Friday, February 16, 2018

The Passing (2015)

directed by Gareth Bryn
Wales
87 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5
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The story begins when a young couple crashes their car in a river while on the run for some mysterious reason and are taken in by a guy named Stanley, who lives alone in a dilapidated old house. He's a bit of a strange guy, and he digs a well. That's just what he does; works on the well. Stanley's got a bit of that "creepy old reclusive caretaker" vibe that I might more strongly associate with a watchman at a cemetery or something, but as it turns out Stanley is pretty much the least disturbing thing about this whole deal. His past is more tragic than anything else, but his secrets are no less deep, either.

The Passing has an overall very strange atmosphere, but it takes a little while to really "become" something- for a long time nothing happens, but everybody is still very shifty and suspicious for no reason, and there's a meandering softness to everything that some might describe as "wishy-washy". You want it to commit to something or make some big statement so you can get into it, but it just keeps drifting around through sheer curtains and misty rains and mossy ground. This is a big Atmosphere™ movie in general; if you've seen Woodshock, I feel most comfortable comparing it to that in terms of how the imagery is more outspoken than the storytelling.

An underlying theme in this is the point when a guest begins to transition into an invader, and how much you can bend a person's hospitality before you start to outright abuse their generosity. The couple stays with Stanley for what's implied to be a long time and eventually they seem to get to thinking his place is rightfully theirs, and they aspire to take it over and live largely off the land like he does because of what I mentioned before about them being on the run from something. The reveal of what they're on the run from is truly great, by the way, a real shocker moment and wonderfully disguised by the rest of the film leading up to it. Yet when it's made clear what their secret is, a lot of things suddenly make more sense. That's how sudden twists should be.

The ending is as ambiguous as everything that came before it, with a kind of "did it really happen" edge to it that I would typically eschew but didn't mind here because it didn't feel like it lessened the importance of the events of the film. It's a kind of half-place that doesn't seem to be either wholly psychological or wholly physical, a liminal space existing in between the two. I think this is probably my favorite Welsh-language movie as of now, but I've seen so few that I'm welcome to having that opinion challenged.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Mikadroid: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla (1991)

directed by Satoo Haraguchi, Tomo'o Haraguchi
Japan
73 minutes
3 stars out of 5
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So I basically couldn't not watch something with a title like "Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla". It's as good a descriptor of the plot as it is just a generally great title: there is a killer robot, it lives underneath a disco club. If every movie was this up-front about what its story was, we could all avoid watching a lot more terrible movies.

But as much as this is a goofy mecha movie about an awkward-looking robot with lots of weapons strapped to it, it also appears to be a powerful metaphor for the echoes of war in modern-day Japan. In the opening scenes, we're introduced to the robot as part of a clandestine operation to build super-soldiers that's interrupted by both Japanese forces dismantling it and the sudden onslaught of American bombers. The robot is pretty strongly a relic of wartime Japan, and though it sits rusting in a basement while the years go by, it's always there, waiting to wreak havoc. I don't think it's ever actually stated that what we see the robot doing, all its random shooting of innocent bystanders and bizarre outbursts, is it malfunctioning- this robot was clearly built to kill, but when it gets accidentally reactivated, it finds itself in a time and place that no longer requires that kind of violence. 

Of course, the movie manages to still be really goofy even while making statements like these. It feels weirdly stilted, with a lot of awkward silences and stiff acting, and it almost gets a little cringey to watch at times. There's just too many lingering shots of actors doing exaggerated screams of pain and dying in motions so acrobatic they become comical. Somebody is credited as having provided music for this, but in all the scenes where music would have served to give more excitement to whatever was onscreen, there's nothing but silence. I'm not an avid proponent of overbearing scores in film, but honestly, I think some epic/dramatic music during the fight scenes in Mikadroid would have helped it along tremendously.

This could have been like forty minutes long, all in all. The robot sounds like somebody sneaking around while wearing leather pants that are three sizes too tight for them, and that's entertaining, but to get to the creaky robot fights and hilariously over-the-top deaths we have to endure people standing stock still for no reason and holding their facial expressions in place for an awkwardly long time. Cut like 80% of the "people standing still" and this would have been pretty great. I mean, it is pretty great, it just feels... bogged down.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

directed by Julius Onah
USA
102 minutes
3 stars out of 5
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I'd advise you not to read this review if you haven't already seen the film, because I think this franchise is deliberately going for the effect of being much better if you don't know anything about the movies beforehand.

In classic Cloverfield fashion, the lead-up to this film's release was non-traditional: first a trailer dropped during the Superbowl, and then it was on Netflix in full after the game. That's kind of a bold move for Paramount and everybody involved- the experience is vastly different between going to a theater and seeing the new Cloverfield, and firing up Netflix on your iPad and seeing the new Cloverfield. I'd like to be less ambiguous about whether or not I think it's a gamble that paid off, but unfortunately I'm not wholly certain it did.

I kept comparing this to Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, which I know was wrong, considering how the franchise seems to be moving in a direction of mostly self-sustaining films, but I did it anyway. And I came to the conclusion that the reason The Cloverfield Paradox feels different from its predecessors is because by now the jig is up. 10 Cloverfield Lane worked so well because if you went into it with no idea what it was about, you could genuinely get caught up in the story without wondering where the connection to the first film was. But with The Cloverfield Paradox, you know that sooner or later the monsters are going to show up, and all you have to occupy your time before that happens is a somewhat undercooked science fiction film.

This isn't a bad movie at all, and I don't want to imply that, but around 40 minutes in I just found myself wanting it to commit to something. It doesn't feel like it develops any one storyline enough to be satisfying. The things that happened, barring a few logical progressions, mostly seemed like weird for the sake of weird. Why would crossing over to a mirror dimension make a wall consume a guy's arm, and then reanimate the arm with a consciousness of its own? Why would it make another guy explode into a shower of worms? There's no reason for most of the strange things that happen in this film to have happened, and no explanation for any of it besides "we're in another dimension so stuff is weird now I guess". But why would a dimension that seemingly did not diverge in any significant way from ours also have conscious talking arms? This is a question for the ages.

The ending is excellent, though, and it definitely gives everybody what they came for. It's a payoff that makes the other 90 minutes feel slightly more worth it. But the severe lack of explanations and the random, uncontrolled way the plot seemed to progress at times made me question what in the world the director and writer were doing. If there is another Cloverfield film, I will definitely still see it, but at this point it'll have to do a little bit better than this to not make me feel like I'm just waiting around for a scene like the one at the end of The Cloverfield Paradox.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fires on the Plain (2014)

directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Japan
87 minutes
4.5 stars out of 5
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Shinya Tsukamoto might be my favorite director of all time, I've seen almost all of his movies and I love them all. But I categorically dismissed Fires on the Plain when I first heard about it because I saw that it was a war movie, and mistakenly thought I wouldn't like it because of that. I was also hesitant because this is a re-interpretation of a book that I've never read, that was also made into a more famous movie by Kon Ichikawa that I've never seen. I shouldn't have doubted my favorite director, though.

It is about a group of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines in the last days of WWII, trying to survive the combined forces of faceless American attackers, local guerilla groups, and the harshness and scarcity of their environment. Tsukamoto himself plays the lead role, and I think he's the best he's ever been in it. This whole film is one of his best, and by the French acclaims in the opening credits, it looks like maybe "high cinema" has decided to finally give him the recognition he deserves as well.

Saying that this is a harrowing film is giving only a sparse description of exactly what it entails. It's at the same time very typical of the director and also very new for him. This is a strong contrast to his earlier works that focus on scrap heaps, rusty metal, car crashes, and all manner of things industrial, but a lot of the same trademarks carry over, like those scenes you find in the Tetsuo movies and others where the cameraperson basically throttles the hell out of the camera in the middle of loud noises and twisted metal. The difference is instead of hunks of steel and concrete, the camera is throttled in the midst of thick jungles, gunfire, and human flesh.

The transition from an urban/industrial environment to a jungle environment is really interesting to see here- I was thinking a lot during this about the temporality of war, the delineation of it. The backdrop of this film is strikingly green and beautiful, and when the blood and guts are absent from the shot, there's no visible differences between the thick forest in this and the "untouched" greenery advertised in tourist brochures to get people to come visit. There's the war fought by heads of state and country in far-removed war rooms, and then there's the war fought by the individual soldier. A good portion of the beginning of Fires on the Plain consists of men fighting over yams or trying to acquire more yams. Is that war? Does that count among the plans governments make to occupy one another's territory? I think one of the messages of this is that no matter how anybody plans out a war, there's always going to be individual soldiers enduring unimaginably dehumanizing conditions like shown in this film.

This feels extremely personal as well, and I deeply respect it in terms of filmmaking, because everything comes together so seamlessly to create something that looks and feels traumatic. Half of the ideas about the temporality of war I talked about only came to me because I just had to break my focus from what was onscreen from time to time. This is definitely not a good introduction to Shinya Tsukamoto because it's so unlike the rest of his work, but it's also definitely one of his best.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Imp (1981)

directed by Dennis Yu
Hong Kong
95 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5
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At the risk of sounding like one of those people who tries to compare everything to Eraserhead, this movie reminds me of Eraserhead. Not because it's surreal or nightmarish or involves a protagonist with a distinctive hairstyle, but because both movies deal with the anxiety of new fatherhood manifesting itself as a bizarre, possibly supernatural encounter or series of encounters. The main character in The Imp is an underpaid night security guard with a pregnant wife at home, and while his anxieties may not specifically be towards the prospect of having a child, he's certainly got enough on his plate in the prospect of taking care of a child to warrant a stress ghost sighting or two.

Something about this movie feels "with it"; not in a hip, slang-abusing way, but in a way that feels strangely modern even now, almost 40 years removed from its release. I got some vibes from this that reminded me of movies like Candyman or The People Under the Stairs, or other 80s/90s horrors that take place in "urban" environments. It's dated, but it holds up well as a respectable time capsule of its era, genre, and origins. The humor is zany but also universally funny through the use of occasional non-sequiturs, like a character wearing a shirt that says "Am I A Girl?" and then later one that says "NO! I Am A Man".

There really aren't a lot of imp sightings at all in this movie, but the payoff is good. When we do see the physical manifestation of the spirit, it looks surprisingly striking. And in the meantime we get these ridiculous, overblown death scenes, guys elaborately choking to death on food and bursting into flames inside their cars, stuff like that. For a Hong Kong horror movie, this unfortunately doesn't have much in the way of ooey-gooey practical effects, but at the climax there is a ghostly visitation scene with some genuinely creepy prosthetics.

All in all I really did enjoy this one, barring a couple stretches where it got either boring or off-topic and lost me for a bit. It's a little bit goofy but never enough to get in the way of taking the film seriously or make it feel entirely like a comedy. I always love seeing movies deal with specific types of supernatural entities that are separated from the typical Western construct of "ghost", and I like them even better like this when the supernatural just is, and the reason why it's there isn't overly important.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Wild Country (2006)

directed by Craig Strachan
Scotland
67 minutes
3 stars out of 5
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I had an unusually tough time finding new things to watch this week, so I ended up watching a couple of movies that were pretty much just random picks, including this one. It's a relatively low-budget Scottish werewolf flick that somehow got Lionsgate distribution (or so I've heard). The cast is largely no-names who do a surprisingly good job, but Peter Capaldi is there for a bit too.

I probably liked this more than a lot of other people because I was surprised in general at how well-made it was. There are parts that were more slipshod than others, including some apparently botched fake daylight scenes that I didn't notice but other reviewers did, but as a whole it feels like something where a lot of effort was put into it from everybody involved. The storyline isn't very original and really at times there seemed almost to not be any storyline; it just progresses along the track of "some goofy teens find a werewolf baby" and doesn't have any extra twists save one at the end that was a bit predictable anyway. Like the director just wound up the key on this movie's back and set it going, then didn't interfere.

I think about 98% of the reason why this was able to win me over so much was the practical effects. It uses those on both gore and wolfy stuff, and admittedly those creatures don't even remotely resemble wolves, nor do they look like living, breathing organisms so much as what a large Muppet might look like if infected with a zombie virus, but I just loved them so much anyway. I loved that they didn't look like wolves. They looked like their own beings, and every time I looked at them I got a sense of "somebody made that!" that felt more unique and genuine than the typical picture of a bipedal, muscular, long-clawed lycanthrope. I dug those silly-looking werewolves. We need more silly-looking werewolves.

Basically, Wild Country had a lot of positive attributes that were enough to outweigh the negative for me, but I can't tell if anybody else will like it. Film opinions are totally subjective. This might not go down in the annals of werewolf movie fame, but who decides what does?

Friday, January 26, 2018

Happy Death Day (2017)

directed by Christopher B. Landon
USA
96 minutes
3.5 stars out of 5
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When I first saw the trailer for this, my first thought was "wow, that looks ridiculous" and I was very surprised to see Blumhouse putting their name behind it. I'm not sure if it was a bad trailer or a misconception on my part, but as it turns out, the thing to understand before going into Happy Death Day is that it is, in large part, a comedy. It does take its characters and their stories seriously, but it's set in almost a cartoon version of what a college is supposed to be like. I'm not sure why this eluded me at first.

The repeated-day premise isn't original, but the movie itself acknowledges that fact. The repeated-day premise with the added intrigue that the person repeating her day has to figure out who keeps murdering her is certainly more original, and it's fun as hell to watch. This entire movie has some serious watchability to the point where it felt strange watching it on an iPad instead of in a theater. I'm separating the concept of watchability from what I personally thought about this movie, because while I myself wasn't overly fond of the idea, the main actress absolutely makes her role work, and scenes like the one where she walks completely naked down the courtyard of her college because she knows nobody will ever remember it are so genuinely energetic that their energy becomes almost infectious.

Being a caricature of college life, and therefore involving a lot of sorority girls, Happy Death Day does buy into that "girl binary" pretty hard, which is unfortunate. Girls are either caring, sensitive angels, or they're deceitful, stuck-up sluts. Sometimes they're in disguise as one, but are actually the other. The main character is the only one who gets afforded any development and even that is simply a shift from one end of the binary to the other.

It feels wrong to count a full twenty minutes of a film's runtime as a point against it, but I wasn't fond of the sort-of twist ending to this. They could have ended it on a nice note of this girl hanging up her old, rude ways and eventually moving on with her life, but I guess they thought the audience needed one more twist in order to stay interested (which we didn't, IMO). Another thing I wasn't a fan of was the romance that developed between the main character and somebody who probably shouldn't have been more than a bit player. It really drives home how hard mainstream cinema tries to shoehorn in hetero romances when a movie can literally be about a girl reliving her own murder over and over and trying desperately to use the time allotted to her to figure out who's doing it, track them down, and kill them, but she still has to fall in love with some college bro while she's doing it.