Review: “Strawberry Mansion”

I’ve been attending/covering the SFFILM Festival for another web site since 2009. I thoroughly enjoyed spending weekends in the city hopping from venue to venue to catch a variety of narrative, documentary, and short films from around the world.

Well, THAT isn’t happening. Like everyone else, they’ve turned mostly to streaming. Here’s my look at an interesting film I’ve been able to stream.

If you think paying taxes sucks now, just wait till 2035 when the government has figured out how to tax your dreams. That’s the jumping off point for Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney’s Strawberry Mansion, one of the featured narrative films at this year’s SFFILM Festival.

The festival, which is the Americas longest running, was cancelled last year (for obvious reasons.) It returns this year in a somewhat truncated form with the bulk of its program streaming online. For those hankering for a more “theatrical” environment than their living rooms, several screenings will be held at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater (including Strawberry Mansion.)

Mansion is a quintessential festival film. Low of budget and scarce of name talent but high on concept, it manages to be highly original yet disarmingly derivative at the same time. Its tale of a not-so-distant future shows traces of Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Ray Harryhausen, and – and I mean this with great affection – Edward D. Wood, Jr.

James Preble (co-writer, co-director Audley) is your average, everyday tax auditor who is sent to the home of Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) to audit her dreams. The government now taxes the items in your dreams that have value, like dandelions, hot air balloons, and the occasional bison. While most dreams are stored and taxed via tablet-like devices, Arabella’s are stored on VHS tapes, and there’s 2,000 of them. Preble settles in for a long audit.

Preble notices in one of Arabella’s dreams that there’s an item that seems out of place. Arabella’s answer to Preble’s questions about that leads him on a journey through his and her dreams that may lead to the uncovering of a nefarious plot by the government and big business to infiltrate and profit from dreams!

It’s really not as ridiculous as it sounds, though some of the films “special effects” are pretty ridiculous. The device Preble uses to audit Arabella’s dreams seems to be constructed from a cardboard box, two paper cups, and a vacuum cleaner hose. There’s also stop-motion animation and some over-sized, paper mâché animal heads involved.

These elements (and others) may come off as camp or simply a reflection of a production’s low budget, but they actually are a big part of this film’s charm. That charm is enhanced through retro-costuming and design work, an interesting use of color, and good performances by the cast.

The film does go dark (and jarringly so) but one should expect that when a government conspiracy or American consumerism is added to the mix. Hell, one should expect that when dreams are a focal point as well. It doesn’t take much to turn a dream into a nightmare.

Much like how dreams often make little sense, there are parts of the film that make little sense but… maybe the whole film was only a dream.

If so, Strawberry Mansion was a 90-minute dream I enjoyed having.

Click HERE for more information on the SFFILM Festival.

Photos courtesy of SFFILM

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