Tag Archives: Loneliness

CAPSULE: LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (2003)

Ruang rak noi nid mahasan

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

FEATURING: , Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak

PLOT: Suicidal expatriate librarian Kenji witnesses a fatal automobile accident while contemplating jumping off a Bangkok bridge, and falls for Noi, the victim’s sister.

Still from Last Life in the Universe (2003)\

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Last Life in the Universe is a quality romantic drama with a strong “indie” flavor to it, but the few liberties it takes with reality aren’t quite enough to tip it into the “weirdest of all time” category.

COMMENTS: Suicide attempts, pot-smoking hallucinations, abusive boyfriends, yakuiza revenge killings: Pen-Ek Ratanaurang slips a surprising amount of plot into a languid movie that’s essentially about two mismatched people lying around talking and occasionally cleaning the house. It also has enough fantasy sequences (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality) that you may become confused once or twice as to whether events really occurred (I confess that I thought one of the major plot twists was a dream up until the end of the movie). Asano and Boonyasak make for an appealingly melancholy couple, each of them mired in their own particular tragedy. The Japanese librarian is an obsessive neatnik, while the Thai local is a pothead slob, but the movie makes the barrier to these two consummating their attraction feel like it runs deeper than superficial traits; their private sadnesses seem unbridgeable.

As a whole, Last Life‘s story is denser than the minimalist individual scenes might suggest; it’s a movie with good replay value. Try to catch things that you missed on a first pass. Look for lizards everywhere, and a nod to That Obscure Object of Desire. You’ll also learn about Bangkok bars where the hostesses dress like schoolgirls wearing bunny ears, and how to get bloodstains out of your Escher print. And you can make up your own mind about the ambiguous ending. If nothing else, Ratanaruang goes down easier than fellow sleepyThai ‘s work: it’s not as weird, but a lot more happens.

Last Life was lensed by cinematographer nonpareil ; according to an interview with Ratanaruang included on the DVD, the chance to work with Doyle was one of the main inspirations for the movie, and the DP seems to have had an unusually large role in the finished project. Last Life is also notable for a rare acting cameo by director , who does well as a yakuza boss. Miike, of course, directed Last Life star Asano in Ichi the Killer. If you’re looking for a truly international film production, you can’t get much more cosmopolitan than this: a Thai setting and director, a Japanese star, an Australian cinematographer known for his work in Hong Kong, and the whole thing was partially funded with French and American money. They even speak three languages in the movie: Thai, Japanese, and English (although Asano and Boonyasak’s English accents sometimes made me anxious to return to the subtitles).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The closest thing to entering a dream state at the movies right now is watching ‘Last Life in the Universe’…”–Charles Taylor, Salon (contemporaneous)

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

180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade

FEATURING: , , , Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige

PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.

Still from The Double (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
  • intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
  • Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
  • The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.


Original trailer for The Double

COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make Continue reading 180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

CAPSULE: MAY (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Lucky McKee

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A girl with a lazy eye grows up as a social outcast with a doll as her only friend; she gets corrective lenses as a young adult and is suddenly set loose on the dating world with no social skills and a dangerously loose grip on reality.

Still from May (2002)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: May, the character, is weird as hell; May, the movie, not as much, especially after it abandons the awkward character study of its first two thirds for a familiar slasher denouement.

COMMENTS: It’s easy to see why so many people relate to May. The film’s horror isn’t based on remote external threat of ravening psychos harvesting body parts, but on the uncomfortable internal reality of human loneliness. Angela Bettis, who strokes a stranger’s hand as he naps and grins inappropriately when she tells a story about a disemboweled dog, makes for an unforgettably awkward and desperate May. She can’t even stand up straight; she’s always quivering and tottering on her feet, a woman who can’t find a stable footing in the social world. Her “lazy eye” affliction, which is suddenly cured by modern advances in contact lenses, is a brilliant device to explain how this otherwise attractive girl could have grown up so gawky and socially damaged.

For this script’s purposes, May can’t just be a common fat ugly cow who never gets a second look. She can’t just be constantly rejected by everyone she meets, sitting alone in her room night after night talking to her doll Sally; she needs to be desirable and attractive enough to have potential paramours to play off of. She gets a terrific pair in an amateur horror director played by Jeremy Sisto, whose fascination with the macabre leads him into a dangerous flirtation with this creepy character, and in Anna Farris’ predatory lesbian party girl, who thinks she’s as kinky as May but has no concept of what it’s like to be genuinely twisted. The early reels show geeky May impressing a date with a home cooked meal of mac and cheese and Gatorade and trying to decide what to do when the guy doesn’t call her back after she misreads his social cues and wrongly assumes he’s into cannibalism. This part of the movie is excellent and uncomfortable; we genuinely root for the pathetic girl to find true friendship, while at the same time being relieved we’re not the ones who have to supply it.

Bettis plays May like a female Travis Bickle, but when she finally cracks, it’s the movie that loses it. All of May’s endearing, ungainly mannerisms suddenly fall aside as she becomes a confident killer enacting a weirdo’s revenge fantasy against the cool kids. The more competent and dangerous she becomes, the less creepy she is. What had been an engagingly freaky character study suddenly bows to psycho movie kill conventions, and we spend the last third of the movie just watching the secondary cast get slashed. Although the final scene restores May’s vulnerability and is gruesomely memorable, it doesn’t redeem the movie’s sin of abandoning its freak spirit for horror movie conventionality.

May is more of a “weirdo” movie than a “weird” movie; there are only a few scenes—blind kids crawling on glass, May crying blood, and a schizophrenic crack-up montage—that break with narrative realism in any meaningful way. It’s an above average horror outing sporting superior performances, but it’s not a revolutionary genre movie, and given the film’s socially ghoulish first two thirds, there is a sense of a missed opportunity to do something truly special. “I like weird, a lot,” says one of May’s would-be seducers. The joke is that he’s merely a tourist observing human oddity for a lark, and he’s not prepared to handle sincere, dangerous weirdness on May’s level. To some extent, the same thing can be said for the film; it’s fascinated by its weird character, but it’s not interested in descending into the ultimate depths of depraved weirdness.

The May DVD includes two separate commentaries, each hosted by director Lucky McKee but featuring different cast and crew members. The second commentary includes reminiscences by May‘s craft services provider (i.e. the film’s caterer), which turns out to be a funny concept (he reveals the secret to Jeremy Sisto’s heart—jalapeno poppers—and explains how you supply jujubees to a set on a non-existent budget).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A bizarre (and sometimes repulsive) exercise that’s a little too willing to swoon in its own weird embrace.”–Robert Denerstein, Denver Rocky Mountain News (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: PULSE (2001)

AKA Kairo

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki

PLOT: A computer expert’s suicide is the first in a series of mysterious events and disappearances that leave Tokyo, and the world, depopulated; is a website that dials up people on its own and asks if they want to meet a ghost responsible?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy and weirder than the average scare flick, but Pulse is tuned to the standard turn of the millennium J-horror wavelength.  It’s a good watch for fear fans, and a seminal one for Asian New Wave horror followers, but it doesn’t go that extra weird mile.  Kurosawa’s ambiguous horror/detective procedural Cure (1997) makes for a better bizarre candidate.

