Tag Archives: Twist ending

CAPSULE: THE DEATH OF DICK LONG (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Abbott, Jr., Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Virginia Newcomb

PLOT: Two dimwitted band members try to cover up the suspicious death of the third member of their trio in a small town.

Still from The Death of Dick Long (2019)

COMMENTS: “Hey… ya’ll mfers wanna get weird?,” asks the eponymous (and still living) Dick Long in the opening scene. The Death of Dick Long does get—sort of—weird, though not in the way you might be expecting from half of the directing duo behind Swiss Army Man. Like the crude joke in the movie’s title, which makes you think you’re headed for a raunchy redneck comedy, the word “weird” is a little bit of misdirection. Though the movie is set in Alabama, the “weird” here is of the species you’d expect to see in a headline beginning with the words “Florida Man…”

Initially submitted as a regional black comedy with subtle situational humor, Death quickly moves to dealing with the consequences of the trio’s “weird” night, which we gather must have involved something more intense than the beer bongs, joints and fireworks we see in the opening montage. At first, Dick’s body (which his bandmates surreptitiously dump at the emergency room door in the wee hours) is unidentified, and the precise cause of death unknown. Zeke and Earl aren’t too good at coverups, but fortunately for them the hometown cops—led by a sheriff with a cane and her friendly lesbian deputy—aren’t too good at solving unexpected crimes, even when the suspects literally hand them clues. The first half settles into a Fargo-esque groove that we’ve seen before, as sleep-deprived Zeke forgets to cover up bloodstains and neither conspirator shows much skill at improvising cover stories under pressure. Then, around the midway point, Dick Long takes its outrageous premise and, unexpectedly, wrings serious drama out of it. This tonal shift was a huge gamble, but it pays off.

The acting, from a string of unfamiliar and semi-familiar faces, is universally strong—actually, close to great. Michael Abbott, Jr. handles the lead with tragicomic aplomb. He doesn’t want the secret to get out, sure, but he’s even more afraid of losing his wife and child, which makes it easy to root for him despite his duplicity. His buddy Earl (Andre Hyland) is a comic foil and kind of a dick, a vapin’ fool whose philosophy of life distills down to a beer and a shrug. Sarah Baker makes you think that someday soon she might grow up to be Alabama’s answer to Marge Gunderson. Virginia Newcomb has a supporting role as Zeke’s wife, but gets a major moment when hubby awkwardly and reluctantly confesses after inconsistencies in his story give him no other choice. The smaller roles are handled with equal ability. Scheinert deserves credit for assembling and guiding this fine ensemble.

The Death of Dick Long put in a token appearance in theaters before showing up on a extras-free DVD and Blu-ray in December. This solo outing for Scheinert does not mean that he’s broken up with directing partner . The Daniels are currently at work on a new project, Everything Everywhere All at Once, described as an “interdimensional action film.” 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Never remotely as goofy as [Swiss Army Man] but still bizarre in its own way, it’s sort of difficult to believe the film exists. But in a post-Mother and Sorry to Bother You world, perhaps anything can… takes a turn for the weird around the halfway point, and what happens shouldn’t be spoiled…”–Justin Jones, CBR

 

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: BRAID (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Mitzi Peirone

FEATURING: Imogen Waterhouse, Sarah Hay, Madeline Brewer, Scott Cohen

PLOT: Two girls scheme to steal from their rich, but psychotic, old friend, but doing so requires them to go along with her fantasies: “the Game.”

Still from Braid (2018)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A hallucinatory thriller with modest ambitions to blow your mind, Braid finds itself in the weird pile, but not at the top of the heap. It’s a perfectly reasonable “B” selection to watch while waiting for something weirder to come down the pike.

COMMENTS: In the official opening scene of Braid, two collegiate drug dealers are inventorying their stash in their Manhattan loft, oblivious to the distant sound of police sirens. When the banging comes on their door, the film suddenly switches to black and white, security cam-style, as they make an improbable escape out the window and down the fire escape. What was decadent and glamorous in color suddenly turns dingy and desperate. At a later point, one of the girls pops what she thinks is Vicodin, but turns out to be a hallucinogen that turns the lawn purple (pro-tip: popping random pills is not recommended when you’re in the middle of pulling a caper). These visual dislocations, which are a constant in Braid, serve as a reminder of how fickle perception can be. They’re a reflection of the main plot device: a young lady trapped in a delusion that’s she’s still a little girl playing doctor with her friends. Later, we view a scene filmed upside down, for no apparent reason; debuting filmmaker Mitzi Peirone is often just using the delusion excuse to throw a lot of stuff on the screen that she thinks will look cool, like water flowing backwards into the faucet. (Actually, that’s not a bad strategy for a movie with a theme of disorientation.)

Petula and Tilda, the two college dropout robbers, are sufficiently rude and narcissistic that we’re amped to see them get their  comeuppance at the whims of their fruitcake ex-friend. Of course, Daphne, living in a dilapidated mansion and still playing house even though she now actually owns a house, herself is too detached from reality to root for. There is a detective sniffing around, but he seems fated to fall victim to the last of the game’s three rules: “no outsiders allowed.” Still, even though things threaten to get a little torture porn-y at times when Daphne goes to any lengths to keep her friends playing the Game, the film does make a dash for meaningful empathy at the very end.

There is a twist about a third of the way through that I didn’t see coming. It’s no stunner, but it is clever enough for an evening’s entertainment. A number of seemingly odd moments—such as the cliche old doomsayer cackling at the pair as they prepare to re-engage with their long lost gal pal—start to make (some) sense in retrospect. On the other hand, it also makes you conscious of how some of the early scenes were contrived specifically to fool the audience, rather than for organic story reasons. And some stuff never really adds up at all, such as a foot fetish scene. Still, the reveal is done well, and allows Peirone to pull out a lot of stops for a schizo-surrealist montage that supplies a high point before things start to peter out in a dreamy, melancholy epilogue (the film had been tautly paced up to that point).

The film’s insights into the subjectivity of human perception never really threaten to get beyond the superficial, but they do make a decent substrate for a weird-ass thriller. Peirone shows skill in putting the whole together, and with the help of cinematographer Todd Banhazl has a great (if undisciplined) visual flair. Keep your expectations at the level of a smart B-thriller and you may be pleasantly surprised by how well Braid threads these three women together.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bolstered by its kinetic cinematography and stellar production design, Mitzi Peirone’s surreal nightmare Braid is a crazy fever dream of deranged games and broken realities.”–Adam Patterson, Film Pulse (festival screening)

366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little Continue reading 366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”–Zen koan

Must See

DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A yuppie actuary with chronic insomnia  becomes obsessed with going to self-help groups for ailments he doesn’t have. At one, he meets a woman who shares his obsession, but resents her for infringing on what he thought was his unique form of self-therapy. Later, he meets and is befriended by a soap-maker named Tyler Durden; together, they form a “fight club” where men reassert their masculinity with bare-knuckle fighting, but the group’s activities grow into a cult.

Still from Fight Club (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel of the same name. The genesis of the novel came when Palahniuk got into a fight over the weekend. When he returned to work with two black eyes, he was surprised that no one asked what had happened; instead, everyone avoided looking him in the face. He theorized that if you looked bad enough, no one would ask what you were doing in your free time, because they’d be scared to find out the answer.
  • Pepsi provided product placements for this anti-consumerist movie. Fincher also claims to have hidden a Starbucks cup in every scene.
  • Budgeted at $63 million, Fight Club lost money in its theatrical release, but quickly became a cult film and recouped its cost on video.
  • Fight Club placed #5 in Rolling Stone‘s poll of readers’ favorite movies of the 1990s, #17 on Empire‘s readers’ poll of the best movies of all time, while American Movie Classics named it the 20th best “guy movie,” among other lists the film made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one (any) of the many scenes of brutal bare-knuckle boxing, overseen by a shirtless, cigarette-smoking Brad Pitt, oozing sweat, blood, and raw liquid testosterone.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: D-cup dude; penguin spirit animal; subliminal Durden wang

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Yes, it’s possible to be popular and weird. Often misunderstood as a simple adolescent anti-consumerist message movie aimed at impressionable young men, Fight Club is actually a movie-length hallucination about the painful process of becoming a man.


Original trailer for Fight Club

COMMENTS: How do you talk about Fight Club? I first saw it in a Continue reading 348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ENDLESS (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple

PLOT: Brothers who escaped a cult a decade ago receive a videocassette with a strange message and return to their old compound, where it becomes clear that behind the friendly facade of their erstwhile “family” lurks a hazard beyond contemplation.

Still from The Endless (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTThe Endless starts out a little creepy, with altogether too-friendly cult members interacting with the two runaways that defamed their group, before evolving into something skin-crawlingly foreboding. An unnamed, immaterial, but ever-present Entity generates a recurring circumstance found throughout Arcadia Park that puts a new spin on the idea of being “lost in time.”

COMMENTS: A moral found in The Endless is well reflected by the filmmaker’s methods: keep moving. Acting as a veritable two-man band, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do virtually all the heavy lifting in this science fiction(ish)/horror(ish) drama (no “ish”): they direct, star, write, and do the cinematography. They also reach back and pull their previous features (Resolution and Spring) forward along with them in subtle ways. Paradoxically combining pinpoint focus with immense scope, Benson and Moorhead squeeze an infinity into one story comprised of, for lack of a better phrase, many narrative wheels.

An opening montage introduces us to Justin and Aaron Smith (Benson and Moorhead), two brothers barely making ends meet by doing dead-end work, in desperate need of a new car battery. Their rut is interrupted by a parcel containing a camcorder videotape with a message from their past. The “alien death cult” they escaped apparently didn’t pull the trigger. Their visit to their old digs at Arcadia Park starts well enough, but unnerving details begin to accumulate: multiple moons in the sky, hazy atmospheric barrier walls, and ominous rock pillars scattered not-so-randomly around the camp. As Aaron becomes more enamored with cult life, Justin’s aversion spikes. Diving to the base of a buoy in the camp’s lake, he finds two things underwater: another camcorder cassette, and something unimaginably horrific that he barely escapes. Despite this, Aaron decides to stay. As Justin begins his journey home, he stumbles across the true nature of the problem at Arcadia Park, and returns to save his brother.

One could use any number of adjectives to describe how wonderful this movie is—gripping, mysterious, surprising, funny. I’m handicapped because were I to provide any more details, the film’s twists would be revealed. Suffice it to say, temporal manipulation plays heavily in The Endless; the title itself, perhaps, provides a clue. Arcadia Park’s citizenry do not seem to have aged much since the brothers’ departure. Is it merely healthy country living? There’s a heavily locked cabin under the watchful eye of an Arcadian elder. Does it contain guns, or something far more troubling? And as for that mental patient who wandered on to the cult’s grounds, how real are her charcoal drawings of a monstrous nebula looming over the camp? Unfortunately, I can only pose questions to make hints. Surprise is key.

At its screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a point where every audience member was dead-silent, and I’m convinced we were all holding our breath at the same time. Throughout the bizarre adventure of Justin and Aaron, there is a delicate balance of mundane, humorous, and menacing—with a palpable shift toward the latter as the movie progresses. The film’s world and people are self-contained (in more ways than one), and no line is out of place or without purpose. And then there’s the moral to The Endless, as I said before: keep moving. I’d suggest there is also a second moral here: never put off replacing a car battery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie…”–Tasha Robinson, The Verge (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith

FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls,

PLOT: A mysterious loner living in isolation in the mountains survives off the food and shelter of unused vacation homes; through flashbacks we see how his life unraveled after meeting a doomsday-prophesying computer engineer.

Still from Buster's Mal Heart (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its nonlinear style and a few nearly incomprehensible plot elements, this is definitely weird. But it also throws in a by-now familiar twist that makes it feel less special.

COMMENTS: For years, a man (Rami Malek) known only as “Buster” has been haunting the woods where a number of high-end vacation homes lie empty the majority of the year. He breaks into these homes and stays for a few days at a time, neatly tidying up after himself but often leaving some memento of his visit behind for the owners to find. The only interactions we see him engage in are periodic phone calls to radio DJ’s and phone sex workers, warning them of some impending doom called “the Inversion.” In an alternate vision of his life, he is lost at sea, waiting out his own death on a small rowboat, alternating between English and Spanish as he shouts at the sky. With the third version of Buster, we learn his history. He was once named “Jonah,” a hard-working young family man who had overcome drug addiction and homelessness and found salvation (and a wife) in the church. He works the night shift at a quiet airport hotel, and dreams of whisking his family away from the toil of working-class suburban life to their very own plot of land in the mountains, where they can live on their own terms. Jonah’s chance encounter with an unnamed drifter (DJ Qualls) who foretells the end of the world sets a chain of events in motion that leads to drastic changes in his lifestyle and worldview.

Buster’s Mal Heart is an exercise in nonlinear, enigmatic storytelling. Each scene is a flashback, a flash forward, or a flash-sideways, with seeming revelations about the protagonist often resulting in more questions, wrong turns, or dead ends. But writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (known for her stunning, secretive debut The Midnight Swim) throws viewers some bread crumbs, hinting at overarching themes. It seems that all of Jonah’s life as we know it is a constant push-pull between a “normal,” responsible, social existence and a completely free, independent one. He works in the hospitality industry, but due to his hours he spends most of his shifts alone, cleaning up the barren spaces of the hotel or sitting at the front desk staring blankly at the empty lobby. He loves his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter, but refuses to imagine a buttoned-up suburban life for them, instead saving all of his money to build them a cabin on a lake. He is an active member of an unspecific Christian church, but not actually invested in religion, likely remaining only because it is so Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)