Tag Archives: 2009

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

CAPSULE: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BYSpike Jonze

FEATURING: Max Records, voices of , Lauren Ambrose,

PLOT: A troubled, rambunctious boy travels to a land where wild beasts anoint him their king, but discovers that socialization is a struggle even in his imagination.

STill from Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jonze slips a couple of odd visions into this ersatz kiddie fare; watch for the giant dog on the horizon, the friendly stoning of a few owls in flight, and a surprising limb-rending scene. The director fills the frame with scattered cuddly monsters of childhood psychology, but there’s not enough of the frantically irrational here to justify a weird rating.

COMMENTS:  It’s been only a few weeks since Where the Wild Things Are‘s release, and the movie already comes with its own critical cliche: this isn’t a children’s movie, it’s a movie about childhood. Like most cliches, there’s truth in the observation, and I have empirical evidence to back it up: I saw the film in the company of a 9 and an 11 year old, and they found it boring. As a boy, I would have found it boring too; there’s not much narrative thrust to the film, and its conflicts are complicated and interpersonal. To a kid, the tale itself is a mundane series of playground antics played out in an exotic setting—Max and his monster pals build a fort, engage in a dirt clod war, and favoritism and hurt feelings take over until someone decides to take their ball and go home—not a magical adventure they can get lost in. They’ll take some delight in beasts themselves, who are attractive and tactile with surprisingly expressive CGI faces: Muppets from the id. But the complex childhood psychology, while fascinating to nostalgic adults, will go right over their heads, the omnipresent womb imagery won’t make a dent in their little psyches, and the melancholy moral about accepting one’s limitations will be hard to absorb.

Each of the wild things Max encounters in his flight of fantasy represents some childhood preoccupation of his, and although it’s easy to see connections between the individual beasties and his real life, the symbolism is complex and mixed-up, just the way a real child’s dreams would be. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between each beast and a real life character.  Carol, who’s creative (and, like our hero, intensely destructive whenever he feels his creativity is being impinged upon), is Max’s main alter ego, but Carol also seems to represent Max’s absent father. KW, who is drifting away from the family unit to make new friends of her own, is simultaneously Max’s teenage sister and his mom, who has a new boyfriend. Other wild things represent various facets of childhood experience—there’s a goatlike being who complains he’s constantly being ignored, and the cynical horned woman who champions the defeatist voice inside us all. Getting along with these competing aspects of himself proves as difficult to Max as getting along with playmates and family in the real world. It ends as a sort of Jungian tragedy, as Max fails to integrate and harmonize the competing aspects of himself. The closest thing to an epiphany Max achieves is his disillusionment when he abdicates, admitting he’s been lying to these beasts he sought to rule. He’s not a king, or even a great explorer: “I’m just Max.” “Well, that’s not very much, is it?” shoots back his disappointed monster alter-ego, Carol, who longed for a monarch to bring order to their disintegrating fantasyland. Max has no answer to this self-riposte. His only solace is that he has a lifetime left to devise a comeback.

The grapevine says that Warner Brothers pressured Jonze to do some serious reshooting after his initial, even darker cut had tykes in tears at test screenings. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable director’s cut delivers something even more idiosyncratic and uncompromising, maybe even a tad weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Max’s dilemma and emotions are distilled to their essence, so the way his real-life suffering informs his dreamscapes becomes unmistakable… more than just a visual feast; it’s a blissful evocation of imagining as a process of spiritual maturation.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

ZORG AND ANDY (2009) IS A FILM I JUST SAW AND SUBSEQUENTLY ENJOYED

Still from Zorg & Andy (2009)

If you were at Tromadance a couple weeks back, you probably heard about this little comedy pearl (and, while we’re on the subject, did you see me there? I was the guy in the yellow shirt with the melting, pulsating face). It was a modest success at the festival, and hopefully that appearance leads to a bright future for this film, because I stand before you today a man who, on his first assignment for the amazing 366 Weird Movies, has struck pay-dirt. Zorg and Andy is a low-budget feature with a lot of what makes independent movies so intriguing; the glorious smacking of ambition. I appreciate anything that tries harder than it needs to, and this little movie, made for less than $25,000, truly breaks from its ilk and strives for some really good stuff here. Is it weird? A little. But as long as it’s enjoyable and a tad bit more off-the-beaten-trail than, say, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, isn’t that what counts?

So the movie revolves around the wacky, ZANY antics of our soon-to-be best pal Andy. Andy is a loser who sucks at just about everything, and this is just the way things are for him, and probably will be for the rest of his life. Fortunately, before his loser status gets him kicked out of college, he lands a work-study job at the local museum cleaning artifacts. When he arrives, he meets his overworked handler Jen and she puts him to the task of cleaning a very important artifact rushed to them by the museum director herself. It’s a fertility statue of unknown origin with a strange, let’s call it “protrusion”, sticking out of its forehead. Andy does an almost perfect job of cleaning it and relaxes for a second to congratulate himself, when suddenly a strange and mysterious MILF appears and seduces poor Andy. She asks him for the statue, calling it “Zorg” and saying that she’s been waiting to pick it up. He buys this line, obviously in the throes of her charms, and, in a flash, she leaves with statue in hand. Afterward, he tells Jen all the good work he did with cleaning “Zorg” and giving it to the mysterious lady, and she naturally flips her lid. In a rage, she demands that Andy use what little intelligence he possesses to find the statue and bring it back before the museum director notices what has happened. So it becomes a scramble to find this “Zorg”, unearth why this woman wants it so badly, and do it under the nose of museum staff. Hopefully Andy can show the world that he’s not a total waste of space before it’s too late!

Director Guy Davis gets a thumbs-up from yours truly for making a film of surprising quality with so few resources. Everything about this film belies its cost. The music, mostly composed by a gent named Kevin MacLeod, is very good and exceptionally fitting. It’s flirty, fun, and peppy, marking the bubbly mood of this b-movie comedy. The special effects, almost entirely digital, are passable, using the ol’ standby, day-for-night, like it was about to be outlawed and making the use of some quirky CG for various menaces standing in Andy’s way. The shots are all textbook, and first-time director Davis must be commended for his utilitarian framing and shooting the first-time around, not botching a single scene.

At a light and breezy 62 minutes, Zorg and Andy is the comic equivalent of Binaca; the effects wear off pretty fast and the sensation isn’t as refreshing as you’d like it to be, but it packs a bit of a bite for what its worth. There are some pretty effective gags here for such a budgeted affair. I mean, the statue alone gets me a little bit; it’s so penis-y! Andy himself is played to quite a few laughs, his stupidity spreading thick over the movie like a peanut butter and idiot sandwich.

But one of my favorite gags is one of the things that makes this film on the verge of being weird, and that is the presence of Stuart and The Pig. They’re the two students featured in the picture above, and they’re the gurus of all the goings-on in University news. You might be wondering why The Pig has a papier-mâché pig’s head on. Well, it’s never explained, and he never takes it off; all we know is that he’s a benefactor of Andy and seems to be highly respected around the campus for his rarely-dispensed wisdom. And Stuart is Stuart. ‘Nuff said.

The acting by Andy, played by Scott Ganyo, is fair, verging on good, and I especially enjoyed his confused-but-happy attitude that carries that film on an “aww-garsh” Goofy-like sentiment. Even though he’s a feeb, and a vague jerk, you’ll somehow still like him enough to not want him to die. But not enough for him to get away scot-free, of course. That’s where Jen comes in, played by Kate Rudd. She’s the workaholic boss of Andy who has the distinction of yelling at him for about 3/4 of the film. She’s also passable, but I found her to be a little flat, and I felt like she wasn’t as into it as she could’ve been. I’d definitely give her another chance, but if you end up watching this, you’ll know what I mean when I say, “Eh.”

So run, don’t walk! to the internet to catch this light and fast b-movie surprise. It’s cute, it’s fast, and it’s somewhat odd as far as the plot goes. You won’t find much better for $25,000, and I mean that in the sincerest way possible. I would check this out for Stuart and The Pig alone, though, so I might be insane! You can go to their website at www.zorgandandy.com, where DVDs will be arriving soon, if you’re interested.  [ED: DVDs are now available from Film Baby.] Out of a possible four, all things considered, I give Zorg and Andy 3 stars and a wink/nod from across cyberspace.

Thanks, 366 Weird Movies, for allowing me to get my hands on this. You’re the best, and I hope this will be the first of many more collaborations between you and I!

For more on Eric Young, check out his A Movie A Day review site at http://cinematronica.wordpress.com!

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

366 EXCLUSIVE: “9″

We are pleased to debut Alfred Eaker and Robbin Panet’s short film film “9” on the web.  This is the movie they made for the 2009 48 Hour Film Festival.  The rules of the contest festival are simple: every team has only 48 hours to complete the film, and each must incorporate three elements given by the festival : a character name, a line of dialogue, and a prop.  Look for a character named “Professor Sherman Kane,” a ball, and the line “I’m not talking to you.”

Rather than making a straightforward short that looked like everyone else, “9” takes an experimental approach, becoming a sepia-hued exploration of domestic abuse through the generations, in a Western setting.  The bizarre free-association poetry of John M. Bennet replaces traditional narration.  It runs approximately seven and a half minutes.

Alfred’s description of the making of the film can be read in his Reflections on the 48 Hour Film Festival and the “9” Diary.

9

[Our license to display “9” has expired.  We will inform you if this film is released, on DVD or otherwise, in the future.]

At the producers’ request, this film will not be released to YouTube or other video hosting sites, and will be available here for one month only.  UPDATE: Because this film was reviewed and linked from Rogue Cinema, we are leaving the film up for another week, until October 12, 2009.

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT: In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTS: Ponyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life. When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.

There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy. The main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way). The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke. Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life. Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults. Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood. Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love. With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven. There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education). The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films, Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction. Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper