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.

YouTube

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.

iTunes    Amazon   Netflix  

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.

 iTunes    Amazon   Netflix   YouTube

 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.

iTunes    Amazon   Netflix   YouTube   

 

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.

 Amazon   Netflix 

DINNER REVELATIONS

The dinner party is something we all experience, either casually or formally, with friends and family. It may aim to celebrate an occasion or be a downright awkward experience that could not be avoided ala Beatriz at Dinner.

The common denominator in our filmic examples this week is that the directors take this mundane premise and twist it into something entirely strange, be that shocking, witty, scary or explosive. The director can make a point and show rather than tell—the kind that evokes feelings and can help the viewer identify with the protagonists.

beatriz-at-dinner-sundance BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)

Miguel Arteta and Mike White’s third film working together (Chuck and Buck; The Good Girl) is bizarrely prescient given that it was written in late 2015/16 prior to the disastrous election last fall.

The protagonists are a Mexican immigrant (Salma Hayek) and an American billionaire real estate developer (John Lithgow). The film is a savage takedown of ugly white privilege but Beatriz at Dinner is also a character study of a woman who is hopeful and believes in humanity and the good in people.

Beatriz’s car breaks down at a wealthy client’s house and she is invited to stay and join them for a dinner celebrating a new business deal. The cast are superbly matched, the tension of their conversation and obvious class divide simmers throughout the dinner. It becomes inevitable that Hayek and Lithgow will duke it out, and their intense discussion becomes a provocative duel with clear parallels to our current social division.

YouTube

Celebration

THE CELEBRATION (1998) 

Thomas Vinterberg’s much lauded film centers on a large family gathering to celebrate Helfe’s (Henning Moritzen) 60th birthday. While most family celebrations have undercurrents, this lacerating Danish film, shot in the Dogme style, shows just how deeply unhappy families can be.

Eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) delivers a toast, full of “home truths,” that shocks everyone. Sure, the anecdote about how he and his late sister Linda would put things in people’s food without their noticing is amusing; but the section about dad taking baths and then taking Linda and Christian into his study to sexually abuse and rape them might put even the most deeply repressed folks off their meal.

Amazon

Guess-Whos-Coming-to-Dinner

GUESS WHO IS COMING TO DINNER (1967) 

Directed by Stanley Kramer, the film was Hollywood’s take on an incendiary topic, interracial marriage. At the time of its release, 50 years before Get Out, it was considered quite controversial — but even then some critics found it bland and patronizing. The film was a commercial hit that epitomized mainstream Hollywood’s liberal leanings at the time.

Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn are unforgettable as wealthy liberal parents whose daughter comes home to introduce them to her fiancé John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Along with his parents both families face their own prejudices and anxieties about their union.

The film is a masterful study of society’s prejudices which still resonates today.

iTunes    Amazon   YouTube

eatEAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1993)

Ang Lee’s mouth-watering opening scene of a meal being prepared sets the appropriate tone for this poignant film about Master Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) and his three grown daughters.

The family gathers around the table for dinner every Sunday. But whenever they get together, someone always seems to have an announcement that causes everyone else to go into a tailspin. In one of the film’s most ironic scenes, Chu, whose taste buds are failing, prepares a gorgeous meal that everyone refuses to eat. Life within the family gets more tangled when Chu marries Madame Liang, the single mother next door.

Amazon    iTunes    Vudu

Annie-HallANNIE HALL (1977)

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) visits his girlfriend’s family for Easter dinner in this classic comedy. While the “dynamite ham” is served to Grammy Hall, she stares at Alvy as if he’s a Hasid. Alvy squirms in disbelief, then breaks the third wall to illustrate the differences between the Singer family table and the Halls. It’s a hilarious split screen comparison: her family’s table talk concerns swap meets while his parents rowdily discuss diabetes.

Woody Allen is definitely one for playful social commentary and making the awkward realities into comedy. It is quite a feat, that in this scene Allen’s irritating character manages to make the audience sympathize with his ordeal.

Amazon    iTunes    Vudu

tripTHE TRIP TO ITALY (2014)

Michael Winterbottom’s largely improvised 2010 film, The Trip, took comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a restaurant tour around northern England. In this witty and incisive follow-up, Winterbottom reunites the pair for a new culinary road trip, retracing the steps of the Romantic poets’ grand tour of Italy and indulging in some clever banter and impersonation-offs. We especially love Brydon’s impersonation of a boy trapped in a box.

The Trip to Italy smoothly melds the comic interplay between Coogan and Brydon into quieter moments of self-reflection, letting audiences into their insightful ruminations on the nuances of friendship and the juggling of family and career. The result is a biting portrait of modern-day masculinity.

Amazon    iTunes    YouTube