Tag Archives: Psychological

CAPSULE: REFLECT (2023)

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DIRECTED BY: Dana Kippel

FEATURING: Dana Kippel, Ryan Jack Connell, Grace Patterson, Marissa Patterson, Ariana Williams, Jadelyn Breier

PLOT: Five women travel to Sedona, Arizona to win a cash prize for completing a “spiritual obstacle course” (which turns out to be a front for an alien reality show).

Still from Reflect (2023)COMMENTS: Reflect, a girls-trip comedy that morphs into a psychedelic journey of self-discovery, seems to be aware that some of its ideas may come across as ridiculous. That may be the reason for the playful subplot pretending that character’s spiritual pilgrimage to the energy-vortex-ridden metaphysical mecca of Sedona is also an interdimensional alien reality show. Their lisping spiritual guide, Hermes, is a holy fool, bleating like a lamb, laughing off his own spiritual declarations, and engaging in silly hijinks like playing maracas while walking backwards, then giving status updates for the alien TV audience. Before embarking on the journey, the bougiest participant howls, “Time to get our chakras aligned, bitches!” And the movie is peppered with a few trailer-ready quips like “I’m down for being abducted. I’m not down for being killed by shadow people.”

But while Reflect sometimes presents as a comedy, at other times, it’s harder to tell whether it’s joking or not: our protagonist, Summer, tells the carload of down-to-chakra-align babes “so, aliens are basically higher versions of ourselves, right? So maybe these vortexes are doorways to other dimensions, like a wormhole.” The other women scoff, but maybe Summer’s just read the script. The gentle jokes—which never get within spitting distance of satire—are a preemptive defensive reaction: writer/director/star Kippel showing that she’s not taking all this too seriously. This language may sound silly to you, but it’s all really just a metaphor to help you… reflect. But the humor slips away as the movie progresses, and the script grows more earnest. By the midpoint, another guide delivers the monologue “Pluto is in Capricorn until 2023. This means that Pluto is forcing an upsurge of awareness of the current patriarchal ruling that uses control, fear, and destructive practices of the industrial world. It is time for a triune society…” without an ounce of irony.

What we have here is a bunch of basic white girls (even the black girl) with the optional astrology upgrade, off on a drug-free vision quest. A helpful opening scorecard associates each participant with a Tarot card and describes, among other relevant facts, their “shadow.” (One of the girls’ shadows is listed as “depression,” which is not exactly in-depth analysis, but I guess it’s OK given the space allotted). The “spirituality” they seek is amorphous, but is really more about basic psychology, overcoming generic neuroses about sexual orientation, suburban trauma (nothing too dark), and resentment towards their mothers. The ladies achieve insights into the source of their psychological quirks—I mean, “shadows”—and then, for unexplained reasons, fail at whatever undefined test the obstacle course/alien reality show is proposing. Summer goes through exactly the same process as the others, and passes the test (although the movie cuts off before she receives her cash prize). Enlightenment is a mysterious thing.

Fortunately, we do get some trippy surface weirdness in the second half to complement the subtextual weirdness of the movie’s vaguely ridiculous belief system. A series of eccentric guides, nightmare flashbacks, glowing spheres, blurry double-image lenses, and encounters with a trio of sarcastic goth vampires highlight the film’s hallucinogenic character (which, again, is explicitly not tied to drugs). But for many, Reflect‘s true surrealism will come from gawking at a the relics of the New Age subculture. This film is aimed at a specific demographic, and they have eaten it up. But it’s easier to believe that aliens are using the Sedona vortexes as sets for their interdimensional reality shows than that a low-budget indie sorta-comedy full of unknown generic blondes deserves the same 8.1 IMDb rating as Jaws or The Seventh Seal. The good news is that there is a market for tiny subcultural niche films like Reflect. The bad news is that, when those of us not in that subculture see it, we must resist the ungallant urge to mock that which we don’t believe. It’s an internal struggle not every viewer will be able to overcome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Writer-director-star Dana Kippel might be exploring the psychic scars of the mother-daughter bond (she herself is adopted) via the characters and their trippy encounters and hallucinations on this vision quest… [but t]he ‘insights’ are trite, the characters thinly-sketched irritants and the indulgent, self-absorbed ‘journey’ story makes too little sense to be easy to “trip” through.”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: AMNESIA (2001)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Martin Koolhoven

FEATURING: Fedja van Huêt, Carice van Houten, Sacha Bulthuis, Theo Maassen

PLOT: After receiving a call that his mother is ill, a photographer returns to his family estate (“AmnesiA”) to face his gangster twin brother and a traumatic childhood memory.

