Monday, December 11, 2017

Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2017)

directed by Pete Ohs & Andrea Sisson
USA
91 minutes
4 stars out of 5
----

The premise of this one doesn't need much summarizing: a girl, a guy, and a robot head trek across the desert of another planet in search of a mythical lake. The worldbuilding is definitely one of the strongest, if not the strongest point in this film, because this desert has all the right stuff to look subtly futuristic and alien, yet still have the atmosphere of a place that humans call "home". There's strange technology discarded and buried in the sand, and the edible flora of the desert have names that aren't quite what we'd call things here on Earth, but as a colonized planet it's certainly believable.

I want to address the only real problem I had with this movie before I go any further. It wasn't necessarily a problem with the larger framework of the movie itself, just something it perpetuates that a lot of other movies also do. The girl, Rola, is written to be the heart to Lernert's head, she follows emotion where he follows reason, and it isn't inherently wrong to have two characters play off each other like this, but almost every time, the airy-fairy, risk-taking party is the woman. Lernert is there to oh-so-patiently mansplain to her, and rescue her when she eats poisonous roots, and remind her to do very basic things. She's there to be magical and beautiful and not know much of anything practical at all. I found this infantilization very irritating even when I was otherwise enjoying this movie.

I did, however, do a lot of enjoying. It's a latecomer, but I really think this is one of the most visually gorgeous films of the year. The aesthetic is really, really homogeneous, there's impressively little variation in color, and I know that two implausibly pale people venturing across an implausibly pale desert where everything is only beige, blue, or green may be, for some, tiring to look at for an hour and a half. But I feel like you have to admit that the cinematography in this is ridiculously well-done even if it's not personally your favorite color scheme.

I almost gave this five stars because there's basically nothing wrong with the way it's made. There are boundaries to plot and setting that it sets up for itself (desert environment, only three main characters, one fixed goal for the two of them) and it works within these boundaries perfectly. Maybe it's not as ambitious as your Alien: Covenants or your District 9s or your Cloverfields. It doesn't have as large a scope, despite being set in an absurdly large desert. But it's more than beautiful enough to be fascinating throughout every minute of its running time, and most of all it actually made me feel uplifted and optimistic about being a human being, living a human life, which is something I haven't felt in a long, long time. Just a pleasant and gentle movie.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Survivalist (2015)

directed by Stephen Fingleton
Ireland
104 minutes
4 stars out of 5
----

The Survivalist is both a very complex and a very simple movie, I don't really know how to explain it other than that. There are standards it adheres to in order to fit the post-apocalyptic model but as a whole it's not quite like anything else I've seen before.

The title doesn't refer to the kind of doomsday prepper type you may think of nowadays when you see the term "survivalist". Well, technically I can't be certain what it refers to, since I don't know the filmmakers' intent, but I would guess that surviving in this context refers not to a particular method or methods of living post- societal collapse, but to the overall notion of just surviving in such a world, doing whatever is necessary to ensure you go on living day-to-day. It's startling how much inhumanity is in this film, not brutality or intentional evil, but a total absence of anything that would betray any of the characters as having human feelings. This is truly a post-societal landscape.

It really drives home the point as well that if you can get yourself far enough from anybody else, you can do whatever you want. You can wear an elaborate hairstyle and have weird gardening practices and play the harmonica (possibly the film's only human touch) and there's nothing anyone can do to judge you, because the laws that governed behavior don't exist anymore. A lot of post-apocalyptic films don't get into that, they show survivors doing the same routine over and over of venturing out on some journey somewhere with a large backpack and some beef jerky, but they don't show what people would do if they could sustain themselves alone on a farm and not have to make a trek to find other survivors.

I know this is slow and I know it barely has any dialogue, and it might even border on invoking the P word (pretentious), but it's so well made and sticks so firmly to its premise of not showing any trace of manners or social niceties that I'm kind of amazed by it. There were points when the younger of the two women who came to stay on the protagonist's farm would say something too forward to him, and I almost expected the older woman to remind her not to upset the man, but this kind of calculated survival of two unarmed people against one armed person goes much further than just being polite to him. They survive around him on a more tactical level, one where it matters less if you insult him and more if you can manage to grab his shotgun shells while he thinks you're trying to get him off, or slip poison into his meal one day. What a well-constructed and unconventionally scary film. Not so much about how the world got to be this way as it is about how the new environment shapes human behavior.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Angst (1983)

directed by Gerald Kargl
Austria
87 minutes
4.5 stars out of 5
----

Belonging to the category of "German-language films that make us uncomfortable", this movie is well-known for being extremely effective in depicting a serial killer from the inside out, with narration switching back and forth between a separate cold, clinical voice explaining the backstory and previous doings of the killer and his own inner monologue, similarly cold and clinical in locution.

