Tag Archives: Keanu Reeves

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)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee,

PLOT: A 16-year old girl travels to Los Angeles to become a model; her rare beauty makes her an immediate hit, but not everyone in town wishes her success.

Still from The Neon Demon (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Since I’m incredibly jaded when it comes to cinematic strangeness, when I get the rare opportunity to watch a weird movie in a theater, I like to pay attention to the reactions of the other theatergoers to try to assess the film’s baseline level of audience alienation. At the well-attended late night screening where I saw The Neon Demon, at two separate points the young man sitting directly behind me let out a distressed “WTF are we watching?” My own viewing companion (a film fanatic with mainstream tastes) complained Demon was both “too arty” and “too trippy.” On the other hand, there were no confirmed walkouts—although one woman did step out briefly when a certain grossout scene commenced, only to return when it was over. The lack of mass departures was discouraging, but the audience’s stunned reactions were generally strong enough to convince me that Refn’s onto something genuinely weird here.

COMMENTS: Stylishly unreal and bluntly provocative, lit by neon and covered in glitter, The Neon Demon may be the most beautiful and least meaningful art film of 2016. It begins with radiant waif Jesse (Fanning) posing for necrophilia-themed glam shots, and progresses through an expressionist Illuminati pyramid catwalk triumph and gratuitous grossout scenes (which I won’t spoil, except to say that multiple taboos are tweaked, sometimes in the same scene) to a bloody climax. The film is washed in Natasha Braier’s unreal lighting schemes, a la Suspiria—or even more on point, a la a bigger-budgeted Beyond the Black Rainbow—and the characters are clothed in Erin Brenach’s bizarrely conceived metallic/pastel costumes, with the entirety choreographed to a chilly, abstract electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Sensually, Demon is a pulsating, glittering delight, although anyone looking for intellectual sustenance will find little nourishment here (the film’s unsubtle message is “L.A. feeds on the beautiful,” hardly a novel insight). The whole experience is like attending a rave held at Hollywood’s most fashionably nihilist discotheque.

The roles are underwritten—or, more charitably, archetypal. Fanning does well enough as the wunderkind of pulchritude, a luckless gal who knows she has one asset in life and is determined to use it. Jena Malone is more impressive as a make-up artist who takes it upon herself to play big sis to the industry comer, while Heathcote and Lee portray a pair of catty anorexic working models, on the wrong side of 21 and eaten up with envy at Jesse’s success. The marginal male characters are just as obvious—a couple of domineering, vaguely threatening fashion impresarios, and aspiring boyfriend and photographer Dean, who, upon learning Jesse is only 16, hesitates ever so slightly before leaning in for a good night kiss. Of the masculine predators, the standout is easily Keanu, playing against type as a low-rent sleazeball operating a motel catering to runaways. Given the character’s utter depravity, the role was brave and unexpected for a waning matinee idol. After 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and now this dark cameo, I will declare that Reeves’s penance for his masterpiece-wrecking Jonathan Harker is officially complete.

Fashion isn’t art, it’s design, so can—or should—a movie about the fashion scene be artful? Individual shots from The Neon Demon are pure genius—yet, there’s not much that ties the film together conceptually, other than its obvious cautions about the high-stakes world of professional superficiality. A fashion maven rightfully scoffs at the notion that Dean (who claims, without much visible evidence, that Jesse has unseen depths) would be interested in the model if she wasn’t singularly gorgeous. Just like it’s subjects, The Neon Demon is shallow and beautiful. And though beauty isn’t everything, it actually counts for a lot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: River Phoenix, , William Richert

PLOT: A young, narcoleptic gay prostitute searches for his mother, with the help of a slumming fellow hustler who is heir to a fortune.

Still from My Own Private Idaho (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: My Own Private Idaho weaves two weird premises together: the story of a narcoleptic searching for his mother and a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I.” The movie then adds surreal touches and sets it all inside the world of gay street hustlers.

COMMENTS: Sometimes the line between a “glorious mess” and a plain old-fashioned mess can be very thin, and very personal, indeed. I couldn’t really argue with anyone who sees Idaho as an eccentric gem, but the film has always seemed more like a failed experiment to me. A “Henry IV” adaptation set in the world of street hustlers might have made a good movie (although Idaho suggests that a different approach, with less actual Shakespearean dialogue and no Keanu Reeves, may have been required). Similarly, a bittersweet indie about a narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mom might have made a good movie. But when slapped together, the two storylines don’t really work; Idaho feels like an interesting story that keeps getting interrupted by a high school class’ Shakespeare rehearsal.

River Phoenix, only two years away from his fatal overdose, is beautifully cast as the fragile prostitute who falls into a spontaneous slumber when stressed (and the life of a street hustler does tend to arouse the occasional stressful situation). He’s dreamy, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, isn’t very good—but in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At this point in his career, the world did not yet know that Reeves was a bad actor, and the same pseudo-sophisticated mannerisms that would earn him well-deserved jeers for his portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Dracula play here as a campy stylistic choice. Since his lean torso and boyish sensuality suit the character physically, his weak-jawed, ersatz Prince Hal somehow fits into the entire subplot’s unreal design. It’s a case of a director turning an actor’s weakness into the film’s strength. William Richert is fine as Bob, the Falstaff substitute. Regular readers will want to keep their eyes open for weirdo favorites (in a rare seductive role) and (in a more substantial and stranger part).

Mild surrealist touches (the hustlers carrying on a conversation from the covers of male jerk mags) jostle with gritty street realities and scenes lifted almost wholesale from “Henry” to form a concoction that is occasionally interesting and touching, but which also feels cobbled together and frustratingly inconclusive. Idaho does, however, unquestionably tilt toward the weird end of the spectrum. The Criterion Collection upgraded this catalog title to Blu-ray in October, 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cracked and beautiful… a strange duck of a film, beyond comparison: street-boy angst intermingled with Shakespearean conceit.“–Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FREAKED (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stern, Alex Winter

FEATURING: Alex Winter, , Megan Ward, Michael Stoyanov, William Sadler, Brooke Shields, Bobcat Goldthwait, Morgan Fairchild, Mr. T,  (uncredited), Larry “Bud” Melman

PLOT: A sleazy Hollywood actor is hired by an evil corporation to go to South America where he is immediately kidnapped by a freak show owner who transforms him and his friends into Hideous Mutant Freekz.

Still from Freaked (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Freaked is a very weird movie, its weirdness stems more from the “anything goes” school of gonzo comedy. It’s like Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Magazine come to life with the aesthetic sensibility of a Robert Williams painting. Heck, maybe it should make the List.

COMMENTS: Freaked is a fine example of a small wave of bizarre films that made their way into theaters in the early 1990s. Too strange for the mainstream and too unpolished for the art houses, most of these movies were dumped into a few theaters with no fanfare and only found later life on VHS, cable or DVD, if even then. Other examples include Rubin and Ed (1991) and the Certified Weird The Dark Backward (1991).

Originally titled “Hideous Mutant Freekz,” Freaked was the brainchild of directors Tom Stern and Alex Winter, who were then coming off their short-lived sketch comedy show The Idiot Box. Winter, who is still most well known as being half of the duo Bill & Ted, also stars as the lead, Ricky Coogin.

That this is a ’90s affair should be immediately obvious from the opening, which features some of the most eye-blistering claymation you will ever see, set to the tune of a Henry Rollins song. From there we jump right into the plot, which involves ex-teen heartthrob Ricky Coogin being romanced by the evil EES Corporation (“Everything Except Shoes”) to act as their spokesperson in South America for their product Zygrot 24. After a few gags and character introductions, the movie finds itself in the freak show fun by Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid). Skuggs immediately kidnaps our protagonists and transforms them into monstrosities by using (surprise!) Zygrot 24.

The freak show camp is really the heart of the film. In fact, the sequence introducing the freaks may give you the best sense of the movie: it’s done using the set-up for the game show Hollywood Squares, complete with the skeleton of Paul Lynde as center square. Other freaks include the Worm, Sockhead (who has a sock-puppet for a head), Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, and so on.

What separates this film from other mile-a-minute comedies, and makes it most memorable as weird, is the density and bizarreness of its gags. Like a comic book, every frame of the film is packed with jokes that may go completely unnoticed upon first viewing. On top of that, the gags are just strange piled upon strange. For example, Coogin’s first escape attempt, which involves a milkman and a turd shaped like a naked Kim Basinger, is thwarted by a pair of giant Rastafarian eyeballs with machine-guns. Why? Because that’s always funny.

At this point I should mention the entire movie is told in flashback during a talk show hosted by none other than Brooke Shields.

This is a pretty great movie, and of the funniest unknown movies to make its way out of the ‘90s. It’s a shame that it died an ignoble and unsupported death, but it’s not clear that a wider release would have enabled the film to find an audience either. Freaked clearly isn’t for everybody. However, for those whom it is for (“Mad” Magazine-addicts, kids who grew up with “Big Daddy” Roth model kits, C-list celebrity fans), it’s a love letter in animatronic clothing. If you can find it, it’s worth picking up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I suppose there could be some sort of subversive angle to all the madness on display here, but I suspect it’s just what happens when you get a bunch of hipsters too weird for their own good in a room together and ask them to come up with something funny.”–Keith Breese, AMC filmcritic.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)