Still from AmnesiA (2001)

COMMENTS: You will seldom see a film where you will be as uncertain if the characters really exist as in AmneisiA. The base story of Alex returning to his old, abandoned homestead—improbably and tellingly dubbed “AmnesiA”—can be seen as nothing more than a symbolic depiction of Alex wrestling with the unresolved internal conflict of a seen-in-choppy-flashbacks childhood trauma. And although that is an extraordinary event, it is far and away the most believable thing you’ll see.

It’s not that anything truly impossible happens in AmnesiA. It’s just that no one in the movie acts in ways that make sense, but rather in ways that are unnerving or absurd. After an efficient, if ominous, setup, things start to feel off when Alex discovers pretty Sandra stowing away in his car. She refuses to explain who she is or what she’s doing there, and rather than panicking or throwing her out, Alex lets her tag along, and doesn’t correct his mother when she assumes the girl is his fiancee. Twin brother Aram brings home an even stranger companion, Wouter; the two have just returned from a bungled robbery, and Wouter sports a massive gut wound, acquired under mysterious circumstances. Every now and then someone will comment that he really should see a doctor, but basically everyone ignores the fact that he’s bleeding all over the furniture. Although the house receives other visitors, this fivesome takes up the bulk of the screentime. We are privy to many perversions along the way—disrespectful urination, a son turning into his father in unhealthy ways, and cucking twins—but introspective psychodrama, rather than shock value, remains the focus.

Fedja van Huêt is excellent in his two roles; even without their slightly different hairstyles and dress, we would never confuse the brooding Alex for the simmering Aram, or vice-versa. Carice van Houten (who would later find international stardom in “Game of Thrones”) is simply lovely, and really gives the sense that she doesn’t know what her character is doing at Alex’s childhood home (not in uncomplimentary sense, but by design; we aren’t supposed to know what her character is doing there, either). Mother Sacha Bulthuis and wounded thug Theo Maassen provide comic relief—bloody comic relief, in the latter case.

AmnesiA received positive reviews on release, but for reasons unknown never made it onto DVD in North America. Cult Epics rescues this nearly forgotten (heh heh) feature with a pristine DVD/Blu-ray release, featuring a moderated commentary from the director and star and supplemental interviews with Koolhoven and van Houten. The double Blu-ray release also includes two of Koolhaven’s two previous made-for-TV movies, Dark Light (1997) and Suzy Q (1999), made with some of the same cast. Kudos to Cult Epics for putting this overlooked, surreal Dutch psychothriller in front of more eyeballs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The hoary myth about identical twins — that one is good and the other evil — must tap into some primal notion of the divided self in which the two halves claw at each other’s throats, each seeking dominance. The concept gets a weird but intriguing workout in ‘AmnesiA,’ a surreal Dutch film that carries the comic menace of a play like Harold Pinter’s ‘Homecoming’ to the brink of horror.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: BOXING HELENA (1993)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: (credited as Jennifer Chambers Lynch)

FEATURING: Julian Sands, , Bill Paxton, Kurtwood Smith, , Betsy Clark

PLOT: Unable to cope with his recent breakup with the temperamental Helena, surgeon Nick Cavanaugh finds himself caring for her at his house after a car accident.

Still from Boxing Helena (1993)

COMMENTS: I honestly don’t recall which was the bigger source of discussion when Boxing Helena hit theaters. Was it David Lynch’s daughter helming her first feature? Or was it the prospect of so much sexiness revolving around “Twin Peaks” bad girl Fenn? Some of it was probably the titillatingly taboo premise of a man so infatuated with a woman that he hacks off all her limbs and puts her in a box. (Spoiler: there is exactly one box in this movie, and it does not contain Helena.) But the bulk of the attention circled around the fact that Kim Basinger had to pony up nearly $4 million as recompense for breaking her contract to appear in the title role (and that was after Madonna had rejected it outright). Many of the negative contemporary reviews congratulated Basinger on getting the better end of the deal—and with 30 years distance, watching the film with clearer eyes, we discover that those critics were absolutely right.

We learn at the outset that Nick has been emotionally scarred from his youth, with a slutty mom who rejected him and left him hungry for love. So maybe it’s easy to understand what he sees in Helena: the apathy, the dismissiveness, the belittling condescension… who could turn that down? What’s not at all clear is what she ever saw in him. Within two minutes of arriving at Nick’s party, she’s stripped down to her negligee and cavorting in the fountain. It’s hard to argue that she leaves anything on the table.

One of our most iconic weird actors, Julian Sands, is either terribly miscast or horribly directed. This beautiful, suave man flounces about like an emasculated mockery of masculinity, whining and pining for a lost love that it’s not clear he ever had. But as pathetic as he makes Nick, Lynch goes to great pains to make him more so, with mournful closeups as he jogs and his puppy-dog fawning over her. Later, when Helena mocks his poor bedroom skills, his defensive retort is, “If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex.” It’s hard to know if Sands is in on the joke or just fully committed to Nick’s painful lack of self-awareness, but his despairing cry of “she’s leaving?” actually left me in hysterical laughter.

