Tag Archives: Mindbender

CAPSULE: OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)

Abre los Ojos

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Amenábar

FEATURING: Eduardo Noriega, , Chete Lera, , Fele Martínez, Gérard Barray

PLOT: A playboy’s life is destroyed when his good looks are destroyed in an accident—although his court-appointed psychiatrist, defending him on a murder charge, insists that his face was perfectly reconstructed and it’s all in his imagination.

Still from Open Your Eyes (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Why won’t the dreamlike psychological thriller Open Your Eyes make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made? Simply because of the film’s ending, where the characters sit down and, with almost airtight logic, explain away every mysterious event that has been going on through a combination of exposition and flashbacks—at one point even using a visual aid.

COMMENTS: It almost goes without saying that Open Your Eyes, the original Spanish psychothriller, is superior to Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake with . Not that I count myself among the detractors of the Hollywood version—other than the unfortunate turn by the usually reliable Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original but with a then-inadequate grasp of the English language, and a few too many pop singles, it’s quite competent. But you owe it to yourself to see the darker, stripped-down original first.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a handsome, womanizing one-percenter who has everything any guy could ever want: money, leisure time, good looks, and a new plaything in his bed every night. He sees it all taken from him after his face is mutilated in an automobile accident, brought about (indirectly) through his own past philandering—ironically, on the morning after he meets a woman who could be the One who makes him settle down for good. At least, that’s the tale as related to Cesar’s court-appointed psychiatrist from the prison cell where he languishes, awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend. But his story doesn’t add up. For one thing, Cesar, hiding behind a mask, insists that his face is still disfigured, while his psychiatrist tells him it’s been reconstructed. He is also losing his mind, convinced that the woman he is accused of killing was an impostor. Not only that, but he is having vivid dreams that he (and therefore, the audience) can’t immediately distinguish from reality, including one in which he wakes up in a Madrid that has been completely depopulated (a scene memorably re-staged with in an eerily empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky). And to top it all off he has another, fragmentary, set of dreams, which are almost completely obscured; these are visualized onscreen through a hazy filter that makes the action look almost rotoscoped. The psychiatrist’s investigation will eventually unveil the real explanation behind Cesar’s condition.

In the “puzzle movie” genre, Open Your Eyes is a classic, one of the most successful at building up an ontological enigma, then explaining it away with an ingenious (if highly speculative) plot device. The closedness of the narrative solution, however, works against the movie’s weirdness—the movie’s cryptic tension is too fully released, leaving us nothing more to ponder. Still, Open Your Eyes this is highly recommended for those who prefer their mysteries to be completely resolved at the end. And if the hallucination scenes had been just a little more harrowing and fantastical (a la Jacob’s Ladder or Dark City), Open Your Eyes might have squeaked onto the List—or into a rating, at the very least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unlikely to satisfy those who insist on linear storytelling and pat endings. But in its deliberately vexing way, ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a film with enough intellectual meat on its stylish bones to give more adventurous moviegoers something to chew on afterward.”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: VANILLA SKY (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe

FEATURING: , , , Jason Lee,

PLOT: A spoiled playboy finds hope in a sudden romance, but an encounter with a jilted ex leaves him scarred and facing surreal situations beyond his comprehension.

Still from Vanilla Sky (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vanilla Sky is effectively trippy, and by far the most ambitious visual experiment from a director best known for his way with words. But ultimately the film is weird only by Hollywood standards, and is too neat and tidy in wrapping up its mysteries.

COMMENTS: Cameron Crowe described his remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) as a “cover version”. It’s an appropriate metaphor, considering Crowe’s background as a rock journalist. In fact, Vanilla Sky hits all the same beats as its predecessor, but does so with considerably more panache. The A-list cast, liberal use of iconic New York City locations, and Crowe’s typical meticulously-crafted soundtrack (featuring Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Radiohead, among others) all point to a production that goes way beyond its modest origins. And in some respects, the grander touches actually do enhance the central mystery of what is going on in the mind of Cruise’s immature media heir. Whereas the Spanish iteration is a straightforward thriller, Crowe plays more with the metaphysical. The stakes seem higher, the stage bigger.

Crowe has to be flashier, though, to hold off the reveal of the Shyamalan-esque twist at the heart of Vanilla Sky, one that might be all-too-obvious to an audience born on The Twilight Zone and raised on surprise reveals that make you question all that comes before. A re-watch of the film confirms that Crowe doesn’t cheat, but accomplishes the feat by distraction. Red herrings and visual allusions (many of which are revealed in a detailed wrap-up montage in the final act) all strive to get the audience looking in the wrong direction, and they are aided by some unusually baroque acting performances. Foremost among these are the gleefully unhinged Cameron Diaz, a dryly obtuse Noah Taylor, and , who brings to her cameo the full arsenal of weirdness that comes with being Tilda Swinton. Oddly, the only actor who seems out of place in the film is Penélope Cruz, the only carry-over from the source material. Cruz is beautiful but disengaged, possibly owing to her relative unfamiliarity with English at this point in her career, and she never displays any of the fire associated with later performances.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Tom Cruise. Present in nearly every scene, he uses his familiar livewire intensity to walk along the edge of madness. Interestingly, he also indulges in a strangely masochistic duel with his own image, at times trading his solid reputation as handsome leading man for both disfiguring facial makeup and a full-face mask obscuring his renowned visage entirely. (His interaction with a group of doctors proffering the mask results in probably the funniest line delivery of his career.) It’s a bold performance, but also quintessentially Cruise.

In the long run, the greatest contribution Vanilla Sky makes is as a central pillar in the ongoing meta-conversation that is Tom Cruise’s career. We conceive of the star as a man whose intense stare and tone betray an insanity barely being kept in check. His character here sits comfortably alongside other entries in the Cruise oeuvre, such as the righteous avenger of the Mission: Impossible movies, the clueless dilettante of Eyes Wide Shut, the angry manipulator from Magnolia, the determined martyr of Valkyrie, and the repeatedly-murdered hero of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether Cruise knows this and can’t resist tweaking the audience by exploiting what we already think we know about him, or if he simply can’t help steering toward projects that provide a glimpse of a troubled psyche. Either way, Vanilla Sky does make viewers feel like they’re getting a choice look into the soul of Hollywood’s brashest-yet-most-mysterious celebrity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Perhaps realizing that to begin reshuffling Amenabar’s complicated structure would bring down the whole deck of cards, Crowe scarcely touched it, changing only minor details, retaining important key dialogue and making his most significant contribution by moving the mood away from dark weirdness to one drenched in modern mores and rock ‘n’ roll. Plotwise, if you’ve seen ‘Open Your Eyes,’ you’ve seen ‘Vanilla Sky.'”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: , Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FRAME (2014)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Carranza, Tiffany Mualem

PLOT: The (literally) separate realities of a thief and a paramedic intersect.

Still from The Frame (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Try though it might, The Frame can’t entirely escape the sophomore slump. Jamin Winans’ first film, Ink, was a budget original and a Certified Weird success. This followup has interesting ideas that prove Winans’ talent is not a fluke, but it doesn’t capture the imagination the way the debut film did.

COMMENTS: The production team behind The Frame has been stingy in revealing details of the film’s plot, and after watching it I can see why. The movie does benefit from surprising twists (the first of which is revealed fairly early), and although I don’t think the intriguing concept completely pays off at the film’s end, it’s still a good idea not to spoil it. So, this is as much as I’m willing to say about the plot: it involves Alex, an illegal immigrant and reluctant thief working with a crew who boosts cargo from sixteen-wheelers, who’s looking for a way out of his criminal lifestyle. It also involves Sam, a dedicated paramedic with a troubled personal life and a weekly date with a blurry therapist. The two characters live separate lives in realities that exist at right angles to each other—not parallel, since parallel storylines never intersect, and these two lives do connect, in a very strange way.

I can’t say that the two stories resolve themselves in an emotionally satisfying way, but things do get weird by the end, especially when Sam crashes a film production studio and finds herself stuck in a loop with a self-typing typewriter. There’s also a low-tech, but bold, special effect with Alex that looks simultaneously silly and cool; it’s the kind of thing a Hollywood film would never dare try for fear of looking foolish.

The rigorous father-daughter allegory of Ink is here replaced by a free-form rumination about free will, about the (im?)possibility of escaping from your “frame” (whether that’s a self-limiting frame of reference, or a literal frame of celluloid). Whereas Winans’ debut was a dream/puzzle film, here he opts for a Twilight Zone-y scenario set mostly in the “real” world that feels, at times, unfinished. Each story contains a mysterious pseudo-omniscient figure lurking around the film’s edges whose significance is never fully explained; in Sam’s case, it’s her therapist, while Alex sees visions of a steampunk tinker in a raggedy tophat out of the corner of his eye. The latter character was memorable enough to make the DVD jacket, and to make the viewer wish he’d appeared in more scenes. The ultimate resolution, unfortunately, is arbitrary; the script too cleverly writes itself into a corner, and has no way out except deus ex machina.

All in all The Frame is a mixed bag, a film with pretty big ideas, some of which work and some that fall flat. One thing that can definitely be said in its favor is that it’s a professional looking film that belies its budget. Denver, Colorado is not known as a hotbed of movie talent, but the technical aspects of this film—editing, camerawork, lighting, acting—equal indies made in New York or Hollywood. The Frame makes an excellent calling-card for young leads David Carranza and Tiffany Mualem; both prove capable of carrying an indie drama. They’re flatteringly photographed and show emotional intensity (if not a lot of range, given the quiet and downbeat mood of the story).

The career arc of Jamin Winans reminds me of ; 1)One difference between the two is that Jamin has a collaborator, producer, publicist and wife Kiowa Winans, who probably deserves more credit for the finished products than she gets. both are obsessive fantasists who work slowly, meticulously control their films (including writing their own scores), and eschew commercial compromise. The upside to that methodology is independence; the downside is they refuse studio resources that could help them to realize more elaborate visions. As long as these guys keep coming up with creative ways to reveal the fantastic in the everyday, though, no one here will complain.

You can download The Frame directly from the filmmakers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a metaphysical urban fantasy that fills the heart and mind equally…”–Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects (contemporaneous)

A digital copy of this movie was provided by the distributor for review.

References   [ + ]

1. One difference between the two is that Jamin has a collaborator, producer, publicist and wife Kiowa Winans, who probably deserves more credit for the finished products than she gets