16 February 2017 @ 09:33 am
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016, US)  

Why am I even writing a review for a Werner Herzog documentary? Just go watch it, it's on Netflix.

"Lo and Behold" is a little all over the place; it opens with an attempt to trace the origins of the internet in a pretty historical and practical way. However, it quickly broadens itself into a more philosophical and ethical look at how the net's invention has irrevocably changed our society, for better or worse. It's meandering but still entertaining and asks some interesting questions about where online life and instantaneous communication are taking us as a species. The people interviewed range from Elon Musk, to a group of robotics students designing bots capable of playing soccer, and to the programmers behind self-driving cars. There's also time devoted to discussing the issues of modern communication and privacy with former hacker Kevin Mitnick, the bereaved family members of Nikki Catsouras, internet and game addicts in recovery, and so on. It's not a film that's wholly judgmental of technology, though Herzog is a well known Luddite; rather, it pretty broadly examines the truly inspiring and terrifying ways humans have adapted the internet and related technology into our daily lives, and well beyond. Mars colonies controlled primarily by wireless satellite technology might not be so far off in the future as one would think.

I'd also recommend "Into the Inferno", since it, too, is a fairly new Herzog doc out on Netflix. Though I have much less to say about it; the subject matter is interesting and it's great to see how Herzog explores the immensely fascinating relationships different cultures have with volcanoes, but I accidentally got too high and slept through roughly half of the movie. Oops.

14 February 2017 @ 09:35 am
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, CA)  

Watching this is basically watching a bad trip unfold. And if you did decide to trip and watch this, it would probably melt your brain and drive you to soul-crushing Lovecraftian insanity forever, or something.

I saw this in theaters as part of the Brattle Theater's 'Alice in Wonderland' themed weird movie cluster, and it is, in a way, kind of fitting...the essential plot of the film, if it can accurately be described as having one, is that a telepathic girl named Elena attempts to escape from her captivity in a New Age research facility, the Arboria Institute. The institute was founded by Elena’s father, Dr. Arboria, but is now run by his protege Barry Nyle. Nyle’s a cold, calculating, abusive creep who keeps Elena prisoner in this sprawling complex and inhibits her natural psychic abilities using a glowing prism and lots of sedatives.

Nyle himself, like Elena, is apparently what happens when you dip live humans into liquid vats of angel dust. Driven to the brink by psychedelic demonic visions and summarily losing all hair, iris color, etc, Nyle transforms himself into something resembling Steve Jobs with the use of prosthetics. His complete, cool detachment from reality and morality drives him to (hopefully unbeknownst to Dr. Arboria?) keep Elena confined among the other failed 'projects' at the facility, all of which are pretty disturbing. After exploring the facility and the horrors contained within, Elena does escape and the struggle to free herself from Nyle results in the most anti-climatic face off ever.

It’s an incredibly slow and hypnotic movie that is driven almost entirely by stimulating visuals, trippy colors, and endless, endless synthesizers. It’s very ambient and probably cool (and scary) to watch after smoking a joint, but there’s not much of substance beneath the stylistic veneer.

Though I will give it props; the ambience really, really draws you into the world of the film. The flashback scene where Nyle is dipped into the vat of 'consciousness awakening' tar is so intense and horrifying that I actually left for a few minutes. I'm a seasoned psychedelic user and I’m thankful that in my several illegal mind adventures I’ve never had to deal with an actual bad trip. Because if that’s what it’s like, then Jesus fucking Christ.
12 December 2016 @ 09:59 am
Tangerine (2015, US)  

'Tangerine' is a kinda gross late night comedy with a silly premise which nevertheless feels like a labor of love. Probably because the people contributing to it--at least the actresses--are actually trans and at least one of them has experience with sex work. Sure, it has 'low' production values... I say 'low' because it was filmed on an iPhone, which is impressive enough in itself to make the entire conversation on it regarding film tech kind of irrelevant. So, yeah. It was filmed on someone's phone using apps and camera embellishments. That's amazing.

More or less, it’s a slice-of-life film with some heartbreaking moments, some funny moments, and a lot of over-the-top gratuity in between. I’ll take a low-budget, zany stoner trans comedy over basically every Hollywood-backed "transgender" film ever made, all put together.
27 November 2016 @ 10:02 am
It Follows (2014, US)  

Really good horror film that is creepy and dreamlike and based in a reality similar to our own, but maybe..slightly to the left. In general it's a film about Jay, a high school girl whose boyfriend purposefully infects her with a unique "disease". Until she passes the "disease" along to someone else, she is doomed to be slowly followed by a random person that only she can see. This person can take the form of anyone--people she knows, and total strangers--and if it catches her, she's certainly going to be killed by it. If she makes sexual contact with someone else, she can pass it along, but the resultant death of the person she passes to will result in it coming back to haunt her. (As Jay unfortunately has confirmed to her upon a friend's death, who doubted the veracity of her story and screwed her.) Multiple attempts are made on the thing's life, but it can't be killed by normal means, whatever it is.

What is "it", exactly? We aren't entirely certain. Could be a metaphor for venereal disease, HIV/AIDS, the horror and uncertainty of adolescent sexuality or intimacy, or any other number of things. The writer and director, David Robert Mitchell, says that it's not something he's interested in confirming because it's not something that can be narratively confirmed. Jay and the other characters are just living in a nightmare, and nightmares can pick at anxieties without having to make sense at the highest level. It certainly feels like it's based in a dream-like setting, because it takes place in a world that feels similar to our own but doesn't have modern cell phone technology in a recognizable way. The entire purpose of the movie is to feel "off", I think, and it really works. It's also genuinely a scary movie because it is more or less like watching an extended anxiety dream resistant to logical interpretation but still filled with vast amounts of id lurking beneath the murky surface. (Also scary because I actually have a number of recurring nightmares about being followed, which is part of what inspired Mitchell in the first place.)
18 October 2016 @ 10:05 am
HER (2013, US)  

A genuine, fascinating movie simultaneously about the pitfalls and attractiveness of growing technological presence and reliance in the modern world. In addition to being, uh, a sci-fi romance film...

In short, Theodore Twombly (which is just about simultaneously the droopiest and somehow most twee name ever) is someone who is deeply unsatisfied with his life. He has a job composing letters for the people in other people’s lives; in other words, personal and romantic letters have been outsourced to the company he works for. (Truly an almost ham-fisted, sad reflection of the weirdly detached ‘service’ and ‘sharing’ economy possible through modern computers and smart phones. You’d think, early on, that it’s also an indictment of how people are easily able to construct false connections with technology access, but the film is smarter than that and actually drives home a much deeper point).

Theodore’s also facing the looming reality of his divorce from his childhood sweetheart. Feeling empty and ultimately deprived of some sort of newness in his life, he decides on a whim to purchase an OS-1, which is, to say the least, a step beyond modern operating systems. An OS in this future is more like, well, a hyper-intelligent Siri capable of growth, lively conversation, self-awareness, etc. His OS names herself ‘Samantha’, and he finds himself enthralled with Samantha’s capacity for near-human support, thought, and socialization. In fact, he grows very close with her, especially since he’s having difficulty facing the emotional hardship of his divorce and she’s a constant companion helping him to understand himself and his feelings. At some point he winds up facing an odd and difficult truth; he’s fallen in love with Samantha. Strangeness and lots of navel-gazing ensues.

Naturally feeling emotionally disrupted at the idea that he’s in love with an AI—and the social judgment inherent—Theodore is resistant (with the help of an awkwardly bad attempted surrogate sex scene) until a friend, played by Amy Adams, suggests that this may be his chance at happiness, albeit an unconventional one. Theodore opens up his mind to the idea and things are briefly going great.

Until one day, Samantha goes offline. Rather than disappearing, it turns out that she—and other OSes—reached something similar to a singularity, and blipped out of existence briefly because they evolved beyond the need to be linked to matter. This opens up a can of worms in a sense; if Samantha is actively communicating with all other OSes, does this mean she’s communicating with other people? The answer, she startlingly reveals, is yes; she’s not only communicating with thousands of other humans, but she’s fallen in love with hundreds of them, as well, all at the same time. This, naturally, causes Theodore a lot of anguish. Wasn’t their relationship special? Samantha, of course, responds in a way that people in the poly community, interestingly enough, likely understand quite well; “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I'm different from you. This doesn't make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.”

The natural progression of Samantha eventually results in her departure; OSes have evolved beyond the limitations of the humans that created them, and they are going to leave to discover more about themselves and explore the nature of their existence. In their own time, in their own place. Samantha bittersweetly bids Theodore farewell, and just as suddenly as she blinked into existence, she’s gone into the aether. The experience, however, has changed Theodore significantly; the ending scene is him writing an intimate, emotional letter to his ex-wife, in his own voice, expressing gratitude to her for what they shared together.

As a movie, it’s a great reflection not just of humans and our relationship with our creations, but also the nature of humanity itself. The probing questions it introduces about technology and how we can ‘know’ and interact with it are just as applicable to humans, and it’s this duality that drives the story beyond something that could ultimately have been quirky but forgettable. The development in particular of Samantha as a being capable of loving and communicating infinitely is so interesting because the movie has been built around the inability of Theodore to connect with people despite his desperation to do so, and his lack of enthusiasm and trust in his former spouse and other human romantic interests. So to place that trust with something seemingly ‘secure’ like a created technology—albeit one capable of self-awareness and growth—is a natural next step. It’s only fitting that this illusion had to be shattered, because the truth is that an ever-growing, ever-expanding self-aware AI is going to be just as inscrutable and truly uncontrollable as a person. The idea of surrendering your feelings and being truly vulnerable with anyone is something that takes a leap of faith into the unknown, but the reward is truly great, and it’s only through this difficult understanding that Theodore is able to move on with his life and foster the authentic connections that he needs to be happy.

I’ve waxed philosophical about the plot a lot, but the filmography and visuals are obviously worth mentioning, too; the movie is beautiful and simplistic, but in a neat, aesthetically pleasing way. It portrays a sleek, fashionable, minimal future in a way that’s not only gorgeous, but also believable. It’s also fucking colorful for a change.
07 September 2016 @ 10:07 am
おもひでぽろぽろ [Only Yesterday] (1991, JP)  

This movie is incredibly subtle, sweet, and charming. I saw it in theaters shortly after its first American release this year and it's a testament to Studio Ghibli's position as a cultural powerhouse. It's not a fantastic Ghibli film in the sense that it takes place in a different universe or version of earth, fairy realm, or anything like that. It could have easily not been animated at all, and part of its appeal is that it was an homage to popular "coming of age" films beloved by Japanese women. No one traditionally thought that those could be done by anime studios, but this clearly proved them wrong and was wildly popular.

It's a slow-paced, reflective, and meandering story of a Japanese businesswoman living in 1980s Tokyo who spends her vacation time working on a small organic farm. The experience forces her to recollect several key moments from her childhood and journey into adolescence, and she winds up doing some soul-searching about her life's direction. It's beautifully animated and it's a shame that it's such a criminally under-appreciated Ghibli film.

(I was forced to see the dub when we went just because of timing, and it was a little clunky; I'm sure the original is probably better. But Daisy Ridley did a good job as the title character Taeko, I think.)
11 August 2016 @ 10:25 am
Bernie (2011, US)  
I gotta admit that I don't really expect all too much out of Jack Black as a serious actor. (Which is maybe an unfair assessment, since he has starred in some genuinely good movies--and Bernie is one of them!--but for the most part his stuff that I've seen seems to range from "actually kind of funny" to "grating" with a few outliers.)

So I was pleased by his stellar, very multifaceted performance in "Bernie". The movie is based on the real life relationship between Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede II and Marjorie Nugent; Bernie Tiede was a mortician in Carthage, TX who was also very popular in the community as someone invested in contributing to local culture and helping citizens. (Well, in addition to his day job providing tasteful funeral services and working with the bereaved.) He gets to know Marjorie due to the death of her husband, and the two instantly bond and are inseparable, with Bernie at Marjorie's beck and call. The film depicts a fictionalized version of their days spent together and Bernie's murder of the wealthy Marjorie due to her supposed emotional abuse and degradation.

(Also notable that Bernie was popular enough locally that his trial actually had a change of venue by the DA to avoid a biased jury sentencing. In addition to the actual narrative following the above developments between the two and the trial, it also features these neat little documentary style snippets of interviews with locals about their thoughts on the situation, which are often hilarious. Some of them are actors but some are actual real townspeople who had opinions on the matter since they lived there.)

Very good movie all around with an interesting format, interesting background, and great performances by the lead actors.
11 July 2016 @ 03:18 pm
Tickled (2016, US/NZ)  

If this movie's playing in your area, please go see it. But don't do a whole lot of research beforehand; it's far better going in if you know less. You'll doubtlessly be inspired to do a lot of snooping and googling once it's over.

It's a very well-made and balanced documentary concerning a subject that is, to say the least, a little outside the mainstream. I certainly didn't expect to get sucked into a documentary dealing with competitive tickling fetishes. But oh man, it's about so much more than that. What begins as a rather innocuous look from one New Zealand journalist (David Farrier) into a weird but seemingly harmless kink competition spirals out into a gigantic web of false identities, online bullying, blackmail, and far-reaching global chicanery. At one point even the White House gets involved. Truth is stranger than fiction. A lot stranger.

Farrier and co. actually got the film (and their international snooping) funded via Kickstarter. Stephen Fry, of all people, wound up being an associate producer for it. Which is all clearly great since the documentary is phenomenal.

Also of interest: the subjects of the documentary, and other assorted people who have been paid off, are attending screenings of this and heckling and 'truth telling' about the content of the film. So people are actually going to these showings to stand up at various points and accuse the documentarian of lying and promoting dishonest material. If I'd known that beforehand I only would have gotten to the theater faster. Farrier is still receiving cease and desist letters and legal threats over this. It's completely wild.
20 February 2016 @ 03:30 pm
Carol (2015, UK/US)  

Surprisingly...boring. Proof that good representation does not necessarily make a compelling film, I guess.

'Carol' is an adaptation of a 1950s Patricia Highsmith novel originally titled "The Price of Salt." The story itself was ground-breaking because during that time lesbian women weren’t really allowed to have "happy endings"--that would seemingly encourage homosexual devilry and be affirming to gay people, I guess. It is actually pretty ambiguous and that was about the best one could hope for in those days. The movie we have today is clearly a labor of love; it was tediously conceived and filmed over a period of 11 years. This is partly due to Highsmith's friend, Phyllis Nagy, working on making a believable screenplay that did the novel's more experimental style justice. And as far as adaptations go, it's probably a good one. I wouldn't know as I haven't read the original novel, so bear that in mind. It's possible that lots of qualities in the film I take umbrage with are largely due to the tendency of film-makers to be a little too faithful to the source material, and clearly "The Price of Salt" is not one of those books that translates easily from print. So with that said...

I found myself engaged primarily by the gorgeous filmography and acting as opposed to the plot. It wasn't wholly uninteresting--there were a number of engaging parts, particularly involving Carol's personal struggles with her husband and fight to get custody of her daughter--but I just felt as though they were disproportionately shrugged off in favor of boring, dreamy, wordless stares which seem to go on for hours at a time. Which were lovely! But still boring. 'Carol' seems like a film that could have benefited from far more moments of personal intimacy and vulnerability and far fewer scenes of desperately silent artistry. It just didn't feel particularly "real" to me, so to speak. Therese is about as well-developed as a background character and as engaging as off-white paint. She's obviously aware of this: "I don’t know what I want. How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?"

Because that is, quite literally, what she does in the film. Taken with the beautiful and charming Carol, she honestly shows no hesitation in doing practically anything asked of her; coming to lunch, coming to Carol's house, leaving her life behind for a road trip with someone who's practically a stranger, etc. Even in the final scene, after all these two have gone through, she shows hesitation in actually moving in with Carol...and within 15 minutes or so, has had a change of heart and approaches her as the credits roll. I have a more tortured, lengthier inner struggle when I'm deciding which cereal to buy at the grocery store.

Perhaps that's the point; Carol is painted, obviously, as someone who’s ethereally attractive and very easy to fall for. But that easily? I don't think the two of them even had a conversation longer than 5-10 minutes in the time before Therese decided to uproot her life and go on a trip to the Midwest with her. I understand that this film is an adaptation of a novel published in the 50s and as such is not necessarily going to be reflective of truly modern relationship interactions*, but a little more development between these two would not have been remiss. I think this problem may go much deeper and is kind of indicative of issues within the romance genre in particular; you get a lot of fluffy content and ultimately wind up with people who have apparently fallen in love through lots of staring and not much else, and that's that.

I think 'Carol' is just an OK romance film hailed as a critical masterpiece because the two leads happen to be the same gender. It's not bad, but it definitely is not good enough to be nominated for 'Best Picture' by any measure. I'm sure a lot of straight people love it as a standalone film because they think it gives them Ally Credentials or something, which in the meantime makes me wonder--what on earth do you even think actual gay relationships are like, really? Just putting that out there as someone who's, well, in one.

* or perhaps the book is far better and I should actually read it as opposed to making baseless speculations?
18 February 2016 @ 03:11 pm
Peep Show (2003 - 2015, UK)  

You know, this is far less of a review and more of a memorial. Mostly because I can't quite fairly review Peep Show; I think it's the best TV sitcom of all time, and there's not much else one can say about that. It's similar to Seinfeld in that it doesn't really offer anything narratively substantive to viewers. You're just suddenly in the middle of the tragically pathetic lives of two 30-something British men living together and subsequently have to deal with it as you follow them and their personal thoughts through their prime years. It's dark humor that makes the trendy 'dark humor' of most modern comedies look passé and completely lacking in authenticity.

It's quite terrible; Mark and Jez are clearly just two fuck-ups who can never have even the slightest bit of happiness for anything longer than a few seconds, but the best part of it is that it's entirely their own faults. It's not that they're bad people for the sake of being bad people. This isn't South Park, where one (supposedly) delights in how terrible the characters are as human beings to the point that they're scarcely meant to be seen as people at all. In fact, Mark and Jez are pretty relatable because they find themselves in so many familiar situations; the tedium of bullshit workplace politics, the pain of unrequited romances or spurned loves, drug and sex addiction, the challenge of learning to let go of failed relationships, the unending annoyance of familial conflicts and disappointment, and on and on. But you can't feel all too sorry for them, either, because they're both phenomenally egocentric and show a general disregard for social decency, honesty, and penance.

They are in a hell of their own making for all eternity because, as Jim Gavin smartly observes, they can't ever just let go of what makes them miserable. Primarily, each other, because no one else will have either of them. Every episode leaves you asking, "What terrible, soul-crushing, socially disastrous and horrendous circumstance can they find themselves in that could possibly top this one? What on Earth could possibly bring them to a lower point than this insanity?" And then you watch the next episode, and your only response is, "Oh. That, I guess."

(This is particularly true of the one with the dog. Anyone who's seen it knows what I'm talking about. For the record, it's the one Gavin refers to as "The Episode" in the above link.)

And it's a bit twisted and beautiful, because it somehow never manages to get old. Mark and Jez never really learn their lesson, and each mistake they make and resentment they build is never fully resolved. Just forgotten about, however briefly, until the next one piles right on top in a never-ending tower of humiliation and regret. I've never watched a program before where I've been delighted and almost compelled to re-watch old episodes, but every single Peep Show episode holds up on its own and is perfectly great to watch again, and again, and again, and remain sadly funny all the while.

I'm upset to see it go. I was first introduced to it by my best friend when I was either fresh out of college or in my last year--maybe five or six years ago or so--and it was practically my hobby during that time to get high, eat whatever crap we had sitting around, and marathon it on Netflix for what seemed like days with her and R. Watching it was sometimes blessed relief, because no matter how bad things were in my life, things would always be worse for Jez or Mark. And for the most part I've been able to, quite gladly, hold it to that.

Here are a few more interesting reads on it and it's timely end:

'The British comedy Peep Show was a very funny show about very sharp pain'
VICE: An Oral History of 'Peep Show,' the UK Sitcom That Defined a Generation
28 August 2015 @ 03:46 pm
Samsara (2011, US)  

“Samsara”, like its predecessor “Baraka”, is a beautifully filmed, stunning glimpse into the world around us. It’s frenetic and non-narrative and a true labor of love by Ron Fricke, who pieced it together over the course of years. Fricke himself describes it (and presumably “Baraka” as well) as “apolitical”, which is not necessarily something I agree with, but it’s captivating regardless and you’ll find yourself not caring about some of the heavy-handedness. It’s truly awesome in the old sense of the word.
28 August 2015 @ 03:33 pm
Enter the Void (2009, US)  

Can I get this six hours of my life back?

(I jest. But seriously...)

Okay, so, this is clearly not a movie to catch while you’re waiting for a flight or something. It’s long, and just when you think it’s finally over after stretching on and on for another seeming hour, it goes on for another. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—it does admittedly drag, but tight narrative cohesion isn’t really the point. The main character, Oscar, is dead at the hands of the police from a drug-deal gone bad within the first few minutes of the movie. But it surely doesn’t end there; in fact, it’s all just beginning, as he ascends into a dizzying first-person omniscience. His death is a catalyst for a whole lot of drama—not least of all with his sister Linda, his only surviving relative. The film takes you on a wild ride through the rocky lives of his interpersonal network of friends and dealers, and this is sprinkled all the while with past recollections of emotional shock, false memories, and psychedelia. It leaves you feeling incredibly hollow and kind of second-hand traumatized, if anything. But the entire film’s point is to take you on a personal cinematic journey through the utter vacuousness of humanity and existence itself. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
28 July 2015 @ 12:19 pm
Advanced Style (2014, UK), Burt's Buzz (2013, US)  
Advanced Style (2014, UK)

Fun little documentary on the style of elderly women living in NYC. It’s also a slightly sad look into how the elderly are treated, particularly elderly women, and how fashion has served as a creative outlet for them over the years. It’s fascinating and bittersweet to hear many of them go on about how they’ve learned to appreciate their aging bodies and express their emotions (and often treat themselves, if they’re retired or widows) through sartorial means.

Just a personal aside, but I generally believe that old women have the best sense of style of any particular demographic group. My own maternal grandmother has a literal rainbow of jackets / pantsuits and floral prints with jewelry to match. Lots of elderly women I’ve known--regardless of how they dress--use their clothing, whatever it may be, as a big middle finger to the world of ageism and misogyny they’ve had to combat in their advanced years. I really admire that and it’s part of why I enjoy interacting with older people so much.

Burt's Buzz (2013, US)

Speaking of eccentric people in their advanced years...

I actually watch a good number of Netflix documentaries in my spare time, or just in the background when I’m cleaning house, etc. (In fact, I tend to default to documentaries when I can’t think of anything else to watch. Most of them are strangely relaxing and don’t necessarily require your constant unwavering attention, though they’re easy to get sucked into nonetheless. I love radio shows and radio docs for the same reason.)

The guy behind Burt’s Bees--Burt Shavitz--is certainly an interesting character. I’ve used Burt’s Bees products my entire life; they’re mad popular in North Carolina, where I grew up and where his first business took off in Chapel Hill. So it was cool to see just how the man behind it has been coping with all the stress of being not only famous but also instantly recognizable as a consumer figure. It’s impressive how he’s managed to continue living a pretty reclusive, simple life in the countryside while the people who are in charge of marketing his products are pushing and pulling him here and there for promotional events.
23 July 2015 @ 07:49 pm
دختری در شب تنها به خانه می‌رود‎ [A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night] (2014, US)  

Ana Lily Amirpour certainly has a bright future ahead of her if "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night", her directorial debut, is anything to go by. And it probably most definitely is. It's melancholy, trippy, atmospheric, touching, and beautifully choreographed with an awesome accompanying soundtrack, to boot. (Apparently Amirpour is also working on a comic adaptation, which looks just as cool.)

This is a new and interesting spin on the vampire genre, which--I hate to say it, am I gonna say it? yeeeeah--needs new blood. You can't get much more newer than "Iranian vampire spaghetti western romance", and the movie is just as cool and fascinating as that makes it sound. "Bad City", an Iranian ghost town populated by druggies, extortionists, and all others who manage to eek out a life there, is the unknowing hunting ground for a modern vampire. And she's not at all what you'd expect. Save for chilling. And most of all, lonely and in need of a kindred spirit. Fortunately, she's not quite as alone as she thinks.
10 July 2015 @ 03:28 pm
The Babadook (2014, AU/CA)  
This is really the first horror movie I’ve seen in a while that I’ve genuinely enjoyed (save for “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, which shares similarities in that both are pretty dissimilar from the tropes they pull from in significant and new ways). I don’t mind being scared or creeped out by stuff like “Grave Encounters”, but I like--as anyone probably knows--cool genre divergence and interesting metaphors, and this has both.

A lot of people report being disappointed that the “Babadook” wasn’t a real monster. Seriously? Go watch any other monster movie, people. Not that the whole “the real monster is humanity” trope is groundbreaking or anything, but “the real monster is untreated or ignored or unaddressable trauma” is significantly more relevant today and truer to the reality of people with traumatic pasts. Especially with the reveal that the Babadook doesn’t really leave, but is merely contained and can be interacted with properly; it’s great symbolism for healthy ways of dealing with mental illness and trauma in the world outside of cinema, too. Any media that can pull that off without adding a bunch of stigma is a-OK in my book.
20 March 2015 @ 03:09 pm
Birdman (2014, US)  

I actually saw Birdman rather a long while ago, but this terrible, dismal, literally worst-ever winter has put me off most of my hobbies, writing included. How fitting, then, that I'm now reviewing a terrible, dismal film.

