Tag Archives: Paranoia

CAPSULE: MASKING THRESHOLD (2021)

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Masking Threshold is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Grenzfurthner

FEATURING: Voice of Ethan Haslam

PLOT: A man performs experiments in an attempt to find the source of the tinnitus that is driving him mad.

Still from Masking Threshold (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s no surprise that Masking Threshold isn’t getting a big theatrical release; it’s more of a miracle that it was able to play in a few theaters at all. This has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with its style: this is a film that is (almost) entirely narrated by the protagonist, while the camera focuses (almost) exclusively on closeups of objects for the entire runtime. A movie that plays like a paranoid podcast illustrated with a succession of moving slides—sort of a contemporary feature-length version of La Jetée—is a hard sell in any climate, but particularly at a time when movie theaters are struggling to put butts in seats.

Fortunately, the scaled-back nature of the project means it will play well on small screens (although it would be nice to hear that crucial sound mix emanating from Dolby surround-sound speakers). Despite the fact that it may only be a MacGuffin for the protagonist’s deeper psychological issues, sound—the rustle of fabric, turning of pages, test tones the protagonist generates for his own reference—-provides the texture of the film. The movie quietly ushers us into the protagonist’s mind, as we hear none of his background tinnitus in the early going, but the hum slowly and subtly creeps into the soundtrack, scarcely noticed, until by the end we hear these subtones too. These minute variations in drones, unidentifiable rustlings and buzzings, and oscillations have tremendous significance to the protagonist, but to us they remain esoteric. The movie’s production values are low, so visuals cleverly rely on extreme closeups of carbon dioxide bubbles, slices of bread, algae, ants, and mouse corpses, supplemented by various charts, graphs, alchemical prints, blinking diodes, repurposed memes, and so on. The protagonist’s face is never clearly visible. The movie is presented as a YouTube diary by one of those “independent researchers” whose peculiar-to-insane preoccupations fail to strike a chord with a mass audience; his impassioned Reddit posts leave him the subject of trolling and lols.

This is a strange movie, in that the first-person monologue script would work just as well as a short story; in a way, Masking Threshold is nothing but multimedia-enhanced prose. But that makes it a triumph; a movie literally constructed from objects found around the house or bought at Home Depot, Best Buy, and Petco, is inspirational. The protagonist is erudite (the movie is full of fascinating trivia) and arrogant; his inner monologue is profound when discussing the philosophy of science, and myopic when interpreting the results of his own experience. His narrative voice put me in mind of the antihero of ‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while the madness resulting from his investigation onto cosmic phenomena evokes any number of victims. (It’s noteworthy that both authors get a “thanks” in the credits). Not to say that Grenzfurthner’s script (co-written with Samantha Lienhard) lives up to those classic influences—but it does update that psychological horror template with timely references to Internet culture, Q-Anon, and “doing your own research.”  Masking Threshold is a successful, immersive, and credible experiment in diving into one man’s particular rabbit hole universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills

 

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, Breeda Wool, 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: JACOB’S LADDER (2019)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: David M. Rosenthal

STARRING: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie

PLOT: Returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, army surgeon Jacob Singer begins to suspect that his brother Isaac, whom he saw die in the line of duty, may in fact still be alive.

Still from Jacob's Ladder (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jacob’s Ladder rarely ventures beyond the borders of a psychological thriller that occasionally dips its toe in horror-ish imagery. As a remake, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing about its occasional dabbles in weirdness that the original didn’t do better (and weirder).

COMMENTS: In an era where unneeded remakes are more common than ever, it’s easy to forget that films like ’s The Thing, ’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers have proven that celebrated stories, redone right, can become classics all over again. Of course, this is dependent upon the remake taking some creative new approach to old material, ironing out the flaws of the original, or, at the very least, retelling the tale in a fresh and intriguing manner. Sadly, none of these things are to be found in 2019’s iteration of Jacob’s Ladder.

Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. It’s hardly as if this new version is a stale shot-for-shot reiteration of ’s original. Indeed, the film makes efforts to take a new approach to the original premise—rather than centering on the title character’s PTSD, for instance, it’s Jacob’s brother Isaac who takes on the role of the damaged and paranoid military veteran (at least at first). It could be an appealing angle—an opportunity to take the original’s central theme of accepting the finality of death, and approach it from the perspective of a grieving family member rather than the dying individual.

Unfortunately, while this remake takes the time to work in a few basic plot elements (and some recreated shots) from the original, it’s uninterested in engaging with the source film’s spirit. As a result, where the 1990 film was about the necessity of letting go and accepting death when the time comes—using chilling imagery and a thriller plot to communicate this point—the remake instead chooses to treat the surface-level plot as the film’s be-all and end-all. It expands upon—and, in many ways, builds itself on—the “conspiracy thriller/experimental drug” subplot, despite that being anything but the central point of the story (and arguably the script’s weakest element). Likewise, the cinematography and backdrops have a bland, Lifetime-movie feel to them, none evoking the original’s bleak and claustrophobic decay. And while grotesque imagery may not be inherently necessary to make an effective psychological horror, the fact that this film’s only attempt to evoke the sensation of fear and paranoia amidst a hellish urban landscape is to smear a little acne-like makeup on the occasional extra is very noticeable.

Like so many remakes before (and no doubt after) it, the main problem plaguing 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder is that it simply never convinces us that it needs to exist. Everything that made the first so intriguing—the mystery, the surreal horror, the underlying theme of accepting death—is dumbed down, for little discernible reason. Instead, we’re treated to a standard-issue TV movie that would have been just as unremarkable under a different name.

As its own stand-alone film, Jacob’s Ladder could have made for a decent, if ultimately forgettable, psychological thriller that included some cursory examinations of the effects of PTSD. As it is, however, by usurping the name of Lyne’s classic, 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder comes off as thinking far too highly of itself, riding the coattails of a far superior psychological drama despite sharing nothing but the most basic, shallowest elements with it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The new ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is less strange and scary, and more mindlessly action-packed. It doesn’t feel like a dream. It’s more like hearing a stranger describe a dream.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DIAMANTINO (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Daniel Abrantes, Carl Schmidt

FEATURING: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira

PLOT: Portuguese soccer mega star Diamantino leaves his career after a devastating failure at an important match; in his new life, he adopts a refugee and gets embroiled in an odd conspiracy involving espionage, genetic experimentation, Neo-fascism and nationalism.

Still from Diamantino (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The moment the football pitch is invaded by giant fluffy dogs and pink clouds, you’ll know this is not a conventional film. The plot continues to accumulate bizarre twists and turns, from attempts to clone Diamantino to an offbeat far-right conspiracy that almost puts Alex Jones to shame.

COMMENTS: The greatest satire is played in such a completely straight way that it could almost be taken seriously. This applies to the grandiose introductory scene to Diamantino… until the fluffy dogs pop up, that is. Our titular protagonist recalls in voiceover how his father admired the sublime paintings of Michelangelo and their ability to raise people’s faith. He then claims his son will be the next Michelangelo, not through painting, but through the art of the “new cathedrals,” the football (soccer) stadiums; as he we hear this, the camera approaches one of these in all its glory in a stately aerial shot.

We’re introduced to the heroic figure of Diamantino in a decisive moment of great distress. On the soccer field, he feels the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders; like always, the vision of giant fluffy dogs comes to aid him in his next attempt at scoring a goal. If he fails, Portugal will be eliminated from the World Cup. Despite his reputation for near infallibility, he misses it. Commentators immediately echo the tremendous shock and grief of the audience: “The greatest tragedy since the Greeks”; “Will Portugal survive this?”, they remark.

While this apotheosis of soccer may give the impression of the film’s satire being mainly directed at Portuguese society (where football has a famously disproportionate relevance), that’s only the case for this particular aspect of the plot. In the midst of the film’s zany narrative and irreverent humor (mirrored by the quirky and colorful visual style), the centerpiece is the protagonist’s journey, conveyed through an admirable and committed performance by Carloto Cotta.

As it turns out, Diamantino is “innocent,” his cognitive abilities equivalent to those of a 10 year old child. This trait is not used, however, to make him a crude caricature of celebrity soccer stardom 1; to the contrary, he is portrayed in the most sympathetic way such a satire can afford. There is a clear, strong charm to the Diamantino’s “innocence”; or, shall we say, purity. It obviously leads to comedic moments, but the film’s overall honesty and lack of cynicism provides its emotional core.

Diamantino’s childlike innocence and utter absence of malice is evident in everything he says or does. Seemingly disconnected from political reality altogether, he first learns of refugees when he sees them from his private yacht. The sight impacts him so much that, after his fall from grace and abandonment of his soccer career, he immediately decides to adopt one. In the first of the film’s twists, the refugee he adopts turns out to be a spy. Eventually, Diamantino’s cartoonishly cruel and opportunistic sisters, who treat him tyrannically and run his offshore account without his knowledge (he doesn’t even know what an offshore account is), turn to genetic experiments that are connected to a hilariously convoluted conspiracy involving the soccer star’s participation in commercials and to a (fictional) far-right political party’s plan to jettison Portugal from the European Union.

The film insists on situating its plot in today’s turbulent sociopolitical landscape. While this commentary has its relevance, it’s not developed with the detail and acidic incisiveness that would be expected from a true political satire, which will disappoint viewers craving something along these lines. The main function of these elements is to provide background for the personal story of Diamantino; they reveal how his innocence makes him a pawn of every entity willing to cash on his immense popularity, from major organizations to his own sisters, who treat him like an object through which they can attain their goals.

Not all of the film’s threads come together satisfyingly; in particular, the central relationship between Diamantino and the fake refugee/spy isn’t sufficiently fleshed out in to give the ending the punch it aims for. Due to the overall strength of the experience and the compelling portrait of its titular tragicomic figure, these inconsistencies come off as minor flaws. The film’s delightfully crazy sense of humor and surreally satirized reality, contrasted with the sincerity with which it treats its main character, makes for a definite achievement.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part political satire, part fantasy, part I-don’t-even-know-what, Diamantino is exactly the type of surreal concoction that begs to be discovered by unsuspecting audiences.”–Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail (festival screening)

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSIS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Eric Leiser

FEATURING: Maria Bruun, Chris O’Leary

PLOT: In a dystopian future/present/alternate history, a saintly albino woman has visions while reading the book of Revelation, and tries to convert an atheistic conspiracy theorist/hacktivist who’s being hunted by agents of the New World Order.

Still from Apocalypsis (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This straight-faced CGI1-Revelation cum New World Order paranoia piece, steeped in psychedelic visuals, is a curiosity piece; a worthwhile trip if you want to follow the author’s off-center obsessions for 90 minutes, but it’s not essential weirdness.

COMMENTS: Taken at face value, Apocalypsis is an ecumenical outreach from the end times crowd to the chemtrails crowd, with bad acting and cheap but surprisingly effective acid trip visuals sprinkled throughout. I think that writer/director Eric Leiser is correct in assuming that people who will swallow a main character trying to use organite to shut down “the Grid” are also likely to find the Book of Revelation as credible a source of solid factual information as Infowars.

You have to grant that Apocalypsis avoids the pitfalls of boring, preachy “faith-based” films in favor of something more challenging. It replaces those pitfalls with conspiracy theory rabbit holes, but I’d much rather fall into those. Your spinster great aunt who goes to Bible study five nights a week is probably not going to dig Apocalypsis. It’s informed by experimental movie aesthetics, with about twice as many trippy montages as plot points. (Maybe Leiser’s recruiting the acidhead crowd, too?) The movie starts off by peering into some sort of cosmic whirlpool and never looks back, giving us double images, time lapse photography, fisheye lenses, negative images, and so on throughout the film to give it an on-the-cheap “mystical” aura. Most notable are the heroine’s Revelation visions, where you will see, among the CGI fractals, crudely animated scenes of what look like child’s dolls playing out Bible verses involving prophets, skeletal angels, seven-eyed lambs, and other briefly seen figures, accompanied by a “whooshing” sound. It’s surprisingly effective; going for too much realism would have been a huge mistake. It somehow seems right that the Archangel Michael and a seven-headed dragon are sculpted out of plasticine, and their choppy stop-motion battle is almost as unnaturally memorable as one of Ken Russell‘s bizarro green screen compositions in Altered States.

The main character, Evelyn Rose, is impossibly good, impossibly white, and persecuted by agents of the NWO for feeding the homeless. Leiser likes to shoot his albino subject in overexposure, to create glowing white-on-white compositions. Subplot visions send her to Japan to help with a nuclear disaster, but mostly she spends her time trying to convert her atheist friend Michael, who does an underground radio show where he warns listeners about the NSA trying to wipe out dissidents by nanobots, or radiation, or something. Michael has the squeakiest voice of any leading man in a 2018 feature, which is probably why his radio show’s ratings are so low. After Evelyn takes him to Church, he squeals, “That was so awesome!,” but he still professes “self-divinity” for a while. Black helicopters and such follow them both around a lot, and there are also guardian angels wandering around in the script. Much of it seems to have been shot in Central Park. According to the director-supplied IMDB synopsis, the whole film takes place in “a parallel universe entering a black hole,” although the screenplay doesn’t reference anything of the sort. It is, at bottom, a weird movie, for reasons both intended and unintended.

Apocalyspsis is actually the third part of a trilogy, although neither of the leads appear in the previous installments. Maybe the other two films explain more about that black hole, though. If anything, Apocalypsis feels like the opening movie in a trilogy; instead of resolving anything, it leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. Like, what just happened? Did we just get raptured through a black hole or something?

Apocalpysis is available solely on VOD at the present time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s as though David Lynch and Ridley Scott fell asleep in a candy store and collaborated on the same psychedelic dream.”–Porfle, HK and Cult Film News (DVD)