Tag Archives: Conspiracy

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

PLOT: A bartender and a divorcee witness supernatural phenomena and fall into an increasingly disturbing—and increasingly compromised—investigation into patterns, aliens, multiple dimensions, and secret societies as they try to come to terms with their own reality.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Returning to their Endless musings, this filmmaking duo once again fuse unsettling metaphysics with comedy-tinged chamber drama, creating a fantasy which straddles the cosmically significant and the piercingly mundane.

COMMENTS: Levi has the aura of a past-his-prime surfer bro, crashing through life as he tries to stay ahead of an unfortunate criminal past. He awakens in a spartan apartment, crummy even by dirt-cheap Los Angeles standards, and encounters another tenant in the side alley. Bumming a cigarette, Levi learns in brief that this is John, who recently separated from his husband—and so is new to the whole “smoking” thing. They hit it off, more or less, despite John being a bit stilted and over-eager and Levi being disconcertingly cryptic; is Levi actually a bartender? And what’s this “charity” work he mentions? After John drops off some old furniture in a neighborly gesture, the trap is sprung for their strange investigation: there’s a play of light through a crystal ashtray, and as Levi enters from the kitchen, both men witness it hovering.

The LA setting and pervasive mystery-cum-layered-conspiracies brings to mind Under the Silver Lake, but this digs more deeply through time and space while achieving a personal, claustrophobic tone. Nearly all the action—supernatural and otherwise—occurs in the two-room apartment. (Well, three-room, I suppose, but we never see an oft-mentioned bedroom.) While John and Levi pursue answers to the localized irregularities (suspects come to include an ancient Pythagorean Society, pre-historic alien visitors, and brain maggots from cats), the pair attempt to document their findings. However, both are prone to lying and to showmanship. What is on-screen is unreliable, and there may be nothing really going on outside the norm.

But that’s the point. This is actually a film about two men, reaching middle age, having achieved nothing. John is professionally washed-up and a member of an evangelical apocalypse cult, Levi is a registered sex offender (for reasons both amusing and tragically bureaucratic), burdened by guilt over his responsibility for his sister’s unfortunate downfall. The exploration of the mystery around them acts as a vehicle for their own self-revelation. A poignant scene near the finale has the pair of them recording the other, going blow-by-blow about how they’re both losers who have either destroyed their lives or never built one in the first place; as they exchange accusations, every item in the apartment floats around ominously.

The cinematic world of Something in the Dirt exists within The Endless‘ troubling confines, and the ultimate fate that Levi faces echoes that risked by the two brothers in their earlier film (itself an expansion of the vision first laid out in Resolution). The implication is that the inscrutable entity which is playing with time and space is now broadening its grip. The nonsensical conspiracy-fluff behind the rabbit holes within rabbit holes is interesting (“We’re not going into Dan Brown territory, are we?” a skeptical Levi inquires of John early on), but the meat of Benson and Moorhead’s message is closer to the philosophy found in Steppenwolf. We are doomed to repeat and re-digest this farce that is our life; but this condemnation brings with it our hope for salvation. Eventually, we might figure out the true pattern, and everything will make sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once again, Benson and Moorhead prove that they can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.”–Chris Evangelista, Slash Film (festical screening)

CAPSULE: THE SCARY OF SIXTY-FIRST (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Dasha Nekrasova

FEATURING: Betsey Brown, Madeline Quinn, Dasha Nekrasova, Mark Rapaport

PLOT: Two roommates rent a bargain flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein.

Still form The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)

COMMENTS: The awkwardly-titled The Scary of Sixty-First is equally awkwardly made. It feels like an adaptation of a Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy podcast that realized it didn’t have enough crazy ideas to spin into a feature film, so a horror movie subplot was added. At least half the film is spent rehashing the Epstein case without developing any deranged (or even interesting) new theories: there’s the discovery of some arguably pedophilic tarot cards, some real estate research to see if Epstein’s properties form a pentagram, and a doppelganger of Ghislaine Maxwell (who looks almost nothing like the now-convicted socialite—intentionally?) walking around Manhattan, but the hints of occultism never really take root. A lot of potential craziness goes uncrazed: if they could have Q-Anoned the Epstein case into some kind of pareidoliac parody involving the ghost of RFK running a secret cabal out of a fleet of taco trucks or something, they might have had a movie.

While Scary does nothing wrong, cinematically, there is a strong “first film” sensibility at work here. As bold as the choice to center the movie around a contemporary atrocity might be, the rest of the stylistic choices tend to the conventional. The acting isn’t up to snuff: co-writer/director Dasha Nekrasova is fine, but co-writer Madeline Quinn (as roommate Noelle) gives some distractingly flat line readings, and minor characters (a crystal shop owner) go too far into caricature. Fortunately, Betsey Brown’s Addie saves the day—after she gets possessed—with sexual hysterics that include what surely will be the most bizarre Prince Andrew-themed masturbation sequence of the year.

