Tag Archives: Mindbender

CAPSULE: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES (2021)

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Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Kopacka

FEATURING: Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch, Luisa Taraz, Frederik von Lüttichau

PLOT: A couple visit an old gothic castle the wife has inherited; it’s haunted, and simmering resentments from their past erupt into anger—but then there’s a twist.

Still from Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (2021)

COMMENTS: Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is a difficult movie to talk about, plotwise, because it contains a major twist coming at the end of the first act. It’s much easier to discuss in terms of its stylistic inspirations: it’s a shameless tribute to minimalist Gothic Eurohorror of the late 60s and early 70s, as exemplified by , , and (especially) . Set in a “castle” (I’d call it more of a manor), you can expect to see lots of lingering scenes of women wandering the darkened corridors bearing candelabras or walking through the grounds at night in a trance clad in white nightgowns, that sort of thing. The music—jazzy prog rock à la Goblin, alongside a variety of other rock-pop styles and more traditional orchestra-and-synth scare cues—is excellent, if ladled on a bit thick at times. Period details are perfect, even down to the pale pink, drop-shadowed opening title font, festooned with curlicues.

Again, there is not much that can be said about the plot without spoiling things. We’ll mention this nugget: while wandering around in the dusty wine cellar, Dieter (whose face and bearing perfectly express a Germanic arrogance that begs for a bloody comeuppance) finds a chest. Inside are a pair of glasses, an old newspaper article describing a tragedy, and a whip. All three items are clues, of an obscure sort. True to its inspirations, Dawn Breaks is more concerned with eerie ambiance than with narrative momentum, and the first thirty minutes are slow going. Things pick up, however, in the second act, eventually landing in a massive psychedelic-fueled orgy that shades into a finale that’s even weirder and more abstract than what came before.

Fans of vintage arty European horror movies are likely to be sucked in, although it is not the simple homage it appears to be at first. If the viewer can make it through the slow-paced introductory act, the movie starts to open up, introducing more levels that provide a psychological depth to the characters, casting them as archetypes of man and woman engaged in an eternal battle of the sexes. You are invited to infer your own backstory for the major characters based on hints dropped in casual conversation. The movie does well overcoming its budgetary limitations, utilizing every dusty, paint-stripped corner of its setting and relying on nifty editing and basic camera tricks (blurring, pink gel filters, superimposition) when it strides into lysergic territory. Multilayered and elegantly decadent, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes remains mysterious to the end, a fact which will frustrate many horror fans hoping for a clear denouement, but which shouldn’t be a barrier for most of our readers.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes debuts on video-on-demand starting June 24; we’ll update this post with the link when the time arrives.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“About once a year, I see a movie that is so weird it takes me about 48 hours to figure out if I like it… Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is that movie this year.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)

CAPSULE: ULTRASOUND (2021)

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Utrasound is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rob Schroeder

FEATURING: Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Bob Stephenson, , Tunde Adebimpe

PLOT: After a car accident, a man spends a night at a couple’s remote house and—at the husband’s insistence—sleeps with his much younger wife, which leads to an increasingly strange series of events.

Still from Ultrasound (2021)

COMMENTS: Glenn blows out a tire in the rain returning from a remote wedding and takes shelter at the home of a strange couple. After an awkward evening between Glenn, heavyset “depressive” host Art, and his young wife, Cyndi, the scene suddenly switches to a new character, a woman swimming laps in a pool. She sometimes appears pregnant, and sometimes not.

“I don’t see the link between the two things,” says Glenn, much later, from a wheelchair. “It will all make sense as we go along, I promise” assures the therapist who’s guiding him through a roleplay exercise as a form of physical therapy.

Juggling multiple plots and subplots, the script basically keeps the promise suggested by the above line of dialogue. Characters will sometimes appear to change into other characters or locations into other locations, and their lives will take major turns without explicit explanations. Two pregnancies, which may or may not be pregnancies, supply part of the impetus for the title Ultrasound. Besides Art, Glenn, Cyndi, and the mysterious swimming woman, there’s a major conspiracy afoot, and a couple of other subplots running around, making for a movie that demands close attention if you want to figure it all out (a careful second viewing will, of course, make the timelines clearer, and allow you to catch otherwise obscure clues).

