Tag Archives: Grief

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster

FEATURING: , Alex Wolff , Milly Shapiro,

PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.

Still from Hereditary (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.

COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.

Cluck

The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like ‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.

Feels/Mechanics

The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.

The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

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: 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 its 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 it’s 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 bedsheeted 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 a 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)