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259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

AKA Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane

“Kane said quietly, ‘Why won’t you go to the moon?’

‘Why do camels have humps and cobras none? Good Christ, man, don’t ask the heart for reasons! Reasons are dangerous!'”

–William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (novel)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders

PLOT: Col. Kane, a U.S. Marines psychiatrist, is assigned to an experimental program in a castle housing delusional military officers who are suspected malingerers. There, he bonds with Cutshaw, a militantly atheist and misanthropic astronaut, with whom he engages in passionate dialogues about the existence of God. One night, Cutshaw breaks out of the compound and heads for a bar frequented by a rough motorcycle gang; Kane follows.

Still from The Ninth Configuration (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Peter Blatty (“The Exorcist”) adapted the screenplay from his own 1978 novel, which was itself a reworking of a 1966 novel (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane”) with which he had been dissatisfied. This was his directorial debut (in a career that reached three films with 2016’s Legion).
  • Blatty originally wrote a “Kane” screenplay that he hoped would be filmed by in the early Seventies, but they could not find a studio willing to produce it. Blatty and Friedkin collaborated on The Exorcist (1973) instead.
  • Although the script made the rounds in Hollywood for years, no studio would back The Ninth Configuration. Blatty eventually funded the film half with his own money and half with a donation from Pepsico, who were willing to provide funds for complicated international tax reasons so long as the film was shot entirely in Hungary.
  • Blatty has fiddled with the editing through the years, deleting and restoring scenes, so that cuts run anywhere from 99 minutes to 140 minutes.
  • According to Blatty, The Ninth Configuration‘s Cutshaw is the same character as the astronaut who attended the dinner party in The Exorcist.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: What else could it possibly be besides the crucifixion on the moon?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lunar Calvary; lunatic with a jet-pack; dog Hamlet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Obsession is fertile soil for a weird movie. The Ninth Configuration is a movie in a madhouse that sets out to do nothing less than to prove the existence of God; it doesn’t, naturally, but the ambition involved makes for some strange choices, invoking a passion that carries the story over some rough patches.


Clip from The Ninth Configuration

COMMENTS: The Ninth Configuration posits that a world without Continue reading 259. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

CAPSULE: BASKIN (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Can Evrenol

FEATURING: Gorken Kasal, Ergun Kuyucu, Mehmet Cerrahoglu, and Muharrem Bayrak

PLOT: A team of five police officers is called to provide backup at an abandoned building in Inceagac, a locale of some occult notoriety; things go badly pretty quickly for the officers as they travel deeper into the film’s ominous backdrop.

Still from Baskin (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In an earlier age it could have been considered among the finest “B-horror” movies to grace the midnight movie scene during the ’80s through early ’90s, but as it stands, Baskin’s competent execution is marred by the tale’s derivative and meandering nature. Some token shocks do their job nicely, but the “film twist” advertises itself far too blatantly and doesn’t come off so much as, “Didn’t see that coming, did ya?” as it does, “Hey, check out what I’m doing!”

COMMENTS: Baskin starts out with a mountain of promise that it proceeds to dynamite away, taking the occasional break from destruction to rebuild the edifice. The movie starts with a flashback to the childhood of Arda (Gorkem Kasal), the main character, and so the temporal jumps begin. After some creepy behavior and a few screams and shouts, off we go to “now”, where a convivial conversation between fellow-officers contrasts with a restaurant seemingly assembled from bits cast off from Planet Terror‘s BBQ joint. Five cops: the esteemed leader, the arrogant chatterbox, the calm friend, the rookie, and the one with a migraine. After menacing the son of the restaurant’s owner (and seeing an ominous frog in the men’s room), the gang stumbles out to continue its patrol.

Much to its credit, Baskin does a lot of things right. The main fellows are easily distinguishable from one another (even when having to rely on subtitles), each of them is interesting, and the rapport struck on screen seems truly genuine; that these policemen have worked with each other for a while is quite apparent. The sound design, too, adds to the realism. The dialogue always comes from the right place, and once the element of the macabre is snuck in, the various squelches, squidges, and scrapings all work to nice effect. The set piece of an abandoned Ottoman-era police barracks, too, is a perfect choice. The jump cuts convey an appropriate initial shock as well as add to a growing sense of dread. I had such high hopes.

Unfortunately, the movie falls apart by trying to do two things at once — and through this effort, succeeds at neither. Firstly, the “horror” element. Having already listed the merits above, it pains me to mention the failings. As events shuffle from the restaurant to the squad car to the crash before the evil building, things proceed apace well enough. Sure, there’s no need for the swarms of little frogs that litter the movie, and indeed the gypsy-style family by the barracks in utterly unnecessary—but, live and let live. It is when the crew descends the depths that this pastiche of classic horror collides badly with the “clever” thing the film tries to accomplish… the main impact of which I shall leave to the more adventurous reader to investigate I will hint, though, that it’s the kind of thing I’ve only seen done well by , who was obliged to be counted among cinema’s greatest directors in order to handle his jumps correctly.

But enough cryptic ramblings. Baskin tries very hard, but comes up short. When you have a shocking horror picture, it certainly helps that your characters are great to watch interacting with one another, but that means you compromise your core asset when you begin killing them off. The 11-minute short film that the feature-length grew from, though, was a delight. Comparable setup, though (obviously) less fleshed out. However, whereas the original short managed to quickly establish and maintain a very unsettling mood, the director’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp when he tacked on another 80 minutes of movie. Still, Baskin was Evrenol’s first full-length attempt. I would certainly be willing to give his sophomore effort a try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A heady blend of Ambrose Bierce and Herk Hervey, of Lucio Fulci and David Lynch, and of Nicolas Winding Refn and Dario Argento (these last two channeled through director of photography Alp Korfali’s hyperreal lighting), Baskin is an astonishingly assured debut. Driven offroad by Ulas Pakkan’s unnerving ’80s synth score, it is a surreal, uncompromising, bestial and eerily beautiful descent into a hell of self-knowledge, whose precise entry and exit points remain difficult to determine.”–Anton Bitel, TheHorrorShow.TV (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF THINGS (2003)

DIRECTED BY: Neil LaBute

FEATURING: , , , Frederick Weller

PLOT: A nerdy security guard falls for an anarchic art student; she encourages him to change his appearance and dress, increasing his self-confidence—but is she really good for him?

Still from The Shape of Things (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Neil LaBute’s pitch black adaptation of his own play falls into the category of “outside-the-box indie drama” rather than “weird.”

COMMENTS: On the surface, The Shape of Things appears to be about the lengths someone will go to change themselves to gain someone else’s approval. Evelyn transforms Adam from schlub to stud, but the changes to his body inevitably effect his mentality. But although the erotically-motivated malleability of the less confident romantic partner is one of the work’s themes, Shape reveals a different, more controversial, focus in the third act. The ending twist is easy to guess, particularly to anyone who has seen LaBute’s debut film (the venomous dissection of masculine manipulation In the Company of Men). But I was willing to forgive the obviousness, because I think that LaBute’s fundamental point—an attack on attitudes and platitudes prevalent in the postmodern art scene (Evelyn, the film’s antagonist, is the kind of artist who believes in spray painting classical sculptures as a “statement”)—needed to be said.

The Shape of Things‘s origins as a stage play are obvious—each transition might as well be preceded by intertitles of the format “Act 2, Scene 3”—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What it really means that this is an actor’s and writer’s movie; everything is built around dialogue, which is often very sharp, with only a couple of set changes. Each of the four characters gets at least one big scene with the other three: Adam and Evelyn, obviously, spend the most time together, but the male lead must also defend himself from a “you’ve changed, man” speech from bro Phillip and navigate a moment of awkwardness with his best friend’s girl, while Evelyn gets to argue with douchey Phillip about the nature of art and to confront Jenny about her supposed attraction to the new and improved Adam. The fact that each of the actors had played these characters on stage for a year beforehand inevitably helps their chemistry—the characters are a artificial, written as types to support a thesis, but the young foursome does everything possible to make them feel like real people.

LaBute is often accused of being misanthropic (or even misogynistic), but, like all satirists, he’s actually humanistic. It shocks me that so many critics and viewers come to the exact opposite conclusion—I guess they conclude that no writer could pen scenes of emotional sadism so convincingly without being a psychopath themselves. It seems obvious to me that LaBute shows us extreme cruelty not to titillate us, but to arouse our disgust—to encourage us to try to be better people. And, to encourage his peers to become better, more morally focused artists.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This version of Neil LaBute’s ongoing project is crisp and aggressive, occasionally alienating or annoying, that is, effectively unlike other movies.”–Cynthia Fuchs, Pop Matters (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: THE CHASE (1946)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Ripley

FEATURING: Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre

PLOT: A mentally fragile veteran of the U.S. Navy stumbles into the employ of an eccentric gangster and inadvertently seduces the hoodlum’s wife; his dodgy escape gets dodgier when his mind snaps and he awakens in an unfamiliar apartment.

Still from The Chase (1946)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it is rare to find an example of film noir that isn’t worth seeing, it is also rare to find one that fits the description of “weird.” The Chase dabbles with some strange encounters and has a plot explosion that very nearly carries it into 366’s warm embrace, but it comes up short enough to make one wish the film-makers had gone the distance.

COMMENTS: With a scramble of memory loss, noir grit and brevity, oddball bad guys, and a side of Peter Lorre, The Chase cruises down its narrative path with an unlikely mix of the conventional and the abnormal. We dive right into the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-at-the-heels navy veteran in Florida who finds and returns the cash-filled wallet of one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Both impressed and amused by the man’s honesty, Roman hires Scott as his chauffeur, firing the man’s predecessor on the spot. Scott quickly gains the trust of Roman’s captive wife, Loran (Michèle Morgan), and after a number of trips to a nearby beach, they plot an escape. An hour in, we are deep indeed in standard noir territory—and then something odd happens.

But please allow me to back-track for a moment. As characteristic as it was to start with, The Chase already seemed to have a weird undercurrent attempting to break free. The scene where Scott tracks down Roman and tries to get a meeting with him to return the wallet is a bizarre set-piece that I can only describe as repetition at the corner of creepy and amusing. Through the door’s peep-hole, Scott first explains himself to a butler (named “Job,” of all things), then holds the exact same conversation with a henchman, one “Mr Geno” (Peter Lorre). Gaining entrance, Scott explains himself a third time before Mr Geno reluctantly directs him to Eddie Roman, who is being groomed by two female attendants. Roman asks one, “How do you feel being a barber … cutting a man’s hair. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Between this scene and the twist we see a souped-up luxury car with rear-seat gas and brake, Peter Lorre laconically quipping, a knife-throwing Cuban waiter, and a biddable Asian imports/exports shop-keeper. Or do we? There is a dimly lit transition shot of a telephone ringing and all of a sudden the movie jumps from bad things happening in Cuba to unclear things happening back in Florida.

Scott, waking up in a room we know he lives in, has no idea what’s going on. He stumbles around a little, he takes the medication he left on the desk, and makes a phone call, explaining, “…it’s happened again.” At that point, The Chase seems to shift into high-weird gear, and we start trundling down an understated but “off” string of events. Build, build, build—and oh so sweetly—only, alas, to have the weird rug pulled away to make room for an altogether too prosaic ending. I generally don’t say this, but this film seems ripe for a re-make by a director who’d be willing to go as far as coherently[1] possible; that said, I recommend you check this one out.

Kino Lorber’s 2016 DVD/Blu-ray release of The Chase includes commentary by none other than .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an especially bizarre jaunt through a nightmarish crime world… More than any classic film noir that I can think of, The Chase stands as a predecessor to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.“–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

  1. Or, for those who’d prefer, as incoherently as possible. []

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florinda Bolkan, Jean Sorel, Stanley Baker, Leo Genn, , Mike Kennedy, George Rigaud, Anita Strindberg

PLOT: A neurotic woman dreams that she kills her hedonistic neighbor, then finds herself accused of murder when the crime actually happens just as she dreamed it.

Still from A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the powerful psychedelic dream sequences, Lizard is a bit too rational in its plan—something Lucio Fulci was seldom accused of.

COMMENTS: Lucio Fulci is best known in horror circles for his brutally gory and none-to-coherent “spaghetti zombie” movies, made as cynical cash-ins on  hits, but he began his career working in the distinctively Italian exploitation/mystery hybrid known as the giallo. While the gialli—which relied on trashy psychologies of sex and violence and sexual violence—seldom approached the level of high art, they were more stylish and serious-minded than the typical B-movie. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a classic of the genre. Fulci shows his aptitude for mildly surrealistic montages in the two precognitive (?) nightmares suffered by poor, prudish Carol—they’re luxuriant visions of blood and nudity, and they evoke dreamlike sensations of falling and traveling through corridors that reference the psychological horrors of Repulsion and Vertigo. Fulci and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller also produced some excellent, evocative effects with special “wavering” lenses that made parts of the dream sequences look like they were shot through funhouse mirrors.

Of course, even in his worst films, Fulci was known for his ability to craft arresting images, while he had an equally profound reputation for paying little heed to plot or continuity. (Fulci would have made a great music video director if that format had been prominent during his career). In contrast to his later movies, Lizard stands out for its comparatively complex and detailed storyline. Of course, there are a few slip-ups. A red-headed woman who appears to lives with Carol and her family is never properly introduced, and figuring out who she is or why she is always around is almost as big a mystery as the murderer’s identity. And while Lizard‘s ending is tighter and perhaps not as much of a cheat as some commentators suppose—although serious questions about the timing of events do linger—it’s not completely satisfying, either. The fast-moving denouement is delivered clumsily, so that the mystery is still a little confusing even after everything has been wrapped up. Some characters have their stretched motivations, and they clearly exist only to increase the number of suspects and red herrings: these elements utilize the logic, not of a dream, but of a paranoid hallucination. Perhaps this is why Lizard‘s narrative fumblings don’t seem to matter that much in the overall scheme. Although there may be a comforting rational explanation to events at the end, the parallel construction of the film as a portrait of a woman undergoing a breakdown (the original U.S. release title was Schizo) fits better with Lizard‘s atmosphere, tone, and theme of sexual deviancy.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has been released on DVD in various versions with different running times. Many prints omit a controversial scene with vivisected dogs (don’t worry, it’s fake, although it was convincing enough at the time to force the filmmakers to demonstrate how it was done to defend themselves from charges of animal cruelty). The 2016 Mondo Macabro Blu-ray release incorporates all the footage known to exist and, at 104 minutes, runs the longest of any of the Lizard‘s releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fulci was not, at this point, as invested in the conscious surrealism of Bava or Argento, and in particular his attention to gory effects, far above and beyond those men (he was easily the most bloodthirsty of the major Italian horror directors), grants A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin a grounded, visceral realism that makes its psychedelic excesses far more punch than they might have had.”–Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE LAST SUNSET (1961)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich

FEATURING: Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, ,

PLOT: Lawman Stribling (Rock Hudson) tracks killer O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) into Mexico; upon finding him they agree to defer their confrontation so they can drive a herd of cattle to Texas with female rancher (Dorothy Malone) and her husband.

Still from The Last Sunset (1961)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I suppose this is one of those cases where the subjectivity of weirdness comes into play. The Last Sunset strikes me as a fine, but generally conventional Western with some unexpected philosophy and Freudian melodrama thrown in. You have to squint too hard to find the minimal surreality here.

COMMENTS: The Last Sunset has cattle drives, desperadoes, macho posturing, runaway chuckwagons, Indian attacks, and a final showdown between a protagonist in white and an antagonist in black. Despite all the standard outfit trappings, however, Sunset is not a formula oater; it peels off the weathered exteriors of its cowboy archetypes and uncovers layers of pent-up, illicit passions underneath. Although Rock Hudson’s strict law-and-order Marshall Stribling is the putative headliner, Kirk Douglas’s O’Malley is by far the dominant character. O’Malley is a morally complex antihero, a whistling killer with a romantic streak who earns free drinks at saloons by spontaneously composing poetry. In fact, he may be too morally complex—the scene where he strangles a dog for growling at him seems terribly out of place (the cur later forgives him, like nothing ever happened). O’Malley’s in love with Dorothy Malone, who is married to the much older, alcoholic, presumably impotent Joseph Cotten. To make things even more complicated, Stribling, who has sworn to hunt down O’Malley for killing his brother-in-law, also falls for Malone, and Malone’s teenage daughter falls hard for the outlaw. And, quite naturally, O’Malley and Stribling develop a grudging respect and admiration for each other, which complicates things when it comes time to fulfill blood oaths.

The Last Sunset was one of the first scripts wrote under his own name after the Hollywood blacklist ended (1960’s classic Spartacus, of course, being the very first). The plot effectively merges Western conventions with elements of Greek tragedy and melodrama a la Douglas Sirk, although reportedly the suddenly busy Trumbo short-shrifted the project because he was more interested in writing Exodus for .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, THE LAST SUNSET (1961) is an odd duck… Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it ‘Strange on the Range.'”–Jeff Stafford, Movie Morlocks

(This movie was nominated for review by “The Awful Doctor Orloff” [who later wrote reviews here under the name Otto Black], whose explanation for his suggestion is so detailed we will list it in full here as a counterpoint to this review:

“On the face of it, this is just a bulk-standard horse-opera; the studio certainly thought so or they wouldn’t have made it. It’s ‘weird’ because writer Dalton Trumbo, annoyed by a pretentious magazine article suggesting that westerns were written by macho hacks who unconsciously riddled them with Freudian imagery, deliberately wrote a western containing as much screamingly blatant ridiculously over-the-top Freudian symbolism as he could possibly cram in short of calling the hero the Oedipus Kid!

Dorothy Malone is turned on by a herd of stampeding bulls with luminous horns, Joseph Cotten is forced to drop his trousers in a crowded saloon, and best of all, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas debate the merits of Rock’s great big gun versus Kirk’s tiny little one! (Robert Aldrich recycled that idea when he co-wrote ‘A Fistful Of Dollars,’ hence Ramon Rojo’s very Freudian dialogue concerning his rifle). And after that it gets even worse… OK, it’s only borderline weird, but it’s certainly very unusual, and more than slightly surreal.”

Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: WHITE RABBIT (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tim McCann

FEATURING: Nick Krause, Britt Robertson, Sam Trammell

PLOT: Things start to go rapidly downhill for Harlon, an emotionally abused boy, after his father makes him kill an injured white rabbit; years later he hears the voices of characters from his favorite comic strip urging him to stand up for himself.

Still from White Rabbit (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If “angsty” meant “weird”, this would have been the weirdest movie I have ever seen. However, it doesn’t, and this wasn’t. White Rabbit‘s occasional dips into pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations are very few and far between, and for better or worse the movie burns up its first two-thirds blandly exposing just how horrible life can be when you’re stuck in a rural backwoods with nothing to do but shoot, drink, and beat on anyone who is remotely different.

COMMENTS: There is a problem with a twist-based movie when by the end one just can’t care less. While the ambiguity provided a bit of relief, a movie hingeing on a final minute that misfires is nothing short of disappointing. There are a number of things that Tim McCann is trying to achieve with White Rabbit; however, they’ve already been accomplished in other, superior, movies. Rural life is terrible? Check out Gummo. Society overlooks the mentally ill? Check out Clean, Shaven. Angst is a sure-fire path to outburst? Check out Angst. Whatever you do, don’t check out White Rabbit.

McCann’s cautionary (?) tale of abuse and detachment begins at the end, with the goth-y protagonist’s back-story fleshed out confessional-style. Young Harlon’s home life is terrible: his father Darrell is a volatile drunk, his brother teases him mercilessly, and his mother’s best efforts to make things “okay” are welcome but insufficient. At a tender age, his father buys him a gun and goes hunting with him. Cue the film’s metaphor. In the middle of the woods, Harlon sees a white rabbit, which his father immediately orders him to dispatch. The boy misses, and they pursue the animal until they find it stuck in a briar. Taunted by his father, Harlon shoots the now-defenseless rabbit. Dead white bunny = innocence lost.

Growing up in Rural, USA, the boy has one friend, Steve, who is even more abused than he. Otherwise alone, Harlon takes comfort in a comic book series called the Scarlet Widow. Its characters begin talking to him, using words of malevolent encouragement. Then there’s Harlon’s father. As nasty as the father generally is, he is the only fleshed-out character. Though “charming” would be far too strong a word to describe him even in his better moments, Darrell stands as the movies most relatable figure. Improbably, his disappointment and ridicule are interrupted by intermittent bursts of kindness and understanding. In one scene, having just gotten high on crack, Darrell takes his son to a nearby strip club after the boy’s had a rough day. Darrell’s own life obviously has been pretty dismal, but he has a kind of flippant charisma that made him the only character worth watching.

Anyhow, things get nasty at an accelerating rate. Steve suffers a nebulous fate after a dog-adoption goes awry. The depressive-pixie-dream-girl whom Harlon fancies cleans up her act and gets together with the now reformed jock that Harlon (rightly) abhors. Unfortunately, the best twist of the movie never happens. There’s a point where everyone around him has reformed and become a decent person; had McCann explored the greater isolation Harlon would have experienced after this, things might have traveled down an interesting psychological path. As it goes, White Rabbit ducks out of this route almost before it begins, ending on a “Hey, maybe there’s some redemption going on here. Or not. Or maybe.” Or whatever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the voices he soon hears in his head are as muddled and underdeveloped as the rest of the film, which falls back on the easiest answers available to explain its protagonist’s fractured psyche.”–Nick Schrager, Film Journal International (DVD)

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.)