Fenn, meanwhile, has almost nothing to do. She begins the film peevish; the loss of her legs makes her angry, the loss of her arms moreso. Her shift to a needier, more empathetic character is motivated not by any change in her but rather as a means of bringing about a change in Nick, an especially odd choice given that a massive plot twist essentially undoes all of the “learning” we’ve witnessed. So this movie about handicapping and torturing a beautiful woman in order to satisfy a broken male ego can’t even commit to its own questionable choices.

Once you establish that the whole thing is an elaborate melodrama with no real point, you can start to embrace it as unintentional comedy, with ridiculous situations, thudding dialogue, and overheated acting. This is best exemplified by the amazingly entertaining Bill Paxton, who shows up as Helena’s occasional boytoy in a Nigel Tufnel hairdo, mesh T-shirt, and leather pants, as cocksure as a 12-year-old trying to buy liquor. The movie may believe in him (when he busts out a Benjamin in payment for information, it cracks on the soundtrack with a snap), but there’s no reason we should. Bragging about his manhood one moment, hiding in the bushes like a Peeping Tom the next, he’s always absurd. The moment late in the third act when he sees what has become of Helena is a masterful double-take, a magnificent piece of comic idiocy.

Boxing Helena could have used a lot more of that, because it is resolutely dumb but lacks the wisdom to recognize it. Young Ms. Lynch seems to think she’s created something bold and erotic and profound. That is an impulse that should be cut off.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I am probably prevented by some unwritten law from divulging the end of Boxing Helena. I can only say that, instead of adding an extra twist to this bizarre tale, it deprives it of what little point it had.”–Quentin Crisp, Christopher Street (contemporaneous)

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXCISION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter

PLOT: Bored at school, frustrated by her home life, and tormented by nightmares that transform her dreams of becoming a surgeon into bloody tableaux, 18-year-old Pauline tries to solve her issues by herself, with unexpected consequences.

Still from Excision (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Excision is a character study focusing on one very screwed-up young woman, but the film delicately walks the line between making her behavior fancifully quirky and disturbingly repellent. The distinctive point-of-view, excellent acting by the two leads, and an ending that earns its dropped jaws all make this one to remember.

COMMENTS: By now, the sullen teen girl with no f’s to give has become a trope unto itself. From Daria to Wednesday Addams to nearly every character ever played by Aubrey Plaza, the type combines a steadfast commitment to outsider status with just the hint of potential homicidal intent. There are a lot of reasons to think that Excision‘s Pauline walks down this same familiar road. She’s fearless when it comes to getting in the faces of those she deems inferior. She’s devoid of shame in asking for what she wants, such as when she walks up to a boy and tells him point-blank that she wants to lose her virginity to him. And she’s dripping with snark for nearly everyone. In that respect, it’s easy to want to be on her side, to wish that everyone would just let her be herself.

But then there are the dreams, which feature naked corpses, autopsies, extractions, and no shortage of blood. On their own, they’re baroque, but their influence starts to spill over into the waking world, such as when Pauline takes it upon herself to pierce her own nose, ask a teacher if she can get an STD from copulating with the dead, or perform her own exploratory surgery on a wounded bird. As much as you want to root for the underdog, it’s not hard to see why everyone else in the film is put off by her attitude. She’s definitely creepy.

McCord devours her leading role. With unkempt eyebrows and lingering acne, she’s the girl you expect to be transformed into a beautiful swan in the second act, but she can’t help but be herself. And that self is someone who clearly desires love and appreciation, as much as she bats away the suggestions of everyone who thinks they know who she should be. As good as McCord is, the performance from Traci Lords as her mother is downright spectacular. Despite the potential for her repressed and moralistic character to become simplistic and even parodistic (and in spite of the implied irony in her casting), she is genuinely excellent. Through their committed and entertaining performances, McCord and Lords elevate the mother-daughter relationship away from the starkly drawn lines of Carrie and to something akin to the complexities of Lady Bird.

Writer/director Bates, who expanded his original short film to feature length, has one other card to play, and it’s as interesting as it is irrelevant. He offers up a bevy of cameos, several of which are immediately appealing to a weird sensibility. Moving beyond Marlee Matlin and Matthew Gray Gubler, Excision welcomes such luminaries as Ray Wise as a rather intense principal, Malcolm McDowell as a seen-it-all math teacher, and, most pointedly, John Waters as a plain-minded pastor called upon to double as an amateur therapist. Perhaps what’s most odd about this casting is how utterly normal every one of these cult legends seems. The effect is similar to ’s decision to populate The Informant! with comedians playing it totally straight. If these are the weirdos, we ask ourselves, then what the hell is Pauline?

