Tag Archives: Dystopian

245. THE LOBSTER (2015)

“How do you even act in something like this? It was so bizarre. There’s no human reference that I know of to go, ‘Oh, I remember when something like that happened to me before.’ It’s so out there.”–Colin Farrel on acting in The Lobster

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Léa Seydoux, , Ben Whishah, , Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Jessica Barden,

PLOT: In a future dystopia, every adult must be in a mandatory romantic relationship or they are sent to a state-run hotel to find a mate within 45 days, to be turned into an animal of their choice if they fail. David is a short-sighted architect whose wife leaves him for another man, necessitating his visit to the hotel with his dog (formerly brother) Bob. He tries to find a legitimate match, pretend to fall in love with another resident, or failing either of those options, to escape to the forest where a small band of renegade singles live.

Still from The Lobster (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • This is Greek Giorgos Lanthimos’s first English language feature film.
  • Writer Efthymis Filippou has co-written Giorgos Lanthimos’s last three features (the other two are the Certified Weird Dogtooth and Alps), and actress Aggeliki Papoulia has had a prominent role in each.
  • The Lobster won the Jury Prize (essentially, third place) at Cannes in 2015 (Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme D’or, while the holocaust drama and future Academy Award winner Son of Saul took the Grand Prix).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a tough one, because—the beautiful photography of the County Kerry countryside and the classical elegance of the Parknasilla Resort notwithstanding—The Lobster‘s bizarre situations and crazy concepts hit harder than its imagery does. I considered the scene where the woman shoots a donkey in a field, or a subtle scene where the Loner Leader and the Maid are sitting in the forest and a two-humped camel casually saunters by in the background. Ultimately, I chose David and short-sighted woman’s wildly inappropriate makeout scene, which supplies one of this very drily hilarious movie’s biggest belly laughs.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Donkey assassination; Heimlich theater; psychopath trial relationship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Lobster is Giorgos Lanthimos’s idea of a romantic comedy: a cruel farce with bizarre but relentlessly consistent logic, enacted by a cast who show no emotions. Really, it’s more of a romantic horror/comedy. The style represents one of my favorite types of weird movies: one that takes the world we know, changes one or two of the basic rules, and then runs all the way with its premise to a bizarre conclusion dictated by its world’s rejigged logic.


Original trailer for The Lobster

COMMENTS: The Hotel Manager praises David when he explains Continue reading 245. THE LOBSTER (2015)

CAPSULE: AIMY IN A CAGE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Hooroo Jackson

FEATURING: Allisyn Ashley Arm, Michael William Hunter, Sara Murphy, Terry Moore,

PLOT: While a mysterious virus ravages the outside world, a quirky teenage girl is forced to undergo brain surgery to become “normal,” then imprisoned by her family. Still from Aimy in a Cage (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Weird? Yes, indeed. But this stylish debut, while pretty, doesn’t quite pull all its ribbons together into the tidiest of bows.

COMMENTS: Allisyn Ashley Arm may headline, and Crispin Glover’s name may sell tickets, but the real star of Aimy in a Cage is Chloe Barcelou, the production and costume designer. She creates an arresting world that looks like a post-apocalyptic “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” Set in a single sprawling flat that recalls visual icons like , , and even or a wacked-out at times, the movie looks like a trippy graphic novel come to life. In Terry Moore’s first scene, she wears improvised beer can rollers in her hair. Aimy earns herself headgear that looks like added several extra feet of ductwork on top of the Robot Monster‘s helmet. I adored the faerie mushrooms embossed on the outside of Aimy’s door. The barrage of stylistic techniques—Fleischer brothers cartoons, mad pans and angles, circular masking, fisheye lenses, paint dripping over the lens—can be a little much, but they are all well executed and add to the film’s ramshackle, cluttered charm.

Unfortunately, the story does not engage us nearly as much as the film’s visual milieu does. The problem is with Aimy herself. Not with the performance of Arm, an ex-Disney Channel star who seems like she would be lovable in another project. She does exactly what she is asked to do here, which is to act bratty and scream a lot. Aimy is totally narcissistic, in that bright teenage girl way; she’s the kind of character who complains, “why can’t you all just accept me for who I am?” while doing an interpretive dance and throwing fistfuls of candy into the face of her long-suffering boyfriend. The movie starts out with misunderstood Aimy breaking her grandmother’s treasured vintage doll and getting into a shrieking contest with the old bat, and it just gets more and more shrill as it goes on. Aimy is abused, its true, but in the opening reels she gives as good as she gets, and we can totally understand and sympathize with the family’s decision to tie her to a chair and gag her. When the girl taunts her grandmother, hateful though the old harridan may be, about her fiancé’s recent abandonment and laughs that the old woman will die alone, are we really supposed to take her side? It’s as if the script simply assumes we will side with the young against the old and the artist against the conformist, and so doesn’t feel the need to make Aimy likable in any way.

Does that mean the girl earns the torture that is heaped on her in the later reels, which ranges from psychological abuse to lobotomy to being tied in a chair and force-fed while begging to die? Of course not. But successful antiheroes, from Alex deLarge to the Comedian of Entertainment, have two things Aimy doesn’t: they are given some redeeming, humanizing characteristic for the audience to latch on to, and their suffering is treated seriously, as something real, no matter how unreal their surroundings may otherwise be. Aimy’s chaotic character is closer to abrasive roles in ‘ early comedies, but she doesn’t have the drag queen’s perversely lovable outrageousness.

Glover’s character, a sort of southern gentleman gigolo in a fur coat, is decent, but the role’s subdued nature means his casting takes more advantage of the actor’s weirdo cred than his gonzo energy. For Glover, however, not spazzing out all over the screen is stretching as an actor, and it’s interesting to see him take on a subtler weird role. is prominently billed, but her appearance amounts to a forgettable cameo that makes no difference in the story.

In Aimy‘s defense, it does effectively capture a budding teenager’s sense of self-absorption and paranoia; that alone does not, however, make for a pleasant or rewarding moviegoing experience. Still, there will be those who will want to uncage Aimy for the visuals alone, and I won’t dissuade you: as long as you have a high tolerance for abrasive adolescent antics, it may be worth a VOD rental. Aimy in a Cage does not have an official release set yet, although a Blu-ray is listed with the possibly specious date of April 1, 2016.

There is one additional weird point to make about Aimy in a Cage, but it relates to the film’s funding rather than its content. Writer Hooroo Jackson invested almost everything he had in Bitcoin in 2012, when the price of a digital coin stood at $10, and cashed out when the virtual currency rose to $650. He used the proceeds to fund a movie version of his own graphic novel. I can’t think of any nobler way to dissipate a lightning-in-a-bottle windfall than that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not just that the always quirky Crispin Glover is featured in Aimy in a Cage that makes it weird… Fans of twisted independent cinema might celebrate Aimy in the Cage (it won the Director’s Prize at the Portland (Oregon) Film Festival), and it is a beautiful film to behold, but the damn thing is madder than Alice’s Hatter!”–Elias Savada, Film International (contemporaneous)

208. THE APPLE (1980)

“I’ve never been so high in my life!”–Bibi in The Apple

DIRECTED BY: Menahem Golan

FEATURING: George Gilmour, Catherine Mary Stewart, Vladek Sheybal

PLOT: Alfie and Bibi are a naive duo of musicians from Moose Jaw, Canada. Mr. Boogalow, a Faustian music producer who controls the entire world’s music industry with his BIM corporation, tries to sign them to a contract; Alfie refuses, but Bibi is seduced by the lure of fame. Bibi becomes the world’s biggest pop star as Boogalow extends his influence to government, forcing all citizens to wear a “Bimmark” or be fined; Alfie tries to win her back.

Still from The Apple (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  • Together with his cousin, Yolam Globus, The Apple screenwriter/director Menahem Golan ran the Cannon Group, which produced hundreds of B-movies in the 1980s. Golan personally directed 46 films and produced or co-produced over 200. Some of the films Cannon later produced or distributed included ‘s King Lear, The Company of Wolves, and Lifeforce, along with exploitation movies featuring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and a handful of lucrative ninja movies. Their story is told in the 2014 documentary The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. The Apple was made near the beginning of their moviemaking careers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Alfie’s vision of glam-rock Hell, featuring Napoleon, a dancing chorus of the damned, and a giant plastic apple, with a Roger Daltrey clone in a gold lamé G-string serving as master of ceremonies. It’s all capped off by the moment when an actual, actual, actual vampire (with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and a sheer periwinkle scarf) pops into the frame, displaying her fangs and jazz claws, cocking her head, and generally acting like a vampiric village idiot.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: An actual, actual, actual vampire; pop dictatorship; deus ex Cadillac.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This science-fictiony musical satire/religious allegory is an attempt to cash in on the camp credibility of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with the disco sensibility and glittery production values of Xanadu (also made in 1980). The results are spectacularly uneven: the bizarre costuming, choreography, and psychedelic production numbers are actually pretty good in their deliberate excess, the songs range from annoying to hummable, and the rushed, out-of-left-field messianic ending is an unforgettable cinematic disaster.


Original trailer for The Apple

COMMENTS: The Apple pulls you in many different directions: Continue reading 208. THE APPLE (1980)

200. METROPOLIS (1927)

“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier… Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities.”–H.G. Wells

“Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. That which it recounts is trivial, overblown, pedantic and outdatedly romantic. But, if to the tale we prefer the ‘plasitco-photogenic’ background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astonishing book of images it is possible to compose.”–Luis Buñuel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: The future city of Metropolis is starkly divided between two classes: the rulers who spend their days in pleasure gardens, and the workers who live underground and run the massive machines that supply the city with power. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the most powerful man in Metropolis, discovers the existence of the underground world when he becomes entranced by beautiful Maria, a woman who prophesies to the workers that a Mediator will come to unite the two classes. Joh is not happy with this development and he enlists the scientist Rotwang to kidnap Maria and create a robotic duplicate of her to discredit her with the workers; but the doctor, who harbors a personal grudge against Fredersen, sabotages the plan.

Still from Metropolis (1927)
BACKGROUND:

  • Metropolis cost 5 million reichmarks to produce (about $24 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). This would make it one of the most expensive movies of its era, and although its cost has often been exaggerated, it did almost send its studio into bankruptcy. The movie utilized thousands of extras: reports range between 25,000-37,000 people.
  • Adolph Hitler was a fan of Metropolis, despite having banned another of Fritz Lang’s films, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for its anti-Nazi sentiments. Joseph Goebbels told Lang that he would be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage (the director’s mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism). Goebbels offered him a position as head of UFA, Germany’s national studio, which Lang declined.
  • Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay for Metropolis and followed up with a novelization of the story. She willingly joined the Nazi party in 1932. Lang and von Harbou divorced in 1933. Lang fled to France in 1934, and then went on to Hollywood in 1936.
  • In the early years of movies, the concept of film preservation had not yet been formed, and many movies were lost when the prints decayed or were deliberately destroyed. At 153 minutes, Lang’s original Metropolis cut was too long for many exhibitors of the time, and 30 minutes were deleted after the premier for international audiences. Portions of the original uncut prints of Metropolis did not survive, and it was long thought that a complete version of the film would never surface. In 2008, however, a nearly complete print containing an additional 25 minutes of footage was discovered in Buenos Aires. Although of poor quality, the segments were incorporated into existing prints of Metropolis and the film was re-released to theaters (and later on home video) as “the Complete Metropolis.” A few minutes of footage are still believed to be forever lost, however.
  • Ranked #35 on Sight & Sound’s poll of the greatest movies of all time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The robot encircled by electrified rings as it takes on the form of Maria is not only Metropolis‘ most memorable vision, it’s one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An allegory of steely skyscrapers and miserable sewers, Metropolis is a movie that reveals, and revels in, the unique power of silent film to create an experience that feels more like living through a myth than listening to a story. Divorced from dialogue, drained of color, it is the pure images that stick in our memory, like fragments of a dream. Metropolis is not the weirdest film on our List, but its influence is seen throughout fantastic cinema (the cityscapes of Brazil would not have the same shape without it, to name just one example). Metropolis is simply too big to ignore.


Trailer for the 2010 restoration of Metropolis

COMMENTS: There is hardly an ounce of reality in Metropolis, which Continue reading 200. METROPOLIS (1927)

180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade

FEATURING: Jesse Eisenberg, , , Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige

PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.

Still from The Double (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
  • intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
  • Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
  • The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.


Original trailer for The Double

COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make Continue reading 180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

CAPSULE: RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH (2010)

DIRECTED BY: John Alan Simon

FEATURING: Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Wigham, Katheryn Winnick, Alanis Morisette, Hanna Hall

PLOT: In an alternate-reality America, a music producer receives psychic dream transmissions from a mysterious entity known as VALIS (“Vast Active Living Intelligence System”), who provides advice for overthrowing the President of the United States, a crypto-Communist dictator.

Still from Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The paranoid plot is pretty damn peculiar, but the presentation isn’t unhinged enough for weird immortality.

COMMENTS: A tale of pink, pro-rock n’ roll aliens beaming hallucinatory political advice to subversives from a satellite orbiting earth, Radio Free Albemuth is totally baffling if you don’t know the backstory behind it. It may be even stranger if you do. If you want to be confused and astounded by a weird little story (and don’t demand the highest production values), you might skip this review and just take a chance on Albemuth. But if you want context, here it is. Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a counterculture science fiction author, the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines and LSD in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” He described these experiences in a semi-autobiographical novel set in an alternate history timeline titled—you guessed it—“Radio Free Albemuth.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to suspect that the alien epiphanies he experienced may have been hallucinations. The novel, on the other hand, present VALIS’ revelations as gospel. To confuse matters, “Alebmuth” included a science-fiction writer character named Philip K. Dick, but the ecstatic pseudo-religious experiences were attributed to a different protagonist, a music producer who schemes to promulgate VALIS’ revolutionary message through subliminal messages hidden in rock records. Dick’s publishers rejected the novel, and he reworked it into a more palatable story titled “VALIS” (which became the first book in a trilogy). Dick’s original novel, of which this movie is a faithful adaptation, was posthumously published in 1985.

The insane origins of this story may help the uninitiated reader understand why the movie Radio Free Albemuth feels a bit—off. It is, almost literally, the work of a mad genius. This adaptation, made for about three-and-a-half million dollars, has production values comparable to a TV miniseries. The acting is uniformly competent—Shea Wigham’s stoic Dick probably comes off the best, and (ironically) singer-songwriter Morisette isn’t as bad as you might fear. The CGI hallucinations—wormholes, alien cathedrals, angels made of pink electricity—definitely betray their budget, but are acceptable. There is little stylistic zing to the production; the novice director lets Dick’s ideas speak for themselves, in all their delusional grandeur, and what keeps the movie watchable is waiting for the appearance of the crazy, delivered in the voice of one apparently sane. Albemuth is, at the same time, one of those goofy hypotheses that posit a sci-fi explanation for ancient religious ecstatic experiences (a step more sophisticated than UFO cults) as well as an anti-authority allegory (rock n’ roll as carrier of the torch which will incinerate American conformity). It is a weird, though not wholly satisfying, artifact from a unique mind.

None of this will mean much to the hardcore Dick aficionados (I fully realize that some of our less mature readers will titter at the preceding phrase) who are the movie’s target audience. They likely have their minds already made up, and either unconditionally support a faithful adaptation, or believe it’s sacrilege to even try to realize the author’s vision on this meager budget. Casual Dick fans (more titters) may find this either a fascinating introduction to the reality-bending postmodern wormhole of the author’s late works, or an oddity to gape at askance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…resembles a weird artifact from the early days of science-fiction television… this lifeless adaptation only proves that making entertaining movies out of hard-to-swallow ideas is as challenging as you might think.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

READER RECOMMENDATION: HELLEVATOR (2004)

Reader recommendation by James Harben

Gusha no bindume; AKA Hellevator: The Bottled Fools

DIRECTED BY: Hiroki Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawada, Ryôsuke Koshiba

PLOT: A dystopian future civilization lives in a vast underground complex where each floor represents a different part of society, from housing and schooling up to more sinister departments, culminating in the mysterious and never visited “top floor” that is implied to be both above-ground and possibly mythical. A schoolgirl (it’s Japanese after all) with psychic powers (it’s Japanese after all) tries to flee aboard an elevator, but in a world that seems to consist entirely of either up or down, where can she escape to?

Still from Hellevator (2004)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Hellevator is a quite effective ‘trapped-in-a-room’ style movie, one that plays with the conventions of the genre. Working on the theory that what you are shown has far greater effect than what you are told, Hiroki Yamaguchi provides the viewer little direct knowledge or understanding of what this world might be. Clearly subterranean, it’s grimy and oppressively lit. The camera rarely leaves the elevator. The movie is populated by a cast of relatable stereotypes from current and past cultures: the police look like the SS, the attendant is a dedicated servant in a fetishized uniform, not to mention the standard quota of moody and sullen antiheroes wearing sunglasses indoors and the heroic schoolgirl protagonist. Imagine a Japanese  working on a budget.

COMMENTS: Hellevator never gives you the full details of what’s going on in the story, but there is enough suitably engaging exposition that the viewer is never left so confused that they become disconnected from the narrative. What is essentially a straight journey, up, is complicated by the arrival of prisoners from the penal colony floor, who have plans of their own re: their continued incarceration. Each of the characters have their own unfolding back story and a part to play in the greater continuity. A little online research finds comparisons to Cube and Brazil, and whereas the latter certainly applies—‘s dystopia is clearly an influence in both Hellevator‘s visuals and in its depiction of a society collapsing into the last stages of decline—the Cube comparison is misleading. This film doesn’t focus on the fact that people are trapped in an elevator, but instead uses it for a framing device: in flashback, we do see other parts of the complex.

Characterization is the key here, and against the main backdrop of the elevator and its confines we see a wide range of people and observe how they try to make their lives work in such an oppressive environment. The near silent elevator steward delivers an amazing performance as someone totally dedicated to his job, and to his place within the societal order. The convicts are both spectacular despite being quite different personas with differing motivations.

Ultimately, Hellevator leaves the viewer with as many questions as it does answers, but with no lack of satisfaction regarding the narrative. The performances are largely excellent; though quite over the top, they fit well with the dense, claustrophobic aesthetic of the film. There is enough linearity to the events that, as much as the viewer might want to know more about what they have seen, the time spent viewing is a satisfying ride that captures the imagination and attention without ever feeling staid or predictable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a stylish and inventive mix of delirium that surpasses most multi-million dollar efforts.. Picture Hitchcock’s Lifeboat through the eyes of Terry Gilliam with the visceral mean streak of Takashi Miike.”–Dread Central (DVD)