Tag Archives: Australian

CAPSULE: OBSERVANCE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Sims-Dennett

FEATURING: Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King

PLOT: A man takes a job spying on a beautiful woman, for reasons unstated by his anonymous employer, from an abandoned building across from her apartment; it turns out All Is Not What It Seems.

Still from Observance (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s obvious that a lot of skill and love went into Observance‘s production, but it’s too slow at the start, and too confusing and emotionally inconclusive at the end, to merit inclusion among the best weird films of all time.

COMMENTS: The title is a clue that there’s more to Observance than a simple voyeuristic thriller—although what exactly the “more” is isn’t clear even by the end. It starts out like Rear Window, with a man spying on a woman’s life in which he is helpless to intervene, but slowly moves into The Shining territory as observer Parker’s sanity comes into question. Nothing of consequence happens on Day 1 of the observation—the target makes lasagna, Parker makes his bed—which should, perhaps, be a warning sign to the viewer. As the film progresses, things get weirder and spookier, but in small increments. The slow burn technique can be effective; I wish this one had started burning faster, though.

The dream sequences, which relate to the sort of generic family tragedy that always haunt the backstories of psychological horror protagonists, are the best parts, invoking symbols like a pricked finger dripping blood, dead rodents, and black bile (all features which recur in Parker’s squalid lodgings). Meanwhile, things get stranger in reality, too: the observer is viciously scalded by his shower, grows sickly, hallucinates… By the time the movie is halfway over, however, you’re still not sure whether it’s going to turn truly weird, or whether the script will pull out a perfectly logical (if supernatural) explanation for these events. Lovers of the weird need fear not; the ending plunges down a rabbit hole, never to resurface.

The technical aspects—cinematography and sound design—are excellent. The opening black-and-white shots of a churning tide pool underneath a craggy outcropping are like something an Australian Ansel Adams might have come up with, setting an appropriately ominous and lonesome mood. The acting is in the competent-to-good range: if anything, the script doesn’t give the actors enough to do to show off their talents. Observance comes close to being a very good movie; as it is, the dream sequences work in isolation as pieces of abstract art, but don’t inform the thin narrative, or make us care overly about the eventual fate of the characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the picture draws on everyone from Cronenberg and early Polanski to Shane Carruth in the construction of its existential mystery. While in the end many viewers will find that mystery frustratingly unresolved, many will be moved enough to talk about it…”–John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE FEAR OF DARKNESS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Fitchett

FEATURING: Penelope Mitchell, Maeve Dermody, Aaron Pederson

PLOT: A young psychologist treats the suspect in a bizarre murder case and confronts a dark supernatural force in the girl’s unconscious.

Still from The Fear of Darkness (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird aspect of this horror film is the supernatural force of darkness. Otherwise this follows the naturalist form of the crime psychological thriller.

COMMENTS: If you believe in string theory, then in some parallel universe this film got all of its elements right and rose above the mediocre offering here. It probably even won an Oscar. First off, the alternate universe screenwriters would have researched the particulars of psychology rather than the Googled armchair-shrink efforts on display here—especially the vague experimental practices employed by Dr. Sarah Faithful to elicit trauma and screaming from murder suspect Skye Williams. Faithful’s Dr./cop friend defends these practices to unnerved observers with a dismissive “I trust her, she knows what she’s doing”.

Secondly, the producers would’ve hired a competent director who doesn’t pander to the hackneyed jump-scares that we’ve all seen a million times before, and who has a vision for the film beyond perfunctory soap opera camera set-ups and dark corners where special effects lurk. The kind of director who would have lifted the performances of seemingly credible actors, and who doesn’t make a genuine talent like Aaron Pederson look like he’s a year out of acting school. Again, screenwriters who deliver non-perfunctory dialogue would have assisted everyone in this department.

