Tag Archives: Dystopian

30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ari Folman                  

FEATURING: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, voice of Jon Hamm

PLOT: Film actress Robin Wright agrees to sell the rights to her image to a studio which will use the captured data to showcase an eternally young avatar in their productions. After 20 years, the producers invite her to extend the contract, and she travels to the meeting of a futuristic congress where all the participants ingest a chemical that allows them to invent their own reality and become anyone. When the congress proposes sharing this drug with the masses, Wright rebels, but her resistance is put down, and another 20 years on, she surveys the world that has resulted.

Still from The Congress (2013)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The trip through the animated landscape of Abrahama City is rife with psychedelic visions and eye-catching creations. The scenes within the animated universe are densely populated with caricatures of the famous and celebrated, representing alternative identities whom a disaffected humanity have chosen to take on in place of their own. Naming them all would be impossible, but I’d like to offer a particular shout-out to the person who decided to become Magritte’s apple-faced businessman. But the image that stays with you is a lonely and scared Robin Wright standing alone in the middle of a large and inhuman motion-capture dome, presenting a prism of emotions as the computers capture her every nuance. It’s an ironic manifesto for the value of human acting, as Wright the actress manifests the uncontrolled feelings of Wright the character.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Entrance to Abrahama City, Robin grows wings

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Animation has always reveled in its power to bend reality, making it an ideal medium for fantastical visions and deep dives into the imagination. The high-wire act that The Congress has to walk is literalizing animation’s attempt to slip the surly bonds of the real world. It’s not enough for this fantasy landscape to be trippy; it has to be a logical extension of the very real world being abandoned. It’s only appropriate that a movie star, the very avatar of a flesh-and-blood figure creating something artificial for our amusement, would be our guide. The film deftly juxtaposes the two worlds, each commenting upon the other and dramatizing the wonders and perils of our ongoing quest for escapism.

Original trailer for The Congress

COMMENTS: The most recent episode of the excellent podcast Continue reading 30*. THE CONGRESS (2013)

CAPSULE: FRIEND OF THE WORLD (2020)

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Friend of the World is available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Brian Patrick Butler

FEATURING: Alexandra Slade, Nick Young

PLOT: The lone survivor of a mass-execution awakens in a bunker to find that an eccentric ex-military survivalist is her only company.

Still from friend of the world (2020)

COMMENTS: There is a small detail I’ve often noticed concerning low-budget films: they are either stuffed to the gills with smartphones, or such technology is mysteriously absent. Such dystopias fall broadly into two categories: “we’re all connected, and it’s horrible”; or, “once we may have all been connected, but a terrible event occurred, and it’s horrible.” Given a choice, I’d opt for the latter—which is to Friend of the World’s credit.

Taking place (almost) exclusively in an underground warren of rummaged-through rooms and cluttered corridors, Friend absolutely nails the claustrophobia of subterranean survivalism. Faces regularly dominate the frame, both skewing the sense of scale as well as bringing the characters’ personality extremes to the fore. “General” Gore (his claim to the title is questionable) dominates his frames, with one of those expressive—even “burly”—faces found on military blowhards through much of cinema’s history; Diane Keaton (no, not that one) is a millennial who survived a nasty massacre of many in her age group. Gore saves her, sort of, and then he saves her when they’re exposed to an unspecified-but-ubiquitous disease. Sort of. Then, hallucinations start. (You guessed it… Sort of.)

Friend‘s strengths, and weaknesses, are the double-edged swords of exiguous narrative, exaggerated performances, and elevated Art-Housery. Nick Young, who plays the gruff old-timer who never met a young person he could take seriously, had better be a stalwart of his local am-dram society. Half the time his bitter excesses are what’s needed, the other half, well, to quote a cohort he dislikes, are a bit “meh.” Innovative body horror spices up the proceedings with regularity (or at least as often as might be hoped for over a fifty-minute movie)—I’ve never seen one man excreted, fully formed, out of another’s back. The story contains an unclear sociopolitical agenda that is enthusiastically conveyed through audio cassette and Super-8 within the story. And then… well, it just kind of ends.

