Tag Archives: Satire

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREATLAND (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Dana Ziyasheva

FEATURING: Arman Darbo, Chloe Ray Warmoth, Jackie Loeb, Nick Moran, Eric Roberts

PLOT: On his fifteenth birthday, Ulysses must live up to his namesake when his friend Ugly Duck is exiled to Repentance island.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This is the only film I’ve seen that could hold its own on a double bill with Alien Crystal Palace. For those (many) of you who haven’t seen ACP, read on and I will attempt to explain…

COMMENTS: Early on in GREATLAND, an elite team of enforcers known as “The Optimists”—a flash-gay, scantily clad group of glamboyant men, one of whom is armed with a weapon decorated with shimmering hearts that reduces its target to sequins—vaporize an ancillary character. This man’s crime? He “invaded and contaminated the most sacred part of a woman,” and compounding that offense, he raised that crime’s result—his daughter, Ugly Duck—in an altogether “stone age” kind of way. Yessir, we’ve reached a post-post-post-modern future in GREATLAND, one in which there is no permitted gender or racial identity, and society seems to be tipping into no identifying as species, either. The citizens of Greatland are allowed to know only love, acceptance, and positivity.

The film’s first act seems to be an anti-progressivist screed, a reducto ad absurdum commentary on the destruction of traditional norms (gender and otherwise). An all powerful “Mother” program monitors the childlike populace with the firm-but-benevolent hand found in many dystopian visions. This film doesn’t seem like it could have been authored by your stereotypical reactionary, however. The satire is too spot-on, from the gloriously flaming gayness of the forces employed to maintain order, to the hyperkinetic “political” broadcasts featuring a wheelchair-bound, pansexual emcee who oversees the current contest for the official “Sweetheart of Greatland” (the contestants are a Dobermann Pischer and a Persian Cat).

Above and beyond the madness of its setting, this is a story about Ulysses (an altogether impressive Arman Darbo) and his pursuit of the invisible man’s daughter. GREATLAND works, mostly, as a quest narrative. Mostly. Just as it works, mostly, as a satire. Mostly. Around the halfway mark, we see a bit of the “outside world,” which starts to make some sense. “Greatland” is some kind of social-experiment-by-way-of-enslavement for the financial benefit of the inventors and propagators of the city in question. However, a minor application of logic makes this element crumble to pieces, as well. Dipping her fingers into so many subversive pies, Dana Ziyasheva ultimately upends the massive dessert tray she’s put together.

Does this make GREATLAND weaker than it could have been? Possibly—but it’s much better than my strained metaphor. The lumps of damaged pie filling and cracked crust still manage to sate both the eye (dystopia is rarely this colorful) and the psyche. The final note I made while watching this movie is an entire page covered with a question mark. A logical mind cannot hope to wrap this all together. But after finishing GREATLAND, bewildered though my reason was, I couldn’t deny the unpleasant lump in my stomach. Something dark and strange is happening in this movie, and its structural chaos and contradictions are perhaps part of the overall message. Ziyasheva seems to be saying we are doomed to terrible absurdity. Or perhaps she’s just having us on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…(too) ambitiously weird… If GREATLAND is an allegory (and I have no doubt it is), I couldn’t tell you what it is trying to say or represent… As a simple fantasy romance, the film is perfectly engaging, but the society is way too bizarre (yes, even for me) and once the politics is introduced it becomes truly nonsensical.” -Alix Turner, ReadySteadyCut.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)

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PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.

Still from "World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime"

COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.

The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering  provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.

“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”

“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).

“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.

“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: #SHAKESPEARE’S SHITSTORM (2020)

Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm

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

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FEATURING: Lloyd Kaufman, Kate McGarrigle, Erin Miller, Monique Dupree, Abraham Sparrow, Amanda Flowers

PLOT: Very loosely following the plot of ‘s “The Tempest,” the story involves a party ship packed with pharmaceutical executives washed up on the shores of Troma, New Jersey, after a storm of whale feces.

Still from #SHAKESPEARE'S SHITSTORM (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: You’ll get more out of it if you know “The Tempest” (and know Troma well enough to catch Easter eggs like the “Kabuki flip”)—but, Shakespeare’s Shitstorm should shock and amaze anyone with a sense of cinematic adventure and strong stomach. It’s one long hedonistic orgy of grossout comedy and Bardic references. It’s got Lloyd Kaufman in two roles, including one in drag (in a Snow White costume, for reasons never explained); William Shakespeare telling a donkey show joke to a panel of Ph.Ds; and a climax that is accurately characterized as “like a Hieronymus Bosch painting” (if Bosch had been just a bit fonder of green slime, prosthetic boobs, and punk rock anthems). It’s the stuff that dreams are made of—at least, the kind of dreams you might have if you ate an entire herring pizza laced with ketamine as a midnight snack before going to bed.

COMMENTS: “The Tempest” was not William Shakespeare’s final play, but it was his last masterpiece. Its closing acts are widely interpreted as the Bard’s farewell to the theater. At 74 years of age, Lloyd Kaufman has already outlived Shakespeare, but the feeling that Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is intended as his final trashterpiece is inescapable.

Something about Shakespeare inspires Kaufman and his Troma team to heights of lunacy even beyond their usual excesses. Shitstorm may not be quite as surreal as Troma’s weirdest feature, Tromeo & Juliet, but it represents a capstone of their transgressive punk aesthetic. One affinity between Stratford-upon-Avon’s favorite son and New Jersey’s least reputable film studio is the large cast of characters: Troma has always favored maxamilized plots and as many odd-looking extras as they can convince to work for a mention in the rolling credits. The discipline (such as it is) imposed by being forced to parody the Bard’s sprawling plots enforces some structure on Kaufman, whose tendency is to make his movies as digressive and improvised-looking as possible. And of course, the tension between Shakespeare’s humanistic aspirations and Troma’s scurrilous antics is inherently amusing. The combination gives the studio the chance to argue, “sure, we may be lowbrow… but we’re smart lowbrow.” After all, they quote from the play’s text and throw in references to other plays and sonnets (always undercut by a corny or obscene joke), along with bits of Shelley and bawdy couplets of their own devise. It reminds us that there is an intelligence hiding under the layers of shit jokes.

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm isn’t just offensive; it’s an ode to offensiveness. It starts off with a toddler spattered with blood from her mother’s suicide. There’s a “diversity hire” stripper in a wheelchair, two separate subplots involving crack whores (including one who sings a musical number with the lines “suck her in and blow her out, my crack pipe never screams and shouts”), and bloody oral rape scene performed by an animatronic chicken. After all that, the nauseating scenes of characters getting lapdances while being showered by brownish buckets of cetacean “fecal bloom” seem positively quaint. The only real suspense is whether—or rather, when and how—they’ll drop the N-word. That’s all standard practice for Troma, though I daresay that Shitstorm breaks all previous Tromatic records for repulsion. But this time, offensiveness itself is the front-and-center theme of the movie; it makes the studio’s boldest case that causing offense is a social service. Shitstorm‘s chief satirical targets are entitled “SJW” bloggers with no sense of humor. Shitstorm‘s final moral is delivered as a string of ethnic jokes—with accompanying visual metaphor—an argument that mocking everyone and everything equally is a better route to solidarity than contorting our speech awkwardly to avoid stepping on any one group’s toes. In other words, lighten up. We’re all here to laugh, and if your in-group gets lambasted, it will be someone else’s turn in about 30 seconds.

And thankfully, the movie is funny. They even insert what I think is a joke for early reviewers only. Often, when you watch pre-release screeners, there will be a legend that periodically appears warning “for review purposes only.” In Shitstorm, that reminder instead reads “for bootlegging purposes only.”

Shakespeare’s Shitstorm is a monumental movie. When you sit through the nine minutes of end credits—taking care to watch those amazing outtakes and read the jokes hidden in the text—you’ll realize that it takes an enormous pile of money to make something that looks this cheap. We are unlikely to see a Lloyd Kaufman movie on this scale ever again, and it’s a shame that Covid-19 prevented it from having the grandiose premiere to a packed house that it deserved. Troma has worked its way up from a disreputable B-movie studio to an underground institution. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of their approach, but Kaufman and team have worked ceaselessly doing their own thing their own way for 35 years now—and that deserves a celebration. Of course, Kaufman’s Prospero might actually like it better this way. He doesn’t deal well with sudden popularity near the end of Shitstorm: “You’re supposed to be triggered! Do not put me on a pedestal!” So instead, let’s send him off with a quote from Shakespeare: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free.” We’ll indulge you, Mr. Kaufman, in one last glorious barf fest.