Tag Archives: Confusing

CAPSULE: THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Julius Onah

FEATURING: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang

PLOT: Scientists orbit the Earth attempting to use a particle accelerator to solve the world’s energy crisis, but accidentally open a portal to a parallel universe.

Still from The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When we first heard of The Cloverfield Paradox, it never occurred to us to consider it as a weird movie, given the straight sci-fi nature of the series’ two previous installments. But quotes like “might get a bit weird” and “it’s just sort of…..weird” from average-Joe reviewers out there put it on our radar screen. And by gum, they were right: it is “a bit” and “sort of” weird. But unfortunately, it’s not worth watching for fans of weird films, and will only appeal to the most dedicated remaining fans of the Cloverfield franchise, while driving many away from the series.

COMMENTS: I’m a fan of producer J.J. Abrams’ concept of making each movie set in the Cloverfield universe in a different style (I really want to see what they’ll do with the romantic comedy Cloverfield, I Love You), but the “confusing sci-fi B-movie with dodgy quantum science” genre was a bad choice for this third entry. The Cloverfield Paradox is so bad that it looks like a potential franchise-killer. Greenlighting this script is a hard-to-justify choice after the series just hit an unexpected peak with its second movie, the Twilight Zone-y thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane.

On The Cloverfield Paradox‘s parallel universe version of CNN, a talking head author warns of the dangers of mankind’s desperate space-based attempt to solve its debilitating energy crisis: “Every time they test [the particle accelerator] they risk tearing open the membrane of space-time, smashing together multiple dimensions, shattering reality…” As is always the case in bad B-movies, the wild-eyed guy with the off-the-wall jargon-laced theory he pulled out of his ass is (surprise) actually correct. Paradox‘s plot is bonkers, in a bad way. It adopts a mumbo-jumbo parallel universe theory in which anything can happen; there’s no rule book to follow, so the screenwriters are free to be as lazy as they want to, in pursuit of cheap special effects payoffs. In particular, one bizarre bit involving Chris O’Dowd’s arm beggars belief. I won’t spoil it (although other reviewers have detailed it to make a point about how absurd this movie’s plotting is) except to say that something  similar could easily have fit into “Twin Peaks: The Return.” The problem, of course, is that Paradox is not “Twin Peaks” in space (which would be admittedly cool). “Twin Peaks” exists in a self-contained surreal universe where suspension of disbelief is not a relevant consideration. Paradox expects us to take its revelations seriously, as (perhaps crucial) canon in an extended universe.

Aside from its off-the-rails plot, the rest of the film isn’t much better. Despite having a couple of accomplished actors in the sprawling cast (O’Dowd and Debicki), the characters are given nothing very interesting to do. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a reluctant communications officer with a tragic past, does her best to generate some sympathy in a lost cause. The rest of the satellite crew make little impact, but the worst offender is the lone Chinese member, who is given minimal dialogue for one simple reason: she can’t speak English. How hard can it be to find a Chinese actress who speaks a little broken English, even phonetically? Can the other crew members actually see her subtitles when she speaks? Given the singular importance of this mission to all of mankind, why waste a precious slot on a crew member who can only communicate with her trilingual German boyfriend?

A minor quibble, perhaps, but a movie made up of nothing but a series of minor quibbles quickly grows old. Another example: the ship’s onboard gravity generator saves the filmmakers from having to deal with cool-looking but expensive zero-G realities, but is explained away with a hand-wave. A few cool moments, like the discovery of a woman in the walls and some independently moving eyeballs, can’t salvage the general feeling that the movie is punching way above its weight class, and getting pummeled in the process. Watch Paradox long enough, and you’re sure to say “I have no idea what’s going on.” A fine reaction for a movie, but not the effect Julius Onah was going for.