So I will, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures

(This movie was nominated for review by Dan B., who described it as “…a bizarre, dialogue driven story that follows two complete opposite characters working out their differences while finding their way through a body-horror post-apocalyptic bunker.. a surreal and absurd existential trip into madness with elements of social satire, scifi and horror.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: AVALON (2001)

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DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski

PLOT: Ash is a master solo-player in the illegal immersive game “Avalon” who risks brain-death in pursuit of the secret level known as “Special A.”

COMMENTS: Tanks rumble down the dilapidated streets of an Eastern European city center. Civilians scurry around frantically; partisans take aim at the lumbering metal beasts. One of these gun-toting figures stands out for her daring maneuvers. Artillery barrels blast, shots burst forth, and a number of figures are hit. They transform into two-dimensional renderings before shattering into thousands of polygonal shards. The lady fighter leaps a-top one of the tanks and… soon the mission is over. Ash awakens in a dingy room and removes her virtual reality head-set. She’s earned some cash from this lawbreaking, but more importantly she’s added to her legend. She is the reigning queen of Avalon.

What follows, to put it politely, is a bit of a dramatic letdown. When your dystopian future is washed in the same sepia and decay as the escapist game which acts as your dramatic vehicle, it helps to have some convincing characters to differentiate between the decrepit future and the decrepit whiz-bang tech. Mamorou Oshii is no stranger to science fiction, no stranger to compelling visuals, and no stranger to techno-cynicism. However, being shackled to in-the-flesh actors and materials-based set-pieces, he has lost his ability to adequately shape the world. It is no surprise that when he is playing with the (then) new CGI wizardry, he shines—a sequence involving a cannon-covered super fortress on wheels is stunning. It is perhaps a surprise, however, and certainly a letdown that the human actors driving the speculative narrative seem to have fewer dimensions than his literal two-dimensional animations.

Reality, morality, choice, perception, and the relationship between man, machine, and the virtual: these are all explored in Avalon, but are explored much better in other Mamorou Oshii films, not to mention the many other CGI/VR movies that arrived en mass in the early aughts. Avalon gets points for being a Polish addition to the genre (the director’s nationality not-with-standing), and for the polish of its look (it is yet another movie which adds up to far less than the sum of its single frames). But the stilted performances become impossible to overlook. There is a blast of beauty-cum-surrealism in the final scene, when Ash reaches the elusive hidden level within the game. For the first time, the film enjoys the full color spectrum, and a diegetic symphony underscores a dramatic encounter. Ultimately, though, Avalon suffers from its anchor to the real world, and acts merely as a reminder that some filmmakers best perform their amazing magic when not constrained by the laws of the mundane.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Neither an out-and-out actioner nor a fully realized study of the psychology of games-playing, pic is still reasonably diverting and has a curio value coming from Mamoru Ishii, director of cult Japanese anime ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995).”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE 10TH VICTIM (1965)

La decima vittima

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DIRECTED BY: Elio Petri

FEATURING: Marcello Mastroianni, Ursula Andress,

PLOT: To control violence and population, people are invited to participate in The Big Hunt, a sanctioned game of cat-and-mouse that ends in murder; complications ensue when two of the top assassins, Caroline and Marcello, fall in love, even as they are pitted against each other.

Still from The 10th Victim (1965)

COMMENTS: The term “bread and circuses” goes back to the end of the 1st century, a reference by the poet Juvenal (“panem et circenses”) to the willingness of the citizenry of the Roman Empire to be appeased by trifles and cheap entertainment. Because of the violent nature of the contests held at the Colosseum to pacify the populace, the term eventually became a catch-all for spectacles where human life takes a backseat to fun and amusement. In the modern world, the concept has become downright ubiquitous. Kicking off with Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” nearly one hundred years ago, writers and filmmakers have had a field day with the premise of a society that turns murder into a spectator sport. From the anti-intellectualism of Fahrenheit 451 to the crass commercialism of The Running Man, from the fear of age in Battle Royale to the fear of class in The Purge, mollifying the masses remains a pertinent subject over two millennia later. (And that’s not factoring in displays of masochism made for public consumption like “Fear Factor” or the National Football League.) Not for nothing is the bloodthirsty land of The Hunger Games called Panem.

All of which is to say that The 10th Victim wasn’t exactly breaking new ground when it adapted Robert Sheckley’s 1953 short story for the big screen. (A previous adaptation for radio was more faithful to the original.) But if you’re looking for the singular factor that sets this movie apart from the rest, it’s this: it’s swingin’, baby, yeah! This speculative future turns out to be only a couple years ahead of its time, from a visual standpoint. We’re treated to sleek, brutalist architecture, pop art on the walls, and costumes (courtesy of designer Giulio Coltellacci) that are giddily mod and gloriously over-the-top, with every female outfit sporting a backless cut. Before Carnaby Street or the Haight, the styles that would come to define the 60’s were clearly to be found along the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

All the proof you need that this film crucially contributed to the DNA of the Swinging Sixties can be found in the movie that proudly carries the banner for the era: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The eagle-eyed will notice Ming Tea, Andress’ overeager sponsor, supplies the name of the groovy super-spy’s psychedelic rock band, while even the naked-mole-rat-eyed will recognize the brassiere-machine gun Andress uses to dispatch a pursuer.

All this groovy atmosphere is the foundation for a healthy dose of satire, which is ladled on like hearty Bolognese. Announcements blare out the glory of the Big Hunt like drop-off instructions at the airport. A flack for the contest proclaims that Hitler would have signed up for the Hunt and thereby obviated World War II. The uniformly ignorant public goes about their business as gunplay breaks out all around them. Mastroianni’s mistress shrieks in horror when a team of repo men reclaim her collection of comic books: “No, not the classics!”

But the jaunty vibe, accompanied by Piero Piccioni’s frothy, vocal-tinged score, means the film’s attitude is more droll bemusement than anger. The screenplay only occasionally hints at the bile that must have inspired it, such as when a hunter bitterly laments the rules that have limited his fun. “We can’t shoot anywhere anymore,” he complains, noting that even churches and nursery schools are now off-limits. Oh, to be in America: “Anyone can shoot where and when they want.”

The leads do a lot to sell it. Amidst all of the mayhem, Andress tries to go full mercenary, eagerly hoping to maximize her marketability as a global icon of murder. Meanwhile, Mastroianni is stricken with overwhelming ennui. He openly broadcasts his victim status, he laments the pointlessness of life and relationships, and cynically fakes tears for the cult of sunset-worshipers he leads. Even murdering a Nazi brings him no pleasure. So it’s genuinely charming to watch him discover pure joy in the effort Andress exerts to make his murder something special.

Despite the body count, The 10th Victim turns out to be a rather gentle dystopia. The violence is plentiful but cartoonish. The satirical targets are numerous: disregard for human life shares space with the absurdity of marriage, contempt for the elderly, and capitalism run amok. (The fact that Andress must delay her kill to appease her advertisers is one of the better solutions to the “why don’t they just kill them” dilemma.) The 10th Victim is not so irresponsible as to make you think for a moment that this is a better world than the one we live in. But it does seem a great deal more fun.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As a licensed hunter-killer in a weirdly futuristic social state and with the statuesque Ursula Andress as his deadly adversary, [Mastroianni] is dishing up yet another brazen hero on the order of Bond… What is actually delivered in this peculiarly supergraphic film is a clever but patently self-conscious intellectual exercise, much on the order of that which Jean-Luc Godard gave us recently in ‘Alphaville.’ The cleverness is so insistent that it soon becomes excessive and absurd, and the gamesmanship of the satire becomes too cute, too much a bore.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by the late Irene Gonchorova. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)