Submerged in a Sea of Hormones: 'Submarine'

The film's narration, deadpan subtitles, and outsider sensibility do bring to mind Wes Anderson's work, but Oliver's world feels even more isolated, and more rooted in his eccentric teenage head, than Max Fischer's.


Director: Richard Ayoade
Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Release date: 2011-10-04

Just as some trend-averse film critics have gone on watch, ready to pounce on and dismiss any female character attractive, quirky, or enjoyable enough to qualify as a "manic pixie dream girl," so, too, have many skeptics been trained to regard any movie about offbeat and/or anti-social young people with utmost disdain. In short: thou shalt not imitate Rushmore. All the President's Men, The Godfather, The Goonies…these are all acceptable movies to rip off. Rushmore, though, should only be attempted by Wes Anderson (and really, it seems like some people would prefer if Anderson himself wouldn't attempt much of anything).

That is not to say that Richard Ayoade's Submarine is a Rushmore knockoff in need of a permission slip. It garnered some strong reviews during its theatrical release, and it's based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne. But the film, now on DVD, still runs the risk of the dreaded Anderson comparison, which would be a shame -- in small part because it's not quite as surefooted as Rushmore (few films are), but moreover because it's a lovely, beautifully shot little coming-of-age comedy itself.

The comer-of-age in question is Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a Welsh teenager trying to get a girlfriend and save his parents' marriage. He does these things mostly on his own, as Oliver has few if any real friends, which strengthens his bizarre interior life: we see him imagining his death accompanied by news reports featuring hysterical mourners; we hear him describe a memory as Super 8 footage, then see it rendered that way even though he's not actually being filmed.

The film's narration, deadpan subtitles, and outsider sensibility do bring to mind Anderson, but Oliver's world feels even more isolated, and more rooted in his eccentric teenage head, than that of Max Fischer, who at least brought his fantasies to life with theatrical extracurricular aplomb. Oliver, in short, is more like an actual loner weirdo than Max, who fancied himself a leader of men, or at least boys. In any case, there are reference points beyond Wes: some post-industrial landscapes bring to mind a UK spin on David Gordon Green, while Oliver's sneaky observational skills – he monitors his parents' bedroom lighting to ascertain how often they make love – come off like a slightly twisted version of Harriet the Spy.

Being a teenage boy, Oliver's spying is hormonally motivated, of course. The object of his affection, chosen strategically because she is "mildly unpopular" and therefore more attainable, is Jordana (Yasmin Paige). She's most certainly not manic or a pixie or a conventional dreamgirl; she's a part-time bully with problems of her own, who first takes to Oliver as a means of blackmailing someone else. But she gets to like him, or seems to, and soon the two are running on the beach and setting off various firecrackers (Jordana is also something of a pyromaniac).

Their courtship takes up much of the very funny first half-hour of Submarine; 90 minutes of comedy this strong would qualify the film as one of the funniest of the year. The material gets more melancholy, though, as Oliver's delusions are challenged and he finds himself predictably but still touchingly at sea with the responsibilities of growing up. His father (Noah Taylor) suffers from depression, which leads his mum (Sally Hawkins) to flirt with an old flame, a dodgy motivational speaker (Paddy Considine). Here is the only point where Submarine's debts to other films weaken it: so many indies imagine that the world is full of shabby motivational speakers that need to be exposed as pretentious frauds.

Both Submarine and Donnie Darko, for example, seem to consider the presence of these phonies as particularly emblematic of their eighties settings; what these movies don't seem to understand is that elaborate parodies of self-help routines can, when presented at length, become just as tedious as actual self-help routines. Then again, writer-director Richard Ayoade seems to understand that less is more with this character. On the DVD, about half of the thirteen minutes of deleted scenes feature the Considine character; what remains in the film has been cut back. The deleted scenes in general reveal Ayoade's skill in cutting together a brisk narrative that nonetheless shows great attention to details and small moments, from the vivid colors often set against cloudy or dusky scenery to the way Oliver notices Jordana's jacket brushing his own when they pass each other in the hallway.

The US DVD, unfortunately, doesn't offer many details itself; Ayoade doesn't provide a commentary track, therefore keeping mum on his transition from writer/director/performer on various British TV series to feature work. Maybe the lack of bells and whistles is just further evidence of Ayoade's self-assurance – and that Submarine is a small movie with a lot more going on than its influences.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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