Tag Archives: Paul Giamatti

LIST CANDIDATE: THE CONGRESS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman

FEATURING: Robin Wright, , John Hamm, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle,

PLOT: Robin Wright has reached the worst time for actresses: middle age. The roles have started to dry up, and her reputation for being particular has not helped at all. She is persuaded to accept a deal from Miramount Studio to have herself digitally scanned and her image, kept young, used by the studio for its projects for 20 years, in exchange for a hefty sum of cash and agreeing to never act again.

20 years later, on the contract’s expiration, she attends The Congress—a studio convention featuring new technology allowing people to transform themselves into animated avatars. The studio wants to extend their deal with Robin, which would allow anyone to virtually “be” her.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:: This is a visual and intellectual feast for the eyes and mind, in a way that is graspable for the average viewer. Plus, there are so many visual references in the animation, it will reward multiple viewings.

robin wright
COMMENTS: For all of the trippy mind-bending wonderfulness of The Congress —and for those who enjoy weird films, there’s quite a bit to like—it’s the Hollywood satire and visual allusions (to , Bakshi [in spirit and ‘tude], Kubrick, and lots of others) that makes it special. The most arresting visual image is the opening close up of Robin Wright, sans makeup, as her agent (Harvey Keitel, in a notable supporting role) berates her for her previous career choices. It’s probably the bravest performance you’ve seen from an actress in a LONG time.

The movie uses Stanslaw Lem’s 1971 novel “The Futurological Congress” as the starting point to get into the weirdness, but it takes a good half hour to set that up and provide the necessary grounding. Underneath the bitter satire and trippy visuals, The Congress is ultimately about identity, and how it becomes another commodity to be bartered—at first, hesitantly by Robin, and ultimately as a way of life for the populace.

The Congress is now available from Drafthouse Films via Video on Demand starting July 24 and is scheduled for theatrical release August 29.

PIC_The Congress_2013_04_19_02-12_04ALEX KITTLE ADDS: Positioning its characters between the contrasting poles of heartbreaking realism and completely bonkers fantasy, The Congress juggles a multitude of ideas but manages to present a fairly cohesive story. By grounding his tale with a real-life protagonist, the actress Robin Wright, Folman is able to gradually incorporate stranger and stranger concepts, with the final destination barely resembling the starting point. The world he creates is definitely weird, distinguished by its ever-fluctuating landscape and psychedelic colors, populated by people who are limited only by the reach of their imaginations. The animation retains the superficial sheen and flatness of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, but the visual style varies, overwhelming the viewer with different aesthetics and effects, conveying the befuddlement felt by Wright when she enters this unfamiliar animated world.

The story is all over the place, jumping across decades at different points to reflect the extreme changes in society, and attempting to simultaneously focus on Wright’s personal experiences of caring for (and later trying to locate) her son as well as the structure of this crazy future. But somehow it all mostly works, with Wright remaining strong as the protagonist whose confused perspective comes to mirror the audience’s. The whole thing is an emotional experience, weird and funny and satirical and honestly rather touching. I would nominate it for the List, primarily for the jarring and imaginative cartoon shift that takes place halfway through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“So while The Congress might seem a hallucinatory trip through a cityscape of the imagination, it also allegorises our own very real relationship with the mythopoeic worlds of cinema (from which this film quotes with relentless, voracious postmodernism) or of the internet.”–Anton Bitel, Grolcsh Film Works (festival screening)

150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.  Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange.  What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , Fabianne Therese, , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
Still from John Dies at the End (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
  • Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with , but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
  • Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
  • The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.


Original trailer for John Dies at the End

COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may Continue reading 150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

CAPSULE: COSMOPOLIS (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kevin Durand,

PLOT: A young financial genius is intent on taking his limo across Manhattan to get a haircut from his father’s old barber, despite the fact that the streets are gridlocked due to a Presidential visit, “occupy Wall Street”-type protestors are rioting, and there is a credible threat against his life.

Still from Cosmopolis (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Robert Pattinson’s disintegrating ride across Manhattan in a mobile cocoon is certainly odd, but it’s a tame and talky adventure from the man who brought us Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Far from being one of the weirdest movies of all time, Cosmopolis isn’t even the weirdest limousine-themed feature of 2012.

COMMENTS: Cosmopolis can be as cold and clinical as the routine physical examination billionaire Eric Packer requires every day, and the results as odd as the importance the examining physician ascribes to his asymmetrical prostate. Absurdly wealthy, Packer isn’t in the 1% of net wealth, he’s in the 1% of the 1%, so rich he’s not interested in buying a Rothko painting; he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel and move it into his apartment. He’s so rich that guys in Robert Pattinson’s tax bracket can credibly protest that his wealth is obscene. Able to buy almost anything he wants, he’s become jaded and now craves novel and dangerous risks; when he discovers one of his many lovers owns a stun gun, he begs to be tazed (“show me something I don’t know”). This need for new sensations drives his character’s journey as he crawls through gridlocked Manhattan, from a civilized and abstract uptown to carnal and violent downtown. Packer may be searching for authenticity, casting aside the trappings of wealth and becoming more focused on the body, but he doesn’t become more sympathetic. He remains very much an alien specimen, with speech patterns that are bizarre to us. Cosmopolis‘ semi-absurdist dialogue is its distinctive strategy. Characters discuss ideas like the metaphorical use of rats as currency, the way “money has lost its narrative quality,” and the lack of originality of Buddhist monks lighting themselves on fire. Packer holds that last discussion with an adviser with the title “Chief of Theory,” played by Samantha Morton, reading her lines like she’s delivering a lecture for a book-on-tape. It’s not just Morton who’s stilted; throughout the film the style of conversation is ridiculously unnatural, with participants incapable of following any philosophical avenues to the end before detouring onto a side street. And it is a very, very talky movie, with Packer essentially interviewing a series of lovers and employees one by one, mostly in the cool blue light of his limo’s electric interior. The exchanges are so clipped and mannered that when Paul Giamatti, a certifiable working-class madman, strides into the movie, his commonplace insanity is refreshing. Giamatti’s monologues are ever-so-slightly more deranged and rambling than the other players, but unlike Packer’s blasé platitudes, they are delivered from a place of passion and pain that the young billionaire envies. Cosmopolis is a talky, symbolic and obliquely philosophical movie, for sure, and it will turn most viewers off. But, in its confused way, it does reflect our current psychology of income-gap anger and financial-apocalypse anxiety.

Cronenberg adapted the script from Don Delillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, which is not generally considered to be one of the author’s better works. You can’t fault Robert Pattinson for trying to break away from his Edward Cullen persona. Accepting a role in a David Cronenberg art film seems a good start at distancing himself from his image as a sparkly pretty boy. Although Pattinson isn’t bad as Packer—his drained and anemic pallor physically fits the billionaire’s character—unfortunately for him, Cosmopolis did not turn out to be the prestige movie the actor had hoped for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…I took a strange pleasure in submitting to this movie’s stilted but weirdly poetic rhythms. But I freely acknowledge that for others, enduring Cosmopolis may be less fun than a backseat prostate exam.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who advised “There is definitely some weirdness going on in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Mostly a dialogue-driven weirdness for sure, but still…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

NOTE: John Dies at the End has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the official Certified Weird entry is here.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A young paranormal investigator relates his strange and twisted backstory to a skeptical reporter. It involves alien creatures, a drug that gives its users heightened senses and psychic abilities, and a parallel universe whose twisted denizens are edging their way into our own.

John-Dies-at-the-End


WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Its labyrinthine plot and genre-bending themes make John Dies at the End an interesting experience, with plenty of bizarre characters and twists, but at times the film is just weird for the sake of being weird, forsaking good storytelling in the process.

COMMENTS: Blending the well-worn motifs of alien invasion, inter-dimensional travel, and the over-confidence of youth into a heady concoction of oddities, John Dies at the End isn’t easy to summarize, or even encapsulate. The narrative flits back and forth erratically as Dave (Chase Williamson) attempts to communicate his experiences to a bemused journalist played by Paul Giamatti. It all starts—sort of—with a late-night phone call from Dave’s excitable friend John (Rob Mayes), whose ingestion of an out-of-this-world drug known as “Soy Sauce” sends him down a time-traveling, mind-reading, future-predicting rabbit hole. Dave accidentally takes some Soy Sauce himself, and soon he is escaping from a hardened police detective (Glynn Turman) who suspects him of several gruesome murders, while trying to save John and two other high school friends who’ve been kidnapped by a demonic being from an alternate universe. And then a lot of other stuff happens, but not always in chronological order.

Without prior knowledge of the webserial/novel this is based on, John Dies at the End can only be a surprise. It rapidly transitions between wry humor, gross-out gore, paranormal mystery, hallucinatory freak-outs, and sci-fi adventure, all set amidst general confusion. This is the type of film that was made to be a cult classic, with little hope for or interest in appealing to a wide audience. At times this obvious intention to be weird means that the film’s comedic and mystery elements are sacrificed for nonsense, but if you’re looking for straight-up bizarre then it’s not a huge loss. The low-quality special effects are mostly excused by unique visual ideas and some well-placed animation.

With its nonlinear narrative structure and consuming focus on strange happenings, the film doesn’t spend too much time developing characters, and as the protagonist Dave is a little weak: for the most part Williamson just shows off his “Sarcastic Inner Monologue” expression or various reaction faces. He and Mayes are both very regular-seeming guys, the kind you probably knew in high school or college. They are surrounded by a charismatic supporting cast, including the lovably loudmouth Giamatti, the imposing Clancy Brown, the hardcore Glynn Turman, and the naturally creepy Doug Jones. Shuffled about by an intricate story and ever-uncertain motivations, they seem to relish the script’s absurdities.

John Dies at the End is uneven as a whole, driven to episodic distraction with an abundance of half-realized subplots and unanswered questions, but it has a way of worming itself into the brain that results in a kind of fascination. The twisted creatures, unexpected sight gags, colorful settings, and surreal visions create an idiosyncratic aesthetic that’s as funny as it is fantastic. Frozen meat comes to life, mustaches fly through the air, headless zombies attack, alien bugs take over unsuspecting drunk teenagers… By the time Dave and John leap into an alternate dimension populated by nude figures with eerie masks ruled by a giant hyper-intelligent spider monster, I was convinced of its Weirdness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everybody pretty much gets weird throughout this trippy head-shaker of a movie. It’s hard to be sure if the film adds up logically — seems doubtful — but it’s so bizarre you don’t much care.” –Tom Long, The Detroit News (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes

FEATURING: , Dina Korzun, David Strathairn

PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…

Still from Cold Souls (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City.  It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it.  It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.

COMMENTSCold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay.  It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.

Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.

Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at leastCold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.

Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)