Monday, November 25, 2013

Let's Get Weird, with Upstream and John Dies

“What the hell did I just watch?” Said incredulously.

Have you ever muttered that when the final credits roll? Not in the bad way, like with Wolverine Origins or Lords of Salem, but in the good way, because you are stunned into quietude by witnessing something you are still trying to process.

David Lynch set the baseline for these kind of movies; they oft left me dazed and confused, with the distinct feeling there was a larger story at play, and I just hadn’t figured it out quite yet. I could go back and piece through the film again and again, look for clues, and try to understand it all.

Admittedly, these movies aren’t for everyone. But for those of us who dig this kind of challenge, it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present that turns out to be the Lament Configuration filled with hipster Cenobites.

Upstream Color may be the deepest, darkest, most intriguing and perplexing movie this side of Lynch. Writer/director Shane Carruth has wowed audiences with a twisty-turny narrative before, in his debut film Primer, but with his second film he’s operating on a level all his own. He claims that Upstream Color is “un-spoil-able” and he’s right. I could sit here and tell you everything that happens in the movie, and yet the movie would still surprise you.

Impossible, right?

The truly impossible thing would be to explain the film to you without you having seen it. It’s the type of movie that demands – nay, COMMANDS – long discussions about themes, motives, and what the hell actually happened.

A woman is dosed with a drug made from a strange worm with mind expanding qualities. While under the influence, the woman is in a hypnotic state, and a strange man directs her to empty her bank accounts, go into debt, and in all ways ruin her life. Then he leaves, and she has no memory of what happened or why. She meets a man who seems to have gone through the same experience.

They are also both mentally linked to pigs on a remote farm, tended to by a composer who makes music with people’s emotions and memories.

I could go on, but the point is these are details that outside of the context of this beautiful, bizarre, utterly unique film, make no sense. Inside the film, they seem to make sense, but Carruth leaves it to you the viewer to fit the pieces together and look at the big picture. 

If you love puzzle-box movies, Upstream Color is can’t miss. It makes Memento seem as simplistic as the Berenstein Bears.

John Dies at the End is an entirely different kettle of weird fish. Director Don Cosscarelli has created a beast that can’t be fit into any box – it blends elements of horror, science fiction, action, and comedy with a heavy dose of philosophy and a healthy disregard for conventional plot structure. This is a movie the likes of which has never been seen, and likely will never be seen again.

Dave and John are low-rent ghost hunters. They drink beer, hang out, and occasionally do battle with demons made out of meat. After a party one night, John tries a drug called Soy Sauce. The Sauce gets you high, but side effects include hallucinations, heightened senses, time displacement, and possible infestation from an inter-dimensional demonic force.

To say any more would take away from the fun of exploring undiscovered country. The film is utterly unpredictable, with fresh onsets of clear-minded lunacy emerging every few minutes to constantly keep you off kilter. The biggest surprise is that the second time through, John Dies seems a lot more linear and easy to understand. But the first time through, you will hardly be able to keep up with it.

Special recognition goes to the cast, who create such endearing characters they manage to make the story feel engaging no matter how crazy it gets. Clancy Brown, Doug Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Glynn Turman are all wonderful in their supporting roles, but the movie really works because Chase Williamson (Dave) and Rob Mayes (John) make you care about them.

Weird, bloody, violent, esoteric… John Dies at the End is one of a kind, in the best possible way.

Weird isn’t always good, of course. Take Rubber, for example. On paper it sounds delightfully weird – a malevolent car tire with mental powers terrorizes a small town – but out on the road it’s nothing but a flat.

Just being weird isn’t good enough, you see. Anyone can be weird. Just look at basically anything on Youtube for confirmation of this. What makes films by creators like Coscarelli, Carruth, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch so mind-bending is the weirdness acting in concert with a good story, and good story-telling.

Rubber plays more like “say, wouldn’t this be weird and cool?” instead of using the medium to make a unique and original film.

With Upstream Color, you may not “get” it, but you can feel you are watching something deep and profound. With John Dies at the End, you’re just trying to keep up with the barrage of the bizarre, but the characters are alive and the script is sharp. But with Rubber, you’re just watching a bunch of weird shit that doesn’t matter. Big difference.

Huge difference.

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