The opening scene is a stark look at the killer doing his thing, and I noticed that the actor seemed to be wearing some kind of steadicam rig. I noted this but didn't think anything of it until he said to his first victim "I'm shooting now", and I thought "huh". Because to me, the actor supporting his own camera rig and then his character saying that he was shooting- that felt like a double metaphor, like an acknowledgement of the fourth wall. He's shooting a gun / he's shooting a movie. This, of course, could be a completely moot point depending on whether or not the German language uses the same word "shoot" to refer both to shooting a gun and shooting film, which for all I know it might not, I'm just going off of subtitles here. Whether or not that specific instance was meant to brush up against the fourth wall, this is certainly a film that draws the viewer into it and makes sure you can't ignore a single thing that's going on.

The one element of this that I couldn't figure out, by which I mean I personally enjoyed it greatly but didn't understand why it had been included in the film, was that there's a little dog who stays around for a very long time. I immediately got bad vibes when they showed the dog, because considering that it's mentioned many times that the main character has tortured animals, I was sure the dog was eventually going to get done in. But it never does! It's just there, and they kept showing it running back and forth between places and barking at the murderer, which was honestly really funny and it's a testament to how otherwise disturbing this movie is that having a little dachshund named Kubo running around didn't bring down its disturbing nature at all.

Overall this is just a really well-made film that does a lot with no embellishment. I was disappointed in its assertion that childhood trauma can cause a person to grow up into a monster, but I suppose in 1983 that notion may not have been challenged as much as it is today. The main actor is perfect and probably the reason so much of this works so well. He was in Das Boot, too! I'm not sure why I find that amusing.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Woodshock (2017)

directed by Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy
USA
100 minutes
3 stars out of 5
----

I was planning on watching this on Thanksgiving but I didn't want to make myself sad after a nice day. As it turns out I would have been perfectly fine if I had watched it then, because unless a movie being very, very boring makes you sad, and unless you have very raw wounds from the death of a parent, Woodshock will most likely fail to sway you in any meaningful way.

Since this comes from A24, the studio who brought you basically every critically acclaimed horror movie in recent memory, the hype has been rather high for this in certain circles, but it doesn't seem to be quite up to par with the rest of A24's offerings. Reviewers have mostly come to the consensus that it's a nice film but it's extremely empty, and more boring than poignant. I don't feel like it's bad enough to be categorized with the plethora of "fake deep" dramas that have come out recently, but it's getting there.

To be fair, I was trying to make sure there were genuine differences between it and any other films that I personally enjoy, but that I know could subjectively be called "boring", and I'm fairly confident that those differences do exist. Woodshock doesn't seem to actually be saying anything with those lengthy scenes in which nothing happens but everything is very pretty. The sole message culminating from all of its efforts at aesthetic purity seems to be "I am sad", and if we wanna be fancy, "I am sad because _____ happened", but more frequently it doesn't even connect the sadness to anything. The imagery in this is very free-floating and airy, and undeniably beautiful, but disconnected from the narrative and only there because it looks nice. Which is not a crime! I'm an advocate for putting things in films because they look nice. But this tries to be poignant and thought-provoking when in reality it doesn't provoke any significant thoughts at all.

There's also the fact that the subject matter is not revolutionary or anything you couldn't find in a different movie that takes a less roundabout, more conventional approach to its themes. Kirsten Dunst with flowers, Kirsten Dunst with butterflies, Kirsten Dunst crying in some nice lingerie. I could even raise the point that this movie has a lot of nerve to romanticize a white lady doing something terrible on weed while untold numbers of non-white people are wrongfully imprisoned for doing nothing wrong while on weed, or under suspicion of having been on weed. If you want to watch this because it's pretty and Kirsten Dunst is talented, go right ahead, just don't expect to actually be moved by it.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Visitor in the Eye (1977)

directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Japan
100 minutes
3 stars out of 5
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So I'm a big fan of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, and like most people, my favorite movie of his is Hausu, because it's also one of my favorite movie in general. But he's also directed a substantial amount of short films that more closely follow the conventions of Japanese new-wave cinema, as well as some advertising work. I like to watch his shorts when I have nothing else to do because I can be guaranteed they'll be good. But I'm less familiar with his other feature-length movies, like this one.

The Visitor in the Eye appears to be based on some kind of manga that I've never heard of, and as such I think there's a lot of characters who are inside jokes from the source material that I didn't get the full context behind. The main character in the manga looks to be the roguish, Phantom of the Opera-looking mad doctor (played by the always fantastic Jô Shishido!) who is brilliant and successful but kind of broody and weird. But to me, not having any knowledge of this manga, the main character in this movie looks to be a young girl who gets her eye put out in a tennis accident and, upon receiving a replacement cornea, begins to have strange visions.

I think the reason why people don't talk about this movie as much as Hausu is because, to be blunt, it really isn't as good. I was hoping I'd come away from this telling people about a virtually unknown second Ôbayashi masterpiece that was equally deserving of love as Hausu, but it's just not all that. I absolutely love the way it looks, the cinematography has that painted-backdrop feel to it, unique to Ôbayashi, where everything looks vaguely fake but in a deliberate and aesthetically pleasing way. There's random screams for no reason and less surreal imagery than you might expect, but again, this seems to be an adaptation, so the director may have had less room to work with when it came to creative license. But despite looking perfect, there's no getting over the fact that this is just boring for about 95% of its running time. The beginning is interesting enough, but in the middle it lapses severely into a weird love triangle between the girl, her mystery dream lover, and the girl her mystery dream lover killed, and it never recovers. Good if you like soap operas, not so good if you like Hausu.

