Tag Archives: Satire

CAPSULE: MEDUSA (2021)

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Medusa is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anita Rocha da Silveira

FEATURING: Mariana Oliveira, Lara Tremouroux

PLOT: A group of Brazilian girls involved in a fundamentalist Christian sect spend their nights as vigilantes attacking women they deem insufficiently modest; one becomes beset by doubts.

Still from Medusa (2021)

COMMENTS: Medusa begins with a closeup of an eyeball, with a spot of bright red light and a spot of bright green light clearly reflected to the right and left of the pupil. As Goblin-esque techno music swells, the camera pulls back and rotates to show its subject performing an abstract but provocative interpretive dance, bathed in competing green and red washes. It’s appropriate that the film begins with a moody dance scene, because Medusa is full of elaborately choreographed atmospheres, from the bubblegum pink neon pop performances of “Michele and the Treasures of the Lord” to synchronized fascist yoga to a masked rave in the woods. The audiovisual aspects are superb: doom-laden dollies establish an effective mode. The director cites Suspiria as a major influence (seen mainly in the bold lighting choices.)

But while the style is enthralling, Medusa‘s script struggles to keep up. Granted, a lot of thought goes into the film’s themes. The running monster motif is handled well. The film critiques the cult-like dynamics of the nameless evangelical Christian sect portrayed here by focusing on its overwhelming concern with policing surface appearances rather than fostering virtue. This leads to the occasional satirical hit: an influencer explains how to properly take a “Christian selfie.” It also allows for moments of pathos, as when the same YouTuber removes her makeup after abandoning a video tutorial to reveal an unglamorous underlying reality. The fact that the protagonist only begins to question the group’s ideology of superficiality when her physical perfection is temporarily compromised is meaningful. But these insights exist alongside more obvious anti-religion jabs that verge on the stereotypical, e.g. a pastor stops a spiritual counseling session in the middle to take a call from a wealthy donor.

That unevenness could be forgiven, but at the same time, the story is losing focus as it progresses. The film’s increasing disorientation tracks with Mariana’s growing disillusionment and the disintegration of her worldview; but the story also seems like it’s unsure how to conclude. Shaving twenty minutes or so off the running time would have helped. Medusa lingers a too long on dreamlike sequences that add little. And Mariana’s arc goes a bit flat in the third act: she drags her bestie into dipping their toes into hedonistic excess with no believable coaxing—just a touch of magical realism that doesn’t feel all that realistic. And, though cracks show, Mariana doesn’t firmly break from her religious fervor even at the end, when the girls all spontaneously erupt into what is meant to be an expression of raw, resentful female fury, but might be unfairly dismissed as a mass hysterical episode. The women express righteous catharsis, but it seems tacked-on rather than flowing from the plot (especially since it encompasses characters who’ve experienced none of Mariana’s character growth). Medusa has a great look and sound, a few memorable scenes, and a fine central performance by Mariana Oliveira to ground the chaos, but the whole feels less than the parts.

Director Anita Rocha da Silveira was inspired by the rise of evangelical Christian groups in Brazil, and by reports of teenage girls physically assaulted by their peers for appearing too slutty on social media. On these inspirations she overlaid Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, where the gorgon is transformed into a monster by Athena as punishment for alleged promiscuity. De Silveira’s film played at Cannes and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Music Box Films (who are becoming a major player in distributing some of the weirder low-to-mid budget movies out there, having also released Strawberry Mansion and Please Baby Please in 2022).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Da Silveira has alluded to the disturbing social trends in her native Brazil that have informed her themes. Here she challenges them in a way that is satirical, amusing, stylish and strange; perhaps even controversial for her native audience.”–Demetreos Matheou, Screen Daily (festival review)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ZEROGRAD (1989)

Gorod Zero, AKA Zero Town; City Zero

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Leonid Filatov, Vladimir Menshov, Aleksey Zharkov

PLOT: An engineer travels from Moscow to a tiny industrial town where he finds all the residents utterly bizarre, but is ordered to remain when he witnesses a suicide.

Still from ZEROGRAD (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: In this ambiguous satire from the final days of the Soviet Union, engineer Varakin finds himself trapped in the purgatorial Zerograd, a not-so-wonderful Wonderland of nude secretaries, suicidal chefs, and rock n’ roll dance enthusiasts. Zerograd can be enjoyed as a weird crawl through an enclave of eccentrics, but it’s also a major historical artifact documenting the dour mood as the Soviet system tottered on the brink of collapse. The Russian identity crisis explored here continues to trouble the world to this day.

COMMENTS: Varasky enters the nowheresville of Zerograd hoping to lodge a simple request to resize panels in air conditioners manufactured in this backwater town. This routine assignment turns out to be a never-ending low-key ordeal when he becomes witness to a suicide (or is it a murder?), which the officials view as a matter of great importance to the State. Varasky’s first hint that something’s not quite right in town comes when he finds the factory’s receptionist typing and watering plants in the nude, a fact her preoccupied boss doesn’t even notice. That’s odd, and having hopefully sorted out the air-conditioner issue in a day, Varasky’s eager to leave town. But, at dinner that night, the cook insists on serving him a desert that he has repeatedly refused to order. It’s a lovingly-crafted cake—perfectly made in the shape of Varasky’s own head. When Varasky refuses to try even a bite, the chef shoots himself. And then Varasky’s troubles begin…

Zerograd funnels Varasky through a series of absurd situations, all of which the engineer accepts with a formal protest followed by a deadpan look of resignation as he realizes it’s pointless to try to swim against the tide of the town’s insanity. Among the adventures the hapless visitor endures are a trip to the town’s subterranean history museum, where elaborate dioramas of uncannily lifelike wax figurines demonstrate moments from history that absolutely did not happen: artifacts from Trojans, Romans and Huns all improbably found in Zerograd. On the wall, a poster proclaims “The Source of Our Strength Lies in Historic Truths.” The malleability of truth to fit the State’s official position becomes one of Zerograd‘s big themes: Varasky’s personal history even seems to be rewritten to connect him to the town. He finds himself unable to leave: trains go into Zerograd, but they don’t go out. And besides, the town’s authorities have more questions for him to answer. He seems doomed to take up a permanent exile in Zerograd.

Zerograd emanates from the Soviet Union’s brief Glasnost period of 1986-1991, when filmmakers and other artists had an unprecedented (if not complete) freedom to follow their muses without fear of reprisal. That promise of freedom notwithstanding, Zerograd is still loathe to criticize the Soviet system directly: instead of savaging its conformity, bureaucracy  and rewriting of history, it attacks its targets obliquely, cloaking criticisms in obscure, absurdist jokes. Simultaneously, Zerograd expresses anxiety about encroaching Westernization, symbolized by the ridiculous rock ‘n roll dancing fever sweeping the town’s citizenry, which may be as crazy as the enforced propriety of the old order. A crucial speech by a Communist official at the film’s midpoint describes the difference between the Russian spirit and Western capitalism: the “irrational” willingness of Soviet citizens to subsume their personal interests for something greater than themselves, versus what he views as Europe’s “pragmatic” every-man-for-himself ethos. Despite Varasky’s travails at the hands of the bureaucracy, the official’s plea has some appeal, and the analysis of the Soviet dilemma emerges as ambiguous. Zerograd is a portrait of a society at a crossroads: ready to abandon the past, but unsure of what the future might bring. The film ends with Varakin in an oarless rowboat, floating away in no particular direction; his chance of escaping this limbo and returning to the humble-but-familiar comforts of the Moscow he left behind are laughably remote.

Zerograd had not previously been available on home video in the U.S. Deaf Crocodile comes to the rescue with a Blu-ray release from a restored print from Mosfilm, containing a new interview with director/co-writer Karen Shakhnazarov and a commentary track from film historian Samm Deighan. The disc is available directly from partner Vinegar Syndrome starting today (October 25); it lands with other retailers on November 29.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense for Varakin here — or, unfortunately, for us. We’re baffled but not interested. Possibly, this is because the director’s sense of the surreal is so obvious and commonplace.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

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

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: THE COCA-COLA KID (1985)

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DIRECTED BY: Dušan Makavejev

FEATURING: Eric Roberts, Greta Scacchi, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, Rebecca Smart

PLOT: A Coca-Cola executive travels to Australia to find out why the signature product has failed to penetrate one remote outpost in the country; Along the way, he crosses swords with an unexpectedly fierce competitor, adapts to down-under culture shock, and tries to cope with his distractingly quirky secretary.

Still from The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)

COMMENTS: Eric Roberts was young once. I mean, so were we all, but the lies we tell ourselves about the aging process are revealed more starkly in the cinema. So here he is: young, blond, rosy-cheeked, oozing alright-alright charm and boasting a Georgia accent you can spread on toast. So even though his mononymous character Becker is an ex-Marine who is called upon to be the face of all-consuming American capitalism, exploiting local culture and obliterating competitiveness for the benefit of a rapacious corporation, the thought that kept coming back to me was, “My goodness, who knew Eric Roberts was pretty?”

The gorgeousness of Eric Roberts is undoubtedly a strategy. If Satan is, as some contend, actually a ravishing beauty who lures the weak and unsuspecting, then the Coca-Cola Company is clearly cast here in the role of Satan, parlaying their sweet acidity, bold red branding scheme, and co-option of Santa Claus into world dominance. So it’s tempting at the outset to expect an Outback-themed take on Local Hero, in which our protagonist is confronted by an idyllic way of life that is literally foreign to his make-a-buck existence.

But The Coca-Cola Kid really isn’t into Becker, or even Coke, as avatars of our consumer culture. Far from embodying the worst traits of the faceless money monster, Becker is confused and aimless. He goes through the motions of using the latest marketing techniques to bring down his competitors, but his heart really isn’t in it. He barely seems to be into anything: he doesn’t particularly enjoy his own product any further than its saleable qualities, his approach to the alien landscape in which he has landed is purely functional, and his proto-manic pixie secretary Terri only manages to irritate him until she finally lures him into bed. (Even Becker’s sexuality is uncommitted; he seems equally baffled by Terri’s entreaties and by a series of aggressive same-sex come-ons at a party.) Aside from Terri’s grammar-school-aged daughter, the only person Becker seems to understand at all is his opponent.

Cue Becker’s foe: T. George McDowell, the biggest fish in a very small pond and a man with an oversized sense of his ability to compete with an industry juggernaut. He has steadfastly resisted Coke’s incursion into the region in favor of his own line of sodas, and it emerges that the whole enterprise is borne out of an “if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em” brand of revenge for the loss of his wife, a Mississippi-born Coke ad model whom he married and lost over his obsessions. (“She never understood the ice,” he reminisces.) Far from being a wide-eyed innocent from the sticks, McDowell fancies himself a global tycoon and Coke’s equal. It leads to an inevitable showdown between a man who thinks he has all the power and a man who knows he does.

The result is ultimately tragic. McDowell is utterly out of his league. There’s no competing with a behemoth, and the contrast is best dramatized in their marketing strategies. A trio of homely cheerleaders can’t hold a candle to pop of half-a-dozen Coke-bearing Santas, and McDowell’s homespun musical ditty is blown out of the room by the absolute banger of a jingle that Tim Finn has concocted.

But all the while, there’s this strange effort to graft a love story onto the film, and while everyone is slowly being crushed by capitalism’s iron boot, it’s in the romance where Dušan Makavejev seems to be trying the hardest to be Dušan Makavejev. The mix of rapacious capitalism and cheeky eroticism feels a little like he was trying to make a more audience-friendly version of his own Sweet Movie. (A genuinely well-crafted sex scene on a feather bed is a first cousin to the earlier film’s romp in sugar.) But he doesn’t seem any more focused than his characters. It’s a mark of how clueless Becker is that the stunningly sexy Greta Scacchi has to work so hard to get his attention, but it’s also curious how haphazard and clumsy Terri’s advances are. She holds a deep (and plotty) secret, but its revelation ultimately doesn’t have much impact on the choices characters must make. It’s just sort of there.

The Coca-Cola Kid has a very Australian soul, exuding a powerful “don’t worry, mate” vibe. Perhaps that’s the weirdest thing about it: in the face of themes like conquering capitalism, cultural homogeneity, and the overwhelming nature of love, the approach it settles on is, “Relax and go with it.” Maybe it’s a sensible approach, but it robs the film of immediacy and power. It just doesn’t feel like the real thing.

Fun City Editions released The Coca-Cola Kid to Blu-ray for the first time in June 2022.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly made as a more commercial effort and with a recognizable ‘name actor’ in the lead role, it lacks a lot of the weirdness that made some of his earlier work as compelling as it is, yet still remains a really entertaining and clever picture that’s worth checking out. Makavejev’s tendencies to point out the absurd and to work strange, offbeat humor into his work still shines through…” Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop! (Blu-ray)