All posts by Shane Wilson

366 UNDERGROUND: ROAD TO THE WELL (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Jon Cvack

FEATURING: Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall R. Teague, Rosalie McIntire

PLOT: To avoid being implicated in a murder, a browbeaten white-collar drone and his drifter friend take a trip to dispose of the body, only to find obstacles and growing suspicions at every turn.

Still from Road to the Well (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Road to the Well is a beautifully shot, deliberately paced neo-noir thriller. It falls firmly in the tradition of wronged men trying to get out from under a dangerous situation, and while a couple scenes are tinged with oddness, in every important respect the film is not at all weird.

COMMENTS: The deck is already stacked for this movie by throwing out the word “noir.” Noir is a handy label for a subset of a subset: the kind of thriller where morals are muddled and the protagonist gets what’s coming to him just as surely as the villain. In its classic form, black-and-white photography is augmented with an ominous soundtrack, hard-bitten dialogue, and high-contrast shadows, all contributing to a sense that our hero is trapped in a universe from which escape seems nigh impossible.

If there’s a more loaded phrase than “noir” in the annals of film criticism, it would probably be “neo-noir.” All genres mature, and the dismissal of the strictures of the Production Code changed the nature of noir. No longer could you be sure that characters would invariably pay for their mistakes. Color allowed filmmakers to add new signifiers of good and evil to their palette. Motivations became more complex, the lines between good and bad muddier, and the very concept of redemption was sometimes rejected outright. Neo-noir acknowledged the themes of its progenitor, but expanded their boundaries, to the point where critic Robert Arnett would lament, “Any film featuring a detective or a crime qualifies.”

Having said all that, writer/director Jon Cvack’s debut film checks all the boxes for neo-noir. When desk jockey Frank (Fuller) finds himself implicated in the brutal murder of a woman he just met, it’s a wrong-man scenario suitable for Hitchcock, and his questionable decision to try and cover up the crime sits comfortably in the pantheon of noir-hero bad ideas. The interesting variant here is the presence of a friend, itinerant goof-off Jack (Parker), who readily agrees to lend a hand by facilitating the disposal of the woman’s body. The result is a road movie in which truth and comeuppance always seem to be just a couple car-lengths behind.

There’s a feel of thrillers of a more recent vintage, such as Blood Simple or A Simple Plan. But Cvack has none of the ‘ absurdist view of life; even the ridiculous sight of Frank and Jack trying to haul the dead girl up the stairs in a suitcase is played completely straight. All the troublesome elements are explored: cleaning up blood, covering up the smell, finding a suitable burial site… they’re all here. Most significantly, of course, are the people you meet along the way, who seem to sense guilt coming from a mile away.

Those interesting people turn out to be part of the problem with the movie. Consider, for example, the film’s most potent scene, a tense encounter with a retired military chaplain whose intimidation has the force of morality, anger, and a secret agenda behind it. He’s in the movie for somewhere around 10 minutes, but his presence and impact dwarf that of the two leads. Compare that with Frank, ostensibly our hero but in actuality a complete cipher. Although he makes choices that lead down the story’s dangerous path, they are invariably so passive that it becomes far too easy to blame others, especially Jack. Frank is utterly lacking in agency, which is apt for his ultimate fate, but problematic when assessing the momentous choice he is called upon to make. Even under these most extreme circumstances, Frank struggles to establish a presence for himself , and ends up being a vacuum in his own story.

It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of suspense about the nature of Frank’s predicament. We are given critical information at the start of the film, and while we do not understand its meaning out of context, it creates an expectation that hangs over the proceedings. When we finally get the piece of information that ties it all together, it qualifies less as a twist than as validation of common sense.