It also makes me really, really uncomfortable that the doctor character in this has a little girl living with him who refers to herself as his wife despite clearly being maybe six years old. I kept trying to figure out a way in which this was not disgusting- maybe she's joking, she's doing that kid thing where kids insist they're really adults because how dare anybody treat them like babies; maybe she's supposed to be a grown woman with a little kid body. But there is like no way to parse that that makes it not awful. I don't feel so bad about disliking this because that's just such a gross and bizarre element that I didn't understand the purpose of.

Lemme also leave a link here to where you can watch a bunch of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi shorts for free, legally, in case you also need to pass some time. "Emotion" is probably the best and longest on there, and involves vampires.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Where Have All the People Gone (1972)

directed by John Llewellyn Moxley
USA
74 minutes
3 stars out of 5
----

A good movie for those who are fatigued from the Black Friday crowds today, considering it takes place in a world with almost no people whatsoever.

Apparently this was a made-for-TV movie, although its content is a bit different from what I'd think to expect flipping through channels for a movie to watch. It's about a band of survivors trekking through California after some mysterious solar event wipes out a large portion of the population, and up until its suspiciously optimistic ending, it's actually pretty grim. Save for Peter Graves' hair. You could power a whole city on how bright that man's hair is.

This movie shows a little bit of the American attitude of the time towards nuclear bombs and the threat of war, and the characters have an obvious bias towards their own country in terms of who they believe can and can't have a bomb dropped on them. They all have a kind of "immunity"/"accident" attitude, wherein nothing could possibly happen to the USA, they're "immune", so any nuclear disaster that might be to blame for their circumstances must certainly be an accident. I don't even think they refer directly to being bombed, they either say it's a nuclear accident or assume it's the army testing something nearby- which by itself has a lot of connotations about the license the military gets to do whatever they want, but I won't get into that now. At one point one of the characters is brooding about her situation and mentions having seen "some pictures of Hiroshima", but if she'd really seen those photos, she would have recognized that the area her group was in couldn't have been atom-bombed, because trees would be flattened and there would be significantly more smoldering wreckage in and around their persons.

This isn't a bad movie, and it's fun to imagine viewers in the 70s having their day interrupted by this drama about a group of people coming to terms with the death of their loved ones along with nearly everybody else in the world, but it's too lighthearted and vaguely nationalistic to feel like a good exploration of war or even a good exploration of solar flares. This certainly couldn't have been made today, considering how the widespread nature of the internet makes the importance of electricity even more dire now than in 1974. And the ending is almost comically out of left field- the characters disregard practical difficulties and suddenly assume everything will be perfectly fine. "Well, we'll just have to get to farming! What do you mean by minimum viable population size?"

Monday, November 20, 2017

From the Pole to the Equator (1987)

directed by Yervant Gianikian + Angela Ricci Lucchi
Italy
98 minutes
4 stars out of 5
----

Most of the time when I talk about found-footage movies, I'm talking about horror movies like The Blair Witch Project, [REC], or Cloverfield that claim their contents were "found" by somebody else in the aftermath of some terrifying event, usually on a battered camcorder or cell phone. But the term was used earlier to describe a particular kind of experimental film that re-assembles old, degraded film stock to form a narrative entirely different from that which the material originally depicted. The two directors of From the Pole to the Equator are quite prolific in this format, while some other notable names are Peter Delpeut, Pere Portabella, and individual films such as Mother Dao the Turtlelike.

Often, the goal of these films is to make explicit undertones that were never intended to come to light in the original materials. These films can be overtly political and I would go so far as to say that the format has its origins in radical leftist politics. With From the Pole to the Equator, the goal is to dismantle and examine the colonial gaze and the nature of tourism. The footage it employs has a heavy focus on early ethnographic work, the kind that was mostly intended to use populations of distant parts of the globe as showpieces to bolster the intellectualism of high-class white academics.

In the beginning, all we see is a series of trains, and then a montage of polar explorers shamelessly butchering various animals. The recontextualizing of these expeditions in which polar bears, walruses, seals, and other large game were shot puts human beings in a threatening light, and dehumanizes them to a great extent- the animals become helpless, the humans become strange figures with branchlike limbs and round heads who advance mercilessly to employ their killing machines against the wildlife. With no expressions they use their machines to trap the bears, machines to kill the bears, machines to haul the bears onto their sea-faring machines after they've killed them.

The footage isn't just presented without alteration, it's sped up, slowed down, and replayed in order to highlight each intricate detail in which the colonial gaze can be seen reflected. A woman shrouded in layers of clothing meant to shade her unacclimated skin slowly, very slowly, teaches a class of young children somewhere in Africa how to cross themselves, clasp their hands in prayer, raise their arms above their heads. Behind the camera, a phantom voice can almost be heard encouraging its subjects to perform whatever action they want to capture. Repurposing these travelogues and exposing the racism and othering inherent in them shakes out the pockets of these disintegrating nitrate films to give them one last chance to say their piece before becoming lost to time.