Tag Archives: 2019

CAPSULE: LIGHT YEARS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Colin Thompson

FEATURING: Colin Thompson, Russell Posner, Makenzie Leigh

PLOT: A man takes psychedelic mushrooms on the anniversary of his friend’s death and relives a mushroom trip they had together when they were sixteen.

Still from Light Years (2019)

COMMENTS: The hinted-at plot in Light Years never really develops. Instead, what happens is that we watch a trio of likable kids nervously score mushrooms, take mushrooms, try to hold it together without their parents finding out they’re high on mushrooms, go to a high school party on mushrooms, chop wood at midnight (on… you get the idea), and generally just hang out. The movie is light, as its title implies. The mood is nostalgic, like The Wonder Years—on mushrooms. There’s not a lot in the way of a meaningful ongoing story— although there are lots of incidents—and really only token character development. The story is framed as an elegy for Kevin’s friend Briggs, who died under circumstances that aren’t relevant to the movie, and what it does well is to capture the carefree pleasure of teenage camaraderie. You can tell, without even looking at the end credits disclaimer stating that the film was inspired by actual events, that it’s based on writer/director Colin Thompson’s real life experiences. There’s no other possible explanation for the movie’s existence.

The acting is unexpectedly decent. Pimply Briggs (Russell Posner) actually looks and acts like a high school sophomore, with an unselfconscious awkwardness and endearingly goofy mannerisms, like the ghoulish open-faced smile he routinely breaks into. He and Kevin have a real chemistry, sharing a private ritual where they spar with improvised dialogue in increasingly silly voices. This chemistry is more remarkable due to the fact that young Kevin is (most of the time) played by old Kevin, the heavily-stubbled-and-clearly-not-a-teenager Colin Thompson. Thompson also plays—again, most of the time—the third friend, Larry; and, in drag, he also takes the roles of his own ex, and the mom of the kid who’s throwing a keg party for the high schoolers and bringing along a tray of jello shots, and a lot of the extras. All these Kevins appear partly because of a subtext that Kevin is a narcissist. But mainly it’s just a part of the director’s trip-disorientation strategy, one that also includes abrupt changes in film stock, occasional collage-style montages and music videos, video warping and glitching, and animated characters appearing in the unused corners of the film (recurring cartoon characters like a cutout of adult Kevin’s dog, and some kind of derp-faced flying cat in a sailor cap).

The thought that Light Years inspires most in me is the question: is psychedelic cinema a legitimate subgenre? Despite the possibilities for deep introspection psychedelics promise, the “trip movie” rarely features any kind of serious plot or philosophy; it’s almost always an excuse for stylistic and technical experimentation. A short line of (almost) non-narrative movies beginning with The Trip seek to recreate the feeling and experience of being on psychedelic drugs for the audience. The hallucinatory qualities of psychedelics are easy (and fun!) to symbolize visually, but the experience of having your brain’s natural neurotransmitters temporarily pranked by chemical interlopers—the complex combination of euphoria, wonder, anxiety and confusion—is harder to reproduce. In the most successful trip film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, scenes of Hunter S. Thompson enjoying cocktails in a Vegas lounge surrounded by kitschy dinosaurs, or trying to redeem his hotel reservation while the desk clerk’s face warps unpredictably, effectively recreate the edginess of druggy disorientation. But that movie works on multiple levels: as drug porn, sure, but also as a straight-out comedy, and as a dual-edged social satire of both the dominant 1960s culture and of the very subculture it superficially celebrates. Light Years is not quite light years away from that achievement, but it does suggest that hallucinations alone can only take a movie so far. LSD has been around, on film and in life, for six decades now; it’s no longer novel or outrageous, merely naughty. A trip is not enough to sustain a great film; you need a plot and/or a deeper theme to carry you across the finish line.

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

CAPSULE: PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: Surrealist director-cum-therapist Alejandro Jodorowsky describes his own variant of psychotherapy, which involves patients undergoing rituals such as smashing pumpkins with family member’s faces on them or recreating their own births.

Still from psychomagic, a healing art (2019)

COMMENTS: Psychomagic, A Healing Art raises three questions: 1. Is “psychomagic” a revolutionary (or even a valid) form of psychotherapy? 2. Does Psychomagic tell us something about Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s personal and artistic philosophy? And, 3. Is it worth watching?

Most people will answer the first question “probably not.” Jodorowsky takes us through just over a dozen hand-selected case studies, all apparent successes, but with no long term followups. One subject, a man who seems to be cured of his stuttering, looks like an impressive triumph—but for all we know the man is stumbling over his words again as I type this. It goes without saying that Jodorowsky’s theories haven’t been tested or peer reviewed. But Jodorowsky specifically and deliberately characterizes psychomagic is a healing art, not a healing science—and it may be closer to faith healing than to either. There’s no doubt that, among people who are already motivated to fix their emotional problems (and who don’t mind looking ridiculous), a shamanistic ritual—especially a needlessly elaborate one recommended by a trusted guru—is a promising way to invoke the placebo effect. As a discipline, though, psychomagic’s efficacy is especially limited by the fact that the school has a single practitioner, one who relies on his personal charisma more than any other tool. Only those who are already true Jodoworskians will buy that psychomagic is the therapeutic breakthrough the director wants us to believe in.

You’ll be more likely to answer the question of whether Psychomagic reveals something significant about Jodorowsky in the affirmative. In the final stage of his career, the renaissance that began with 2013’sThe Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky’s work has turned from the explicitly mystical to the explicitly autobiographical. In Psychomagic, he illustrates each case study with a similar clip or two from his own movies. When he asks a man to fasten a photograph of his father to a helium balloon and send it to the heavens, he shows a similar balloon scene from Endless Poetry; he recycles an idea from Tusk and re-purposes it as couple’s therapy.  Jodorowsky has been frank about his strained relationship with his distant, macho father, revelations which may start to color the way you look at the father-son relationship in El Topo. You may be led to ponder: have the elaborately staged, ritualistic scenes in Jodorowsky’s early movies been a form of self-therapy all along? Is his whole corpus psychomagic?

And for the final question: even though there doesn’t seem to be too much to psychomagic, is the film worth watching? For deep Jodorowsky fans, the answer is obvious (and moot). For more casual followers, it’s iffy: I’d prioritize the narrative films (skipping Tusk) first, then tackle this as a supplement if you’re fascinated by the man behind those extravagantly esoteric movies. The scenes we see in Pyschomagic often resemble sequences from a Jodorowsky movie enacted by amateurs on a low budget. For example, our stutterer dresses up like Donald Duck and rides the teacups at Euro Disney, then lets Alejandro grab his testicles to transfer manly energy, then is painted gold and sent out into the streets to recite poetry. Some of the patients’ confessions are so painfully raw (a woman whose fiance committed suicide, an octogenarian in deep depression) that they feel unpleasantly voyeuristic, and there’s also some menstrual self-portraiture to be wary of. But it wouldn’t be much of a Jodorowsky movie if there weren’t moments that made you want to look away, would it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Thankfully, Jodo’s latest is also way too weird to be hagiographic. It’s indulgent, absurd, frustrating, and more than a little gross. It’s also idiosyncratic and funny enough, and in ways that Jodo’s fans will probably love.”–Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SYNCHRONIC (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides

PLOT: New Orleans paramedics discover that a series of bizarre deaths are linked to a new designer drug called “synchronic.”

Still from Synchronic (2019)

COMMENTS: The designer drug “Synchronic” is not “red marijuana,” as some (including us) had speculated, but comes in pill form and is passingly described as “bath salts.” The “chronic” in the drug’s name doesn’t reference weed at all, but has a different derivation, and the movie doesn’t have any relation to the story shared in Moorhead and Benson’s Resolution and The Endless. Synchronic is, instead, a slightly bigger-budgeted turn towards the mainstream for the pair, with two moderate movie star leads in Anthony Mackie (Marvel universe’s “Falcon”) and Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Gray).

Unusually, I found Synchronic‘s dramatic setup more entertaining than its sci-fi twist. Steve (Mackie) drinks a lot and pops codeine pills. Is he turning into a “junkie paramedic cliche,” as his partner fears, or is there a deeper reason? While Steve is an aging bachelor still playing the field, Dennis (Dornan) long ago settled down with a wife and kid. Each partner envies the other’s lifestyle just a little.  Dennis’ daughter, Tara, is a good kid but, like a lot of 18-year-olds, unsure what she wants to do with her life; right now, her passion is for staying out all night partying. Meanwhile, the two paramedics are called into scenes where they find zonked-out druggies with strange, sometimes inexplicable injuries—like the skull-faced voodoo practitioner who won’t stop laughing despite his compound fracture—all linked to a new designer drug that’s plaguing the city.

So the characters are likable, their situations dramatic and relatable, and they’re all set up for a speculative blast that will blow the hinges off. The problem is that when the sci-fi twist arrives, it’s basic and contrived, and not weird enough to compensate for its unbelievability. The drug’s mechanism is revealed in explicit detail less than halfway through the movie, taking away a potential source of mystery. If you accept the silly premise, what follows is logical—too logical. Even the characters’ emotional arcs are predictable. The trippy promise of the opener, with reality dissolving and reassembling as the synchronic kicks in on an elevator ride, never materializes. All in all, it’s like a run-of-the-mill episode of the “X-Files”; watchable, but nothing special. Synchronic would have been a promising debut film from a new director, but it’s a bit of a letdown from a duo who looked like they were pushing boundaries and getting weirder and weirder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With believability being pushed too far, and the film’s direction needing a tighter pace, even the surreal visual effects and trippy weirdness aren’t quite enough to make it work.”–Zoe Margolis, CineVue (festival screening)