February 21, 2019 at 10:22 pm #12260
A couple of things I’ve finally been able to pull out of the huge pile of discs beside the TV recently, all of them worth at least a quick look.
THE CREEPING GARDEN (2014): You wouldn’t necessarily think that a documentary about slime moulds would involve a lot of chats with artists and robot-builders, or that it would involve some of the best music I’ve ever heard from Jim O’Rourke, but there you are. It starts with a British guy poking at logs, takes you through a museum’s astonishingly large collection of fungi, drops in at a weird European science-art-design-whatever institute to see what happens when people simulate the behaviour of slime moulds for fun and t-shirts, and includes a bit of the history of nature documentaries along the way. It’s not the most focused documentary, then, but it’s got all kinds of brilliant time-lapse footage of things that ooze and wiggle, and interviews with a couple of artists whose curiosity and technical know-how make me feel like a huge dunce.
DESIERTO (2015): A dozen people trying to cross the border from Mexico into the US are hunted down by what’s-his-evil-face from The Walking Dead. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the movie, but it’s terrifyingly efficient: twenty minutes in, you know that one or two props are going to be key to the plot later, and you know exactly who you’re supposed to like and hate, and then three-quarters of the cast has been shot and you’re scrambling through rocks and cacti with the survivors. It’s tense, it’s quick, and it didn’t involve anyone breaking their leg in a horrible way until right at the end, which was a relief because those scenes always freak me out. Made when it was, it was also refreshingly free of MAGA hats, but you know the guy would be wearing one today.
DARK RIVER (2017): Are there HAPPY British movies about someone going back to the family farm after years away? This certainly isn’t one. It’s got a pair of excellent performances from Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley, though, who wring every last bit of anguish out of their beaten-down brother and sister who don’t talk much because of Circumstances. Gorgeous landscapes, a really pretty PJ Harvey song that pops up a few times, a surprise appearance by Dean Andrews as one of the few genuinely decent people in the movie, and one of the most Sean Bean roles of all time: his character is already dead when the movie starts.
THE GILLIGAN MANIFESTO (2018): This one didn’t come off of the DVD pile, and it wasn’t very good, either, but it really stood out when browsing through some streaming options. Having grown up on Gilligan’s Island re-runs, the idea of a documentary showing that it was Communist propaganda made me smile… it’s just never anywhere near as interesting (or fun) as the actual clips of the show. There’s a decent assortment of commie-nuke-fallout-shelter background provided at the beginning — about ten minutes too much of it, even — and then it swats away a bunch of half-assed “what the show was REALLY about” theories before trying to demonstrate (ineptly) that broad satire was meant to make us overthrow the awful capitalist machine. It would probably work better as a three-minute read on Medium with a couple of embedded clips.April 4, 2019 at 8:38 pm #12472
BELOW (2002): This is one odd duck of a movie. Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, directed by David Twohy, starring Olivia Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis, and Boyfriend #2 from Felicity, it’s a maybe-haunted submarine movie set shortly before the end of WW2. Graeme Revell provides the score, so there are moments where you’re extra-forced to think of Dead Calm, and it’s just old enough that I can’t decide now if it was shot in a bizarre way, if the iTunes rental was brutally compressed, or if the CG simply hasn’t aged well at all. The script is sort of clunky in places, and a lot of important dialogue gets buried in the mix, so you have to go back every now and again and freeze-frame something or switch on some subtitles to figure out why somebody just got hit with a hammer or whatever, but it goes to a few interesting places and certainly didn’t deserve to be such a massive flop. (IMDB quotes its budget at $40 million and its global box office as just over $2.6 million.) Plus, so many good connections for your next Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.April 9, 2019 at 10:36 pm #12483
TWIXT (2011): Francis Ford Coppola’s 21st-century output hasn’t exactly blown anybody away. The trailer for Tetro was a pretty demo when I worked in a computer store, and if you’re really reaching, you could say that the black-and-white scenes in Twixt borrow a little from that aesthetic; the tone is a lot more ’90s CD-ROM game, though, except it’s deliberately — I hope — hokey to create the feel of a messed-up dream. Val Kilmer is actually kind of charming at times as a crappy horror writer who drinks too much on a book-signing tour of small towns that don’t care, and Young Han Solo makes a couple of quick appearances in full goth makeup for… no particular reason. The actual “mystery” of the plot won’t baffle anybody, but I enjoyed the WTF? quality of Kilmer’s dreams (and how he eventually started using them to consult Edgar Allan Poe for writing and life advice) and there are plenty of surreal details to enjoy when you end up seeing this two-thirds of the way through a Coppola retrospective and there are only a dozen other people in the theater; eight of those people will go home shaking their heads. Enjoy the Tom Waits narration and the weird clocktower and you won’t have to be one of them.April 17, 2019 at 8:44 am #12488
I remember Twixt. What an odd film. Talk about style over substance…
I don’t think I liked Kilmer in this. But I liked Bruce Dern and Elle Fanning (although her role amounted to nothing much, IIRC).
The story behind this is much more interesting than the film itself. Coppola shot lots of different takes of various scenes, in various different tones and styles, with various different endings, etc. He wanted to make it a touring art project, with audiences reacting to one cut of the film, and him re-cutting it within hours based on the reactions and then showing the re-cut version, and so on. So audiences could shape the film, determine whether it was going to be lighter or darker, horror or tragic love story, supernatural flick or a film about a mental breakdown, etc.
In the end, the project did not happen. I think it was either cost-related, or the technology for fast re-editing was simply not there. Either way, the film that we can buy on DVD is just one cut out of many possibilities, which feels weird – you are basically watching an abandoned project.
I can’t recommend this film. But there are lots of interesting stylistic elements and a lot of great-looking scenes, so I guess it is one of those films that could be useful for film students to watch?May 8, 2019 at 6:45 am #12519
I had no idea that Twixt had such an ambitious history, but the idea that it’s the last incarnation of something that was meant to develop over time sort of makes sense. It’s also reminded me of Mike Figgis’ Timecode, which was probably a more realistic technical challenge at the time: after shooting the events of that movie about fifteen times with a set of four roving cameras, Figgis apparently screened a given take for an audience and mixed the audio live to emphasize whichever details seemed most important in the moment. The DVD released at the time includes one other version of the movie, but since it was shot on cheap digital video cameras in the late ’90s, it’s bugged me that nobody has bothered with the trivial expense of an HD re-release since then. (A quick search shows that Amazon is streaming it in HD, so I guess there’s that.) It’s not a life-changing movie, but it’s a neat experiment that totally belongs on the same shelf as Coppola’s boondoggle.
Meanwhile, this week…
POETIC JUSTICE (1993): There’s nothing like a premature death to make you realize that you haven’t seen nearly enough of a director’s work. As a follow-up to an extremely guy-centric debut, Poetic Justice is a nice change of pace, and holy crap, THE CAST. Just slipping a Last Poets performance into your movie is pretty awesome, but we also get to enjoy Tone Loc’s voice as a local drug dealer/sort-of friend to Tupac’s Lucky, Maya Angelou as somebody’s wise aunt dishing truth about the whole family at a reunion picnic, and an entire extended family’s worth of background performers doing a really good day’s work at that picnic. (Seriously, there’s an interesting documentary just waiting to be made be about what happened in the park the day that material was shot.) There’s some clunky dialogue in places, too, and one brief scene of AWFUL “could things work out between us?” voiceover, but even that is mercifully redeemed by Regina King’s character’s gormless interior monologue at the last second. Like the road to Oakland, the movie takes a while to get where it’s going, but it’s an interesting look back at an important time in North American culture.
THE RED HOUSE (1947): What do you get when you decide that your noir needs to be mostly rural Gothic melodrama? You get Edward G. Robinson chewing scenery, Rory Calhoun flitting in and out as the under-developed bad-boy hunter in these parts, and an impossibly pert Allene Roberts being as much of a plucky girl investigator as the movie will let her be. Its breakneck beginning gives way to a mushy second act full of swimming dates and barely-there intrigue about government bonds, and Julie London’s character is just sort of abandoned right at the end, but she’s been a stuck-up bitch all along and you totally saw that part coming. This would make a great double bill with one of the many versions of Jane Eyre out there.May 8, 2019 at 10:42 pm #12520
BORN OF FIRE (1987): This was picked up on a whim because the cast bizarrely mashes up the contents of two of my favourite TV shows: Peter Firth plays a concert flautist and Nabil Shaban is his mute half-brother who crawls around an ancient Christian shrine in Turkey. There are little snippets of Sufi poetry and dervishes and stonings (with flowers) while lizards crawl around on religious artwork and an ancient musician runs around naked spewing flames from his flute and his eyes. It doesn’t make a whole heap of literal sense, but the music is interesting throughout, some of the locations are stunning, and you can’t deny for a second that the director came up with something fairly unique. Some of the video on the Indicator release fares better than other bits, so there’s some really noticeable shimmer and noise in places, but I’m guessing that there aren’t a ton of prints of this one out there to work from. Bonus points for getting a still of Shaban in full makeup from his first appearance on Doctor Who in the extras.
IMPOSSIBLE HORROR (2017): From the exotic to the shockingly local… substantial chunks of this one look like they were shot in my neighbourhood. It’s a half-serious horror movie that’s as much about hauntings as it is seeing a creative effort all the way through to the end, and considering how much of it was shot on a phone and a Canon DSLR, it looks great when it’s not supposed to look crappy and amateurish. (Plenty of credit to the effects work being limited almost entirely to makeup and lighting for that.) It’s short, the camerawork is varied, and the burned disc includes a clutch of the videos that were made for the crowdfunding site where $7000 and change was raised to make it possible… many of them involve a wiener dog and they’re a hoot. (The movie’s available on Vimeo if you’re inclined to check it out.)May 13, 2019 at 8:14 pm #12528
WHAT WE LEFT BEHIND (2019): I don’t know that anybody is going to bother watching this unless they’re already a Star Trek fan, but 25+ years after it first aired, here’s a sprawling look at Deep Space Nine that started as a chance for the cast to sit down and talk about some of their experiences, and then grew and grew until it included musical numbers — you can add “people who have always wanted to hear Jeffrey Combs sing” to the potential audience — and five of the show’s best-known writers sketching out a hypothetical first episode for an eighth season of the show set twenty years after the series ended (which I would totally watch). It’s mostly interesting as a view of how TV writing and production has changed since the ’90s, but there’s some playful editing to enjoy, and holy crap, does the remastered footage from the show look incredible. (All the more reason to be sad that the whole series probably won’t get similar treatment, ’cause its more serialized structure would make it the only 20th-century Trek I’d actually buy start to finish if it did.) One or two of the show’s clunkier missteps get danced around a little, and it might run a little long for people who aren’t coming it with a nostalgic grin on their faces, but it’s generally pretty honest about how things turned out and it even manages to be entertaining through the end credits. I’m looking forward to seeing what else gets stuffed into the corners of the Blu-ray.June 12, 2019 at 6:47 pm #12547
Geez, this is a strange time for physical media. Some people are willing to pay an arm and a leg for fancy editions of weird stuff, big studios are still cranking out discs of their latest titles, and just about everybody you know is only streaming things now. Which sucks, because it’s apparently meant that a lot of smaller distributors have stopped taking returns of titles that don’t sell, making it that much tougher for stores to carry more than the hits while still turning a profit.
My favourite local store, bless them, have recently put up a rack of “we took a chance on these and nobody cared” discs by the cash register, and the prices come down a few bucks every couple of weeks until somebody finally gives them a chance. On the sad end of the spectrum, that means that brilliant movies like Sun Choke are only ten bucks and still being ignored; on the happier side, there’s always something I’ve never heard of for slightly more than the cost of a rental, so why not? Cases in point:
SINGULARITY (2017): I wasn’t expecting this to be even a tiny bit good, and it met my expectations. At some point, it was apparently a crowd-funded Hunger Games knock-off, but then somebody decided that what it REALLY needed was an afternoon’s bored work from John Cusack, standing around in an empty room making cryptic comments about evolution that could be diced up and dropped into the movie almost at random. So yeah… robots apparently kill us all later this year, spend ninety-seven more years aimlessly stomping around the forests of eastern Europe looking for survivors (who inexplicably build cities right out in the open for the mechs to incinerate whenever they have a second), and there’s also a spaceship buried under the ground that just sort of comes out of nowhere at the end. Laughable writing and acting, passable effects, and an ending that half-heartedly sets up a sequel nobody will want to see… there’s really not much to it but a sense of how big the catering bill was for Cusack’s Christmas party that year. (Also, every single one of the trailers at the start of the disc was for a movie that looked better, and that includes the latest effort from the guy who brought you The General’s Daughter and the first Tomb Raider movie.)
TERMINAL (2018): I bought this entirely for the cast, which is Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, and Mike fucking Myers… in a quasi-sci-fi noir movie… mostly set in and around an empty train station in the middle of the night, except for the strip club, which is packed. (I guess strippers don’t need to get home or anything.) There are hitmen, there’s double-crossing, there’s uncomfortable Catholicism, and there’s a fair bit of banter and flirting in a booth at a grubby diner. It’s the sort of story that gradually comes together like a million movies did in the wake of Pulp Fiction, and it maybe thinks it’s a little smarter than it is, also like a million movies in the wake of Pulp Fiction. The locations from around Budapest are interesting, but also shot on a tight budget that makes them look smaller than they really are and empty in a way that doesn’t really help the script out. Yes, the characters are mostly cardboard cut-outs and the mystery at the heart of it all really just elicits a shrug at the end, but Pegg and Robbie both inject some impressive wit and energy into the material, and even Mike Myers in fake teeth didn’t make me want to turn it off. As impulse buys go, this one turned out okay.
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