Tag Archives: 2016

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: A DARK SONG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Liam Gavin

FEATURING: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker

PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of , Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.

It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.

Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.

Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gavin creates psychological terror that exploits our anxieties with symbolism, nuance and innuendo. That purposeful ambiguity involves the viewer more intimately and increases the power of the story.”–Colin Covert, The Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: RUPTURE (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishe, Lesley Manville, Andrew Moodie, Ari Millen, Jean Yoon, Jonathan Potts,

PLOT: Young mother Renee Morgan (Rapace) is abducted by a strange group and endures tests and tortures designed to elicit some response they refer to as a “rupture”- but what exactly is that?

Still from Rupture (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, though there are some aspects here and there. But it’s certainly odd—those expecting a straightforward piece of “capture/torture porn” will not be pleased. There’s a lot to be intrigued by, if you can run with a variation on the genre.

COMMENTS: Looking at most of the reviews, and the current mainstream arbiter of good and bad films, Rotten Tomatoes, Rupture doesn’t fare well. Fair enough. For this type of thriller, it doesn’t truly deliver in terms of shocks, it’s not nearly as gory as most of its brethren, and most of the events are standard tropes in its genre niche. That said, I think that most of those negative reviewers overlook the interesting aspects of this film, which tips its hand fairly early that it’s not going to be the usual capture/torture story.

For one thing, there’s a subtle humor running throughout the film in the lighting and art direction. There’s Suspiria-style lighting throughout the facility, and one room referencing Kubrick’s The Shining. In the performances, Renee’s captors/tormentors are surprisingly polite and deferential, if extremely focused. There’s also the lack of over-the-top graphicness and the growing realization that despite the fearful goings on, very little of the film orients towards horror. It’s not quite a subversion of the torture/capture scenario, but it’s certainly a side path.

Rupture is a much less graphic Martyrs, with a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as things play out. You can call it a social satire, if you consider current events as having some influence in interpreting and enjoying the arts. Those factors, plus an ending which leaves things open to continue the story, makes it understandable why audiences expecting a taut thriller would be slightly disappointed.

Rupture can currently be viewed on the Cinemax networks and on DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rupture is worth persevering with as it turns into a tense, claustrophobic and strange experience.”–Katherine McLaughlin, SciFiNow (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Anne Hamilton

FEATURING: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, Zuleikha Robinson

PLOT: A 11-year old girl in Reagan-era America wrestles with her conscience when she discovers a man being held hostage on her farm.

Still from American Fable (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film pays lip service to magical realism and utilizes some striking imagery, there’s nothing especially weird about American Fable, although it does signal some interesting new voices.

COMMENTS: American Fable lays all its cards out on the table before the movie even begins. After all, the name of the movie is American Fable. Our tale will be fantastical, but highly moral, and with the particular shadings of fierce independence and bull-headed determination that flourishes in the United States. Titles, after all, are important.

They certainly nail the “American” part right away, opening on a family farm in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where a father reads a story to his daughter while Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial plays in the background. As that combination would suggest, times are tough, with small farmers struggling to fight off the banks and predatory land barons, with increasingly dire results. Indeed, the family of our hero will eventually turn to crime in an effort to buy their way out of the hole.

The “fable” part, on the other hand, is a longer walk. That father is reading tales of princesses and monsters to his daughter, Gitty, and while she is on the cusp of learning harder truths about the world, she still has a childlike attraction to the trappings of fairy tales. As she learns more about her family’s situation, she is inclined to view them through the lens of fantasy.

This isn’t a “Walter Mitty” scenario, though. Aside from a couple dream visions that portray one of her father’s associates as a fantastical witch queen, the elements of fable come through more as tropes played straight. A lonely farm girl with only a chicken for a friend, the discovery of a man in an abandoned tower, a handsome young man who is revealed to be thoroughly wicked: these would be perfectly at home in a Disney feature, but American Fable never winks at them.

The line this film walks is a tricky one. If you take the story seriously, then the plot immediately falls apart. If you insist that it’s merely an ancient tale transplanted to more recent times, then it’s lacking in any real mystery or magic. Director Hamilton tries to help her own script with a genuine knack for visuals. She has a painterly eye, artfully composing every shot and transforming rural Illinois (standing in for Wisconsin) into a setting worthy of the Impressionists. But her story tries to have it both ways, and never really succeeds at either.

Working in the film’s favor is uniformly strong acting, selling situations and characters that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. In particular, Schiff is expectedly reliable as a man by turns wistful and desperate about his circumstances. But the whole enterprise rests on the shoulders of Kennedy, who succeeds completely. Not an inexperienced actor (I encountered her previously in another weird setting as the irascible doctor on the educational quirkfest Odd Squad), she is completely believable, naïve but not stupid, reacting in the best way she knows how to situations beyond her understanding, and torn when she finds herself on both sides of a moral dilemma. American Fable ultimately doesn’t succeed as either the raw drama or the mystical metaphor that it wants to be. As a showcase for its director and star, however, it’s an outstanding calling card.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anne Hamilton’s first feature as a writer/director… plays out in a landscape aching with beauty and color and strangeness, a vivid Eden about to disappear. Hamilton has created a surreal and magical atmosphere for this melodramatic family thriller, and it is the atmosphere that dominates.” – Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com