Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: JUBILEE (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Toyah Willcox, Nell Campbell (as Little Nell), Jack Birkett, Richard O’Brien

PLOT: Queen Elizabeth I requests her court sorcerer to summon the spirit Ariel to show her Britain’s future, and witnesses a bleak vision of apocalyptic decay.

Still from Jubilee (1978)

COMMENTS: An occasionally brilliant and often muddled mess of an artwork, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee lurks in a strange netherworld of identification. This is, admittedly, a typical “problem” for the movies that end up on the shores of this weird internet isle of ours, and it is a credit, in a way, to Jarman’s particular particularity that his movies tend to be both too weird to be arty while also being too arty to be weird. It’s a strange categorization, to be sure, and the call I made in not considering Jubilee Apocrypha-worthy was a tough one.

Jubilee is an Elizabethan period piece that flashes forward to then-contemporary 1970s London, which was in economic doldrums and still riddled with bombed-out, clapped-out, and otherwise derelict streets and homes. The narrative seems full of plot holes, but that fits nicely with the punk aesthetic that Jarman was, depending upon your perspective, either cynically celebrating or subtly satirizing. Clothes full of holes, ‘zine literature smashed together from ripped-up sources, and even punk’s musical style: all of it was intended to reflect decay, despair, and anger. These elements dovetail in Jubilee as we watch a loose gang of nihilistic young women spend their time breaking things and people, all while incongruously sucking up to the mysterious, flamboyant, and giggle-prone one-man superpower, “Borgia Ginz,” a music and media mogul.

The tone of Jubilee veers in as many directions as the scattershot narrative. There’s a heartwarming (if controversial) romance between two men (who are possibly brothers; the explanation is neither clear nor reliable), who eventually allow a young female artist into their relationship. But there’s also malignance. “Bod” and “Mad” (two of the girl gang members, possibly lovers) wantonly harass and then beat up a diner waitress early in the film, and then continue this cruel streak throughout. “Amyl Nitrate”, played by Punk-era icon Jordan, oscillates between petulant monologues (in the form of her world history she’s writing) and tender gestures with “Crabs” (Little Nell, whose status as the most convincing actor in the movie is saying something). And of course, what 1978 anarchic-socio-commentary-guerilla film would be complete without a young Adam Ant (then something of a nobody) as the latest protégé of Jack Birkett’s other-worldly, hyper-energized Borgia Ginz?

Derek Jarman was an artist of considerable talent: be it in the world of painting, production design, or direction. He was also someone to whom no friend or overseer (if there were any) could say “no.” While this allowed for a far more interesting oeuvre than might have existed otherwise, it was also to that oeuvre’s occasional detriment. What could have a tighter, tidier Jubilee looked like? I know, I know: I just lamented a lack of tightness and tidiness in a punk movie about the punk ethos, so perhaps I’m missing the point. But bearing that in mind, even I couldn’t help but be impressed with this glorious mess of style, pathos, music, and philosophy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Jubilee might be most appreciated by those who are able to embrace its cult movie aspects. Its enigmas and failings may not always be as compelling or as endearing as those found in the best-known cult films but some of Jubilee‘s idiosyncratic content does work to position the film squarely within the wild terrain of the cult film corpus.”–Lee Broughton, Pop Matters (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE SHASTA TRIANGLE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Barry W. Levy

FEATURING: Dani Lennon, Ayanna Berkshire, Helenna Santos, Deborah Lee Smith, Madeline Merritt

PLOT: Paula returns to her hometown of Shasta, CA where unexplained phenomena regularly occur, to look further into one such instance—the disappearance of her father. With the help of four childhood friends, they go into the surrounding woods looking for answers—which they do find, and quite a bit more.

Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

COMMENTS: The Shasta Triangle is an above-average low-budget genre film of the type that you’d expect to see on the SyFy Channel on a Saturday night, and if you temper your expectations to that level, you’ll enjoy the film. There’s nothing that’s particularly new here in terms of playing with the tropes, but it is refreshing to have the “group going into the woods” be all-female in this variation. You might recognize some of the cast from other genre work, particularly Lennon, Berkshire and Santos (also a producer and the co-story writer). These three also give the film’s better performances.

The premise is solid for what’s essentially  a friends-go-into-the-scary-woods movie. It all plays out fairly well, although the ending is somewhat muffed and may leave some dissatisfied; there’s a resolution, but it also feels like the filmmakers left themselves room to continue the story. Some may not feel a compelling need for them to do so. Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays out much like a Luc Besson film. That is, it’s filled with audacious, original ideas worth exploring and experiencing, even if they don’t always hit the mark like you’d hope…  Subtle camera movements and transition-heavy editing create a disorienting effect that underscores the dream-like elements of the film.”–Justin Andress, The Model American (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight, , Joely Richardson,  Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliar

PLOT: A meteorite lands at a remote New England farm and spreads alien madness to a family.

Still from Color out of Space (2019)

COMMENTS:  The color out of space is actually lavender, or maybe it’s more of a fuchsia. At any rate, it’s in the pink/purple spectrum.  It’s possible that this choice is a nod to From Beyond, which is also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and which I once wrote was “the pinkest horror movie ever made.” (Besides Beyond, Color reminded me of a number of 80s horrors, with shadings from The Shining, Poltergeist, and even Society.) Director Richard Stanley is committed to this color palette, which is prefigured in the streak of purple dye in Lavinia Gardner’s otherwise golden hair. In Lovecraft’s original story, a color never before seen by man was a metaphor for the ineffable quality of the alien visitor. In the movie, that color necessarily must be represented literally, and Stanley takes the literalism so excessively—slathering the film with liquid lilacs and violets—that the effect becomes almost as strange as an indescribable extraterrestrial hue. In fact, you only know when the alien presence has departed because the scene becomes drained of all color.

Bookended by quotations from Lovecraft‘s text, Color follows a standard horror movie arc: character setup, arrival of an evil presence, and steadily escalating eerie incidents that come to a climax. There are a lot of unusual sights along the way, however, starting with the purple mutant grasshopper/dragonfly hybrid with tie-dye spider-eye vision and progressing to general madness among the entire cast and a ian mother/child re-assimilation. The utter inscrutability of the aliens’ nature and purpose is true to Lovecraft, though it may not be to some modern horror fans’ taste. Questions of whether the color arrives on the pink glowing meteor by accident or purposefully, and why it seems to suddenly depart—or perhaps just to go dormant—are left unanswered. “What touched this place cannot be understood or quantified by human science,” is the best those hoping for an explanation will get.

Despite being featured in the film’s promotion, Cage, as the family patriarch, doesn’t dominate the story. He doesn’t even start Cage-ing until halfway through, going all Jack Torrance after his kids forget to feed the alpaca, gesticulating wildly and switching accents mid-monologue. It’s the young stars Madeleine Arthur (as Lavinia) and Elliot Knight (as the surveyor) who are the main protagonists. I came into the experience looking forward to Cage bringing the crazy, but ended up happy that his peculiar lunacy merely seasoned the film a bit, rather than dominating it.

Due to its provenance— a weird fiction classic that’s been adapted many times, but never properly; a cult director come out of retirement to helm the project; Nic Freaking Cage— Color Out of Space is the hot ticket among cult film fans in early 2020. The movie doesn’t actually do anything truly unexpected, but nor does it disappoint. With Cage, a retro-80s horror pace and feel, and plenty of pretty swirling colors, it’s going to hit the sweet spot for a lot of viewers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Oh, Richard Stanley, how we have missed your intoxicating weirdness… there is no preparing you for this space oddity.”–Preston Barta, Fresh Fiction (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE WAVE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Gille Klabin

FEATURING: , , Donald Faison, Tommy Flanagan, Ronnie Gene Blevins

PLOT: A corporate lawyer decides to cut loose one night, but regrets it when a strange drug dealer convinces him to try an exotic hallucinogen whose effects last several days and make him randomly skip forward in time.

Still from The Wave (2019)

COMMENTS: I was confused as to what genre to place The Wave. It’s not reality-based enough to be science fiction, and nor is it divorced enough from reality to be fantasy. It’s not magical realism, either. The issues it explores are more philosophical than dramatic.  Psychological thriller kind of works, but the film is not nearly as dark as that term usually implies. The pacing (and the occasional light mugging from the leads) suggests that the movie wants to be taken as a comedy. Indeed, the setup, with straight-laced corporate lawyer Frank sneaking out for a night on the town with his more adventurous (and nigh-irresponisible) buddy suggest suits-cut-loose shenanigans a la Something Wild are coming. But the movie also takes itself kind of seriously, and lacks moments that play for big laughs.

The mongrel term “dramedy” is a possibility, but in the end I think The Wave really belongs to that rare and disreputable subgenre, the “trip movie.” It’s not an exploitation piece—although there are drug porn moments, like when we see a heaping mound of hundreds of thousands of dollars of uppers, downers, pills and powders spread across a grinning dealer’s table. The Wave‘s money shots are its wavery lysergic visions—especially when one of the mystery drug’s waves kicks in at a corporate board meeting, turning the executives into a bunch of Mammon-channeling demons. (The visuals here are simple but effective—it looks like they digitally painted over every frame of film, an effect that looks like rotoscoping done in MS Paint). At its core, the script posits that psychedelic drugs have legitimate spiritual healing qualities—that all that most self-centered lawyer needs is a high enough dose to turn himself on, grok karma, and become a self-sacrificing hippie.

The script may be naive at heart, but it hides it well. After Frank takes the mystery drug, the plot barrels along, lurching forward in time. Frank might suddenly find himself in a deserted house, or in the middle of a car chase, without explanation. Blackouts may be a side effect of the drug, but there’s something mystical about the process, too. By the end, the plot points snap into place nicely. The leads are all pro. Donald Faison provides good buddy support, playing the bad angel or good angel as needed; Sheila Vand, the mystic pixie dream girl, is luminous in her dream sequences; and Ronnie Gene Blevins overacts quite appropriately as the hellbent drug dealer antagonist. Justin Long makes a great Frank. He has a pleasant John Krasinski-meets-Fred Armisen quality here; you can’t stay mad at him, even when blind ambition is leading him to screw the beneficiaries of a dead firefighter out of their rightful proceeds. The screenplay hates the game, not the player, and redemption is just a trip away. Everything doesn’t quite work as it should: some characters, like the shrewish wife and the ruthless CEO, are cardboard caricatures; the score adds little; and, since the mystery drug comes at you in waves, the movie probably should have been titled in the plural. But if a mysterious Scotsman in a fur coat offers you The Wave, consider taking it. Rough patches aside, the crisp acting, inventive visuals, and speedy pace make it a trip you probably won’t regret taking.

The Wave shows up in selected cinemas, and more widely on video-on-demand, this Friday, January 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a fairly clever, trippy saga with its heart in the right place.”–Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm (festival screening)

 

CAPSULE: VHYES (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jack Henry Robbins

FEATURING: Mason McNulty, Christian Drerup, Jake Head, Rahm Braslaw

PLOT: We see the results when 12-year-old Ralph tapes late night 1987 cable television shows, and his own adolescent antics, over his parent’s old wedding tape.

Still from VHYes (2019)

COMMENTS: VHYes had me at the moment when, after brushing in some happy snowcaps for the mountains she’s been crafting, the somnolently friendly Bob Ross-style PBS painting instructor announces “now, let’s get back to the spaceship.” She’s just one of the demented characters you meet as young Ralph experiments in preserving his short-attention span channel surfing for posterity: a kindly cowboy full of inappropriate advice; a couple of shopping channel salesfolk who banter passive-aggressively; an “Antiques Roadshow”-inspired host who appraises some unusual artifacts; the shy hostess of a punk rock public access show (and her supportive parents); and a prescient cultural philosopher who describes the phenomenon of “tape narcissism” and warns that “one day the world will exist only to be filmed.” Naturally, there are also a slew of vintage commercial and infomercial parodies. This smorgasbord of ersatz crapola plays like a found footage 1980s version of The Groove Tube, except that it periodically returns to check in the adventures on Ralph, his best friend Josh, and his mom and dad. Some bits are silly and overdone (there’s a bit more splattered blood than you’d normally see in an alarm company commercial ); others are subtle and absurd. The big finale is reminiscent of the kind of short that might play on “” post-midnight: Ralph finds himself surreally transported into a jumbled reality where the layers of the tape all bleed together.

VHYes is a breezy compendium of skewed nostalgia, sometimes hilarious, sometimes weird, and, unexpectedly, sometimes touching. The most substantial complaint to raise against it, in fact, is that it’s too short. There must have been plenty of unused tape, and I would have loved to see even more backstory on young Ralph. His scenes are more than just the gimmick that explains the existence of the artifact we’re watching; his story of coping with childhood fears and disappointments offer a meaningful counterbalance to the goofy comedy sketches, like the commercial for an ointment that grants cubicle workers “freakish flexibility.” On the other hand, maybe it’s best to consider VHYes‘ zippy 70-minute runtime an asset rather than a liability. It’s a “little” film, but in the best sense: short, punchy, homemade, thoughtful in its unassuming way, and—like the ongoing saga of Hot Winter, an ecologically-aware 80s porno with the lesbian orgies edited out—innocent at its heart.

VHYes was shot entirely on vintage VHS and Betacam cameras. The bits with the spooky painter (starring Kerry Kenney, of “Reno 911” fame) are spliced in from Robbins’ 2017 Sundance short “Painting with Joan”; the edited porno scenes from “Hot Winter” were also a standalone short. Director Jack Henry Robbins is the son of and , who executive produced and have eye-blink cameos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange yet sweet film that is one-part coming-of-age dramedy, one-part found-footage comedy, and one part channel surfing.”–Kristy Puchko, Pajiba (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MONOS (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Landes

FEATURING: Sofia Buenaventura, Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Wilson Salazar

PLOT: A paramilitary squadron of teenagers guard a hostage at a remote jungle location; bad decisions by the inexperienced soldiers lead to tragedy.

Still from Monos (2019)

COMMENTS: Monos is a movie that reminds everyone of other movies, of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now and Aguirre the Wrath of God. That’s not a knock on director Alejandro Landes; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, when existing styles are the best means to tell the story you want to tell.

A co-ed group of eight teenagers are given rifles and tasked with guarding an American hostage (and a cow) on a lonely mountaintop. To pass the time, they play blindfolded soccer and shoot automatic rounds into the air; as the story begins, their life is more like summer camp than boot camp. They have code names like “Rambo” and “Bigfoot” and work for “the Organization,” with their single point of contact with the outside world a ripped dwarf dubbed “the Messenger.” We do not know why they are fighting or who they are fighting for or against. Besides providing an ambiguous ambiance, there’s an important reason for the lack of specific context to the military campaign–it puts you in the same position as the conscripted kids, who have no ideology and show no understanding of the prospects or merits of their side of the conflict.

Monos is a worthy movie, but it’s mostly a work of psychological realism exploring the dynamics of a group of child soldiers. The kids struggle against their hormones, form internal alliances, seem to not understand why their hostage isn’t friendlier to them, and make immature decisions that lead to their numbers being whittled down over the course of the movie. Its slim claims to weirdness stem from a number of impressionistic, ritualistic montages—in particular, one where three of the team discover psychedelic mushrooms on the eve of a government ambush—which gives it that surreal fog-of-war haze found in war films like Come and See. Mica Levi (Under the Skin ) contributes a misty, atonal score that heightens the ethereal unease.

Wilson Salazar (“the Messenger”) was himself drafted into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the age of thirteen. He was initially brought in to train the kids to act like soldiers, but the filmmakers liked his look and persona so much that they cast him in a prominent role.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…surreal, wildly beautiful… Easily one of the best films of 2019.”–Tara Brady, The Irish Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)