Tag Archives: Robert Downey Jr.

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.


Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

“The ancients had visions, we have television.”–Octavio Paz (quote cited by Oliver Stone as one of his inspirations for making Natural Born Killers)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , , Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield

PLOT: Mass murderers (and lovers) Mickey and Mallory stalk the Southwestern U.S., slaughtering innocents who cross their path but always leaving one victim alive to spread their legend. The television show “American Maniacs” tracks their adventures, and they have a large cult of followers. The pair are finally apprehended, but a live television interview scheduled to air after the Super Bowl gives them a narrow window to escape.

Still from Natural Born Killers (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • Natural Born Killers was based on a screenplay written by , who was an unknown when the script was optioned for $10,000. By the time Oliver Stone was finished rewriting the script, so little of his original concept remained that Tarantino disassociated himself from the project. In the original script, “American Maniacs” host Wayne Gale was the main character, not Mickey and Mallory. Tarantino publicly stated that he was not disappointed with the direction Stone took the script, but simply felt that the finished project represented the director’s vision rather than his own. According to Jane Hamsher’s tell-all book about the production, Tarantino was upset that he was not allowed to purchase the rights back after he became a hot Hollywood commodity and tried to get the project scuttled behind the scenes, going so far as to tell and Tim Roth that he would never cast them in anything again if they accepted a role in the film.
  • Stone originally conceived of the project as an action picture, a simple movie that he could produce as a break from his serious works of social realism, but the script turned much darker as he worked on it.
  • Shot in only 56 days, but editing took almost a year. The ultra-fast pacing required almost 3,000 edits.
  • According to Oliver Stone. 155 cuts were imposed on the movie by the MPAA in order to receive an “R” rating (a crucial imprimatur for commercial purposes, since many newspapers at the time would not advertise NC-17 or unrated movies). All of this material is restored in the director’s cut. Despite the large number of total cuts, the restored footage only amounts to about 3-4 minutes of screen time.
  • A number of murders, mostly committed by teenagers, were said to be inspired by the film. In 1995, convenience store clerk Patsy Byers, who was paralyzed for life after being shot by a pair of young lovers who had dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers all night on a continuous loop, instigated a product liability lawsuit against distributor Time Warner and Oliver Stone on the grounds that they “knew, or should have known that the film would cause and inspire people […] to commit crimes…” After a series of court hearings, the case was finally disposed of in 2001 on First Amendment grounds.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Natural Born Killers is about the power of images, making isolating a single frame from this nonstop barrage of psychedelic American carnage quite the challenge. Nonetheless, we located one picture which encapsulates the movie’s theme perfectly. Since Oliver Stone is not exactly noted for his subtlety, he garishly splashes his key insights over his characters’ tight tank-tops when a Navajo shaman sees the pair through spiritual eyes: words appear on Harrelson’s torso announcing him as a “demon,” then, even more tellingly, reading “too much t.v.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if the story was being viewed through a remote control with a stuck channel button where every station is fixated on telling the story of celebrity killers Mickey and Mallory, the visual style of Natural Born Killers changes every few seconds. Disorientation, the substituted and enhanced reality of manipulated images, is the baseline reality of this ever-shifting nightmare vision of an America trapped inside a banal, violence-obsessed TV tube.


Original trailer for Natural Born Killers

COMMENTS: There is no way to reasonably discuss Natural Born Continue reading 187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

CAPSULE: FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Shainberg

FEATURING: , , Ty Burrell

PLOT: Diane Arbus is an artistically repressed housewife whose creativity is stirred when a circus freak moves upstairs.

Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although I hesitate to rule any movie that includes Nicole Kidman shaving a wolfman off the list of the weirdest movies ever made, the fact is that the disappointing Fur never really flies.

COMMENTS: While I admire the chutzpah behind the concept of an “imaginary portrait” that, as the prologue explains, seeks to convey the “inner experience” of the artist, I’m afraid Fur doesn’t deliver the goods. Fur never really delves into Diane Arbus’ inner experience, instead choosing to metaphorize it as a Beauty and the Beast romantic fantasy that ends up feeling surprisingly conventional, given the (deliberately) ridiculous premise. That premise involves the future famous photographer (a wan and lovely Nicole Kidman) as a frustrated housewife who becomes obsessed with her new upstairs neighbor who always wears a mask in public and clogs her drains with wads of hair. The stranger is soon revealed to be Lionel, played by an extra-downy Robert Downey, Jr., and he serves as a White Rabbit that leads Diane/Alice down a rabbit hole into a Wonderland of carnivalesque visions. (The “Alice in Wonderland” references are heavy during the first Platonic night Arbus spends in his lair, including a tiny door, a note instructing her to drink a cup of tea, and even actual shots of a white rabbit). Fur gets its surrealistic impulses out of the way in that initial meeting between Diane and Lionel, which segues into Arbus’ dreams, broken up by establishing conversations with the always-in-control Lionel. Diane plans to shoot a portrait of her neighbor as her first artistic venture into photography, but rather than setting up a tripod, she spends more and more time gadding about Manhattan with Lionel, who introduces her to his glamorous cadre of freaks and outsiders that includes an armless woman, a prostitute, an undertaker, a transvestite, and, naturally, dwarfs, dwarfs, dwarfs! Her long-suffering and very devoted husband Allan understandably grows jealous at her absorption into Lionel’s world—I laughed out loud when, late in the film, he grows a thick beard to try to compete with Lionel’s locks! Although Downey’s “sensitive” performance received praise in some quarters, I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the character. For someone who had been shunned due to his looks for his entire life, Lionel comes across as too confident a seducer of the submissive Diane. He’s far too cocky for a guy who looks like a cocker spaniel. The movie builds to a truly unsatisfying consummation that senselessly defangs—er, defurs—Lionel’s deformity, which is ironically the opposite of what Arbus’ photographs did to their subjects. Even accepting Lionel not as a real character but as the personification of the allure of the grotesque, Fur doesn’t give us much insight into Diane’s passion. Creativity it is simply analogized to romance, and left at that. We never get any sense of the fire Arbus must have had for her work, only her ardor for a symbol. Although I’m no fan of biopics and their enslavement to historical fact, I think that in Arbus’ case a more traditional, non-imaginary portrait may have served its subject better. Or, maybe just a portrait with more imagination.

Diane’s husband Allan Arbus, played here by Ty Burrell, is the same Allan Arbus who starred in Greaser’s Palace and other movies. He did not take up acting until after Diane left him to follow the photography muse. He even appeared in two films with the young Robert Downey, Jr.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…far too impressed with its own weirdness.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

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