The acting is good, with veteran character actor Bob Stephenson a standout as the unassuming but subtly persuasive Art. (“Art has gotten so weird lately,” says one character, and another corrects her: “more emphasis on so weird.”) The score and sound design effectively increase the tension in moments when things seem “off” even though there is not much action onscreen. Although the sets and visuals aren’t lavish, first-time director Schroeder frames some clever compositions: in one shot, a countertop lines up with a refrigerator and a cabinet to create an imaginary line down the middle of the frame—a sort of in-camera split screen effect implying a world divided into different realities.

Still, it’s the script that’s the standout here. Ultrasound‘s profound paranoia resonates in our gaslit world of deepfakes, fake news, and fake claims of fake news. But it’s possible to puzzle our way through the illusions: the screenplay answers nearly all our questions, and what it leaves ambiguous is easily filled in by the savvy viewer. A satisfying outing for fans of reality-bending films who demand answers to the mysteries and aren’t afraid to do a little mental lifting to get them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird, disorientating, and complex, Ultrasound compels the viewer into a fugue state into which this darkly dangerous science-fiction can unfold and wrap around then. Some truly uncomfortable ideas around the ability to control others are told through an overtly science-fiction lens, but the potential truth within the film is what makes it a harrowing watch.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)

CAPSULE: REVOLVER (2005)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Vincent Pastore

PLOT: Jake Green is released from prison and sets out to settle scores with the crime boss responsible for his sentence; two mysterious loan sharks who seem to know the future offer to help him, but Jake senses he’s being conned.

Still from Revolver (2005)

COMMENTS: Quite naturally, there are lots of guns and gunplay in Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, but there’s no pistol playing a featured role. The title might instead refer to the way the plot spins your head around. Personally, I suspect Ritchie chose Revolver to draw a comparison to the Beatles album of the same name. Prompted by newfound mystical awakening (via psychoanalysis, rather than the Hinduism that affected the Fab Four), he’s announcing his intention to turn to  serious and experimental work after having mastered a simpler form. If so, savage critical notices and flaccid box office returns quickly prompted Ritchie to return to conventional narratives, making Revolver the curiosity in his oeuvre rather than the departure point.

For fans of snappy, stylish gangster films hoping for another Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, Revolver begins promisingly enough. Haggard-but-handsome Jake Green (Statham) is released from captivity in an atmospheric downpour, which causes oily-but-elegant Macha (Liotta, very good here) a twinge of concern when he hears the news on a limo ride. Armed with conman wisdom he garnered from two cellmates in the slammer, Green sidles into Macha’s casino with long-game revenge on his mind. When the story pulls back, a twisted underworld comes into view: Macha strikes a dangerous deal with unseen kingpin “Mr. Gold,” while two loan sharks save Green’s life from assassins and put him to work for them, on their terms. They’re hatching a plan that involves some Yojimbo-style sabotage of Macha’s drug deal with a Chinese gang, and everything seems primed for a nice twisty thriller.

But don’t get too invested in that plot. Hints of something metaphysical keep screwing with the audience: precognitive warnings on business cards, twelve dollar bills, and the fact that the action inexplicably becomes partly animated during one caper. These bits set up one hell of an ambitious twist; but the problem with it is, it makes all of the preceding events arbitrary and meaningless. Really, there’s not even a point to Jake Green being a gangster; Ritchie could have written him as a politician, a car salesman… or even a film director. The misdirection here goes so far afield it feels like cheating—an especially distressing development because the film is presented and structured as a game. The effect is not like being surprised by an opponent’s intricately plotted chess move, but like learning that your opponent was playing a different game all along, and that all the moves you both made were completely irrelevant. You see, the movie’s all symbolic and deep; but Ritchie manages to fumble the reveal so that it’s somehow simultaneously confusing and obvious. Allegories work best when they play fair in their own narrative worlds; they usually falter when they go out of their way to announce themselves (Ritchie even appends clips of a bunch of psychologists talking over the credits, explaining the basic concepts underlying the movie’s “mind blowing” theme). There’s a difference between subverting an audience’s expectations and betraying them. Early on, Green’s internal monologue informs us that “in every con, there is always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter…” At the end of Revolver, you’ll know you’ve been the victim of Guy’s jejune “gotcha!”

Revolver was the kind of self-indulgent mess that could easily have ended Ritchie’s career, particularly following as it did on the heels of another huge flop (the romantic comedy Swept Away). If nothing else, it’s a testament to the director’s perseverance that he’s still cranking out films for major studios today. He certainly hasn’t dared to try anything this outside-the-box since.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ritchie may still be working within his beloved cockney gangster milieu, but he does to it something akin to what Alejandro Jodorowsky did to the Western with El Topo, or to the slasher flick with Santa Sangre. In short, Revolver is a strange trip that dazzles the eye and exercises the brain, amply rewarding multiple viewings and certainly worthy of critical reevaluation.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Daniel wiram, who called it an “outstandingly [weird] but great movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SERENITY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Steven Knight

FEATURING: , , Jason Clarke

PLOT: A crusty commercial fisherman entertains an offer from his ex-wife to kill her current husband, an abusive alcoholic multi-millionaire.

Still from Serenty (2019)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a noir/mindscrew oddity that inspires a reaction of “huh” more than anything else.

COMMENTS: “Serenity” is the name of Baker Dill’s fishing boat and, one presumes, the state of mind to which he aspires. “Justice” is the name of the tuna (!) he obsessively pursues. A game Matthew McConaughey plays the role of Baker broadly and brashly—although not quite reaching levels of transcendent camp. He exhibits remnants of post-Iraq PTSD, has a psychic connection to the son he left behind, pulls a knife on his own fishing tour customers, acts as a part-time gigolo and cat-catcher when not trawling for tuna or slamming shots of rum, and shows off his taut butt every chance he gets: swimming nude, showering, or rising from bed for a smoke after pleasuring Diane Lane. Femme fatale Anne Hathaway (temporarily blonde for this role) saunters in at the end of the first act to swerve the narrative into noir territory. There’s also a bespectacled man with a briefcase bumbling around on Baker’s trail, always missing him by a few seconds. The action occurs on Plymouth Island, a small scenic isle in—the Caribbean? The Florida Keys? (It was actually filmed in the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius, a paradise of translucent blue seas.) The locals are rugged individualists given to saying things like “You fish for the tuna. That’s a tuna that’s only in your head.”

And then comes that twist. It’s weird, yes, but somewhat telegraphed, and revealed in its entirety by the halfway point. You can see why audiences felt cheated by this sudden switch to the metaphysical. It’s not just that it’s unexpected; it’s unsatisfying. (“Preposterous” is a less flattering term that comes to mind.)

You won’t be confused about what happens in Serenity, but you might be puzzled as to why this strange script was greenlit. That’s not to say it’s terrible, exactly, it’s just… un-Hollywood. Director Steven Knight, the writer of the hits Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises and co-creator of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” had enough credibility to get a studio to back this commercial folly; when McConaughey and Hathaway signed on, it was a go. Unfortunately, their gamble on Serenity won’t do anybody’s career any favors; the film is already showing up on “worst of 2019” lists.

It’s not that bad; at least Serenity takes chances and is never boring, although neither does it ever exactly work as intended. The sunny postcard setting makes for balmy viewing, and McConnaughey’s gruff, committed performance is fun, if a bit fishy. That said—oh, that twist! It troubles our Serenity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you like seeing authentically unusual movies, then ignore the haters: In its fusion of disparate genres, its sentimentality, and its weirdness, Serenity is actually worth watching.”–Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Mike B, who speculated “…it smells like a potential candidate. So far, the reviewers have no idea what the hell to make of it, which is usually a good sign.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Mark Polish, Dianna Agron, , Justin Bartha

PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission,  falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.

Still from Against the Clock (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.

COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.

If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.

Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my Continue reading CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)