Tag Archives: dystopia

Link Dump: #22

Crookshanks may be half-Kneazle, but he’s still a KITTY! so voilà, here he is. Look at that cute, flattened face and orange fur! Magic kitty! As you may have noticed, we’ve had something of a posting renaissance here lately, with both Ashley and I adding new content with surprising frequency. In case you’re wondering: yes, I do want a cookie. With that, here’s a wide gallery of entertaining links plus some weird-as-fuck search terms:

  • This NYT article about the new “Disney Baby” line of merchandise reads like satire, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. And terrifying. And deeply fucked-up.
  • According to the Toronto Sun, Jane Fonda was recently visited by physicist Stephen Hawking, who apparently loved her in Barbarella.
  • My friend Jacob hipped me to this very funny but also disturbing essay by sci-fi writer Larry Niven, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” It’s about Superman’s chances of reproducing.
  • The latest feminist Twitter meme sparked by the awesome, hard-working Sady Doyle is #DearJohn, which opposes the recent attempts by certain Republican congressmen (like teary-eyed Speaker John Boehner) to redefine rape as part of their anti-abortion agenda. (Go to Tiger Beatdown for more on the fight and how it’s progressed.)
  • Here’s a catalog of (frequently film-inspired) works by sculptor Andy Wright, many of which are disturbing in their realism.
  • eCards are amusing enough, but ultra-depressing/funny eCards? The fun never stops. They’re bleakly funny, and also very well-written.
  • Robin Hardy of The Wicker Man fame has made a sequel to his masterpiece, entitled The Wicker Tree. Watch the trailer; it’s very cool.
  • The Guardian has two articles of interest: first, a fairy pretentious but occasionally insightful piece by Will Self on True Grit and the Coen Bros., and even better, a look at England’s obsession with dystopian fiction (like Brazil and Children of Men) from Danny Leigh.
  • Cinephiles rejoice! Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies again, and we have a rich young woman named Megan Ellison to thank!

We had our fair share of bizarre, ridiculous, and horrifying search terms this week. Highlights included “fuck cuddle” (awww…) and the also-cute “old fashioned cunt stories,” as opposed to those nontraditional, newfangled cunt stories. We had two peculiar gay-related searches, “irrational gays” and the oddly judgmental “lolcats are proof of gayness.” (What is this, a witch-hunt?) One search term takes the cake for grotesque excess and redundancy, “nude dead raped killed girl murder,” but the most suggestive, baffling term of all was “female sex giant animation movies.”

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Feminism, Media

Edgar G. Ulmer and Sci-fi Noir

I always love a good time travel yarn. I double love it if it’s directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who made one of my all-time favorite noirs, Detour (1945). So I had high personal expectations for Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), a cheap, obscure sci-fi movie that happened to be streaming online through the magic of Netflix Instant. It’s not exactly a great film—OK, maybe not enough good. It’s very prone to the clichés and bad writing endemic amongst low-budget Cold War sci-fi. But it’s still very much worth a viewing.

That’s because it’s weird and visually striking, in a way that recalls Ulmer’s history as a set designer during the height of German Expressionism. It’s got a plot that’s familiar now, but wasn’t much used in films at the time: test pilot Bill Allison (Robert Clarke) goes on an experimental flight into the upper atmosphere, somehow goes beyond the time barrier, and lands only to find his Air Force base in a shambles. After wandering around the bleak wilderness, he spots a giant, solar-powered citadel, and is suddenly teleported inside.

There, he ends up in the middle of post-apocalyptic politics as the Citadel’s leaders each try to use him for their own purposes—including, potentially, the repopulation of the earth in the wake of a civilization-ending plague that rendered most human beings infertile and mutated. Plus some accidental time travelers from Russia want to use his ship to get back to their own respective times. It’s a surprising amount of conflict for a movie that’s barely over an hour long, with some surprisingly original conceits that occasionally one-up the film’s big-budget rival, George Pal’s The Time Machine. (Although Beyond the Time Barrier‘s bald, scaly mutants are nowhere near as effective as The Time Machine‘s morlocks.)

By far the most appealing element of Beyond the Time Barrier, though, is its visual aesthetic. The most obvious recurring example is the triangles that dominate the sets, whether in the shapes of doors or in the overall design of various rooms. Bars and shadows also proliferate, so the whole Citadel feels like a giant, futuristic panopticon. This sense of confinement goes along with the film’s unexpectedly intense pessimism. After many stand-offs and confrontations, Allison may get back to his own time, but 1) the future’s still fucked over and 2) he ends up mysteriously aged beyond his years.

Or look at those first few moments as he wanders around the countryside in the ruined future, as represented by a real-life rural area shot in stark black and white. It’s like something out of Godard, maybe Alphaville or Week End, in how it forges the dark future out of the present. As always, Ulmer was the film industry’s most frugal visionary, using pocket change to make bizarre, unsettling nightmares about the human capacity for selfishness and betrayal. At times, Beyond the Time Barrier may sound like a generic Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi saga, but deep down it’s full of the same despair that powers Ulmer’s other offbeat forays into the dark side of the soul.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Upsides and downsides

[Note: I am really sick right now. So for added humor, imagine me saying all of this with a stuffed-up nose and sore throat.]

Part of being a film critic (or whatever it is I am here) is reevaluating your own opinions. Because none of us exist in critical vacuums, so of course we’re constantly exposing ourselves to the critical discourses surrounding one movie or another. And we factor in these arguments as we reshuffle our thoughts, and… well, what I’m trying to say is that the art of criticism is complicated as fuck, and I’m still learning it. And since I’ve written recently about two movies – Inception and Southland Tales – one of which I liked and the other of which I disliked, I want to look at the flip sides of my opinions. Both of these movies are important, I believe, when you’re looking at 21st century American cinema thus far. They both have sundry strengths and beauties, yet both are significantly flawed. So here’s the other side of the story.

With regard to Inception, I wrote, “Nolan one-ups just about all [dream-centered movies] by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story.” This is probably the weakest claim in that entire review, because Nolan doesn’t really have the same hold on actual dream logic that makes movies like Eraserhead or Paprika so enticing. He does, however, have an incredibly strong hold on his own inorganic, sometimes arbitrary, but always fun conceits. Inception is made out of rigid, rational science fiction (cue the word “Kubrickian”) rather than the free-wheeling, unhinged fantasy/horror of, well, dreams. It’s about embattled interior states being realized as unstable cityscapes, yes, but only in accordance with Nolan’s disciplined plot structure and ultramodern design aesthetic – and this goes right along with my complaint that “the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script.” Nolan’s neo-noir vision is so fully in control here that neither the characters’ personalities nor their dreams get any breathing room.

None of this, however, prevents the movie from being twisty, action-packed, cerebral, and fun. But Nolan’s virtuosity leaves little room for idiosyncrasy. This also takes its toll on the film’s psychological aspects; the Cobb/Mal conflict is a great hook that bypasses the onslaught of narrative curveballs, but it feels more by-the-numbers than, say, Leonard and Natalie’s compelling interplay in Memento. And despite all of Cillian Murphy’s acting talent, beauty, and blue eyes, the inner turmoil of the Fischer dynasty felt more like a placeholder or a template than a real, lived-in father/son relationship. It was only in the movie to be manipulated, and it shows. Thankfully, what Inception lacks in terms of spontaneity or humanity it makes up for with cool ingenuity. I don’t regret the morning-after enthusiasm of my review; I still maintain that Inception is the best “Borgesian action movie” out there, and I suggest that you describe it as such whenever possible. But I do want to counterbalance that nerdy zeal with some weeks-later critical honesty.

Similarly, I want to balance out my pessimism about Southland Tales by pointing out its hyperactive, muddled glints of genius. No matter what else I say about it, I insist: Southland Tales is, all in all, a bad movie. But it’s bad in a fascinating, explosive, catastrophic, occasionally insightful way. It’s bad in such a way that I feel like I need to keep writing about it. I was recently glancing through an old issue of Film Comment (November/December 2009, to be specific) and I found an article entitled “All Fall Down: Thinking inside Richard Kelly’s ‘Box'” by Nathan Lee. Much of it deals with The Box, which I haven’t seen, but Lee touches several times on Southland Tales and, I think, he takes the right approach in defending it:

That’s the funny thing about Southland Tales, and the reason I no longer care about its many haters: what I admire in the movie doesn’t run counter to accusations of crap acting, unintelligibility, pretentiousness, shameless pastiche, overweening ambition, etc., but alongside them. For it’s precisely everything awkward, ill-formed, garish, tawdry, and clichéd about Southland Tales that enables it to so brilliantly embody, and thus parody, its moment. Less Lynchian than Tashlinesque, at once diagnostic and symptomatic, Southland Tales is the Showgirls of D-list celebrity sci-fi satire.

I don’t know if I’d say that Southland Tales does anything “so brilliantly,” but I’ll confess that in the film’s dystopian framework, frenetic pacing, and ensemble of self-concerned would-be superstars, you can distinguish traces of a scathing, self-conscious attack on Hollywood and the Bush administration. But saying that Southland Tales is scathing or self-conscious gives Kelly far too much credit, especially given how much of the movie he spends dwelling on Southland Tales‘ supposed profundity. I love many pieces of this movie, like how brashly it posits its Orwellian setting and how it wields some of its stars in unconventional, if miscalculated, ways. While watching it, I quickly realized that Southland Tales was exactly the kind of movie I would’ve dreamt up when I was 14, and I can still appreciate that now.

But so much of the movie is sunk by the flourishes of Kelly’s outsized ego and by his refusal to extend even the slightest olive branch to his audience. Because by the film’s climax, Kelly’s sci-fi twists and turns are about as arbitrary as Nolan’s dream rules, but they’re not followed as consistently or to nearly as much effect. Southland Tales is a mess, and while it may be a gorgeous mess, it’s also a self-cannibalizing, gorgeous mess. It’s successful as a paean to junk culture, but unsuccessful as sociopolitical commentary. I definitely recommend at least one viewing if you’re at all curious, and don’t worry about expecting too much. Because “too much” is exactly what Southland Tales has to offer.

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Images of Southland Tales

Since I’m slowly at work on like 3 different reviews and other writing projects, I don’t have any actual new content today. But I did recently review Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2007) for 366 Weird Movies, so you should go read that instead. And in the meantime, he’s some images from the trailer of The Little Epic That Couldn’t. Enjoy!

Yeah, Southland Tales is that kind of movie.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema