Tag Archives: 2009

CAPSULE: DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

FEATURING: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Rikki Gagne, C.J. Wallis, Loyd Bateman

PLOT: Two young druggies and two young churchies find a dead hooker in their trunk and set out to dispose of the body while pursued by a serial killer and other slimeballs.

Still from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not one of the all-time strangest movies out there, though it’s OK as a first timers’ take on a low budget exploitation movie with a feminist slant—one that is weirder than it had to be.

COMMENTS: Absolutely faithful to the exploitative promise of the title, but still not exactly what you’d expect, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a nihilistic feminist punk black comedy with an absurd script and experimental tendencies. It plays out in a comic book reality that’s halfway between a modern Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and a film. It may also take place, as the character known only as “Junkie” suggests, in Purgatory (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks a lot like Vancouver).

En route to scoring some “shit” for her bestie the Junkie, the Badass agrees to pick up Goody Two Shoes from his church youth group at the request of her sister, The Geek. Leaving the church, they immediately smell the dead hooker in their trunk, and after minimal debate about calling the cops, they decide instead to dispose of the evidence. So the quartet goes on the lam, checks into a sleazy motel, and has to deal with cops, drug gangs, a serial killer, and a cowboy pimp. Along the way they encourage necrophilia and meet God (in a cameo); characters lose eyeballs and arms, but emerge little the worse for wear. They also engage in a gruesome and fatal tooth-pulling torture session, lest you think this is all just innocent fun and games.

The Soska sisters indulge in some experimental aesthetics: for example, flashback scenes have dark lighting and rounded shadowy edges around the frame (sometimes with the sound of a projector running in the background). Most of the film is vérité style shot-on-video, particularly obvious during action scenes where the camera swerves around to catch the action, as if a documentary crew is filming the carnage live. Some people seem to enjoy the indie/punk soundtrack, which features several original songs, although I found it merely functional. I must say, however, that the filmmakers did a great job with makeup, and not just with the corny gore effects. Besides one symbolic moment where a teardrop tattoo appears and disappears, you never get confused as to which of the identical twin sisters is the Geek and which is the Badass; in fact, you might not even guess that the actresses were related.

Dead Hooker‘s rowdy screenplay emits a theme of female empowerment, in that the women (particularly the Badass) triumph over men who are driven to violence by sexual inadequacy. The main problem I had with the film, however, is that I never liked the characters the way the script wanted me to. The two “good” characters put up only token resistance to the criminality of the two “bad” characters. Although the foursome bonds with each other through their trials, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them. The group makes an appeal for sympathy with the adoption of an abandoned dog, but then they blow all that goodwill with the tone-deaf torture/revenge scene. Getting audiences to root for reprobates is always a hard sell; it’s only the pitiless antiheroes who never show any sign of remorse or goodness (like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat) that come off best. By not caring whether we like them, they make us love them, whereas Dead Hooker‘s antiheroines can come across as too desperate for our approval.

The Soska sisters moved on to bigger budgets after making this debut film for a reported $2,500 (!) Dead Hooker was re-released on a limited edition Blu-ray in 2019, although given its low-fi origins, it’s hard to imagine the picture benefits much from a high definition presentation. The disc does contain a commentary track from the sisters, not available on previous releases. Next up for the twins: a remake of fellow Canadian ‘s Rabid, due out in late 2019 or early 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As cheap, meretricious and disposable as its titular character, this countercultural road movie may be a puerile mishmash of low-rent clichés and in-your-face transgression (with just a smattering of Weekend at Bernie’s), but it is just about knowing enough to get away with it – as long as you approach it with the right (which is to say lowered) kind of expectation.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: METROPIA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh

FEATURING: Voices of , , , ,

PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.

Still from Metropia (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a esque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.

COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.

When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.

But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.

Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.

The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).

Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.

The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.

But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: I AM HERE…. NOW (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Breen

FEATURING: Neil Breen, Joy Senn, Elizabeth Sekora

PLOT: Jesus visits Earth to fix our energy dilemmas while performing random miracles along the way. It’s that simple, we’re done.

