Tag Archives: Dreams

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: SLEEP (2020)

Schlaf

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Venus

FEATURING: Gro Swantje Kohlhof, August Schmölzer, Sandra Hüller, Marion Kracht

PLOT: Mona visits the hotel where her mother, a long-time sufferer of crippling nightmares, experienced a stupor-inducing breakdown, discovering that the known elements of its dark history pale in comparison to the full roster of its buried atrocities.

COMMENTS: If this is Germany’s answer to the often nonsensical “dream horror/thriller,” then sign me up for some naturalization papers. Before you ask, no, this is not a ground-breaking movie and no, this is not a movie that entirely makes sense. The latter of those aspects is partially what makes it merit 366’s attention, but what makes this such a delicious cake of silly, serious, piggy, Nazi, death-metal, hotelier smiley-horror are… well, those elements that I just listed to describe it. Like the nightmare boar that lurks around its periphery, the unexpected comes in from seemingly out of nowhere often enough to make Sleep highly enjoyable.

The nightmare plot is anchored by two heroines: Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and her mother Marlene (Sandra Hüller). Marlene suffers from horrible nightmares and violent night terrors. She pulls a fast one on her daughter claiming she’ll be “overnighting in Istanbul” (Marlene is a stewardess), but actually heads to the Stainbach hotel she has begun to clearly see in her dreams. Three men have killed themselves in this dream hotel, and a fourth much more dangerous man threatens her subconscious. Shortly after checking into the generically named “Sonnenhügel” (“sun hill”) hotel (into the symbolism-heavy room number “187”), she suffers a massive attack and ends up in a stupor at a nearby hospital. Daughter Mona’s subsequent visit to Sonnenhügel is where the real story begins…

There are a lot of obvious dreams and false-awakenings, but these are well-executed and forgivable considering the genre. Michael Venus even gives the viewers a primer on the repercussions of dying in dreams—Mona and Franzi (the only maid to be found in this massive hotel complex) have a conversation over coffee bluntly describing said survival chances. But the real menace comes from Franzi’s bosses, the hotel owners. Otto is affable and obliging in such a way that you know something creepy is up, but still want to believe him; his wife Lore has the reserved look of a woman who knows more than she wants to. (This idea is reinforced when we first see them arise from bed together; she lovingly undoes her husband’s wrist and ankle restraints for the day while he talks sweetly about a dream he had that night.)

What slips Sleep into the silly/creepy territory are Otto’s ambitions beyond hotel development. I’ve already hinted at these, so I’ll go no further than to say that there are ultimately some heavy references to Pigsty and a massacre that could have been lifted straight from the Inglorious Basterds playbook. Whoever else Michael Venus is, he’s someone who feels that too much of a good thing is a better thing: dreams, drugged schnapps, creepy pig-masked men in tuxedos, incubi, and revenge, revenge, revenge. That, it appears, is a dish best served with strobe lights flashing, meat tenderizer in hand, and a surprise knife to the neck.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Occasional non-sequiturs and bursts of surreal speech invite us to wonder if we’re dreaming… There’s a lot to digest here and at times it feels as if Venus has added more ingredients than he really needs… Nevertheless, it’s a stylish attempt to address issues that remain taboo for many Germans. It invites us all to look directly at what lies in the unconscious, to address it there before it takes physical form.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye For Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DREAM DEMON (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Harley Cokeliss (as Harley Cokliss)

FEATURING: Jemma Redgrave, Kathleen Wilhoite, Mark Greenstreet, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail

PLOT: Diana is about to get married to a Falklands War hero, but starts suffering nightmares as the date of her nuptials approaches.

Still from Dream Demon (1988)

COMMENTS: Leading lady Jemma Redgrave is the niece of cinema’s heavy-hitting grand dame, Vanessa Redgrave. Nicolas Cage is the nephew of cinema’s heavy-hitting director Francis Ford Coppola. I bring up this semi-coincidence to allow me to raise the following point: a movie as overblown as Dream Demon would have done much better with an actor as overblown as Nicolas Cage. As it stands, Jemma Redgrave provides a capable performance as bride-to-be Diana, but her energy level is far too wan—perhaps I might say too “English”—for the blood-splattered, creepy-staircase-laden, hard-to-follow nightmare on screen. Redgrave hovers at a “proper” Four, when Dream Demon demands nothing short of a Cage-ian Eleven.

Had Harley Cokeliss (who co-wrote as well as directed) pursued the story he should have, that kind of quiet nuance might have been appropriate. He falls into the trap that ensnares horror writers and directors all too often, however: wanting to graft ill-thought-out scares onto dramas that could have been more interesting in their own right. Dream Demon, in its real world portions, touches on a lot of issues worth exploring: the bilious nature of the British press corps in the 1980s, the strange flag-waving jingoism of the Falklands War, the culture clash of Los Angeles and London society, the manifestations of childhood guilt, and the fears of human sexuality as expressed by the subconscious.

Instead, there are dreams within dreams (within dreams, and so on). These dreams, as the title suggests, are invariably nightmares—and Dream Demon opens with a real doozie. During a full-on, hyper-Anglican wedding—replete with far-flung family and officer chummies of the groom—Diana gets cold feet at the last possible moment and refuses to say “I do” at the vicar’s prompt. Furious with embarrassment, the groom (Mark Greenstreet, doing the best impression of David Bowie‘s ’80s hair-cut I’ve ever seen) slaps her; she slaps him back, and his head explodes. The blood-spattered bride walks back down the aisle and outside into the crowd of paparazzi. Alas, anyone who’s anyone knows that this opening is not to be–and we see the bride-to-be awakening in the arms of her fiancé who showers her with the standard “Everything’s all right!” platitudes.

So Dream Demon skirts around full-bore madness while also ignoring the many issues it raises with its colorful cast of characters. (I wish to take a moment for a special shout-out to Timothy Spall; not for his performance within Diana’s dreams, but as the tremendous skeezeball photojournalist who at one point inquires, “[Your fiancé] murdered a lot of Argentinians. Does that turn you on?”) But overall, Dream Demon is an untidy mess of missed opportunities. If the craziness had been laid on as thick as the spoooooky sound cues, it might have been something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sort of a serious attempt to deliver a new twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula with a dose of Hellraiser-style surrealism in its second half, this is a film that requires a bit of work to fully embrace but delivers plenty of atmosphere and some quirky little chills that nicely evoke the subtle but unsettling nature of very bad dreams.” -Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo-Digital [Blu-ray]

CAPSULE: IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Nathan Catucci

FEATURING: Santino Fontana, Devika Bhise, Chris Henry Coffey

PLOT: With the prospect of a juicy grant on the line, a professor needs to keep his project together; the murder of one of his participants complicates this prospect.

COMMENTS: A social worker, a painter, and a dominatrix walk into a sleep study… But that suggests that Impossible Monsters is more interesting than it actually is. It isn’t for want of trying (more on that in the bloated plot paragraph to come). Fulfilling its obligation as a “psychological thriller,” there is a twist; in keeping with the “sleep study” premise, there are a lot of dream sequences (over a dozen by my count); and in homage to the title-inspiring quote, “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters,” there is plenty of mention of Francisco de Goya. But all the pieces, and there are many, add up to a dense sludge of events that awkwardly drips over the edges of its narrative container, making a mess on the floor.

Rich Freeman (Santino Fontana) is a university professor in New York City, focusing on sleep/dreams/etc., with a deeper focus on “sleep paralysis.” To further aid mankind (and, to a lesser extent, his career), he proposes a study involving three volunteers who will discuss their dreams, keep a dream journal, and in the process have various socio-emotio-sexual interactions with each other. Meanwhile, Freeman’s friend/adversary Doctor Engle is busy cheating on his wife with one of Freeman’s students, Jo (Devika Bhise), a self-described “sexual pain exploration specialist” (or, “SPES” in the industry jargon). Jo has a crush on Freeman, and is unhappy that Freeman is in a relationship with another of the study’s participants, a young social worker who dreams of starting a non-profit in Albany, N.Y. Freeman’s mentor, who works with veterans suffering from PTSD, wants Freeman to join him and “make a difference” in Albany. The dean of the unspecified university, however, wants the prestige that would accompany the Really Big Grant from some pharmaceutical concern, which somehow hinges solely on Freeman’s work with three subjects. The third person is Otis, a soft-spoken painter who was raised in foster care and may or may not have been raped in his early teens and may or may not have, later, burnt down the home of his foster family, killing them in the process.

I don’t enjoy burning up 230+ words on plot exposition, but a sense of the goings-on is necessary to emphasize the importance of telling a story. Not six or seven stories, and certainly not so many stories crammed into an 84-minute movie. Everything interrelates, of course (and, speaking of relations, the lapse of professional ethics on display in Impossible Monsters is astounding). But if you’ve only got so much time and so much budget, cuts needs must. It wasn’t without its charm–and as someone who lives quite near Albany, I do love it when “Upstate New York” gets mentioned as a glorious place to escape to. But Impossible Monsters is a case of too much narrative flab supported by too little narrative bone and sinew. As such, it never really gets moving.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…at times gets too baroque for its own good, straining for a Ken Russell-like hallucinatory style that it doesn’t fully succeed in pulling off. But it’s an admirably ambitious and accomplished debut for its tyro filmmaker who should easily move on to bigger things.”–Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

“It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”–J. R. Ross, “Constraints on Variables in Syntax”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Toshio Furukawa, Fumi Hirano, Machiko Washio, Akira Kamiya, Takuya Fujioka; Wayne Grayson (as Vinnie Penna), Roxanne Beck, Marnie Head, Draidyl Roberts (English dub)

PLOT: Students in the town of Tomobiki prepare for a fair the following day. One of the teachers, suffering from exhaustion, develops a strange feeling of déjà vu, finds his apartment covered in dust and mushrooms, and hypothesizes that the entire town is living the same day over and over. As the school nurse launches an investigation, people gradually begin disappearing from the town until only she and a small group of high schoolers are left.

Still from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • “Urusei Yatsura” began as a manga (by Rumiko Takahashi) in 1978 and was adapted as a long-running animated television show in Japan starting in 1981 and ending in 1986. It was also known as “Lum, the Invader Girl,”  titled after its main character, when it played on the BBC. The series incorporated a wide variety of influences and was especially known for mixing science fiction with Japanese folklore. It had an “anything can happen” quality to it; eating mysterious candy might make hearts appear over your head, or one of the characters might find a camera that sent those it photographed to alternate dimensions. Even so, Beautiful Dreamer was a radical departure from the series’ comic formula.
  • Mamoru Oshii worked on 106 episodes of the “Urusei Yatsura” television series and was credited as lead director on two. He is also the credited director on the first Urusei Yatsura movie, For You, but was only brought in after a previous director quit, and considered his work on that film a “rush job.”
  • This excursion departs from the series’ usual focus on Lum and aliens, but is partly inspired by a previous episode of the series, “Wake up to a Nightmare.”
  • Beautiful Dreamer contains many references to the Japanese folk tale Urashima Tarō, about a fisherman who marries a spirit princess and spends what seems like a few years in her kingdom, but returns to his village to find that centuries have passed. This is an old and recurring theme in folk tales, which Washington Irving took as the basis for America’s “Rip Van Winkle.” In Urashima Tarō’s story the fisherman is originally rewarded for rescuing a turtle, which is why there are so many references to turtles in the movie.
  • Beautiful Dreamer also references the baku, a mythological monster who eats dreams and nightmares. It has no Western equivalent.
  • Beautiful Dreamer was Eric Young‘s staff pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The main characters briefly escape Tomobiki on a Harrier jet, only to look back and see that their city rides on a turtle’s back, à la Hindu cosmology.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Nazi tea shop; copyrighted piglet; town on a turtle

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Beautiful Dreamer co-stars an amorous flying turquoise-haired alien in a tiger-striped bikini. Not only is that not the weirdest thing in the movie, it’s the touchstone of normality in a film that drops the romantic slapstick conventions of the TV series it was adapted from in favor of a mind-bending trip, bearing its characters into dreamlike worlds on the back of a cosmic turtle.


Original trailer for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

COMMENTS: What would happen if you took a beloved Japanese Continue reading 354. URUSEI YATSURA 2: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on cassette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, its enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)

Abre los Ojos

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Amenábar

FEATURING: Eduardo Noriega, , Chete Lera, , Fele Martínez, Gérard Barray

PLOT: A playboy’s life is destroyed when his good looks are destroyed in an accident—although his court-appointed psychiatrist, defending him on a murder charge, insists that his face was perfectly reconstructed and it’s all in his imagination.

Still from Open Your Eyes (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Why won’t the dreamlike psychological thriller Open Your Eyes make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made? Simply because of the film’s ending, where the characters sit down and, with almost airtight logic, explain away every mysterious event that has been going on through a combination of exposition and flashbacks—at one point even using a visual aid.

COMMENTS: It almost goes without saying that Open Your Eyes, the original Spanish psychothriller, is superior to Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake with . Not that I count myself among the detractors of the Hollywood version—other than the unfortunate turn by the usually reliable Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original but with a then-inadequate grasp of the English language, and a few too many pop singles, it’s quite competent. But you owe it to yourself to see the darker, stripped-down original first.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a handsome, womanizing one-percenter who has everything any guy could ever want: money, leisure time, good looks, and a new plaything in his bed every night. He sees it all taken from him after his face is mutilated in an automobile accident, brought about (indirectly) through his own past philandering—ironically, on the morning after he meets a woman who could be the One who makes him settle down for good. At least, that’s the tale as related to Cesar’s court-appointed psychiatrist from the prison cell where he languishes, awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend. But his story doesn’t add up. For one thing, Cesar, hiding behind a mask, insists that his face is still disfigured, while his psychiatrist tells him it’s been reconstructed. He is also losing his mind, convinced that the woman he is accused of killing was an impostor. Not only that, but he is having vivid dreams that he (and therefore, the audience) can’t immediately distinguish from reality, including one in which he wakes up in a Madrid that has been completely depopulated (a scene memorably re-staged with in an eerily empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky). And to top it all off he has another, fragmentary, set of dreams, which are almost completely obscured; these are visualized onscreen through a hazy filter that makes the action look almost rotoscoped. The psychiatrist’s investigation will eventually unveil the real explanation behind Cesar’s condition.

In the “puzzle movie” genre, Open Your Eyes is a classic, one of the most successful at building up an ontological enigma, then explaining it away with an ingenious (if highly speculative) plot device. The closedness of the narrative solution, however, works against the movie’s weirdness—the movie’s cryptic tension is too fully released, leaving us nothing more to ponder. Still, Open Your Eyes this is highly recommended for those who prefer their mysteries to be completely resolved at the end. And if the hallucination scenes had been just a little more harrowing and fantastical (a la Jacob’s Ladder or Dark City), Open Your Eyes might have squeaked onto the List—or into a rating, at the very least.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…unlikely to satisfy those who insist on linear storytelling and pat endings. But in its deliberately vexing way, ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a film with enough intellectual meat on its stylish bones to give more adventurous moviegoers something to chew on afterward.”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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