Tag Archives: Grief

CAPSULE: A GHOST STORY (2017)

DIRECTED BY: David Lowery

FEATURING: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

PLOT: A young musician dies and comes back as a ghost, moving back to his  house and silently observing his wife’s grief.

Still from A Ghost Story (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A melancholy meditation on man’s ephermerality, A Ghost Story‘s weirdness goes beyond it’s guy-in-a-sheet gimmick, but not far enough beyond to reach the realms of one of the all-time weirdest.

COMMENTS: Though modest in countenance, A Ghost Story is filled with formal audacity underneath its blank exterior. It’s got an Academy-Award winning actor who’s silent and hidden under a sheet for 90% of his performance; a constricted 4:3 aspect ratio with rounded corners, to evoke the feeling of a picture frame; and shots that go on for so long that would be tapping his finger on his armrest impatiently. (Not really, but you get the idea). And yet, what easily might have become a purgatorial ordeal emerges as a moving and thought-provoking experiment.

The plot is so simple its almost a wisp. The unnamed main character dies, wakes up in the morgue in a sheet, returns to the house where he and his wife lived, and watches her as she silently grieves (and grief-eats a pie). This sounds dull, and if the movie stayed in this rut, it would be. But, although Affleck doesn’t speak and barely moves, doing little more than turning his head or shrugging his shoulders, A Ghost Story finds ways to create narrative dynamism. There is a flashback or two, and a seemingly minor incident from the pre-mortem opening is fleshed out over the length of the movie. Affleck’s ghost engages in a bit of minor poltergeistism when distressed. In one of the film’s most poignant bits, which would almost be considered a running gag if it weren’t so sad, Affleck’s ghost spies another besheeted figure in the house next door, and they communicate in the terse language of the dead (translated to us in subtitles). The ghost experiences time differently than we do, and we gradually become accustomed to the rhythm of his eternal observation as time moves on without him. A new tenant in his house (musician ) gives a speech about the vanity of human existence. And the ghost persists, chained to the plot of land where his house stands and inevitably once stood, waiting for an emotional release from his sentence. The movie plays with the idea of eternity in a philosophical sense that may be new to audiences, but which makes it ripe for post-viewing discussion.

A Ghost Story is definitely not a horror movie (unless you consider it an extremely subtle existential horror). It definitely is a philosophical/poetic drama about the psychology of grief and the nature of time, and it carries an implicit message about appreciating the now. It is, dare I say, haunting—at least, if you’re the type of attuned spiritualist who can see the ghosts around us.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Interrupted by death, a couple’s love finds a weird way forward in this slice of supernatural risk-taking… Lowery is spending the capital he’s earned on big gigs like Pete’s Dragon to make something bizarre and experimental, and as his film starts flitting through the weeks in unannounced leaps, you’ll come to appreciate his gamble.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: DELUSION (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Di Nunzio

FEATURING: David Graziano, Jami Tennille, Carlyne Fournier, Irina Peligrad

PLOT:  Frank, an aging widower still mourning the loss of his wife, follows a mysterious woman, ignoring the warnings of fortune tellers and his own intuition.

Still from Delusion (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It lacks extremeness in the weird department, with only some subtle spiritual themes to give the suspense an extra kick.

COMMENTS: Delusion is no ordinary suspense thriller; it’s got its fair share of dreamlike moments. The boldest aspects of its weirdness don’t come directly from the exploration of the supernatural, but rather from the quiet, introspective moments in between them. The contrast between light and dark, good and evil, is aggressive, and this effect gets multiplied up until the climax. Bouncing from polite conversations over the billiards table to moments of terror and shock, Delusion earns some weird-stripes for its tonal bipolarity. It fails to stretch its ideas of loyalty, loss, and redemption enough to exasperate and confound the mind, though. Instead, it snuggles warmly up into the mystery-thriller blanket, and then ends abruptly with some glorious goodies for weird movie lovers to chew on, but not swallow.

Playing wait-and-bait, everything starts off with silky politeness. Reflective death-related dialogue configures itself around lacquered settings in nature, and the sky is frequently grey, silvery and full of mourning. Frank (everyone’s got a depressed Uncle Frank, even McCauley Culkin from Home Alone) and his nephew Tommy drink brews and shoot pool, but Frank spends even more time standing alone next to swaying trees and thinking about his lost wife, Isabella. This period of reflection services the contrasting emotions at the film’s core by offering a portrait of a character’s earnest longing for closure. Frank is a lonely man. It raises the question: how could he resist the temptations of a succubus?

Before the succubus strikes, there comes a fortune teller who tries to convince Frank to think with the head on his shoulders, but that pesky human malady called grief gets in the way and he ignores her. Things get juicy when the lights go dim and Frank’s fortune is told. Amusing vibes come along with the “haunted” feel. There’s even a bit of James Wan-style pop-up house horror to keep the tension ratcheted up. Frank’s hallucinations get hairier; blood leaks out of sewer pipes, and strange apparitions follow him at home and abroad (some with face-paint straight from a flick).

Most fascinating are the peculiarly natural performances that weave through the staunch atmosphere. The actors have a smooth, organic style to their performances that give the movie a low-key vibe of sinister murmurs while it portrays internal rumination. The silences highlight Frank’s internal thoughts, and the white noise of nature (chirping birds, rustling leaves) offers a chance to process the feeling of aloneness that comes with being lost and vulnerable among soul-corrupting threats. Soothing as the warm pleasures of infatuation are, they aren’t enough to save Frank from himself.

Frank deals with, but does not resist, the temptation of the devil, who urges him to “trust your gut, not your head.” Life, he explains, is just moments and experiences, chaos. It’s hard to believe otherwise after watching Frank’s drastic transformation from a caring, reflective, sentimental man into an angry, womanizing, just-got-laid horndog. Sex can turn a man’s life completely around, and Frank is no exception; post-coitus, he does Baywatch-style beach runs and hits the bar for rounds with the boys. The dark side of his sexually-motivated metamorphosis comes during his reproachful trash talking at the end, which raises the question of whether he had a chance for redemption in the first place. There is one bizarrely violent moment in this movie, at the very end, but its cathartic edge can’t be found elsewhere in the picture. Delusion shows us that some men are doomed to die at the hands of what they desire, and the devil is always there to make the offer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it’s rather labyrinthine in character and takes all the time in the world to let the story unfold while intentionally blurring the line between this world and the next, the lead character’s warped perception and his genuine nightmares – and it plays with all these elements in a way probably most reminiscent of David Lynch without aping his style.”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]search My Trash (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Francesca Gregorini

FEATURING: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel

PLOT: A troubled teenage girl becomes obsessed with the single mom who moves in next door.

Still from The Truth About Emanuel (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This metaphorical psychodrama is dreamy, but not quite dreamy enough to qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: Although it flirts with head games, The Truth About Emanuel is steadfastly a drama and not a psychological thriller; it does contains a twist, however, that makes it hard to discuss the plot without giving away an intended surprise. Suffice it to say that the twist arrives early, isn’t too terribly difficult to guess, and is milked almost entirely for its surface metaphor rather than as a source of suspense. Emanuel (Scodelario) is a smart but sullen teen girl, a female Holden Caulfield with a morbid streak. She has her name (spelled in the masculine form) tattooed on her arm, and nothing but sarcastic comments for her desperate-to-connect stepmother and a nerdy coworker. Emanuel feels existential survivor’s guilt due to the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. Enter new neighbor Linda (Biel), a young mother in constant need of babysitting services, with whom Emanuel immediately connects (inspiring vicarious maternal jealousy and lesbian panic in her stepmom). The two women’s relationship quickly takes a turn for the symbiotically, and symbolically, unhealthy. Despite the fact that the film’s big bombshell is dropped at the end of the first act, the movie as a whole feels very slow-developing. It can also be heavy-handed, moving its characters around stiffly so that they hit their psychological marks on cue. On the plus side, the acting and general technical quality of the film is good. Kaya Scodelario has a fine presence (the camera loves her big, haunted blue eyes), and although her role as a morose teen doesn’t require her to stretch her talents too much, I expect to see more of her in coming years. Biel is natural as always, putting in another of her effortlessly classy performances that make me wonder if maybe she shouldn’t be a bigger star than she is. The two women share good chemistry in this very gynocentric film. Even aside from the thematic obsession with motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship, Emanuel is very much the aggressor and dominant partner in her budding romance with her Elijah-Wood-as-Frodo-looking boyfriend; this movie, in fact, would fail the reverse Bechdel test. Despite some slightly distracting budget CGI, a lovingly constructed dream sequence works as an emotional and symbolic centerpiece. Along with one glancing shot that introduces some subjective ambiguity into the entire scenario, that dream gives the film just a touch of weirdness, although there’s not much here that will stretch the aesthetic boundaries of anyone who’s seen an independent film or two in their times. The Truth About Emanuel isn’t subtle in its symbolism, but it is an earnest and a generally effective exploration of maternal longing, brainier and more poetic than the average chick flick.

The Truth About Emanuel played Sundance in 2013 under the more intriguing title Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The revised, generic title may sound less weird, but it is arguably more misleading than the Truth About Fishes. It’s being released on video-on-demand contemporaneously with its limited theatrical release, which has now become the official distribution strategy for independent films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has elements that are weirdly creepy, yet it still manages to be surprising and achingly sad.”–Nina Garin, San Diego Union-Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: ALPS (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Aris Servetalis, Stavros Psillakis, , Johnny Vekris

PLOT: A group of four people act as stand-ins for deceased loved ones to help families with the grieving process.

Still from Alps (2011)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alps feels like a faint echo of director ‘ surprise (and Certified Weird) hit debut, Dogtooth. It has weaknesses typical of a sophomore effort: stylistically, it doesn’t distinguish itself from its predecessor, and conceptually it seems second tier, like an idea that was passed over and saved for later.

COMMENTS: There is a plot to Alps, but it’s secondary. This movie is more of a mood. The mood is muted anguish. If you were to watch Alps without reading the one-sentence synopsis, you would go through the early stages of the film baffled by the odd and strained relationships of the characters to each other; even armed with knowledge of the premise, there are moments in the story when you will question what’s “reality” and what’s an act. The slow-developing narrative concerns people who serve as emotional prostitutes for the bereaved, and (predictably) the strange and intense job (or hobby, since the actors’ motivations are never made clear) eventually takes a psychic toll on the chief protagonist. The story doesn’t develop in a particularly interesting way, however; Lanthimos’ interest is more in creating an alienated mise-en-scene than in telling a story about the emotional toll of being a stand-in for deceased loved ones. Alps features flat-affect characters who respond to tragedy with mundane conversation about coffee mugs and lamp taxonomies, awkward hugs and gawky lovemaking, framing that’s deliberately off, with chopped off heads and characters speaking from off-screen, out of focus backgrounds, bilious lighting, and other unnerving effects that, piled on top of each other one after another, create a growing sense of existential nausea. Almost all conversations are clipped and nearly emotionless, but often interrupted by odd behavior—as when the nurse tries to play tennis with a nearly comatose patient or the gymnast suddenly strips topless and stretches her leg above her head while talking to her coach. Aggeliki Papoulia alone of the cast allowed to show any real emotion, and then only pain and desperate despair at the very end. Every character has a perpetual look of buried sadness, and the surrogate loved ones, who perform their substitutions like amateur robots, can hardly supply any comfort to the bereaved when they have no warmth or passion in their own lives. Alps presents us with a depressing, autistic world, where the possibility of a human connection is a bitter joke. But… how does all this social anomie among the living connect back to the movie’s ostensible theme of grief? Is this movie about the way the living remember the dead, or is it about the living dead? In Dogtooth, the isolated children had a reason for acting relentlessly odd, and that movie had a metaphorical conceit that gave it form. Alps radiates a shapeless pessimism that is especially nasty because it has no cause or focus. Where Dogtooth was like a smack in the molar with a brick, Alps is like a throbbing toothache that won’t go away.

If you want to know what it’s like to feel suicidal in Eastern Europe today, try watching a triple feature of the New Weird Greek canon: start with Dogtooth, follow up with Attenberg (starring Labed as an alienated, asexual woman with a dying dad), and use this one as the final nail in the coffin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Lanthimos delivers another heady dose of weirdness. Loopier than a frog sandwich but rather wonderful.”–Simon Crook, Empire (contemporaneous)

72. ANTICHRIST (2009)

“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made.”–John Waters, “Artforum Magazine”

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: He and She (the characters are nameless) are making love when their child tumbles to his death out of a window.  She falls into inconsolable grief, and He, a therapist, unwisely decides to take her under his personal care.  When He discovers the root of She’s anxiety and irrational fears centers around a woodland retreat they call Eden, He forces her to go there to face her fears; but when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

BACKGROUND:

  • Von Trier says that he was suffering from extreme depression when he made Antichrist and that working on the script and the film was a form of self-therapy.  Von Trier was still depressed at the time of screening and sometimes had to excuse himself from the set.
  • In the title card and much of the promotional art, the “t” in “antichrist” is suggested by a figure combining the Christian cross and the symbol for “woman.”
  • The therapy He employs in the film is called “exposure therapy” (where an anxiety-ridden patient is gradually exposed to the source of their irrational fear); von Trier had undergone this treatment for his own anxiety problems, and thought little of the practice.
  • The idea for the fox came from a shamanic journey taken by von Trier.
  • Besides this film, British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also shot Slumdog Millionaire, for which he received the 2009 Academy Award, in the same year.  Of the two, Antichrist, with its extreme slow-motion photography, was the more difficult and magnificently shot film.
  • Von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, which caused jeers at Cannes and gave critical wags the opportunity to take deserved, if obvious, potshots (Jason Anderson’s “we now know what it would’ve been like if Tarkovsky had lived to make a torture-porn movie” was a typical dig).
  • The film’s Cannes reception was tumultuous, with audience members reportedly fainting, and hostility between the press and von Trier (who proclaimed himself “the world’s greatest director.”)  Charlotte Gainsbourg won “Best Actress” for her brave and revealing performance.  The film received a special “anti-humanitarian” prize from the ecumenical jury (a Cannes sub-jury with a Christian focus), who called Antichrist “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without doubt, the searing image is of the encounter between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s intimate prosthetic and a pair of rusty scissors.  However indelibly gruesome this scene may be, however, it comes out of von Trier’s shock toolbox rather than from his weird shed.  For an image with a power to make us do more than squirm, we turn to the scene where He and She are copulating in the woods, with her head resting on a bed of roots from a massive oak tree.  The camera slowly pulls back to reveal a number of disembodied human hands sticking out at various places from between the woody oak limbs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do.  The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a story of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.


Trailer for Antichrist (WARNING: contains non-explicit sexual content)

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier deserves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with four Continue reading 72. ANTICHRIST (2009)

CAPSULE: THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

FEATURING: Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, , Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon

PLOT: A murdered 14-year old girl watches her family search for her killer from the afterlife.

Still from The Lovely Bones (2009)

 

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are a few weird visual elements in Susie’s pleasant and candy-colored Purgatory, but The Lovely Bones tells a conventional, if unusual, story at heart.

COMMENTS:  With its mix of fantasy, drama, teen girls and murder, Peter Jackson’s latest superficially hearkens back to his wonderful Heavenly Creatures (1994); but the originality and intensity of that early vision is gone now, replaced by Hollywood sentimentality.  The Lovely Bones is ambitious in its attempt to juggle many mixed tones, but it can’t quite navigate the tricky terrain from tragedy to mystery to reconciliation while shoehorning in comedy (a nicely campy but unnecessary turn by Susan Sarandon as a hard-drinking granny) and Hollywood spectacle.  There some memorable fantasy images, such as a fleet of bottled ships crashing onto rocks, but for the most part the heavenly landscapes Jackson imagines are appealing and picture-postcard pretty, but uninvolving; Susie’s heaven seems like it’s been designed by Terry Gilliam reincarnated as a tween girl.  As a thriller, the movie fails.  We know from the beginning who the killer is, so our only interest is in seeing how he will slip up and be discovered.  No clues are provided that would allow the Susie’s surviving family to out him, however; the revelation comes through supernatural nudging from beyond the grave that feels a lot like cheating.  At a key moment, the movie abruptly stops being a thriller—just as excitement should be peaking—to return to exploring family dynamics.  It’s a misstep that’s revealing of the difficulty the movie has shifting gears.  The ending is cloying; the murder victims gather on the Elysian fields to sing a contemporary pop-music version of “Kumbaya,” followed by Susie’s unlikely return to earth to take care of unfinished business solely of interest to teen girls.  The ending is also a cheat, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness while giving the audience a vicarious form of justice that falls flat.  The Lovely Bones is not all bad: the performances are excellent, particularly Tucci’s subtle turn as the monster next door who appears to be just slightly odd, and young Saoirse Ronan, who generates tremendous empathy as the victim.  There are some heart-tugging scenes, some suspenseful scenes, and some heavenesque eye candy to stare at.  Jackson shows tact in not dwelling on the crude facts of the rape-murder, revealing the horror instead with an impressionistic and disquieting, unreal sequence set in a bare bathroom (a minimalist scene that’s a lot more effective than the garish paradises on which he lavishes his CGI budget).  But, overall the movie reinforces Jackson’s inconsistency rather than his genius—he has yet to sniff a return to the grandiose triumph of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, while simultaneously he’s lost the punkish grit of his pre-fame films like Dead-Alive.

The Lovely Bones was based on a much-beloved novel by Alice Sebold, and, as is usually the case, fans of the book (including most critics who also read the original) aren’t thrilled with the film adaptation, saying that a subtle reflection on grief and living has been reduced to little more than a supernatural potboiler.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Other elements, including ‘The Lovely Bones’ imaginative notion of what Susie’s afterlife looks like, are strong, but everything that’s good is undermined by an overemphasis on one part of the story that is essential but has been allowed to overflow its boundaries.  That would be the film’s decision to foreground its weirdest, creepiest, most shocking elements, starting with the decision to give a much more prominent role to murderer George Harvey.”–Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times