Still from I Am Here.... Now (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Did this movie actually get recommended for the whole seven plastic doll heads out on the ground in the desert? Or, wait, was it for the knife soaked in strawberry jam to represent street violence? The Halloween mask that flickers into view a few times? The only way anyone could claim this movie is the weirdest thing they’d seen is if they were literally a fetus watching it from inside a womb somehow.

COMMENTS: Holy ! This movie was not only written, directed, and produced by Neil Breen, but he plays the lead role in it too, which is apparently his usual mode. And Jesus Christ! No really, Jesus Christ is in this movie, played by Neil. Who is here. Now. So this is a whole vanity project where the creator wants to play Jesus—just try to tell me that we’re not in for a grand old time! Jesus has computer parts glued to him, though, and he lands in the Nevada desert from an incoming comet, so he’s Space Jesus. He angrily shakes a skull (there’s always one laying about when he needs one) while demanding of it why humans have failed him. Yorick doesn’t answer. Space Jesus is really bummed about how humans have turned out. Because we humans sit around drinking beer, getting stoned, and shooting guns, even if Space Jesus happens to be standing in the way. But if you try to shoot Space Jesus, he will take your clothes and truck and drive into Las Vegas, so he can find more things to scowl at. Hope you’re stocked up on your Depends, because the pants-pissing hilarity is just beginning.

While Space Jesus approves of our finally getting the hang of solar power, he’s unhappy about our greedy money-grubbing capitalism slowing progress down and vows to make it go away. So we hear speeches about clean energy vs. greedy business, and then we know what message Space Jesus wants to pound into our stubborn, concrete skulls for the remaining hour. As Big Business shuts down Solar Power, a laid-off employee laments the state of affairs while pushing a baby in a stroller; hopefully this long-winded dialog is not taking too much time out of the baby’s schedule. We follow her predicament for awhile, as her twin sister steers her into being a stripper to support her baby. She sinks into a world of urban depravity right away. In fact, “sinks into depravity right away” is pretty much Team Human’s job in the whole film, because only Team Space Jesus can rescue them with the power of his deadpan pout and Photoshoped glowing hand.

As hilariously somber as Space Jesus is when he’s onscreen, it gets even funnier when extras have to memorize and recite his Wikipedia paragraphs of dialog at each other without a whiff of actual acting, because they are just finger puppets to Neil Breen. Finger puppets who are never allowed to wear bras or button their blouses up, and who lash out in violence at the drop of a jump cut. Really, the supporting cast is the biggest puzzle: none of them, not even the ones who are supposed to be thugs, look like they’ve lived through hard enough times to be willing to be in this embarrassing movie for nothing. They must have been paid in grown-up money, yet not a single one of them puts out a spark of effort. They even scream in lower-case: “don’t cut off my hand. aaaaaaaaaaah.” In every shot with Neil and a supporting cast member, watch their faces as they try not to crack up. Out of all the things Breen’s bad at, scriptwriting is his weakest suit.

The cinematography is competent, letting the desert look beautiful, and this movie at least succeeds at clearly and boldly telling the story it wants to tell (yes, Breakfast of Champions scarred me deep). Any idiot could follow this: it is about Space Jesus the entire time, and at that, it’s a more likable Jesus story than could produce. Granted, this movie was produced on an architect’s budget (no really, that’s his day job), and Neil Breen is obviously nuttier than squirrel poop. But at least he has a point, one which resonates with every Millennial who joined #OccupyWallStreet. It’s not even that bad; I Am Here…. Now has a tranquil pace and long, quiet stretches, so at least the movie shuts up and lets you reflect on how thankful you are to have moved the hell out of Las Vegas before he started filming random people on the street. Even the soundtrack is relaxing, and doubtlessly royalty-free (stockmusic.net appears in the credits). In sum, Neil Breen is clearly suffering from nearly the same set of mental symptoms that plagued , just without being an innovative jazz musician. Well excuuuuuse him.

