Tag Archives: Paranoia

CAPSULE: CUBE (2021)

立方体一度 は言ったら、 最後 ; Cube: Ichido haittara, saigo

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DIRECTED BY: Yasuhiko Shimizu

FEATURING: , Masaki Okada, , Hikaru Tashiro, Kôtarô Yoshida, Anne Watanabe

PLOT: Six strangers awake in a cubical maze filled with deadly traps and work to find a way out.

Still from "Cube" (2021)

COMMENTS: In most ways, this movie has already been reviewed here. Twice, actually. So the question is, what does Yasuhiko Shimizu’s version bring to the table? There’s the same aesthetic, the same deadliness, the same mystery—indeed, as far as can be seen, there’s the same titular construct. The original director is on the production team. But as retreads go, this film holds its own, and even features a denouement justifying further installments of what the Cube does best: provide a ropes-course-from-Hell to explore social dynamics.

This Cube‘s main thrust is dissecting inter-generational tensions. The six (seven, if you include the requisite doomed rando in the introduction) people assembled this time around come in three age groups. At one end is Kazumasa Ando, the eldest of the troupe, an unspecified businessman type. At the other is Chiharu Uno, a boy with a knack for mathematics. In between are a young engineer, a grizzled guy, a ne’er-do-well store clerk, and a young woman. Kazumasa’s assemblage goes through all the Cube-y motions, with all the same schematic shenanigans, but this assemblage allows the filmmaker to wonder about the burdens and responsibilities each generation owes toward the other. Maintaining a low profile amidst this pointed drama is the one woman in the film, who kept my curiosity through her seeming superfluousness.

No new ground is broken here, at least not plotwise. But I was entertained enough to feel new-Cube is worth the time. The traps remain a delight to gawk at—particularly the opening bit of grisliness in which, instead of dicing the nameless wanderer, a bladed mechanical arm cuts out a square-shaped section of his torso. And aside from some heavy-handed melodramatic musical cues, the emotional tension is believable. But there isn’t much to say beyond that. If you liked the first Cube, and recognize it as a legitimate plot playground in which to square different archetypes against each other, Kazumasa did no bad thing in putting that sinister facility to use once more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you expect a crazy J-Horror version of the 1997 Canadian cult classic horror movie, you should consider yourself warned…. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just appreciate and honor it, which is exactly what this remake from Japan does.” — Karina Adelgaard, Heaven of Horror (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: TRIPLE TROUBLE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Homer Flynn, The Residents

FEATURING: Dustin York

PLOT: After a crisis of faith, a priest (and son of a deceased member of the Residents) becomes a plumber and goes insane as he is consumed by his theory about a fungus-led conspiracy.

Still from Triple Trouble (2022)

COMMENTS: “Junior” is an ex-ponytailed skateboarding priest who’s lost his faith and become a plumber. His mom just died. His only friend is a malfunctioning A.I. drone. He finds semen-like fungus clogging up every drain he services. He sometimes sees the ghost of his dead father, a former lead singer of the Residents. From his cell phone, the news blares about a Night of the Living Dead style plague striking white people in prisons and meat-packing plants. So his life is pretty full. His main hobby is theorizing about the omnipresent fungus and its possible lunar origins, but Junior obsesses over many things: a kidnapping from his past, a local radio tower, the nice Wiccan girl he has a crush on, the unusual number of white vans in his neighborhood, and the Residents’ unfinished movie “Vileness Fats.” And every now and then he finds himself drawn into short dream sequences featuring dancing eyeball-headed men.

Yes, the Residents’ Triple Trouble lays a strong claim to weirdness, as one would expect from a movie proffered by a band fronted by giant eyeballs. A lot of the experimental video work, featuring spinning backdrops and the mini video-art dream sequences, is cool. Scraggly Dustin York does fine enough, acting most of the time alongside disembodied voices (partly a function of the pandemic-era shooting schedule). But, unfortunately, the project as a whole never comes together, or goes sideways in a truly interesting manner. It’s inspired by a combination of lockdown paranoia and Residents nostalgia, but nothing coheres thematically; its 90 minutes don’t seem to be about anything much in particular. The plot eventually unwinds as a portrait of a delusional schizophrenic, an approach which feels lazy and almost anti-cathartic. (In another disappointment, there’s little actual Residents music on the soundtrack; no full-fledged songs, just snippets of the kind of incidental accompaniment you’d find in any similar indie project.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Triple Trouble is aimed at an audience who are already fans of the band—it’s obviously full of in-jokes and references your reviewer missed (along with a few he caught). Whether the resulting concoction intrigues the novice enough to hunt down more from the Residents in a vain quest to understand what it all means will vary from person to person.

To a large extent, the backstory behind the making of Triple Trouble is more interesting than the finished project (as well as helping to explain its air of, um, unevenness.) Director and Residents co-founder/current spokesman Homer Flynn embeds a lot of the band’s lore into this project, starting with both references to and actual footage from “Vileness Fats.” “Fats” was an elaborate unfinished avant-garde video project about one-armed dwarfs, conjoined twins, and dirty laundry, shot on sets aping The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which the band worked on for four years in the mid-1970s, shooting fourteen hours of footage before abandoning it to the dustbin. Triple Trouble also rests on the bones of Double Trouble, a planned Residents feature which began shooting in 2016, which shut down in 2019 after the death of Gerri Lawler (who plays Junior’s mother). The color flashback footage in Triple Trouble featuring Junior as a priest comes from that half-completed film. Perhaps sensing that working for years on unfinished projects was getting them nowhere, the Residents shot the remaining material that makes up Triple Trouble in ten days. So if Triple Trouble seems a little cobbled-together, Residents fans can at least rejoice that the stars finally aligned for long enough to bring a movie to completion.

The 2023 Blu-ray offers some interesting supplements. There are four deleted scenes (one of which should have been included in the film, as it outlines Junior’s conspiracy theory in relatively lucid detail) and a blooper. It also includes trailers for Triple Trouble, the original teaser for Double Trouble, and a promo for the Residents’ performance of “God in 3 Persons Live.” The disc sports a reel of unused stop-motion animated footage from “Vileness Fats” (I don’t know whether this has appeared elsewhere). The most significant extra is the 17-minute long “Vileness Fats Concentrate,” a short which gives you a good sense of the pretentious, unhinged wackiness that the unfinished project might have been. “Concentrate” had been released before, but presumably this 2022 “remaster” is higher quality. Residents completists will obviously be all over this like fungus on a drainpipe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If all this sounds profoundly weird – as well as weirdly profound – that’s because it is. The Residents wouldn’t have it any other way. Don’t miss it!”–Nicole V. Gagné, A Shaded View of Fashion

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, , 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)