The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - STRAWBERRY MANSION | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - STRAWBERRY MANSION

strawberry mansion review
An auditor of dreams uncovers an advertising conspiracy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley

Starring: Penny Fuller, Kentucker Audley, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips, Constance Shulman

strawberry mansion poster

When John Carpenter made his anti-capitalist satire They Live in 1987, it was a very different world. We were a lot more innocent of the fact that we were living in a consumerist world, and advertising back then was far more blatant. It was a time when you popped out to put the kettle on during an ad break on your favourite TV show. I recall as a young budding cinephile recording movies off TV with one finger hovering over the pause button in order to cut out the ad breaks. Now we spend a significant portion of our lives staring at the internet, and thus consuming advertising. The internet even tracks our browsing habits to more efficiently bombard us with ads appropriate to our interests. In 2022, practically everyone is aware of this, and most of us are happy with the trade off of being able to consume free content by scrolling past an ad.

strawberry mansion review

This makes the premise of Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley's surreal sci-fi satire Strawberry Mansion feel naïve and outdated. It's a critique of capitalism that arrives a couple of decades too late, and while proffering a reductive "advertising is bad" message, it never suggests a viable alternative. If you don’t like adverts, would you prefer to have to pay for the content you consume? Most would answer "no", save for a few who can afford to say "yes."

The film is set in 2035, when the US government has figured out a way to tax its citizens' dreams. If you see a helicopter in a dream, for example, you'll have to pay a small sum to the taxman for the privilege. Audley takes the lead role of James, a tax auditor whose own recurring dream sees him stuck in a garish pink room while an overbearing man (Linas Phillips) tempts him with fried chicken and cola. The dream gets under his skin so much that he can't resist purchasing fried chicken and cola in his waking hours.

strawberry mansion review

In a similar setup to Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction, Strawberry Mansion sees its tax auditor protagonist experience a revelation upon being sent to audit an eccentric female artist. James is sent to the titular home of the elderly Arabella (Penny Fuller), whose eccentricities include forcing James to lick an ice cream cone before entering her home. Contrary to government regulation, Arabella has been recording her dreams on VHS tapes, and with over 2,000 tapes to view, James is in for the long haul. He reluctantly agrees to stay in Arabella's home, sharing a room with her pet turtle, and sets about viewing the tapes.

James finds that most of Arabella's dreams feature a younger version of herself (played by Grace Glowicki), whom James appears to fall for. Along with the young Arabella's charms, he notices odd glitches like a haze of static obscuring the logo of a fried chicken franchise. Arabella reveals that she and her late husband invented the dream equivalent of an ad-blocker, a helmet (which looks a lot like the one worn by Jean-Luc Godard in King Lear) worn while asleep that removes artificially inserted adverts from your dreams. Stunned by the revelation that ads are being inserted in dreams, James finds himself making an enemy of Arabella's son Peter (Reed Birney), who happens to be the head of one of the country's top ad agencies.

strawberry mansion review

The battle between James and Peter plays out in similar fashion to that between Jeff Bridges and David Warner in Tron, though instead of a computer simulation, James has to find his way out of his dreams with the aid of Arabella. This makes for a rather tedious second half of the movie, as Audley and Birney bombard us with an array of surreal images that never quite seem as inventive as they should. It's mostly people with the heads of animals – don’t expect anything along the lines of David Lynch imagery here. It's all insufferably twee to the degree that you're constantly on edge, anticipating James and Arabella to break out a ukulele at any moment.

We're left asking a lot of questions about the wider world in which Strawberry Mansion takes place. If the government has figured out a way to tax our dreams, why would anyone be surprised to find ads are being inserted into our dreams? Did something happen between 2022 and 2035 to stop everyone being as media savvy as we currently are today? Had Strawberry Mansion been released 40 years ago it would likely have become a cult item, but today it just feels like the product of someone having a sudden revelation the rest of us have been aware of for the past couple of decades.

Strawberry Mansion is in UK cinemas and on VOD from September 16th.

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