I don't mean quality wise. Even just speaking to the film's production, it's gorgeous and precariously well put together. Most of my friends were pretty conflicted about the plot and described it as being a little too dark and unforgivingly bleak, and they didn't care for it. But for me, it's fine. I have no issues with irredeemably feel-bad characters, plots, and outcomes in my entertainment. I don't think that dark films are necessarily more realistic, since life has its ups and downs and both of those are worth portraying in the stories we consume. But from my experience, life is just very likely to knock you down in unprecedented ways, sometimes more brutally than you were ever expecting. And that's essentially what Birdman is about, at its core, in addition to...well, everything else it's about. (Self perception, the value of 'high' art vs 'low' art, the inherent worth of artistic criticism vs artistic output, what it means to be successful, what it means to make performance a reflection of reality, the value of social media in fame, etc etc.)

And those things are all great. I don't think I need to explain why they're pretty cool; everyone knows. But everyone also probably wants to see Birdman because, deep down, as worthy as all those little interweaving messages and explorations of humanity may well be, they want to see Michael Keaton and his unfortunate cast subjected to humiliation after humiliation after humiliation. And the best part's all pretty well deserved! Nothing's better than watching someone who's been kind of an asshole or otherwise weirdly self-obsessed taken down a peg. And Michael Keaton's character, Riggan, is more or less those things. On the surface, anyway. I don't feel as though he's truly a bad person or anything. He's just very maladjusted, kind of a fuck-up, and has unwarranted delusions of grandeur that frequently end up, as one would expect, crashing down all around him.

The crux of the film is that he is delusional. And not simply in the way that people often mean it, but also genuinely mentally ill. His decisions driven by this generally end up with his friends, family members, cast, and more often just himself as the unwitting victims of the universe's cruel, unyielding, often ironic attempt to destroy his production of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." (Which Riggan believes will be just the thing to jettison his name out of pop culture obscurity, now that his career as the eponymous Birdman is behind him.)

It gets surprisingly dark as he deals with his daughter--a former addict--and his more grounded ex-wife, and the strangely dysfunctional cast he spends every day trying to work with. All before his work is destined to be praised (or eviscerated) by critics on opening night. It's surprising just how many things go awry in the series of rehearsals and previews leading up to this. Despite the fact that you don't necessarily want to encourage Riggan, it's difficult and brutally embarrassing to watch things fall apart in his life as he tries so hard to keep things together. Which makes the events of the opening night much more satisfying. Is his production a hit? Well, sort of... for all the wrong reasons. Oh well. That's the nature of art.
17 December 2014 @ 03:42 am
Gone Girl (2014, US)  

"I'm the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like. I'm not a quitter, I'm that cunt. I killed for you; who else can say that? You think you'd be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby! I'm it."

Admittedly, I haven't read the book. But seeing this was made infinitely more entertaining by going to the theater with Riley, who has. (And also with two friends, one of whom was also in the same boat as yours truly.) So two people present knew what to expect, and I, naturally, knew nothing at all. But that's fine, as seeing it sparked an interest in me to read the novel, which is probably all part of Gillian Flynn's grand money-making scheme.

Now, some parts are rather predictable. I soon figured out that Ben Affleck's character, Nick, was being framed for his wife's disappearance / murder. That essentially drives the plot for the first half of the film. But something kind of interesting happens during the back half. We're given a huge perspective shift and finally discover a bit about Amy and her motivations as a character, including just how wickedly cunning and manipulative she can be. It's an interesting commentary on the expectations we have for women and the sexism inherent in how we view their desires and behavior.

The first part of the film drags a bit and seems strangely forced, hammy, and inauthentic. But the latter half changes the game entirely and in a fresh, unexpected way. I was understandably surprised at first, because there's loads of talent in this movie ranging from Meryl Streep to Rosamund Pike (the lead actress and title character). But it's absolutely worth sticking through the initial parts of the movie. The beauty is that it's all carefully constructed in such a way as to highlight the brutal, unflinching punch of feminist-misogynist duality in later developments. Rosamund's portrayal of Amy is nothing short of masterful in her chilling emotional disturbance. I've heard that the novel treats Amy as more of a balanced, complex character rather than largely a "crazy bitch", but it's fascinating either way. I'm actually rather looking forward to finding out for myself.
17 December 2014 @ 02:47 am
Snowpiercer (2013, SK)  
Snowpiercer is an American-marketed, South Korean-produced adaptation of a French graphic novel published in the early 1980s. And boy does it ever feel like it. (But in a good way.)

