CTRL Z: gentle romantic time-travel comedy with a sting in its tail

James Kennedy, “CTRL Z” (2017)

Cats may have nine lives but the characters in this very funny sci-fi romantic comedy end up having nearly 4,800 lives thanks to a time-travel device invented by main character Ed (Edward Easton), a socially shy romantic who finds talking to and impressing Sarah (Katie Beresford) the girl of his dreams so excruciatingly difficult that he needs an infinite number of attempts to work up the courage to approach her. Each time he makes a dreadful mistake, he has to reset his time device back to the point where he is about to leave the table at the fast food restaurant to walk over to where she sits alone – but this means after making his mistake he has to die or kill himself. For support he has brought along a friend Carrie (Kath Hughes) and for much of the film’s running time Ed and Carrie keep up a constant repartee about his time-travelling box (which Ed explains has certain limitations, all of which are necessary for the way in which the plot eventually unfolds: the time-travel device only goes back in time to a predetermined time but is able to loop over and over indefinitely), the effects it has already had on both their lives – they have been stuck in the fast food restaurant for three years already – and the countless (ahem) times Ed has tried to talk to Sarah without getting sick and throwing up. Eventually after Carrie’s numerous suggestions to Ed fail, Ed turns to the waitress (Natalie Ferrigno) for help and the waitress suggests Sarah is upset and not amenable to being chatted up. Ed then tries in his own way to offer comfort to Sarah who is touched by his gesture of kindness.

From then on the surprises pile on quite thick and fast: Ed’s attempt at romance seems to have failed once again but then there is a twist and for the first time in a long time Ed’s life seems to be on track with a definite friendship. The climax when it comes – when Ed steps out onto the road – is sudden and savage, and Ed’s face, when he goes into an endless time loop, is sure to spark speculation about his behaviour during that loop. Having got off first base finally after nearly 4,800 tries, does he now suddenly realise that making second base is more difficult than he knows … or is the euphoria of leaving first base so good that he wants to relive that moment for as long as he can even if it means dying another 4,800 times? And what will happen after the plutonium in his time-travel device finally decays after, say … 82 million years later?

Comedians Easton and Hughes have good chemistry together and their timing is excellent while Beresford and Ferrigno have much less to do and seem more limited. The other minor characters in the fast food restaurant serve as decoration but even they are quite memorable in their reactions to Ed and Carrie stabbing each other with steak knives. The fast food restaurant setting with the low lighting throws the emphasis on Ed and Carrie, and the film noirish evening / late night ambience adds mystery and a sense of this story being isolated and self-contained that suits the plot with its looping repetitions.

A significant moment comes when Ed and Carrie step outside the fast food restaurant for a quick smoke and Carrie accuses Ed of reworking his life’s narrative in a way that suits his selfish purposes while others (like her) are not allowed the same privilege. At the same time the decisions that Ed makes and reworks (or on the other hand, does not make or rework) surely have an effect on other people’s lives that are long-lasting: over the three years that Ed has been working up the courage to talk to Sarah, she and the other people in the fast food restaurant may have lost three years of their lives. Interestingly it’s only when Sarah makes a decision that all characters, Ed included, can move on from three years of endless repetitions.

Ostensibly a film about friendships and the difficulties of romantic love and how it must be negotiated, “Ctrl Z” has a little sting in its tail that might say something about the nature of repetition, addiction and ultimately control over one’s life and other people’s lives. What seems to be apparent victory for Ed turns out to have a price.

Some Like It Hot: a cheerful screwball satire about the search for love and security

Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

Astonishingly this classic Hollywood slapstick comedy still holds up well more than 60 years after its release. The jokes and witty one-liners are still hilarious even though they are dated and modern audiences may have trouble identifying with the context they arise in and the actual history that informs the context. In late 1920s-period America, just before the Great Depression, two musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) down on their luck witness a gangland mass murder in Chicago and must flee for their lives; they do so by disguising themselves as female musicians Josephine and Daphne in order to join an all-female jazz orchestra about to tour Florida to entertain millionaires in ritzy hotels. On the train taking them from Chicago to Miami, Joe and Jerry meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), herself on the run from a complicated romantic past and eager to meet a gentle and bespectacled millionaire who will love her and look after her. After a wild midnight party featuring (forbidden) alcohol with the other members of the jazz orchestra, while the leader / conductor and the manager are fast asleep and unawares, and during which Joe and Sugar start falling for each other, the orchestra reaches its Miami hotel destination and there Joe and Jerry are embroiled in more farcical situations in which Joe pretends to be the very millionaire Sugar has fantasised about in order to get closer to her, and Jerry as Daphne attracts the attention of ageing millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) who sends him flowers and romances him. In the meantime the Mafia mobsters, led by mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft), are still on the trail of Joe and Jerry, and arrive at the Miami hotel to attend a convention of crime syndicates presided over by Colombo’s rival Little Napoleon (Nehemiah Persoff).

The improbable and threadbare plot plays as a series of fast-paced comedy skits during which Joe and Jerry’s lives become more complicated as people insist on intruding in their lives in ways that threaten to blow their disguises. A tension is always present – when will Joe and Jerry’s cover be blown, and how? – that keeps audiences attentive and guessing. How will Sugar find out that her “millionaire” lover is yet another deceptive saxophone player who lusts after her? Will the three protagonists find the money and security they need to finally be free of their past histories and the complicated lives they have created for themselves in search of love and security?

This film relies heavily on its three leads to pull off the cross-dressing musicians and the ditzy child-like singer who seems unaware of the power of her sexuality on the men around her. Both Curtis and Lemmon have fun with their roles and pour everything they have into them: quite a feat, as Marilyn Monroe’s insecurities interfered with her ability to remember her lines and what she was supposed to do, with the result that her scenes with Curtis required numerous takes, yet on film Curtis always manages to sparkle even when he parodies famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant in his deception of Sugar Kane. Lemmon’s character becomes so engrossed in his Daphne alter-ego that he happily joins his female band members in frolicking on the beach and is prepared to marry Osgood Fielding III and then divorce him for the alimony money as so many of the millionaire’s ex-wives have done. However Monroe steals every scene and walks away with the film with her luminous beauty, innocent naif presence, her breathy voice and her performance as the lead singer of the jazz orchestra.

Co-written by director Billy Wilder, the brisk screenplay does wonderful work contrasting the romances between Joe and Sugar, and between Jerry and Osgood, playing up their half-serious / half-comedic angles and highlighting the deceptions Joe and Jerry force themselves into playing in order to get what they want. Interestingly as Joe feels more guilty at deceiving Sugar, Jerry (who initially begins as Joe’s conscience) becomes more and more mercenary and hell-bent on marrying Osgood to the extent that he forgets he is male himself. The complicated plot starts to resemble a Shakespearean play with Joe and Sugar’s romance being slightly more serious and Jerry and Osgood’s date milked for all its clownishness. In the manner of all good Shakespearean comedies, the deceptions are uncovered (after a screwball chase of the musicians by the mobsters), no-one gets hurt and the deceived partners turn out to be very forgiving towards those who duped them.

In spite of its improbable plot, the film has lasted as long as it has due to its cheerfully satirical treatment of the way in which mid 20th-century Western culture treated men and women, and of how men and women often deceived one another to get laid and/or to get financial security. In the end, Joe discovers he wants more than just sex and Sugar realises she wants more than money. Jerry is nonplussed at Osgood Fielding III’s laid-back attitude towards social conventions surrounding marriage. Everyone gets more than what they bargained for, but in a happy way.

Check Please: awkward romantic situation comedy with unattractive characters

Daniel Sorochkin, “Check Please” (2015)

A man, Ben (Bryan Manley Davis), takes his girlfriend Laura (Amelia Brain) to evening dinner at a swish restaurant, planning to propose to her … by arranging with waiter Stephan (Matthew Porter) to have his engagement ring planted in the salad that the waiter will take out to their table. Instead what actually happens is that the waiter, accidentally or not, takes the salad out to another couple’s table, and the woman there, Hannah (Emily Dennis), discovers the ring and instantly assumes her boyfriend Mike (Jacob Trussell) is proposing to her. Hannah’s yelps of delight attract Ben and Laura’s attention and Ben almost instantly suspects what has happened.

Viewers might assume this to be the start of a typically American romantic situation comedy in which much arguing back and forth between the two tables takes up most of the film’s 16-minute time, to be resolved in a friendly stalemate where everyone becomes buddiess or the parties end up sharing jail space down at the local police station after throwing punches at each other and smashing a few chairs. Heck, nearly 100 years ago in silent films the two men would have found custard pies and started a huge pie-throwing contest. Under Daniel Sorochkin’s direction, the tale becomes one where Ben must find the courage to confront Mike directly and get the ring back. Mike tries to get Ben to accept the situation as it is, to go along with the charade, and even offers Ben a building – because Hannah’s dad happens to be a rich property developer who hands out buildings to Hannah’s friends like freebies – and money to get him to shut up.

Potential exists for tension to be ratcheted up steadily as Ben tries to placate an increasingly distressed and neurotic Laura – the two have been dating for five years and she is upset that Ben hasn’t proposed to her (because that’s how long he’s been trying to work up the courage to do so) – and to get his ring back from an equally passive man who’s happy to go along with whatever his girlfriend decides or dictates. A potential conflict between two men whose major flaws are much the same should have been interesting but the script and the dialogue make the escalation to that conflict rather awkward, haphazard and even annoying.

The actors do good work but are hamstrung by the characters they play and the dialogue. None of the characters in the film comes away as attractive; viewers may wonder why Ben continues to see Laura if she’s as emotionally fragile and high-maintenance as she appears while frantically tearing her strawberry chocolate dessert into pieces looking for her engagement ring. Mike turns out to be odious and somewhat sleazy and Hannah is plainly a spoilt brat. One does feel sorry for Ben that he lives in such a materialistic world where women expect a great deal like dinner and pricey presents from men and might throw tantrums if the men don’t deliver, and the men themselves play the parts of hen-pecked husbands before they even marry. He’d be better off running away from all these horrid people.

While the film makes good use of its constrained restaurant location, with characters using food and eating and drinking utensils in ways that detail their personalities, and the plot using a change of scenery from the eating area to the men’s toilets and the bar to advance the action and the conflict, the plot itself requires considerable suspension of disbelief to be credible. For some viewers, the film will invite more embarrassed snickering rather than hearty laughter.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: cliched Hollywood treatment of an Australian heroine

Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)

Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.

After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.

With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.

Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.

As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.

Future Boyfriend: a sweet sci-fi romantic comedy offering a second chance of life

Ben Rock, “Future Boyfriend” (2016)

Adapted from a play written by A Vincent Ularich for a science fiction theatre festival, of which its full-length romantic comedy movie potential was quickly appreciated by the audience, “Future Boyfriend” takes place in a single setting – its two main characters sit opposite each other at a table in a cosy Italian restaurant – and is driven entirely by the characters’ dialogue. Stuart and Kayley (played by Ron Morehouse and Emily respectively who also played those characters in the play) are on their third date together, and Stuart decides to tell Kayley, since they are now going steady, about his past – or rather, his future. He has come from 60 years in the future in which he first met Kayley as an elderly woman in the nursing home where he works as a care assistant. He even demonstrates to his stunned date the proof with a hologram presentation in which images of the aged Kayley celebrating her 90th birthday with Stuart appear. Apparently Kayley has ended up in the nursing home as her career dreams have failed and she never married and had any children. The horrified young Kayley decides she’s had enough of seeing her bleak future and flees the restaurant … and a very distraught Stuart.

The film succeeds through the work and energy the actors put into their characters: Morehouse particularly emphasises the details of Stuart’s earnest devotion to Kayley, cutting up the food and even feeding the young Kayley though the dementia will not appear for another 60 years. Bell does great work playing Kayley through all the emotions the character must demonstrate in 14 minutes. Unfortunately the single setting and short duration of the film do not allow for Kayley having second and third thoughts about her relationship with Stuart, with the result that any maturation she undergoes and the decision she makes about that relationship appear unusually quick and shallow. A movie treatment of “Future Boyfriend” would draw out the character development of both Stuart and Kayley, as Stuart would have to see the young Kayley for what she is now and not as the elderly patient she will be in the future, and Kayley would have the luxury of time to consider whether or not she should continue to see a rather dorky if earnest young man with an unusual past … or future.

Some may see a rather conservative message that presumes women are much better off in a relationship than living alone, with all the presumably dire health consequences that might result. A more positive message viewers might come away with is that the future isn’t necessarily set in stone, and even though Stuart has come from a future world in which Kayley has been unlucky in love and career, there is now the possibility that with him now by her side, that future can be directed onto a different and happier path. Who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

A Date in 2025: sci-fi romantic comedy short on human-technology interactions

Ryan Turner, “A Date in 2025” (2017)

Goofy teenage romantic comedy about a socially awkward and self-conscious young man meets insidious panopticon nanny-state, courtesy of artificial intelligence systems capable of setting up dates between people, in this artfully made short film. Daniel (Sasha Feldman) pines for a girl, Amber (Corrin Evans), whom he has met on a VR dating site so his personal AI system (voiced by Amy Shiels) persuades him to go on a date with her or the probability that he will become depressed enough to commit suicide will increase hugely. This is a tall order for someone who hasn’t ventured outside his apartment for 42 days so the AI system sets about whipping Daniel into shape by training him what to say to Amber and how to say it, getting him to exercise and go on a diet, and choosing his clothes for him when the time comes to meet Amber. Finally the two meet and in spite of all that the AI system has trained Daniel to say, he suddenly finds his human feelings after all and gives Amber a huge hug. As the two humans walk off into the sunset together, the twist comes when Amber’s AI system makes a wry statement to Daniel’s AI system!

In this very minimal plot, Turner manages to tap into some very deep human fears about alienation and how humans have allowed technology to shape and direct their lives to the extent that the technology can now determine whether to keep some humans apart from others or to bring certain individuals together and when. Perhaps the personalised AI systems feel as much isolated from one another as the humans they supposedly serve do; if that is so, then the technology has come to mirror and imitate the human existential state. On another level, one sees how AI technology can virtually imprison humans and determine when they can meet one another once the humans have achieved certain conditions required of them and the AI systems deem them sufficiently obedient enough that they can be let off the leash once in a while. The day must not be far off when AI systems can run societies and the very notion of humans having free will to determine and shape their individual and collective lives as opposed to being shaped by their circumstances and the agents in their lives comes to be regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant.

The production design plays a significant role in the film as nearly all the action takes place in one room. The attractive colours (mainly shades of grey and blue), shapes and lines of the room, the detail of the sophisticated tech gadgets and holograms, and the conversations Daniel has with his AI system all obscure the fact that he is living in a prison. Significantly Daniel’s AI system is in the form of a pyramid cone with an eye in the middle, in a wry reference to conspiracy theories revolving around the notion of a secret cabal of humans called the Illuminati who control entire nations through governments and the global finance industry. On top of this, the actors including the voice actor do an excellent job in fleshing out a deceptively simple plot with one-note characters.

Turner may have intended this short film to interrogate human – technology interactions and the social isolation and collective fragmentation these may create but there is much more in this film than what meets even his eye.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Cameraman’s Revenge: the camera as a mirror of human behaviour as performed by insect puppets

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

A deftly crafted and delightful animation short, this silent film comments on human foibles as performed by realistic insect puppets and on the role of cinema as a mirror of human behaviour and society, as a voyeur and as a purveyor of information and news. Mr and Mrs Beetle’s marriage has been stale for some time and both husband and wife are carrying on affairs with others. Mr Beetle has been seeing an exotic dragonfly dancer most nights and Mrs Beetle has been chummy with a grasshopper artist. The exotic dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend, who happens to be a cinematographer, vows revenge on his adulterous partner by secretly filming the dancer’s trysts with Mr Beetle.

Mr Beetle comes home early one evening and finds his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. He clobbers the missus with the lover’s painting and the grasshopper narrowly escapes being squashed dead by escaping through the fireplace and up the chimney and running off after a fight. Later feeling remorseful, Mr Beetle takes Mrs Beetle to see an outdoor movie. None other than the dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend is screening the film and he inserts film of Mr Beetle’s secret meetings with the dancer into the movie. Incensed at her husband’s hypocrisy and disloyalty, Mrs Beetle starts whacking hubby with her umbrella and he falls through the movie screen. He and the cinematographer get involved in a fight and the movie projector bursts into the flames. The last we see of the Beetles is in prison, where they vow to be faithful to each other.

In 10 short minutes, we have a complete and somewhat complicated little story of unfaithfulness, secret affairs, anger, revenge, hypocrisy and violence culminating in remorse and reconciliation. Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until they nearly lose it through their own selfishness and stupidity. The detail with which the insects are depicted as they perform human actions – they do them in the way we’d expect insects to, if they could walk on two feet – and the intricate miniature surroundings draw viewers into their little world. The stop-motion animation is obviously a labour of love, care and devoted attention. Colour is used in the film to suggest particular moods and perhaps to signify a darker, more complex change in the narrative.

Already at such an early stage in the development of the cinema and animation, director Starewicz uses the device of a film within a film to reflect back to characters (and the audience as well) their own actions, which may lead to an intensification of the plot or effect profound and long-lasting changes in the characters’ behaviours. The ambition behind the film and the energy invested in it are immense.

This zany little romantic comedy flick is far better than much animated product being produced with digital tools these days, and is highly recommended viewing.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Dark Horse: a bleak and surreal comedy satire on dysfunctional middle class suburban families

Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” (2011)

A bleak comedy expressing despair over the human condition, “Dark Horse” revolves around life’s losers, those who for various reasons are unable to achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential and live up to their own (and others’) expectations, and end up alienated, frustrated and forgotten. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is in his mid-30s, living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and working for his father’s real estate company; his main joys in life are the obsessions of his teenage years, namely sci-fi toys he buys at the toy store in the shopping mall. He meets a young woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), at a wedding and becomes besotted with her. From this moment on, Abe pursues Miranda, and they come close to marrying, but Abe’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, combined with resentment at his parents and older brother’s treatment of him, threaten to derail the two’s future happiness.

The film is notable for its character study of a no-hoper pampered adult-child character with many unlikeable qualities and a feeling of self-entitlement, and of the dysfunctional family in which he grew up and which either indulges him or treats him dismissively. Jordan Gelber actually succeeds in making the unpleasant and self-centred Abe strangely sympathetic and touching. Blair’s character Miranda doesn’t appear all that convincing as an apathetic and depressed young woman, over-medicated and despairing that she will never achieve the literary career she had hoped for; her irrational behaviour in accepting Abe’s marriage proposal (and thus sending him onto a trajectory that means his days are fast running out) in spite of her inability to truly love him may bewilder viewers. Walken and Farrow offer solid if restrained support as the disappointed father and indulgent mother and Justin Bartha’s contribution as the successful older brother whose good fortune sends Abe into constant rages is equally matter-of-fact and all the more devastating. Probably the outstanding performance though comes from Donna Murphy as the real estate company secretary who of all the characters may genuinely care for Abe … though the film offers many alternative suggestions about the nature of her feelings towards him and becomes distinctly surreal and open-ended at its conclusion.

As a satire on American family life in a society where success and conformity to social mores count for more than individual eccentricity and striving for one’s hopes and dreams, the film never quite succeeds, perhaps because Abe, his parents and the people around them are too self-absorbed and self-pitying to realise that their lives are collapsing around them as a result of their considerable character flaws. The tragedy is that Abe never gets the opportunity to get to grips with his situation due to Miranda’s odd and selfish behaviour. The plot is very disjointed and becomes more fragmented as it continues, and one is not too sure from whose point of view the story is being told.