Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

directed by Denis Villeneuve
163 minutes
5 stars out of 5

I held off on writing a review for this until I had my thoughts together because it deserves more than just the initial hype I felt after I had left the theater. It is absolutely worthy of that hype, but it's also worthy of more than the one-dimensional praise I would have written had I written this review straight away.

I'm not an expert on this storyline- I've never seen the original, and I've only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? once. But 2049 makes the series immediately accessible to anyone who happens upon it whether they have intimate knowledge of the context or not, and if I know anything about the internet and elitist film fans, that's not going to go over well; people will claim the film is pandering and making itself too easy. But after the title card lays everything out in simple terms, the next 162 minutes speak for themselves: this isn't an "easy" film, but it doesn't rely on holding things just out of reach of the viewer to be a work of art like so many other art-house pictures do.

The more I watch movies where society crumbles and nature retakes human-made structures, the more I realize that that is an ideal apocalypse, not necessarily the most likely one. There's a shot in Blade Runner 2049 of the landscape of "new" Los Angeles from above that shows endless blocks of grimy concrete structures with a handful of thin veins of neon light running between them, and it's far from the film's most devastating picture of post-civilization Earth, but I think it sums up humanity's place on a mostly destroyed Earth: clinging to those neon veins, but ultimately slowly joining the blackened apartment blocks and mounds of trash.

The imagery used in Blade Runner 2049 is incomparable. The lengths it goes to show us a planet wrecked by the decadence of a very small number of its inhabitants and the flimsy lives lead by the last people who now have to live in a polluted, inhospitable world are staggering. The scenes in the wreck of Las Vegas, those surreal, hundred-foot-tall sculptures of naked women, silent and open, a picture of desirable youth and health that now serves to titillate no one but colonies of bees, are singularly some of the best images I've seen in film this decade.

Personally I was floored by the depiction of apocalypse-in-progress, but there is also a very strong undercurrent running through this film that asks us what personhood is and how an artificially-engineered being might view itself in a world still relatively unused to the idea of its having any kind of independence at all. The debate about whether or not robots can have feelings and deserve rights is almost secondary, and now instead we turn to questioning which robots deserve rights, which ones we will accept responsibility for creating and which ones we have to convince ourselves are insensate and deserve a life of slavery. The viewer also has to contend with the prospect of not just robot life but holographic life- something that's not really been explored yet, to my knowledge.

See this. See it if you don't know anything about Blade Runner. See it if you hate science fiction. See it if you think you might fall asleep during a movie that's over two and a half hours long (a valid point, but it feels closer to 90 minutes in actuality). See it now, because while I advocate that viewing a film on an iPad screen doesn't change its inherent value, the experience of sitting back in a plush seat while this movie's irradiated neon haze and physically oppressive bass score washes over you is something you only get once.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Contact (1992)

directed by Albert S. Mkrtchyan
92 minutes
3 stars out of 5

I'd be lying if I said half the reason I watched this wasn't because its original Russian title, Prikosnoveniye, is one of my favorite Russian words (as someone who knows few Russian words). But it has appeal outside of that as well- the Grim Reaper-type skull on the poster art also had me interested in what this movie had going on. Which turned out to not be nearly as much as the poster would have you believe.

In the beginning it's a very standard crime movie where a chill cop investigates a murder-suicide because there's something stranger behind it. Unfortunately for the viewer this means there's a lengthy stretch of set-up where nothing is interesting and we have to watch a fictionalized idea of a cop go about his job. But fortunately, the boredom helps when the supernatural elements start to come in, because if you've been lulled into a trance by the lack of action, the gradual addition of the paranormal can give the whole film an almost phantasmagorical vibe, as if there was never any question that ghosts and other shades exist, and accepting their growing influence on the world is not a difficult thing to do.

I'm surprised at how similar this plot is to the movie Kairo. It seems to be implied that if the protagonist in Contact is experiencing these things, it means the rest of the world is next, which felt quite close to the weird global paranormal plague going on in Kairo. And the aims of the ghosts in both movies are similar enough that I have trouble believing Kiyoshi Kurosawa wasn't at least aware of Contact before making Kairo. But Kairo also has that component of internet-induced isolation that was a little bit after Contact's time, and in an entirely different context.

This movie also doesn't have the feel of being "just" a ghost story. It's possible to see it as a reflection on class systems in society. I'm not entirely sure how the fact that this came out shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union plays into that interpretation of it. But there's a lot of things that describe a place or a system that is only open to certain people- only the intelligent, strong, useful people get in, and people who are supposedly dumb, violent, brutish nobodies are left behind, with no chance of ever accessing it. It's implied that the world available to the "higher" individuals is so incredibly beautiful and meaningful that it makes normal human life seem like a disease in comparison, and- most importantly- people are killing themselves to get a chance to live that good life. What I'm saying is: that sure sounds to me like an analogy for capitalism and the myth that amassing more money will somehow make your life worth living.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Mr. Wrong (1986)

directed by Gaylene Preston
New Zealand
88 minutes
4 stars out of 5

This slept-on horror film is very bad Friday the 13th viewing if you have intentions of getting into the Halloween spirit, because it's lacking in any kind of frightening images or lasting terror, though it's quite good nonetheless. I hope I've reviewed enough movies by women for it to be apparent that I'm not just saying this because it's directed by a woman. This is genuinely one of the most lovely, almost comforting horror movies I've ever seen and it takes talent and skill to make this sort of thing, the same way it takes talent and skill to make something disturbing.

Mr. Wrong is a take on the haunted car subgenre where a single woman buys a nice Jaguar after moving out of her parents' house in an attempt to be more independent, but ends up regretting it when it turns out the car may or may not be haunted by the ghost of a murdered young woman who previously owned it. Also present in the protagonist's life are several men trying to get up in her business- and one who isn't, but who, amusingly, always seems to get tied up in the doings of the more nefarious men, though he's harmless and only trying to hang out with a girl.

Like much about it, this movie's aesthetic is low-key, but it's got a look that's really gorgeous, although hard to pin down. I'm going to borrow a term from another reviewer here and call it "brass and woodwind", because that's one of the only accurate ways I can think to describe it even though it doesn't make much sense. It's this sort of analog, wood-colored, done-by-hand feeling. If you've seen Jan Ć vankmajer films, it's like that without quite the same level of intricate construction. Overwhelmingly brown but somehow not in a bland way.

The other thing people seem to agree upon about this movie is that it has feminist intentions, with one person even calling it "heavy-handed" in doing so. Part of me wants to argue that women protecting women shouldn't have to be labelled feminism, that it should just be what women do for each other, and a larger part of me wants to argue that if you do consider it feminism, women saving women certainly shouldn't be regarded as "heavy-handed". But mostly I agree that at the core of this movie are feminist beliefs: that women need to look out for one another, up to and including prioritizing women's safety over men's feelings. I think there does exist a narrative created by patriarchal oppression that women need to divide themselves over things like class, looks, race, life experiences, etc. and so the act of sticking up for other women in the face of that artificial division is, in a sense, feminist.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

directed by Daniel Haller
90 minutes
2.5 stars out of 5

This particular attempt to adapt H.P. Lovecraft somehow lost the ominousness and creeping terror that accompanies the majority of his work along the way. A part of it takes place at Miskatonic University, and it's quite funny to see it adapted to the movie's time of release- it isn't some dark, clandestine academy full of cobwebs and secrets, it's a university with young folks, where you can go and browse the Necronomicon basically any time you want. The difference between this and other Lovecraft adaptations is honestly pretty jarring. Watching Ed Begley go on about other dimensions and the Old Ones is perhaps more amusing than it should have been.

It's interesting how many different interpretations there can be of one author's work. For somebody who obviously was very attentive to the way his writing came off, Lovecraft inspired media that ranges from being imbued with insidious horror to films like this version of The Dunwich Horror that are full of bleached, hairsprayed youths; mild women; the importance of upholding the law; and, I should mention, a disproportionate amount of randy nude rituals.

I ultimately wasn't fond of any of this, because even though it's a different approach to Lovecraft than is often taken, it still feels like a failure. It takes all the distinctiveness out of the source material and turns it into a monster movie (produced, of course, by Roger Corman). It's fairly well-made in a technical sense and actually has one of the most remarkably pretty opening credit sequences I've ever seen, but it falls flat as a horror story due to the generic nature of everything it tries to do. Cliche mental patient, cliche orgiastic rituals, cliche triumph of good over evil.

The #1 best thing about this movie is its portrayal of the title subject. I was expecting for this to either never show its monster or to pull out some rubbery octopus thing at the last minute. But- and I advise you to read no further, because not knowing the look of the thing is what makes it so surprising- it does eventually thrust the Horror itself into the viewer's faces, and it's not my favorite imagining of a Lovecraft monster, but for the time and for the ability of practical effects, it's one of my favorites. Only at the (slightly disappointing) end reveal do they show us a solid body, before then it's just a hallucinatory mass of squirming limbs. I appreciated the way that the color went haywire whenever it was onscreen because that lent another dimension to it; it felt like the creature was manipulating perception and reality in the way that original Lovecraft monsters should. This was, however, the only slight high point to an entirely flat and dull movie.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Lost in New York (1989)

directed by Jean Rollin
52 minutes
3 stars out of 5

I don't know a lot about Jean Rollin and I never really cared to watch his stuff, but I feel like I should because there seems to be a consensus among people who watch his movies that there's something else about them, something that goes deeper than the average Eurotrash flick would think about. I figured Lost in New York could be a good introduction to his work for me seeing as it's described as his "most personal" and is also very short.

It's easy to see that this is a pretty personal film because of the way it heavily deals with nostalgia and friendship, although the latter of those things is maybe not explored very deeply. It's about two little girls in an undisclosed time period who discover that they can transport themselves within the pages of storybooks with the help of an ancient(ish?) wooden idol of a "moon goddess". They can also transport themselves to New York, for some reason. I guess to two children, New York might seem as much a faraway fantasy-land as what they read about in books.

The deeper meaning of this appears to be that the girls are not only connecting with random stories through this moon goddess idol, but with the whole of womanhood/femininity (I don't particularly wish to equate the two, but this movie certainly seems to) as if it's one solid continuum that any woman can tap into. All minds of women are one, all stories about women are ultimately about one persona, one single All-Mother that contains multitudes: transcendent womanhood. It's not explicitly mentioned in the film that this is what's going on, but it's very obvious that the concept of a continuum of womanhood is the ultimate background for this story.

It's also worth mentioning that this doesn't delve into what truly makes up the experience of womanhood and the fact that for every single woman and woman-aligned person on Earth, that experience is vastly different and occasionally (in fact very often) is a massively oppressive thing. We don't get any deconstructions of forced femininity here, this is not a film aiming to produce social awareness or critique oppressive concepts. This is an almost airy-fairy meditation on the concept of We Are All One™ with a bit of flashy sexuality and generic "earth goddess" business. I appreciate it as a movie and I think it has several layers to it that I am probably not going to be able to unpack, but its message doesn't feel revolutionary or beneficial to women- which, granted, it doesn't have to be, because it's fun anyway.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Ju-rei: The Uncanny (2004)

directed by Koji Shiraishi
76 minutes
4.5 stars out of 5

If I haven't mentioned this already: Koji Shiraishi is My Guy, that one director who I'll watch anything from no matter how obscure or how questionable the quality. He has a couple of movies that are just about pitch-perfect, and also some that are... less fortunate, but I love them all. Some of the poorer ones, I even like more than the better ones. And fortunately Ju-rei is one of the best.

I wasn't expecting this movie to be full of bizarre ennui, and yet it was. The opening scene stands out as striking in its absurdity: A group of four girls dance hip-hop style in front of a closed store window in the middle of the night, in perfect sync, for no real reason. I mean, presumably they're doing it to practice, but it just comes off, like I said, as girls dancing at night for no reason whatsoever. The tinny music, the lack of personalization with just the backs of the girls' heads facing the camera, the nighttime setting- I don't know why, but it feels like Something™.

The weird vibe of introspective dread doesn't stop there, either. The whole movie takes place on the cusp of something that feels decidedly horrific yet is only peeking over the horizon, much like the pair of ghostly white hands reaching over the side of the bed in one scene. It feels strangely like an epidemic is coming, like we're seeing a city slowly become gripped by some plague of horror, silently claiming its victims. The incidents all follow a single family and the people associated with them, but nevertheless it feels more widespread than that. It's a curse that doesn't stop once it's claimed one person. These are ghosts that hunger.

I don't think a single minute of this film takes place during the daytime hours, and that serves to provide the vast majority of its unsettling, uncomfortably "foreign" vibe. This isn't a pitch-black, "who's out there", can't-see-two-feet-in-front-of-you dark. This is city dark. Street lamps and lit apartments don't do much to dissuade the awareness that you're the only person out at that hour and no one is there if you need help.

The ghosts take after every single other Japanese yƫrei movie ever, but who says that can't be creepy? Particularly frightening is a single-line insight into what happens to a person after those white hands drag them off beyond the end of the scene: somebody muttering about being taken "into the place with nothing...", a fate that rivals the distorted faces of victims of the Ringu curse in terrible implications. This movie will probably appeal more to people who already know that they like this type of Japanese horror, as opposed to those who are tired of it, but I recommend it because it has an ambiance that I really haven't seen anywhere else. This is as scary as the more famous Noroi: The Curse and much more compact.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)

directed by Jon Foy
86 minutes
5 stars out of 5

The Toynbee Tiles are a series of messages embedded in roads all over the upper east coast of the United States as well as South America. They're alluring because it's so hard to conclusively prove who did them, why, or what they mean. Nearly all of them read "TOYNBEE IDEA/IN MOVIE 2001/RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPITER", sometimes substituting "Kubrick's 2001" for "Movie 2001" but always referring to the same basic concept: An idea by historian Arnold Toynbee, shown in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, that the dead can be brought back to life on Jupiter.

I think the most compelling thing about the tiles is that it proves that at the tail end of the 20th century and even into the 21st, you can do something like this and there's still a good chance no one will find out who you are. In an era where it's relatively easy to find out who somebody is, where forensic technology and, likewise, technology used to do less scrupulous things like doxx people is on the rise and getting stronger, the Toynbee Tiles serve as a reminder that you can still disappear in the world. This is why the tiles are meaningful to me.

And this phenomenon is also a striking example of the fact that the world changes massively from generation to generation- one of the conclusions of the film is that at some point in the past, the Toynbee Idea was an active force, and the buzz around it today is merely a resurgence. In the early 80s when there were real efforts by the organization behind the tiles to get people involved, it wasn't just crack investigators ferreting out the smallest bits of information, there was a network of people associated with the idea, but now the people reviving the mystery are too young to know that, and the people who were around at the time aren't inclined to adopt new technologies. The true story behind the Toynbee Tiles is not dead, not erased from the surface of the planet- it simply exists in the minds of people who happen to be relatively difficult to find.

This is one of the best documentaries I've seen and one of the most sympathetic in its portrayal of someone who doesn't want to be found. Justin Duerr, the man who the doc focuses on the most, seems like a genuinely kind and understanding person fueled not by a desire to know who the hell this "crazy, delusional weirdo" is but to find someone who he admires and cares about. Too many documentaries about outsider art dehumanize their subjects when they assume that they are mentally ill or otherwise part of The Other, invading privacy and taking work out of important context because people who aren't in on it can't empathize with anyone they assume to have mental health issues. Resurrect Dead acknowledges the importance of respecting someone's privacy and individuality. This may in fact be my new favorite documentary on any subject, ever.