Tag Archives: Alternate history

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POOR THINGS (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Ramy Youssef

PLOT: Bella, a mad scientist’s creation with the mind of a child (literally), runs off with a rakish attorney to explore the world.

Still from Poor Things (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA:  A bizarre reanimation of Frankenstein played as a sexually-charged, surreal social satire, Poor Things is packed with mad science and madder art. There’s even a crazy dance scene that trumps the one from Dogtooth.

COMMENTS: In Poor Things, Emma Stone embodies Bella, an experiment of the Frankensteinish Dr. Godwin (whom she calls “God”). She begins the tale with the mind of a child, for extraordinary reasons that may already have been spoiled for you by the online conversation (I won’t spoil things further, in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid them). Since this is a darkly whimsical fantasy/science fiction hybrid, her mind races towards adulthood at an allegorical pace: she goes from throwing tantrums and delighting in the sponginess of a squished frog to sipping gin and studying for anatomy exams in mere months. She begins the film clunking humorously around Godwin’s estate, cared for by the beyond-eccentric doctor and his meek assistant Max, who becomes smitten with the “very pretty retard”; but as she gains self-awareness (including, crucially, awareness of her clitoris), she demands to see the outside world. In the company of hedonistic playboy (a brilliantly foppish and comic Ruffalo), she adventures through a steampunk 19th-century Lisbon, takes a trip on a cruise ship, and interns at Parisian brothel before returning to London a wiser woman, ready to face what she is and to wrap up the first act’s carefully planted plot points.

It’s easy to see why the three supporting males are all mesmerized by Bella in their own ways: she is an utterly unique creation, unburdened by society’s expectations of proper behavior— especially in regards to sex, which she refers to as “furious jumping.” She journeys from childlike innocence to an outsider’s adulthood in the course of two-an-a-half hours. Joining her on her quest of self-discovery are the aforementioned Ruffalo (who will likely earn a best supporting actor nod), Max (Youssef, likable if largely inefficacious, he’s the character using a conventional moral lens to examine the questionable ethics of the entire scenario), and the astoundingly conceived Godwin (Dafoe). The good (?) doctor sports a face crisscrossed with a lattice of scars that makes him look like a mad surgeon gave up trying to make his head into a jigsaw puzzle halfway through, has a gastric disorder that makes him belch large bubbles after eating, and reveals a fancifully cruel backstory that explains his bizarrely empirical outlook on life. Stone, Ruffalo and Dafoe are all great; Youssef is more than adequate; and while a few of the supporting performers have difficulty striking the odd comic tone Lanthimos is going for, the acting in general is astonishingly good. Based on Alasdair Grey’s novel, the script mixes overly-elaborate locutions (“Hence, I seek employment at your musty-smelling establishment of good-time fornication”) with punchy one-liners (like, “I must go punch that baby,”) mostly delivered by Stone—although the increasingly frustrated Ruffalo gets off some fine obscenity-laced tirades.

The production design keeps pace with the acting quality, capturing the insanity of the scenario. Godwin’s mansion is a Victorian cabinet of curiosities (including such curiosities as a chicken-dog); Lisbon has a touch of steampunk with cable cars in the sky; the snowy streets of Paris house brothels with facades like cathedrals. Sets are elaborate, with yellow and blue trompe l’oeil clouds blanketing the sky. The short intertitles separating the chapters are minature works of art. Lanthimos continues to indulge the cinematographic experiments he began in 2018’s The Favourite. Some are purposeful: the film is in black and white while Bella is protected in Godwin’s care, and turns to vivid color once she seizes her independence. Others seem arbitrary: we sometimes view the action through a peephole matte (which sometimes signals imprisonment, but not always), or through an ultra-wide fisheye lens (used for panoramas—I think this look has become part of Lanthimos’ standard toolkit at this point). The visual switches suggest Bella’s disorientation in a world that’s entirely new to her, but I confess I found them sometimes distracting. Jerskin Fendrix’s nearly-atonal score, which sounding like classical snippets designed by avant-garde A.I., played by automatons on faulty pump organs or badly-tuned guitars, accomplishes the same distancing feat more efficiently.

