Tag Archives: 2017

SHORT: WHAT DID JACK DO? (2017)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: David Lynch

PLOT: A detective interrogates a monkey suspected of murder.

Still from What Did Jack Do (2017)

COMMENTS: David Lynch made the curious short “What Did Jack Do?” in 2017 for a French museum exhibit, and screened it once more at his own Festival of Disruption in 2018. Other than that, this bit of monkey business was an overlooked footnote in his filmography, until Netflix dropped it onto their streaming service on January 20, 2020 (on Lynch’s 74th birthday).

Shot in Eraserheadian black and white, with Lynchian signatures like coffee and a left-field musical number1, “Jack” is basically a two-hander (almost a one-hander, since Lynch not only plays the interrogating detective, but also provides the monkey’s voice). There is a plot, of sorts, but mostly, its the detective and his simian suspect trading absurdist quips that occupy a space between the ineffably sinister and the ambiguously cliched: “Don’t worry. I’ve heard the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ A perceived fundamental. There are, of course, exceptions.”

“What Did Jack Do?” is, in essence, Lynch futzing around with the Surrealist potentialities of Syncro-Vox—the technique pioneered in the 1950s in which human lips are superimposed over animals or animated characters. Lynch’s experiment is extremely sophisticated, with his usual attention to detail: visually, the lips are blended so well that they almost pass as a real feature of the Capuchin monkey, remaining just off enough to supply an uncanny undertone that harmonizes wonderfully with the overt absurdity of a talking monkey in a suit and tie. Jack’s face is, of course, blank, and his gaze flits randomly, but depending on dialogue Lynch chooses to put in his mouth he can appear lovesick, resentful, or nervous. That’s a wonderful surrealist illusion. The result, while arguably slim, is still arresting and worth your time—and it goes without saying, a must-see for Lynch completists.

I showed it to a young Lynch neophyte; her main takeaway was “Jack is cute!”

Netflix’s business practices give them a lot to answer for, but they deserve credit when they get it right.  “What Did Jack Do?” is a super-niche offering that won’t be bringing the streamer new subscribers, but they’ve done a hell of a service to the cinephile community by making it available at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s weird as hell, man, and I can’t get enough of it.”–Miles Surrey, The Ringer (Netflix release)

CAPSULE: SICILIAN GHOST STORY (2017)

O Fantasma da Sicília

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

FEATURING: Julia Jedlikowska, Gaetano Fernandez

PLOT: A dreamy 12-year old Sicilian girl loses her grip when her young beau disappears without explanation.

Still from Sicilian Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sicilian Ghost Story has drawn comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth for its young protagonist using imagination to cope with harsh reality. It can’t live up to that (perhaps unfair) comparison, however.

COMMENTS: The sense of being in an ancient land where myth and magic, though gone fallow, might spring into life again at any time is an animating spirit of Sicilian Ghost Story. An adolescent character even fantasizes about modernity fading away so he could see the frolicking nymphs and hear the notes from Pan’s flute from the Sicily of yore. Ruins of Roman temples on an outcropping over the beach where the teens play in the surf remind us that all traces of ancient world have not yet passed away.

But ancient gods are not the only spirits around. The mafia also haunts this Sicilian town. No one speaks of them directly, but Luna’s parents forbid the girl from seeing Giuseppe, who seems like a fine boy, because of dark hints about his father. When the boy stops coming to school, no one besides Luna brings it up. She hands out fliers with the Giuseppe’s face on them; tight-lipped, no one offers a lead.

So far, the movie has been a straight drama, a chaste tween love story with a hint of mystery, but then Luna’s visions kick in. As if touched by a prophecy sent from one of those ancient gods, Luna sees the vanished Giuseppe; later, she has a visions of a house, partially underwater. Some of her dreams may be actual clues to the boy’s whereabouts. Queasy pans, blurry screens, and confusion between what is happening inside and outside of Luna’s mind add a fog of disorientation.

The two young leads do an admirable job. The movie’s overall tone is low-key, elegiac, and more than a little depressing. It ultimately shoots for a sense of hope, although the best it can come up with is a life-goes-on shrug coupled with an imperative to not forget. Appropriately so, because, magical realist love story aside, Sicilian Ghost Story is based on a real-life kidnapping that scandalized Sicily in the 1990s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the strangest and most creative films released so far this year… a dreamlike, sometimes downright disorientating experience sustained by a tender heart beating beneath harsh realism.”–Ross Miller, The National (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRY BLOOD (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Kelton Jones

FEATURING: Clint Carney, Jaymie Valentine, Kelton Jones

PLOT: As Brian navigates his way through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol in a semi-secluded cabin, he may or may not be killing people.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would have taken a far worse script (as it stands, it hits “Competent Soap Opera” level) or far more inspired acting (see previous parentheses; where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him?) to turn this into something of interest for us. Dry Blood is either a missed opportunity for a serious allegory on substance abuse, or a missed opportunity for mad-jack violent ambiguity.

COMMENTS: I typically avoid doing research on new releases, preferring to make my remarks based solely on the film’s merits. Somehow, though, I discovered that Dry Blood garnered a lot of awards. A whole lot of them. Would I say that Dry Blood deserved those Best Writer/Picture/Director/ and Actor awards? Oh no. Ohhh deary me, no. Unfortunately this movie isn’t that good. More unfortunately, it isn’t quite bad enough, either.

Brian (Clint Carney, who is to Nicolas Cage what James Belushi is to John Belushi) wakes up hung-over in his car and leaves a message for his ex-girlfriend to come and help him to sober up in his mountain cabin. Strung out on pills—primarily; we also see problems with alcohol, cocaine, and references to more injectable varieties of distractors—he keeps seeing glimpses of corpses, standing and otherwise, around his cozy abode. A local sheriff (Kelton Jones) keeps popping into his life uninvited, typically delivering a line of non sequitur dialogue (“Do you know where I could score any dope?”) before stating, “I didn’t say anything”. Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Anna (Jaymie Valentine), finally shows up and the duo morphs into a trio as the plot builds toward its inevitable mental collapse where we lose all ability to judge what’s real and what isn’t.

That in mind, Dry Blood does two things well. First, there’s the unreliable narration. Everything is viewed from Brian’s perspective, and he is obviously a troubled man. He becomes increasingly aware of this, but his heightened grasp on whether or not something is real somehow works to our disadvantage. Dead woman in the shower? Probably not there. Strange hair ribbons around key props (drug baggy, rusted knife)? Probably put there by Brian—for reasons unexplored. The arrival of his ex-girlfriend (not to be confused with the fourth main character, his ex-wife) should give us a greater grip on the proceedings, but she just muddies the water with platitudes and stilted delivery.

As for the second thing, it’s this film’s only true saving grace. Kelton Jones should really think about pursuing a career specializing in creepy cop characters. The sheriff seems plucked straight from the nightmare version of Super Troopers (Broken Lizard, if you’re reading, get on that right now). Whether he’s fondling his revolver during a “friendly conversation” or pulling over poor Brian “just to say good morning,” he’s a hoot. But he’s the film’s only hoot.

Which is a shame, because this movie could have been a fascinating depiction of the addiction-recovery cycle. Dry Blood begins and ends with Brian leaving different messages for Anna about wanting to sober up. Unfortunately, it over-plays its horror-hand and hitches its wagon (to mix metaphors for a moment) fully to standard genre gore-play. Brian never learns from his mistakes; having watched this movie on the heels of Odissea della Morte, it would appear that I never learn from mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As you’d expect, the nature of the ghosts becomes more ambiguous as the film progresses, but the results are less of a clever attempt to mess with the viewer’s head or convey a filmic portrait of drug-addled mania and more just bafflingly incomprehensible.”–Sol Harris, Starburst (contemporaneous)