Tag Archives: Puzzle

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

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

FEATURING: Ethan Hawke, 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)

LIST CANDIDATE: RESOLUTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Bill Oberst Jr., Kurt David Anderson, Emily Montague

PLOT: A man ties up his methamphetamine-addicted friend in a cabin in hopes he will kick his drug habit, but strange things start to happen.

Still from Resolution (2012)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In this tense micro-budget thriller, a young man tries to bring his friend back to reality, only to find that “reality” is not just open to interpretation, but malleable and ever-changing. In fact, the pair’s reality might not even be their own. A genre bender and a puzzler all in one film, this indie thriller combines horror, mystery, drama, and psychological suspense elements with a novel premise and twist and turns to deliver a uniquely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: In spite of some worn clichés—mysterious found footage, missing researchers, and a mystic medicine cabin obligatorily set on an Indian reservation—with Resolution, independent writer/director Justin Benson brings us a breath of fresh air. The film is technically adept on its small budget, and presents a real genre-bender of a plot. Resolution builds slowly as a crime drama, becomes psychological suspense, then morphs into a puzzler riddled with paradoxes. It releases in a brief climax of occult horror.

In the story, yuppie Michael (Peter Cilella) travels to a remote squatters’ shack, where his addict friend Chris (Vinny Curran), bristling with firearms and contraband, has holed up, resolved to kill himself with drugs. Michael restrains Chris, and forces him to withdraw “cold-turkey” over the course of a week.

A progression of weirdos make the scene. Chris’s low-life cohorts (Kurt David Anderson and Kyler Meacham) drop in, demanding drugs. A tightly-wired Native American property owner (Zahn McClarnon) and his menacing gang show up to evict the occupants. A scheming real estate developer (Josh Higgins) creeps in, mistaking Michael and Chris for the deed-holders, and a doomsday religious cult is engaging in shenanigans a little too nearby for comfort.

Michael strives to maintain control over the situation to buy enough time to get Chris straightened out, and back to civilization and rehab. Despite the threat posed by oddball interlopers, the real tension is yet to come.

Someone…or some THING is watching and recording everything Michael and Chris do. But how? The surveillance indicates a presence that looms closer and closer, yet Michael can’t detect the observer.

Looking for clues, Micheal discovers strange footage shot by a missing anthropology team, then locates a laconic neighbor, Bryon (Bill Oberst Jr.), with an uncomfortably unorthodox existential philosophy. From here the story plunges into perplexing paradoxes. Chris’s sleazy drug buddies and the landowner converge for a showdown. Mind-bending events knock Mike and Chris away from objective reality and any sense of control over their destinies.

Resolution is talky, but intriguing. The long-winded plot is better suited for an hour short. Aside from establishing an initial setting and circumstances, the first half of the film doesn’t bear vital relation to the engaging concepts of the second. It’s still pretty good. Unsettling developments keep us watching. Plot twists reveal a honeycomb of passages down which to venture. Rather than choose one of them and proceed, the filmmakers offer a twisted experience based on the fact that these alternate routes exist.

Part of the fun of Resolution is thinking about the various possibilities and what they mean. In our minds, we pursue them, trying to predict the outcome, but just when we think we know what’s going to happen, Resolution throws us a new twist. Throughout it all ripples a nerve-jarring undercurrent of menace, indeterminate and incipient. Mike and Chris’s safe return to the outside world is increasingly unfeasible.

Subtle cinematic artistry reinforces the exposition. In the scene in which Michael is conversing with Byron, Byron discusses his views about narrative and story. As he explains his views, he holds a mirror. At first, the mirror is angled so that Micheal’s reflection blends with Byron’s face. The effect is to project Byron and Micheal as melded together, depicting a dual entity. But Michael cannot see it. Only we can see it.

Byron angles the mirror so that we see another mirror on the wall behind Michael, producing the illusion of endless repetition. It illustrates the concept of how a painter records a scene. There is the scene, and a painter painting it. But there is a larger scene. For us to see the painter painting the scene, there must be another painter, painting the painter painting the scene… and so on to infinity. This is a pivotal moment in the film. Resolution carries distinct, though not fully developed sub-themes about the evolution and structure of folklore, myth and story, and these are tied into paradoxes.

Resolution was filmed in a half-completed lodge under construction, illuminated by hook lamps, and without background music. Intimate camerawork increases a sense of realism, almost like seeing a documentary. The technique is effective because Resolution turns out to be all about deconstruction and the plastic nature of reality. By the time we realize this, we’ve accepted the actuality of what’s transpired, only to have the drop sheet yanked out from under our feet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strangely tense and humorous meta-narrative about two friends experiencing weird goings-on at a remote cabin.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)


Resolution trailer

CAPSULE: KING OF THORN (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Kazuyoshi Katayama

FEATURING: Brina Palencia, Patrick Seitz (English dub)

PLOT:  A group of randomly chosen global volunteers are cryogenically frozen to escape a petrification virus, but wake up to a world overrun by monsters.

