DYSTOPIA NOW

In this politically inflamed, socially mediated era, large groups of people feel abandoned by society and their government. Alongside such alienation has come a spike in hate crimes triggered by the “fear” of people with different religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds. 

More a cry of rage than a real solution, the border wall between the US and Mexico has turned into an ideological litmus test. Ironically, the fact that the wall is actually out for bids seems to have only increased the anger and violence.

This week’s film, The Bad Batch, tracks people in a very near future who are cast out of American society and banished to a desert wasteland.

As they enter the wasteland a sign reads:

“Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. Hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck.”

badbatch THE BAD BATCH (2017) 

Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) directs The Bad Batch, a multi-genre mashup of slasher-meets-horror-meets-dystopia- meets-love story.

Leading the way is Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), an apparently wholesome individual who is tossed into the Mexican desert in the film’s opening scene: she is part of the “bad batch”, inferior citizenry who are no longer wanted in the U.S. After briefly wandering the arid flats, she is kidnapped and taken to an encampment called The Bridge, filled with bulked-up steroid abusers; in short order she is chained up and two of her limbs severed for food like other “bad batchers” who have shared the same fate.

Arlen escapes thanks to a Fisher King-style hobo wandering the wilderness (Jim Carrey), and ends up in a second camp, called Comfort– a place of equally metaphoric implications. Comfort houses the real outcasts – immigrants, the mentally ill, the disabled – but on first inspection at least, appears to have rough charm and some form of rubbing-along livability.

Comfort, however, is controlled by a comically sinister cult leader (Keanu Reeves), who urges the inhabitants to “follow the dream” in an excellent deadpan.

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bombaybeachBOMBAY BEACH (2011)

“The harder you work, the richer you’ll die.” Maybe this single line justifies the price of admission to Bombay Beach, an eerily compelling documentary about lost souls in a lost place, made by the former music-video director Alma Har’el.

Bombay Beach is the name of a ruined town on the Salton Sea, a saline lake in the middle of Southern California’s Colorado Desert. It was a smart vacation resort in the 1950s and 1960s, but abandoned when the water level rose. Now its seedy chalets and trailers are homes for America’s most needy, like a refugee holding camp for the poor, surreally living in the fragments of a forgotten dream of leisure and prosperity.

Har’el tells the story of three of these marginal souls, and does so with compassion and insight. One man had been arrested just after 9/11 on charges of maintaining what appeared to be a huge weapons and ammo dump in this wilderness. He says he’s no militia extremist, just a regular guy with an American affection for guns. Now he’s out of prison, and his son is addicted to Ritalin and other prescription medication.

An elegant oldster, like a character from a David Lynch movie, makes a living buying discount cigarettes from Native American reservations and selling them at a profit to his neighbors.

A young African-American boy has a future ahead of him with a possible football scholarship to college.

All these lives are recounted with flair and an eye for an exotic tale. It’s a rich slice of Americana, and there’s a great soundtrack from musicians including Bob Dylan.

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madmaxMAD MAX: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) 

Director George Miller’s follow-up to his own 1979 hit Mad Max is proof that not all sequels are inferior. If anything, this brutal sci-fi action film is even more intense and exciting than its predecessor, although the state of its post-apocalyptic world has only become worse.

Several years after the deaths of his wife and child, Max (Mel Gibson) has become an alienated nomad, wandering an Australian outback that has fallen into tribal warfare conducted from scattered armed camps.

After a road battle with psychotic villain Wez (Vernon Wells), Max meets up with the odd Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence), who takes him to the camp of a sympathetic group led by Pappagallo (Mike Preston). Since Pappagallo’s people are camped at a refinery, Max plans to take their oil — more precious than gold in this world — but eventually joins them to fight a band of marauders led by the evil Humungus (Kjell Nilsson).

The striking climax features a heart-pounding chase scene involving an oil tanker-truck and a frenzied rush for the coast, with Humungus and his forces in hot pursuit. Nilsson makes a scary villain, with huge muscles and a sinister pre-Jason hockey mask, edited at breakneck pace and staged with manic fury by Miller and stunt coordinator Max Aspin.

iTunes    Amazon   Netflix   Vudu  texas-chainsaw-1TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) 

Tobe Hooper’s film, made over 40 years ago, shocked the nation and gave birth to a new form of horror. The film’s release was troubled and there was increasing pressure to censor or ban the film but it has stood the test of time to become an iconic landmark.

