Tag Archives: Dystopian

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE AERIAL (2007)

La antena

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DIRECTED BY: Esteban Sapir

FEATURING: Rafael Ferro, Sol Moreno, Alejandro Urdapilleta, Jonathan Sandor, Julieta Cardinali

PLOT: Mr. TV’s grip on the city is nearly complete, since he controls the only citizen known to be able to speak; however, not only does he want to control the people’s only voice, he wants to rob them of their words as well.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: A scattered analogy is the easiest way to argue this: The Aerial is Guy Maddin directs Alex ProyasDark City with a comic-book noir-Expressionist flair in a silent city whose populace communicates in colliding sub-, super-, and fore-titles.

COMMENTS: I generally don’t like my sociopolitical allegories to slap me so hard across the face, but The Aerial can feel free to slap me all it wants to. As you might infer from that mental image, Esteban Sapir’s movie is incredibly heavy-handed. It drops symbols like hot rocks (rocks so hot that, at one point, there’s a blistering contrast between some broadcasting baddies and their swastika-shaped device and the broadcasting goodies with their Star of David-shaped device). It’s overt in its rhetoric: “They have taken our voices, but we still have our words.” And even if the evil “Dr. Y” had a bigger mouth-enlarger-screen attached to him, it couldn’t have screamed “NAZI SCIENTIST!” any louder. But at this point I am hopeful that you’re wondering, “Just what is going on?”

What’s going on: Mr. TV lords over a voiceless city. The only person who can speak—“The Voice”—is controlled by Mr. TV and his ubiquitous media concern (TV billboards cover the metropolis, and the populace is fed with “TV Food”). The protagonist (credited only as “The Inventor”) loses his job with the TV monopoly after losing another balloon-man advertising sign (which is just what it sounds like). When a parcel containing “eyes” is delivered to the wrong address (and is conveniently received by the Inventor’s daughter), we learn that The Voice’s eyeless son can also speak. Meanwhile, Mr. TV conspires with crazy, creepy scientist Dr. Y to use The Voice to extract everyone’s words.

By now you probably see why I am feeling forgiving. Plus, the movie has a constant visual *pop*. Going into it, I wondered at the “very little dialogue” remark in its description. That is a bald-faced lie. There’s plenty of dialogue, and it is All Over The Screen. Not being a Spanish-speaker, I read the subtitles, but these were subtitles for everywhere-titles. They moved like hands on a watch, they were completed with “o”s from a smoke ring, and they were hidden behind fingers before a reveal. This town, though voiceless, is full of communication: the citizens read these words that are “spoken”. Even the blind boy “reads lips” by feeling the text. This gimmick was astounding to behold, and marvelously executed.

The rest of the movie’s aesthetic is just as lively, feeling at times like something from Dziga Vertov after he slammed back a samovar of strong tea. The visual mash-up (piano hands playing a typewriter while a ballerina in a snow globe desperately maneuvers what looked like a DDR challenge, for example) is consistent throughout, and although patently artificial, feels natural. Nothing looks cheap, and the film is helped in no small part by the actors as they deftly walk the perilous tightrope of Expressionism and film noir styles. I still feel The Aerial‘s energy, and so must stop myself. Suffice it to say, I wish more moralistic beatings were this pleasurable to suffer through.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It has a deeply weird story that appears to have a number of interpretations, or variations on a theme: the iniquities of media mind-control… Try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with La Antena, despite its distinctiveness and self-possession. There was something whimsical and indulgent about it, and its convoluted, flimsy narrative – oddly forgettable – seemed to have no traction.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Rüdiger Vogler, ,

PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.

COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.

So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.

In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.

But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.

However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like Continue reading CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

CAPSULE: THE PLATFORM (2019)

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El hoyo

DIRECTED BY: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

FEATURING: Ivan Massagué, Alexandra Masangkay, Zorion Eguileor, Antonia San Juan, Emilio Buale

PLOT: To qualify for an “accredited diploma,” Goreng volunteers to spend six months on “the platform”: a vertical prison with one feeding tray that allows the inmates, from floor one down to the bottom, a mere two minutes to eat their daily sustenance before it moves on, emptier and emptier as it descends.

Still from The Platform (2019)

COMMENTS: As a social experiment, watching The Platform with like-minded 366ers was a real treat. But the social experiment explored by film itself is nothing but harrowing. Though he takes some visual (and, doubtless, budgetary) inspiration from another near-future tract about human nature, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia is making his own movie, telling a story whose scale and brutality can make you lose your appetite.

Like the titular conveyance, The Platform begins piled on high—but with intrigue, instead of food. The (literal) platform’s food, we learn, diminishes during each section of its downward journey. Concurrently, our insight into the film’s premise increases. Goreng (Ivan Massagué, looking a bit scrawny even before his ordeal) is the lens through which we watch the system, administered, of course, by “The Administration.” He is an academic, established not only by his demeanor, but also by his sole possession: a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. His only companion is an older gentleman. He’s affable enough, to be sure, but also armed with a “SamuraiPlus”: a knife with the almost magical ability to self-sharpen with use (or so claims the advertisement). Goreng learns the hard way that an accredited diploma might not be worth this ordeal-by-privation.

Rarely have I ever seen “drab industrial” captured so well–and so simply. The Platform hinges wholly on the script and its characters, since we spend almost the entire film on a simple, concrete cell. Massagué and the rest are all top notch, imbuing a believability into what are effectively expositional conversations interspersed with some not-so-light-handed social commentary. Capitalism is skewered, then roasted to perfection by some of the top cooks in the business. Having such an obvious agenda often does a disservice to a film, but Gaztelu-Urrutia tempers the preachifying with humor, pathos, and some incredibly well maneuvered dei-ex-machina sleights-of-hand. The Platform is an impressive movie, though perhaps not best enjoyed with a good meal.

The special screening I had the good luck to attend in late March provided a much-needed change of pace. I typically approach each film in complete silence, frantically scribbling away in a notebook. I was reminded of the pleasure of viewing with friends, and the importance of cinema as a shared experience. It is only when there is a shared context that we can communicate effectively. And though The Platform couldn’t be described in any way as a “fun” movie, watching it with a gang was quite enjoyable. (Even if the food-based avatar icons most of us chose seemed a little hard-hearted by the end.)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A gnarly mash-up of midnight movie and social commentary, the picture is overly overt but undeniably effective, delivering genre jolts and broad messaging in equal measure.”–Jason Bailey, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JUBILEE (1978)

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DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Toyah Willcox, 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)

CAPSULE: K-12 (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:  Melanie Martinez, Alissa Torvinen

FEATURING: Melanie Martinez, Emma Harvey

PLOT: A girl with superpowers is sent to “K-12,” a school run by despots who control the students with propaganda and medication.

Still from K-12 (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s basically an elaborate music video aimed at teenage girls, a lesson in lightly weird fantasy that will hopefully prime them for much stranger stuff later on.

COMMENTS: One of the unanticipated benefits of aging is that you’re no longer involuntarily exposed to pop music of the day and (unless you’re cursed with a teenage daughter) you can proceed through life blissfully unaware of the beats that set young feet to dancing. So, it’s with some perverse pride that I can say, until stories about her releasing a free movie—a reputedly weird one—started dropping on social media, I didn’t know who platinum-selling artist Melanie Martinez was.

Martinez is 24 years old, but her music aims at a younger audience. Her trademark look is her two-toned hair, split into brunette and blond (sometimes pink) hemispheres. K-12 is her second full-length album, and this accompanying feature-length movie version incorporates all the songs. In K-12 Martinez plays a character named “Cry Baby,” (also the title of her first album) a childlike alter-ego of uncertain age. The songs deal with topics like bulimia, body image, pervy teachers, and boys.

It’s not G-rated fluff; there’s plenty of casual cussing, cannabis references, and adult content. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter (and kids today do have it hard), this is not quite the tween girl’s version of The Wall. But it does have a reasonable amount of music video-inspired strangeness to it. There’s not a lot of plot—it’s more a series of grammar school-based tableaux—but it’s not just an abstract “visual album,” either. Martinez creates a linking narrative, and it can be bizarre. Despite the fact that she’s a beautiful woman, she successfully casts herself as an outsider by focusing on her one physical flaw: she’s teased for her gap teeth. She’s not one of the cool girls, but an actual freak; along with some of her outcast friends, Cry Baby has Carrie-like telekinetic powers (although don’t look for any buckets of pigs’ blood, which would be a little too gross for the aesthetic she’s going for here). Mean girls and despotic administrators provide foils. Cry Baby also has plenty of potential male suitors, although her most important relationships are with her female friends.

The art direction is aggressively pink, right down to the school bus that hauls the kids away to the sleepaway school. Wardrobe and decor is wistfully Victorian (it’s all inspired by Lolita fashion). The hare-headed proctors suggest “.” is an obvious inspiration for the look. The politics are naively progressive, and sometimes shoehorned in clumsily (Martinez throws in a black lives matter protest, a trans teacher, and outrage over the lack of free tampons in the girls’ bathroom). The choreography starts out slow, but turns into a strong point by the end, even including an aqua ballet a la Esther Williams at one point. The music is… not my thing. And while none of this sounds especially promising, there are a good number of pleasantly surreal bits sprinkled through the production numbers: a flying school bus. A chalk-sniffing teacher. A ghost who gives advice about self-actualization and reincarnation. Melanie’s nipple-free topless scene. Eyeball-swapping. A snap-off skull. Magic spit bubbles. One young fan commented “this had a lot of weird, almost too much.”

I suspect most of our readers aren’t in K-12‘s target demographic. But there’s a wide world of weird out there, and it’s always good to start young. K-12 may not be especially deep or sophisticated, but it is pretty and off-the-wall. Martinez deserves some praise for attempting something with more artistic ambition than her audience requires of her.

K-12 was originally offered for free on YouTube, although that deal expired after a few weeks. You can still catch it with a YouTube Premium or Amazon Prime subscription, however. Martinez promises two followup movies to continue the Cry Baby saga.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’re settling in for a candy-colored PSA, things get very, very weird.”–Mike Wass, Idolator (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Tadesse, Agustín Mateo, Gerda-Annette Allikas, Guillermo Llansó

PLOT: Seriously? I’m going to pinch this straight from IMDb because, man, right now I’ve got nothing. “CIA Agents Palmer and Gagano are tasked with the mission of destroying a computer virus called ‘Soviet Union.’ They enter the system using VR but the mission turns into a trap.”

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: To cheat, once more: Merriam-Webster defines “gonzo” as, “outlandishly unconventional, outrageous, or extreme”; and so it is with JSYTWTTH. Stop-motion VR missions to thwart a computer virus called “Soviet Union,” a pizza restaurant of your dreams, a second (and third?) coming of the messiah, and a transvestite super agent are all here. What more could you want? (Don’t worry: there is much, much more.)

COMMENTS: Unfortunately I’ve been the “king of caveats” recently, but here it goes: you haven’t ever seen a movie like this one. Miguel Llansó, an affable Madrid-born professor, has assembled a casserole of ’80s-’90s nostalgia, ’80s-’90s satire, cyber-dystopia, messianic lampoons, kung-fu fighting, Stalin/Redford/Pryor avatars, giant death-ray bugs, and a “PsychoBook” program (not to be confused at all with a more famous “____Book” social media site), all under the banner of a title that is both long-winded and apt: by the end, Jesus shows you the way to the highway.

Ah, but what happens before that gratifying finale? Now that I’m over-caffeinated, I may have better luck with this “plot” section. Strapping on their VR visors and headphones, intrepid CIA agents D.T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo) enter PsychoBook, an AI/VR intelligence network being held hostage by a computer virus that manifests as a Nike-shoe-clad avatar in a Stalin mask. It wants to make a deal with the agents to start dealing “the Substance,” a green-goo byproduct of the environment (don’t worry, Eldritch stands firm: “I don’t make deals with computer viruses!”) Meanwhile, Gegano wants to quit the CIA and help his BBW German sweetie Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas) start a kickboxing academy. Lurking in the background is the President of Ethiopa, dressed up as the the superhero-villain “Batfro” (Solomon Tashe). Something goes wrong, and Gegano gets trapped in PsychoBook. Will Jesus’ help be enough to allow his escape?

Now you probably can see what I’m working with here. And that’s just one layer of what’s going on. Stylistically, it’s about as madcap as you can get. The stop-motion forays into PsychoBook, when the agents hunt Stalin, are the stuff of comic nightmares (and apparently took up most of the shooting days).

One of the many questions raised about Jesus Shows You…‘s goings-on is, “Why Robert Redford and Richard Pryor masks?” The director revealed in the Q & A after the premiere that it was a poke in the eye to the stuffy producers who demanded he have some big stars lined up before they’d give him any funding. As for the other aesthetic choices, suffice to say it’s clear that Llansó grew up in the ’80s, as beautiful old computers appear left, right, and center, and heavily influenced the mind-blowing/seizure-inducing credit sequences.

I have almost two weeks still to go here, but I sincerely doubt that Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway will be topped, weird-wise. Any fan of the clunky sci/fi joking of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” will want to catch this. Anyone wanting to see the Matrix done with no money and maximum humor will want to catch this. Anyone who wants to check out a contender for 2019’s weirdest release will want to catch this. Turn on, tune in, and just say, “F*¢k you, Stalin!”

You can also listen to our audio interview with director Miguel Llansó.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s weird y’all… I am already putting in on my list of top movies of the year, because it’s so damn inventive.”–Lorry Kikta, Film Threat (festival screening)

Q&A AUDIO: