Tag Archives: Mental illness

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CAPONE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Josh Trank

FEATURING: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Kyle MacLachlan,

PLOT: Released to his Florida home on humanitarian grounds, Al Capone spends the last year of his life rapidly deteriorating in body and mind, while trying to remember where he hid ten million dollars.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Capone alternates between being uncomfortably realistic and markedly dreamy, with the former often seamlessly segueing into the latter. By the time we see Al Capone, clad in diaper and dressing gown, chomping on a carrot and madly firing a gold-plate Thompson submachine gun at his staff, it’s hard to guess what’s actually happening.

COMMENTS: Capone plays like an anti-biopic: there’s no glamorization, and virtually no sympathy elicited for its protagonist. As a star vehicle for Tom Hardy, it also veers off the beaten path. Hardy’s performance is a strange hybrid of tin-pan-alley grandiosity and bloodshot malevolence. Capone‘s reception by the common viewer has been unsurprisingly frigid—it holds a damning 4.7 rating on IMDb. But for those who want a haunting, sickly, and uncomfortable dissection of the mental deterioration of history’s most notorious gangster, Capone is as priceless as the treasure that eludes the titular character.

Al Capone’s sentence for tax evasion is cut short to allow him to spend his final days in his sprawling mansion surrounded by a sprawling swamp. His homestead’s grounds are infested with crocodiles of the literal variety; its hallways are infested with metaphorical ones. Al Capone sounds like a dying horse, croaking out random threats and random pleas. He is prone to incontinence—so much so that his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan, both slippery and terrified) supplies Capone’s long-suffering wife (Linda Cardellini, emanating frustration) with diapers for her husband. When not staring at his lake, while puffing endless cigars and listening to his radio, Capone endures encounters with friends both past and present. On a fishing trip with an old criminal associate, he casually lets slip that he has hidden ten million bucks, but he can’t remember where.

As in Bronson, Tom Hardy makes this movie, delivering an unnerving performance of a former kingpin suffering from syphilitic dementia and the effects of two strokes. The film begins with a wild-eyed Capone in night attire, wandering a dimly lit hallway while holding a fire poker, pursuing someone. He finds his target—a little girl—and makes a play at attacking her. She screams, then laughs, then runs, and soon Capone is chasing a bevy of little ones through his mansion, out to his rain-drenched yard, and ending up the playful victim of a pile-on. This is, alas, the high point for the frail gangster. Waking dreams and hallucinations occur with increasing frequency as his mind and body shut down.

Capone’s mental fragility contrasts with the precise formality of the rest of the movie. Each scene is impeccably orchestrated around Hardy’s characterization, the surrounding cast providing the struts on which Capone’s quiet madness is displayed. The dream sequences often manage to be unpredictable—the final blow-out only showing its hand at the scene’s watery collapse—while at other times there’s obvious pathos. The recurring symbol of gold—in the form of a balloon held by a boy, the metal trim of a shotgun Capone uses to shoot a crocodile that stole his fish, or the gaudy submachine gun used on his rampage—acts as a clue to the viewer, but also as a metaphor for what Capone has lost. His youth and power are gone forever; what’s left is a tragic cartoon ever veering between rage and collapse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an odd little film, at times weirdly engaging but often so bizarrely muddled that you might identify a little too closely with its perpetually unglued protagonist.”–Stephanie Zacharek, Time (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DEAD DICKS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

FEATURING: Jillian Harris, Heston Horwin, Matt Keyes

PLOT: Mentally ill and suicidal, Richard tries to off himself but is repeatedly reborn though an orifice that’s growing on his wall, leaving his apartment cluttered with corpses of his previous selves.

Still from Dead Dicks (2019)

COMMENTS: Richie and his sister Becca debate about the exact anatomical correspondence of the orifice that has suddenly appeared on his bedroom wall. He calls it a vagina; she replies “it looks more like an asshole to me.” He sees at as a possibility of rebirth, while she sees it as just the same shit over and over? (For the record, it’s obviously shaped like a vulva; trust me, I’ve seen one before.)

Whatever the hole in the wall is, it’s driving the plot. Well, not really. The real conflict in Dead Dicks is not the eternal struggle between death and rebirth, but the more down to earth sibling drama between Richie, a mentally ill artist who annoys his only neighbor by forgetting to turn down the music after midnight, and Becca, who’s always nurturing her brother instead of pursuing her own dreams to become a nurse. As a career enabler, cleaning up her brother’s many spare corpses comes naturally to her.

Sometimes, the bare sets, unimaginative staging, and uneven sound levels—especially in the few shots occurring outside Ritchie’s apartment—smack you in the face with the fact that Dead Dicks a low-budget affair.  But the main place where the budgetary limitations become intrusive is in the long middle act, where cheap conversation takes the place of more expensive action. It seems most of the available money went into a one big effect, a brief but nightmarish gore scene that does dazzle.

The acting is spotty, with Matt Keyes coming across the best (although there is little nuance required of his perpetually annoyed neighbor). Jillian Harris has a hard time of it; her character is often written so as to under-react to the insane events, and to comply with Ritchie’s odd requests too quickly. I’m not sure exactly how an actress should play a character asked, by her brother, to hack up her brother’s body; but there were many times where I expected Becca to object or freak out in a much higher register than she does. There are some attempts at black comedy—sis is more shocked by her brother’s full-frontal nudity than by the fact that he’s just come back from the dead—but on the whole the script eschews yuks in favor of a dramatic tone.

But, warts and all, Dead Dicks is worth a watch to those who find the premise or the mental illness theme compelling. It lags in the middle with a bit too much dialogue, but it starts the third act with two twists that come in quick succession, and ends on a strong note. The ultimate resolution is unexpected, and morally troubling—some may complain, but this is horror after all, and I’m glad they took this brave step rather than a more conventional feel-good ending. Dead Dicks is an ambitious and largely successful feature, though one that might have been scaled back to be an impressive short.

Plus, the body count is much higher than the total number of characters in the film, which is quite a trick to pull off.

The Artsploitation DVD/Blu-ray contains commentary from the two directors and video diaries of the production. These extras are valuable to anyone considering making their own movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Dead Dicks tackles taboos, blending trippy horror, irreverent humor, and shocking tenderness to create a film that’s both darkly challenging and wildly entertaining.”–Kirist Puchbo, Pajiba (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MURDER DEATH KOREATOWN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: None listed

FEATURING: None listed

PLOT: An unemployed man becomes obsessed with a murder that happened in a nearby apartment complex, but his investigation turns paranoid as he imagines a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Still from Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

COMMENTS: Though taking its starting cue from a real-life murder, Murder Death Koreatown is, it’s safe to say, fictional, as you will doubtlessly decide for yourself by the time its deranged protagonist starts spouting theories about the Pastors, ghosts, and voices speaking to from the sewers. It’s like a re-edited version of one of those paranoid YouTube videos that leave you wondering whether the uploader is genuinely crazy or is just stringing you along for the lulz, or like Under the Silver Lake remade on a $100 budget in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

Our unemployed, over-stressed narrator begins by following (real-looking) blood splatters on his sidewalk, and then discovering that one of his neighbors murdered her husband in a neighboring apartment complex in L.A.’s Koreatown. He discovers some minor inconsistencies, and interviews some (real-looking) locals to see if they noticed anything unusual. As his investigation continues, he starts uncovering connections which aren’t really connections—and which sometimes don’t even rise to the level of coincidences—but which are completely obvious and convincing to the protagonist. We ought to be suspicious when we focuses the camera on the blinds in his apartment and marvels, “look at this weird light…” (we have no idea what he’s talking about, but it’s a hint that he takes significance from stuff we wouldn’t even notice). Also, unless you’re Dale Cooper, it’s never a good idea to admit evidence from your dreams into a murder investigation. It’s not really a spoiler to suggest that the movie is a believable study of one man’s descent into delusional paranoia.

Your enjoyment of Murder Death Koreatown will be linked to your tolerance for watching feature-length shot-on-cellphone vlogs. The movie is, by necessity, talky—there are no significant effects or action sequences. Unfortunately, the narrator’s voice isn’t compelling: he delivers most of his lines in a drab “woe is me” tone, and at one point his bleats of terror make him sound like a Muppet startled by a spider. On the plus side, the actor they found to play the shifty-eyed homeless vet in the alley is so convincing that you might believe he’s a real hobo, and that the plot was actually built around his schizophrenic ramblings. The effective horror soundtrack is another element that supersedes the budget; in fact, it’s so well-made that it at times undermines the film’s found footage credibility. Ironically, it’s too professional a touch for a movie that’s trying to make its amateurism into a selling point.

If you’re willing to overlook the budgetary issues, however, Murder Death Koreatown is a solid watch—and if you plot it on a dollars spent to entertainment value curve, it’s off the chart. It holds our interest for just over 70 minutes and does an exceptional job of viral marketing, which is a solid double for a microbudget feature. You can read some of the movie’s promotional gimmickry at the link embedded below.

For more along these lines, Graham Jones’ Fudge 44 (2006) has a similar low-budget, mock-vérité appeal.

K Anon / Murder Death Koreatown

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: HORSE GIRL (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Jeff Baena

FEATURING: Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler

PLOT: A young woman with a family history of mental illness becomes paranoid that aliens are affecting her behavior.

Still from Horse Girl (2020)

COMMENTS: The title Horse Girl conjures up a specific archetype: not merely a girl who’s interested in horses (many girls are), but a girly-girl so relentlessly feminine that she makes people uncomfortable and ends up relating to steeds better than humans. Sarah (Brie) works at an arts and crafts shop selling beads and yarn, and won’t stop hanging out at the stable decorating Willow’s mane with her homemade lanyards, even though the owners hint that she’s not really welcome anymore. Other than a kind older lady at the shop (Shannon), she has no real friends, and spends most of her time watching the supernatural TV soap “Purgatory.” Her roommate tries setting her up with a friend-of-a-friend who’s on the rebound from a failed relationship. But Sarah’s social awkwardness takes a turn for the worse after she starts having dreams about a glowing ramp hanging over the ocean and a white-on-white room where she sees sleeping people whom she kind of recognizes…

What are we to think of a character who asks her ear nose and throat doctor, “Is there a test to see if I’m a clone?” Sarah has proto-schizophrenic fantasies about alien abductions and time travel, but the script never offers serious evidence that her theories are more than the ravings of a madwoman. Rather than suspecting and hoping (as we do with Donnie Darko) that there might be an alternate, plausible, high-stakes sci-fi explanation for our protagonist’s inner turmoil, we’re left watching a character’s sad decline into madness. Sarah’s total psychotic break happens abruptly, and the last act of the film is essentially a long hallucination broken up by a few conversations with her caseworker. The scenes are weird, yes, but we never get the psychological depth in her backstory that would make her delusions meaningful. We aren’t even explicitly told why she’s so attached to her horse—it’s left to us to put two and two together. Without a close emotional connection to Sarah, and without a narrative investment in her crazy clone theory, we can’t identify with her; we’re left to pity the poor horse girl rather than empathize with her. We watch Brie move through glowing white rooms; we watch her wrap herself (and her horse) in a homemade anti-alien suit. But it’s a depiction of madness rather than a submersion in madness. Despite it’s best efforts, Horse Girl keeps us on the outside of Sarah’s head, looking in.

Brie is very good in the role, socially stunted during the first half and dazed and terrified when her psychic dam breaks. Horse Girl is clearly a passion project for her (she co-wrote the script, basing Sarah on her own personal history, since Brie’s grandmother was a paranoid schizophrenic). This makes it all the more tragic that, despite her fervent portrayal, the story isn’t as gripping as it might have been.

Horse Girl comes with a tiny bit of controversy. The film has been accused of ripping off plot elements and story beats, and even lifting entire shots, from an earlier low-budget indie: 2017’s The God Inside My Ear. 366 Weird Movies is neutral on the question.

Horse Girl is currently a Netflix exclusive movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a dark movie that gets weird for no good reason, and it feels like the project becomes a victim of writers (Baena and Alison Brie) who can’t figure out the ending to their story so they take the weird route.”–Louisa Moore,  Screen Zealots (festival screening)

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

CAPSULE: MAD DETECTIVE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

FEATURING: Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin

PLOT: An insane detective with psychic abilities comes out of retirement to help with the case of a missing policeman whose gun has been used in several murders.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: You’ll find the word “weird” thrown around a lot in regards to this movie; if you’re a longtime devotee of the genre, however, you’ll find Mad Detective resides at the low end of that scale. Once you get your feet under you and understand the rules of Detective Bun’s madness, you’ll find it to be little more than an entertaining police procedural/character study with a semi-supernatural gimmick.

COMMENTS: You would think that Detective Bun’s perfect record solving crimes using his psychic powers would make him an invaluable asset to the Hong Kong police department. Ultimately, however, his madman stunts, like attacking his fellow cops and cutting off his own ear as an impromptu present for a retiring superior officer, become too disruptive for the constabulary to tolerate, and he’s forcibly retired. But when a sticky case comes along, Bun’s preternatural sleuthing skills prove too great a temptation to resist, and a former partner tracks him down to pick his broken brain.

The underlying mystery in Mad Detective isn’t particularly convoluted; only the obscuring mist of Bun’s madness hides the solution. From the audience’s perspective, the confusing thing is that many of the characters that appear onscreen may only appear in Bun’s hallucinations, which can throw you off (at least momentarily, since the reality of the situation is almost immediately quickly resolved). You see, when Bun looks at someone, he sees not only their physical body, but also a manifestation of their personality made flesh. To add another twist, he also sometimes sees people who aren’t there at all. And his method of crime-solving requires him to spark his psychic abilities by recreating the crime in dangerous ways: if a victim was thrown down the stairs while packed in a suitcase, he zips himself up in a soft-sided luggage and has a partner throw him down a flight of stairs, emerging at the end with a “eureka!” Mad Detective works as a schizophrenic character study rather than a typical mystery or procedural—and it works exceptionally well. It even ends with a climax that manages to put a surreal new spin on the Lady from Shanghai-inspired hall-of-mirrors shootout. Good stuff.

Johnnie To (Drug War) is a prolific action director who’s one of the few remaining in Hong Kong to carry on the legacy of John Woo. Wai Ka Fai (who co-wrote the script) is better known as a screenwriter, but directs and produces films occasionally. I have no idea how the divided up the directorial duties here, but it seems likely that To handled the action-oriented set pieces. It’s a shame this movie didn’t start a franchise; To and Fai could have brought Bun back to solve an entire slate of bizarre cases (a la Detective Dee).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If the insanely inventive and entertaining ‘Mad Detective’ weren’t so weird — and in Cantonese — hordes of action geeks would be lining the block to see it.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by short film director Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)

Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma

AKA Singapore Sling: The Man Who Loved a Corpse

“You know the feeling of something half remembered,
Of something that never happened, yet you recall it well;
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
That you’ve never met as far as you could tell…”–Johnny Mercer, “Laura”

Recommended (with caution)

DIRECTED BY: Nikos Nikolaidis

FEATURING: Meredyth Herold, Panos Thanassoulis,

PLOT: A detective is searching for a missing girl, Laura, a supposed murder victim with whom he was in love and who he believes is still alive. Suffering from an unexplained bullet wound, he follows the trail to a villa where a psychotic “Daughter” and an equally insane “Mother” live in a sick relationship, hiring servants whom they later kill. When the enfeebled detective stumbles to their door, the two women capture him, dub him “Singapore Sling” after a cocktail recipe they find in his pocket, and use him in their sadomasochistic sex games.

Still from Singapore Sling (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Much of the plot references ‘s classic thriller/film noir, Laura, including prominent use of the famous theme song.
  • Director Nikos Nikolaidis is well-known in Greece and is sometimes considered the godfather of the “Greek Weird Wave” films (best known in the work of ). Singapore Sling is his only work that is widely available outside of Greece.
  • Singapore Sling was one of the top three vote getters in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it one of the most popular weird movies left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Warning: there are a lot of images in Singapore Sling which you would probably like to forget, but will be unable to. Among the least objectionable (believe it or not) is Daughter’s memory (?) of losing her virginity to “Father”: he appears as a bandage-swathed mummy.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Earrings on organs; mummy incest

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine a cross between Laura and Salo, as directed by a young dabbling in pornography, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for—but it’s slightly weirder than that.


Short clip from Singapore Sling (1990) (in Greek)

COMMENTS: Singapore Sling blatantly references Otto Preminger’s Continue reading 3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)