Tag Archives: Pyschological

CAPSULE: BAD TIMING (1980)

AKA Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Art Garfunkle, ,

PLOT: A woman is rushed to the emergency room; flashbacks explain the troubled relationship between a psychology professor and a free-spirited younger woman that brought them to this pass.

Still from Bad Timing (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Extremely subtle weirdness + adequate Nic Roeg representation on the List already + shrinking available space (only 85 slots left at the time of this writing) make it a bad time for Bad Timing to come along. Had this review been written earlier in this site’s existence, this movie’s layers of mystery might have convinced us to shortlist it, but now we have weirder candidates waiting in the wings.

COMMENTS: Nicolas Roeg shows excellent, if somewhat deceptive, timing with Bad Timing. He feints that he’s about to give us a bittersweet meditation on a failed love affair, but instead probes ever deeper into a psychology of paranoia and obsession, using a subtly dislocating style to keep us off guard. Opposed dualities appear everywhere: male vs. female, rational vs. emotional, East vs. West, law vs. crime. The setup is classic amour fou, pairing successful academic Dr. Alex Linden with the hard-drinking, free-loving Milena. As the relationship is slowly revealed in flashbacks, we see the power balance between the two shift back and forth, as both parties become mired in an increasingly destructive relationship, in different ways. Alex appears coldly rational—Milena bitingly advises him to try to love her instead of trying to understand her—but his advanced training doesn’t inoculate him from human frailty; he’s as subject to jealousy as the next man, and when he falls from his logical perch, he falls hard, into a churning id.

Paranoia and second-guessing are the rule in Alex’s world. The ever-present Cold War background, which is seldom explicitly mentioned, aroused more paranoid associations at the time than it does now. Alex lectures his Intro to Psych students about how everyone is a spy, starting with children peeking on their parent’s lovemaking; later, it appears that the psychiatrist himself is being analyzed by the detective, whose intuition and experience may lead him closer to Alex’s essence than Freudian methodologies would. Alex’s nemesis is a source of mystery and paranoia, too. Harvey Keitel’s obsession with investigating what on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut suicide attempt is itself obsessive, and seems almost unmotivated (until a last minute revelation). Wearing a greasy mullet, Keitel doesn’t make the slightest pretense of being Austrian; I don’t think this is bad casting, but deliberate dissonance, a clue that his character is pure metaphor.

Art Garfunkle, on the other hand, really is bad casting, and his presence damages what could have been an unqualified classic. Roeg’s good taste in casting as an alien The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t carry forward here. Not only is Garfunkle a stiff in the acting department, but we’re asked to view him as a suave sex symbol, someone whose magnetism would ensnare the heart of a young woman who could have her pick of any stud in Vienna. Fortunately, an excellent, brave performance from the underappreciated Theresa Russell blows through Art’s inadequacies in their scenes together.

The finale is truly shocking, but well-earned. Also of note is the excellent soundtrack, featuring hits from , Billie Holiday, The Who, and Keith Jarrett. The difficulty of re-securing the rights to all of this music for home video release put Bad Timing out of circulation for many years. It was released to mixed reviews and big controversies: it was rated “X” in the U.S. (a commercial death sentence), and the U.K. distributor called it “sick” and had its logo pulled off prints. Although the film is better appreciated today (even receiving a Criterion Collection release), the furor over Bad Timing led to a perception of Roeg as box office poison. After starting his career off with five memorable films, the director’s career fell off precipitously in the 80s, with 1990’s adaptation The Witches marking a brief comeback to relevance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of Roeg’s most complex and elusive movies, building a thousand-piece jigsaw from its apparently simple story of a consuming passion between two Americans in Vienna.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by sometime contributor Eric Gabbard,  who pleaded “The odd juxtapositions and time shifts. It’s a definite weird candidate. Give it a chance.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

PLOT: A U.S. Marshall with a tragic past investigates a mysterious disappearance at an asylum for the criminally insane on a craggy, isolated Massachusetts island in the 1950s.

Still from Shutter Island (2010)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Scorsese sprinkles a few flakes of weirdness into his mainstream thriller for flavor, but it’s carefully tailored for the mild tastes of the masses.

COMMENTS:  Atmosphere and suspense rule as Scorsese leaves film’s mainland to investigate the genre islands.  With a horror movie aesthetic, a film noir hero and a brainteaser mystery plot, Shutter Island is a mini-history of popular movie mechanics, with some psychology and dark drama thrown in to provide a sense of gravitas.  It’s no masterpiece, but it does effectively draw you into its mysterious labyrinth for two hours.  Overwrought in the best way, this is the type of movie where portentous strings keep coming at the viewer like driving sheets of rain in a hurricane, key scenes take place in darkened cells filled with the criminally insane or in ruined cemeteries, and Nazis, lobotomizing surgeons, and drug-induced hallucinations all play a part in the paranoid plot.  DiCaprio puts in a fine performance as Teddy Daniels, a tough guy whose callous exterior may just be scar tissue from the wounds he’s suffered in a tough life.  A war veteran who was present at the liberation of the Dachau death camps, Daniels may have committed acts that still haunt him; returning home, he turns to booze and then quickly suffers further tragedy when he loses his young wife to a violent tragedy.  Guilt, regret and lust for revenge haunt our hero, and impede his investigation of the murderess who’s disappeared from her locked cell as surely as does administrator Ben Kingsley’s odd reluctance to hand over patient medical files to the two federal marshals.  Scorsese plumbs DiCaprio’s psyche for spooky dream sequences, such as one where he embraces his dead wife while ash falls around them like snow; as the scene progresses her back turn into a burning cinder, while a cascade of blood simultaneously soaks the front of her dress.  As the flick progresses, reality becomes plastic and the seeming illogic of the plot increases; DiCaprio’s flashbacks and dreams take up a larger portion of the action and sometimes bleed into the real world.  Despite a mounting sense of weirdness, though, all is resolved rationally at the end.

You may guess the final twist, or you may not.  The true test of a mystery/thriller is not whether the twist ending surprises you—it’s a bonus if it does and will make the movie a classic, but there are only so many unthought-of tricks that a director can deploy without cheating.  Our capacity to be surprised depends more on cinematic inexperience than anything else.  The true virtue of a thriller is not to fool us but to put us inside the endangered shoes of the protagonist, and fill us with doubts as to our safety, understanding, even sanity.  When this movie’s clicking, the suspense is high and the Gothic atmosphere is thick and beautiful, making it well worth the short ferry ride out to Shutter Island.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like a Hardy Boys mystery directed by David Lynch.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)

fourandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY

FEATURINGMin-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

PLOT:  A drunk Dae-su Oh is seized off the streets and imprisoned for years in a private

Still from Oldboy (2003)

apartment without any explanation; when he is just as mysteriously released, his former captor toys with him, giving him clues to help Dae-su track him down and, more importantly, discover why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEOldboy is certainly extreme, certainly stylized, certainly cultish, but it may be a stretch to call it “weird.”  What gives it some weird cred is the high implausibility of the fabulous plot, which is more concerned with intriguing us through its psychological truth than its believability.  Watching Oldboy leads to the same punched-in-the-psychic-gut feeling as the best weird movies do.  It’s that effect that keeps it on the borderline.

COMMENTSOldboy spins its improbable yarn with stylized realism.  There are a few weirdish digressions: when a stir-crazy Dae-su hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin (an ant also briefly appears to Mi-do in a mirror image phantasm); a scene where, instead of showing the avenger graphically bashing in his adversary’s head, the director freezes frame and draws a dotted line on the screen from Dae-su’s claw hammer to the villain’s noggin; and a brilliantly impossible kung fu battle in a narrow corridor that seems imported from a completely different movie.  Part of what makes this Chan-wook’s most successful work is that neither these cinematic stylistic touches, nor the improbably convoluted plot, cause our brows to permanently freeze in a skeptical furrow, or totally overwhelm the sense that this fantastic story could have happened essentially the way he tells it.  There are maybe a dozen points in the film where if Dae-su chooses to do follow path X rather than path Y, the entire plot collapses; there are another half-dozen plot contrivances that could only be accomplished by a cartoon supervillain with unlimited resources.  But our logical objections never rise to the fore while we’re watching the film.  Oldboy seems “real” because the actors are able to convey an emotional realism, because Chan-wook creates legitimate suspense that makes us want to believe so we’re fully invested when we discover what happens next, and because, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the story rings psychologically true.  On one level, Oldboy is a simple and elegant dramatization of the self-annihilating power of revenge, inflicted with unflinching emotional brutality on the poor hero. What gives the film extra intensity is that we sense it’s not the villain, but the dread hand of Fate manipulating and battering Dae-su.  The force that torments him is too relentless and omnipotent to be human, to cruel and senseless to be karma.

Every successful foreign film is the subject of a Hollywood remake rumor, and Oldboy is no exception.  What is just as bizarre as Oldboy‘s plot contrivances are the names linked to the remake (actually an adaptation of the same source material, to avoid quibbles): Steven Speilberg and Will Smith.  If even Hollywood’s most daring talent would inevitably chicken out and make Oldboy pointless by sanitizing its unflinching psychic brutality, what will these two squeaky-clean icons of normality do to it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd… It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as ‘Oldboy’ and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporary)