Tag Archives: Puzzle

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY, SEASON 2” (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Mackinnon (episodes 1 & 2), (ep. 3 & 4), Richard Laxton (ep. 5 & 6), Wayne Yip (ep. 7 & 8), Alrick Riley (ep. 9 & 10)

FEATURING: , , , Amanda Walsh, , , , , John Hannah, Alan Tudyk

PLOT: After the events of Season 1, Todd and Farrah are on the run and Dirk is a prisoner in a secret military facility; a new mystery begins when a visitor from the magical land of Wendimoor reveals that Dirk is prophesied to save their world from an evil Mage.

dirk_gently's_holistic_detective_agency_season_2

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: TV series, not movie. But it’s a series you may want to take note of: otherwise, we wouldn’t be reporting on it, would we? “Dirk Gently”’s mix of absurd humor, bewildering but addictively complex plotting, and fanboy-friendly sci-fantasy tropes was just intriguing enough that that BBC America took a chance on it as potential cult item, but also so weird and difficult that it was cancelled after only two seasons.

COMMENTS: “Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life?”

The following synopsis may not make much sense to a lot of you. This includes veterans of “Dirk Gently Season 1” as well as newcomers to the series. The one advantage Season 1 viewers have over total neophytes is that they understand “Gently”’s method—throw about a dozen subplots and random events at the viewer in episode 1, then spend the rest of the season slowly connecting the dots, with every little detail merging in a “holistic” (and fantastic) fashion. So, I’ll just lay it out: season 2 introduces a gay pink-haired hero with a scissor sword. A train in the sky. A fishing boat run aground in a field in Montana. A friendly, sort of slow sheriff and his hard-partying deputy. A beleaguered middle-aged woman with a limp, a crummy son, a crummy husband, and a crummy job at the quarry where her crummy boss is making shady deals. A dashing gangster in a snappy white suit with a black tattooed hand and a fabulous mustache. A magic wand. A car stuck in a tree. (The literal Purple People Eater won’t show up until episode 4).

It does all connect, naturally. This high-fantasy based plot is perhaps not as satisfying as Season 1’s time-travel yarn, but on the other hand the show devotes more time to building up its underlying infrastructure, dropping hints about Project Blackwing and introducing new “anomalous individuals” like Dirk and the Rowdy 3. (They’re all sort of a team of metaphysical X-Men gone renegade.) Rather than dominating the plot with his clueless exuberance, Samuel Barnett’s Gently is sidelined a bit this season, moping through most of the story in an existential crisis. He and Elijah Wood’s Todd Brotzman invert their Season 1 dynamic, with Todd now eager to solve the case for his own reasons, dragging the reluctant detective along with him. Other characters pursue their own arcs. Farrah shows more vulnerability, and there are hints of burgeoning romance between her and Todd. Todd’s sister Amanda develops magical powers, making her character more relevant—although this development feels a little forced. Ken is set up for a heel turn. And holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif) remains the most fascinating entity. Her fans will be thrilled with her opportunities to prove she is the ultimate badass killing machine, and she gets by far the best lines: “I think that sometimes when you’re killing people they don’t like it, and it makes them unhappy, and scared, and also dead, which they don’t like, I don’t think…” If that monologue doesn’t intrigue you, then “Dirk Gently” isn’t the show for you.

Unfortunately, the series has been canceled, and we’ll never get to see where creator was ultimately headed with all of this. The most bittersweet part of what turned out to be the series finale is that the last shot sets Bart up for a dramatically increased role in the unmade Season 3.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a show where weird things happen in literally every frame…”–Hahn Nguyen, IndieWire (season premier)

344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

AKA 12 Monkeys

Must See

“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Madeleine Stowe,

PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.

Still from Twelve Monkeys (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • This feature was inspired by La Jetee, ‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
  • One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
  • Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
  • Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
  • On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
  • There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
  • Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
  • The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS:  “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery;  giraffes galloping down the freeway

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.

Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys

COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all Continue reading 344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

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.)

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, , , Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , , , , Michael Eklund, , ,

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

Created by Max Landis, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)

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: COHERENCE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: James Ward Byrkit

FEATURING: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brenden, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Loreen Scafaria

PLOT: Eight old friends hold a dinner party on the night a comet is passing by the earth; an “astronomical anomaly” plunges them into a whirlpool of uncertainty and paranoia.

Still from Coherence (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an excellent indie, and highly recommended to fans of “Twilight Zone”-styled intellectual chillers. It’s essentially a rationalist movie, however, and despite raising an uncanny hair or two, it’s not quite weird enough for this List.

COMMENTS: Talk about your film critic-specific problems: I’m struggling over whether I can conscientiously nominate Coherence for “best original screenplay” of the year when it was technically made without a script. The main “pro” argument is that, with eight actors, essentially one set and no extra money (or particular need) for special effects, Coherence generates a magnificently paranoid sci-fi effect entirely from its story. Director Byrkit and co-writer Alex Manugian (who also plays Amir) created the scenario as an outline, sketching out the major plot points they needed to hit, then let the actors improvise most of the dialogue and some of the situations. Acting-wise, the result is a believable naturalism: whether you like these slightly smug, upper-middle class characters or not, they do seem like a gang of old friends exchanging banter at a dinner party. Because of the unusual narrative structure, once the premise is established, the actors’ freedom to explore their characters and their interrelationships is no hindrance. Many of the plot developments here are arbitrary: not in a bad or sloppy way, but in a way that actually adds to the experience, increasing our disorientation and implying a puzzle where many different types of pieces might fit equally well. At a certain point in the story, the exact details of what happens to these characters become unimportant; the issue is the choices they make in order to survive the seemingly infinite night.

The script (such as it is) has two forgivable problems. The first is implausibility, not so much in the conceit (we go in to a movie like this expecting it to take liberties with reality) as in the action: sometimes, the characters need to do things that seems unlikely or unwise to kick-start the scenario. The second misgiving is the fact that at one or two points the script uses exposition like a cattle prod to force its characters to jump to (ultimately correct) conclusions more quickly than they would in “real” life. Given the difficulty of scripting believable responses to incredible events, and the fact that no movie would occur if the partiers just hunkered down and played canasta by candlelight while waiting for the comet to pass, we’ll give it a pass on those two points.

Coherence is performed by a cast of accomplished and professional, but unfamiliar, actors. Like a theatrical troupe that’s been working together for months on a stage show, they are at ease with one another and with the material. Everyone is good, and almost every cast member gets a turn to shine, although chief protagonist Emily Baldoni is the only performer here with breakout leading lady potential.

If the description above sounds a little vague, that’s one of the other film-critic specific problems with a movie like Coherence. Surprise is one of the movie’s chief pleasures, so you’ll just have to trust the reviewer when he or she says that it’s worth sticking around this dinner party to see where the conversation will take you. It starts a little slow but once the comet knocks all the lights out in the neighborhood except for one brightly lit house a couple of blocks away, things heat up quickly—by the midpoint of movie I was hooked. Anyone who likes puzzle movies such as ‘s Primer—a film that comes to mind because of its similar budget, minimalist aesthetic, and ingenuity in generating suspense through manipulation of speculative ideas—should find Coherence to be right up their alley. It’s exciting both as a chilling peek into the dark shadows of alternate realities, and as an example of how resourceful filmmakers can produce thrilling effects using nothing more expensive than their own brains.

Also, please see our interview with James Ward Byrkit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Byrkit’s] premise has Buñuelian potential, but too often he settles for the shocks of a Twilight Zone episode.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)