Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

366 UNDERGROUND: SISTER TEMPEST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Kali Russell, , Holly Bonney

PLOT: Anne must defend her version of a complex series of misunderstandings, tragedies, and hallucinations before an inter-dimensional tribunal.

Still from Sister Tempest (2020)

COMMENTS: I do not research a film before watching it. This typically works in a film’s favor: having formed no preconceptions of what it should be, I tend not to measure it against the wrong yardstick. As in general, so with Joe Badon’s sophomore feature–a rather messy, rather creative, and rather abstruse story about two sisters, several dramatic mishaps, and the nature of memory. Sister Tempest (or, as the credits arrange the title, “Sister Temp Est”), over the course of two hours that felt alternately drawn-out and hasty, presents me with some difficulty. I want to make this review a pitch for it, but I don’t think I can. And I feel a little awkward about that.

It starts off with a breezy sense of promise. The death-of-parents montage that begins the movie had the not-uncharming feel of a Maddin and Brakhage co-production for Troma Studios. The “confession” gimmick, involving a six-entity tribunal headed by a cosmic judge who could moonlight as a Rankin/Bass cartoon-land king, was perhaps an obvious choice, but that didn’t make it a bad one. Slices of temporally re-arranged scenes are smattered alongside hallucinations and false awakenings, but the crux of the narrative is: older sister, Anne the art teacher, alienates younger sister Karen after years of acting as a parent figure. Karen leaves in a huff to spend time with her drug-dealer boyfriend; arriving in her stead is Ginger Breadman, a fragile young art student who appears one day in Anne’s class.

I try to eschew dismissing opinions as being “wrong.” But now, having read up a bit on Sister Tempest, I wonder if my own opinion is in error. (The rest of the IMDb-ternet appears to be in love with this thing.) The film has quite a lot to unpack—symbols, metaphors, metaphoric symbols, allusions, illusions, nods, acknowledgements, Jeff the Janitor—so I wouldn’t say it lacks substance. I never really mustered the will to care, though. It didn’t help that the film was sliced into eight pseudo-cryptically-titled chapters that came across as a, “Hey guy, check out these Smarty-Pants we’re putting on,” more than as anything narratively useful.

From what I’ve read about Badon’s first movie, I presume that he’s improving, which brings to mind the opening sequence’s wrap-up.  Alone at a desk, manning his typewriter, sits the screen-writer. Rolling out a sheaf, we watch him read it, crumple it up, and toss it aside. His presence echoes throughout the film, as distant type-clacks occasionally occupy the soundscape. It was an interesting scene that set up an interesting aural motif. There was also good fun to be found in Sister Tempest (even the final iteration of the “gingerbread man” joke got me laughing). But spare me the Looney Tunes gimmicry; spare me the needless musical numbers; and for Heaven’s sake, spare me the multi-Messiah finale. In Tempest‘s spirit of cryptic cognomens, I shall thus conclude with, “The Movie’s Blood is in the Execution–Please do not get blood everywhere.”

Sister Tempest is in online theatrical release until May 31. You can find information on how to watch the film at the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: ‘I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.’ His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself…”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, , , Guy Boyd

PLOT: A young woman goes on a trip to meet her new boyfriend’s parents at their farmhouse on a night when a blizzard is brewing; the night grows increasingly strange and unsettling as it becomes unclear what is real and what is imaginary.

Still from I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: By the time the pig shows up at Jake’s old high school, it becomes apparent that this maze of awkward interactions, faulty memories, and uncertain identities may just be Charlie Kaufman’s most surreal film.

COMMENTS: The first inkling that something is not quite right in I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes when the young woman (who is first introduced as “Lucy,” although it turns out that may not be her real name) thinks to herself, “I’m thinking of ending things.” “Huh?,” says Jake (that is his real name), from the driver’s seat. Can he hear her thoughts? She denies speaking. “Weird,” says Jake. “Yeah,” she answers.

Things will get weirder. She’s unsure why she wants to break up with him. Her backstory doesn’t add up. And she’s getting a lot of phone calls, which she’s not answering. When they arrive to meet Jake’s parents at their remote farmhouse, things get even stranger. As it turns out, Jake’s parents would creep out Henry Spencer‘s in-laws. Dinner is uncomfortable, full of small talk that often sounds like hidden accusations, and—once more—competing backstories that contradict each other. Jake’s parents age, almost before her eyes… Nothing explicitly supernatural or menacing happens, but the creaky farmhouse emanates a horror movie vibe, intensified by Jake’s passive-aggressive insistence that his girlfriend stay out of the basement. Meanwhile, Lucy—or whatever her name is—anxiously suggests that Jake take her home before the coming blizzard snows them in and traps her there.

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest mind-massager is another intensely subjective and literate tour of the lonely corridors of the mind, where nothing is as it seems. It’s one of his strangest offerings— particularly when it reaches an irrational finale that departs from the source novel—but perhaps what distinguishes it the most is the exceptional ensemble acting, best seen in the four-way sparring at the dinner table. Their expressions are priceless: Collette smiling to herself at private jokes only she can hear, Thewlis aggressively incredulous at the idea that a landscape could appear sad, Plemmons understandably embarrassed by his parent’s odd behavior, and trying to coax his girlfriend into revealing the correct details about how they met. We expect accomplished performances from those three celebrated actors, but relative newcomer Jessie Buckley is a revelation. She mutates throughout the film, portraying everything from a nervous recalcitrant girlfriend to an angry feminist to an apparent victim of very early-onset Alzheimer’s. She even slips into a Pauline Kael impression. Remarkable.

As with all the best trips, it’s the journey that’s most memorable, not the destination. There is a reveal at the end, but the twist, while satisfying, is hardly the point. Each scene is structured as an individually confounding moment: on the long ride there and back, Jake and his girlfriend discuss everything from the human experience of time, bad movies as viruses, with citations to Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, and musical theater (familiarity with “Oklahoma!” will enrich your experience). Jake says he like road trips because “it’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head”—but does the movie believe this thesis? As they travel, the couple learn less about each other, and more about the slipperiness of human memory, fantasy, and identity.  It’s Kaufman’s favorite theme: the loneliness of our inherent interiority. The paradox is that our inescapable subjectivity is the one thing we all share and bond over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience… There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.”–David Sims, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Nathan Catucci

FEATURING: Santino Fontana, Devika Bhise, Chris Henry Coffey

PLOT: With the prospect of a juicy grant on the line, a professor needs to keep his project together; the murder of one of his participants complicates this prospect.

COMMENTS: A social worker, a painter, and a dominatrix walk into a sleep study… But that suggests that Impossible Monsters is more interesting than it actually is. It isn’t for want of trying (more on that in the bloated plot paragraph to come). Fulfilling its obligation as a “psychological thriller,” there is a twist; in keeping with the “sleep study” premise, there are a lot of dream sequences (over a dozen by my count); and in homage to the title-inspiring quote, “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters,” there is plenty of mention of Francisco de Goya. But all the pieces, and there are many, add up to a dense sludge of events that awkwardly drips over the edges of its narrative container, making a mess on the floor.

Rich Freeman (Santino Fontana) is a university professor in New York City, focusing on sleep/dreams/etc., with a deeper focus on “sleep paralysis.” To further aid mankind (and, to a lesser extent, his career), he proposes a study involving three volunteers who will discuss their dreams, keep a dream journal, and in the process have various socio-emotio-sexual interactions with each other. Meanwhile, Freeman’s friend/adversary Doctor Engle is busy cheating on his wife with one of Freeman’s students, Jo (Devika Bhise), a self-described “sexual pain exploration specialist” (or, “SPES” in the industry jargon). Jo has a crush on Freeman, and is unhappy that Freeman is in a relationship with another of the study’s participants, a young social worker who dreams of starting a non-profit in Albany, N.Y. Freeman’s mentor, who works with veterans suffering from PTSD, wants Freeman to join him and “make a difference” in Albany. The dean of the unspecified university, however, wants the prestige that would accompany the Really Big Grant from some pharmaceutical concern, which somehow hinges solely on Freeman’s work with three subjects. The third person is Otis, a soft-spoken painter who was raised in foster care and may or may not have been raped in his early teens and may or may not have, later, burnt down the home of his foster family, killing them in the process.

I don’t enjoy burning up 230+ words on plot exposition, but a sense of the goings-on is necessary to emphasize the importance of telling a story. Not six or seven stories, and certainly not so many stories crammed into an 84-minute movie. Everything interrelates, of course (and, speaking of relations, the lapse of professional ethics on display in Impossible Monsters is astounding). But if you’ve only got so much time and so much budget, cuts needs must. It wasn’t without its charm–and as someone who lives quite near Albany, I do love it when “Upstate New York” gets mentioned as a glorious place to escape to. But Impossible Monsters is a case of too much narrative flab supported by too little narrative bone and sinew. As such, it never really gets moving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…at times gets too baroque for its own good, straining for a Ken Russell-like hallucinatory style that it doesn’t fully succeed in pulling off. But it’s an admirably ambitious and accomplished debut for its tyro filmmaker who should easily move on to bigger things.”–Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXECUTIVE KOALA (2005)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Elli-Rose, Hironobu Nomura1

PLOT: A koala in a business suit who works for a Japanese pickle company is accused of killing his wife and girlfriend, and can’t defend himself because he’s got selective amnesia.

Still from Executive Koala (2005)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Consider this “Apocrypha Candidate” designation a placeholder for Minoru Kawasaki. This is the first of his movies we’ve seen, and we’re impressed with his manic-yet-deadpan sense of absurdity;  it suggests something of his will be worthy of an honorable mention designation on our weird movie canon. Is Executive Koala the one, though? Or should Calimari Wrestler or Rug Cop occupy that slot?

COMMENTS: There’s a point in Executive Koala where a pretty woman (Japanese singer Shôko Nakagawa, making her first movie appearance) sees our hero Tamura buy a sack of groceries from a frog-headed convenience store clerk and quizzically comments, “A koala? A frog?”  Aside from the occasional background double-take from a passerby in the street (suggesting scenes shot guerilla-style in the wild), this is the only time anyone notices anything odd about the man in the business suit with a giant round fuzzy head and claws, or the frog, or the bunny rabbit president of Rabource Pickling Co., Ltd. It’s a kind of fourth-wall breaking moment: Nakagawa addresses the audience indirectly, acknowledging the absurdity of a world that apparently contains a total of three anthropomorphic animals whose existence otherwise surprises no one.

Aside from one montage of paintings depicting a surreal Australian koala massacre, complete with crucified marsupials, little is made of the fact that Tamura’s a koala; he might as well be Korean. So, viewed from one angle, Tamura’s koalaness adds little to the script: Koala could have been a competent psychological thriller without the gimmick (at least, until the story devolves into complete goofy chaos at the climax). The resulting film would have been serviceable, but forgettable, parody riff on American Psycho.

But there’s just something about casting a cute fuzzy mammal as the lead in your serial killer thriller that lets the audience know not to take anything too seriously, you know? The casting ensures that every frame of film is stained with absurdity that can’t be scrubbed off. Considering the fact that the only part of Tamura’s face that moves (and sometimes light up) are his eyes, the actors that wear the koala suit do a remarkable job in bringing the executive to life through head shakes, claw gesticulations, and simple props like a handkerchief used to mop his furry brow when he’s nervous. Tamura’s uncredited voiceover actor deserves praise, too, because we quickly come to accept this character’s reality (within his world). At times, we too forget that he’s of another species, and simply see him as a harried salaryman fretting about putting together a deal with a Korean kimchi magnate while under investigation for the murder of his wife and girlfriend.

Although the acting is deadpan, the film doesn’t simply play its premise as a straightforward thriller that happens to star a koala. Although it builds its absurdity slowly, it gradually accrues dream sequences, a martial arts demonstration against a bacon backdrop, more fakeout dream sequences and false memories, behind-the-scenes footage hidden inside the actual movie, a musical trial, and extensive koala kung fu. Oh, and believe it or not, there might be a few plot holes and loose ends flying around, too—like just who the hell was the frog? It may not all add up, but all in all, you get your entertainment dollar’s worth from Executive Koala. He may even deserve a raise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While funny in the ‘boy, that’s odd’ sense more than the ‘laugh ’til you ache’ sense, the film is fast-paced and freewheeling… This is a director who makes movies designed to leave audiences saying, ‘I watched the weirdest thing last night.'”–Noel Murray, The A.V. Club (DVD box set)

(This movie was nominated for review by AlgusUnderdunk, who described it as “a strange Japanese film I still can’t quite describe…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: REVOLVER (2005)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Vincent Pastore

PLOT: Jake Green is released from prison and sets out to settle scores with the crime boss responsible for his sentence; two mysterious loan sharks who seem to know the future offer to help him, but Jake senses he’s being conned.

Still from Revolver (2005)

COMMENTS: Quite naturally, there are lots of guns and gunplay in Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, but there’s no pistol playing a featured role. The title might instead refer to the way the plot spins your head around. Personally, I suspect Ritchie chose Revolver to draw a comparison to the Beatles album of the same name. Prompted by newfound mystical awakening (via psychoanalysis, rather than the Hinduism that affected the Fab Four), he’s announcing his intention to turn to  serious and experimental work after having mastered a simpler form. If so, savage critical notices and flaccid box office returns quickly prompted Ritchie to return to conventional narratives, making Revolver the curiosity in his oeuvre rather than the departure point.

For fans of snappy, stylish gangster films hoping for another Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, Revolver begins promisingly enough. Haggard-but-handsome Jake Green (Statham) is released from captivity in an atmospheric downpour, which causes oily-but-elegant Macha (Liotta, very good here) a twinge of concern when he hears the news on a limo ride. Armed with conman wisdom he garnered from two cellmates in the slammer, Green sidles into Macha’s casino with long-game revenge on his mind. When the story pulls back, a twisted underworld comes into view: Macha strikes a dangerous deal with unseen kingpin “Mr. Gold,” while two loan sharks save Green’s life from assassins and put him to work for them, on their terms. They’re hatching a plan that involves some Yojimbo-style sabotage of Macha’s drug deal with a Chinese gang, and everything seems primed for a nice twisty thriller.

But don’t get too invested in that plot. Hints of something metaphysical keep screwing with the audience: precognitive warnings on business cards, twelve dollar bills, and the fact that the action inexplicably becomes partly animated during one caper. These bits set up one hell of an ambitious twist; but the problem with it is, it makes all of the preceding events arbitrary and meaningless. Really, there’s not even a point to Jake Green being a gangster; Ritchie could have written him as a politician, a car salesman… or even a film director. The misdirection here goes so far afield it feels like cheating—an especially distressing development because the film is presented and structured as a game. The effect is not like being surprised by an opponent’s intricately plotted chess move, but like learning that your opponent was playing a different game all along, and that all the moves you both made were completely irrelevant. You see, the movie’s all symbolic and deep; but Ritchie manages to fumble the reveal so that it’s somehow simultaneously confusing and obvious. Allegories work best when they play fair in their own narrative worlds; they usually falter when they go out of their way to announce themselves (Ritchie even appends clips of a bunch of psychologists talking over the credits, explaining the basic concepts underlying the movie’s “mind blowing” theme). There’s a difference between subverting an audience’s expectations and betraying them. Early on, Green’s internal monologue informs us that “in every con, there is always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter…” At the end of Revolver, you’ll know you’ve been the victim of Guy’s jejune “gotcha!”

Revolver was the kind of self-indulgent mess that could easily have ended Ritchie’s career, particularly following as it did on the heels of another huge flop (the romantic comedy Swept Away). If nothing else, it’s a testament to the director’s perseverance that he’s still cranking out films for major studios today. He certainly hasn’t dared to try anything this outside-the-box since.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ritchie may still be working within his beloved cockney gangster milieu, but he does to it something akin to what Alejandro Jodorowsky did to the Western with El Topo, or to the slasher flick with Santa Sangre. In short, Revolver is a strange trip that dazzles the eye and exercises the brain, amply rewarding multiple viewings and certainly worthy of critical reevaluation.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Daniel wiram, who called it an “outstandingly [weird] but great movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NEXT DOOR [NABOER] (2005)

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Naboer

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Pål Sletaune

FEATURING: Kristoffer Joner, Cecilie Mosli, Julia Schacht, Anna Bache-Wiig

PLOT: John has just been dumped by his girlfriend; after he helps his neighbors move a cabinet, he slowly learns that his breakup was not what it seems.

COMMENTS: Once I describe this movie as a psychological thriller, I’m not giving much away when I tell you that yes, there is a twist, and that yes, aficionados of the genre will see it coming. Lucky for me, though, I can be pretty naïve when it comes to watching movies, and so it was a good while into the film before I sussed just what was going on. (It’s a wonder, then, why I don’t watch more thrillers.) Suffice it to say, Next Door is one of those nice little finds that makes no pretense at greatness, but capably gets its job—providing unnerving entertainment—done.

After Ingrid leaves him, John (Kristoffer Joner) is a solitary wreck until he makes the acquaintance of the two (possibly) sisters next door. Anne (Julia Schacht) needs a cabinet moved, and John agrees to help—finding that her apartment is, shall we say, rather lived in, and stocked full of food. He discovers that Anne’s sister Kim (Julia Schacht, channeling a troublingly splintered femme fatale) has recently been sexually assaulted and become agorophobic. John and Kim have a strangely violent sexual encounter in an unsettlingly tidy room tucked away in a labyrinth of corridors in the apartment’s deep recesses. John feels guilty for his violent responses to Kim’s violent flirtations, and slowly begins to realize that his life hasn’t quite been going exactly as he’s opted to remember it.

The exact term I’m looking for to describe this film evades me, but I’ll go with the phrase “character movie.” Like a character actor, Next Door is not aiming for lofty accolades or fame, but is doing the good work of being entertaining, memorable, and not overstaying its welcome. (The runtime is a mere 75 minutes.) Pål Sletaune, who also wrote the script, has crafted a clean and confusing chamber drama that breaks no new ground, but hits all the correct notes: unreliable story-telling, charismatic leads, and, this being an adult thriller, enough unsettling sex to convey an aura of carnal tension without becoming tawdry. Interestingly enough, this movie was picked up by TLA Releasing, an outfit that primarily distributes LGBT films. With this, it would seem they also cater to the BDSM crowd. You’ve been warned.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bizarre head-scratcher…”–Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (DVD)

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

CAPSULE: THE WAVE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Gille Klabin

FEATURING: , , Donald Faison, Tommy Flanagan, Ronnie Gene Blevins

PLOT: A corporate lawyer decides to cut loose one night, but regrets it when a strange drug dealer convinces him to try an exotic hallucinogen whose effects last several days and make him randomly skip forward in time.

Still from The Wave (2019)

COMMENTS: I was confused as to what genre to place The Wave. It’s not reality-based enough to be science fiction, and nor is it divorced enough from reality to be fantasy. It’s not magical realism, either. The issues it explores are more philosophical than dramatic.  Psychological thriller kind of works, but the film is not nearly as dark as that term usually implies. The pacing (and the occasional light mugging from the leads) suggests that the movie wants to be taken as a comedy. Indeed, the setup, with straight-laced corporate lawyer Frank sneaking out for a night on the town with his more adventurous (and nigh-irresponisible) buddy suggest suits-cut-loose shenanigans a la Something Wild are coming. But the movie also takes itself kind of seriously, and lacks moments that play for big laughs.

The mongrel term “dramedy” is a possibility, but in the end I think The Wave really belongs to that rare and disreputable subgenre, the “trip movie.” It’s not an exploitation piece—although there are drug porn moments, like when we see a heaping mound of hundreds of thousands of dollars of uppers, downers, pills and powders spread across a grinning dealer’s table. The Wave‘s money shots are its wavery lysergic visions—especially when one of the mystery drug’s waves kicks in at a corporate board meeting, turning the executives into a bunch of Mammon-channeling demons. (The visuals here are simple but effective—it looks like they digitally painted over every frame of film, an effect that looks like rotoscoping done in MS Paint). At its core, the script posits that psychedelic drugs have legitimate spiritual healing qualities—that all that most self-centered lawyer needs is a high enough dose to turn himself on, grok karma, and become a self-sacrificing hippie.

The script may be naive at heart, but it hides it well. After Frank takes the mystery drug, the plot barrels along, lurching forward in time. Frank might suddenly find himself in a deserted house, or in the middle of a car chase, without explanation. Blackouts may be a side effect of the drug, but there’s something mystical about the process, too. By the end, the plot points snap into place nicely. The leads are all pro. Donald Faison provides good buddy support, playing the bad angel or good angel as needed; Sheila Vand, the mystic pixie dream girl, is luminous in her dream sequences; and Ronnie Gene Blevins overacts quite appropriately as the hellbent drug dealer antagonist. Justin Long makes a great Frank. He has a pleasant John Krasinski-meets-Fred Armisen quality here; you can’t stay mad at him, even when blind ambition is leading him to screw the beneficiaries of a dead firefighter out of their rightful proceeds. The screenplay hates the game, not the player, and redemption is just a trip away. Everything doesn’t quite work as it should: some characters, like the shrewish wife and the ruthless CEO, are cardboard caricatures; the score adds little; and, since the mystery drug comes at you in waves, the movie probably should have been titled in the plural. But if a mysterious Scotsman in a fur coat offers you The Wave, consider taking it. Rough patches aside, the crisp acting, inventive visuals, and speedy pace make it a trip you probably won’t regret taking.

The Wave shows up in selected cinemas, and more widely on video-on-demand, this Friday, January 17.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a fairly clever, trippy saga with its heart in the right place.”–Chris Evangelista, Slashfilm (festival screening)