Tag Archives: Puzzle

CAPSULE: ULTRASOUND (2021)

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Utrasound is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Schroeder

FEATURING: Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Bob Stephenson, Breeda Wool, Tunde Adebimpe

PLOT: After a car accident, a man spends a night at a couple’s remote house and—at the husband’s insistence—sleeps with his much younger wife, which leads to an increasingly strange series of events.

Still from Ultrasound (2021)

COMMENTS: Glenn blows out a tire in the rain returning from a remote wedding and takes shelter at the home of a strange couple. After an awkward evening between Glenn, heavyset “depressive” host Art, and his young wife, Cyndi, the scene suddenly switches to a new character, a woman swimming laps in a pool. She sometimes appears pregnant, and sometimes not.

“I don’t see the link between the two things,” says Glenn, much later, from a wheelchair. “It will all make sense as we go along, I promise” assures the therapist who’s guiding him through a roleplay exercise as a form of physical therapy.

Juggling multiple plots and subplots, the script basically keeps the promise suggested by the above line of dialogue. Characters will sometimes appear to change into other characters or locations into other locations, and their lives will take major turns without explicit explanations. Two pregnancies, which may or may not be pregnancies, supply part of the impetus for the title Ultrasound. Besides Art, Glenn, Cyndi, and the mysterious swimming woman, there’s a major conspiracy afoot, and a couple of other subplots running around, making for a movie that demands close attention if you want to figure it all out (a careful second viewing will, of course, make the timelines clearer, and allow you to catch otherwise obscure clues).

The acting is good, with veteran character actor Bob Stephenson a standout as the unassuming but subtly persuasive Art. (“Art has gotten so weird lately,” says one character, and another corrects her: “more emphasis on so weird.”) The score and sound design effectively increase the tension in moments when things seem “off” even though there is not much action onscreen. Although the sets and visuals aren’t lavish, first-time director Schroeder frames some clever compositions: in one shot, a countertop lines up with a refrigerator and a cabinet to create an imaginary line down the middle of the frame—a sort of in-camera split screen effect implying a world divided into different realities.

Still, it’s the script that’s the standout here. Ultrasound‘s profound paranoia resonates in our gaslit world of deepfakes, fake news, and fake claims of fake news. But it’s possible to puzzle our way through the illusions: the screenplay answers nearly all our questions, and what it leaves ambiguous is easily filled in by the savvy viewer. A satisfying outing for fans of reality-bending films who demand answers to the mysteries and aren’t afraid to do a little mental lifting to get them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird, disorientating, and complex, Ultrasound compels the viewer into a fugue state into which this darkly dangerous science-fiction can unfold and wrap around then. Some truly uncomfortable ideas around the ability to control others are told through an overtly science-fiction lens, but the potential truth within the film is what makes it a harrowing watch.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY, SEASON 2” (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Mackinnon (episodes 1 & 2), (ep. 3 & 4), Richard Laxton (ep. 5 & 6), Wayne Yip (ep. 7 & 8), Alrick Riley (ep. 9 & 10)

FEATURING: , , , Amanda Walsh, , , , , John Hannah, Alan Tudyk

PLOT: After the events of Season 1, Todd and Farrah are on the run and Dirk is a prisoner in a secret military facility; a new mystery begins when a visitor from the magical land of Wendimoor reveals that Dirk is prophesied to save their world from an evil Mage.

dirk_gently's_holistic_detective_agency_season_2

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: TV series, not movie. But it’s a series you may want to take note of: otherwise, we wouldn’t be reporting on it, would we? “Dirk Gently”’s mix of absurd humor, bewildering but addictively complex plotting, and fanboy-friendly sci-fantasy tropes was just intriguing enough that that BBC America took a chance on it as potential cult item, but also so weird and difficult that it was cancelled after only two seasons.

COMMENTS: “Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life?”

The following synopsis may not make much sense to a lot of you. This includes veterans of “Dirk Gently Season 1” as well as newcomers to the series. The one advantage Season 1 viewers have over total neophytes is that they understand “Gently”’s method—throw about a dozen subplots and random events at the viewer in episode 1, then spend the rest of the season slowly connecting the dots, with every little detail merging in a “holistic” (and fantastic) fashion. So, I’ll just lay it out: season 2 introduces a gay pink-haired hero with a scissor sword. A train in the sky. A fishing boat run aground in a field in Montana. A friendly, sort of slow sheriff and his hard-partying deputy. A beleaguered middle-aged woman with a limp, a crummy son, a crummy husband, and a crummy job at the quarry where her crummy boss is making shady deals. A dashing gangster in a snappy white suit with a black tattooed hand and a fabulous mustache. A magic wand. A car stuck in a tree. (The literal Purple People Eater won’t show up until episode 4).