Neil Breen does not allow retailers to sell his films. All DVDs must be bought directly from him at either http://fatefulfindings.biz/ or http://www.pass-thru-film.com/. For older movies like I Am Here…. Now, write a note in the comments box when ordering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I Am Here….Now is a messy but absolutely hysterical film.  Breen’s complete inept ability to create a film made me bust out laughing a lot but it also had me saying the phrase “What the f#@k?” at least every two minutes or so.”–Rev, Ron, Rev on Movies

Also see the snarky video review at Cinema Snob.

LIST CANDIDATE: ALMA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Blaas

PLOT: Young Alma encounters a toy shop containing a doll bearing an uncanny resemblance to her.

Still from Alma (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: In communicating its tale of terror in a style and medium almost uniformly associated with mainstream family-friendliness, Alma stands out as weird amidst today’s persistent stream of digital animation.

COMMENTS: As this site’s regular Saturday Short feature has proven, animation is one of the most fitting mediums for short-length cinematic weirdness. Whether minimalist or elaborate, animation offers a strong opportunity to evoke a particularly singular visual concept within a short frame of time.

Former Pixar employee Rodrigo Blaas—whose name appears in the credits of some of the studio’s most beloved features—has, with Alma, added his own particular twist to this well-established cinematic convention. Drawing on his past work, Blaas bring us his simple, independent tale of surreal horror in the bright, stylized CGI that’s now all but synonymous with modern mainstream animation.

In its themes and narrative, meanwhile, Alma recalls a more antiquated form of family entertainment. Its components—the snow upon slanted rooftops and narrow cobblestone alleys; the toy shop, at once quaint and sinister; the protagonist, a mischievous little one with the air of a vagabond—bring to mind the classical elements of old children’s’ books. The plotline, which imposes a nightmarish fate upon its young protagonist as punishment for a petty misdeed, evokes the Victorian cautionary tales that Hilare Belloc so famously lampooned.

Needless to say, this results in a strikingly unique piece of short cinema; especially considering that, despite mashing together conventions of children’s entertainment from opposite ends of the 20th century, it is very clearly not intended for children. The simple plot follows young Alma, who, prancing merrily down a snowy alleyway one day, encounters a toy shop, with a doll precisely resembling her in the window. Unable to resist this singular temptation, she heads into the unattended shop to take the doll for herself, and meets horrifying consequences—ones that add a twist to the primal fear of endless damnation.

Told, like many short works of weirdness, entirely without dialogue, the story of Alma is, as befitting the nature of Blaas’ past work, communicated via five minutes’ worth of highly expressive visuals that quietly convey basic narrative and subtle details alike. Alma’s slightly ragged appearance hints at her humble background, lending context to her sticky-fingered nature. Hundreds of children have chalked their names on the wall in the alleyway in which she finds the shop. It’s also lined with what might be interpreted as a number of “Missing” posters, ominously hinting at the shop’s scourge of terror. And the store window, picturesque upon first glance, takes on the appearance of a leering monster’s gaping maw when examined more closely.

In terms of weirdness, Alma has its more obvious elements: most notably, flashes of surreal, nightmarish images when Alma seizes the doll. The genuine uniqueness of the short, however, is found in its bold effort to render an artistically-driven work of cinema in a style that’s become emblematic of mega-budget commercial family cinema. The contrast is striking. As an artistic choice, it’s not unprecedented, but Blaas, having come directly off the set of some of the industry’s leading titles, evokes the style with particular authenticity.

Development is currently underway for a Dreamworks-backed feature-length adaptation of the short. As many have already predicted, even with Blaas himself at the helm, it seems highly likely that this horrifying tale, effective chiefly for its simplicity, will lose more than a little of its punch when stretched into feature-length. If nothing else, however, said feature might draw a little more much-deserved attention to the original short.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a fairytale of the old kind, and if you have any sensitivity at all, you’ll be shivering as the snow drifts down at the end.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

Alma from Rodrigo Blaas on Vimeo.

LIST CANDIDATE: SYMBOL (2009)

Shinboru

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli

PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.

Still from Symbol (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.

COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.

The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.

Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.

There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.

A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like , Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.

I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)