When Sally (Marilyn Burns) hears that her grandfather’s grave may have been vandalized, she and her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), set out with their friends to investigate.

After a detour to their family’s old farmhouse, they discover a group of crazed, murderous outcasts living next door who also like to dabble in cannibalism. When the group is attacked one by one by the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who wears a mask of human skin, the survivors must do everything they can to escape.

This film never fails to terrify.

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 cannibalCANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1985)

Ruggero Deodato’s film was banned and heavily censored across the world; the film’s director was even arrested on its release and the print was seized.

Deodato’s pseudo-documentary follows the plight of four arrogant filmmakers who fly out to the Amazon, in order to film their documentary The Green Inferno, believing that the scenes they capture will buy them inevitable success.  They are never seen again.

The footage is recovered by Professor Harold Moore (Francesca Ciardi) who travels to the Amazon and finds the remains of the film crew along with their unseen footage.

The footage reveals their vile treatment of the South American tribe of cannibals who ultimately turned on them. Their brutal deaths at the hands of the tribe becomes the subject of their documentary.

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SuspiriaDarioArgento2 SUSPIRIA (1977) 

Dario Argento’s 1977 slasher is arguably the artistic apex of the giallo movement, a horror genre he pioneered along with fellow Italians Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. This film has become the entry-level key to unlocking the whole genre, featuring its trademark lush, hyperstylized, color-saturated visuals, lashings of gore, its undercurrent of lurid female eroticism and its magnificent score —in this case provided by rockers Goblin and Argento’s “Tenebre.”

The film follows an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a sinister German dance academy covertly run by a satanic coven of witches, including Dark Shadows star Joan Bennett. The mish-mash of languages and accents from the multi-national cast doesn’t matter much since the whole thing was post-dubbed anyway. But once you become attuned to the garishness of Argento’s work, Suspiria is undeniably creepy and haunting, tuning in to burgeoning female sexuailty as a metaphor for a transformation process that is unknowable.

A remake directed by Luca Guadagnino starring Chloe Moritz and Tilda Swinton is being released later this year.

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KEEPING IT SIMPLE

 

Over the weekend we took a road trip and on the way back listened to an old favorite by Blue October: “Jump Rope”. 

The chorus goes: “Up. Down. Up. Down. / Life’s like a Jump Rope…”  

Feeling that way these days – two weeks ago, we swore off online news and decided to spend the summer reading nothing but (printed) books.  And then last week, the Comey Circus comes to town and we’re glued to the newsfeeds, all atwitter with hope and schadenfreude.   

 So this week we’re taking another swing at simplicity, starting with the new indie release, Maudie.   

 

 

Maudie
MAUDIE (2017)
 

Maudie is a biographical film about Maude Lewis, a woman living in a  little Nova Scotia town in Nova Scotia who becomes famous as a folk artist.

Maud Dowly is a small woman with a playful temperament who has been afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis since her teens.  In her 30’s she finds herself in need of money and answers a notice placed the local grocery shop by a gruff fish-seller named Everett Lewis.  Lewis is looking for a housekeeper, but they end up marrying and living together in his tiny house – giving the locals and Maud’s family plenty to talk about.

Maud starts painting simple, cheerful subjects and gradually becomes famous, first locally and eventually across North America – Richard Nixon buys a painting for the white house.

Everett is played by Ethan Hawke, who has become so entertaining and peripatetic that we keep our eyes peeled for anything he takes on.  This is a fun change-up for him.  Maud is played by Sally Hawkins, one of those incredibly versatile British actresses who has appeared in everything from Shakespeare to Godzilla.  She started out as a Mike Leigh regular, and garnered some buzz as a vaguely similar character in Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky.

The director here is Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, who has been directing prestigious UK TV series for years (Trial and Retribution, Fingersmith, A Poet In New York), but didn’t break out in the feature realm until the 2003 award-winning Song for a Raggy Boy.

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happy-go-lucky-2
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

For us, Mike Leigh always conjures kitchen sink realism — Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake.   But even Naked is technically a black, black comedy – and then there’s Topsy Turvy, Abigail’s Party, and this one: Happy-Go-Lucky.

Sally Hawkins plays Pauline “Poppy” Cross, a grade school teacher who’s almost pathologically optimistic — Kimmy Schmidt’s even more upbeat British cousin.

When Poppy’s bicycle is stolen, it means it’s time to learn to drive.  The driving teacher (Steven Marsan) is her (bi)polar opposite – brimming over with prejudice, bile, and conspiracy theories.  Naturally, he falls in love with her.  But Leigh’s point isn’t that she’s a fool.  Poppy makes it clear that this is not a romance that is meant to be.

The movie leaves you wondering – is it all about serotonin?  Or is being ‘realistic’ – as Poppy’s sister urges her to become – a choice?  And maybe not such a good one.

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GÉRARD DEPARDIEU AND GISÈLE CASADESUS

This Gerard Depardieu starrer turns the existential question into a critical one.  Many writers thought it was contrived and sentimental.  But we always check out Amazon reviews too, and “real people” there  give it raves and 4.6 stars.  Free, incidentally, on Amazon Prime.

The French title is La Tête en Fiche – an expression that means something like “an uncultivated mind”.  Depardieu plays a marginally literate handyman with a heart of gold who meets a highly cultured 95-year-old scientist on a park bench.

She is reading Camus’ The Plague, piques his interest, and starts reading it to him. The language and the ideas in the book fire his imagination, and the two start meeting regularly.   When her eyesight fails he struggles, with increasing success, to read to her.  And when she is sent off to a cheaper retirement home, he tracks her down and brings her to live in his house.

Here at The Thread we tend to fixate on actors, and will watch (almost) anything with Depardieu in it.  Marguerite is played by French national treasure Gisèle Casadesus.  Casadesus is still alive, now 103.  She started acting when she joined the Comédie-Française in 1939 at age 20, and has been at it ever since.

Is the film sentimental?  Inevitably.  Will you really care?  Probably not.

 Amazon

 

 

forrest gump
FORREST GUMP (1994)

Since we moved back to the East Coast, Friday nights have become family movie nights, complete with takeout pizza.  The challenge is finding titles that everybody will enjoy, from ages 10 to 13 to too-old-to-tell.

As it turns out, John Hughes and Tom Hanks are consistent winners.  So a month or so ago we rewatched Forrest Gump.

Home run – and as it turns out, for all concerned.  A revelation for the kids and a returning pleasure for us parents.

Like it’s star, the movie accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.  Plus, we realized that we kind of buy the moral of the story: if you just remember that “stupid is as stupid does”, history will take care of itself.  Now, if we could just successfully internalize that message…

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Of Mice and Men
OF MICE AND MEN (1992)

There are two eminent versions of this Steinbeck classic.  One of the things we’ve learned from our Friday night movies is that any film pre-1970 is a gamble and pre-1960 is an extremely specialized taste.  If you share that taste, you might want to revisit the 1939 Oscar winner, starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.

But for this week’s list, we chose the Gary Sinese’s version.  There’s the Sinese/Gump connection; and we  like the fact that John Malkovich, who specializes in egghead villains, here plays the simple man-child, Lenny.

Steinbeck’s fable feels inevitably retro – and here we like that tension between the simpler-time, simpler-place and the contemporary actors.  And that even with the whiff of anachronism, the story remains inherently heart-wrenching, Steinbeck’s patented tragic disconnect between the moral simplicity we long for and the complexity of the real world.

This was Sinese’s second feature as director and he hasn’t directed anything since.  He had loved the novel since boyhood.  A few years earlier he played Tom Joad in the 1988 Steppenwolf Theater production (staged by the brilliant Frank Galati, one of our mentors at Northwestern).  The screenplay  by Horton Foote hews closely to the book.  And the acting is appropriately pared down from the sometimes hammy 1939 version.

We didn’t know it until we started researching today, but Sinese is a staunch Republican.  He supported both McCain and Romney – but has disavowed Trump.

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Slingblade
SLINGBLADE (1996) 

As you may have noticed, our subtext has veered from happiness to morality – simplicity as the moral compass in a world of spin.

We keep thinking of couple lines from our favorite Yeats poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Which seems to be one of the few sentiments the two ends of the political spectrum share.

Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in Slingblade, another moral fable; and it became his breakthrough achievement.  Karl is a simple character whose simplicity is transformed into a superpower: an unerring ability to serve his vision of good with an intensity denied to anyone with a more complex view of the world.

When Karl summarily executes Dwight Yoakam’s abusive redneck boyfriend, he acts with a redemptive purity that these days seems beyond the reach of even superheroes.  You have to turn to  Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino for another character who’s so sure of what’s right and so willing to sacrifice his life for it.

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