Paradox was adapted from a script called The God Particle and retrofitted for the Cloverfield universe. Although a similar gamble paid off in 10 Cloverfield Lane, this outing suggests that a new strategy of producing films actually designed to fit into the series is warranted. The producers decided not to waste everyone’s time with a theatrical release, instead dumping Paradox onto Netflix as a surprise release after Super Bowl LII. A fourth Cloverfield movie is planned, but to succeed, it will need to find a way to overcome this Paradox.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The filmmaking is incredibly bland, the story can’t figure out if it’s having fun with the weirdness or not, and the tie in to Cloverfield is gimmicky, leaving you with way more questions than answers.”–Joey Magidson, Hollywood News (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGUISH (1987)

Recommended

 

DIRECTED BY: Bigas Luna

FEATURING: Zelda Rubinstein, , Talia Paul

PLOT: An audience watches a movie about a serial killer under hypnotic control by his mother killing off patrons of a movie theater, while themselves being victims of an obsessed killer prowling their own theater.

Still from Anguish (1987)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: You are getting very sleepy, back and forth, watch the metronome. Once you were like a snail, hiding in your shell. Now you’re on an elevator, going down to the twentieth floor, the nineteenth, the eighteenth… when you land, you will become one with us in nominating this unique thriller onto the List as one of the weirdest film experiences to be fooouuunnnd.

COMMENTS: As you read this review, if at any time you feel your mind leaving your body, you should cease reading immediately. Your humble author didn’t follow this warning, and look how I turned out. No really, we’re just passing along the William Castle-like warnings from the beginning of the film. But it’s good advice anyway, because this horror flick starts out invoking standard slasher fare, but ends up reminding you more of The Cabin in the Woods. We meet the creepy old lady Alice (Zelda Rubinstein) and her grown adult son John (Michael Lerner, also in Barton Fink) who live together in a house otherwise occupied by pet snails and pigeons. John is an eye doctor who is ironically going blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and his mother hypnotizes him into murdering people so he can harvest their eyes for her. Not that she’s motivated to cure his ailing vision; oh no, the eyes are just to increase her witchy powers. Among her many talents is the ability to remotely hear conversations by listening to a seashell, and project her own consciousness into her son’s mind when he’s out and about. And for a man losing his vision, John throws a pretty mean scalpel anyway.

But did you think that was the whole movie? Ha, just kidding, this is actually a movie about a theater audience watching the above movie, and getting melodramatically distressed at it. As the hypnotic scenes commence, the audience falls under the spell, variously swaying into a trance, or squirming uncomfortably as if they were held against their will to watch. Ah, but we go back to the movie they’re watching, and now John, in a quest for fresh victims at his mother’s behest, invades yet another movie theater showing The Lost World. Even this black-and-white dinosaur adventure holds its audience enthralled enough to provide great cover for John to quietly off the victims and collect the eyeballs, in between dinosaur roars. A young lady leaves what is revealed to be the theater showing The Mommy, where we’re now starting to get lost as to which layer of of movie we’re in. As we follow the distressed girl getting her bearings in the theater bathroom, we realize that she wasn’t watching The Lost World, but The Mommy, the movie we’ve been mostly concerned with up until now.

Just when we’re begging not to get anymore confused, a new murder plot forms around the people watching The Mommy. As the events of The Mommy continue, the movie theater staff and eventually the audience watching it are preyed upon by a new killer, even as John in The Mommy scalpels victims in his own theater while this new killer prefers a trusty gun. From here on out, events blur between the two theaters, as the film practically dares you to keep up. The new killer huddles in the bathroom and also babbles “mother”; it turns out he’s a fan obsessed with The Mommy. Both killers barricade the doors of their respective theaters, the better to trap victims for an all-out rampage. At times you’re watching an audience watching an audience, at other times you’re asking which bathroom we’re in, and at times even The Lost World’s events blend with the various audiences’ experiences. And guess what? We’re not done shifting points of reality yet, because it turns out we were watching a movie in a movie in a movie… or something. And you thought Inception was hard to follow!