Poor Things is a meticulously-created world, a twisted Victorian fairy tale set inside a fanciful snow globe. Gleefully disdaining polite manners and amoral on its surface, it gradually develops empathy and posits one value as supreme above all: freedom of choice. Like the Portuguese custard tarts Bella learns to scarf in one bite, Poor Things is incredibly rich.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ve heard a few people say that, based on the trailer, Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, Poor Things, looks too weird for their tastes. To be honest, the trailer made me think this ‘gender-bending Frankenstein’, as it’s being sold, looked too weird for my tastes… It is weird, no doubt. But it is the sort of weird we can do. And not so weird that I had to Google it afterwards.”–Deborah Ross, The Spectator (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Campbell

FEATURING: Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, David Warner, Clancy Brown, Alexandra Powers

PLOT: Private eye H. Phillip Lovecraft, who shuns magic in favor of old-school detective skills, searches Los Angeles for a missing grimoire.

Still from Cast A Deadly Spell (1991)

COMMENTS: Films set in other times and places sometimes turn to text prologues to help set the scene. The more that needs to be explained, the more convoluted and tedious the word scroll can become. So you have to admire the economical way Cast a Deadly Spell lays out the rules of the world we’re about to enter: “Los Angeles, 1948. Everyone does magic.” Boom, we’re done. Premise established, The Big Sleep meets Evil Dead, let’s do this thing.

At a surface level, the blend is just cheeky enough to work. Despite the specific references to H. P. Lovecraft (the detective and the author share a name, and little else) and his works (specifically, the Necronomicon, which serves as this film’s MacGuffin), Cast a Deadly Spell is content to pilfer its magic from any source handy. Lovecraft’s landlord and occasional girl Friday is a Caribbean voodoo priestess. Zombies are shipped in from West Africa to perform heavy manual labor until their bodies give out. (The racial element to this practice is left unexplored.) Unicorns are hunted for sport, gremlins could lurk beneath any car hood, and everyone uses supernatural powers to perform basic tasks: lighting cigarettes, carrying trays, filing papers and the like. It’s simple stuff, but it does create a strong feel of a world where magic is commonplace and even mundane.

Where the film truly succeeds is in capturing the 1940s crime thriller milieu. Screenwriter Joseph Dougherty has a good sense of the tropes and characters needed to populate the story, from the tough-but-fair police lieutenant to the poor little rich girl to the mysterious damsel with a secret (who, in this telling, is transgender, a fact the film treats with surprising respect, even if the characters do not). Dougherty also has a terrific ear for genre’s pulpy dialogue, from the hard-boiled explication of the hero’s moral code to any number of tossed-off bon mots, such as Lovecraft’s order at a swanky nightclub: “Bourbon. Show it some water, but be discreet.” Ward is perfectly cast, delivering this and other lines with exactly the right mix of cynical wit and world-weary sadness that marks him as the last honest man in L.A. The cast surrounding him is pretty solid, too: Moore is a sultry femme fatale not to be trusted, Brown is slick to the point of slimy, and there’s nowhere near enough David Warner with his malevolent dignity. All the elements are in place.

The two genres sit comfortably side-by-side for a while, with Lovecraft defiantly bypassing the easy path of magic, recognizing its corrupting influence. But the film can’t resist itself, and in the final showdown, it’s the monster movie that wins out, culminating in a special effects extravaganza (as much as its premium-cable budget can afford) that has little to do with its time or place. The ending is big, loud, and unworthy of its well-crafted setup, leaving behind unfinished plotlines and unrealized potential. It’s telling that we see monsters, zombies, and gargoyles simply fade away at the finale, as though the film couldn’t think of what else to do with them.

The cleverness of the basic idea doesn’t translate to any further breakthroughs; if you’ve seen a Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe tale, or even if you’ve seen newer takes like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, then you’ve not only seen the style but a lot of the plot elements. And that’s okay; it’s a genre worth revisiting every now and then. The biggest problem for Cast a Deadly Spell is that the highwire mashup trick it’s attempting has been done much better. For example, Who Framed Roger Rabbit brilliantly joins the seemingly incompatible elements of noir and screwball animation in a way where each actually relies upon the other. By contrast, Spell is more of a patchwork than a true melange, taking bits from both styles but never really getting them to gel.

Dougherty penned a sequel, Witch Hunt, set at the height of the Red Scare. Starring Dennis Hopper as Lovecraft and directed by Paul Schrader (!), the latter film is by all accounts a dud. So stick with Cast a Deadly Spell, an enjoyable watch that hits its noir marks with just enough horror seasoning to catch your eye. You can wish it did more with its juicy premise, but let’s be grateful for the small gift we have. All the rest… that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Cast a Deadly Spell is a pleasingly bizarre mix of 50’s noir with elements of arcane horror with surprisingly high production values… a weird curio that definitely would never get made today…” – Garry Gallon, All The Ones That Got Away

(This movie was nominated for review by Adam, who said it was “So goddamn weird that I was angry at myself for never having seen it and angrier at the cult following it never got.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

Avril et le monde truqué

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares,

FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Marion Cotillard,  Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, Paul Giamatti (English dub)

PLOT: In 1941, during the reign of French emperor Napoleon V, the world’s scientists have vanished, technology has not progressed for the past six decades, and the environment has been devastated by war, coal consumption, and rampant deforestation. The French Empire hunts the remaining scientists, hoping to enlist them to work on the government’s behalf. After April’s parents are kidnapped by a mysterious electric cloud, the precocious girl teams up with her grandfather, a petty thief with divided loyalties, and her talking cat Darwin to track them down, and possibly find a solution to all that ails the planet.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Nominated for the César for Best Animated Feature; it lost to The Little Prince.
  • The most literal translation of “truqué” in the film’s French title is “rigged” or “fake.” The film’s English subtitles translate the title as April and the Twisted World.
  • An alternate history, the film’s point of divergence is the death of Napoleon III, who in our timeline lived to instigate the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. His prosecution of the war was such a failure that he was captured by the enemy, and his subsequent  rule inspired fierce opposition, ending his hopes of founding a dynasty.
  • Among the scientists whose disappearance has arrested the technological progress of this alternate world are Édouard Branly, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel, Louis Pasteur, Enrico Fermi, and Sergei Korolev. Also, that may be penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming giving a large sentient Komodo dragon a massage.
  • The film’s drawing style is modeled after cartoonist Jacques Tardi, who is credited as the creator of the “graphic universe” and gets a shout-out in the credits under an image of a pterodactyl.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing can quite compare with the first sight of a pair of Eiffel Towers looming over the Paris skyline, eventually revealing themselves as the central station for a fire-powered continental tramway that looms over the coal-stained cityscape. The image is so iconic that it figures prominently in the story, captured in April’s beloved snowglobe and playing a role in the film’s climax.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Ambulatory meta-mansion, spore rocket

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film’s individual elements—setting, story, design—are each slightly off-kilter on their own. But combined, they add up to a unified vision of strangeness. With each plot development, the film manages to elevate the already bizarre circumstances to even greater heights.

English-language trailer for April and the Extraordinary World

COMMENTS: Say the word “steampunk” and your first thoughts Continue reading 21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

CAPSULE: JUBILEE (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Jenny Runacre, Jordan, , Nell Campbell (as Little Nell), Jack Birkett, Richard O’Brien

PLOT: Queen Elizabeth I requests her court sorcerer to summon the spirit Ariel to show her Britain’s future, and witnesses a bleak vision of apocalyptic decay.

Still from Jubilee (1978)

COMMENTS: An occasionally brilliant and often muddled mess of an artwork, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee lurks in a strange netherworld of identification. This is, admittedly, a typical “problem” for the movies that end up on the shores of this weird internet isle of ours, and it is a credit, in a way, to Jarman’s particular particularity that his movies tend to be both too weird to be arty while also being too arty to be weird. It’s a strange categorization, to be sure, and the call I made in not considering Jubilee Apocrypha-worthy was a tough one.

Jubilee is an Elizabethan period piece that flashes forward to then-contemporary 1970s London, which was in economic doldrums and still riddled with bombed-out, clapped-out, and otherwise derelict streets and homes. The narrative seems full of plot holes, but that fits nicely with the punk aesthetic that Jarman was, depending upon your perspective, either cynically celebrating or subtly satirizing. Clothes full of holes, ‘zine literature smashed together from ripped-up sources, and even punk’s musical style: all of it was intended to reflect decay, despair, and anger. These elements dovetail in Jubilee as we watch a loose gang of nihilistic young women spend their time breaking things and people, all while incongruously sucking up to the mysterious, flamboyant, and giggle-prone one-man superpower, “Borgia Ginz,” a music and media mogul.

The tone of Jubilee veers in as many directions as the scattershot narrative. There’s a heartwarming (if controversial) romance between two men (who are possibly brothers; the explanation is neither clear nor reliable), who eventually allow a young female artist into their relationship. But there’s also malignance. “Bod” and “Mad” (two of the girl gang members, possibly lovers) wantonly harass and then beat up a diner waitress early in the film, and then continue this cruel streak throughout. “Amyl Nitrate”, played by Punk-era icon Jordan, oscillates between petulant monologues (in the form of her world history she’s writing) and tender gestures with “Crabs” (Little Nell, whose status as the most convincing actor in the movie is saying something). And of course, what 1978 anarchic-socio-commentary-guerilla film would be complete without a young Adam Ant (then something of a nobody) as the latest protégé of Jack Birkett’s other-worldly, hyper-energized Borgia Ginz?

Derek Jarman was an artist of considerable talent: be it in the world of painting, production design, or direction. He was also someone to whom no friend or overseer (if there were any) could say “no.” While this allowed for a far more interesting oeuvre than might have existed otherwise, it was also to that oeuvre’s occasional detriment. What could have a tighter, tidier Jubilee looked like? I know, I know: I just lamented a lack of tightness and tidiness in a punk movie about the punk ethos, so perhaps I’m missing the point. But bearing that in mind, even I couldn’t help but be impressed with this glorious mess of style, pathos, music, and philosophy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Jubilee might be most appreciated by those who are able to embrace its cult movie aspects. Its enigmas and failings may not always be as compelling or as endearing as those found in the best-known cult films but some of Jubilee‘s idiosyncratic content does work to position the film squarely within the wild terrain of the cult film corpus.”–Lee Broughton, Pop Matters (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

April and the Extraordinary World has been promoted to “Apocryphally Weird” status. Read the official entry here.

Avril et le monde truqué

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci

FEATURING: Voices of Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, , Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, (English dub)

PLOT: In an alternate history where technology never advanced past 1870, young April seeks to find her scientist parents, abducted by unknown forces with superior technology.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: More than one mainstream critic has referred to April and the Extraordinary World as “wonderfully weird.” Checking my movie reviewer decoder ring, I see that when used as a modifier to “weird,” “wonderfully” translates as “mildly and in the least threatening way imaginable.” April may not be super-strange by our standards, but it is at least playing in the right ballpark. This exciting, imaginative and visually superior cartoon it may be able to make the List on the sliding scale: the better the movie, the less pervasive the weirdness required. (Also, there was one walkout in the theatrical audience of three, and walkouts automatically earn List Candidate status).

COMMENTS: Let’s try an alternate plot synopsis for April and the Extraordinary World: in 1870, Napoleon III’s attempt to create an army of invulnerable monkeys (just roll with it) to fight the Franco-Prussian War goes awry, resulting in a world where technology stalls in the steam age and France goes to war with the United States over timber resources in Canada. The “extraordinary world,” not April, is the star of this French import; and what a world it is! The Eiffel Tower is now a stop on the Paris-Berlin steam line, cars run (badly) on wood-burning engines, and our heroine, April, has a talking cat (although that‘s unusual even by the standards of the time). Whenever a scientist—Fermi, Einstein, the Curies—nears a revolutionary discovery that would drag society out of the Steam Age, they mysteriously disappear, abducted by governments who want to use their talents to build super-weapons to fight the ever-raging wars over scarce resources (when our story begins, the world’s coal supply has been exhausted, and nations’ industries are now burning less-efficient timber). This world is not the quaint, cute utopia imagined in much of steampunk literature; although the tone is adventurous rather than bleak, the world is dystopian and polluted. In Europe, freestanding trees are found only in museums, and the streets are covered in ash. It’s not steampunk, it’s sootpunk.

April has garnered comparisons to everything from The City of Lost Children to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with a touch of Metropolis, but I think the most appropriate touchstone here is the works of . Not just Howl’s Moving Castle, even though this one does feature a house that moves on stilts. It’s actually the fully-realized, impeccably detailed fantasy world, the lovingly hand-crafted animation, and the plot centered on young protagonists making their way through an epic setting that spurs the comparison. Like a Miyazki film, April expertly interweaves world-building episodes and light character development with sequences focused on action and spectacle, while leaving aside animated Hollywood’s emphasis on pat morals, clever pop-culture references and jokes aimed over the heads of kids.

If the word “extraordinary” in conjunction with a fantasy-adventure set in a low-tech France starring a female heroine whose name begins with “A” sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. That’s not an accident, as both movies were based on graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, whose name appears in the opening credits under a drawing of a pterodactyl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a visual delight, an animated French steampunk adventure that is smart, exciting and wonderfully weird.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)