Tag Archives: Thriller

CAPSULE: GHAJINI (2008)

DIRECTED BY: A.R. Murugadoss

FEATURING: Aamir Khan, Asin, Pradeep Rawat, Jiah Khan

PLOT: A dashing young CEO suffering short-term memory loss hunts the gangster who killed his fiancée.

Still from Ghajini (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghajini is mostly just clumsy blockbuster entertainment, appearing weird only to Westerners unfamiliar with Bollywood’s much looser tolerance of narrative coherence. In its home country, it was actually a hit, both financially and with critics.

COMMENTS: At about the thirty-minute mark of Ghajini, an unprepared viewer might assume someone at the DVD factory in New Delhi messed up and burned reels from a different movie onto the disc. Up until this point, you’ve been watching a dark revenge thriller about a tattooed amnesiac maniac. Suddenly, a narrator introduces himself as Sanjay Singhania, suave cell phone magnate, a prelude which segues into an MTV-style video with dancing girls, and then we find ourselves immersed in a sappy mistaken-identity romantic comedy, with a model pretending she’s Sanjay’s boyfriend, while unbeknownst to her he’s pretending to be an actor helping her with her deception… try not to get whiplash from one of the most violent tone shifts you’ve ever seen in a commercial film. What turns out to be a flashback lasts for about 45 minutes (with more upbeat musical numbers), ending on a “will they get married” cliffhanger… and then we’re back in the first movie, where the tattooed man delivers a brutal beating to the police officer who had been reading his diary. We’ll return to the lighthearted romantic comedy again later, which ends as all good comedies do… with the brutal torture and killing of the female lead after she uncovers a kidney-stealing ring preying on orphan girls.

Ghajini is pretty exhausting, honestly. It steals borrows plenty from the (vastly superior) thriller Memento, only with an anti-hero who has gained bone-crunching kickboxing skills along with short-term memory loss from a blow to the head. Oh, and musical numbers, and, as mentioned, a romantic comedy with a tragic ending as a bonus film. All this in a mere three hours! If you’re looking for even more, there’s the hammy performance of beefy Aamir Khan, who, despite his impressive physique, turns out to be better suited to comedy than action/drama (where he relies on over-the-top, animalistic howls and face-churning grimaces to convey grief). You also may have fun picking out the plot holes, like the basic question: why, if the hero is a multi-millionaire, does he choose to live like a squatter in a run-down apartment rather than using the vast resources at his disposal to bring his enemy to justice? I mean, a competent personal assistant would have been far more helpful in keeping him on-task in his revenge quest than a bunch of mysterious scribbled notes, Polaroids, and tattoos are.

My guess is that the romantic comedy portion of the film (which has no third act) was adapted from an unpublished screenplay the studio had lying around, and incorporated to provide chick appeal and a more natural substrate for the mandatory Bollywood musical numbers. To make things even more confusing, Ghajini is a Hindi-language remake of a 2005 Tamil-language film of the same name, by the same director, with some of the same cast. complained about Ghajini‘s similarities to Memento but did not take legal action; however, Murugadoss was sued (and even briefly arrested) by the producers of Ghajini (2005) for not properly securing remake rights.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an experience almost too stimulating for the non-Indian nervous system, a blockbuster layer cake of full-strength escapist entertainment.”–David Chute, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “jenn” who called it “an indian remake of ‘momento’… its a bit weird… its like momento, u know…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY: Agustí Villaronga

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

(This movie was nominated for review by “w depaul.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: OBSESSIONS (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Dieter Geissler, Alexandra Stewart, Tom Van Beek, Donald Jones

PLOT: A carefree medical student’s life is thrown into disarray when a painting falls from his wall, creating a peep-hole to the neighboring apartment where he witnesses a world of LSD-fueled rape and murder.

Still from Obsessions (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The oft-hyphenated phrase, “by-the-numbers”, springs to mind when thinking of this picture. Trying to be a ian thriller, a drug morality tale, and (perhaps) a soft-core pornographic movie, Obsessions fails on all counts—with the only weird thing being that somehow let his name be associated with it.

COMMENTS: There is unfortunately little useful to say about this mish-mash of a Dutch film. The press release and DVD blurb hype it up as best they can, going so far to claim that Obsessions helped to jumpstart “auteur cinema in Holland.” That may well be true, but that’s something better explored by a film scholar (that is, some other film scholar). As it stands, all by itself, on its own, as a movie, it stands… kind of wobbly. Thinking back on it now, the only clever bit occurred during the plot setup in the opening credits.

A heavy, framed picture of a modified Van Gogh portrait (with super-imposed razor poking at the poor man’s ear) falls from the thin wall of Nils Janssen’s apartment, bringing with it a hunk of plaster and leaving behind a perfectly-sized peep-hole. Through this new portal, Nils (Dieter Geissler), an affable medical student, sees and hears strange doings across the way, finding that it’s not all scooters, cognac, and medical school in his trendy downtown world. His improbably attractive girlfriend Marina (Alexandra Stewart), a journalist for a fashion magazine with a sideline in pop-news, joins in his… “obsession” …and the two try to unravel a bizarre crime spree involving LSD, a series of addled young women, a fat drug-dealer with a lazy eye, a con posing as a US Army officer, and a masseuse who plies her trade with her feet. Before you can say “tight slacks,” things go south when the criminals discover they’re being spied upon.

Had this rambling plot been in the service of a pornographic endeavor (something the Netherlands didn’t shy away from in the 1960s), I’d feel more sympathetic to it. The amateurism of the acting, staging, and dialogue (not sure how involved Scorsese was in the writing; he was in his mid-20s at the time and only in town for another project) all smacks of high quality smut or low quality drama. For better or (more so) worse, Obsessions is the latter–and all the Hitchcock references and “gee-whiz!” camera tricks can’t change the fact that we travel through the film’s ninety minutes with a mix of incuriosity and relief at its brevity.

Pim de la Parra and his confrère Wim Verstappen went on to achieve notoriety a couple of years later with their full-blown adult feature, Blue Movie. Afterwards they cruised through the 1970s with a series of “mature” titles interspersed with the occasional drama and experimental film. While it seems P de la P could have pursued one direction or another after his late-60s crime-thriller, I’d wager that either genre isn’t any poorer for him having stepped away from it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with arty montages, plentiful nudity, and Hitchcock references galore (note all the stuffed birds everywhere), Obsessions is a really odd one, mixing old school thriller tropes, chic ’60s fashions and decor, and sleazy kink, all with that percolating Herrmann music underneath.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith

FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil

PLOT: A mysterious loner living in isolation in the mountains survives off the food and shelter of unused vacation homes; through flashbacks we see how his life unraveled after meeting a doomsday-prophesying computer engineer.

Still from Buster's Mal Heart (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its nonlinear style and a few nearly incomprehensible plot elements, this is definitely weird. But it also throws in a by-now familiar twist that makes it feel less special.

COMMENTS: For years, a man (Rami Malek) known only as “Buster” has been haunting the woods where a number of high-end vacation homes lie empty the majority of the year. He breaks into these homes and stays for a few days at at time, neatly tidying up after himself but often leaving some memento of his visit behind for the owners to find. The only interactions we see him engage in are periodic phone calls to radio DJ’s and phone sex workers, warning them of some impending doom called “the Inversion.” In an alternate vision of his life, he is lost at sea, waiting out his own death on a small rowboat, alternating between English and Spanish as he shouts at the sky. With the third version of Buster, we learn his history. He was once named “Jonah,” a hard-working young family man who had overcome drug addiction and homelessness and found salvation (and a wife) in the church. He works the night shift at a quiet airport hotel, and dreams of whisking his family away from the toil of working-class suburban life to their very own plot of land in the mountains, where they can live on their own terms. Jonah’s chance encounter with an unnamed drifter (DJ Qualls) who foretells the end of the world sets a chain of events in motion that leads to drastic changes in his lifestyle and worldview.

