Tag Archives: Jennifer Jason Leigh

CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan

PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.

COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.

Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and Continue reading CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

CAPSULE: JAKE SQUARED (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Howard Goldberg

FEATURING: Elias Koteas, Mike Vogel, Kevin Railsback, , , Jane Seymour

PLOT: A director makes a self-indulgent autobiographical movie about his failed love life, and, “Twilight Zone”-style, versions of himself in his teens, thirties and forties show up in unwanted cameos.

Still from Jake Squared (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jake Squared is like 8 1/2 done as a romantic comedy by a Hollywood phony. It’s a little weird, sure, but mostly you just feel embarrassed for the screenwriter.

COMMENTS: 50-year old, semi-successful indie film director Jake Klein is a helpless romantic, as he himself announces to the viewer minutes before kicking out his lead actor so he can perform the hot tub scene with the three bikini-clad bimbos himself. Later, he bemoans the fact that “some people want to deny the poorest children health care and nutrition so the richest people won’t have to pay a few thousand in extra taxes” while doing his morning breaststroke in his backyard pool. It hardly seems possible, for a movie that boasts about its self-awareness and meta-conceits, but Jake Squared doesn’t really seem conscious of these ironies. It expects us to honestly sympathize with the internal struggle of its wealthy, balding, chick-magnet protagonist, this achingly wounded Lothario, while reserving its scorn for humbler targets, like the airheaded aspiring starlet who wants to convert to Judaism to further her show business career.

Jake admits his autobiographical film project is self-indulgent, expecting us to forgive him his self-indulgence because he’s up front about it. But it doesn’t work that way. When is self-indulgent we forgive him not because he’s candid about it, but because the self he is indulging is so fascinating. Jake, on the other hand, is more like a second generation, not-as-funny cross between and Larry David (boasting the same incomprehensible sex appeal with which these writers endow their surrogates). Elias Koteas does a reasonable job as most of the Jakes (unless we were supposed to like the character, in which case even his workmanlike job can’t overcome the script). The acting in general is a high point; landing the trio of Jason Leigh, Madsen and Seymour as potential paramours was a coup, though again, why these women would be fascinated rather than fed-up with Jake’s agonized narcissism is unclear.

Weirdness is not an issue. The opening introduces us to the primary Jake, the dashing twenty-something actor he’s hired to play Jake, and several of his earlier selves wandering around a party, and then switches to new scenes from Jake’s life (being acted by the hunky stand-in) which he views on his cell phone. For further confusion’s sake, the young actor in the cellphone scenes can also see himself in the party scenes. It gets so convoluted that fifteen minutes in, a new character comes in and explains the premise directly to the camera. The problem is that this is a romantic comedy with an unlikable protagonist, no clear love interest (besides himself), and almost no laughs. It was 45 minutes in before I registered my first chuckle, and that was at a visible boom mic (to be fair, it was visible on purpose). Jake Klein isn’t a terrible person, but we should be paid the same rate as a therapist would to listen to him go on and on about his struggles with commitment; we shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Given Jake’s lack of notability, raising him to an exponential power was probably not a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If only Federico Fellini had lived long enough to direct Hot Tub Time Machine, he might have made something like this self-indulgent but agreeably ambitious anti-romcom.”–Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

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

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: PALINDROMES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Todd Solondz

FEATURING: , Richard Masur, , Sharon Wilkins

PLOT: A teenager falls in with a group of anti-abortionists in her quest to become pregnant.

Still from Palindromes (2004)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As if the plot isn’t off-beat enough, Palindromes‘s teenage porotagonist is played by a variety of actors of different ages, sizes, races, and even genders.

COMMENTS: The standout feature of Palindromes is the unorthodox casting of a series of different actresses (and one actor) in the role of Aviva Victor. The variety of thespians allows Solondz to express the evolution of Aviva’s self-image, physically reflecting changes in her emotional state during the movie. When we first meet Aviva, she is played by a young African-American girl who wears her emotions on her sleeves and in her facial expressions. She is the only child to middle class parents (Barkin and Masur) living in an anonymous suburb in the Northeast United States. Horrified at the probable suicide of her cousin Dawn and alienated by the material nature of her mother’s love, Aviva becomes obsessed with the idea of having lots of babies to ensure she has someone to love her. Then, as a Caucasian brunette in her early teens, she has an ill-advised encounter with the son of a family friend, and gets pregnant. As a reedy, red-haired, slightly older girl, she strenuously resists but eventually accedes to getting an abortion. As a more confident and more attractive brunette, she runs away with the help of a truck driver, with whom she has sex in the hopes of once again getting pregnant. Abandoned by the truck driver, she wanders through wilderness in the shape of a teenage boy and then is discovered—now as a large, older African–American woman—by the driven and very Christian Mama Sunshine, who runs an orphanage for children with medical infirmities. Here Aviva is least like herself: in a completely alien environment, she has to lie about her name and her past to fit in, and her self-doubt and anxiety are apparent in her magnified size, awkward movement, and change in race. The plot unfolds from there involving more pedophilia, a quest to assassinate the doctor who aborted her fetus, and a shootout in room 11 of a seedy motel, with Aviva switching from shape to shape, becoming more assertive and mature. At the point where she feels most grown-up, she returns to her family as a world-weary, bedraggled 20-something waif (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She holds her own in an existential debate with her older cousin, Mark, and easily wins arguments with her parents. But, as the title of the movie suggests, things come around: Aviva meets up with the boy who got her pregnant to begin with, reverts mentally through the chain of actors who have portrayed her, until she is once again the vulnerable, out-of-place, emotionally needy little black girl. As seductive as the message is that everything eventually returns to its beginning state, palindrome-like, some things in the film are irreversible: death, certain operations, and murder among them. In the end, it’s these things that will eventually shape the person Aviva will eventually become, but she’s not yet become them yet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What makes this strange story even stranger is Aviva is played by eight different performers… Solondz constructs a deadpan sheltering bubble around his film, thereby defusing most of the issues he raises. It’s all one Warholian shrug. Still, ‘Palindromes’ is unlike anything you’ve seen at the movies.”–Bob Longino, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE MACHINIST (2004)

DIRECTED BYBrad Anderson

FEATURING: Christian Bale, , Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian

PLOT: A troubled man tries to solve the riddle of his fragmented existence as he becomes

Still from The Machinist (2004)

increasingly tormented by strange visions and apparitions.

WHY IT ‘S ON THE BORDERLINE: The events which unfold in The Machinist are hard to wrap one’s mind around.  It is difficult to ascertain what is real and what is unreal.  Other, more cleverly thought-out films, have handled this same premise with more finesse, however.

COMMENTS:  Honestly? I liked this movie much better THE FIRST NINE TIMES I SAW IT! When it was called:

Dead and Buried (1981), and
Final Approach (1991), and
The Sixth Sense (1991), and
Crazy As Hell (2002), and
The Return (2003), and
Stay (2005), and
Dark Corners (2006), and
Salvage (2006), and
Cold Storage (2006).

The Machinist is a well made Spanish puzzler that waxes somewhat melodramatic.  However, the triggering event for its basic premise, while not overly preachy, is well, kinda damn preachy.  Additionally, somebody should have told the filmmakers that this plot has been produced before (OK, nearly every plot has been previously used one way or another. To wit: Brett Sullivan’s The Chair is basically The Skeleton Key or Child’s Play repackaged, but the premise of The Machinist has been done a LOT.  As such, redoing it yet again demands a very fresh take, and an unconventional handling of the idea).

In The Machinist Christian Bale plays, you guessed it, an industrial machinist who lives and works in a creepy industrial park (the movie was filmed in Barcelona, so you bet they found an imposing-looking one, although a similar location in Bilbao might have been even more grim.)  Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE MACHINIST (2004)