It does all connect, naturally. This high-fantasy based plot is perhaps not as satisfying as Season 1’s time-travel yarn, but on the other hand the show devotes more time to building up its underlying infrastructure, dropping hints about Project Blackwing and introducing new “anomalous individuals” like Dirk and the Rowdy 3. (They’re all sort of a team of metaphysical X-Men gone renegade.) Rather than dominating the plot with his clueless exuberance, Samuel Barnett’s Gently is sidelined a bit this season, moping through most of the story in an existential crisis. He and Elijah Wood’s Todd Brotzman invert their Season 1 dynamic, with Todd now eager to solve the case for his own reasons, dragging the reluctant detective along with him. Other characters pursue their own arcs. Farrah shows more vulnerability, and there are hints of burgeoning romance between her and Todd. Todd’s sister Amanda develops magical powers, making her character more relevant—although this development feels a little forced. Ken is set up for a heel turn. And holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif) remains the most fascinating entity. Her fans will be thrilled with her opportunities to prove she is the ultimate badass killing machine, and she gets by far the best lines: “I think that sometimes when you’re killing people they don’t like it, and it makes them unhappy, and scared, and also dead, which they don’t like, I don’t think…” If that monologue doesn’t intrigue you, then “Dirk Gently” isn’t the show for you.

Unfortunately, the series has been canceled, and we’ll never get to see where creator was ultimately headed with all of this. The most bittersweet part of what turned out to be the series finale is that the last shot sets Bart up for a dramatically increased role in the unmade Season 3.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a show where weird things happen in literally every frame…”–Hahn Nguyen, IndieWire (season premier)

344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

AKA 12 Monkeys

Must See

“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Madeleine Stowe,

PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.

Still from Twelve Monkeys (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • This feature was inspired by La Jetee, ‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
  • One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
  • Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
  • Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
  • On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
  • There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
  • Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
  • The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS:  “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery;  giraffes galloping down the freeway

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.

Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys

COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all Continue reading 344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

CAPSULE: OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)

Abre los Ojos

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Amenábar

FEATURING: Eduardo Noriega, , Chete Lera, , Fele Martínez, Gérard Barray

PLOT: A playboy’s life is destroyed when his good looks are destroyed in an accident—although his court-appointed psychiatrist, defending him on a murder charge, insists that his face was perfectly reconstructed and it’s all in his imagination.

Still from Open Your Eyes (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Why won’t the dreamlike psychological thriller Open Your Eyes make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made? Simply because of the film’s ending, where the characters sit down and, with almost airtight logic, explain away every mysterious event that has been going on through a combination of exposition and flashbacks—at one point even using a visual aid.

COMMENTS: It almost goes without saying that Open Your Eyes, the original Spanish psychothriller, is superior to Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake with . Not that I count myself among the detractors of the Hollywood version—other than the unfortunate turn by the usually reliable Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original but with a then-inadequate grasp of the English language, and a few too many pop singles, it’s quite competent. But you owe it to yourself to see the darker, stripped-down original first.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a handsome, womanizing one-percenter who has everything any guy could ever want: money, leisure time, good looks, and a new plaything in his bed every night. He sees it all taken from him after his face is mutilated in an automobile accident, brought about (indirectly) through his own past philandering—ironically, on the morning after he meets a woman who could be the One who makes him settle down for good. At least, that’s the tale as related to Cesar’s court-appointed psychiatrist from the prison cell where he languishes, awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend. But his story doesn’t add up. For one thing, Cesar, hiding behind a mask, insists that his face is still disfigured, while his psychiatrist tells him it’s been reconstructed. He is also losing his mind, convinced that the woman he is accused of killing was an impostor. Not only that, but he is having vivid dreams that he (and therefore, the audience) can’t immediately distinguish from reality, including one in which he wakes up in a Madrid that has been completely depopulated (a scene memorably re-staged with in an eerily empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky). And to top it all off he has another, fragmentary, set of dreams, which are almost completely obscured; these are visualized onscreen through a hazy filter that makes the action look almost rotoscoped. The psychiatrist’s investigation will eventually unveil the real explanation behind Cesar’s condition.

In the “puzzle movie” genre, Open Your Eyes is a classic, one of the most successful at building up an ontological enigma, then explaining it away with an ingenious (if highly speculative) plot device. The closedness of the narrative solution, however, works against the movie’s weirdness—the movie’s cryptic tension is too fully released, leaving us nothing more to ponder. Still, Open Your Eyes this is highly recommended for those who prefer their mysteries to be completely resolved at the end. And if the hallucination scenes had been just a little more harrowing and fantastical (a la Jacob’s Ladder or Dark City), Open Your Eyes might have squeaked onto the List—or into a rating, at the very least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unlikely to satisfy those who insist on linear storytelling and pat endings. But in its deliberately vexing way, ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a film with enough intellectual meat on its stylish bones to give more adventurous moviegoers something to chew on afterward.”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)