Have you ever seen a movie so crazy, off-the-beaten track and jarringly different, that you feel the need to share it with everyone? I had that kind of experience nearly 20 years ago, when I became addicted to a little movie called “Donnie Darko.” I saw it at a midnight screening in Denver, then talked my buddies into re-watching it with me, over and over, once it arrived on DVD. In theaters, the movie was a non-starter but when it became a curiosity item to discover on a shelf, a movement began.
It’s one thing to see something that a studio is hyping, and everyone feels obligated to see, but it’s another to discover a movie on your own and have a personal connection to it. While working at a video store in Pukalani (Videoland & TV, 1986-1995, RIP), it was fun hearing how movies like “The Princess Bride” and “Remo Williams,” both flops in movie houses, would find intense fan devotion later on.
My pick for the week is that kind of movie, one that barely played in theaters, is difficult to categorize and could only be embraced by adventurous movie buffs. David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake” is bonkers, a true original and the kind of love-it-or-despise it lark that will either create adoration or all-out hatred. I love movies like these.
Andrew Garfield (freshly sprung from Peter Parker duty) stars as Sam, a Hollywood burnout who is running out of rent money and mostly watches his weird neighbors through binoculars. A striking beauty named Sarah (played by Riley Keough) moves in and, after a few awkward first-attempts, Sam makes his move and befriends the earthy Sarah, who has a tiny, cute dog and a fixation with old Marilyn Monroe movies. After a magical night together, Sarah disappears. Her apartment is empty and all traces of her are gone. With only a polaroid and his puppy dog devotion, Sam searches all of Los Angeles for her.
Mitchell made a big splash a few years back with his “It Follows,” a novel and highly acclaimed take on the teen slasher genre. Now, he’s made a movie with pieces of “The Big Lebowski,” “Inherent Vice” and “The Long Goodbye” as his narrative framework. Although its ostensibly a mystery/thriller with a deadpan sense of humor, Mitchell takes this to some out there, very extreme places. After 20-minutes, you’ll know whether you’re game for Mitchell’s cracked rollercoaster or if this bumpy, unpredictable oddity is enough to make you yell at the carny to “let me off this ride!”
Garfield’s character is an affable drifter, kind of like “The Dude” in his 20’s. It’s not always easy to root for him and the movie’s episodic structure and take-it-or-leave-it surrealism are also an acquired taste. For example, there’s a bold set piece, involving Sam’s meeting The Songwriter, in which mind-blowing (and pretty funny) secrets of the music world are revealed. It’s a big scene and feels like the climax. Actually, there’s 40-minutes left to go, as the story is still spinning its wheels late in the game. I admire a movie with so many wild ideas that, at the risk of outstaying its welcome, it doesn’t know when to shut up. The solution to the central mystery is, like everything else here, impossible to predict, because it’s so crazy.
Garfield’s first movie was made by Terry Gilliam- not just any Gilliam film, either- “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus,” which was also Heath Ledger’s last film. My point is that Garfield is clearly comfortable playing hard-to-describe characters in offbeat projects.
This is a case where the scenes that standout are enough to carry the ones that don’t, as this is stronger in parts than as a whole. Still, if it falls short of perfection, it’s because its more interested in taking chances than concluding in a tidy, easy way. I can’t guarantee you’ll like this weirdo wonder of a comedy, but I promise you’ll never forget it.
Three and a Half Stars
For “Stranger Things” Fans:
Need an intense dose of 80’s nostalgia, the kind of movie that once played in theaters at the same time as “Back to the Future” and “The Goonies”? Here’s Joe Dante’s “Explorers,” a little seen, often wonderful sci-fi fantasy about a group of boys (played by a young River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Jason Presson) who create their own spaceship. Powered by an imaginative screenplay, a gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score and fantastic visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic, Dante’s first film post-“Gremlins” feels like a classic. At least, for a solid hour, until the ending hits a wall. The wonky third act (reportedly the result of studio tinkering and a rushed summer release) keeps this from soaring as high as it wants to go. Yet, during its best scenes (of which there are many) “Explorers” is a funny, affectionate ode to classic sci-fi. It celebrates how childhood brought out the dreamer in all of us.
For Adventurous Filmgoers:
One of last year’s craziest and absolute best films is Robert Egger’s “The Lighthouse.” Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (both giving milestone performances) as two lighthouse keepers whose extended stay on a small island, overrun with seagulls, causes them to slowly lose their minds. It’s in black and white and only has two characters but isn’t stagey or dull. It’s an untamed, disturbing and enthralling psychological horror film, with the actors giving astonishing work. When I walked out of writer/director Egger’s “The Witch” a few years back, I didn’t like it but knew he was so talented, I promised myself I would give his next movie a chance. Well, this is it and, if you’re up for it, it will haunt you for days.
(on Amazon Prime)