Tag Archives: Fate

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, Michael Patrick Jann, Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , Samuel Barnett, Jade Eshete, Hannah Marks, Michael Eklund, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Kaoho, Dustin Milligan

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)

CAPSULE: 11:14 (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Greg Marcks

FEATURING: , Hilary Swank, , Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas

PLOT: A ragtag assortment of small-town misfits shuffle through an eventful night: we follow the small cast through their stories, which all intertwine at the fateful minute of 11:14PM. Someone will die, someone will get arrested, someone will get in a fight, several people will have vehicular damage, and absolutely everybody will panic.

Promotional image from 11:14 (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a great, dark comedy thriller that quaffs a heroic shot of with a chaser of ’ comedy. But it’s not even remotely weird. As a Public Service Announcement, PLEASE stop cramming the reader suggestion box with every random movie you can name just because you like it. This is the WEIRD (Adj.: “very strange, bizarre”) movie site.

COMMENTS: The movie opens with bouncy alternative rock and an animation of the credits driving around on a grid of streets. Yes, you guessed correctly, this is an Indie Flick. Eighty-six minutes later, it proves to be one of those gems that are the whole reason you hang out at film festivals. 11:14 is so clever, it’s almost a fault, like the one kid too smart for his own good that can’t resist showing off, so much that the rest of the class strains for a chance to knock him down a notch. The story intertwines five mini-stories in a small town in Anywhere, America, all of which intersect at 11:14 P.M. on what would have been an uneventful night if everybody had stayed home. It also does that Tarantino thing where it shows the events out of order so we can see how all the parts of the evening fit together. Ready? No you’re not.

In this busy town full of busy people, we meet #1: Jack (Henry Thomas) is a drunk driver who sails under an overpass and gets into an accident; #2: Tim (Stark Sands), Mark (Colin Hanks) and Eddie (Ben Foster), teenage waste-aways who are driving around bored when Eddie injures himself during a completely different accident; #3: Frank (Patrick Swayze), walking his dog and finding car keys belonging to his daughter, Cheri (Rachael Leigh Cook), implicating her in a crime he wants to clear her for; #4: Duffy (Shawn Hatosy) who thinks he has gotten Sheri pregnant and needs money for an abortion, so he goes to his friend Buzzy (Hilary Swank), who works at a convenience store, for help; and #5: Cheri, who is in the cemetery having sex with her boyfriend Aaron when yet another freak accident happens. “Middleton: A happy place to live!” Most of all, this is a movie about people under pressure making hasty decisions.

As you can see, this movie is set up to make life hell for movie re-cappers. How does all this come off? Everybody has a Wile E. Coyote scheme that backfires, and furthermore random events by coincidence steer all of their fates no matter how they try to wriggle out of them. Nobody in this movie is particularly stupid, it’s just that they’re C-average ordinary people who find themselves at crisis points. The dialog is funny, the characters are well-cast, the soundtrack rocks, the plot construction is dizzying, and of course the movie has to keep starting over again to show time from different characters’ points of view as all their drama intersects in an untidy heap at the fateful minute. It’s dark, funny, thrilling, and tickling. It demands multiple viewings so you can retrace the plot intersections and try to spot the exact minute writer-director Greg Marcks is stuffing all the rabbits and doves into his hat. The show-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Marcks does a number of things quite well. He establishes a difficult tone — part dramatic, part comic, part absurdist — and he maintains it throughout.”–Mick La Salle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

(This  movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who described it as “definitely untypical.” 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)

CAPSULE: JUG FACE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chad Crawford Kinkle

FEATURING:, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young, 

PLOT: In an insular rural community, a malevolent pit periodically demands the sacrifice of whoever’s face appears on a jug.

Still from Jug Face (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The notion of a supernatural hole in the ground that demands human sacrifice is just strange enough to put Jug Face on our radar, but once you buy into the outlandish premise, the remainder of the film is a standard horror outing, not a weird film per se. This under-the-radar release is still recommended for fans of offbeat, atmospheric horror.

COMMENTS: Beginning with animated folk art titles illustrating a bloody primeval ritual, Jug Face sets out its mood, mythology and themes with extreme efficiency. In the opening scene, teenage Ada very nearly engages in illicit intercourse in the sight of the mysterious Pit from the title sequence, beginning a fearful association between that hole in the ground and female sexuality that will only get queasier as the movie progresses. (Later, Jug Face will subject us to the most disturbing of gynecological exams). The movie is set in a mythical Southern Gothic enclave where moonshine is both the sole export and a sacrament, where outsiders are shunned, and where the occasional human sacrifice is tolerated as a harsh necessity of the land. The metaphysics of the Pit are never explained (we learn nothing more about it than that it “wants what it wants”), but the devotions it demands are revealed in detail. Falling into a trance, a simple-minded potter shapes the clay into the face of the Pit’s next victim, who is dispatched according to traditions handed down from generation to generation. If the process is subverted and the Pit doesn’t get what it wants, things get hairy for the locals. The idea of a Pit-worshiping cult hiding out somewhere in a remote mountain holler may sound hard to buy, but Jug Face‘s quiet conviction puts the far-fetched material over. The detailed script has an answer for almost every question you might have—even questions you hadn’t thought to ask. The direction is confident and straightforward. Most of all, the cast is dedicated to bringing this odd community to life. A hick nerd with duct tape holding his glasses together, Dawai (Sean Bridgers) is effective as the cult’s mouth-breathing chosen potter. Indie-horror stalwart Sustin (Larry Fessenden) leads the redneck sect, but his wife Loriss holds the power in their household. Played by Sean Young (where’s she been lately?), Loriss is a small role with a big impact; this chain-smoking harridan may just be enforcing tribal norms, but she takes a sadistic pleasure in lording her petty power over her helpless children. Although Young has vicious fun with her role, Lauren Ashley Carter, as the young daughter Ada, haunted by sexual guilt, carries the film. Looking like a young Christina Ricci, permanently clad in her one dowdy grey frock, Ada’s normal teenage urges towards experimentation and rebellion put her at odds with her community. She conveys a sympathetic torment as she struggles between self-preservation and loyalty to the only moral code she’s ever known. She’s a sinner, but one we can identify with. Playing out with grim fatalism, like a cross between Winter’s Bone and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Jug Face creates a unique folk mythology and is filled with an creepy sense of backwoods doom. It’s a promising debut for writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle.

As of this writing, Jug Face is available for viewing via video-on-demand outlets. It receives a limited theatrical run in August and is scheduled to show up on DVD and Blu-ray in October.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an insanely bizarre and creepy slow-burn with a lot of good ideas, and precise execution.”–Brad Miska, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek

FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley,

PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010)

fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented.  The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.

COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes.  One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s.  She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two.  Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe.  (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision).  The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.

The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel.  Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario.  Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer.  His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

Koroshi No Rakuin

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt adjective.  Any one of the following would be a Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)