If you’re a big fan of Zelda Rubinstein, who also plays the spooky psychic from the Poltergeist series, then this is your party. Rubinstein dominates the earliest film, her dulciloquent baby-doll voice rasping away and chanting hypnotic spells as her face fills the screen in between shots of whirling spirals, ticking metronomes, rocking lights, and sometimes shots filmed with a spinning camera—bring your barf bag. This goes on for most of the inner movie (and the movie’s movie, and the movie’s movie’s movie…), and when it’s not, the visuals establish artistic motifs around eyes and spirals until it switches to the stacked-movie premise, which invites us to ponder the thin wall between violent movies and obsessed fans (which gets uncomfortably close to later real-life events, even). Anguish does everything it can to drill itself into your conscious. It’s a corkscrew roller-coaster ride through a hall of mirrors, smartly setting you up for an expectation and then veering off into a new curve. While it has some flaws, such as the secondary cast at times giving  performances so wooden they smells like lemony furniture polish, Anguish works its ass off to end up giving you several movies in one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Well, after seeing it in an actual movie theatre (one eerily similar to the two featured in the film), I can safely say that this deeply weird endeavour definitely needs to be seen at a proper movie theatre.”–Yum-Yum, House of Self-Indulgence

301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

Recommended

Mi ni te gong dui; AKA Dragon Attack

“If it sounds ridiculous, that’s only because it was.”– Jackie Chan on Fantasy Mission Force (quoted in Keith Bailey, “The Unknown Movies”)

DIRECTED BY: Yen-Ping Chu

FEATURING: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Yu Wang (Jimmy Wang Yu), Yueh Sun, David Tao, Jin Fang, Shiu Bu Lia, Ling Chang

PLOT: Four Allied generals have been captured by the Japanese. Mercenary Don Wen is hired to liberate them, and recruits a team which includes “Old Sun,” escape artist “Greased Lightning,” two kilt-wearing soldiers, con man Billy, and Lilly, Billy’s bazooka-toting on-and-off girlfriend who tags along when she hears about the cash reward. Tailed by rogues Sammy and Emily, the team encounters Amazons and a haunted house on their way to a surprisingly bloody showdown with the kidnappers.

Still from Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Yen-Ping Chu (sometimes credited as “Lawrence Full” or “Kevin Chu”) is the director of sixty-five (mostly kung fu and comedy) films; this is his only effort which is marginally well-known in the West.
  • According to persistent but unconfirmed rumors, a Triad-connected movie mogul ordered a hit on Jackie Chan when he decided to change studios. Jimmy Wang Yu intervened to settle the dispute, and as part of the deal Chan agreed to lend his growing star power to two of Wang’s movies (this being one).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An ambush by ribbon-shooting ninjas? Bloody ghost hands waving wads of toilet paper? Assault of the Road Warrior-Japanese-punk Nazis? Your opinion on this one is as good as ours, and it’s likely to change many times during the movie as some new amazement pops up. We’ll just go with any shot of the assembled team: Old Sun in his top hat, Brigitte Lin in black leather with a bazooka, Billy in his white suit and Elvis sideburns, the kilt-wearing pair of misfits… as weird a group ever formed to fight an anachronistic battle against fascist kidnappers somewhere in Canada, Luxembourg, or Taiwan.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Scottish/Chinese mercenaries; toilet paper ghosts; Japanese Nazis in Chevys

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Packed with kung fu, shootouts, flying ninjas, hopping vampires, and slapstick comedy reminiscent of Benny Hill, Fantasy Mission Force is one of the only commercial entertainments ever released where you can honestly say you have no idea what will happen next. It’s a pulp surrealism masterpiece, set in a previously undiscovered movie universe at the conjunction of the Shaw Brothers, , and the Three Stooges.


Original Cantonese trailer for Fantasy Mission Force

COMMENTS: Although some reviewers are reluctant to discuss the Continue reading 301. FANTASY MISSION FORCE (1983)

270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Continue reading 270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

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: HORSE MONEY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pedro Costa

FEATURING: Ventura, Vitalina Varela

PLOT: A retired bricklayer from Cape Verde with a military background wanders through rooms and corridors in some kind of institution, taking visits from people from his past and mixing up flashbacks with present day reality.

Still from Horse Money (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The artistic value is high, but the story is so vague, insular and shadowy that, unless you’re an expatriate Cape Verdean intellectual or a careful follower of director Pedro Costa’s career, there’s not much to latch on to.

COMMENTS: After a slideshow of vintage stills of impoverished New Yorkers, Horse Money opens with Ventura (a non-actor playing a version of himself, who previously played what may be the same character in director Pedro Costa’s 2006 semi-documentary Colossal Youth) wandering, in red underwear, through dungeonlike stone corridors, which eventually turn into the blank industrial hallways of a nameless institution. The stone passages may be the crumbling pathways of his mind; Ventura may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or he may be dead and lost in a kind of purgatory. A doctor, or some other official, asks him his name and age; his answers are not always correct, or even responsive. He answers the question “Do you sleep well?” with “A big black bird came up on my roof.” In the hospital (if that’s what it is) he is visited by, or stumbles upon, people he has known throughout his life; some of whom may be dead. A woman from his past speaks only in a whisper and reads off records of births, deaths and marriages from a notary’s register; another visitor is revealed as an ex-friend with whom he got into a knife fight years ago. The climax (if such a word may be used for a film this quiet and subdued) is a long dialogue in an elevator between Ventura and a soldier in metallic green paint who stands statue-still and never moves his lips.

You will be confused. The confusion is purposeful; it enforces an atmosphere of dementia. The cinematography is dark, with shadows dominating nearly every frame, faces carefully lit so that their personalities emerge from a general murk. The anachronistic, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio induces a quiet claustrophobia. The movie’s overall feeling is resignation, and a sense of a character coming to grips with the fact that a hard, laborious life is slipping away. Ventura, whose hand shakes uncontrollably, is perfectly authentic in the role. He’s playing himself, mostly, but he’s also an everyman for his community of poor, working class immigrants, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

Horse Money is beautifully shot and dignifies its subject. It strives to be hypnotic, although too often it drifts from the merely dreamy towards deep, oblivious slumber. If the film makes it to DVD (not a home run proposition) fans of graceful, atmospheric minimalism will want to take a look; but even among weirdophiles, this is not a general interest movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of formidable discontinuity that takes the form of a dream.“–Jonathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (2014)

Adieu au Language; Goodbye to Language 3D

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Héloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli

PLOT: A squabbling couple who speak in philosophical fragments adopt a stray dog.

Still from Goodbye to Language (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Godard might as well have called this one Film Socialisme 2: This Time, It’s Even More Inscrutably Personal. After a 55 year filmmaking career, Godard has earned the right to amuse himself with indulgent experiments. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

COMMENTS: Random quotes. Snatches of flamenco tunes or classical music. Audio channels switching from side to side, turning on and off. Sudden explosions of abrasive noise. Clips of classic Hollywood movies. Brief slice-of-life episodes from a couple’s love life. Contextless voiceovers declaiming on historical, political and philosophical topics. Clips from the Tour de France in supersaturated color. A dog exploring the woods. Intertitles with words like “language,” “oh” or “la metaphore” flashing onscreen. Mary Shelley composing “Frankenstein” in real time, with an ink pen. No overarching plot, discernible conceit, or visible structure. Godard approaches Adieu au Language like a senior thesis film student, breaking narrative and cinematic rules with the glee of a budding avant-gardist who believes he’s taking cinema into bold new territories no one has yet imagined. But of course, someone has already created the radically fragmented anti-cinema Adieu strives to discover: Godard himself!

Godard’s dog is the third most prominent being (you could not call them “characters”) in the film. I wonder if perhaps Adieu isn’t Godard’s attempt to view the world the way he imagines his dog sees it: a non-linguistic reality where words are just part of the bewildering barrage of nearly incomprehensible sensory information, and the non-food bits are wholly uninteresting.

I should add a caveat: Goodbye to Language was originally released in 3D. Most of us will have to imagine whether viewing the film in pop-out format would have improved it. Since I don’t find this film visually spectacular—and I have never seen any film in my entire life, with the possible exception of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that was improved by the gimmick—I doubt the extra dimension would have made a huge difference to my recommendation.

A former film critic himself, Godard has always deliberately aimed over the heads of ordinary people, making emotionless intellectual art for the theorist elites. I believe that Godard made this movie (at least partially) with the intent to annoy. I’m not sure I am part of the core audience he intends to annoy, but he hits the mark with me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the everyday world is made vivid and strange, rendered in a series of sketches and compositions by an artist with an eccentric and unerring eye.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)