Tag Archives: Satire

CAPSULE: MONDO HOLLYWOODLAND (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Janek Ambros

FEATURING: Chris Blim, Alex Loynaz, Alyssa Sabo, Jessica Jade Andres, Ted Evans

PLOT: A being from the 5th dimension enlists the help of a purveyor of magic mushrooms and observes a cross-section of the town’s residents in an effort to define the concept of “mondo.”

Still from Mondo Hollywoodland (2019)

COMMENTS: The fabled Hollywood sign, symbol of dazzling entertainment throughout the world and physical representation of the film industry’s outsized sense of self-importance, began its existence as an advertisement. “HOLLYWOODLAND” arose in the Santa Monica mountains nearly 100 years ago to lure prospective Southern California residents to a new real estate development. The last four letters were stricken when the sign made its shift from billboard to civic symbol, and the sign enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom.

So while the most obvious inspiration for the title of Mondo Hollywoodland would seem to be the similarly named 1967 quasi-documentary about the region’s curious subcultures, the newer film leans more into Hollywoodland’s origins as a neighborhood. The Dream Factory is ever-present in the lives of the absurd, deluded, ridiculous people chronicled here, but they are still people, and this is a movie that looks for the community among them.

Early on, when the narrator identifies himself has being from the 5th dimension (presumably not the band), we can take comfort in knowing that everything about to ensue is pretty silly. Further exemplifying the flimsy structure of this endeavor is the decision to divide Southern California society into three classes, each of which is trying to buy into the Hollywood dream despite repeatedly seeing the cracks in the façade.

We begin with the Titans, ostensibly the power brokers who make blockbuster entertainment and break the hearts of aspiring stars. And yet our focus on Ted, a perpetually coked-up mid-level executive desperately trying to bring a Disney Channel starlet to heel, reveals these masters of the universe to be puny. There is no world beyond sci-fi epics and last-minute dialogue changes for these Titans, and Ted’s triumphant fist pump (earned by completely caving in) belies his fear at losing what little power he has.

The Weirdos occupy the opposite end of the spectrum, determined to better their world and generally clueless about how to do so. Hoping to take down a Trump-allied neo-Nazi, they pass out flyers at a gun-sense rally. Meanwhile, on the artistic front, they advocate for harmony. One even mediates a conflict between two pieces of wood. They are obsessed with politics, the state of the world, and whether their empathy and good intentions are enough to bring about utopia. At least, they are when they’re not tripping. Weirdo Daphne is so disillusioned with the slow pace of change that she takes matters into her own hands, torching a car. “Hope they got the message,” she says, even though it’s doubtful if even she knows what the message might be.

Enter the Dreamers, certain that their taste of fame and fortune is just around the corner. Not surprisingly, this section of the film flirts with sadness, as all these dreams seem to be deferred. From an agent whose clients are all up for the biggest roles but never get the gig to an acting coach whose credibility derives entirely from his stint on “Mad About You” to a wannabe fitness guru who longs for even the reflected glory of training the stars. Central to this section is Anna, the granddaughter of a one-time Grace Kelly stand-in who goes on a date to a concert by the grandson of Bing Crosby. The barest glimmer of Hollywood’s allure is being pushed away by generations.

Boyle, the hapless mushroom dealer, is our connecting thread, popping in and out of stories while still carrying on his own peculiar battle against the rats hiding in his rented bungalow. Regularly high on his own product, he is frequently flummoxed by the simplest interactions, and wants only for things to be “groovy,” a condition that has eluded him since the disappearance of his cat. But he also becomes the unifying force that brings our Titan, Weirdo, and Dreamer together in a genuinely hilarious low-rent heist. They’re a marvelously motley crew, and the success of this scene as the film’s climax is a tribute to the laid-back vibe the film has cultivated.

We never learn, precisely, what “mondo” is to this crowd, but if it means anything, it’s a special kind of magic that happens when aspirations manage to outdistance reality. Mondo Hollywoodland is self-evidently a Dreamer’s enterprise (having nabbed actor James Cromwell as an executive producer, the film’s publicity spares no effort to highlight the connection), but it is determined to face down the formidable opposition of a negative world and to be, in the end, groovy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Our lead protagonist, Boyle, is a mushroom dealer, and the entire film feels like a psychedelic bender... If you’re a fan of the experimental or WTF genre, you will find a home here.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STRAWBERRY MANSION (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Albert Birney

FEATURING: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips

PLOT: In the future, dreams are taxed, and when a dream auditor goes to check in on an elderly woman who’s off the grid, he finds himself drawn to dreams that are more free than his own.

Still from Strawberry Mansion (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: With themes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a handmade aesthetic straight from The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion is the 2020s American indie version of a turn-of-the-millennium Michel Gondry movie. It may be a tribute, but it’s a worthy trip of its own.

COMMENTS: Dream movies are tricky, and making a dream movie on a low budget is even trickier. Strawberry Mansion addresses these limitations up front. The introductory dream is minimalist: an everyday kitchen, but painted entirely pink, into which comes a friendly visitor bearing a bucket of fried chicken. Throughout the movie, dreams will be conveyed using these types of simple props and sets thrown together in incongruous ways: actors dressed as Halloween-costume frogs (playing saxophones) or mice (in sailor suits); walking shrubs; demons with turquoise light-bulb eyes. Add in the occasional stop-motion animated skeleton or caterpillar to go along with some simple green screen, and you’ve proven that you can convey an otherwordly feel without millions of dollars of CGI.

The second scene addresses the non-budgetary conundrum dream movies face: the cliché of slippage between the waking world and the dream world, and the idea that the audience must be on guard to discriminate between the two. Our hero (a bureaucrat with the Brazil-ish name “Preble”) awakes to find himself craving chicken, and goes to Cap’n Kelly’s drive-thru, where the A.I. clerk tries to sell him a brand new “Chicken Shake.” Chowing down in the parking lot, he has a brief flash-forward hallucination—and that’s it, as far as the old “blurring the lines between dream and reality” bit goes. There is no “real’ world in Strawberry Mansion to confuse with the dream world. The premise of this near-future vision isn’t dystopian science fiction, but light absurdist satire. The very idea of taxes on dreams—dream of a buffalo, and you’re assessed a twenty-five cent bill; dandelions are three cents apiece—is something that would only occur to you in a dream. There’s no narrative confusion about whether we’re in the characters’ dreams or the movie’s reality, and there’s also never any sense that we’re meant to take this cinematic world as more than a dream itself. This dream-inside-a-dream structure frees us up to experience the movie on its own terms, instead of falling into the psychological thriller trap of trying to distinguish what is a dream from what is “really happening.”

As Preble, Audley is rather bland as a slouchy, glum bureaucrat, but that’s by design; his character contrasts with the grandiose poetry of dreams, which go beyond workaday realities. Penny Fuller‘s eccentric Arabella—when he asks her what she does during the intake interview, she describes herself as an “atmosphere creator,” so he jots down “artist” on his form’s “occupation” line—is the sweet but slightly ridiculous woman who will seduce him into a more fulfilling mode of being human. Strawberry Mansion is a manifesto for resisting the numbing effects of modern technology—represented explicitly by advertising—in favor of the playful freedom of imagination. This message is wrapped in a sugary confection about a man and a woman who have a deep but chaste romance based on shared dreams rather than the passions of the physical world. It’s funny, gentle, and filled with funny, gentle dreams to tickle your imagination. It may be the best dream you’ll have this year, and it’s well worth the bill.

Kentucker Audley is best known as an actor in indie circles, but he also founded the website NoBudge, which curates low-budget (and often weird) short films from up-and-coming directors. Audley and co-writer/co-director Albert Birney previously collaborated on the absurdist comedy Silvio (2017), about a gorilla news anchor going through an existential crisis. Strawberry Mansion is inexplicably named after a Philadelphia neighborhood. It debuted at Sundance and already has a distributor (Music Box), so expect to see it available to the general public later this year, by early 2022 by the very latest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Many will surely find the metaphysical derring-do and aggressive weirdness of Strawberry Mansion too much of an ask, but for those prepared to dive down its nutso rabbit-hole, it offers a divertingly free-wheeling vision.”–Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.

Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).

Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.

Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.

The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut.  The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat