Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: FREAKS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Lipovsky, Adam Stein

FEATURING: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew

PLOT: Chloe’s father keeps her boarded up in a dilapidated house to protect her from an unspecified danger; outside, an ice cream truck driver waits for his chance to free the girl.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTFreaks has a very Hollywood feel to it, though it subverts the genre to a fair degree. It feels like a thinking man’s X-Men movie.

COMMENTS: The trials of fatherhood, the uncertainty of childhood, and pervasive agora-claustrophobia all come together with wonder and menace in Freaks, the final film of Fantasia’s final weekend slot. It acted as a nice finishing note of the festival’s main event. Appropriately, Fantasia was the final festival stop for Lipovsky’s and Stein’s baby (not just co-directors, they also wrote the screenplay together). For them and the audience, Freaks provided a climactic blast of pizzazz before things began to wind down in Montréal.

Despite her protestations, we learn fairly early that Chloe (Lexy Kolker, as impressive a 10-year-old actress as I’ve ever seen) is not normal. She’s trained by her ever-exhausted father (Emile Hirsch) to spout an origin story on demand, and be able to ad lib responses in case she’s pressed about details. Why must she worry about the “people out there who want to kill [her]”? The ever-looming ice-cream man, “Mr Snowcone” (Bruce Dern) knows the answer; he’s been hoping to get a moment to abduct (rescue?) her for some time now. Trapped at home, Chloe spends much of her days drawing and pining for her lost mother (Amand Crew). By night, she’s haunted by a wailing figure in her closet. One day, the father passes out after being injured while out getting supplies, and Chloe takes the opportunity to escape and get that chocolate ice cream she’s been hankering for.

Freaks obviously draws comparisons with some contemporary science fiction, but it attempts to address its thorny issues in a way that’s more realistic. What would you do if you were raised in abject fear of everyone but your family? What would you do if that family seemed hell-bent on stifling everything about you that was special? While Lipovsky and Stein obviously frame the story to engender sympathy for Chloe and her family (they are the main characters, after all), they do provide ambient hints about what the rest of society feels the other. As in the more famous movie with the title, this new Freaks forces the audience to themselves just how comfortable they could be with fellow humans are completely out of the norm.

Freaks‘ greatest achievement, however, is how it fleshed out such a thorough world needing so few resources. Nearly all of the action takes place in one run-down house (with occasional forays to a mountain prison). To flesh out their story, the directors use sound to great effect (be it in the form of news channel snippets or the ominous drone of an unseen helicopter) in addition to channeling the narrative through the eyes of Chloe, who despite having been shut-in all her seven years, has maintained her sense of wonder and hope. Speaking of, here’s hoping that these two filmmaker fellows make their mark with this: I don’t generally approve of the word “franchise”, but I would love to see more of this “freakish” world they’ve created.

You can also listen to our interview with co-creators Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein (which may contain mild spoilers).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a cleverly constructed, thrilling and often super-surreal coming-of-age story that gets right into your head.”–Anton Bitel, SciFiNow (festival screening)

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

Recommended

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:

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE (2018)

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Arielle Dombasle

FEATURING: Arielle Dombasle, Nicolas Ker, Michel Fau, , Theo Hakola

PLOT: Hambourg is a demigod who has spent the past millennia attempting to combine a man and a woman to reforge the “Androgyne”; his latest experiment involving an elegant directress 1)I don’t generally use the term “directress”, but I feel it important to emphasize the character’s heightened (and chic) femininity. and an unstable musician begins unraveling as his project comes under the investigation of “the inspector.”

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTAlien Crystal Palace is the Godard-ian science fiction sex film we’ve all been waiting for. Enough said.

COMMENTS: When Asia Argento plays the blandest character in a movie, you know you’ve found something special. I did not know this, nor much else for that matter, when I talked myself into staying up for the midnight screening of Alien Crystal Palace. Sitting in the crowd (and it was indeed a crowd), it occurred to me that I was almost certainly one of the only people not chemically altered for that screening. I needed no such aids, though, as Alien Crystal Palace took me by the hand into its world of drunken artists, coked-up conspirators, and stylistic anarchy.

I’ll dive straight into the heart of the matter: this is, by any technical standard, a truly terrible movie. The editing is choppy and seemingly arbitrary, with scenes clattering forward as eccentrically as the characters. The acting, almost across the board, feels like everyone downed a bottle of meth-infused Château Lafite before going on camera. Arielle Dombasle, starring as the urbane directress Dolorès Rivers, even tilts toward the wacky, despite her 130+ role pedigree dating back the to 1970s. Dombasle also wrote and directed this madness, and has set herself up as unflappably femme-française. Her counterpart—the yang to Dolorès’ yin—manages to be the most bizarre and frantic character in this already off-the-walls sci-fi thriller.

This is a paragraph exclusively concerning Nicolas Ker. As the actor who plays the movie-within-movie score composer, Nicolas Atlante, he out-Wiseaus Wiseau. He out-Belmondo’s Belmondo. When he’s not suffering brief moments of recuperation every morning (hearty swigs of Johnny Walker Red Label wake him up after another sleepless night), he’s always shouting at someone, something, nobody, or nothing. He rocks his dead-man heroin-chic look with a cranky aplomb, cigarette always in hand, two cravates always secured tightly around his bare neck. Ker is one of the co-writers of the screenplay, which I did not find surprising; I was surprised, however, when I learned that the heartfelt, wrenching soundtrack—which reminded me very much of the (British) New Wave band New Order—was done by this same Frenchman.

And now I must fall into a mad ramble. Nouvelle vague poster boy Jean-Pierre Léaud (Of Les quatres cent coups fame) plays the god Horus, father of Hambourg. There are a troupe of goth-gay “policemen” under the command of the snippiest / facsimile of a detective on this side of the galaxy. Lovers run towards, or sometimes from, each other in live-action slow motion to telegraph… something. When not enjoying his lush Egypto-pleasure hall in the heavens, Hambourg travels around exotic points  via CGI submarine. We learn from one of the three producer characters, “I’m not a killer, I’m an intellectual.” ‘Struth, never have I seen so much Frenchiness Frenching forth from a French movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a mess. An ambitious mess…but mess nonetheless… As raunchy rock video, Alien Crystal Palace works well. Too bad they decided to make a 90 minute film out of it!”–Jane Fae, Eye for Film (festival screening)

References   [ + ]

1. I don’t generally use the term “directress”, but I feel it important to emphasize the character’s heightened (and chic) femininity.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: COINCOIN AND THE EXTRA-HUMANS (2018)

Coincoin et les z’inhumains

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Alexia Depret

PLOT: Four years after the events of Li’l Quinquin, Quinquin (now Coincoin) has grown up and joined a far-right political group, while Commandant Van der Weyden investigates a mysterious black tar that is falling from the sky and a plague of doubles showing up in town.

Still from CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Li’l Quinquin was worthy of consideration, then his equally odd brother Coincoin must be, too. Too bad we can’t mash Quinquin and Coincoin together into a single seven-plus-hour festival of Gallic strangeness.

COMMENTS: A lot has changed in the Côte D’Opale since we last visited Quinquin; and yet, nothing has really changed. Sure, Quinquin is now a strapping teenager who goes by “Coincoin” (like so much else in this world, the change in nomenclature is left a mystery). His old love interest, Eve, is now into girls. The outsiders are now undocumented Africans living in shantytowns on the outskirts of Calais instead of suburban Muslims. And no one worries about dead bodies found inside cows anymore; they’re more concerned with the black goo that’s falling from the heavens, usually splattering the cops at inconvenient times. But though the case may have changed, the tic-ridden Commandant Van Der Weyden and his foul-toothed assistant Carpentier are still on it. Their cruiser still tilts up on two wheels (in fact, it does so much more often). The townsfolk are still quaintly thoughtless and provincial. And there still is no resolution or logical explanation as to why this quiet French outpost is the locus of so much metaphysical weirdness. Most importantly, the project feels exactly the same: eccentric, tone-shifting, with little surreal jaunts off the beaten path, like Season 1 “” set at an out-of-the-way beach resort.

As for the weird bits: there’s a scene where CoinCoin can’t figure out how to kiss Christ, some blackface, a man attacked by a gull, and “clown” clones, not to mention the bizarre alien invasion (if that’s what it is) and a surprise at the end that I won’t spoil. Few of the comic bits—which stray close to border of anti-comedy—are funny in themselves; they only succeed through a relentless repetition that demonstrates Dumont’s sincere commitment to his style. Repetition is itself often the meta-joke: Carpentier does his “two-wheel” trick so often that his Captain complains it’s getting annoying (then continues to do it for several more episodes); doppelgangers are switched in mid-conversation so that conversations repeat themselves over and over and over. Meanwhile, Coincoin’s own plotline (now clearly secondary to the antics of the gendarmes) is almost entirely a realistic coming-of-age story; the boy is concerned with girls, mischief, and peer pressure, oblivious to what increasingly looks to be a modern Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style crisis until the events of the fourth episode force him to pay attention.

It’s hard to explain why Quinquin/Coincoin‘s blend of low-key absurdism, social awkwardness, grotesquerie, political swipes, and rural drama works; it seems like it shouldn’t. But it captures the Western world’s current mood of ambivalent anxiety as well as anything out there. An apocalypse is coming—maybe—and it’s actually sort of funny—a little.

Although it’s mostly of interest to those who saw the first miniseries, there’s no reason you can’t jump straight into this sequel first if you like.

The four episodes of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans are currently screening as a single long feature at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City through July 28 and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on July 26 only as part of the Boston French Film Festival. Lil Quinquin played Netflix briefly after its release, but is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. That seems like the likely eventual landing spot for Coincoin once its brief theatrical run concludes. We’ll keep you updated.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dumont hasn’t been a comedy director for very long but it now seems impossible to imagine a world without his endearingly ridiculous sense of humor and his genuine love for his affably weird protagonists. Dumont’s comedies are a gift we were never promised and now they’re something we should never have to live without.”–Scout Tafoya, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

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