Buster’s Mal Heart is an exercise in nonlinear, enigmatic storytelling. Each scene is a flashback, a flash forward, or a flash-sideways, with seeming revelations about the protagonist often resulting in more questions, wrong turns, or dead ends. But writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (known for her stunning, secretive debut The Midnight Swim) throws viewers some bread crumbs, hinting at overarching themes. It seems that all of Jonah’s life as we know it is a constant push-pull between a “normal,” responsible, social existence and a completely free, independent one. He works in the hospitality industry, but due to his hours he spends most of his shifts alone, cleaning up the barren spaces of the hotel or sitting at the front desk staring blankly at the empty lobby. He loves his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter, but refuses to imagine a buttoned-up suburban life for them, instead saving all of his money to build them a cabin on a lake. He is an active member of an unspecific Christian church, but not actually invested in religion, likely remaining only because it is so Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

366 UNDERGROUND: MARVELOUS MANDY (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Chase Dudley

FEATURING: Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Jonathan Stottmann, Keith Nicholson

PLOT: A lonely single father falls in love with the author of his daughter’s favorite books, only to discover that she may not be all she seems.

Still from Marvelous Mandy (2016)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marvelous Mandy is a straightforward Secret Sociopath thriller. Early misdirection helps create a certain confusion about the kind of movie we’re in for, but once the killing starts, it’s merely a race to each successive murder. Despite brief jaunts into the headspace of the two leads, there’s very little here that’s weird beyond the psychopathy of the killer.

COMMENTS: Before going any further, let’s be clear that this is absolutely loaded with SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. I’m giving away everything. With that in mind, let’s start with a fundamental question that Marvelous Mandy raises about horror-slasher-thriller movies.

Do you kill the kid?

The horror genre, perhaps more than any other, requires constant re-invention to maintain freshness in the eyes of its audience. How many ways can you find to yell “boo”? What happens when blood isn’t enough? Do you add in intestines? Where can you go after gore, other than more gore? Can you succeed entirely through twists and misdirections like M. Night Shyamalan, or do you pursue the nobody-gets-out-alive nihilism of an Eli Roth? Each movie must walk a delicate line, between restraint and wild abandon, between growing unease and sudden shock.

So, is killing the kid a step too far, signifying a plotter’s desperation, or possibly even an unsettled mind? Or is it a sign of the filmmaker’s purity of intent, preying on inherent fears, doing whatever is necessary to get a rise out of a jaded audience? The kind of movie you’re dealing with relies very heavily upon how the filmmaker has answered this question. (Speaking personally, I gave up on “CSI” after kids kept turning up on the slab too often, so my tolerance registers pretty low. But I understand the storytelling impulse.)

Marvelous Mandy attempts the difficult dance of being a little bit of both. Screenwriter (and Great Name Hall of Famer) Brentt Slabchuck introduces us to Harvey,  a dedicated dad and wannabe stand-up comic with no chops who is so desperate for love that he makes an embarrassing plea to a way-too-young barista in front of half of Louisville. He then pairs this lovable loser with Mandy, a woman who projects instability from the first frame, a children’s author mysteriously slumming as a bookstore clerk who spurs every man who crosses her path to make some very ill-informed decisions. The film tries to play with suspense by extending Harvey’s ignorance of his danger long past the point where we see his peril, but because we’ve seen Mandy in action (which is not her real name), the only mystery remaining is when he will finally catch up to us, and whether it will be in time to make a difference. Harvey turns out to be a lot sharper than other men, but the die is cast.

Although Marvelous Mandy is a semi-professional production, director Dudley has assembled a game and determined cast. As Harvey, Stottmann is convincing as a man who knows he’s in over his head but unbowed, while Solinger plays Mandy’s madness to the hilt. There are also nice turns in the supporting cast, including Ryley Nicole as Mandy’s delightfully pissy co-worker, and Kenna Hardin, natural as Harvey’s faithful daughter.  But the true standout is Keith Nicholson as a jovial, Stetson-wearing, tea-chugging private eye who does all the due diligence that nobody else manages to accomplish. Arriving in the third act to pursue Harvey’s spot-on suspicions about Mandy, he’s a breath of fresh air, wearing his enthusiasm and his character quirks loudly and proudly.

Dudley himself has some keen directorial instincts. He uses locations well, and he films Mandy’s violent attacks with skillful verisimilitude. Most impressive is a Hitchcockian tracking shot that begins with an attack and continues outside a house while the fight rages on, only catching up to the actors again at the end of the bloody assault.

Marvelous Mandy hints at certain ideas that might have taken the plot into unexplored territory. What would cause a children’s author’s mind to bisect into nurturing and violent halves? Would a man yearning for love still accept if it came with a dark side? What makes one man succumb to the lure of a femme fatale while another resists her deadly charms? Any of these might have lent shading or novelty to a subspecies of the genre—the Fatal Attraction trope—that threatens to become tired and boring. It never quite makes the turn on any of these, though, content instead to offer a woman with a messed-up brain and a drive for murder, and to turn her loose to do her thing.

Because, Mandy? She kills the kid. Turns out to be that kind of movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Marvelous Mandy is a darkly enjoyable movie that really doesn’t let on what it’s about until you’re already sucked in to then twist and turn into directions not thought possible…. add to that the film’s colour chart that for the most part feels a bit off and unreal, a directorial effort that stays away from spectacle to give the story space to breathe, and a great cast, and you’ve got yourself a really cool movie!”–Mike Haberfelner, [re] Search My Trash

 

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)

366 UNDERGROUND: SOLE PROPRIETOR (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Eberle

FEATURING:  Dan Eberle, Alexandra Hellquist, Nick Bixby, and Alexandra Chelaru

PLOT: In hopes of starting life anew, a man with a nebulous past agrees to take on a job from an organization that promises to provide him with a legit history; while waiting for “the call,” he takes up with a nearby prostitute and becomes embroiled in a plot involving Russian pimps, Honduran gangsters, French molls, and a missing bag stuffed with money.

Still from Sole Proprietor (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With smoothness, competence, and a fair degree of ambiguity, Sole Proprietor nicely fills a space in the “noir-esque thriller” gap for those willing to settle for direct-to-video fare. Described as an “elliptical crime story,” Dan Eberle’s latest feature does some shuffling of shot and sound, but decidedly hews close to gritty realism: a poor man’s The Limey, if you will.

COMMENTS: For reasons entirely nostalgic, a part of me is pleased to see that there are still filmmakers out there producing low-budget movies like Sole Proprietor. Out in the world of Hollywood Cinema, and to a lesser degree in the world of Underground Cinema, there are people filling all manner of genre gaps with either expensive or offbeat fare. Eberle’s picture reminded me of the nerdy misspent days of my youth when I used to visit the little video rental place daily to find a new movie to watch that evening. Perhaps I wasted a lot of time, but, as they say, it kept me off the streets. Sole Proprietor goes about its business without much fanfare, but it rewards the viewer with a pretty neat story and a derivative, but satisfying, style.

“I am the man with no name,” says the protagonist never. Becoming known to us (and listed in the credits) only as “Crowley from the Internet” (Dan Eberle), we slowly learn the nature of Sole Proprietor‘s hero. He’s your run-of-the-mill deadly but swell guy, possibly ex-CIA, who is keen on disappearing from the sordid world of crime and black-ops, hoping to “join the human race.” There is a major hitch, though, in that he has one last job to get done (of course) before unspecified powers will give him the new identity he craves. Killing time while waiting for a phone call, he decides he might better while away the hours by seeing a local prostitute (Alexandra Hellquist). Enter the hooker with the heart of fool’s gold, and a mountain of complications.

Those of you familiar with ‘s The Limey and, to an extent, s King of New York will immediately recognize the style Eberle hopes to, and more or less does, achieve. Beginning with a very unclear establishing scene involving a (probably) dead person and a French-speaking woman with a gun, the movie zips quickly back to the story’s start. From there, scenes move forward chronologically, but within them are oscillations where the timing becomes jumpy and perspectives can shift. This potentially confusing effect is greatly mitigated by the fact that each occurrence is self-contained, requiring no long-term memory to speak of. Other than that legerdemain, the audience has nothing to chew on but the grit of the characters as their lives circle closer and closer to each other during the hunt for a whole lot of money that slipped the hands of an Honduran bag-man who partied a little too hard.

Though the huge advantages provided to me these days by Vimeo and Netflix (the mail-delivery part, anyway), I was able to briefly relive my days of being a do-nothing high-schooler who would just as soon see a no-name film than socialize with my peers. Sole Proprietor brings nothing new to the table, but ultimately I wouldn’t want it to—and it made no promises it would do so. Yes, I may be ninety minutes closer to death than I was before watching it, but as with the sub-classics churned out in the ’90s starring the likes of Michael Madsen and (Chris) Penn, I found some entertainment, now spiked with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling of sentimentality. Not a bad thing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie sports more personality than most low-budget thrillers, yet sometimes devolves into the kind of ponderousness that a collaborator might have second-guessed.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano,

PLOT: When he’s away on business, a Parisian secretary who has never seen the ocean takes her boss’s Thunderbird on a road trip, but everywhere she goes people swear they’ve seen her before—is she going crazy?

Still from The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For a while, the Lady seems to be driving her borrowed car into French territory, but she ultimately crashes it into mere implausibility.

COMMENTS: Forget the car, glasses and gun: the Lady, portrayed by Freya Mavor, is something to see. Freya was the Norse goddess of love and sex, and with her red hair, willowy build and tempting freckles, Mavor could pass for Scandinavian love goddess (she’s actually Scottish). It’s the Lady (not the plot) that is Lady‘s chief asset, and the way he shoots Mavor, I think director Johann Sfar knows it. He begins the film with her dancing madly at the sea shore, flaming hair flying around her head and bare feet pattering on the sea-soaked concrete of the pier, then cuts to an earlier scene where the model/actress is shot in unflattering light to actually make her look kind of ugly (a remarkable feat of cinematography). But as her confidence increases throughout the story, her hemline rises. Mavor’s girlish looks and waifish figure lend her an air of forbidden innocence that makes her future behavior seem all the more shocking.

As the pseudo-doppelanger plot synopsis might suggest, mirrors will provide key imagery here, and an early scene where the Lady’s reflection disobeys her provides one of the first hints of an ever-increasing subjectivity that leads us to suspect that she’s headed for madness. The plot kicks into gear after the Lady has borrowed the car, and keeps running into people who insist they’ve seen her recently; for example, eating breakfast that morning in a country café when she was actually in Paris at the time. On her road trip, she’s also assaulted at random, and starts making poor decisions re: picking up sleazy drifters at roadside motels. Our attention is diverted by Sfar’s style (cool music, cool cars, sexy chicks, impossible occurrences); and the Lady seems to be turning schizophrenic, until fifteen minutes of closing exposition explain what’s really been going on all along. Many people criticized the climax as a clunky dénouement device, but I was more disappointed in the solution to the mystery, which relies too much on crazy coincidence for my satisfaction.

Johann Sfar has been hanging around on the fringes of weird films for a while now, starting with the mildly hallucinatory biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, and continuing with The Rabbi’s Cat, his arcane adaptation of his own graphic novel about a snarky, sacrilegious pet. In Lady‘s second act the thick, nearly surrealistic atmosphere makes this remake of the seldom-seen 1970 shocker of the same title seem like it’s going to be Sfar’s weirdest film; ultimately, however, it ends up as his most conventional. Sfar remains an unpredictable force with the potential to unleash something fantastically weird in the future, although each near-miss diminishes our enthusiasm for his work just a little.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sfar creates the eerie impression of being trapped in someone else’s dream. Relying on hallucinatory tricks in which time seems to roll back on itself, or else lurch forward to some possible future, the helmer makes everything feel surreal enough that we hardly stop to consider the only logical explanation, delivered in stultifying detail over a tedious, low-tension climax.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART ONE

The reputation of ‘s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’  top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast ). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.

Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first,  the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001 , was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of “Tales of the Unexplained from the Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.

“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”

Title from Boris Karloff's Thriller: The Twisted ImageAs we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.

“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): Continue reading BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART ONE

LIST CANDIDATE: SUTURE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

FEATURING: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono, Michael Harris

PLOT: A poor man discovers he has a wealthy brother, who subsequently tries to kill him as part of a criminal scheme. Surviving the attempt but with his memory wiped out, he assumes his brother’s identity, begins a romantic relationship with his doctor, and finds himself the target of the would-be assassin’s effort to finish the job.

Still from Suture (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A full-length tribute to the concept of nontraditional casting, Suture attempts to answer the question, “if you cast someone who absolutely does not fit the character description in a film where that character’s appearance is the crux of the film’s plot, does it make a difference?” Casting is the raison d’être of Suture, and the film knows it, letting its odd gimmick overwhelm every other element of the movie.

COMMENTS: So let’s get right to the twist: Brothers Clay and Vincent are repeatedly described as being near lookalikes, and marvel at their resemblance to each other. But they don’t look alike. Not even a little. They are completely different. And not in a “Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick play three generations in the same family” way. No, they are entirely different, especially in the sense that Michael Harris is a thin, slick white man, and Dennis Haysbert (later on TV’s “24”) is…not. So every mention—and there are many—of how strikingly similar the two men look is either calculated to generate a massive case of cognitive dissonance, or is an example of the most colorblind casting ever committed to film.

It’s very easy to look at this decision as an enormous joke. After all, directors McGehee and Siegel (who also penned the screenplay) demonstrate a quirky sense of humor, from placing a rich Phoenix businessman’s home inside what appears to be an abandoned bank building to scoring an attempted car-bomb-assassination to Tom Jones’ rendition of “Ring of Fire.” But any question as to whether this is a deliberate choice is erased by the dialogue that is used to describe Haysbert’s Clay: “Greco-Roman nose.” “Fine, straight hair.” This is the “Allstate” commercial guy we’re talking about. Haysbert is absolutely not the man the film says he is. So what does that mean?

One possible answer lies in McGehee and Siegel’s backgrounds as an academic and an artist, respectively. While the choice of a black actor to play a white man (coupled with stark black and white photography to reinforce the point) might seem to point to a discussion of race, they seem far more interested in exploring the nature of reality vs. representation. In her book “Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race,” Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks observes of Suture, “What we are confronted with is a screen that behaves like a Magritte canvas. ‘This is not a black man,’ it seems to say.” The filmmakers, she suggests, are actively denying that which we are seeing with our own eyes, in contrast to the manner in which cinema traditionally co-opts the audience’s willingness to accept the visual as truth. Is Dennis Haysbert as a Caucasian anymore absurd than a Transformer? McGehee and Siegel don’t think so, but they also know that, as moviegoers, we are far more willing to accept the latter.

As a metatextual analysis of the fungible nature of reality, Suture is a tremendous success. As a movie, it’s kind of sloppy. Not very much happens in the film. The plot itself is a straightforward play on the country mouse coming to the city. Mel Harris plays less a character than a collection of whatever character traits are needed in the moment: brilliant surgeon, then opera devotee, then skilled skeet shooter. A subplot about the police’s pursuit of Vincent feels more like padding than a suspense-building MacGuffin. More problematic, though, is the film’s outsized sense of self-importance. Characters frequently speak in a slow, affectless manner. They are surrounded by signifiers of their work. (The surgeon has walls of head X-rays, the psychiatrist decorates in mammoth Rorschach blots). Clay’s dreams are blatant symbols of a truth we already know, as if Gregory Peck’s hallucinations in Spellbound only came after Ingrid Bergman cracked the case. Perhaps most gallingly, the love interest is named, without a trace of irony (or payoff), Renée Descartes. The unheard soundtrack of Suture is crashing anvils.

What Suture has going for it, though, is staying power. Long after the film’s end, the scope of its oddity still bounces around in the brain pan. The film’s ending montage—the psychiatrist outlines in great detail how impossible it will be for Clay to ever find happiness in his new identity, while a slideshow clearly demonstrates Clay doing exactly that—is emblematic of the movie’s only goal: to watch the battle for dominance between what we know and what we see. Suture has one weird card to play, but it’s a doozy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exceedingly smart and elegant American indie in an unusual vein. Part mystery thriller, part psychological investigation and part avant-garde experiment…”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)