Excision is a demented character study right up until the very end, when Pauline’s psychic trauma manifests in the real world. It works as a shocking piece of horror, but also makes sense as a logical endpoint for Pauline’s efforts to balance her dangerous impulses with her eagerness to please. They’re not compatible, and the only reasonable result is catastrophe. Many films show you the monster; few go to this effort to show you how it got that way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an overripe mélange of Cronenbergian ‘body horror’ and alienated Lynchian weirdness. “–Nigel Floyd, Time Out (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tori, who called it “amazing” and said “you can’t imagine where the plot goes.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GIVE ME PITY! (2022)

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Give Me Pity! is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sophie von Haselberg

PLOT: A one-woman 1970s TV special slides into a psychedelic nightmare.

Still from Give Me Pity! (2022)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) nightmarish and always unpredictable, Give Me Pity! is a surreal showcase of female insecurity, acted out on a disco stage where glamour fades into mockery.

COMMENTS: Sissy St. Claire’s first prime time special (set in the indefinite late 1970s) takes quite a journey. Her opening monologue begins, creepily enough, with her dressed as a little girl, describing her dreams of someday having her own prime time special. In the closing monologue, she appears as an angel, reveling in the fact that she finally “made it.” Throughout, she’s a woman craving adulation, just like her inspiration in the entertainment field: Jesus. Yet the film’s overwhelming impression is not one of triumph or celebration, but of vanity: St. Claire’s own superficial vanity (there are lots of scenes of her staring into mirrors), and her vain dreams of immortality through celebrity.

The film is simultaneously a parody of 1970s celebrity specials and of confessional “one woman” shows (the type of off-Broadway performances no one ever attends, but knows about through sitcom punchlines). The production design puts us in an authentic kitsch nightmare during the musical numbers: glowing pink backgrounds, mirror balls, laser spotlights criss-crossing the screen, Sissy crooning disco ballads in a glittery jumpsuit as backup dancers parade in silhouette behind her. These productions alternate with sketch comedy scenes that go horribly sideways (the actress in the “psychic” sketch refuses to read Sissy’s palm because she has a “demonic” energy,  there’s blood on the envelope of one of the fan letters Sissy picks to read, a special guest stands up the live show at the last moment and Sissy has to perform both male and female parts.) Then there are Sissy’s monologues to the audience, which are, at the same time, boastful and needy, addressing the actresses’ insecurities about her appearance (a plastic surgery sketch is done in horror film style) and general angst (she sees both terrible posture and an existential void in an impression of her performed via interpretive dance.) Recurring motifs about longing for a child and early widowhood drip out, suggesting a possible backstory much different than the confident facade Sissy projects onstage. Oh, and if all this wasn’t enough, there are frequent glitchy bursts of buzzing video distortion and solarization and shots of a creepy-faced man waiting backstage, which grow into a full-fledged acid freakout late in the show. (The film probably would have been just as effective without the psychedelic frippery–the monologues and absurdist sketches are ominous enough–but hey, who’s complaining?)

Rather than a sketch of an established performer deteriorating from self-doubt, the entire special feels like the dream of an ordinary woman living a delusional fantasy of a fame she’ll never merit. St. Claire is attractive enough, but far from gorgeous; her singing and dancing is competent, but far from diva quality. She’s a creation of gilded glamour, a housewife covered in layers of barely-convincing glitz and sequins. In short, despite what the existence of a 2-hour block of TV programming devoted to her implies, Sissy seems nothing special. If this assessment sounds like I’m demeaning von Haselberg or her performance, that’s absolutely not the intent. Sissy St. Claire can’t be too good at what she does; that would undermine Give Me Pity!‘s entire theme of ambition outstripping reality. Von Hasselberg in fact hits a difficult mark here: she’s cast as a reputed superstar who lacks actual star appeal, a woman playing a part she doesn’t live up to. Her clearly-manufactured, forced-upon-the-audience charisma rings as hollow as the canned applause, which becomes tinnier as the night wears on. The fact that there’s nothing truly exceptional about either Sissy’s performance or her persona gives the film its pathos. Her tragedy is her yearning to be extraordinary, to be worthy of what all of us want deep down: a TV special that will grant us immortality, just like Sissy’s inspiration, Jesus.

Sophie von Haselberg is Bette Midler’s daughter (her mom is the kind of star who might have actually gotten a 2-hour special in 1979). Give Me Pity! was Amanda Cramer’s second weird movie of 2022—she also brought us the underrated and underseen Please Baby Please. She is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, assuming she can keep finding funding to put her oddball ideas onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a wholly bizarre movie from start to finish, but with such a fully realized vision from Kramer and an entrancing lead performance, ‘Give Me Pity!’ is lovably unconventional.”–Louisa Moore, Screen Zealots (festival screening)