Tag Archives: Mystery

GUEST REVIEW: MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (1986)

Guest review by Amy Vaughn

Hombre mirando al sudeste

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DIRECTED BY: Eliseo Subiela

FEATURING: Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto, Inés Vernengo

PLOT: A man appears in a mental hospital claiming to be an alien.

Still from Man Facing Southeast (1986)

COMMENTS: Man Facing Southeast is a meditation on the human condition. Like Mindwalk or  Waking Life, it’s best to know what you’re getting into, and that there will be monologuing and pithy one-liners like, “I am your hallucination.”

It is plenty deep, and it was appreciated when it came out in 1986, garnering much praise and many awards in its home country of Argentina. For good reason: it’s well made on a slim budget ($600,000 USD), the acting is tight, the script leaves you with take-home ideas, and at the time the story hadn’t been done to death.

But now, everything seems predictable, from the worn facades of the sanitarium, to the jaded psychiatrist, to the mysterious (possibly alien) patient who may or may not save the doctor from himself. Even the patient/alien becoming ever more Christlike, gaining an entourage of sedated mental patients, and using psychokinesis to help a hungry mother feed her children—it’s all kind of ho-hum.

Rantés, the mental patient/alien played expertly by Hugo Soto, tells the psychiatrist that, because he is an alien hologram, he is unable to feel human emotions. He says he was sent/projected to Earth to determine what is wrong with humans, why we are so awful to one another.

Throughout the film, the psychiatrist vacillates about believing Rantés. He labels him delusional but does not put him on anti-psychotics. He broods about him and goes home to play the saxophone. A lot. There is a lot of saxophone in this movie.

An hour in, another possible alien enters the story. Her name is Beatriz Dick (apparently named in honor to Philip K.). She is meekly mannered and conservatively dressed. Rantés tells the psychiatrist she is a rogue alien, seduced by “sunsets and certain odors” to want to stay on Earth. The psychiatrist, predictably, falls in love with her. There are two odd things about Beatriz: she often exchanges her shoes for shoes that are exactly the same, which she carries with her in a shopping bag; and her saliva is blue, which we see once.

That’s it. That’s all the movie gives us to determine whether or not they are aliens: Rantés has psychokinetic powers and Beatriz has blue saliva.

The weirdest thing about this movie is that Rantés cannot feel, yet helps people anyway. As things progress—mostly as he is exposed to music—Rantés begins to smile and dance and experience joy, which becomes his undoing.

As much as Man Facing Southeast downplays its science fiction aspects, it spoon-feeds us its philosophy. But that’s what these movies do. Meant to be a timeless study of humankind’s inhumanity to itself and what it means to be human, decades of intervening movies on similar themes (both sci-fi and phi) have overshadowed it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it shows huge promise — its mystery, its patient pace and its eerie resonance sometimes transcend its didactics.”–Rita Kempley, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: VIDE NOIR (2022)

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Vide Noir is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Ariel Vida

FEATURING: Victor Mascitelli, Ashleigh Cummings, Todd Stashwick

PLOT: When his fiancée leaves him for a mysterious music promoter, Buck leaves his hometown in an effort to get her back.

COMMENTS: From what I’ve read, “Vide Noir” is a Lynchian-cool jazz-lounge space album that was quite well received. From what I’ve seen, I am unsurprised that Ariel Vida, director of Vide Noir, is a professional music video director. From what’s on the internet, the little consensus there is about this film can be summarized thusly: Golly if it doesn’t look good, but what’s up with the hazy story and crummy performances?

A hazy story is not a problem—not for 366 at any rate. But something has bothered me since I watched the eighth chapter of this film, which covers the closing twenty minutes. Until this “Z’oiseau” segment (preceded by others titled “the Emerald Star”, “Whispering Pines”, and so on, depending upon the locale/character/artifact focused upon), I really didn’t care what was happening. Everything looked neat, if a little over-edited for the purposes of a motion picture (90+ minutes of music video-esque shot blending is a little distracting); the sound design was adequate (all the little scrapes, plinks, and peripheral noises fleshed things out nicely); and the plot was clear enough. The title, and main narrative hook, “vide noir” refers to an hallucinogen that, as explained by one of the dead characters (this was an added ambiguity that was neither explained nor pertinent), “comparing ‘Vide Noir’ to LSD is like comparing a space shuttle to a Greyhound Bus.”

The Z’oiseau character is referenced throughout in hushed, often frightened tones. He is Vide Noir‘s “Mister Big”, and he does not disappoint: calmly suave, marvelously mustachioed, and endowed with an erudition Buck lacks. That might be part of the problem, come to think of it. Buck is determined, and modestly resourceful, but, for whatever reason, he oozes corn-fed “charm,” despite being a Detroit native. Which finally brings to mind Vide Noir‘s primary problem: the heroine-femme-fatale-mystical-beauty. As heavy a weight of mystery and charisma is laid on Z’oiseau, a far greater weight of sheer mythic wonderment is laid on Lee, the fiancée. Buck is obsessed with and smitten by her, which might be excusable considering his simple nature. What makes less sense is the Lee-adoration from the incidental characters Buck encounters, and it makes even less sense from the villain of the piece. Lee’s reputation for desirability cannot merely be stated ad nauseum—the audience needs to see it (and believe) themselves.

On the topic of this noir femme, a second element (just barely) saves this film from any withering flippancy I would have otherwise been tempted into. As flawed (or, more accurately, pointless) as the opening and middle might be, the ending is refreshingly unexpected. Buck spends days-to-weeks pursuing the girl. He suffers humiliations, encounters ghosts, endures violence, and barely survives one nasty-looking overdose on his quest to find her and take her home. But the poor bastard never considered for a moment that he was not the hero of Lee’s story. While Ariel Vida would have done well to have kept her mysteries mysterious, Buck would be better off had he spent more time thinking through his own motives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The band Lord Huron has produced, I guess, this trippy feature film inspired by their album ‘Vide Noir.’ And for the record, the music’s pretty cool, kind of twangy ‘Twin Peaks’ ethereal, unmoored in time, fitting for a pseudo-psychedelic film noir set in 1960s LA. The movie? It’s best summed up by the phrase ‘interesting failure.'”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MOEBIUS (1996)

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DIRECTED BY: Gustavo Mosquera

FEATURING: Guillermo Angelelli, Roberto Carnaghi, Anabella Levy, Jorge Petraglia

PLOT: A train vanishes within a vast subway system, and a topologist who happens to be a former student of the man who designed the transit line is tasked with tracking down the missing transport.

Still from Moebius (1996)

COMMENTS: For roughly a decade following a coup in 1976, the military junta that led Argentina waged a so-called “Dirty War” against suspected dissidents and opponents. The campaign amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, typified by widespread arrests without charge or trial, death camps, and even the taking of newborn infants to be raised by the families of favored families. (For what it’s worth, the Argentinian dictators had help.) The campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder was widespread, and the suspected number of 30,000 people disappeared without a trace during the junta’s reign may be low.

So perhaps you can understand why a short science fiction story about a subway train that mysteriously goes missing might have some resonance to Argentine audiences. The hidden parts of history are an ever-present threat to those in power, so the questions the characters in Moebius confront go far beyond what happened to the train, and reach into the puzzles of why can’t we find out and who doesn’t want us to know.

That’s why the way the mystery within Moebius unfolds is surprisingly satisfying: via the turning of the wheels of bureaucracy. As the alarm of a missing train works its way up the chain, we see ever-higher levels of managers and functionaries confronted with the baffling report, with no dialogue necessary to convey their confusion. Ultimately, these same bureaucrats will be looking for a way to make the whole thing go away, because the only thing more dangerous to the powerful than an unknown is a bad known.

As the equivalent of a locked-door mystery, Moebius relies heavily on mood to do the bulk of the work. After all, our hero is a topologist, a mathematician who studies the malleability of surfaces. This turns out to be a canny choice for an investigator, given the metaphysical nature of the train’s disappearance, but it also means we shouldn’t expect a lot of riveting action.

At least as interesting as Moebius’ plot is its production: director Mosquera enlisted a crew of 45 students from the newly established Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. Despite their nascent skills, the film is a very polished product. In particular, antique cameras and analog editing bring an unusual sheen to the various clips of trains in motion, giving the Underground the feel of the underworld.

Ultimately, what makes Moebius strange is its reliance upon metaphor. It’s no coincidence that the final sequence begins in a subway station named for Argentina’s premier magical realist, Jorge Luis Borges. For as much as it may seem to be about a man looking for a train, Moebius never ceases to be about a nation confronting hidden truths that stubbornly resist the sunlight. The movie is effective as a tight little science-fiction tale, but the ghosts of the desaparecidos have another story they insist upon telling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pop culture’s given us glory trains, cocaine trains, trains to nowhere, and hellbound trains, but Argentinian director Gustavo Mosquera manages to wrap them all into one in this masterful mind-fuck.”– Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

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

CAPSULE: INSPECTOR IKE (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Graham Mason

FEATURING: Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Matt Barats, Grace Rex, Jessica Damouni, Ana Fabrega, Anthony Oberbeck, John Early

PLOT: Inspector Ike investigates a murder at an avant-garde theater group.

Strill from Inspector Ike (2020)

COMMENTS: Inspector Ike is a parody of a very specific subgenre— 1970’s mystery-themed “movies of the week,” a la “Columbo”—from the nearly extinct Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker-Mel Brooks school of tomfoolery. Presented as a faux episode of a ongoing movie-of-the-week series, complete with animated intro with a magnifying-glass carrying, trenchcoated sleuth, the movie drops us into a world where Inspector Ike already exists, catching new crooks week after week with his signature finishing move: hiding handcuffs near some incriminating piece of physical evidence, then toasting the perp with a wink and a glass of champagne.

This “episode” (“Audition for Death”) follows an struggling actor who kills his mentor so he can take the lead in his troupe’s production of the one-man musical “Mannie.” In “Columbo” fashion, we see the murder first, and suspense comes from watching Ike try to put the pieces together, while the killer tries to cover his tracks. The theater world setting allows the film to poke some gentle fun at the off-off-Broadway scene (the mythical “Avant-Garde Alley,” where you find mimes and kabuki actors smoking on stoops in-between rehearsals); that milieu, after all, is not all that different than the world of New York’s underground comedy scene from which Ike‘s cast was drawn. Like a true TV villain, murderer Matt Barats hams the hell out of his part, all sideways glances and sly grins before the heat turns on, then big-eyed and twitchy, like a hack in the Scottish play seeing an imaginary drop of blood on his corduroy sleeve. By contrast, Ufomadu’s Ike is totally deadpan; suave and quietly competent whether he’s fixing a tilted picture with his shadow or cooking a pot of chili in a nervous suspect’s apartment. A wide range of always humorous supporting actors occupy the spaces between these two combatants, most notably scene-stealing Deputies Hawthorne and Dinardo, who can never seem to stay on topic during their consultations with Ike.

Inspector Ike gets the fond camp tone exactly right—possibly because there’s not a lot of well-worn tropes to overparody in this extremely specific subgenre, which allows the script freedom to simply wander in the direction of whatever joke it finds most amusing at the moment. Despite the minuscule budget, Ike seems like a relic of the era, based mainly on accurate 70s wardrobes (Harry’s mustard turtleneck, Ike’s powder-blue suit with wide striped tie) and appropriate touches like commercial fadeouts. The film was shot on the streets of Brooklyn, carefully avoiding anachronisms. Casting such a project with local stand-ups rather than full-time thespians was a wise choice; low-budget comedies often fail because the actors lack comic timing and instincts, which is never an issue here. I’ll confess that I rarely found any of the gags laugh-out-loud funny, but that wasn’t a problem, because the likeable cast carries the movie along on a pleasant current of low-key absurdity that never becomes either boring or upsetting.

So it’s fun, but is it a weird movie? Well, mildly so, in at least in its general conception. In his director’s commentary, Mason says that he was trying to create something that “nobody asked for,” an artifact that would leave the audience wondering “why does this even exist?” but glad that it does. He succeeds in this goal admirably, and I’d love to see more stuff from the Mason/Ufomadu team that I never asked for.

It’s a shame that Inspector Ike did not land a streaming deal so that more people could see it, but the Blu-ray package is well worth the purchase for comedy fans. It features a commentary track by director/co-writer Mason, and a booklet with more Graham commentary, an “Inspector Ike” episode guide, and a word search puzzle. Along with the memorable trailer, two comic Ufomadu/Mason short collaborations round out the package: “Words with Ike” (a “word of the day” TV parody) and “The Photos of Ana” (with “Detective Hawthorne” Ana Fabrega). Both shorts have the same underplayed, off-kilter comic sensibilities as Inspector Ike. The package even includes an official Inspector Ike recipe card, which you can use to jot down ingredients and directions for Ike’s detailed chili recipe when prompted.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As pop culture deep cuts go in 2022, ‘Inspector Ike’ certainly has the weirdest inspiration in recent memory… Ufomadu is terrific in the part, and the rest of the cast commits to the weirdness of the effort. Not every joke lands, or is even attempted, but there are spirited, dryly hilarious performances to enjoy throughout the endeavor.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

20*. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)

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“No, it’s not a remake.” –Werner Herzog

DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, , Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner,

PLOT: Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop, suffers a permanent spinal injury when rescuing a convict neck-deep in floodwater from Hurricane Katrina. Shortly thereafter he is promoted to the rank of police lieutenant and develops an opiate addiction, accrues massive gambling debts, and finds himself investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants. Over the course of the case, he teams up with local crime kingpin, “Big Fate,” in the hopes of keeping his head above water.

BACKGROUND:

  • made the cult film Bad Lieutenant, starring as a drug, sex and gambling addicted cop investigating the rape of a nun, in 1992. Port of Call: New Orleans is neither a sequel nor a true remake.
  • The original New York City setting was changed at Nicolas Cage’s request in order to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (How the gesture would accomplish this is unclear.)
  • Director Werner Herzog claimed to never have seen Abel Ferrara‘s original, only signing on to the project because Cage requested him so to do.
  • It took nearly a decade for Werner Herzog and Abel Ferrara to bury the hatchet after Ferrara expressed his dismay at the project going forward without any input from him.
  • Adding to his list of “unlikely ingestibles”, Nicolas Cage inhaled baby powder every time his character snorted cocaine (or heroin).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: With the entire feature viewed from Lieutenant McDonagh’s perspective, its unreliability is a given—this is a man who loves his uppers, downers, and sleep deprivation. On the off chance the viewer considers taking his story at face value, this notion is disabused by a pair of phantom iguanas eyed suspiciously by McDonagh to the dulcet tones of “Please Release Me.”

TWO WEIRD THINGS: “There ain’t no iguana”; break-dancing soul

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cram a police procedural through the esoteric whims of Werner Herzog’s brain, then project this mishmash of corruption, drugs, nostalgia, and iguanas onto the frantic gesticulation of Nicolas Cage as a chronic back-pain sufferer going through some really heavy shit right now, and you have Bad Lieutenant.

Trailer for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

COMMENTS: Werner Herzog, by an almost objective reckoning, is Continue reading 20*. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009)