Through this combination of clever screenwriting and solid direction, tension would have been built and the audience would care about either Faithful or William’s fates, so that the M. Night Shyamalan-like twist ending of invented identity would hit home and register as deeply in the minds of the audience as the darkness is said to exist in Skye’s mind. Sadly we have no way of viewing that phenomenal parallel universe version of The Fear of Darkness, we only have the sad, wholly unremarkable version that exists in ours. Save yourself from the theoretical angst of “what could have been” and seek genuine scares in films like The Exorcist or The Haunting in Connecticut, films that succeed on their own terms rather than relying on the necessity of an infinite multiverse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as sinister and surreal concepts earn increasingly frequent mentions, reminding audiences that all is not as it appears, the film relishes its foreseeable twists as much as it does its formulaic conventions.”–Sarah Ward, ArtsHub (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE SUICIDE THEORY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dru Brown

FEATURING: Steve Mouzakis, Leon Cain

PLOT: A suicidal man hires a hitman to off him, but there’s a catch: the intended victim claims he’s under a curse and can’t be killed, and he miraculously survives every attempt on his life.

Still from The Suicide Theory (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Suicide Theory is a psychological thriller with an intriguing Twilight Zone-ish premise, but it’s not weird enough by a long shot.

COMMENTS: A hitman who can’t kill and a suicidal man who can’t die star in a psychological thriller that can’t… wait, we’ll cut that gibe short, because although The Suicide Theory doesn’t ultimately hit the mark it aims at, there is enough here to count as an interesting attempt. First, there is the macabre scenario, which offers opportunities for moments both chilling and blackly comic. Even more beneficial are the performances by the two leads, who forge a bond that is both sick and touching. Steve Mouzakis’ troubled assassin come off like a seedy, psychotic . Leon Cain’s role is less demonstrative, but the desperate resignation he shows as a suicidal immortal provides the appropriate counterpoint to Mouzakis’ fury.

That said, The Suicide Theory has a script whose ambitions exceed its ability to meet them. Although plot strands meet up at the end, they are more crammed into place than flowing together naturally. The resolution works, in one sense, but it doesn’t wholly satisfy, either on a literal level or a metaphorical level. Potential plot holes come to mind. If Steven were truly as ruthless as portrayed, it seems like there are at least a couple of more severe, less avoidable options for disposing of Percy that come to mind: decapitation, for example, or dissolving his body in acid. An arbitrary rule (Percy’s “theory”) requires Steven to spend time getting to know his victim; a useful contrivance from a dramatic standpoint, but it’s not successfully sold to us as a necessity. The story also arguably goes one twist to far at the end, and ultimately, the lattice of guilt the film proposes can’t support the weight of the premise. A great setup, and well-acted, but it runs out of steam at the end; it doesn’t slay, but call it a near-miss.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a contrived but weirdly compelling thriller…[l]arded with bizarre twists…”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “michael.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: E.G. Daily (voice), Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, James Cromwell

PLOT: After the porcine Babe accidentally injures Farmer Hoggett, Mrs. Hoggett (Szubanski) takes over the family farm, which immediately begins losing money. Desperate, she takes Babe to the big city for another shepherding contest (like the one that ended the first film), but the duo find more than they bargained for, including an elaborate hotel populated almost exclusively by animals.

Still from Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it’s definitely louder and more chaotic than the gentle original, this enjoyable sequel certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a bizarre miscalculation. If this website were about the 366 weirdest family films, Babe 2 might get on that list.

COMMENTS: Unlike the beloved, Oscar-nominated Babe, Babe: Pig in the City was a gigantic box-office flop, at least in the U.S. Reviews were mixed to negative (mostly negative), with the notable exception of Siskel and Ebert, who both lavished the production with praise. Audiences stayed home in droves, as they say, and the picture was D.O.A. from the first weekend. Everyone seemed to feel that the movie was too dark and sinister, and, watching the film now, one is struck by the fact that director George “Mad Max” Miller  does indeed direct the action as if he were still doing The Road Warrior, with plenty of looming close-ups shot with a fish-eyed lens and a frenetic, restless camera. There are lots of weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness touches, like the way that Mickey Rooney (who never speaks) always looks as if he was interrupted in the middle of dinner and forgot to wipe his mouth. The “big city” is positively fanciful, featuring the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House all in one town; it’s an overload of visual invention, unlike the placid, bucolic setting of the original Babe. And James Cromwell is almost MIA, showing up at only the beginning and the end.

But Babe: Pig in the City is hardly the nightmare that it’s been made out to be. Doesn’t anyone remember the frights in The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, or most of the Disney classics? In the original Babe there is a scene where Farmer Hoggett aims a gun right into the pig’s face, intending to turn him into bacon; it’s still rather startling, so the more jarring moments in the sequel, as when Babe is chased by a snarling dog, shouldn’t be that surprising. And this is one sequel, that, unlike so many others, tries to do something entirely different from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless… Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contraptions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (contemporaneous)

THE BABADOOK (2014)

After watching Babadook (2014), I am thoroughly convinced that, from here on out, producers need to consign direction of horror films to the girls. They are so much better at it than those dullard boys. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent,The Babadook is too good for genre fanboys, whose diet is commonly relegated to sophomoric cravings for trite-tasting tawdry titillation. Kent’s Babadook is for far more refined palates.

In the early days of cinema, when German Expressionism’s shadow still influenced Hollywood, the quality of horror films was such that when a studio assigned a director a horror film, it often meant his status had just been elevated several notches. Unfortunately, the boatload of hacks had their say over the years, dragging the genre to that proverbial barrel bottom. With few exceptions, horror has never recovered, and its wretched reputation today is wholly deserved. Mechanical plots, cardboard characters, blatant misogyny, moronic humor, and deafening assaults pass for imagination to a growing horror audience that has largely forgotten how to even watch a film.

The genre bucks forged an unspoken patriarchal set of genre rules, and it did not take long for the rot of banality to set in. For a brief period, it seemed as if it was on the shoulders of independent filmmakers to offer an alternative tonic. Within mere decades, however, the indies had largely succumbed to imitating the well-cashed trash of the studios, which begs the question: “What then is the point of independent film?” Why settle for a low-budget, generic product that offers the same ingredients as the name brand that preceded it? At least the name brand has a better-looking box and doesn’t cost any more than an indie festival ticket. Given the status and quality of independent filmmaking, Robert Downey Jr.’s recent dismissals and criticisms appear justified.

Yet, in her directorial debut, independent Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent evokes the childhood of cinema, via and ‘s 1926 cut-out animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed. In these films Kent locates a springboard with no preexisting rules of film and genre.

Still from The BabadookAmelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, widowed when her husband was killed in a traffic accident while taking his wife—in labor—to the hospital. Amelia’s son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), fancies himself a magician straight out of a Melies film. He is also a perennial misfit, and quite the handful. Samuel happens upon a pop-up book featuring the Babadook; a dark, shadowy figure in top hat. Through deliberate pacing, Kent routes us through the pulse of fundamental, pubescent fears. As children, many of us experienced fears such as the one Samuel finds in a simple pop-up book. Yet, The Babadook hardly stops there. This fear leaves the page and acquaints us (or reacquaints us) with a menagerie of psychological horrors.

Instead of the flash-and-trash 20-frames-per-second pacing often found in 21st century film, Kent and her actress Davis purposefully take us to a tender part of Amelia, still encased in grief and loss. The psychological pacing parallels this. With intelligent intent, the film’s mise en scène informs us as to the character’s psyches. In her dimly lit, cluttered home, Amelia’s journey of trauma grounds us in the experience of what its like losing a partner, and of the fear of a child coming up against the supernatural or inexplicable.

The elaborate sets enhance the visceral eeriness of loss; thinking yourself safe, when suddenly, via divorce or death, you find yourself alone at night in a large house that formerly offered security. A sanctuary morphs into a mausoleum, like an insomniac child imagines a dresser morphing into a monster. The muted scare tactics of Babadook are authentically frightening because the horror is relatable. For a millisecond, your imagination dances with unconscious archetypal fears.

The film abounds with deliberateness: articles of clothing look like the Babadook, the feminine is portrayed in pinks and blacks and, as the horror, unravels, the visual tones darken and engulf. Even Amelia’s sweater blackens in the middle of the night.

Redemption is found in the gift of endurance and feminine pragmatism. Rather than attempting to dispatch a monolithic demon, simply feed it, pacify it, put it in the basement and hope for the best.

*This review was done in collaboration with Aja Eaker.

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: , Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)