Road to the Well looks spectacular, and the filmmakers know it; cinematographer Tim Davis is the first name credited after Cvack. Also contributing is the evocative, pizzicato-laced score of composer Conor Jones, who adds layers of foreboding and menace to scenes which don’t really go anywhere on their own. The production quality of the movie far exceeds its sub-six-figure budget, and Cvack and his collaborators deserve a look from big-time producers looking for great moviemaking talent. But his calling card is strangely uninvolving, mirroring Frank’s journey: a beautiful, tension-filled trip to another dead-end job.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cvack’s screenplay and direction is terrific in its ability to create mood, develop a sense of dread, and keep the performances and individual scenes consistently bizarre and uneasy. Even when all sense of logic sometimes abandons the film – certain sections feel disjointed or seem to be missing important pieces of information – the dedication to tone keeps the story from spinning out of control. …It works, and works well, again blending elements of the Coen Brothers with a Lynchian sense of off kilter madness.” — Larry Taylor, Monkeys Fighting Robots

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2050 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: G. J. Echternkamp

FEATURING: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Yancy Butler,

PLOT: In a dystopian future, drivers compete in a cross-country race where the competitors score points for speed and vehicular homicide.

Still from Death Race 2050 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being the fifth film to bear the Death Race marque, the 2050 incarnation is a pretty straightforward race picture, with some absurd gore and strident satire glommed on for extra measure.

COMMENTS: The title card identifies this movie properly as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, and when you get to be 90 years old and won an Oscar just for the sheer volume of your output, then you’re damned right you get to throw your name up there. But now that he’s put himself front and center, it’s important to remember that a lot of Roger Corman movies are bad. When we think of filmmakers like , James Cameron, or Ron Howard getting their start in Corman’s low-budget film factory, the context is that they are all talented filmmakers who overcame humble origins. Death Race 2050 does not manage to outshine its pedigree, whether that be the Corman exploitation mill, the shadow of the original Death Race 2000, or the many films from which it liberally borrows. In that sense, it’s a fitting addition to the Corman canon.

Allegedly, Corman instigated the idea after a journalist suggested that his original Death Race had much in common with The Hunger Games. Evidently, he opted to solidify the connection by carrying over as many elements of The Hunger Games as he could legitimately steal, from the bread-and-circuses atmosphere to the preening chief executive to the destitute-man’s Stanley Tucci who emcees the whole affair. But it owes just as much to the rock-stupid future depicted in Idiocracy, to say nothing of the original film, whose beats are carefully replicated here.

Ostensibly the tale of a fallen America’s favorite bloodsport, Death Race 2050 pits five cars against each other in a race across a country that is largely free of people, presumably because they all remain indoors to enjoy the race from their squalid-yet-VR-enabled homes. Given how many of the remaining citizens wind up dead at the hands of the racers, it’s hard to tell whether reality TV is the ultimate killer, or the only thing keeping our descendants alive.

As for the racers themselves, one is a robot car susceptible to brain damage, while two are stereotypes (a black nationalist rap star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the poetic lyrics, “Death Death Kill Kill”, and a fundamentalist Christian televangelist who proudly builds her pulpit on terrorism). That leaves two for our primary showdown: Jed Perfectus, the probably-gay prima donna with a chip on his shoulder who struts around practically naked (he has a spectacular chin, but beyond that is not exactly a flawless specimen), and Frankenstein, the world-weary champion who is pretty much annoyed with everyone. Overseeing all of this is Malcolm McDowell, honing his accumulated phoning-it-in skills with a barely-trying American accent and a floppy hairdo that might remind viewers of another arrogant leader who cons the public and suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

The writers want to have fun with the rampant commercialism that has destroyed the country (the best such joke is this wonderful location card: “Washington, D.C. [formerly Dubai]”), but the humor is paper-thin. For every joke that carries a little weight if you stop to think about it (i.e. the aerosol cheese that’s also a mood stabilizer), twice as many are simplistic (the new American flag replaces the stars with dollar signs), depraved (a passenger literally has sex with the robot car), or low-hanging (fans drink paint-can-sized beverages labeled “Zoda!”). The film is aware of its limitations (a conversation between two women takes place in “The Bechdel Lounge”) but helpless to overcome them. Characters switch sides just because, abandon long-held beliefs just because, and generally do whatever is required to get them to the next jokey part of the country.

But you’re not really watching Death Race 2050 for its Thurberian wit, so who cares as long as there’s some thrills in this Death Race? Which turns out to be an even bigger problem: no one believes for a minute that these cars are going faster than 30 mph, even fewer will imagine that these actors got anywhere near the steering wheel, and most of the carnage consists of bloody entrails being hurled at windshields. When you aim to combine satire and action, and don’t really score on either count, you’re setting yourselves up for disappointment.

