All posts by Eric Young

I have long hair. I smell pleasant for a male. I ache for the opportunity to watch a movie. Especially if it's weird.

CAPSULE: THE PERFECT SLEEP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Alter

FEATURING: Anton Pardoe, Roselyn Sanchez, Patrick Bauchau

PLOT: A man returns to dark, nameless city to save the life of “the one who got away,” putting his life at risk and his very soul at hazard while navigating the streets and his own past for clues as to her whereabouts.

Still from The Perfect Sleep (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the features of a shadowy noir city full of hyper-naturally Hammett-esque characters smack of something rather strange, The Perfect Sleep really isn’t all that odd, nor is it really that good. It’s more of a hyperbolic homage, a sort of tip-of-the-hat to the noir films of the 40s and 50s that’s so hard and abrupt that it tips the person under the hat. There’s tribute, there’s parody, and then there’s The Perfect Sleep, both somewhere in-between as well as something else entirely.

COMMENTS: There’s something to be said for the positively assaulting aesthetics that pervade this film. This town The Perfect Sleep exists in, extreme (and extremely hilarious) anachronisms aside, fully commits to the idea of the dark and atmospheric urban sprawl that populated so many crime dramas after World War II. Every alleyway seems dangerous, and nobody is who you think they are once you pass them in the night that seems to last forever. But once one soaks in the impressive scenery, The Perfect Sleep quickly becomes a bland song-and-dance routine that feels like an amalgam of Last Man Standing, Dark City, and Double Indemnity, aped poorly and without the safety net of an exorbitant budget. I feel, personally, that this movie’s prime directive should have been to let me in on the story at hand, what will be happening soon. Instead, we are allowed to get lost while the hero, Anton Pardoe, reads exposition distantly from a poor script. It’s like the story, and what our nameless hero is doing, is none of our business, and we’re supposed to just continue blithely along, hoping it will all get sorted out in the end.

The Perfect Sleep makes for a very passive movie watching experience that could have taken an example from The Big Sleep, a noir that had a rather weak story but a dynamic style that kept everyone engaged, thus making the mile-long plot holes seem to vanish into thin air. Instead of taking a page from that movie, though, we find ourselves locked into a story that the characters take incredibly seriously, but whose meaning is lost on the audience. As a weird movie, I would not even suggest it for its unusual moments. Some scenes, like when a freaky doctor punctures the lungs of a couple of strangers with a scalpel, work as unorthodox thriller moments or unnerving horror. But these bits are insignificant compared to the massive time spent amidst the clichés of a period crime drama/dark gangster flick. The critics were, for the most part, unanimous about The Perfect Sleep‘s banality, and I’m afraid I have to throw my hat into the ring with them, this time. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing very weird about that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, Alter’s often inventive work is kneecapped by a deliriously nonsensical script, which misses the mark as both over-the-top parody and straight-faced homage, and could have been intended as either.”-Andrew Barker, Variety

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DARK COUNTRY (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Thomas Jane

FEATURING: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Laurie German

PLOT: Two newlyweds returning from their Vegas wedding hit a man in the middle of the road; he lives, but the couple finds he is not all that he seems.

Still from Dark Country (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dark Country is a bit obtuse at times, and it frustratingly delights fans of the obscure by not explaining its motives or workings very often, but I hesitate recommending mainly because it relies a little too heavily on genre standbys and noir reverence instead of blazing new fantastic territory. It is a 50s thriller/noir mixed with a modern horror, but it doesn’t create its own identity between the two stylings. There are moments of heavy cinematic distortion and interesting ideas that run through the story like a highway across the hungry desert, but it can’t quite escape some level of mediocrity as it bends prostrate for that which has already been done.

COMMENTS: Dark Country represents a promising debut effort from a director who is willing to try new things. What’s really impressive from the start is the writing. It is intense and full of good, genuine human touches that help the movie flow from scene to scene. From the first scene to the end, I felt rapt with attention to these immersive characters and their odd relationship, especially after the drive out of Las Vegas.

It is a journey through dark and unforgiving territory, perhaps a metaphor for the new marriage between main characters Gina and Dick, newlyweds who don’t really know what they’re in for. The young couple just made it official in Vegas, and are ready to go home, but even before their fateful accident, things aren’t what they seem between them. There is tension, there are incidents between the two that are hinted at, and they have secrets from each other right off the bat. After their encounter in the desert with the strange man they hit, things only get worse between them. From an artistic standpoint, Dark Country can be commended as a smart thriller with some brains to back up its craziness.

Visually, it’s a feast for the eyes, and it’s tonally interesting. Thomas Jane wants a very engrossing visual experience, but he is also on a budget here, so we are caught in a limbo of many special effects, none of which really hit the mark in a spectacular way. The CG is on the cheap side (it looks like a violent episode of “Reboot” when they wreck the car near the end!) The green screen is not very successful in melding the real and fake, but the color effects are interesting, not to mention plentiful, and we are treated to some good old fashioned camera trickery with slick editing and nifty shots.

But while it’s a solid debut for Jane, and an offbeat one at that, we’re still not treading across any bold new frontiers with Dark Country. This is a movie I have seen before, in bits and pieces: intense psychological implications, a noir aesthetic, and the lush, frightening mysteries of the deep desert. It’s not anything breathtaking or unflinching. It’s a good and often disturbing take on some classic thriller ideas, and it has a twist in the story that will have you on your toes, but I wouldn’t consider this to be one of the weirdest movies I’d ever seen. With a good cast, a taut script, some interesting effects, and a more intelligent angle than your average thriller, Dark Country has a lot going for it. Just don’t expect it to be too weird, because you might be disappointed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The developments in Tab Murphy’s script are never quite as shocking to us as they are to Dick and Gina, and the story eventually builds the feeling of marking time on the way to its TWILIGHT ZONE-esque resolution… Jane’s visual sense assures that the film is always a spooky pleasure to watch, though…”–Micgael Gingold, Fangoria (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BOX (2009)

The Box divided critics—even our in-house critics.  Eric Young defends the movie, but read to the end for Gregory J. Smalley‘s opposing opinion.

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURINGCameron Diaz, , James Marsden

PLOT: A man comes unsolicited one morning to the doorstep of a financially troubled family with a proposition: if they press a button he gives them within 24 hours, they will receive $1 million, and someone in the world, whom they don’t know, will die.

Still from The Box (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Kelly’s surreal odyssey through Virginia in the mid 70s is hauntingly strange. One would not think it to be remarkably anything from the marketing, the extremely negative reviews put out by, um, pretty much everyone, and a tame, seemingly safe cast. But this is Richard Kelly, so nothing is really as it seems. The Box needs to be considered for the List because Kelly tells a morality story involving aliens, God, and Jean-Paul Sartre in ways that are as flippant and off-handedly odd as , as unflinching as Lynch, and as psychologically insightful as Cronenberg.  And while Kelly is not as good a filmmaker as those three, he has grown undeniably in his talents since Donnie Darko, and this time his story is just as weird.

COMMENTSThe Box is a little more complex than you’re led to believe by the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and references to existential philosophy. In a way, The Box is Kelly’s most obscure work yet, even more obscure than his previous film, the dumb, loud Southland Tales. Although Kelly’s touted it as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie, because what he came up with is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the average moviegoer.

Kelly’s imagination makes the film something special.  He takes a simple, bare-bones concept from a Richard Matheson short story and adds a third, and perhaps even a fourth, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BOX (2009)

CAPSULE: GRACE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Solet

FEATURING: Jordan Ladd, Gabrielle Rose, Stephen Park

PLOT: A mother gives birth to a stillborn baby girl after a car wreck leaves her young family dead. The baby, however, comes back to life shortly after she is born. Unfortunately, the infant girl, with her proclivity to attract flies and drink human blood, is far from what her mother expected from parenthood.

Still from Grace (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are sequences in Grace that approach a state of uncomfortable strangeness, but too often the movie subverts itself and stews in its own conformity by sticking to horror conventions. By the time there’s a chance for a chance for what might have been a truly remarkable climax, the film has devolved into a maternal instincts cat-and-mouse thriller of sorts.

COMMENTS: Out of the gate, Grace has a strong concept that needs to be applauded. The undead-baby market has been virtually untapped, and I’m glad someone finally “went there.” The indie horror circuit has buzzed about writer and director Paul Solet as the next big thing, and this, his feature-length debut, is a notable entry amidst the middling horror releases this year. This is a strong film that is fresh, fairly terrifying, and smarter than one might think.

Grace’s complicated spirit masks itself in familiar trappings. It has an intellectual mindset, full of surprisingly difficult questions about a myriad of issues: veganism, lesbianism, midwives, maternal instincts, and coping with loss. And while we don’t always know where the filmmakers stand on said issues, posing the questions is intriguing enough. The ideas revolve around the modern family, and its new-found complexities in the 21st century coalescing with the timeless trials of parenthood. We witness complex relationships where people are intertwined in ways that are hard to understand, and at times hard to take; this is a movie where a woman asks her husband to suck her breast like he was a baby out of maternal grief for her dead son!

But in the end, it chickens out quietly and ends up being a horror movie like all the rest. The plot untangles rather quickly as we shift from a particularly nasty mother-daughter relationship to a thriller involving a mother-in-law off her rocker. In a brief 87 minutes, we’re back to basics, with only a hint of weird lying around as a memento in the form of Grace, a somewhat zombified child. What could have been something remarkable is instead just good, and while it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, I was really looking for something more from a film that proposed such interesting ideas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a horror movie but not a simple genre widget. That it’s rooted in reality gives its strange images the power to disturb. Even its environment is unusual, informed by women’s studies and alternative medicine.”-Michael Ordona, LA Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SURVEILLANCE (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Jennifer Lynch

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Julia Ormand, Michael Ironside

PLOT: Two FBI agents/weirdos harass criminals and innocents alike as they search for a couple of murderers to whom they might have ties.

Still from Surveillance (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Think CSI or NCIS meets Natural Born Killers. The weird quotient is totally crushed by the earthbound whodunnit quotient. It shows promise early on, and while the subtleties of the genre don’t escape my grasp, I don’t think that, in a truly weird movie, I should be asking “whodunit?,” but rather, “what the hell’s going to happen next?”

COMMENTS: Surveillance is the sophomore directorial effort by possibly-nepotistic director Jennifer Lynch, her first being the acclaimed/notorious Boxing Helena. This little nugget of info was what really interested me about seeing Surveillance, and I was hoping, no, begging for it to be just as weird as Helena without, hopefully, the punch-in-the-dignity twist ending.

What I got, unfortunately, was a moderate amount of sadism and unusual behavior, but a decidedly pedestrian tone. It’s a pretty good film, but it’s simply not weird enough to keep me thinking about it or talking about it after I’ve seen it. The leads, and Julia Ormand, are good, and I like the dangerous chemistry between them, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before verbatim in other movies. The stand-out here is the vicious Michael Ironside, who plays the torturous Captain Jennings, a psychotic cop with a penchant for roughing up people and generally acting schizophrenic. I love his character, and I love his particular intensity that recalls his heyday, circa Scanners.

The script, also by Lynch, is devious, with plenty of funky, uneven dialog that recalls, in small doses, her father‘s wording from Wild at Heart (“Those are dummies, dummy!”). Her direction isn’t bad, either, although far from inspired. She has a good time playing with different filters and tones here, but it’s pretty standard fare. Surveillance is solid feature that I actually enjoyed a bit, and would recommend as a definite rental possibility, but don’t come looking for something genuinely freaky here, because this film can’t sustain real-deal strange in large doses. Jennifer Lynch somehow manages to makes a better film than her debut, but at the expense of creating anything exceptional.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Jennifer Lynch tried way too hard to follow in the deep blue surrealist footsteps of her father, David Lynch… But she finds her own voice in Surveillance, a grubby, disturbing serial-killer mystery, a kind of blood-simple Rashomon.”-Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GROWING OUT (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Ratliff

FEATURING: Devon Lott, Ryan Sterling, Michael Hampton

PLOT: An aimless musician gets a job cleaning up an old William Castle-style spooky mansion. In the basement he finds a hand emerging out of the floor, and the longer he works there, the more he watches the mysterious person appear from below…

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Normally, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why a man slowly rising out of the sandy floor of a scary old basement isn’t weird, but if we’re going to count down the WEIRDEST movies of all time, this really doesn’t scratch the surface. It’s a guy-meets-girl movie with a few Lynchian twists thrown in, and that’s really not enough to hang with the big boys, now is it?

COMMENTS: Perhaps a penetrating metaphor for the encroaching distance that separates our true selves from our public personas, or perhaps a cheap, quick flick about freaky shenanigans in a creaky old house, Growing Out is a movie that tries to reach out and grab a very particular audience, specifically the indie horror crowd, and it does this with a gusto that is atypical of independent features like this. And, for what it is, it’s indeed enjoyable. It’s quite thrilling to see a young director and cast just go for it—even though the results aren’t all that spectacular, their enthusiasm is in itself kind of spectacular. The film looks good, the actors—in particular, the peripheral characters—are a lot of fun to keep track of, and the scenario is rife with possibilities. The problem it faces as a weird movie, though, is that it places a lot of limiters on itself. It wants to be a relationship movie so badly, with the usual current-jerk-boyfriend-in-the-way-of-the-aspiring-sensitive-boyfriend scenario, that it forgets the oddities it sets up in favor of meet-cutes and lonesome emotional guitar playing scenes. It’s not conducive to what they seemingly wanted to do with this kitschy film full of hipper-than-thou hopefuls. What about the guy growing out of the ground? What about the freaky house? And how about the strange man that lives in a trailer in the back yard? These factors seem unimportant compared to how our troubled troubadour is going to wind up with the girl of his dreams, and while I for one was interested to a point, it left me at the end feeling slightly disappointed and expecting a slightly more charming, slightly smarter, slightly weirder movie that just didn’t come. If you want well-paced and well-shot on a shoestring budget, this is a good bet, but this isn’t what you’re thinking of when you’re thinking of a bizarre film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Overly talky and slow, the film is tedious and unpersuasive. Ratliff fails to integrate the mechanics of supernatural horror with his concern for youthful passions and dreams, and the result is glum indeed.”–Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

CAPSULE: S. DARKO (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chris Fisher

FEATURING: , Briana Evigan, Ed Westwick

PLOT: Samantha Darko goes on a cross-country road trip and learns along the way that, once again, the world will end at a predetermined time unless she figures out a way to stop it. Where’s Jake Gyllenhaal when you need him?

Still from S. Darko (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In a way, S. Darko is an oddity itself; its very existence is questionable to anyone who has ever seen the original. But the only weird thing about this movie is how much it missed the mark. It’s a cheap teen thriller looking for a quick direct-to-DVD freak-show buck, not a captivating look at angry youth, mental illness, and time travel.

COMMENTS:  In this direct sequel to Donnie Darko, a movie that couldn’t have needed a sequel any less, we follow the exploits of Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, who lost interest in the preteen dance group Sparkle Motion and went about growing up. She decides, or perhaps her BFF Corey decides for her, that she wants to become a professional dancer. They take a road trip from Virginia to California seeking this lofty goal, but their car peters out in rinky-dink 90s Utah. From there, they meet a couple locals, and everything seems peachy until BAM! time travel stuff happens again; not because of some real world-shattering drama, but through the power of friendship (???) The whole concept is somehow more bogus than before, and the suspension of disbelief is infinitely harder to maintain. It’s a bland pastiche of ideas presented in the first film blended together with sexy ladies and 90s slang that weakly mimics Richard Kelly’s original like a parrot without a beak. There’s none of the spirit of Donnie Darko to be found here that would even qualify this movie as a spiritual successor. S. Darko has a hollow concept that could have been designed to boot up a franchise involving time traveling teens with washboard abs. I’m not a slavish follower of the original, but Kelly had inspiration, and at least a vague idea of where to place a camera to make the most of a scene. S. Darko is all textbook pap, and while I don’t think I would travel back in time to un-watch this movie (as that is the single lamest reason to time travel ever) I won’t look back on it fondly, to say the least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“S. DARKO is intriguing, and its actors come off well, but there’s no way of escaping comparisons to DONNIE, a truly special film…While you can tell it’s trying as hard as it can, and takes things a little further and into weirder territory in the process, the soul just isn’t there.”–Samuel Zimmerman, Fangoria