Tag Archives: Psychological

CAPSULE: STARFISH (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Al White

FEATURING: Virginia Gardner

PLOT: Aubrey is understandably depressed: her best friend dies, and soon after the end of the world arrives in the form of an invasion of alien monsters.

Still from Starfish (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Starfish is a weird exercise with interesting ideas and a good performance from Gardner, but its mopey and lingering moments drag it down. Still, it’s a promising, professional-looking debut from Al White.

COMMENTS: Just like Starfish‘s heroine, whenever I get tired of the hassle of dealing with other people, I sometimes fantasize that an apocalypse has hit and wiped out everyone but me. I’m free to roam around grocery store aisles and grab all the bags of Lays Sour Cream Potato Chips I can carry, and eat all the pints of Ben & Jerry’s before they melt.

This is a common solipsistic daydream, even though we all realize that this predicament would be nightmarish in reality. For Aubrey, both the fantasy and the tragedy of this scenario become “real.” I put “real” in quotes, because it’s clear that depopulated world in Starfish is a metaphor for the protagonist’s bereavement and isolation. The death of her best friend and confidant sparks her crisis, but a guilty memory that we glimpse in fragments as Starfish (slowly) progresses fuels her alienation. Starfish does not spell out its underlying story in sxplicit detail; it’s more impressionistic and often dreamlike. The literal plot is inessential: there’s no attempt to make the end of the world seem reasonable, no serious explanation of where the monsters that roam the streets came from, little backstory on the survivors who occasionally break the silence to speak to Aubrey via walkie-talkie. The “mixtape” she assembles is a roadmap to redemption (it contains seven songs, just like the Seven Stages of Grief), and the “signal” is a pure MacGuffin. And so, given the symbolic nature of the script, the ending may be a bit too ambiguous for the audience’s liking; after everything Aubrey’s been through, it would have been nice to end on a more unconditionally hopeful note. (The ending we got would have been perfect for a different movie.)

Virginia Gardner deserves praise for carrying the film; she’s alone in almost every scene, usually either talking to herself or bouncing ideas off a turtle. Gardner conveys a real sense of loneliness—nothing that she does (or wears) matters, yet she carries on, finding a purpose and dragging herself through the wreckage of the world. The deliberate pacing, which punctuates long pauses with brief, intense bursts of crisis, aids in conveying that sensibility. And yes, while slow at times, the movie is duly weird, with frequent dream sequences—from the dinner settings that suddenly turn weightless to a radical (if brief) stylistic change at the halfway point (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it would have been more of a  shock in a less-strange movie). Underwater, surf and oceanic imagery (including a reading from the opening of “Moby Dick”) flood the film, further reinforcing the sense of loneliness, as if Aubrey is marooned on a desert isle or bobbing alone on a life raft far at sea. Or in the process of slowly drowning.

It’s not a movie for those who value plot, but Starfish earns a recommendation for anyone who appreciates a heavy dose of psychological drama in their genre films.

Debuting director Al White (also known as A.T. White) also heads the U.K. based band Ghostlight. He wrote all the songs heard in the film, from the spooky cello cues to all seven of the indie-pop mixtape songs (a number of which have a silly “They Might be Giants” vibe; others rock). He’s got talent and is still young, and idealistic: he says that all of his profits will be donated to cancer research. Starfish plays at select theaters throughout the U.S. through April. Click here for a list of screenings. Home video/streaming dates have not yet been announced.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a beautiful, emotional, weird, and fascinating movie.”–Germaine Lussier, io9.com (festival screening)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1)The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000. The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

References   [ + ]

1. The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000.

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: INHERITANCE (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Tyler Savage

FEATURING: Chase Joliet, Sara Montez

PLOT: A carpenter inherits a northern California villa from the biological father he never knew; the place is haunted by family secrets.

Still from Inheritance (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This indie psychological horror has only a few bare scraps of weirdness scattered throughout infrequent dream sequences.

COMMENTS: When carpenter Ryan is told his biological father has died, his expression is detached and brooding. It won’t change much throughout the rest of the movie. That’s not to say Chase Joliet’s performance is bad; it’s just one-note, by design. Inheritance starts in a  solemn mood and keeps it consistently gloomy from beginning to end. The movie barely cracks a smile, and never tells a joke. The emotions simmer, never quite boiling over into catharsis. Even the sex is serious. The tone is meant to convey a mix of subtle melancholy and lurking menace, but it often skirts too close to the borders of ennui.

The titular inheritance is a 2.5 million dollar villa on the northern California coast. The property is a windfall whose sale would supply a great nest egg for him and his fiancée Isi (Sara Montez) to start their life together; but the husband-to-be feels the need to linger in the home while silently working out his feelings about his biological heritage through a series of obliquely symbolic dreams of about his ill-fated parents and other ancestors. Ryan’s psychology revolves around fear that he will turn out like his biological father—although we get few meaningful hints what dad was like—but he also his has issues with jealousy, and hints of ambivalence about fatherhood. He struggles as much with accepting his upcoming responsibilities as a family man as he obsesses over his biological heritage; Isi suspects the latter is distraction from the former. With our main character so closed off, it falls on Montez to provide some the movie with some life. This she does, literally and figuratively. Hers is the more appealing, and stronger, character.

The cinematography, courtesy of Drew Daniels (It Comes at Night), is the film’s best asset, alternating bright beach scenes with well-lit nighttime dreamscapes. (In contrast to Ryan’s clouded psyche, his home is about the sunniest haunted house you’ll ever see.) Isolated shots are poetic; whiskey cascades over ice in slow motion, scored to the sound of ocean surf. Inheritance is well-crafted, but it’s too slow and monotone for most audiences, with too little dramatic payoff. About one hour into the movie, when a ghostly figure tells Ryan “I trust you know what to do now,” I caught dim echoes of The Shining. Then, I realized that by this point in ‘s ghost story, we’d already seen the blood in the elevator, the spooky twins, a foreboding Room 237, and starting to lose both his temper and his mind. Inheritance had yet to really get into gear, and although it tries to cram a lot of action into an effective final fifteen minutes, it isn’t quite worth the leisurely trip it takes to get there. The movie has a sophisticated psychology and there’s a lot of talent involved on both sides of the camera, but it doesn’t quite achieve its ambitions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie’s last 20 minutes are a deftly woven, completely beguiling amalgamation of surrealist nightmare and pure state-of-nature human dread.”–Shawn Macomber, Rue Morgue (festival screening)

CAPSULE: BLIND BEAST (1969)

Môjû; AKA Warehouse

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yasuzô Masumura

FEATURING: Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku

PLOT: A blind sculptor kidnaps a model and imprisons her in his studio.

Still from Blind Beast (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blind Beast scores two points in its weird ledger: one for the set design (which is almost always described as esque), and another for its irrationally sadomasochistic third act. At its core, however, it’s an odd and engaging “pinku” (as Japanese softcore erotic films of the 1960s were dubbed) that’s reminiscent of 1965’s The Collector (although the scenario was adapted loosely from a story). The sight of the sightless sculptor’s bizarro studio would have gotten Blind Beast shortlisted had we reviewed it earlier, but given the limited available slots, we see Beast as close, but not quite worthy of being named one of the 366 weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Blind Beast quickly gets in gear after the abduction, which is handled in an absurdly economical ten minutes. The blind antihero selects his model victim by feeling up a sculpture of her, then steals into her apartment posing as a masseur. With the help of his trusty sighted assistant, who also happens to be his mother, he soon has beautiful young Aki imprisoned inside his remote warehouse studio, and this is where the “fun” begins. The blind sculptor’s studio utilizes a fetishized geometry, with high-relief assemblies of (female) body parts lining each of the eight walls, enclosing two giant, pliant sculptures of prone nude women (one on her stomach, one on her back). The blind, stumbling hunter and his victim chase each through this corporeal funhouse; he clutches a giant nipple as he bargains for her compliance. Later, they will make love—of their strange sort—while rolling about on the humungous feminine torsos. You probably have never seen that before.

The middle part of the film involves Aki’s machinations as she tries to escape, until a near-miss attempt permanently costs her her freedom and sets the bizarre third act into motion. These scenes work well as a standard woman-in-peril thriller. When she fails to sneak past the blind man fail thanks to the interference of his maternal assistant, Aki switches to a psychological ploy. She pretends to fall in love with her captor and plays son and mother against each other. Of course, were she to escape so easily, the movie would end prematurely; and the movie has a better—or worse—fate in store for Aki.

The blind man’s studio is as sick a materialization of a male libido as could be imagined. His love/hate relationship with his mother suggests an Oedipal complex. Still, the psychology here is only deep by the standards of pink movies. The sadomasochistic finale, a sudden and wrenching departure from first two-thirds of the movie, is foreshadowed from the film’s earliest moments, but the movie provides no real insights into the pathology. Given the absurd heights of agonizing ecstasy its characters travel to, how could it?  Their obsessions are perverse, and the tale depicts them poetically without trying to explain them. Blind Beast is surprisingly coy with its nudity, most of which is only seen in still photographs from the opening art exhibition. Mako Midori’s breasts are skillfully hidden throughout the film, and a corner of a nipple is a rare and tantalizing sight. This teasing modesty gives the erotic visuals even more impact, while serving the theme of frustrated voyeurism. Blind Beast would be nearly impossible to distribute today, through licit channels, due to its outdated attitude to consent. Seduction is important to the plot, but Aki willingly (and eagerly) surrenders only after an hour of brutal coercion. And yet, Blind Beast has a sort of innocence about it, largely due to the unreal nature of its psychodrama: a fantasy of total abandon to physical sensation far beyond any rational limits, played out in a subterranean lair of mountainous breasts, dismembered legs, and eyeballs leering from the walls. It’s a space we would never want to visit, but one we can’t look away from.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre and claustrophobic…  a masterpiece of mod 1960s art design… Completely freaky and utterly engrossing.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by “MystMoonstruck” and seconded by “Dreamer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: A DARK SONG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Liam Gavin

FEATURING: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker

PLOT: Sophia enlists the aid of occultist Joseph to perform a ritual to contact her dead son; isolated in a house in Wales, the result could end up costing them both their lives and souls.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a very good story involving magick (used and abused), shifting power dynamics, and ultimately grief and forgiveness. But despite the presence of the occult, the handling doesn’t qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: A Dark Song is a small masterpiece of that sub-genre referred to as “folk horror.” There are no big set pieces or jump scares to satisfy the casual horror film viewer, but rather the slow, creeping dread found in smaller films like those of , Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or British television works such as the BBC’s M.R. James adaptations. Song is a chamber piece with two main characters in an enclosed space, and its main asset is atmosphere.

It’s also notable in grounding its mystical elements into a mundane reality. Magick may indeed exist, but it’s not easy. The ritualism involved in their endeavor is stringent, very disciplined, and time-consuming… it’s work. Therefore when certain events start happening later in the film, it tilts the ambiguity that threads though the first part into definite occult territory.

Part of that ambiguity is in the relationship of Sophia and Joseph—which never descends into a romantic one, to the film’s credit—but does bring up observations on power and consent. One could consider their relationship as student and teacher (or adept and mentor), but an undercurrent suggests that Joseph may not be what he seems, and could just be taking advantage of Sophia. The story doesn’t degenerate into a simple battle of the sexes scenario due to the performances of the actors. Both characters aren’t entirely likeable, but Sophia is more developed. Joseph remains somewhat of a cipher: although he does have an authoritative weight, his motives remain unclear. He has the knowledge and also the arrogance of those who like to lord it over those without it, and he doesn’t hold himself to the standard that he demands from Sophia, which ends up determining his fate.

Sophia’s story—wanting to communicate with her dead son—is the driving force of the film. Her grief has brought her to this extreme, and she is quite willing to go further, which leads her to the point of choosing either salvation or damnation in the film’s final act.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gavin creates psychological terror that exploits our anxieties with symbolism, nuance and innuendo. That purposeful ambiguity involves the viewer more intimately and increases the power of the story.”–Colin Covert, The Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)