Still from King of Thorn (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Thorn falls afoul of the anime conundrum: because we expect every Japanese sci-fi cartoon to look like a nightmare we had after eating expired sushi and make as much sense as a script where William Gibson and David Cronenberg alternate lines of dialogue, “weird” is actually “normal” for this subgenre. We could technically fill up all of our 366 slots with these efforts, but we reserve spots on the List for animes that are either highly influential, are that go above and beyond in the craft of WTF-ery. King of Thorn is a weird movie by anyone’s standards, but it lacks that extra level of brilliant insanity necessary to stand out from the pack in its crazy genre.

COMMENTS: “What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense!” one character tells another near the climax of King of Thorn. “I don’t want you to understand,” responds the accused. “It’s better that way.”  By this point in the story, the first time viewer might assume that response is the screenwriter’s personal confession. For nearly two hours the script has been juggling multiple plot hot potatoes like a worldwide virus, an apocalyptic doomsday cult, an advanced bioweaponry corporation, intrusive dreams and flashbacks, super-powerful artificial intelligences, correspondences to the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” and complex, psychologically rich backstories for the main characters, but as we reach the dramatic showdown it appears that all of these balls have been dropped in favor of a psychedelic explosion of mumbo-jumbo mysticism. Anyone who saw the movie in theaters without the benefit of the rewind button would be totally flummoxed by the plot; rest assured, however, that this complicated story does ultimately make sense, although it may take you two passes through the story to parse it all out. Things start out simply enough: the world is threatened by a fatal virus, christened “Medusa” because its victims turn to stone. One hundred sixty infectees from around the world are randomly chosen to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber housed in a Scottish castle, to be awakened only once there is a medical cure for Medusa. The first big twist comes when the one hundred sixty awake; the cryonic chamber is overgrown with huge, thorny vines, the facility is abandoned, and the skies are full of mutant bats that make quick work of most of the crew. Seven manage to escape down a side tunnel, only to encounter larger and more bloodthirsty beasties prowling the interiors of the castle. The survivors are a heavily tattooed convict, a black American cop, an architect, an Italian senator, a Japanese teenager who left her identical twin behind, an orphan boy who’s convinced that the castle’s monsters come from his video game, and a nurse who quickly assumes a role as the boy’s surrogate mother. As the plot thickens, it turns out that almost everyone has a secret identity or a deep dark secret; whenever one of the characters turns out to be exactly who they seem to be, it’s a huge shock. One by one, the survivors die off during a midsection of the film that plays  as an almost nonstop chase/battle scene, interrupted by clues that only deepen the mystery. Where did the monsters come from? Why does the little boy instinctively know where to go? How long have they been asleep, and why did they wake up? What happened to A.L.I.C.E., the supercomputer that was supposed to be taking care of them as they slumbered? Rather than answering these questions, King of Thorn keeps piling on more and more as its body count mounts. Reality melts away as the survivors penetrate the castle’s inner sanctum and the director breaks out the lysregic eye candy with fantastic vistas of floating castles, thorny vines entwining like Jack and the Beanstalk with a bondage fetish, and hallucinatory sequences with characters doubled and tripled and giant faces peering down from the ceiling. The visuals are impressive throughout, from the opening scene of a doll-like petrified woman plummeting from a skyscraper and shattering on the streets of New York to picture postcard shots of the Scottish countryside, but the finale pulls out all the stops. No matter how confused you get, King of Thorn satisfies the eye; after a second viewing, or at least a review of some key scenes, you should find it satisfies the mind as well.

King of Thorn has everything a sci-fi anime fan could want: psychedelic visuals, non-stop action, a convoluted, mindbending sci-fi plot, and Japanese schoolgirls in ridiculously short skirts. And yet, the movie has so far failed to gain a huge cult following among the otaku. Unimpressed anime fans raise two objections to Thorn. The first—“the manga was better”—is predictable and inevitable. The second complaint is unexpected, coming from a class that generally worships at the altar of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: Thorn is just too confusing. Of course, that criticism has no effect on us at 366 Weird Movies; to us, “confusing” isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “With a little tighter writing and a clearer exposition of the film’s central conceit, not to mention its somewhat bizarre climax, this piece could easily be ported over into a live action feature with someone like Guillermo del Toro, James Cameron or even Gore Verbinski at the helm… As it stands, you may be occasionally (or even more than occasionally) a little confused by King of Thorn, but it’s virtually guaranteed you won’t be bored.”–Jefferey Kaufman, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

“Do not demystify.  When you know too much, you can never see the film the same way again. It’s ruined for you for good. All the magic leaks out, and it’s putrefied.”–David Lynch, explaining to Terrence Rafferty why he will not record director’s commentaries

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Laura Harring,

PLOT: A woman (Harring) is involved in a nighttime accident on Mulholland Drive and flees into the city of Los Angeles with amnesia; she sneaks into an apartment soon to be occupied by naive young Betty (Watts), who has come to Hollywood hoping to find stardom.  Meanwhile, a film director (Theroux) finds himself pressured by mysterious mobsters to cast an unknown actress in his upcoming project.  Betty helps the amnesiac woman try to recover her identity, but the clues only lead to a strange avant-garde nightclub, a key, a box, and a sudden reality shift that throws everything that came before into confusion.

Still from Mulholland Drive (2001)


BACKGROUND:

  • Lynch originally intended Mulholland Drive as a TV series in the mold of “Twin Peaks.”  When the networks passed on the pilot, the French producer Studio Canal stepped in with additional financing to turn the pilot into a feature film.  In between ABC’s proactive cancellation of the series and the creation of the film version, all of the sets and props were dismantled, forcing Lynch to come up with a different way to complete the story.
  • Monty Montgomery, whose appearance as “The Cowboy” is an uncanny show-stopper, is a Hollywood movie producer (who produced Wild at Heart for Lynch).  Mulholland Drive is his only acting credit (he’s listed as “Lafayette Montgomery” in the credits).
  • Lynch insisted no chapter stops be included on the DVD.
  • The original DVD release included an insert from Lynch containing “10 Keys to Unlocking This Thriller.”
  • Mulholland Drive received significant critical acclaim, nabbing Lynch a Best Director award at Cannes (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director Oscar nomination.  It was voted best picture of the Year by the Boston Film Critics Society, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the new York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society (where it tied with Memento in the voting).  It was also voted best foreign picture by the Academy Award equivalents of Brazil, France, Spain, and Australia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Silencio nightclub, decorated in Lynch’s trademark red velvet drapes and staffed by his trademark subconscious monsters.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If the massive reality shifts and actresses unexpectedly playing


Original trailer for Mulholland Drive

multiple roles is not enough for you, then the monster behind the Winkie’s, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” delivered by a woman who collapses onstage, and a mafia-style media syndicate run by a deformed dwarf who uses an eyebrowless cowboy as his right-hand man will convince you that we are deep in that subconscious pit of eroticism, kitsch and weirdness that can only go by the name Lynchland.

COMMENTS:  Oddly enough, what may be the most important scene in Mulholland Drive Continue reading 97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shane Carruth

FEATURING: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

PLOT: Two engineer/entrepreneurs accidentally discover a box that allows time travel, and

Still from Primer (2004)

soon get themselves into trouble.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTPrimer‘s baffling story gives you an untethered, free-falling in reality feeling.  But although the dense, complicated, and deliberately obtuse plot produces a level of confusion comparable in effect to the weirdest David Lynch movies, I’ve got the sinking feeling that, if you dissect  it carefully, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for everything that happens.  (That complaint makes the 366 project the only outlet in the world to potentially reject Primer because it makes too much sense).

COMMENTS: If what you most value in a movie is a plot that will inspire you to sit down and create a schematic flowchart—maybe using multiple ink colors to illustrate various contingencies—in order to figure out what’s going on, then have I got a recommendation for you!  Made for an incredible $7,000 on suburban locations with only two major characters and no special effects, Primer relies entirely on it’s smart, knotty script to keep the viewer interested—and succeeds admirably.  After a pre-time travel prologue, joltingly edited and spoken largely in an untranslated engineerese that’s fairly bewildering in itself, Aaron and Abe (A & B?) stumble upon a box that will allow them to travel backwards in time for about a day at a time.  Like any of us would, they initially use the box to play the stock market, investing in the day’s biggest mid-cap mover.  After placing their online orders in the morning, they agree to carefully lock themselves in a hotel room away from the rest of the world so that they won’t accidentally kill their own grandfathers or meet their doubles wandering around on the street.  The plan goes well for a while, but then strange, logic-defying events start happening, and each of the two men wonders if the other is cheating on their agreement, secretly going back a day to change events for personal reasons.  Paranoia mounts as they become suspicious of each other and of reality itself.  That brief synopsis actually makes Primer sound more (initially) coherent than Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PRIMER (2004)

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE MACHINIST (2004)

DIRECTED BYBrad Anderson

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

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

Still from The Machinist (2004)

increasingly tormented by strange visions and apparitions.

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

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

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

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

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

CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: , , Joe Pantoliano

PLOT:  A man suffering from an inability to form short term memories hunts for his wife’s murderer, relying on notes he leaves himself and important facts he tattoos on his body.

Still from Memento (2000)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It isn’t weird.  Other than the unconventional narrative structure, Memento could even be viewed as a bit of hardcore realism.   But it is easy to see why lovers of the weird are attracted to it; the cloudy mystery that attaches to the story and its central cipher doesn’t lift until the very end, creating a disorientation that feels subjectively weird even though the story is actually firmly grounded in reality.

COMMENTS: Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this paragraph.  To appreciate just how intricately Memento is constructed, and how big of an accomplishment the movie is, try reading the sentences in a story or essay backwards, from the last to the first, and see how much sense they make and how satisfying the experience is.  This time, it’s executed flawlessly.  The movie is epistemologically pessimistic, but artistically invigorating; it’s one of those rare, unique plot hooks that come around once or twice a decade, and you can only hope the filmmakers don’t compromise and do invest the extra work required to pull it off.  It’s a simple concept but far more than a gimmick; the inversion of cause and effect works wonders.  Nothing distracts our attention from trying to unravel the puzzle.  The direction and the performances by the three principals are professionally transparent; the script is the star, as it should be in a mystery.  Leonard insists that memory is faulty, eye witness testimony is unreliable, and that the only thing he can depend on is facts—the notes he inks indelibly on his own body—but as the story works its way from the conclusion to the origin, we start to suspect that there may be nothing that we can accept at face value.  It quickly becomes apparent that it would be Continue reading CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

CAPSULE: TRIANGLE (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Smith

FEATURING: Melissa George

PLOT: The mother of an autistic son reluctantly goes on a pleasure cruise with five other

Still from Triangle (2009)

young adults; the yacht capsizes in a freak electrical storm and the party is “rescued” by an abandoned ocean liner.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Triangle is weird, and frankly entertaining, but like Stay, it kept reminding me of other, slightly better, movies I’d seen before.

COMMENTSTriangle depends so much on its plot twist—which you will be highly unlikely to see coming until about the midpoint of the movie—that it’s difficult to talk about the film without spoiling it, though I’ll do my best.  Melissa George does a creditable job and was a good casting choice for the lead: she’s easy on the eyes, tough yet vulnerable, anguished in her misplaced guilt over “abandoning” her autistic son to go on the ill-fated pleasure cruise, and generally likable, all of which makes the film’s ultimate revelation about her easier to take.  The rest of the cast does a decent job in supporting roles, but it’s entirely George’s picture.  The direction is good: dramatic, suspense and action scenes are handled well, although there’s no single scene that sticks out quite far enough for the movie to hang a hat on.  The abandoned steamer—it’s never clear whether it’s a commercial ship or a luxury liner, although it does have a theater and a banquet room—makes for an atmospheric location on a mid-sized budget.  As noted, the mystery of the opening builds until about the midpoint, where things begin to get clear; then, it’s mostly a question of details, of following the premise where it will inevitably lead.  Unfortunately, where it leads is to a coda that creates more questions than it resolves.  It’s safe to say that the movie is more satisfying on an emotional level, as a metaphor for the difficulty of escaping a pattern of self-destructive behavior, than it is on a plot level.  Eventually, the script becomes too clever for its own good, gliding casually past the difficult paradoxes it creates, hoping the audience either won’t notice or won’t care.  That’s not always a problem in a movie, and along with the fact that the movie never tries to explain where it’s supernatural rules originate, it certainly adds to the weird factor.  But Triangle gives off the vibe that it wants to provide a satisfying and complete resolution, something that closes the loop, but can’t quite manage it.  When you get to the end, you may wind up asking yourself, where does this story actually begin?  With it’s cyclical structure that appears to wrap the plot up in a self-contained ball but actually falls apart on closer inspection, Triangle reminded me of a poor man’s Donnie Darko.  Compared to that adolescent angst flick, it’s more coherent but less original, less aggressive in its outrageous plot devices, less emotionally affecting, and lacking in star turns and impeccably orchestrated individual scenes.

Triangle is worthy of a recommendation.  But the film compares unfavorably not only to Donnie Darko, but also to the little seen Timecrimes [Los Cronocrímenes] (2007).   (To make things as twisted as one of these psychothriller plots, the original Timecrimes is being remade in English and is scheduled for a 2011 release, meaning soon enough we will see people complaining that Timecrimes is nothing but a Triangle rip-off).  It shares its central plot idea with the low-budget Spanish picture, and maybe even a little more than that: Continue reading CAPSULE: TRIANGLE (2009)