Noelle, and Dasha Nekrasova’s nameless conspiracist, are humorless (although sometimes funny—“Have you heard of Pizzagate?”), and their investigation goes nowhere. Nor do their characters provide psychological insights into their obsession—as far as we can tell, it’s simply a product of boredom, and maybe too much White Claw and Vyvanse. Addie, on the other hand, is neurotic and (it’s hinted) kinky even before being possessed by the spirits haunting this orgy flophouse of the damned. Her erotic antics provide the freakiest moments: besides her multiple self-pleasure scenes, including one that’s intercut with an asphyxiation, there’s some really out-of-bounds roleplay during intercourse with her douchey boyfriend that ends with a nod to The Exoricst. Rent it for the promised rabbit hole horror; but if you chose to stay, stay for the sex in this surprisingly horny female-driven horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One oddity worth a look for the adventurous is Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, which is exactly as peculiar and WTF as that not-quite-grammatical title… too eccentric for any easy classification.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: None listed

FEATURING: None listed

PLOT: An unemployed man becomes obsessed with a murder that happened in a nearby apartment complex, but his investigation turns paranoid as he imagines a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Still from Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

COMMENTS: Though taking its starting cue from a real-life murder, Murder Death Koreatown is, it’s safe to say, fictional, as you will doubtlessly decide for yourself by the time its deranged protagonist starts spouting theories about the Pastors, ghosts, and voices speaking to him from the sewers. It’s like a re-edited version of one of those paranoid YouTube videos that leave you wondering whether the uploader is genuinely crazy or is just stringing you along for the lulz, or like Under the Silver Lake remade on a $100 budget in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Our unemployed, over-stressed narrator begins by following (real-looking) blood splatters on his sidewalk, and then discovering that one of his neighbors murdered her husband in a neighboring apartment complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. He discovers some minor inconsistencies, and interviews some (real-looking) locals to see if they noticed anything unusual. As his investigation continues, he starts uncovering connections which aren’t really connections—and which sometimes don’t even rise to the level of coincidences—but which are completely obvious and convincing to the protagonist. We ought to be suspicious when we focuses the camera on the blinds in his apartment and marvels, “look at this weird light…” (we have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a hint that he takes significance from stuff we wouldn’t even notice). Also, unless you’re Dale Cooper, it’s never a good idea to admit evidence from your dreams into a murder investigation. It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that the movie is a believable study of one man’s descent into delusional paranoia.

Your enjoyment of Murder Death Koreatown will be linked to your tolerance for watching feature-length shot-on-cellphone vlogs. The movie is, by necessity, talky—there are no significant effects or action sequences. Unfortunately, the narrator’s voice isn’t compelling: he delivers most of his lines in a drab “woe is me” tone, and at one point his bleats of terror make him sound like a Muppet startled by a spider. On the plus side, the actor they found to play the shifty-eyed homeless vet in the alley is so convincing that you might believe he’s a real hobo, and that the plot was actually built around his schizophrenic ramblings. The effective horror soundtrack is another element that supersedes the budget; in fact, it’s so well-made that it at times undermines the film’s found footage credibility. Ironically, it’s too professional a touch for a movie that’s trying to make its amateurism into a selling point.

If you’re willing to overlook the budgetary issues, however, Murder Death Koreatown is a solid watch—and if you plot it on a dollars spent to entertainment value curve, it’s off the chart. It holds our interest for just over 70 minutes and does an exceptional job of viral marketing, which is a solid double for a microbudget feature. You can read some of the movie’s promotional gimmickry at the link embedded below.

For more along these lines, Graham Jones’ Fudge 44 (2006) has a similar low-budget, mock-vérité appeal.

K Anon / Murder Death Koreatown

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971)/OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972)

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DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: Jean-Pierre Leaud, , Michele Moretti, , Bernadette Lafont, , Francoise Fabien, Hermoine Karagheuz, Eric Rohmer

PLOT: Two theatrical troupes: one amateur and one professional, with different artistic approaches, rehearse plays by Aeschylus. Two loners: one male and one female, both scam artists, operate independently of each other. All these players are seemingly connected via a loose conspiracy of “13,” inspired by the work of Honoré de Balzac and .

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The improvisational framework is experimental, but it’s more conventional in its overall form. Rivette’s follow-up feature, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is indebted to Out 1 in its production and concept, is closer to “weird.”

COMMENTS: Out 1 was long hyped as “the Holy Grail of modern French cinema,” and that was not mere hyperbole. After French television turned the project down, a four-and-a-half-hour cut, Spectre, was edited to screen in theaters (with an intermission). The original version thirteen-hour version, Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me) was screened only once in workprint form in the early 70’s. A re-edited version followed in the late 80’s, and a “finished” version turned up on German and French television in the early 90’s.

At first, watching the complete, restored Out 1 may seem a daunting enterprise, but in a world of binge viewing, it seems very contemporary, while simultaneously presenting a time capsule of France in the early 70’s. Out 1 explores the role of art (specifically theater) in society, interpersonal relationships, and secret societies/conspiracies, all in a way that is very entertaining—much more than the words “experimental feature” would suggest.

Looking at it 45 years later, one thing that helps give Out 1 some perspective are the events of May ’68, which is the hub from which the story revolves around. After a brief period of revolution and the hope of all things possible, we pick up two years later; and while the revolutionary spirit is still alive in the efforts of the troupes, everyone involved is disillusioned with their current reality to some degree. The passing of a note to Colin (Leaud) by an unknown woman—seen as one of the actors in one of the troupes—stirs him to investigate the concept of the “13,” and its effect ripples out among the characters. Is there indeed a conspiracy? Or is the conspiracy merely an abstract concept of a fleeting ideal that may never be obtained, but should always be pursued?

The Noli Me Tangere version, presented over eight episodes, anticipates such shows as “Lost” with its canvas of characters and a central mystery at the core. However, while that mystery provides dramatic momentum, it is not the primary focus; in fact, it isn’t until Episode 5 that it begins to coalesce. A substantial portion of each episode focused on the exercises and rehearsals of both troupes, and their succeeding analyses. It’s a detailed look at theatrical process, and while some may find these sections maddening, they’re an important part of the whole: “acting”  and “performance” are the main subjects, after all. The characters’ interactions with each other at many points are performances, especially the outsiders Colin and Frederique (Berto), whose scams are another form of improvisation. And the entire enterprise is a performance by everyone involved. The Spectre version keeps this basic frame intact, yet at four hours, much is condensed. Scenes are rearranged, some tangents are dropped, and the “Conspiracy of 13” aspect is center stage.

BLU-RAY/DVD INFO: In 2016, Carlotta released a region free box set in North America of both versions of Out 1 on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring a 2K restoration. Also included in the set is a documentary, The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1 Revisited, which is extremely informative, and a 120 page booklet with essays and notes. For those in the UK or with region free players, Arrow UK issued the box set “The Jacques Rivette Collection” which includes Out 1, and the additional Rivette features Duelle, Noroit and Merry-Go-Round.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Order of the Exile – Jacques Rivette website

Introduction to Rivette – Jonathan Rosenblum essay on Rivetter

Out 1 And Its Double – Jonathan Rosenblum’s essay from the box set release

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

206. INHERENT VICE (2014)

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“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”–attributed to Thomas Pynchon in Jules Siegel’s Mar. 1977 Playboy profile

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , , , Martin Short

PLOT: It’s 1970, and P.I. “Doc” Sportello has his evening interrupted by his ex-girlfriend, concerned about a plot on the part of her new lover’s wife (and the wife’s lover) to institutionalize him. Doc’s investigation has barely begun before he stumbles across, and is stumbled upon, by a coterie of oddballs, all with their own problems. Skinhead bikers, the LAPD, a dentist tax-avoidance syndicate, and an ominous smuggling ring known as the Golden Fang all get linked together as Doc hazily maneuvers through some very far-out pathways indeed.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • The notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon published “Inherent Vice,” his seventh novel, in 2009. Although they sell well and have cult followings, no Pynchon novel had previously been adapted for the screen, mainly because the author’s plots are too complex and confusing to fit the film format. Anderson had considered adapting “V” or “Mason & Dixon,” but found both impossible to translate into a coherent screenplay.
  • According to Josh Brolin, Pynchon appeared somewhere in the film in a cameo, although this is difficult to confirm as the last known photograph of the author was clandestinely snapped in the early 1990s.
  • Though filled with A-list actors and nominated for two Academy Awards, Inherent Vice only recouped $11 million worldwide of its $20 million budget.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: While being given a ride from LAPD headquarters, Doc Sportello notices the… mmm, thoroughness with which Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen attends to his frozen banana. The scene goes on for a while — and is odd in and of itself — but also gives a suggestion of the peculiar psychological relationship between the two.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Telephone paranoia; playboy dentist; moto panikako!

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Its overexposed colors and garish hippie costumes immediately summon the film’s era, creating an image somehow both sharp and blurred. Similarly, the movie travels along a bumpy, diversion-filled path toward an unexpectedly tidy conclusion. The combination of comedy and paranoia works well — this movie will leave you chuckling and, afterwards, slightly worried the next time your phone rings.


Official trailer for Inherent Vice

COMMENTS: Confusion descends upon the viewer early on in Continue reading 206. INHERENT VICE (2014)