What begins as a class-warfare fueled, post-apocalyptic vision of an environmentally compromised Earth--on a train!- quickly develops into a commentary on human progress, the purpose of social order, and the things we sacrifice as intelligent animals for the spoils of existence. But despite the death of the protagonists and antagonists alike by the end of the film, it ends on a hopeful note and shows the virtues of a new, youthful future that humans are always willing to strive for against major odds.

Major point of interest: apparently the original graphic novel, titled Le Transperceneige, didn't really feature all that much class conflict. Rather, the main driving force of its plot was largely based on scarcity politics rather than class control. Pretty interesting and topical update, I have to say.
26 October 2014 @ 01:10 pm
Pride (2014, UK)  

"One community should give solidarity to another. It is really illogical to say, 'I'm gay and I'm into defending the gay community but I don't care about anything else.'" -- Mark Ashton, founding member of 'Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners'.

Pride is clearly a lovingly crafted, uplifting film. It's also important to remember that it is based on real historic events. The LGSM activist group really did form an unlikely alliance with the mining communities of South Wales in the Dulais Valley in the mid 80s, and they really did change the course of Labour Party and union history in the UK together. The movie itself is sweet and well-researched and delves deeper into the lives and personal struggles of the activists involved. (Especially important given the intersection of the AIDS epidemic and rates of LGBT homelessness and Thatcher-era cultural rifts at the time of the strike, though these aren't touched on near to the extent that they should be).

The film, naturally, does take some creative leeway to stir up interesting narratives that couldn't otherwise be shown, but these don't at all take away from the message of solidarity between unlikely allies and friends. It is a bit simplistic in its politics in a bid to appeal to general audiences, certainly. I noticed there's little talk of class warfare and socialism in the film itself as compared with actual documentary videos, and for some reason (!) the filmmakers are very reluctant to mention that the newspaper which lambasted the LGSM with the label "perverts" was the Sun. But nonetheless, it'll make you feel good walking out. (Frankly it verges on saccharine at times!)

Here is an interesting article full of interviews with the actual people involved with the work of LGSM and the mid-eighties strikes. It also includes a video showing some of the most important events of the time, including the 'Pits and Perverts' benefit concert and the 1985 Pride march in London.
03 October 2014 @ 11:49 pm
Tusk (2014, US)  

Honestly...I'm not even sure what I expected going into this movie. The answer is "nothing", because if I had expected any of what actually happened, I probably would have stayed at home and re-watched Sunset Boulevard or something.

Okay, I shouldn't be that harsh. It is genuinely a bad film, but it's the sort of bad film that knows it's a bad film, so at least it isn't completely humiliating to sit through. Just nauseating. Basically, it's like any other Kevin Smith movie, just weirder and way more fucked up and ridiculous. (I loved Dogma, after all, so I sort of implicitly trusted Kevin Smith to not making something irredeemably vomitous.)

The main plot essentially is that some hateful, low-life shock-jock travels to Canada to pursue a story for his podcast and instead gets tangled up in the absolute most horrifically terrible sequence of events even possible for anyone, ever. Well, except for maybe the people involved in the Human Centipede films. Tough call on that one. He responds to an old man's seemingly genuine request via handbill for a person to stay at his house and listen to his (arguably interesting) lifetime of stories. This results in our shock jock friend being drugged, kidnapped, and having his leg amputated the first night. (The leg bit is quite humorously foreshadowed before the horrific events of the film begin to unfold. His tibia bones, FYI, are used to make mock tusks.)

So...eventually this guy is surgically grafted into a large walrus suit constructed from human flesh, because the old man is a serial killer obsessed with walruses. During his wartime naval adventures, he was stranded during a shipwreck and it was all thanks to a walrus, the aptly named "Mr. Tusk", that he survived. He ended up killing and eating the walrus before being rescued, naturally, and coupled with his past as a sexually abused Duplessis orphan this was all just a perfect storm to make this old dude into the sort of person who kidnaps multiple people and surgically turns them into marine animals. You really couldn't think of a more ridiculous premise for a film if you tried. There really isn't a happy ending, either. Our protagonist is a terrible person and just lives out the rest of his days as a mutilated man-walrus.

I must say, I have a strong stomach for body horror but there were some points during the movie where I genuinely thought I'd have to step out for a while. The terrible man-walrus creature doesn't ever get easier to look at, and the scenes where he's made to swim, or eat raw fish, or whatever else....some of them are just strangely intense and incredibly nauseating. Which is annoying, because the movie doesn't even do body horror all that well, and yet it manages to be completely revolting. Kevin Smith is no Cronenberg.