COMMENTS: Pulse slips so quietly from reality to strangeness that you hardly recognize the transition; one minute, you’re watching its characters going about their daily lives, dealing with unexpected suicides and alarming computer viruses, and the next minute the world is almost deserted and ruled by ghosts.  The theme of this horror movie is not really fear but loneliness, and how technology fosters isolation more than cures it.  The film is not too subtle in delivering that message.  A plague of ghosts seems to spread via a computer website; one character immediately diagnoses a low-tech character’s sudden interest in the Internet as a desire to connect with his fellow man; a spirit tells the protagonist “death was eternal loneliness” from inside a foil-lined room.  Even scenes occurring before people start disappearing en masse are shot in disconcertingly deserted urban settings, on empty streets and buses and in lonely apartments.  Characters discuss the difficulty humans have making deep and lasting connections, while simultaneously hungering, struggling, and failing to form those bonds with each other.  Those who encounter one of the malevolent spirits in Pulse go through a syndrome (ghost traumatic stress disorder?) that involves locking themselves inside a room alone and sealing the door with red tape.  What the movie intends to say on the metaphorical level is very clear; what’s a little more confused is what’s supposed to be happening on the literal level.  We get half-baked exposition regarding the mechanics of the ghost world, but the spirits’ malevolent motives aren’t ever clearly explained, and it’s not at all certain how all the pieces are supposed to fit together.  If, as one sage tells us, the dead are now leaking into our world because theirs has exceeded its capacity, how do they benefit from convincing the living to kill themselves?  Wouldn’t that just worsen their overpopulation problem?  If the spirits of the dead have no place to go, shouldn’t the world be overrun with ghostly presences, rather than empty?  What purpose in setting up the spectral website that dials up users on its own—other than to scare a technophobic audience?  The movie glosses over answers to these questions, which does make it feel like a weirder endeavor; in this case, however, it seems the material might benefit from a fairer stab at clarity.  But Kiyoshi (no relation to Akira) Kuroswa is all about atmosphere, and he’s an expert at conjuring it.  The long lonely narrative spaces are broken up by several memorable moments, including glitchy technostrangeness involving a metaphysically malfunctioning webcam with a distorting lens, bizarre broadcast television interference from the Beyond, people who melt into black smudges on the wall, and a genuinely frightening trip inside “The Forbidden Room” to discuss matters of mortality with the death’s head who dwells therein.  Mood, not logic or even philosophy, is the glue that holds the movie together, and while it isn’t the horror masterpiece it might have been if that atmosphere was yoked to a better story, it works well on the shiver-inducing level.

The dumbed-down 2006 Hollywood remake with Kirsten Bell, part of a trend of bastardized American remakes of J-horror classics, was widely despised by critics and audiences alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…dolorous, shivery, and surreal.”–Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

SHORT: THE DARK SIDE OF FRIDAY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:  Matt Mulholland

FEATURING:  Matt Mulholland

PLOT: A depressed cabaret singer and sometime mime, overwhelmed by the pressures of

Still from The Dark Side of Friday (2011)

life and loneliness, contemplates suicide and drifts off into a symbolic abyss of despair.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  As devastating a portrait of human despair as has ever been painted, on a canvass black as velvet, this  poison break-up letter to a cruel world from an embittered heart compresses into a mere three minutes an agony that  it would take a lesser artist four minutes or even more to convey.   

COMMENTS: The nameless singer, dressed in black, observes the camera from a skewed angle, indicating his unwillingness to face the world head on anymore.  Alone, he sings of the pressures of ordinary life, but as the tension and anxiety build, a doppelgänger (who will later moph into a trippelgänger) appears.  The ghastly mirror image both harmonizes with, and mocks, the protagonist as he agonizes over paralyzing alternatives, eternally unable to choose (“which one can I take?”).  The minimalist set dissolves into a series of melancholy reminiscences; the dateless singer hanging his head in front of the mirror (the recurrence of the doppelgänger motif); he stands trapped in on a traffic island, his black garb blending into the surrounding darkness as unheeding humanity rushes by him in both directions (more dualities); he holds his head in his hands as, utterly alone, he kills off a bottle of Ballantine’s; he hangs his head in dejection as he stares hopelessly at the wall.  Mysterious images are interspersed into these reveries: running water (shades of Tarkovsky here, with an urban update); the bright lights of the teeming city intruding on his solitude, taunting him; a clock ticking down to an unstated but ominous deadline; glass shattering like a broken will (the deadline arives—the time for reflection is over).  In the finale the singer, now a mime, poses in front of the Void itself, trapped in an invisible box before Eternity.  Flakes of white drift through the Stygian abyss like fragments of exploded angels.  As masterfully affecting as these images are, without the searingly aware lyrics—written by a young postfeminist poetess to explore the ironic dualities of spirited youth versus weary wisdom, and of abandoned Dionysian collectivism versus painful Apollonian self-reflection—without such sure, knowing narration, the project would have come off as corny, weepy and bathetic.  Instead, it is a spiritually acute and devastating portrait of how having nowhere to go on Friday night inevitably leads to a loss of faith in life itself.   

The Dark Side of Friday is currently available to watch on YouTube.

CAPSULE: MOON (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Duncan Jones

FEATURING: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

PLOT: Sam, two weeks away from finishing a lonely three year contract on a one man lunar mining base, finds to his shock that he’s not alone on the moon—and the identity of his new companion leads him to investigate the true nature of his assignment.

Still from Moon (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I had high hopes of this turning weird, especially due to the guarded plot synopses that implied there might be some sort of lunatic psychological thriller angle to the film.  Unfortunately, although Moon threatens to veer off reality road and foray into the weird wilderness a few times in the early going, it soon straightens its course and plays as a straightforward work of speculative fiction. Still, as a very well-made film with some unusual sights and an unusually thoughtful tone, it’s worth the trip to Moon for anyone seeking something off Hollywood’s well-beaten path.

COMMENTSMoon starts out as a mystery: something is “off” about the lunar base, and specifically about Sam’s role in the mission.  But the mystery is answered early on, and from that point out the film plays as a drama, milking Sam’s situation (a situation that is unique in the history of mankind) of every implication it can think of.  From Sam’s loneliness and increasing anger, desperation, and finally resignation, the film generates a genuine pathos.  The shift from mystery to drama is accomplished seamlessly, because Moon‘s the unifying principle isn’t really its plot, but its exploration of ideas about what the future may look like, what ethical challenges and basic lifestyle changes future technologies may bring us.  First time director Jones confesses to being inspired by, and borrowing from, “hard” science fiction films like Outland and Silent Running, but Moon inevitably evokes the granddaddy of them all—2001—more than anything (especially since the base’s intelligent computer, Gerty, is basically HAL updated with emoticons).  Jones doesn’t shy from the inevitable comparison, but embraces it and uses it to the story’s advantage.  Sam Rockwell’s performance, which requires him to be onscreen for nearly every shot, could be a career defining moment, craftwise.  The plot is intricate, requiring the viewer to pay closer attention than they may be accustomed to, but the tale is told well, and despite a few curve balls it’s not as confusing as it might have been.  Special effects are minimal, but the lunar landscapes exhibit all the eerie alien beauty one would hope for.

Despite its overall intelligence, Moon is far from airtight.  Some of the technologies used in the film seem more like plot devices than rational scientific solutions to problems faced by future humans.  Objections arise that could have been fully addressed in a novel or long story, but in a ninety minute movie, the audience will have to do some work on their own to fill in the gaps, or simply agree to suspend disbelief.  But, in an era when science’s role in science fiction is increasingly relegated to the production of rayguns and killer robots, Moon‘s serious speculation about the world of the rapidly approaching future is a breath of fresh oxygen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never quite gets out from under the titanic shadow of his obvious inspirations. The movie feels like a full-length homage along the lines of Roman Coppola’s CQ, a dream within a dream rather than a soup-to-nuts vision… Moon chokes in its last reel, skirting the ambiguous terrain of Tarkovsky and Kubrick in favor of a too-pat ending. But [Jones] creates a world worth soaking up for an hour and a half, an engrossing journey in the realm of the selves.”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper