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Clever idea that doesn’t bear fruit

Pat Padua

THE WASHINGTON POST – Directors from Alfred Hitchcock to David Lynch have attempted to translate the illogic of dreams to film. In that spirit, Strawberry Mansion – the latest exercise in surrealism from co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, whose Sylvio was listed as one of the best movies of 2017 by the New Yorker’s Richard Brody – plays out almost entirely in the subconscious.

Yet despite striking images and provocative ideas, there isn’t enough drama to keep the narrative awake for 91 minutes.

Set in the year 2035, the film centres on “dream auditor” James Preble (Audley), who with his brown suit and hat could have walked out of Death of a Salesman.

In this near-future world, it is mandated that people save all their nocturnal reveries to a memory card while they sleep; when they awaken, they’re required to upload the content to a server that computes the taxes incurred overnight.

James’s latest assignment: Collect back taxes from Arabella (Penny Fuller), an eccentric widow who lives in the eponymous house, and who has amassed 2,000 VHS tapes of brain-content, dating from the 1980s. (The story assumes this straight-to-video technology existed then).

When James begins to play her tapes, putting on an elaborate helmet so he can enter her night visions, he meets a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki), as she was known, and falls in love.

But he soon finds something unusual about Bella’s tapes. James’s own dreams – which take place in an apartment the colour of Pepto-Bismol – are peppered with product placement, often for a brand of fried chicken.

Photos show scenes from ‘Strawberry Mansion’. PHOTOS: MUSIC BOX FILMS

Bella’s, on the other hand, are curiously absent of subliminal ads. How does she escape the onslaught of consumerism? And can James find his own way out from under the all-seeing corporate eye?

Strawberry seems to have plenty going for it. The movie was shot digitally, but a unique process gives Tyler Davis’s cinematography a distinctly analog sheen: The digital master was transferred to 16mm film, casting a grainy mist over everything. There’s no other movie in recent memory that looks quite like this.

The invasive product placement will resonate with anyone who has concerns about the contemporary surveillance state, in which our smartphones seem to be able to listen to conversations and then hit us with targetted ads selling – completely random example here – adult diapers.

As for the cast, Audley is a perfect everyman, his old-fashioned appearance mirroring the banality and decay that surrounds him – and a strong contrast to Bella’s garishly colorful quirks.

But those quirks eventually start to feel precious, as when Bella is served by a waiter who’s a frog playing a saxophone.

Yes, it’s that kind of movie: Less paranoid about the state of the modern world than merely wacky.

In a way, you may have: Audley and Birney’s ‘Sylvio’ focussed on a guy in a gorilla suit, and their latest is a variation on that approach, with animal heads served sparingly – until, that is, they seem to become so frequent that they come to dominate the inner inferno James is navigating.

The movie sounds – and looks – tasty enough, but this Strawberry Mansion just doesn’t bear much fruit.


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