Tag Archives: Independent film

CAPSULE: THE CHUMSCRUBBER (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Arie Posin

FEATURING: Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Justin Chatwin, , Glenn Close, Allison Janney, William Fitchner

PLOT: In a wealthy California suburb, disaffected teen Dean finds himself snared in an amateur blackmail and kidnapping plot after his only friend, a drug supplier, hangs himself and local high school dealers assume Dean knows the location of the stash.

Strill from The Chumscrubber (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie is indeed weird—partly by design, and (I suspect) partially by accident—but doesn’t benefit by it. It’s worth a look as a curiosity, but doesn’t rise to a Listable level.

COMMENTS: The Chumscrubber is exactly what the title says it is. What, you don’t know what a “chumscrubber” is? That’s OK, neither does the movie. Well, that’s not 100% true. In fact, the “chumscrubber” is a decapitated character from an apocalyptic teen video game—presumably one that scrubs chum when offscreen. But what’s it doing in this movie? What it supposed to symbolize? And why it was deemed a significant enough entity to name the movie after despite getting only a few minutes of screen time? Only the writer knows the answer for sure.

The scattershot script has a lot of problems. For example, what would you do if a group of bullies whom you hated, who had no leverage over you whatsoever, tried to blackmail you into committing a crime? If you said “either ignore them or report them to the police,” congratulations: you just ended the movie early. If you said “go along with their incriminating scheme, obviously,” then you may be target audience for The Chumscrubber. Besides the implausibility of that central plot point, other, more promising gambits, like dueling wedding/memorial parties scheduled for the same day and the surreptitious introduction of ecstasy into a casserole, promise wacky hijinks to come, then fizzle out when they arrive.

Yet, with all it’s issues, The Chumscrubber isn’t a terrible movie experience. The suburban satirical targets may be too obvious, but the you-never-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next plot is refreshing, even fun. The movie has a lot going on to keep your mind occupied: Dean’s troubled teen travails, drug abuse (both recreational and prescription), bullying, kidnapping, a hallucinating hero, bad video game CGI, a misguided romantic subplot, and an entire bonus movie shoehorned in about mild-mannered mayor Ralph Fiennes, who is either going crazy or is the victim of an identity shift. The fine cast does their best in individual scenes that work better than the whole, and the auteurial ambition shines through. Embodying passive-aggressive grief-engendered dementia, Glenn Close is ace, as always. She understands that this material only really works as a black comedy, and seems to be acting in a different (and better) movie. Allison Janney, as Dean’s mom, plays against Close well, allowing herself to be guilt-tripped and becoming one of the few three-dimensional characters. Lead Jamie Bell, a poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg, also puts in quality work. The other veterans in the cast do their best, fighting characterizations that don’t have much depth or sense to them (Fiennes seems particularly bewildered and unsure how to handle his bizarre role).

It’s not surprising that Arie Posin (almost) never worked in movies again. But it’s pretty amazing that he was able to make this meandering, would-be cult movie—with A- list talent, to boot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dreamily surreal… recalls David Lynch and ‘Donnie Darko’ while remaining fresh and original…”–David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

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

306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford

PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.

Still from The Love Witch (2016)

BACKGROUND:

  • After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
  • For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”


Brief scene from The Love Witch

COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically Continue reading 306. THE LOVE WITCH (2016)

CAPSULE: THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Adrian Brody

PLOT: Three brothers, each at a personal crossroads, reunite for a spiritual quest through India.

Still from The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Darjeeling Limited comes from Wes Anderson’ mid-to-early period, where he flirted with stangeness in airy, slightly dreamy features like Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and this before floating back to Earth for the family-friendly Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Oscar-friendly The Grand Budapest Hotel. He never became quite untethered enough from the bounds of indie movie reality and character-based comedy to soar all the way to the vertiginous heights of the weird, though he did aim high enough to make movies of this period worthy of some scrutiny by fans of unusual films.

COMMENTS: “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails,” Jack sensibly asks after the trio of brothers have been asked to disembark from the title vehicle mid-trip. The “off the rails” joke seems intended a wry, self-aware comment from Anderson about the shaggy dog nature of his story, but it’s not really accurate. For better or worse—I’d say better—The Darjeeling Limited never deviates from the path it sets. This director is known for his tight formalism, revealed in his immaculate set design—every swatch of geometric wallpaper, every piece of matching luggage covered in palm trees suggesting a proper Old World elegance—and in the distant, detached stiffness he enforces on his actors.

The Darjeeling Limited is a quintessential Wes Anderson movie: carefully composed visuals (with a stunning turmeric and saffron color scheme), quirky characters with muffled emotions, a mildly absurd plot. It’s perfectly capable of absorbing you in its off-center but oddly believable universe. Owen Wilson (as the ringmaster brother swaddled in bandages from his recent near-death accident) and Jason Schwartzman (as the womanizing writer brother) are old hands for Wes; lanky Brody, not known at the time for his comic performances, fits into the ensemble surprisingly well. , naturally, has an amusing sad sack cameo, and old hand turns up in a small role, too. These three brothers are allegedly off on a spiritual journey, but their quest turns out to be more about coming to grips with the legacies of their parents than discovering nirvana. A Wes Anderson protagonist is typically an upper-middle class (i.e., bourgeois) man focused on a peculiar obsession (Rushmore‘s Max and his crush on an older woman, Steve Zissou’s quest for vengeance), whose narcissism is deflated when he comes to realize that the universe will go its own way without yielding to his desires. These characters’ lenses gradually widen to compensate for their myopia, and they end up not with redemption, but with the resigned wisdom that comes from accepting disillusionment. Here, the realization comes in triplicate. Perhaps there is a legitimate spiritual lesson there, after all.

The Criterion disc includes “The Hotel Chevalier,” a short film starring Schwartzman (alongside ) that describes an incident just before the beginning of Darjeeling Limited. It screened before the feature in some theaters. It carries the same sense of whimsical melancholy as the main feature, but, despite plot connections to the main story, it isn’t necessary to enjoy or understand Darjeeling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…entertaining and engaging, and also deliberately strange.”–Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

(This movie was nominated for review by “bill,” who said it was “not as overtly strange as some of the movies on this list however there is a certain surreal aspect to the story telling that makes this a masterful cinematic oddity .” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde[1] Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

  1. Despite being a natural brunette. []

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BAD BATCH (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, ,

PLOT: Exiled as an undesirable, a woman finds herself escorted to the wrong side of the border fence where she is abducted by a society of iron-pumping people-eaters; escaping after some heavy bodily losses, she finds the closest thing to a utopian village this side of the scorched wasteland.

Still from The Bad Batch (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In the follow-up to her debut hit, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, director Ana Amirpour imbues the harsh, sun-drenched world of The Bad Batch with the same dreamy otherness found in her nocturnal black and white feature. An oddly appropriate New Wave soundtrack underscores the joie de vivre that the exiles somehow maintain, while things get good and weird with a ’70s drug-dealer-style Keanu Reeves as the king of Comfort and Jim Carrey’s non-speaking, desert-wandering vagrant oddball. Also in the mix: cannibalism, Keanu-speechifying, and an LSD Eucharist.

COMMENTS: Upon its release, most reviewers dismissed The Bad Batch as a bad movie. 43% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, an IMDB featured user review railing on about its overall crumminess, and the movie was some several million shy of recouping its six-million-dollar budget. Washed upon our shores because of a quick release on Netflix and DVD, it would seem a hopeless case. It is not. The Bad Batch is one of the more novel films to have come out in a while. Bringing together elements of dystopian allegory and post-apocalyptic survivor story (sans actual apocalypse), it takes the difficult path of providing no backstory. Only as the movie unfolds does the bizarre reality start making (some) sense—albeit with heavy doses of strange circumstance and stranger characters.

We get our only glimpse of “civilized” society during the opening credits. Young Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is tattooed behind the ear with “BB5040” and then shunted through a massive border fence with a sign outside that advises, “Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas […] Good luck.” Almost immediately, she’s nabbed by a pair of muscle-bound bandits on a speeding golf cart and finds herself a prisoner in the shanty-est of shanty-towns. Relieved of both her right arm and leg to feed the locals, she hatches a clever escape: downing a bandit with an iron rod, she slides out of town on a skateboard. Picked up by a vagrant with a shopping cart, she’s dropped off in “Comfort,” where she finds… comfort, but no purpose. She only evolves after taking acid at a town rave hosted by Comfort’s ruler, a man credited as “The Dream,” played with jaundiced silkiness by Keanu Reeves.

The blazing sun of the south-of-Texas desert blinds by day, and the clear skies at night heighten Arlen’s spirit journey as she stumbles into the desert looking for purpose. The engine of the story is, in a way, revenge. She encounters one of her captors (and the captor’s daughter) sifting through a landfill, and the subsequent act of murder ironically forces Arlen to take responsibility for the daughter’s life. The cannibal society lives to pump iron, while Comfort’s society lives for pleasure and self-realization. Even in the wasteland, there is a stark divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Things come to a head when “Miami Man” (Jason Momoa), tattoo and sketch artist, body-builder, butcher, and father, begins his hunt for his missing daughter. Drizzled throughout this sun-and-star-soaked drama are bizarre, eyebrow raising details: a “Jizzy-Fizzy” soda machine, pregnant machine-gun-toting  bodyguards, the solemn trade of a snow-globe, and the Dream’s illuminating question to the daughter: “Is this your rabbit?”

In its bizarre way, The Bad Batch is a remix of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both films take place in ghost towns populated by unsavory, larger-than-life characters. Both focus on the awakening of a young woman’s sense of self. Both use a skateboard as a metaphor for freedom. The Bad Batch‘s tone is hard to pin down; El Topo springs to mind, but with a esque bent. Perhaps that’s why The Bad Batch did little more than confuse and disappoint the general public. Pity for them; but its eccentricities and meaty characters leave us with something fresh and delicious to chew on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy, sun-scorched apocalyptic horror film with a rom-com finish that gets as bloody, visceral and cannibalistic as its U.S. R rating will allow. “–Julia Cooper, Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOSSAL (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

PLOT: An alcoholic woman discovers that she unwittingly controls a giant monster who is attacking Seoul.

Still from Colossal (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The premise is strange, but the execution is not as bizarre as it might have been, tending more to light psychological drama.

COMMENTS: The two opening scenes of Colossal are well-matched. In the first, a Korean girl loses her doll in a park, only to find a giant gray monster looming over the skyscrapers of distant Seoul. 25 years later, a tipsy Gloria (Hathaway) meets her own personal disaster among the skyscrapers of New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment and onto the streets after she shows up drunk again.

Two women, facing two monsters, which, the movie suggests, may really be the same thing: the Seoul-stomper is somehow connected to Gloria’s screwed-up life. After her world falls apart and she moves back to her quiet hometown, things go to hell as she takes a job in a bar run by old friend and would-be lover Oscar (Sudeikis). That Korean monster, spotted one night 25 years ago, starts appearing again in Seoul almost nightly, although it usually does little more than scratch its head and stumble around aimlessly. These appearances, which naturally go viral on CNN and social media, all seem to happen while Gloria is blacked out. Meanwhile, Gloria ups her drinking and finds herself a boy toy, a handsome younger man without much backbone. That development doesn’t please Oscar, who’s given her a job, TV, and a new suite of furniture in hopes of finally winning his childhood sweetheart.

After this setup, we expect the movie dive into a wacky kaiju/romantic comedy mashup, but things get darker, as the metaphor extends from the monster merely representing Gloria’s alcoholism to embrace co-dependency and abuse—it a conflation of all of her bad choices, along with some misfortunes that befall her through no fault of her own. The script lets the symbolism get away from it a little bit, and neither the mechanism through which the monster manifests itself, nor its origin story, nor its final disposition, quite live up to the cleverness of the original conceit. The movie has serious (if not colossal) tone problems: too many innocent Koreans are killed for it to be an effective comedy, but the premise is too ridiculous to generate the tension needed for action/horror thrills. Colossal does find a way forward, by staying so committed to its allegory that you keep watching just to figure out how it will all be resolved. Sudeikis provides another reason to tune in, as he turns out to be a powder keg with a secret of his own. Colossal had the potential to level much more real estate than it did—lover’s spats and millennial introspections outnumber kaiju battles by at least two-to-one—but you should still find a lot to enjoy lying about in the rubble.

Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the indie scene with the tightly-wound time travel bibelot Timecrimes. Since then, he’s been continuing to make smart movies with sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and someday may produce an oddity ready-make for the List of the Weirdest Films Ever Made. This isn’t it, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique and bizarre and surprising and original piece of filmmaking… From its weird little prologue to a nearly perfect ending, ‘Colossal’ is a trip in multiple meanings of that word.”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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).

CAPSULE: ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John Hawkes, Miranda July, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff

PLOT: A cross-section of humanity, led by a shoe salesman and an aspiring performance artist, struggles to make connections in a world dominated by digital barriers to humanity.

Still from Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the weirdness here comes from the unusual situations that seemingly ordinary people find (or put) themselves in. Ultimately, the outrageousness of some of July’s premises are unexpected and threaten propriety, but they’re not really weird in and of themselves.

COMMENTS: Richard and Christine walk down a street; at the end, they will part company to go separate ways to their cars. But they can see the end coming, and the walk becomes much more. One of them views the stroll as a surrogate first date; the other sees it as an entire relationship encapsulated in these few fleeting minutes. The stakes are high, but leavened with artifice. It’s a meet-cute and a relationship-cute all in one.

July is an artist, so there are plenty of moments like this in her debut feature. In fact, Me and You and Everyone We Know (and that’s the last time I’ll type out the whole title) is a movie of moments, and each of those moments is carefully observed. A magic trick with a flaming hand, the pending demise of a goldfish, an explanation for an inspirational t-shirt… these bits and more are treated with great importance and gravity. Your answer to the question of whether films need to spend more time exploring the inner lives of the characters will ultimately determine whether you view this as unusually fulfilling or as tedious and self-indulgent.

In the spirit of filmmakers like or , everyone is connected in Everyone We Know, but no one can connect. In particular, the lead roles stand as stark opposites in their relation to the world around them. Hawkes’ Richard clearly wants connection, but has been so unsuccessful in making it happen that he’s essentially written it off. July’s Christine, meanwhile, is determined to reach out to others, and is willing to bypass conventional norms to make it happen. She creates artwork that places herself in front of invented throngs of attentive viewers or among people she barely knows; she ferries the elderly around town in a personal driving service, and facilitates a romance for one of her patrons; she even accosts Richard’s ex in a department store and persuades her to buy a picture frame. She’s essentially made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into the star of the movie, instead than a construct to facilitate a hero’s awakening. We see her desperation as pure, but it’s also not surprising that she comes across as inappropriate, even oppressive, in her determination to break through to others.

Interestingly, while the central romance is viewed purely through emotional need, most of the people in their orbit see love exclusively through the prism of sex, and that’s where the film plays with surprising and incendiary material. A man sidesteps laws about pedophilia by posting his dirty thoughts on signs he hangs in his window. Two teenage girls attempt to prove their maturity by performing oral sex on a neighborhood boy they don’t even much like. In the most shocking interlude, that same boy’s much younger brother unwittingly engages in a corprophilic chatroom session and then arranges an assignation with his online partner. At every step, the same question arises: “Are they really going to go there?” July absolutely is going to go there, because she wants to show how inarguably deluded these people are, mistaking kink for being grown-up, crudeness for connection.

It’s tempting to say Me and You features adults acting like children and children acting like adults, but that undersells the dangerous behavior everyone finds themselves engaging in. These are all children, some chronologically, all emotionally. July sees a way for all them to grow up, but it’s something they’re going to have to do together. As the film closes, some of them are going to try, and from July’s perspective, that’s cause for hope.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In an age of formula films, writer/director/actor Miranda July has discovered the priceless value of people – ordinary people who behave in a magnificently bizarre fashion. Yet every single one of them in Me and You and Everyone We Know seems highly credible, more real than imagined. A clever screenwriter and inspired director, July takes us places no other filmmaker has ever visited.” – Bruce Feld, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

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

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 its 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 it’s 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 bedsheeted 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 a 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)

LIST CANDIDATE: LOWLIFE (2017)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Prows

FEATURING: Nicki Micheaux, Mark Burnham, Ricardo Adam Zarate, Santana Dempsey, Shaye Ogbonna, Jon Oswald

PLOT: Unhinged restaurant owner Teddy Haynes runs a people-processing facility below his fish taco building, harvesting organs of undocumented immigrants and pimping out underage women. His enforcer, the luchador El Monstruo, is worried about the well-being of his pregnant wife Kaylee, while Kaylee’s biological mother suspects Teddy’s offer of a kidney for her ailing husband is too good to be true. Joining the madness is ex-con Randy, and soon this gang of oppressed underlings join forces to take Teddy to task.

Lowlife (2017) PosterWHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As you can read above, the plot is a mouthful—and that’s only covering its barest bones, so as to maintain coherency. Pitch-perfect editing leaves the viewer with countless narrative teases and denials. While we’re left wondering what’s going on plot-wise, Ryan Prows bombards us with Jacobean violence interspersed with hilarious dialogue and sight gags. Topping it all off, when El Monstruo’s rage becomes untenable, the sound crashes, and someone’s probably dead.

COMMENTS: Few of the movies at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival were primed with so much hype from the festival organizers. Out of the blue, they received Lowlife through their general Inbox, unsolicited and unexpected. From nothing, Ryan Prows’ debut feature became the must-see event of Fantasia. A heavy burden, for sure—with three weeks of movies to compete against, including the new space epic, Marc Meyers’ much lauded Dahmer biopic, and (to a lesser extent), the latest Jojo movie with its ravenous fans—but Lowlife comes up trumps.  Nothing is wasted in this movie; and more importantly, it would be a welcome addition to the 366 canon.

The story is told through the perspectives of each main character: the simple but passionate luchador el Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate); a bad-guy straight out of Dante’s “Vice City Infernus,” Teddy (Mark Burnham);  a hard-working, junk-hoarding motel owner, Crystal (Nicki Michaux); and a pair of friends—African American accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) and his long-time pal, now with Swastika tattoo, Randy (Jon Oswald). Each of their Venn-diagram stories interact on the others’ heels, slowly moving into place, synchronizing as all the characters come together for the final action. This neat narrative stunt was pulled off by deft editing, and, to paraphrase the director, “[writing the $#!&] out of that story.”

During the disorienting narrative flow are the touches that further make Lowlife the visceral-but-surreal experience it is. When Crystal’s husband finds out the source of the kidneys he’ll be receiving, a combination of a flippant note, a heart-felt phone message, and visual exclamation point bring violence, tragedy, and humor into one tight scene, pulling the viewer’s emotions in all three directions. Then there’s the scene where Teddy, squaring off against some troublesome yahoos, seems licked when his six-shooter runs out of bullets. Heading back to his Italian-opera blaring sports car, he pops his pregnant hostage in the trunk, grabbing in her place the AR-15 that happens to be lying around in the back seat. And that’s not even mentioning the tragicomedy of el Monstruo and the comic tragedy of Hip-Hop Wigger Randy: two men marked for life from the neck up.

Lowlife plays like elements of movies many of us have seen before, but is a force unto itself. Imagine Inherent Vice on cocaine instead of marijuana; or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as Grand Guignol; or maybe the best comparison I can think of, Pulp Fiction with cajones. Like a spastic playing with a rubber-band, Lowlife plays with the viewer, pulling first toward shock with heartless violence, then laughter with gut-busting non sequitur (yup), then sadness with beastly tragedy. This gang of monsters, fiends, thugs, and criminals have a wacky adventure in a land of poverty, cruelty, and hilarity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The legacy of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ looms the largest over ‘Lowlife,’ with its flair for unexpected, quick violence, and interweaving vignettes. But there is also a touch of David Lynch in the film’s unflinching exposure of America’s seedy underbelly.”–Jamie Righetti, Indiewire (Fantasia screening)