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Simon Read [Celluloid 09.13.21] scifi comedy

Here's a film to show your friends who thought that Under the Silver Lake was 'a bit weird'. The story follows an unseen alien entity from the fifth dimension, materialising in Venice Beach and searching for the meaning of 'Mondo'. It befriends a good-natured drug dealer and his disparate group of clients, setting off to explore Hollywood through the prism of their crazy lives.

Janek Ambros' surreal, psychedelic comedy won't be to everyone's tastes, but it's never boring. It boasts some striking imagery and, despite a slow start, some thoroughly good vibes. While it's definitely a low-budget indie curio, there's a lot of talent on display here, and it proves its director as someone to watch.

An inquisitive alien, essentially a floating POV shot, appears over Venice Beach, Los Angeles, and encounters a hungover street performer who leads it to a party hosted by Boyle (Chris Blim), a cheerful, scatter-brained dealer of psychotropic mushrooms. The unfailingly polite, softly spoken alien asks Boyle to teach him the meaning of Mondo, and so Boyle introduces him to his friends, three archetypes of Hollywood culture who attempt to enlighten this extra-terrestrial explorer as they go about their daily routines.

Over three chapters, shot guerrilla-documentary-style, we meet The Titans, The Weirdos, and The Dreamers - A Hollywood producer and his assistant, a group of political activists, and two struggling actors respectively. Each tells their story through a series of hyperactive vignettes - often encountering Boyle and sampling his hallucinogenic substances along the way - until a final act brings everyone together for something approximating the plot. Or at least as close to a plot as it's possible to find in a film that's as difficult to categorise as it is to fully comprehend.

All of the characters here must deal with some kind of personal crisis, and it's through their friendship with Boyle that they find a path to success, such is his inherently positive nature. The producer must deal with a bratty, demanding actress; the activists need to prove their dedication at a rally and political meeting, while also blowing some shit up; and the actors, well, they just need to find work.

Boyle drops in and out of their lives and the camera/alien is there to pick up their interactions, while a near-constant flow of groovy tunes, sourced media, and film and television clips act as connective tissue, keeping the editor busy in between, and often over, the ensuing drama. Although the film takes a while to find its legs – or at least, it takes the viewer a while to adjust to its style – if one can enter into the spirit of the whole thing, it becomes almost hypnotic to watch it all unfold. (For the record, I watched this completely sober.)

Mondo Hollywoodland is a film that begs comparison to other films, although this is probably not altogether helpful as it is very much its own strange animal. But fuck it, let's do that anyway.

That initial set up, the curious, invisible alien checking out a hip scene and searching for meaning among the denizens of the big city recalls the great Liquid Sky. The burnt out, cynical power players, LA kids, and drug users suggest something out of Less Than Zero or The Informers. The Venice Beach setting, the unconventional narrative and occasionally misfiring gonzo political satire made me think of Southland Tales (not that it takes much for me to think about Southland Tales on any given day). Repo-Man, Inherent Vice, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Scanner Darkly, Big Lebowski – as a lover of trippy drug films and transgressive, oddball cinema, it's hard not to spot parallels to these films and the works that inspired them, especially when considering the film's frantic pacing and style, its fractured editing, use of colour filters and intercutting music and mixed media.

Hunter Thompson springs to mind when we see Trump's huge, demented head beaming out of a television screen, babbling his insane lies, as characters all around freak out on magic mushrooms and run for cover. Robert Altman's The Player is referenced directly during lunch meetings between the Hollywood producer and his difficult clients, and there are shades of that great director's Short Cuts in the interlinking stories of life in LA. It is also no surprise that John Waters receives special thanks during the end credits.

The film scores its political points early on, and while it ostensibly portrays the hard-left activists as just as inept and opportunistic as the right (not to mention pretentious), that the film features Boyle's grumpy neighbour as an alt-right raver and troll, and the film's primary antagonist, constantly seeking to destroy our hero and his friends, feels like a reflection of Ambros' true feelings about American politics. (That the director casts himself as the neighbour is also a nice touch.)

With its limited budget and loose approach to narrative, its patchy acting and script (much of which feels improvised) sometimes it all feels like the video art project made by a character from an early Bret Easton Ellis novel - although I'm not sure what these characters would make of Ellis now since that former LA wunderkind dwindled into vaguely embarrassing irrelevance. What saves Mondo Hollywoodland from becoming too self-indulgent though is its sense of good will - largely through Blim's performance as Boyle, who proves himself the ultimate drug friend, always helping out with a kind word of advice and a trippy hit of something fun.

Not everything works here. The scenes with the 'Titan' producer and his clients are amusing and often scathingly satirical, while the plight of the struggling actors in the 'Dreamers' section rings true, adding a touch of pathos. The 'Weirdos' sketches, however, feel underwritten and only occasionally hit their targets - many of the jokes, about Anti-fa and the pretentious ramblings of privileged white activists seeking to prove themselves as woke, feel overwrought, curiously stale despite their social and cultural relevance. This is where the script could have used some work.

For fans of far out cinema, designer nihilism, and casual drug use, the flag is flying high here - Hollywood producers are fuelled by bumps of cocaine, everyone loves pot, LSD will set you free, and with the right kind of attitude, anything is possible in the city of dreams. The film culminates in a madcap heist, as all the characters come together for a drug-fuelled mission to save the day, proving to our fifth-dimensional alien friend that humanity truly is groovy. If that is the meaning of Mondo, that we can be groovy when we all get along and work together, then maybe we can be saved. Mission accomplished.

I can't wait to see what Ambros does next.

Mondo Hollywoodland is now available on VOD.

Recommended Release: Mondo Hollywoodland

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