Death Race 2050 wants to be a few different movies, but doesn’t really score at any one of them. As a result, it’s never actively bad, but not particularly good, which makes it very disposable as entertainment. Fortunately, there are four other Death Race films you can try.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Death Race 2050 is grating and insane … Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.” — Chris Alexander, ComingSoon.net

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash

 

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

CAPSULE: DARLING (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Mickey Keating

FEATURING: , Brian Morvant

PLOT: A young woman hired to house-sit in the oldest residence in Manhattan discovers evidence of an occult history, and her grip on reality immediately begins to unravel.

Still from Darling (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Darling effectively captures a violent descent into madness, with filmic techniques that heighten the lead character’s insanity. But there’s not much that’s actively unusual about it, and the film’s most notable plot elements hearken back to earlier, superior movies.

COMMENTS: One person, alone. Only the sights and sounds as company. At what point does detachment make way for dementia? When does sanity start to break down? The idea of the lone individual doing battle with both oppressive solitude and personal demons is a hallmark of storytelling, whether in literature (Robinson Crusoe, The Shining), on the small screen (Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent,” The Twilight Zone pilot “Where Is Everybody?”), and certainly in the movies (Cast Away, 127 Hours, Buried). So the near-solo effort that is Lauren Ashley Carter’s performance has a healthy precedent. But in this particular instance, one film looms over Darling like a mighty monolith: Repulsion. That’s bad news for Darling, because other than a reduction in the cast and an increase in the level of hinted-at gore, the new film is barely a gloss on its predecessor.

The film’s entire modus operandi is to minimize any of the elements that would serve to explain, justify, or add any depth to our heroine’s plight. She has no name (the credits offer “Darling,” but it still sounds more like Sean Young’s term of irritated affection). We have no sense of her past or history, until a very late reveal. Her wardrobe seems to consist of two dresses and a nightgown (with a soupçon of gratuitous nudity for good measure). She has virtually no interaction with others, save for one character who establishes the premise and another to serve as a target for her unleashed rage. With no clear wants or needs, nothing that marks her as an individual, your guess as to what drives her descent into madness is as good as anyone else’s; she’s a tabula rasa protagonist. Even the elegant black-and-white photography saps any color from Darling’s existence.

With that void at the center, all that’s left is the scare factor. We know that shock value is the movie’s raison d’etre right from the title card, which abruptly jumps from gentle piano music to a horror-saturated, Herrmann-esque stabbing cue that slams into the film like a speeding truck. From this point forward, Darling (and, accordingly, the audience) is assaulted by shock jump cuts, sudden surprising noises, and disturbing images. And to be fair, they work just about every time. But they’re a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference between the shock of a bomb going off versus the suspense of waiting on that bomb. There’s no suspense in Darling. The main character’s fate is clear from the outset, and we’re just waiting for it to arrive.

The screenplay plays lip service to the idea of an explanation. A crumb of backstory about past occurrences in the house, a piece of jewelry in a blasphemous setting, and most notoriously a hint of sexual assault in our heroine’s past: these are the clues we have to help us answer the question of whether Darling is driven mad by her surroundings or brings the crazy with her. Carter throws herself into the role, walking the line between victim and aggressor, but ultimately, we can’t know what motivates her because the film doesn’t care. The scares are all that matters. It’s not so much a story as it is a haunted house.

Mickey Keating is a gifted filmmaker. He likes to use Kubrick framing, and plays with long takes, slow pans, and implied violence as much as explicit. He spices things up with jump cuts, inserts, blackouts, and every sound trick in the book. He even manages to extract shock value from moments that should be free of surprise, such as when a policeman inspects a bag whose contents are well-known to us. But he happens to be working with Keating the screenwriter, who has crafted a scare-delivery system rather than a story. That’s why the memory of Repulsion proves so damaging to any assessment of Darling: when you can get the same tale told with greater depth, adding more “gotcha” moments feels like a poor trade-off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“More experimental than mainstream horror viewers will be expecting, ‘Darling’ works best as an alluring, hallucinogenic mood piece that makes its way under the skin. It feels classy even when blood is being shed in a monochromatic frame.”–Jeremy Kibler, The Artful Critic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BIRDS OF NEPTUNE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Richter

FEATURING: Britt Harris, Molly Elizabeth Parker, Kurt Conroyd, Christian Blair

PLOT: Two sisters in Portland who have fallen into a pattern of stagnation and poor choices find their complacency upended when a manipulative man comes into their lives.

Still from Birds of Neptune (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the explanation for how the sisters got that way is a little on the peculiar side, the film itself plays it straight as an examination of two people who can’t move forward but refuse to look back until compelled to by an outside force.

COMMENTS: Fans of the satirical comedy show “Portlandia” have come to know the city as a place populated by extreme quirkiness and a measured indifference to social norms. Birds of Neptune, filmed in the city and featuring a local cast, plays it deadly serious, but it actually reinforces that same perception to outsiders about how life is lived in Stumptown.

Our leads absolutely play into the stereotype. Rachel is an experimental musician who is putting off both going to college and getting an abortion. (Kevin O’Connor and Erik Blood share credit for the score, which seems to include Rachel’s intriguing noodlings on the guitar). Big sister Mona, on the other hand, supports them both through her job as an exotic dancer with a preference for the avant-garde, including one routine in which she dresses like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. Mona is harsh in assessing Rachel’s prospects, but also seems to be passive-aggressively standing in her way.

At the strip club Mona picks up Zach, a hipster-bearded psychology major with a penchant for nosing into the sisters’ business. He’s the one who discovers their dark secret—they were brought up in a Rajneesh-style cult laced with elements of Scientology, and still go through some of the motions of their unusual faith. This twist is probably the oddest element of the film, but there’s novelty in the fact that the film doesn’t condemn the girls for their mystical beliefs. In fact, their antagonist’s behavior manages to make a virtue of their ongoing commitment to a spiritual life that otherwise seems outwardly ridiculous and even dangerous.

We never learn precisely what Zach’s damage is, but he quickly makes it his mission to turn Mona against her sister, and then against her own past. This past includes an abandoned bathroom that is obviously the site of yet another family tragedy. Zach also seems determined to bed Rachel and destroy her budding friendship with a smitten 15-year old named Thor. (The film hangs a lampshade on that name at a critical moment in the film). In short, he’s a jerk. We get traces of this early on, as he snoops through the sisters’ house, but subtext becomes explicit as he purposely manipulates the two women, weakening the one while inadvertently spurring the other to take more definitive action.

In the final act, the film takes a very unexpected left turn into the realm of revenge thriller. It’s a curious choice from director Richter and co-screenwriter Flavia Rocha. If it’s intended to show how Rachel makes the crucial decision to move ahead with her life, that choice is already made. And if it’s meant to pull Mona out of her spiral into depression, it overlooks the fact that she is left alone at film’s end, now without direction herself. In any event, the characters are already developing steadily without the need for a sudden burst of violence to prod them along. It’s an illogical twist, which is weird, in a way.

Birds of Neptune is somewhat portentous, with lengthy shots of birds on branches and passing clouds serving as act breaks, and heavy dialogue scenes in which characters poke at each other in order to figure out each other’s “deal.” Ultimately, Birds of Neptune is a lot like its setting: laid-back, a little quirky, and getting where it wants to go at its own pace.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While Birds Of Neptune may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.”–Ben Umstead, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MURDER UNINCORPORATED [DAI NIPPON KOROSHI-YA-DEN] (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Haruyasu Nogushi

FEATURING: , Kon Ômura, Hiroshi Hijikata, Bontarô Taira

PLOT: A cartel of crime bosses, their lives threatened by the infamous Joe of Spades, hires a collective of assassins of dubious skill to protect them and to root out their enemy.

Still from Murder Unicorporated (1965)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even by slapstick standards, the collection of oddballs assembled here is pretty strange, and a subplot involving the only character in the film playing it straight adds a surprising layer of seriousness to a story that is almost entirely absurd. But the overall goal is sustained silliness, rather than true head-scratching weirdness, and the final product wouldn’t be out of place alongside more recent genre-twisting comedies featuring Adam Sandler or his cohorts.

COMMENTS: Viewers know what they’re getting from Murder Unincorporated in the first 20 seconds: a man looks directly at us and warns us that if we do not laugh, he will shoot us. So we have ourselves a comedy, albeit one with the perpetual threat of violence. For whatever else this film tries to accomplish, this much is an unqualified success.

In a city so rife with illegal activity that the top crime bosses divide their efforts by specific illicit enterprises, even crime bosses must turn to the titular corporation when their lives are threatened by a vengeful assassin. The response is a motley collection of aspiring hired guns, including a lovesick poet bearing a volume of Heinrich Heine verse, a baseball fanatic who refuses to work while the Yomiuri Giants are playing, a chef who is terrified to slice fish, and even a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking dwarf who professes to be the grandson of Al Capone. But first and foremost is a wannabe Jerry Lewis armed with an abacus, who is escaping an apprenticeship where his boss yanks hairs out of his head. In short, they’re all incompetent and certifiably crazy.

And yet the absurdity can hardly be blamed entirely on these goofballs. The whole town is quite insane. A rival gang hires its own killers to take out the rented assassins, including a pair of brothers who dress like the protagonists of “Spy vs. Spy” and a chiseled European identified only as “006…007’s boss.” Even the killings themselves are aggressively wacky: when one of the crime bosses is gunned down, he and his bodyguards roll around like acrobats before finally expiring. With determined madness, undercranked chase scenes, and a relentlessly sunny disposition, Murder Unincorporated plays like a -helmed episode of “The Benny Hill Show.”

All this absurdity is punctuated by the constant presence of guns. They can be found everywhere—embedded in a briefcase, a baseball bat, a book of poetry—and are used for every purpose, from dialing telephones to changing TV channels. It’s tempting to view the film as a satirical commentary on violence, but given the way they are so integral to the movie’s brand of comedy, it’s far more appropriate to think of guns as an updated version of vaudevillian cream pies, thrown in a flurry and landing where they may.

There is one exception to all of this nonsense. Early on, the Jerry Lewis-analogue meets up with a chill motorcyclist who quickly establishes himself as the only normal person in the film. Even a viewer unfamiliar with leading man Joe Shishido will be completely unspoiled by the revelation that this is Joe of Spades. He will slowly unveil his true identity and abilities, even as the gang of peculiar assassins obliviously pursues him.

Shishido seems flown in from another movie, and in a way, he is. Murder Unincorporated is a product of the Nikkatsu studio, which exploited its onscreen talent by showcasing it in films where directors and writers were given a freer reign to push genre boundaries. (The film is showcased Arrow Films’ “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” DVD/Blu-Ray set alongside two of the studio’s other films, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Paws, that are offbeat or unusual in their own way, although not reaching the heights of zaniness seen here.) In this case, the studio seems to have tried to leaven the craziness with the cool violence of a proven star who just happened to be under contract. It doesn’t not work, but the two styles never fully gel.

After the final showdown, the movie pulls out one more trick and goes all meta on us; someone observes, “The police are coming for the first time in this movie.” It’s a funny line, and the film as a whole is fairly amusing; when you throw so many jokes at the screen, a decent number are bound to land. But after a while, the frantic reach for laughs is equal parts entertaining and exhausting. There’s not much like Murder Unincorporated, which turns out to be kind of a relief.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a completely insane black comedy with a ridiculous body count that plays like a drug-addled mash up of The Assassination Bureau, Frank Tashlin, and Mad magazine… More like a string of bizarre comedy sketches than a normal narrative… but it’s a fascinating and very entertaining comedy if you’re in the right frame of mind.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (DVD box set)

CAPSULE: TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

DIRECTED BY: Frederick Wiseman

FEATURING: The inmates and staff of Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane

PLOT: A documentary chronicling the operations of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility and the lives and treatment of its inmates.

Still from Titicut Follies (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Titicut Follies is shocking, disturbing, disheartening. It helped usher in cinema verité with a direct approach to documentary filmmaking that had rarely been seen before. But it’s only weird to the extent that man’s inhumanity to man is considered weird. In fact, the most bizarre thing about the film may be that, in half a century, things have changed very little.

COMMENTS: It’s remarkable that Titicut Follies exists at all. The subject matter is not typical fare, even for a documentary, with no protagonist to follow and no banner to carry. The presentation is stark and straightforward, showing routine events with no context or explanation, and refusing to allow uncomfortable moments to end through the artificial escape of cutting away. Watching it fifty years after it was shot, in a society where everyone is painfully aware of the need to manage situations to minimize liability and risk, it is astounding to see how open and guileless the staff is in their attitudes and actions toward their charges. The obvious question is, how did anyone let this get on film?

Credit is due first and foremost to director/producer/editor Frederick Wiseman, who is rightfully famous for his blunt approach to his subjects. Eschewing talking heads, narration, captions, non-diegetic music, or anything that would comment upon the images captured by his camera, Wiseman immerses himself in his chosen setting, fading into the background until the subjects forget the camera is even there. This fly-on-the-wall approach allows him to capture moments of extraordinary intimacy, because the participants fail to notice that they never went off public view. Trained as a lawyer, Titicut Follies was Wiseman’s first film as a director, but it cemented both his style and his subject matter, a warts-and-all look at how people function within institutions. (A recipient of an honorary Oscar this year, none of Wiseman’s films has ever even been nominated for a competitive award).

Some of the responsibility has to be placed at the feet of his willing subjects. Clearly, no one at Bridgewater had any worries about how their methods would be viewed. There can be no doubt that many of these inmates are afflicted with severe mental disease. Some are victim to uncontrollable body spasms, others spew endless paranoid monologues that name-check the president and the pope among their tormentors. Even a quiet, composed patient reveals his true nature as he describes his horrible crimes in a flat, detached tone. Without a doubt, keeping control over hundreds of unpredictable, dangerous men requires an approach that would be frowned on in polite society.

Those methods, though, are delivered in such a cold, unfeeling manner that it is ultimately impossible to view them as anything but torturous. Footage of a man named Jim, who is chided for fouling his cell, is peppered with what initially feels like friendly banter from the guards tasked with cleaning him up. However, as the scene goes on, the suggestion that he try harder morphs into bullying, and their repetition of his name is so condescending and insistent that Jim’s eventual outbursts feel utterly justified. The final shock comes with Jim’s revelation that he used to be a teacher; in this place, no honorable past will protect you from the hellish present.

Which points to one more explanation as to how Titicut Follies slipped through the cracks: there’s no empathy left at the institution to trigger embarrassment. No one thinks twice about the decency or appropriateness of what they are doing any more. Concern for humanity has long since left Bridgewater. In the film’s most notorious scene, an inmate is force-fed via a tube through his nose by doctors who openly smoke and discuss his condition in infantile terms. The delivery of nourishment by decidedly non-nurturing means is the film’s greatest oxymoron, and Wiseman magnifies the horror of the moment by crosscutting with footage of the same patient’s funeral, in which he appears to receive far greater care and affection than he did in life.

The movie is framed by scenes from an amateur variety show put on by the prison, with the awkward-looking patients singing standards in stiff white shirts and milkmen’s bow-ties. They are frequently joined by the warden, who, absurdly, views himself as a delightful showman, telling off-color jokes, breaking into song (he does this offstage as well, while walking through the hospital), and lusting after applause from the audience. Those moments feel strange in counterpoint with the daily horrors of life at Bridgewater. Yet, they’re actually a perfect extension of the interplay between inmates and staff throughout the film. Both groups are trapped in Titicut Follies, some by mental illness, some by the apathy and cruelty brought on by years of detached power. However, one of those groups doesn’t realize it’s trapped. But it soon will…

TRIVIA: …and how. Once they got a look at Wiseman’s film, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections sued to block the movie and managed to get Titicut Follies banned for over two decades, ostensibly to protect the privacy of the inmates. A title card added at the end of the movie curtly throws shade on the true impact of the Department’s efforts.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film is appropriately surreal, setting the tone for the next hour and a half… It’s almost something you could imagine seeing in a Harmony Korine film… it’s crazy to think it’s actually real.” – Jay Cheel, The Documentary Blog (DVD)