Tag Archives: Neo Noir

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE SHOW (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mitch Jenkins

FEATURING: Tom Burke, , Ellie Bamber, Christopher Fairbank, Alan Moore

PLOT: Fletcher Dennis is a hitman an “exit technician” posing as a private detective posing as an antiques dealer in search of a stolen Rosicrucian necklace.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Sometimes “weird” leaves you overthinking; in this case, I suffered the reverse. While watching The Show, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t weird, because it’s exactly the kind of movie Alan Moore would make. Having pondered a few minutes following the spectacle’s completion, it became apparent that this was indeed something weird. Jenkins’ and Moore’s movie blends reality and dreams, and life and death, in a manner that would make 366’s poster-boy Dave Lynch smirk in satisfaction.

COMMENTS: Please forgive this reviewer’s gushing, but in the hopes of getting it out of my system let me begin with, “This… this is the Alan Moore film I’ve been waiting for!” Mr. Moore, as some of you may know, has had a long history of disappointment with studio executives when it comes to his innumerable works and their adaptations. Some of this is warranted (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), some of it not (Watchmen). Regardless, The Show pulls off a very-Moore experience—more so than any other adaptation of his oeuvre.

Because it immediately pulls the viewer into a cryptic facsimile of Northampton UK, it’s helpful that the film pulls its protagonists from the “straight man” bucket. Steven Lipman (later, and earlier, Fletcher Dennis, ever-clad in black and red striped shirt, presumably with sling-shot) has been hired by Patsy Bleaker to retrieve a family heirloom that went missing after his daughter (not quite) was murdered (definitely). Faith Harrington, a briefly comatose journalist, arrives at the local hospital the same night the murderer is carted in following a tragic accident involving a pineapple and a nightclub stairwell. Faith begins suffering from carnivalesque nightmares featuring Matchbright & Metterton, a comedy duo who perished in a 1970s fire. While the plot thickens reality-side (Bleaker’s daughter was not his daughter), it positively coagulates in the subconscious world, as both Dennis and Harrington confront an agenda hatched within dreams and beyond the grave.

Those familiar with Alan Moore’s world(s) know that no detail is to be ignored, whether from the perspective of plot or to appreciate an erudite slight-of-hand. When subcontracting his search to the “Michelson & Morley Detective Agency”, Dennis finds himself in front of a backyard clubhouse whose entrance opens up into an improbably large office, where he converses with two Tims around the age of ten. (“We don’t handle messy divorces, and we have to be in bed at 9:30.”) They speak in a ’40s film noir narration style, and take payment in either cash or energy drinks.

The paragraphs I could burn with such regalement could take up an entire movie, surprise surprise, so consider that just a taste of the fun-time genre stroking herein. Stylistically, it is apparent that The Show was created by a comics man. Every shot and sequence will be familiar to readers of that medium, and it stands as a stark reminder that for whatever reason, virtually no filmmaker seems to fully embrace the aesthetic: an aesthetic you’d think would make the cinematographer’s job that much simpler. Just. Follow. The. Storyboards.

But I’m in fan-boy mode again; I didn’t think I’d be able to shake it. This acts as a companion piece to Under the Silver Lake, another film that got me gushing. Alan Moore’s hometown of Northampton is deeply unreal and fully realized; his characters are unreasonably eccentric individuals who interlock seamlessly with their peers and milieu; and his film has enough smoke and mirrors for a late night cocaine and dance party at the Black Lodge.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jenkins’ surreal city symphony transforms Little England into an overlooked site of invention, resistance and revenge, while the erudite poetic wit of Moore’s script is a dizzying blend of high and low, the profane and the occult, funny-haha and funny-weird.”–Anton Bitel, VODzilla (VOD)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHADOWPLAY (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Pietra Arjuna

FEATURING: Tony Eusoff, Megat Sharizal, Juria Hartmans, Iman Corinne Adrienne, Radhi Khalid

PLOT: Anton Shaw is an unlicensed detective hired to track down a missing college student, but his own traumatic past keeps derailing his investigation.

COMMENTS: Under a glaring neon sign, at the cross-section between pulp-detective and pulp-romance, you will find Tony Arjuna’s Shadowplay—a movie with ambition. Among the themes explored, it primarily focuses on:

  • The effects of childhood trauma
  • The influence of dreams on reality
  • The slipperiness of identity
  • The cross-section between the written word and real life
  • The unreliability of memory

The question then becomes, does Arjuna’s reach exceed his grasp?

The story, as best as one might decipher, involves a would-be private investigator named Anton Shaw (Tony Eusoff), as he minds the shop for his friend and mentor (who is busy with a run of the mill adultery case). To kill the time, Anton reads a “choose your own adventure” novel, one with no author credited and no publishing house mentioned. The phone rings. Does he choose to answer? Turning to page 18, he does so, and thus begins the investigation of a young woman’s disappearance—an investigation that neatly mirrors his own past. His choices in the book are shown in real life, or perhaps vice-versa. For Anton, nothing is made clear until the end—and even then, he may have gotten no further than the chair in his friend’s office.

I’ll say right now that there are problems. The acting quality is very inconsistent, particularly with the female characters. As this is a riff on the “hard-boiled detective” story, there needs must be a femme fatale–several, in the case of Shadowplay. This numerousness is fine, but hearing a sultry dame huskily inquire, “Are you of indigenous descent?” strained even my generous incredulity. Perhaps it’s the script: the story is truly novel (so to speak), but many of the players are stuck with platitudinous lines that even the best actors would have difficulty giving weight to. Also, the scattered nature of the narrative leaves a lot of unhelpful ambiguity.

But, Shadowplay succeeds in two key ways. It’s beautifully shot, with a clever lighting and color scheme that creates a genuinely otherworldly aura. The aerial shots—of a very ’80s-looking Kuala Lumpur—ably define the environment, a nighttime hybrid of neon reality and neon dreams. The soundtrack, also very 1980s, enhances this effect, and by the film’s end I was in one of those pleasantly altered states of contemplation; the movie had transported me from my viewing room to its twilight vision of shadowy luminescence.

Shadowplay is, in all honesty, a very amateur outing, but it does give me hope for Arjuna’s future. He’s got a lock on sound and vision, and if he can just tighten his stories (and find better actors), I’ve no doubt he’ll be making great–and, hopefully, weird–movies in the future.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Shadowplay is halfway there thanks to its aesthetic, I cannot stress enough how beautiful this film is to look at. Arjuna deserves praise for turning Kuala Lumpur into a psychedelic neon dreamland and…the soundtrack is outstanding, but this is where the good ends.” -Husna Anjum, EasternKicks.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BRICK (2005)

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DIRECTED BY: Rian Johnson

FEATURING: , Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Meagan Good, Richard Roundtree

PLOT: A disaffected teenager investigates the mysterious disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, confronting untrustworthy allies and vicious enemies to uncover the truth.

Still from Brick (2005)

COMMENTS: For reasons that can only be attributed to a breathtaking lack of imagination, a surprisingly large number of contemporary reviewers of Brick made a direct comparison not to the large number of noir classics from which Rian Johnson’s debut feature clearly takes its inspiration, but instead go all the way back to 1976 for the cult oddity Bugsy Malone, a gangster pastiche in which all the parts are played by minors (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) wielding Tommy guns that shoot whipped cream. The thinking, one imagines, is that just as one film mocked the conventions of the gangster picture by populating it with children, so does the other diminish the power of noir by setting it in a high school.

The comparison is stunningly short-sighted and backwards. Johnson’s high school noir draws its power not from the dissonance of substance and style but from their harmony. It’s often said that everything in high school feels like a life-and-death situation, when in reality things couldn’t be less serious. But the stakes in Brick are no joke at all. Blood is spilled, bodies drop, and nearly everyone is laden with secrets and lies. Those feelings you had as a teenager? Brick makes them all very real.

Famously edited on a Macintosh back when that was a symbol of scrappiness and indie cred, Brick is a debut of astonishing power and confidence. Johnson is not necessarily a visual stylist. (By way of illustration, this parody pinches his entire shot list while placing a discussion of the fallout over the filmmaker’s foray into  the Star Wars universe into all of Brick‘s locations.) But his vision is so self-assured, it’s absolutely easy to see the rich career that lay ahead of him.

Someone who must have spied Johnson’s talent even earlier is lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had to have recognized that he had been gifted with the role of his dreams (and he has been appropriately grateful, taking a starring role in Looper and offering voice cameos to The Last Jedi and Knives Out). He manages to walk the line between embodying a hard-bitten detective while looking like a bookish 17-year-old. His perfectly weathered burgundy shoes and increasingly bruised face make him a worthy successor to Sam Spade, which makes him a natural focal point for the film’s rich and quirky cast of characters. In particular, he gives tremendous power to Zehetner, a Continue reading CAPSULE: BRICK (2005)

5*. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

“Well, was that weird enough for you?”–-Matt Surridge, author and festival reviewer, at Under the Silver Lake screening

“I usually like weird, but not THIS weird.”–Amazon product review for Under the Silver Lake

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Robert Mitchell

FEATURING: Andrew Garfield, , Patrick Fischler, David Yow, Jeremy Bobb

PLOT: Sam has two deadlines: first, figure out what to do about his “criminally” overdue rent before his eviction in five days; second, investigate the mysterious disappearance of the young woman he recently met in his apartment complex. Over the ensuing week, he explores East L.A.’s hidden messages in a quest of discovery, stumbling from conspiracy to conspiracy. Spoiler Alert: he does not solve his rent problem.

BACKGROUND:

  • The critical and financial success of David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 horror film It Follows gave the writer/director the clout he needed to get Under the Silver Lake, his passion project, made.
  • The film debuted at Cannes in 2018 to a cool reception. Distributor A24 had originally planned for a summer 2018 release, but pushed it back to December 2018, then again to 2019. Rumors circulated that the film would be recut in the interim to make it shorter and less confusing; thankfully, that did not happen.
  • The film was a financial flop, making back only about 2 million of its 8 million budget in its theatrical release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Spending so much time looking quietly bamboozled, any shot of Sam in “investigation mode” is memorable for its combination of mystery and listlessness. The long montage of him pursuing three young women driving a white VW Rabbit convertible nicely mirrors the audience’s journey as we follow him into a dreamland of ever-so-subtly sinister machinations.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: The Homeless King; cereal clues guide you to the tomb

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: What it may lack in specifics, Under the Silver Lake makes up for in volume. At a sprawling 2-and-1/3 hours, the narrative starts at “odd” and stacks on odder and odder. The background events (a serial dog-killer, the disappearance and death of a flamboyant billionaire) are themselves strange, but merely provide the unlikely framework on which Mitchell plasters the following: animated cult ‘zine sequences, another serial killer, a spooky old mansion hiding an existentially depressing secret, and a conspiracy wrap-up beyond our time and place.

Original trailer for Under the Silver Lake

COMMENTS: Divisiveness is a sure sign of a film’s promise. Continue reading 5*. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2018)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BLOODSUCKER’S HANDBOOK (2012)

AKA Enchiridion (B&W version)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An unassuming campus priest is asked to help interrogate a prisoner who proclaims himself a vampire, then is forced to embark on a quest to hunt him down after he escapes.

Still from Bloodsucker's Handbook (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This seemingly simple shoestring-budget vampire tale takes a roundabout turn midway through, turning into an absurd neo-noir set in a world only vaguely similar to our own.

COMMENTS: In retrospect, I’m actually glad I watched Bloodsucker’s Planet before this one. Where Planet made me conscious of the issues that arise when a low budget film tries to tackle a concept outside its resources, Handbook left me appreciative of films that embrace their limited resources, using them to enhance the effectiveness—and, in this case, the weirdness—of the concept.

Clearly looking to spring its weird side on an unsuspecting audience, Bloodsucker’s Handbook starts out about as ordinary as a low budget tale of a modern vampire can get: Father Noah is approached by a group of sharp-suited G-men, who ask for his help questioning the film’s resident vampire overlord, Condu. The first half or so of the film is (primarily) concerned with this interrogation; and, simple as it is, it demonstrates ideal filmmaking sensibilities for a limited-resource indie production like this one. Working on a minimal scale, the film embraces its limitations, allowing a handful of actors and sets to carry the film.

And carry it they do. Or at the very least, one of them does. Despite his limited screentime, Jeremy Herrera, as Condu, really couldn’t be better cast. Whereas Planet’s villain had the air of a classic, an vampiric count, courteous and urbane, Condu has a more Orlok-like demeanor: leering, menacing, and blatantly evil, yet at the same time, strangely charming, in his shifty way. Condu takes charge of the interrogations right away, his delightfully evil presence dominating the screen. While Cory W Ahre’s performance as Father Noah is perhaps a little flat and understated, his passive bearing works well in these scenes as a counterpart to Herrera’s charisma. The two of them form a wonderful dynamic that genuinely sparks in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room.

It’s around the film’s halfway point, however-–-when Condu escapes, kidnapping Father Noah’s illicit lover for leverage-–-that things take a turn for the extremely bizarre. Father Noah heads out in pursuit of Condu, and as we see more of Bloodsucker’s Handbook‘s world (which suddenly takes on a distinctively noirish tone), we learn that it is far less ordinary than it seemed at first glance. Dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals mingle with humans in seedy bars, and sucking on toads is an epidemic addiction. At this point, it becomes clear that the film’s setting, which at first seemed quite ordinary, if somewhat retro, is in fact a bizarre alternate version of our own world.

This, of course, poses the danger of Handbook running into the same issues as Planet, undermining its coherence and effectiveness in an effort to tackle concepts bigger than its budget will allow for. However, much like the rest of the film, Handbook’s approach to its setting is self-aware; rather than attempting to delve deeply into the intricate workings of this bizarre world, it reveals its oddities in an almost incidental manner, showcasing them in casual shots. Like the protagonist, we only give them a brief glance before continuing on our journey. And like any good, weird indie ought to, Handbook embraces its limited resources and uses them to enhance the weirdness. The various non-human characters are represented by stop-motion figures, whose crude and janky motions lend them an unreal quality that fully immerses us in the feeling that this is a world unlike our own. (In one brilliantly self-aware sequence, the vampire’s historical origins are related in a stop-motion sequence that leaves the animator’s hands in the shots.)

That’s not to say that everything about the film’s second half is what I’d call precisely the right direction for the film to have taken. For one thing, it would have been nice if some of the weirdness of the setting had been at least vaguely hinted at earlier on. (In my opinion, rewatch value and post-viewing clarity are some of the most gratifying aspects of weird cinema.) More significantly, I regretted that showcasing the bizarre setting came at the cost of relegating Condu, easily the film’s strongest presence, to the background. Ahre’s performance simply isn’t strong enough to carry the narrative on its own; and while Valentine, the hard-boiled anthropomorphic dog P.I. that he hires to help him track down Condu, is an intriguing character, he simply isn’t enough to fill the void left by Herrera’s absence.

Still, Bloodsucker’s Handbook is an intriguing effort, and most assuredly the better sort of weird indie effort. I do think that the subsequent prequel grows a tad too ambitious and loses sight of what made the original film work; but nonetheless, I do hope that director Mark Beal continues this series and develops the unusual world it is set in… especially if he intends to continue the trend of including a token anthropomorphic animal who talks like a hardened noir character in every movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… despite the low quality Beal has shaped surrealistic tackiness into a thrilling dark horror film experience, probably most prudently undertaken with some absinthe on hand.”–Bradley Gibson, Film Threat (DVD)

CAPSULE: SERENITY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Knight

FEATURING: , , Jason Clarke

PLOT: A crusty commercial fisherman entertains an offer from his ex-wife to kill her current husband, an abusive alcoholic multi-millionaire.

Still from Serenty (2019)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a noir/mindscrew oddity that inspires a reaction of “huh” more than anything else.

COMMENTS: “Serenity” is the name of Baker Dill’s fishing boat and, one presumes, the state of mind to which he aspires. “Justice” is the name of the tuna (!) he obsessively pursues. A game Matthew McConaughey plays the role of Baker broadly and brashly—although not quite reaching levels of transcendent camp. He exhibits remnants of post-Iraq PTSD, has a psychic connection to the son he left behind, pulls a knife on his own fishing tour customers, acts as a part-time gigolo and cat-catcher when not trawling for tuna or slamming shots of rum, and shows off his taut butt every chance he gets: swimming nude, showering, or rising from bed for a smoke after pleasuring Diane Lane. Femme fatale Anne Hathaway (temporarily blonde for this role) saunters in at the end of the first act to swerve the narrative into noir territory. There’s also a bespectacled man with a briefcase bumbling around on Baker’s trail, always missing him by a few seconds. The action occurs on Plymouth Island, a small scenic isle in—the Caribbean? The Florida Keys? (It was actually filmed in the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius, a paradise of translucent blue seas.) The locals are rugged individualists given to saying things like “You fish for the tuna. That’s a tuna that’s only in your head.”

And then comes that twist. It’s weird, yes, but somewhat telegraphed, and revealed in its entirety by the halfway point. You can see why audiences felt cheated by this sudden switch to the metaphysical. It’s not just that it’s unexpected; it’s unsatisfying. (“Preposterous” is a less flattering term that comes to mind.)

You won’t be confused about what happens in Serenity, but you might be puzzled as to why this strange script was greenlit. That’s not to say it’s terrible, exactly, it’s just… un-Hollywood. Director Steven Knight, the writer of the hits Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises and co-creator of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” had enough credibility to get a studio to back this commercial folly; when McConaughey and Hathaway signed on, it was a go. Unfortunately, their gamble on Serenity won’t do anybody’s career any favors; the film is already showing up on “worst of 2019” lists.

It’s not that bad; at least Serenity takes chances and is never boring, although neither does it ever exactly work as intended. The sunny postcard setting makes for balmy viewing, and McConnaughey’s gruff, committed performance is fun, if a bit fishy. That said—oh, that twist! It troubles our Serenity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you like seeing authentically unusual movies, then ignore the haters: In its fusion of disparate genres, its sentimentality, and its weirdness, Serenity is actually worth watching.”–Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Mike B, who speculated “…it smells like a potential candidate. So far, the reviewers have no idea what the hell to make of it, which is usually a good sign.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)