-the-top parody and straight-faced homage, and could have been intended as either.”-Andrew Barker, Variety

DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.

Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made.  That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.

Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.

Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute.  When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.

Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it.  By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde.  The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts.  This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.

Still from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid.  But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense.  Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

43. INK (2009)

“It was just an extra splash of weird.  We decided it wasn’t weird enough to begin with, so what can we really do to make this weird?”–Kiowa Winans on Ink‘s DVD commentary [explaining why the Incubi staves end in human hands]

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (as Chris Kelly), Quinn Hunchar, Jessica Duffy, Jeremy Make, Jennifer Batter

PLOTInk introduces us to a world where a race of guardian angels called “Storytellers” guard over humanity and bring pleasant dreams while we sleep, while the evil “Incubi” sneak by our bedsides and send nightmares. One night, a mysterious cowled and chained figure comes into the room of a sleeping girl, defeats the assembled Storytellers, and snatches the child away to a limbo halfway between the waking and dreaming worlds. Meanwhile, in the earthly realm, the girl’s body lapses into a coma, while her estranged, workaholic father refuses to leave a billion dollar contract he’s working on to visit his daughter in the hospital.

ink

BACKGROUND:

  • Jamin Winans not only wrote, edited and directed the film, but also composed the soundtrack. Jamin’s wife Kiowa handled both sound design and art direction as well as serving as producer.
  • The movie was made for only $250,000.
  • Ink won the Best International Feature award at the Cancun Film Festival.
  • Despite faring well on the festival circuit, Ink was not picked up by a distributor; the producers self-distributed the movie to a few cinemas and oversaw the DVD and Blu-ray releases themselves.
  • After its DVD release, Ink was downloaded 400,000 times, becoming one of the ten most pirated features of the week of its release alongside major Hollywood films like Zombieland. On the official website, the filmmakers request voluntary donations from those who watched the movie for free.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Incubi, demons for the digital age. Unmasked, these shadowy figures with glowing spectacles have become the film’s iconic poster image, but they are even more frightening when they hide their true visages behind happy-face projections flickering on perpetually on-the-fritz LCD monitors affixed to their heads.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Ink taps into the beautifully frightening, often disquieting aesthetic of fairy tales, mixing high-tech nightmare visions with ancient storytelling traditions to create a new mythology that’s simultaneously progressive and connected to the past. It blunts its weirdness by resolving its symbolism completely by the end, although the literal plot resolution remains a paradox. Even though all becomes clear by the end, the early reels can be a wild ride.

Original trailer for Ink

COMMENTS:  “Ink has been compared to cult classics Brazil, Donnie Darko, The Matrix, Continue reading 43. INK (2009)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: POWDER (1995)

DIRECTED BY: Victor Salva

FEATURING: Sean Patrick Flanery, , ,

PLOT: A supernaturally gifted teen misfit fights against the grain when he is forcibly integrated into a backward community.

Still from Powder (1995)


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  A strange blend of fantasy and drama, Powder has shadings of The Enigma of Casper Hauser (1975), Carrie (1976), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).

COMMENTS: In a situation reminiscent of Casper Hauser’s enigma in the 1975 film, Jeremy Reed (Flanery) is discovered sequestered in his grandmother’s basement upon her death in a podunk Texas town. A bright, sensitive boy, he has been raised without contact with the outside world, with which he is acquainted only through books. He happens to be albino, and not just like Edgar Winter—he is mime white.

Additionally, he is hairless. Because of his unsettling appearance he attracts the unbecoming nickname “Powder.”  He also attracts static electricity. His father rejected him because of his appearance; his grandparents sheltered him. Contact with the outside world is novel and very troublesome for Powder, and for those who meet him.

The film opens with his premature birth after his mother is struck by lightning. This turns out to be foreshadowing: concepts of electricity and energy are dispersed throughout the film. Powder’s body exudes an interactive electromagnetic field. Wristwatches run backward when he’s upset, televisions overload with static, electronic devices run haywire. In a discussion with his teacher, the instructor tells Powder that Einstein allegedly said he wasn’t sure death exists, because energy never ceases to exist, and that if man ever reaches a point where he can use all of his brain, he would be pure energy and not need a body. This catches Powder’s attention.

Powder is still a minor, and not exactly the picture of conformity. Ideally, he needs to be in a progressive, tolerant environment; so, of course, the local authorities lock him up in a violent rural boys’ home that’s more reform school than orphanage. As one can imagine, he is welcomed with open arms by the crude, hostile ruffians. Well, not exactly; they harass and torment him incessantly, with murder in their collective eye.

While he is a ward of the state, two staffers played by Steenburgen and Goldblum try to help him. Powder takes aptitude tests. His unusually high scores indicate that he has a profound intellect, but nobody believes it. His test results are challenged by a panel of  hostile state goons. Meanwhile, the bullies in the state boys home discover that he can defend himself with telekinetic electromagnetic powers.

Like a faith healer, Powder cures a dying woman. This development adds a religious element to the film that complicates efforts to comprehend Powder’s true nature. While his in vitro exposure to lightning bestowed him with electromagnetic powers, he has other abilities as well, including psychic ones. Difficult to classify and out of his element, Powder is like a stranded alien.

As Powder and the confused, disturbed locals continue to clash, the chasm between them grows wider. Many are awed by and fearful of his unusual talents. All Powder wants to do is go home and live in seclusion. He escapes the group home and tries to return, but his family property has been foreclosed upon. Some town officials encourage him to run away, others want him back in the boys’ home.

Near the end of the story there’s a suggestion that Powder is just too unique for this world; he’s portrayed like a Christ figure. It is dubious that this is really what the filmmakers had in mind. Powder is a science fiction fantasy about nonconformity and social rejection, not a religious allegory.

Like the title character of ‘s Carrie, Powder is gifted and different, ostracized and misunderstood. Powder, however, does not take a spectacular revenge based on his seething resentment. Instead, he strives and strives to escape somehow, always trying to find a away to transcend his dilemma.

The conflicts, uncertainty, tension and turmoil come to a flashpoint when a huge thunderhead approaches the town and Powder rushes into the storm. In a spectacular cinematic sequence, many uncertain elements of Powder’s riddle merge in an unexpected way that is unconventionally conclusive and magical.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine Edward Scissorhands under the control of a mainstream director rather than someone offbeat and eccentric like Tim Burton. The result would have been just another motion picture about a prototypical misfit trying to find his niche — a movie with a lot of manipulation and too many easy answers. Powder is such a film.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST [BAKJWI] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim

PLOT: A priest becomes a vampire after he receives a blood transfusion during an experimental treatment to find a cure for a deadly virus; after his transformation he becomes erotically obsessed with a young woman who lives as a virtual slave to the family that adopted her.

Still from Thirst [Bakwjwi] (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  All of Park’s films at least flirt with weirdness, and Thirst is no exception. In a way, however, this vampire drama is the Korean fantasist’s most conventional effort. Aside from a disorienting dream sequence intercut into a bout of lovemaking, Park adds only a few short surrealistic bursts here and there, instead sticking surprisingly close to the vampire formula.

COMMENTS: Like all Chan-wook Park films, Thirst is technically excellent: the cinematography, musical accents, and nuanced performances are all top-notch. The plot, while rambling and overlong, ties up loose ends neatly by the end. Many of the individual scenes are nearly perfect, too; the long and violent sequence where a furious Sang-hyeon forcibly converts Tae-joo into a vampire in front of her paralyzed adoptive mother is intense and beyond criticism. Hae-sook Kim’s Lady Ra has a particularly excellent turn that catches fire once her character becomes nearly comatose, and Song and Kim’s love scenes sizzle with guilt-ridden eroticism. Park even scales back the distracting, heavily stylized directorial flourishes (such as the dotted line coming off the hammer in Oldboy) that seem to pop up in his every effort just because the director thinks they look cool; the imagery in Thrist flows naturally, like uncoagulated blood.

With all of the above going for it, what I found most shocking about Thirst is how little spark or originality it emanates. We’ve seen the tragic reluctant vampire since 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and thirst for blood has always been a metaphor for lust (in the 1970s exploitation filmmakers became quite explicit with the theme in flicks like Lust for a Vampire and Vampyres). There’s no real spin on the vampire legend to be found here. A few traditional nemeses—garlic and crucifixes—have been jettisoned, but the vampire’s psychological essence—predation and isolation—remains intact. Making the bloodsucking protagonist a priest, while adding the superficial appearance of depth, doesn’t pay off in any profound poetic or philosophical way.  If there’s a spiritual dilemma to be found here, it’s of the mostobvious sort, as the fallen Father struggles to reconcile his vow to serve his suffering flock with his need to drink their blood and avoid sunlight.

The film’s supposed organizing principle, the vampiric curse, gives way to a noirish supernatural love triangle; as it turns out, it’s that old snake in the garden, sex, that’s the root of all evil, not nocturnal bloodsucking. The shift from the struggle to create a personal system of ethical vampirism to a story about falling for a femme fatale means film looses its thematic focus, if not its drama, about halfway through. Thirst is well worth the watch, but frankly, it left me thirsty for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If, like me, you believe Thirst can’t possibly get any weirder, then you’re in for a comically surreal ride as Park’s genre mash careens of the beaten logical path into that magic land that seems to exist only in the mind of Korean filmmakers.”–Jacob Powell, The Lumiere Reader (contemporaneous)

42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

366 EXLUSIVE: HALLOW’S DANCE

We are pleased to debut James Mannan and Robbin Panet’s short film “Hallow’s Dance” on the web.  Although there is a mild Halloween theme to the film, Hallow’s Dance should not be confused with a horror film.  It is in fact a drama, with the only horror being moral horror at the treatment of Frank/Mom.  Co-directed by Robbin Panet and James Mannan, it co-stars 366 scribe Alfred Eaker along with Jason Hignite, Chelsea Rogers, and Terry Dellinger.  It contains very mild scenes of suggestive sexuality.  The weird part is the short, experimental dream sequence which ends the film, which is shot in black and white with streaming beams of light, accompanied by a catchy organ tune.  The short runs approximately 14 minutes.

