Tag Archives: Quantum physics

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)

168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

“Oh, my God, and when you got up in the morning, there was the sun in the same position you saw it the day before—beginning to rise from the graveyard back of the street, as though its nightly custodians were the fleshless dead—seen through the town’s invariable smoke haze, it was a ruddy biscuit, round and red, when it just might as well have been square or shaped like a worm—anything might have been anything else and had just as much meaning to it…”–Tennessee Williams, The Malediction

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Natasha Little, Rhys Ifans, , Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

PLOT: In 2092, after all disease has been conquered through cellular regeneration technology, 119-year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal man left in the world. He recounts his life story to a psychiatrist and a reporter, but his memories are wildly inconsistent and incompatible, and at times fantastic and impossible. In his confused recollections he is married to three different women, with multiple outcomes depending on choices that he makes in the course of his life; but which is his real story?

Still from Mr. Nobody (2009) BACKGROUND:

  • The genesis of this story came from Jaco Van Dormael’s 1982 short film “È pericoloso sporgersi,” about a boy who must make an “impossible” choice between living with his mother or with his father.
  • According to Van Dormael the script took seven years to write, working about five and a half hours a day, every day.
  • Van Dormael published the Mr. Nobodoy screenplay (in French) in 2006, one year before production began and three years before the film was completed.
  • Despite being made in 2009, the movie was not released in the U.S. until 2013, and then only in an attempt to capitalize on the Oscar buzz surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Leto temporarily retired from acting after Mr. Nobody, spending the next four years focusing on his band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
  • Mr. Nobody’s first name, Nemo, means “nobody” in Latin.
  • The movie is full of visual tricks and illusions, some of which are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. For example, watch for a scene where Nemo enters a bathroom then focuses on his own image in a mirror. When he turns around and the camera follows him back out of the room, we now see the perspective as if we had passed through the mirror; the reflection seamlessly swaps places with the real world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mr. Nobody‘s essential image is of branching, criss-crossing railroad tracks; if you want something with a little more surreal zip, however, check out the scenes of a fleet of helicopters delivering slices of ocean, slowly lowering them into place on the horizon.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Essentially an experimental narrative film disguised as a big-budget science fiction extravaganza, Mr. Nobody, an epic fantasia in which the protagonist lives a dozen different lives and a dozen different realities, was doomed to be a cult film from its inception. Even with a healthy dose of romantic sentimentality and whimsy a la , it is far too rare and peculiar a dish for mainstream tastes. The opening is confusing, the moral ambiguous, and reality won’t sit still; it’s got unicorns, godlike children, helicopters delivering the ocean, a future world where everyone has their own genetic pig and psychiatrists are known by their facial tattoos, and a malformed sub-reality where everyone wears argyle sweaters. It’s unique, unforgettable, and utterly marvelous.


Original trailer for Mr Nobody

COMMENTS: One of the enigmatic Nemo Nobody’s many possible past identities is a TV science lecturer who explains such esoteric concepts as Continue reading 168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

CAPSULE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, , Victor Wong

PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.

Still from Prince of Darkness (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.

COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.

That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”

Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…an endearingly odd, consistently creepy film… met on its own bonkers terms, Prince Of Darkness proves satisfying.”–Keith Phipps, The Dissolve (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE BIG BANG (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Sienna Guillory, Sam Elliot, Robert Maillet, Autumn Reeser, William Fichtner, Jimmi Simpson, Snoop Dogg

PLOT: An L.A. private eye goes looking for a missing stripper and uncovers a twisted plot

Still from The Big Bang (2011)

involving the Russian mob, stolen diamonds, and the search for the God particle.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The fact that it’s only a bit offbeat means that we won’t have to dig too deeply into its filmic deficiencies; basically, it’s not weird enough.

COMMENTS: Most critics consider The Big Bang a cosmic failure, but, although the movie’s a mess, there may be just enough quirky particles floating around it to keep fans of the offbeat engaged.  Any movie that includes an invulnerable seven-foot Russian boxer, three different hair colors on Sam Elliot’s head, a horny waitress with quantum physics tattoos, a search for the origins of the universe, and a Snoop Dogg cameo is, in my book, worth at least a look.  The film also features entertaining (if often superfluous) visuals: crazy color schemes (you’ve never seen so much lavender outside of an aromatherapist’s waiting room), a dreamy overnight cruise in a convertible through a surreal CG desert, and some arresting tricks with spotlights whose beams stop short or bend around characters caught in its glare.  For the most part, the missing girl/stolen diamonds plot hangs together both as a mystery and a noir tribute, drawing you through to the end (even though that end doesn’t make a lot of sense).  The movie’s stylistically scattershot, with every color in the spectrum taking a turn dominating the palette (and the aforementioned lavender taking more than its fair share of turns) and magical realist digressions (like the catapulted flaming dwarf) popping up at unexpected times.  The eclecticism keeps it from being boring, but also prevents it from attaining the consistency it needs to be really effective.  The direction often seems improvised; the script, too, is a mixed bag.  The storyline is satisfactory, but the updated faux-Raymond Chandler patter lacks panache (“we’ve all got kinks… contrary to what science tells us, all DNA does not twist the same.”)  Despite an attempted application of quirkiness, the characterizations end up familiar and shallow: hard-boiled P.I., brutish boxer, stripper with a heart of gold, and so forth.  Elliot (as a hippie industrialist who builds supercolliding superconductors as a hobby), Reeser (as a quirky and perky waitress) and Simpson (as a synesthesiac scientist) add nuance to their portrayals, but the rest of the cast play their archetypes broadly.  Particularly disappointing is Banderas, who, squint and growl as he might, doesn’t bring anything new to the hard-bitten private dick role except his accent.  Maybe it’s not his fault, as the script doesn’t seem written with Antonio in mind: he’s given a Hispanic name (Cruz), but other than that there’s no acknowledgment of his foreign origin—which might have been the one thing the script could seize on to distinguish him from Phillip Marlow, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and their numerous clones.  The story stresses the detective’s philosophical acumen—his search for the missing girl becomes a metaphor for man’s search for meaning—but existentialism has always been the subtext of film noir, and The Big Bang just makes over-obvious what was implicit in the 40s.  The movie also wants to make sure you catch its many, many nods to subatomic physics, so it writes its references in letters three feet high (a warehouse named after Schrödinger, a cafe named after Planck).  Maybe The Big Bang‘s biggest problem is that it’s overanxious to impress us with its cleverness and style; it comes across like a desperate first date.  But that desperation also makes the movie crazy, and if you catch it with the right expectations you just may enjoy it.  It’s a movie that seems made to play on late night pay cable: if you caught it by accident at 2 AM on a sleepless night, you’d be incredulous, and wonder if you were actually dreaming.

Director has been a very successful producer, guiding several critically acclaimed TV shows (including cult favorites “Sports Night” and “24”).  He was also on the production team for David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive.  He knows how to put together a professional-looking movie, but his directorial efforts (which also include the mildly surreal horror Sublime), though filled with interesting bits and pieces, have never really come together.   He’s got obvious visual talents and the right (i.e. weird) sensibilities, though, so he’s still someone to keep an eye on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the film’s bleary, neon glamour and penchant for the bizarre suggests an attempted—and wayward—homage to David Lynch.”–Michelle Orange, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: CROWLEY [AKA CHEMICAL WEDDING] (2008)

AKA:  Crowley. This film is referred to as Chemical Wedding in film databases and in the U.K., and Crowley in the U.S.A.   We have used the title Crowley in this review, despite Chemical Wedding being perhaps the more “correct” title.

NOTE: Those interested in the learning more about the roguish Aleister Crowley will want to read the Appendix to this post, which gives background on the occultist and his belief system.

DIRECTED BY: Julian Doyle

FEATURING:  Simon Callow, Kal Weber, Lucy Cudden, Paul McDowell, Jud Charlton John Shrapnel, and Terence Bayler

PLOT: Aleister Crowley comes back to life and goes on a murderous rampage, ultimately warping the universal space-time continuum.



WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Crowley is a strange mix of serous sci-fi elements and over-the-top characterizations of a notorious and eccentric historical figure.  Combined with a bizarre story of reincarnation, quantum physics and parallel universes, it’s an occult film that transcends the norms of the genre, providing a viewing experience that is funny, intriguing and peculiar all at once.

COMMENTS Crowley is an imaginative and clever occult science fiction film.  It is partly serious, partly campy, but not in a way that is meant to be silly or cheap.  It is also witty and ribald.  Well researched, the film draws its premise partly from the story of maverick rocket physicist and eccentric black arts follower, Jack Parsons (see Appendix).  Mixing fact with fancy, Crowley is a fast paced, multi-genre, satirical thriller.  Tawdry yet brainy, the movie proffers an oddball, but sophisticated mix of historical fact, occult fantasy and hardcore science fiction.  Based on the infamous “wickedest man in the world,” master occultist Aleister Crowley, this film will entertain, amuse, and perhaps enthrall the unconventional viewer.  Reflexively, it is sure to provoke and offend the mainstream audience.

In the present day, a Cal Tech scientist, Dr. Joshua Mathers (Weber) invents a sinister computerized, virtual reality space-time simulator in which the user steps into a creepy full body immersion suit.  Mathers conducts experiments with a joint scientific team at Cambridge.  There the virtual reality device is coupled with “Z93”, the most powerful, superconductor computer in the world.  It works!  It works too well.

Mathers’s rapaciously amoral assistant, Neberg (Charleton), surreptitiously introduces a Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: CROWLEY [AKA CHEMICAL WEDDING] (2008)

49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

NOTE: A Serious Man has been promoted onto the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time after initially being placed in the “Borderline Weird” category.  For reference,  you can read the original borderline weird entry here.

“Even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.”–dream dialogue from A Serious Man

DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

FEATURING: Michael Stubargh, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel

PLOT: A Serious Man opens in the indeterminate past with a Jewish couple entertaining a man who may or may not be a dybbuk (ghost) on a snowy night somewhere in Eastern Europe.  In 1967, in suburban Minnesota, a Jewish physics professor suffers from an escalating series of problems including a failing marriage, bratty kids, students willing to do anything for a passing grade, financial troubles, and a ne’er-do-well, mildly insane brother.  Seeking advice on a life that seems to be spinning out of control, he visits three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.

Still from A Serious Man (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Though the film is not autobiographical, Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in suburban Minnesota roughly at the time the events of A Serious Man take place.
  • The core idea for the movie originated when the Coens considered making a short film about a boy who attends his bar mitzvah stoned.  As the story expanded from that scene, the idea was originally to make the father and son’s stories of equal weight, but as the script evolved the story of the elder Gopnik assumed center stage.
  • The prologue is not an actual Jewish folktale.  The Coens searched for an authentic legend to use but finally decided to create their own.
  • The movie makes extensive reference to quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, theories of modern physics which suggest that there are limitations on our ability to know basic reality.
  • The Coens’ script for A Serious Man was nominated for a Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  The film won “Best Screenplay” or equivalent awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, National Board of Review, and National Society of Film Critics.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The very last shot, which I can’t reveal here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Superficially, A Serious Man is only mildly weird. There are a

Official trailer for A Serious Man

few dream sequences and multiple nonsense parables, but unlike the Coens’ definitely weird Barton Fink, this story of a suburban Jewish man beset by an improbably mounting set of real life woes contains no surrealistic fireworks (although there is a conspicuous surrealistic pillow).  On the other hand, A Serious Man has a skeletal undercurrent of ambiguity and disturbance running through it like a bone cancer; it feels weird at its core.  With a head-scratching prologue and epilogue bracketing a central fable about a goy’s teeth, the thoughtful and frequently brilliant A Serious Man earns its place on the List by mining the mysteries at the basis of existence.

COMMENTS: A Serious Man is a retelling of that most fascinating parable in the Old Continue reading 49. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)