Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley: Over under sideways down—- “Mental” and “Upstream Color”

Saturday Night at the Movies 

Over under sideways down

by Dennis Hartley

Ding-dong: Mental

I'm beginning to worry about Toni Collette. While I realize that she is an actor (and a damn fine one) who is playing a seriously unhinged character in P.J. Hogan's Mental, it's just that she's played these seriously unhinged characters so frequently, and with such unflagging gusto, I am starting to wonder if this woman really is off her fucking rocker. And if she is, know that I'm not judging; after all, that's what made the late great Jonathan Winters such a comedic genius (he actually did have a few screws loose...may he R.I.P.).

In this outing, Collette (who made her bones with movie audiences as Hogan's leading lady in his wildly popular 1994 Australian import, Muriel's Wedding) plays a Nanny from Hell named Shaz (think Mary Poppins meets Courtney Love). She hitchhikes into a New South Wales burg, accompanied by her trusty dog, Ripper. She's picked up by Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia), an exasperated father of five daughters. He is at wit's end, because his wife Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) who has a history of mental issues, believes that she is Maria von Trapp (in the opening, she serenades the neighbors and horrifies her kids by belting out a lively rendition of "The Sound of Music" while hanging laundry). Consequently, Barry, an ambitious politician, has sent his wife "on holiday" (the laughing house) on the eve of a campaign. What to do about his daughters?

For unfathomable reasons beyond the ken of any halfway responsible parent, Barry (who apparently spends so little quality time with his family that he can’t keep all his daughters’ names straight) offers the off-the-wall Shaz a gig as the family nanny. With his wife tucked away under psychiatric observation and his children under possibly psychotic supervision by a total stranger, Barry can now get back on track with his true passions: philandering and politicking. Needless to say, this highly dysfunctional home environment has imbued the Moochmore sisters with assorted neuroses of their own; but as we’ve learned from similar (and superior) films like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping and Eugene Corr’s Desert Bloom, it’s nothing that the Kooky Free Spirited Auntie can’t cure with a few wacky bonding escapades and “just between us girls” heart-to-heart sessions.

A wild pastiche of general hysteria, screeching actors, busy sets and loud colors, Mental is a cacophonous, anxiety-inducing assault on the senses. Hogan told an interviewer that the story is loosely autobiographical, that there really was a “Shaz” who played a similar role in his childhood. That’s nice to know, but why turn such a potentially interesting personal memoir into what amounts to a live action Saturday morning cartoon?  Now that I think about it, it is not unlike a Pedro Almodovar film; except Almodovar seems to know when to put a sock in it and allow his narrative to breathe a bit. While there's something to be said for quirk, ebullience and verve (of which this film certainly has no shortage), Hogan refuses to let viewers up for air, leaving us to drown in his enthusiasm.

Yin-yang: Upstream Color

You know all those Weekly World News-type stories about people allegedly kidnapped by aliens, who perform horrible experiments on their hapless captives before returning them to their original upright position behind the wheel of their car, now mysteriously relocated in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Iowa? While they may have vague recollections regarding anal probes and such, these folks are generally a bit fuzzy on details. In Upstream Color, writer-director-actor Shane Carruth may be offering an explanation. At least that’s one explanation that I can offer for this fuzzy cypher of a film.

To say this film is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Huh?!” may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is jumped in an alley, tasered and then forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (all I know is that it appears to be in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna (I believe the original working title of this film was When Ethnobotanists Attack!) As he methodically cleans out her financial assets over a period of several days (with her “willing” cooperation) while encamped at her house, he next directs her to commit passages of Thoreau’s writings to memory (it was either that or waterboarding).  

What happens next is…well, what happens next is, erm...OK we’ll just say it’s the creepy, fuzzily recollected part involving anal probes and such. All I know is that it takes place at a pig farm and fuzzily reminded me of that really creepy part of O Lucky Man! wherein Malcolm McDowell inadvertently stumbles into a top secret government medical research lab, where he’s tortured and then the next thing he knows he’s coming to on a gurney next to some poor wretched creature that appears to be half man and half sheep.  Anyhoo, the next thing the woman knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked alongside some cornfield off the interstate, and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. Oh, and along the way she meets and falls in love with this sullen dude (played by Carruth) who may have had the same exact experience! Wild and wooly metaphysical/transcendentalist hijinks ensue.

While I will give Carruth some points for originality (the closest I can come to a tagline for this one is A Man and a Woman meets Eraserhead ) and find it admirable that he is making such an earnest effort to be compared to Andrei Tartovsky, unfortunately he’s falling short, just this side of a glorified Twilight Zone episode. This seems to be the latest entry in a burgeoning subgenre that I have dubbed “emo sci-fi” (alongside the likes of Another Earth and Safety Not Guaranteed). That being said, if you are predisposed toward such challenging fare, I wouldn’t dissuade you from checking it out. And don’t feel bad if you don’t “get it” the first time you see it. I didn’t get it the second time either.