At the producers’ request, this film will not be released to YouTube or other video hosting sites, and will be available here for one month only.

[Our license to display “Hallow’s Dance” has expired. We will inform you if this film is released, on DVD or otherwise, in the future.]

BORDERLINE WEIRD: $9.99 (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal

FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia

PLOT:  A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,

Still from $9.99 (2008)

including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice.  But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film.  By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone.  The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background.  Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.

COMMENTS:  Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view.  In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch.  The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion.  It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film.  These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between.  Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are.  The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director.  A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story.  The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme.  Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action.  The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors.  These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment.  This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.

$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans.  It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience.  It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: HAPPY HERE AND NOW (2002)

Review writing contest #1 winner, by Pamela De Graff.

DIRECTED BY: Michael Almereyda

FEATURING: Clarence Williams III, David Arquette (who also co-produced), Ally Sheedy, former super model Shalom Harlow, model Gloria Reuben, Karl Geary, rhythm and blues star Ernie K-Doe

PLOT: Happy Here and Now is a surrealistic satire in which a young woman tries to find

Still from Happy Here and Now (2002)

her missing sister by investigating eccentric New Orleans characters who are entangled in a web of cyber-intrigue.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Happy Here and Now is a dream-like atmosphere piece which artfully combines unusual visual and acoustic elements. This movie is unusual in its story telling structure. It guides us through a netherworld of oddball people, their cryptic actions and strange gadgets via a series of vignettes that are ultimately connected.

COMMENTS: In this quirky odyssey, Canadian actress Liane Balaban plays Amelia. She has come to New Orleans to locate a missing sister who has erased every trace of herself. Clarence Williams III plays a limping ex CIA agent with an unexplained leg wound that just won’t heal.

Williams forensically dissects the sister’s laptop hard drive. He finds traces of cryptic conversations held online with a poetic but sinister misfit (Karl Geary). The stranger uses a special technology to change his real-time appearance and country of origin on webcam-conference.

Amelia attempts to determine the presence of a connection between the late night Internet chats and her sister’s disappearance. She does so with Thomas’ assistance by contacting Geary’s puzzling character and conducting a fresh set of webcam conversations. What are his motives, what is he truly capable of? Why does he change his appearance and answer questions with questions?

Did this enigmatic stranger lure Amelia’s sister to her fate in a snuff film? Amelia must figure out how to trace and outwit him by playing a game of deception online.

Throughout her quest for answers, Amelia encounters a cascade of artistic dilettantes. One of several exceptions is the real-life Ernie K-Doe, famous for his 1961 number one hit, “Mother-in -Law,” who appears as himself in his actual New Orleans club.

Nearly all of the characters are in some way unknowingly interconnected via a subplot orchestrated by David Arquette’s character, Eddie Mars. Mars is a creatively misguided, self-employed exterminator who entwines the protagonists via a film project. It is a soft-porn, direct-to-digital Internet film about a time traveling Nicola Tesla. (And there might be some termites and a spherical fire breaking out in a space station, he hasn’t decided yet.)

Happy Here and Now is a dream-like atmosphere piece which artfully combines unusual visual and acoustic elements. It highlights a smattering of New Orleans lore and culture. Thomas’ character weaves a narrative of local lore as the camera pans by local cemeteries, barbecue joints, The Napoleon House, and a few other unconventional landmarks. We get a nice sample of New Orleans homes and interiors, blues clubs, fauna, and steamy avenues by streetlight. Odd characters such as man wearing Napoleonic clothing wander the streets.

The film is open-ended as to its message. Enthusiasts of movies that conclude with a concrete sense of finality should look at Happy Here and Now as being a piece that is intended to inspire the imagination.

The film features musician, performance artist and electronics whiz “Quintron” (Robert Rolston’s stage name) as himself. Quintron has distinguished himself in arcane circles for, among other things, inventing clever but peculiar electronic musical instruments. One of his Tesla coils is featured in the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange by even its director’s ultra-eccentric standards, Happy Here and Now takes Michael Almereyda’s usual reality-blurring, video-mediated experimentation to new what-the-f*** levels…” -David Ng, The Village Voice (2005)