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Searching (2018)


Searching is not an audacious work simply for the merit of running heedlessly into a cinematic stunt, guns blazing (as in, this film’s events take place on various device screens, a la Unfriended). Searching is audacious because it works. The so-called stunt folds itself into the story it’s telling as, God help me, a cinematic device that enhances the motivations of its characters, and the unfolding of its central mystery. Even when the idea spreads itself to the brink of collapse, it holds true to its form and finds new ways to explore its telling as a part of its conceit. You can’t divorce the method from the narrative without taking a part of its soul away, and as a result, Searching is one of 2018’s mainstream film surprises.

It’s actually a slight shock to think that Sony Pictures has released one of the premiere films this year seeking to expand a cinema form; and, that such a creative expansion is woven neatly within a lost child mystery-thriller. True to genre: we have a struggling man, David (John Cho, doing a commendable job with FaceTime as an acting partner) working out pain in his recent past – his wife’s death – thereby making parenting a 16-year-old girl, Margot (Michelle La) a heavier burden than usual. Soon after the film opens, with a delightful montage starting with Windows’ “Bliss” and traveling through years of historical YouTube updates and an introduction to FaceTime, Margot goes Missing, and the film follows David going full technological Liam Neeson trying to find her. It’s a simple enough, well-worn story, and it stretches itself arguably too thin in its third act, but the genre lends itself very well to a mystery unraveling in a tech-centric world.

As the film progresses and the use of screens, software, media and metadata folds itself into the story itself, one slowly begins to realize that our daily media saturation has desensitized us to the high pedestal these media play in our experience and internal communication with the world. Or, we are somewhat blind to the part our technology plays in our daily story: the pregnant pause of being ‘left on read’, the breathtaking anticipation of the ‘typing awareness indicator’, or how much is left unsaid by a draft of a tweet unsent. What degree of our development as a person can be alluded to via our browser history, our app engagement, or who we follow on YouTube? Searching is on the same spiritual path as Big Data algorithms: seeking to uncover more about the story of ourselves than we may actually know about ourselves, and predict the climax based on these patterns of behavior. Our use of these tools to communicate our everyday thoughts and beliefs, as the behavior of David and Margot throughout the film implies, is then quantified by the use of these tools. As the mystery of Searching unravels for its characters, the answer finally does appear, much like the result of an equation. We may not accept it, but the math is sound.

First-time director Aneesh Chaganty does an admirable job smashing as many relevant and irrelevant details into the film as possible. There is a slight joy to be had seeing how browser windows interact with one another in the frame, or noticing the characters’ past Google searches autocomplete, or even messages from colleagues and family untouched in the background – sidebars for another day, but all somehow relevant to Searching’s central mystery. It is perversely obvious that the film’s numerous FaceTime chats act as traditional close-ups and crosscutting, with the 180-rule in synchronicity with the front-facing cameras at play. Websites and computer screen backgrounds perform as just that: backgrounds and setting. The cursor is itself a prop. The method of film language miming everyday experience is, of course, now assimilated into the communication tools we use.

So to its credit, the final payoff – that David “never really knew” his daughter, that their familial estrangement following a shared tragedy may have led to her death, is also fed by the use of the computer screen as our method of communication. The film’s late use of local news, YouTube comments and posts, and online social media harassment is a chilling (and timely) reversal of the truth these tools provide and how red herrings are allowed to flourish by the apparent anonymity and loneliness of the film’s/screen’s four walls. Late in the film, we (through David) discover Margot’s hobby of live-streaming her life; the screen as her confessional, and strangers her confessors. It’s a device that again makes sense, not only highlighting how little the father was connecting to his daughter, but how fractured we as a society may be when finding connections to others, and with ourselves, through these mediums. Searching is less about the hunt for a missing girl but more about the individual pursuit for meaning by way of real interaction. The final image hints that despite our reliance on these technologies, the technology itself is not the end-all to our story. The gimmick is no longer a gimmick.

Silence (2016)

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflection recently: on the last year of life, on the purpose of the cinema in our current society, on my professional career, on this blog (yes! I know it has been a while). Yet here I am again. For some reason, all this reflection brings me back to this film, Silence (2016): what may just be Scorsese’s most important and prescient film, hiding in plain sight. With First Reformed (2018) currently out and spiritual cinema on my mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to shift away from previous posts towards something equally on my heart and soul.

Scorsese’s other films seemed to be coming to this. His filmography is littered with the desperate passions of men struggling with degrees of incapacitating personal atonement, and of a Christ complex – men taking the sins of the world upon themselves, only to fail, and then succumb to exile. For Scorsese, and for any Christian, this is an acknowledgment of our fallen state, and the impetus of the Faith: the strange humility necessary to give up one’s fears, desires, and sins to a Higher Power. This is the moral of The Last Temptation of Christ, sure, but is also evident as early as Mean Streets, and followed by KundunBringing Out the Dead, and The DepartedGoodfellasShutter Island, and Raging Bull are variations on the theme. Silence, therefore, is a passion project in the true use of the word, a witness to a master artist’s lifelong (and truly felt at times) painful examination of the Problem of Evil in a world that also consists of Christianity – which presupposes an active, personal and righteous God. For God is Love, and if God so loved the world, why does He allow for the suffering of any of His creatures, especially His faithful?

Silencefollows Jesuit Fr. Rodrigues (a surprisingly convincing Andrew Garfield), and briefly, his compatriot Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver), to 17th century Japan in pursuit of their mentor and spiritual leader, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who rumor has it has apostatized (or, formally renounced his Faith, a word repeated enough to explain a bit) and “lives as a Japanese” – a religious shame with a racial tinge. (“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His Grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”) Not believing such a thing could ever possibly be the case and to save Fr. Ferreira excommunication, a fate worse than death, Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe stow away in secret to the isolationist nation of Japan, now hostile to Christianity. In one of the film’s many subtle ironies, they recruit the meek Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yôsuke), an apostate with his own spiritual struggles, to lead their way.

When I read Endo Shusaku’s original novel years ago, I felt echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness and its companion novel, H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau – after viewing Silence, a comparison to both novels still holds up well to Scorsese’s vision of the material. Particularly, in Wells’ tale, of a Man who believed himself to be a God – and part-way through, is killed, so the Outsider bears witness to the social ramifications of his Creation. Fr. Ferreira is, by the time Fr. Rodrigues finally finds him, a nonentity; and the last half of the film explores the spiritual as well as social consequences of Christianity in Japan – a struggle of this civilization forever tainted by a foreign faith. The film, and the novel, justifiably ignores the political and social background justifying the savagery against Christianity, for the better, creating a nihilism and dread required to explore the problem of indiscriminate evil with greater potency. But a historical context for the Kakure Kirishitans can still inform a reading of the film. The city of Nagasaki, the final location of both Fr. Rodrigues’ and Fr. Ferreira’s Jesuit walkabouts, was an insignificant port city until the Portuguese Missionaries came, and soon became a heart of both international commerce and spirituality in Japan – so the irony of the location as their spiritual graveyard is uniquely charged. Without the Missionaries’ presence, Nagasaki might be just another small seaside farming village. Now, the bustling port of trade is a religious prison. For the modern viewer, Nagasaki is an apocalypse: a city of atomic death, ironically, one brought about by a Western power that did not agree with Japan’s methods. Both perspectives resonate into a reading of the film.

The film’s title leaves out yet implies the operative, capital “G:” God’s Silence, and this all-encompassing, laser-focused centrality on hard spiritual questions makes for a film that has virtually no appeal to a mainstream audience (evidenced by the film’s bleak box office returns). Paramount had no idea how to market the film, which is both surprising, and not at all. Surprising: in that the film had an initial screening at the Vatican, and was met with cautious optimism by the faithful in attendance. Silencehad a potential to appeal to the “Christian audience” kept at an arm’s distance but still begrudgingly pursued by the Hollywood elite after the financial success of The Passion of the Christ and American Sniper. Not surprising: because this is a deeply cynical spiritual film. Its magnification of death, torture, and spirituality – narratively fueled, let’s face it, by a nationalist fervor against foreign ideas, and minority religious views – apparently has no place in the worldwide sociopolitical echo-chamber currently found in America and the UK. Ironically, the “sleeper believers” participating in the current political discourse are arguably the English-speaking audiences most likely to see the film, but least likely to care.

Which is too bad, because Silenceis consummate if not defining work by a master filmmaker at the top of his craft; and I would also argue, at the top of his thematic and symbolic interests. Scorsese’s casting of the Japanese cast, in particular, needs emphasis because their stories carry the film – directly reflecting Fr. Rodrigues’ stages of uncertainty, faith and anguish. First, the guide: The audience I was with in the theater laughed at almost every entrance of the hapless Kichijiro, which I think is telling. Kichijiro is a kind of Gollum to Frodo – an active, perverse reflection of the effects of sin. Fr. Rodrigues sees himself – perhaps more than he cares to admit – in the hapless Kichijiro, who also represents the very human instinct to survive, at constant odds with the consequences of belief. (“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”) Kichijiro’s appearances at the most inopportune moments, and outlandish actions, for a believer can be interpreted as sin – showing up when we least expect it, shaming us by its tenacity, and humbling us by its consequence.Tsukamoto Shinya’s performance as humble Mokichi anchors the second part of the film, and is as good as any in the classic films he himself directed. And in contrast to Kichijiro, Mokichi reflects the best of Fr. Rodrigues’ faith, before Japan’s cultural and spiritual estrangement starts to eat away at his soul. Mokichi’s unwavering belief is possibly the only evidence of such a thing in a film about the subject, and perhaps as a consequence, only his character is given a Christ-like death. (On a cross, beaten by the tide, his last words entreat God to allow his dead companion a place in Heaven. If memory serves, he lives on the cross for three days – a potent number.) Although it is unsaid, his death rattles Fr. Rodrigues to the foundation of his faith, as if the false purity of the priest’s religion dies with the martyr.

For the functional remainder of the film, Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer himself) feeds Fr. Rodrigues the seeds of doubt plucked from the metsuke (“inquisitor”, again: an irony), the dreaded, infamous and rather affable Christian persecutor, Inoue Masashige. (Issey Ogata slays the performance – he clearly alludes to the historical character Inoue’s rumored homosexuality, without ever going there. One particular deflating of tension steals an entire sequence.) During Rodrigues’ imprisonment, he is allowed to minister to his flock in prison, but remains powerless to free them of their physical suffering. Rodrigues is seemingly blind to this rather refined form of psychological torture; all the better to lead him to his eventual apostasy. On that subject, some have written that Liam Neeson is underutilized and “wasted” by his limited performance, here – but I think that’s the point. He will not find you, he will not kill you – Neeson plays Fr. Ferreira / Sawano Chūan as a man of fortitude and ferocity forever sapped of clear potential.But the thematic crux of Silenceis carried by Andrew Garfield – whose documented Jesuit crash-course deeply affected his real, personal spiritual Walk. It shows. His is the great Scorsese spiritual impulse: mistaking his responsibility as a shepherd of his flock with God’s ultimate sovereignty, and collapsing under the weight. (“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”) His self-centeredness is slyly emphasized by the film’s internalized narrative style; with a casual narration, formally lifted from Endo’s novel. This formal style is convenient for a proper dwelling on the intangibility of faith and belief – or, what something invisible and personal ultimately looks like. Can religion still be unspoiled by stepping on the fumi-e, or through resistance? Is it found in excommunication or rebellion? The face of Christ, shown repeatedly in an unnerving El Greco closeup, is eventually seen in Fr. Rodrigues’ own reflection in the water. God is but an Echo, and Fr. Rodrigues shares the fate of Narcissus.

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”The final reveal – in the context of the overall stoical film, an audacious push into burning flames, revealing the hidden character of the dead, former priest – is the kind of privilege only allowed to God. It is an odd moment in an otherwise opaque film. This may be meta, and perhaps intellectual overreach, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the camera may act in the place of God (a device Scorsese has used before, particularly in the sweeping opening shot of The Last Temptation of Christ). The implications of this, given the themes of Silence, are profound. After all, the camera, the method of cinema, cannot speak; but it bears silent witness to the atrocities against these Kakure Kirishitans. It peers into the souls of the priests, feels their loneliness, and hears Fr. Rodrigues’ prayers. If the audience, through cinematic technique, bears witness to the Silence as God in the film, then there is, somewhere, a level of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual interaction. This reading also validates the curious voiceover that – may – have a Divine origin. (An Echo?: “I was with you, always.”) The evidence of Divine voiceover enhances the central mystery of why Evil persists, if God might also.

Ultimately, I came away from Silence not only mulling over these questions, but reflecting on my own belief, asking whether our current absence of religious conflict in our precocious, privileged Western world has softened or cheapened the impact of the experience of religion. (“”I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.””) Staying with that thought, I also reflected on the persecuted Christians of our present day – in Egypt and China and Syria; and the current oppression of other faiths in similarly oppressive regimes. Still, faith is met with a guarantee of violence. So although Silence dwells in the past, it draws attention to the present. Scorsese’s film may just then be a masterpiece, directing the silent but affected audience to a pandemic, timeless trait of what it means to be human: to believe, to suffer, and against all hope, to empathize.

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 25): Daydream (1964)

I will completely understand if Daydream is not necessarily horror overtly – but it has hints of vampirism and malice and psychological terror so I’m going there. For the uninitiated, Daydream is one of the most important films to ever come out of Japan, yet its presence is sorely missed in Western film appreciation. Perhaps it’s the tangential relationship to pinku eiga, and that genre’s sordid tryst with pornography. After Suzuki Seijun’s classic Gate of Flesh, Daydream is one of the first mainstream Japanese films to contain nudity; it is also a trailblazer for what has become modern Japanese censorship with the introduction of “fogging”, or blurring of any offending images from incessant, prying eyes. After viewing director Takechi Tetsuji’s film, I have to admit I completely understand the method behind the creative madness. There was a time – and it is certainly not this time – when nudity and sexual provocation, as tools within the artistic medium, were viewed as political extremism. To depict sex was outside the bounds of decency and thus the law, and therefore the equivalent of an act of (culture) war. As the director himself says in a prelude statement, translated as best as I can make out the Japanese between the poor subtitled version I obtained and my own best guess:

In this work, Daydream, I deal with the problems of human nature and society in a dual statement. In this film, nudity stands as much for man’s extreme circumstance as it does for human alienation. It (film) is a medium prone to elevating a simple statement into social protest. – Takechi Tetsuji

Film does this better than any other genre by its unholy marriage of moving image and sound. Daydream’s title sequence is a brilliant assault on the psychological senses; a cacophony of disorienting imagery and suggestive sound design. In it, we get first a few violent dashes of white paint against canvas, as a woman makes heaving sounds off camera. As the credits progress, the paint intermingles with other shades of gray as the woman’s vocalization becomes more and more suggestive. The end of the montage is a visual whirlwind of sex and violence, without ever a bit of nudity or a single human presence.

Every image in this film is charged with sexual energy. We begin in a dentist’s office; he like to see two persons at once, probably to keep costs down. As he oscillates between the first and second patients, the camera dips and twirls, hinting suggestively that the apparati have more in mind than helping the dental hygiene of the patients. Through clever intercutting, very phallic technology is suggested to molest the mouths under the dentist’s care. The whole first 10 minutes feels like an awkward but deliberate offense of technology upon the human body. Things become even more important and awkward when Chieko (Michi Kanako) and Kurahashi (Ishihama Akira) arrive at the office. There is something immediately alluring to Kurahashi about Chieko’s presence but it is left unsaid. Soon, they are both opposite each other in the dentist’s office: what’s inside their mouths hurts, a little. They are offered brandy and sedatives. Soon, Kurahashi looks over to the young woman only to see the dentist unbutton her shirt, and stuff his face in her breasts.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 24): The Keep (1983)

And now I have the esteemed pleasure of introducing to this series a movie directed by Michael Mann, starring Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Sir Ian Freaking McKellen. It is a difficult proposition to see why this is, that is, until you see it. The Keep is a true filmed disaster, a rare archetype in the annals of cinema history, like an albino alligator, alongside Ken Russell’s The Devils, David Lynch’s Dune, Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, David O. Russell’s Nailed, and most recently Paul Schrader’s The Dying Of The Light and Justin Chadwick’s Tulip Fever. The Keep is a film that was inopportune from its inception, forced into place with possibly the wrong creative staff; and then bungled from pre-production to post in a litany of cinema sins. The studio abandonment of all of the above movies (with, possibly, the exception of The Devils, which I still think is a masterpiece) is directly influenced by that critical dichotomy in cinema: Is it art, or entertainment? Each film, including The Keep, is the result of a forced perspective – the work simply must be one or the other, dammit; and from the studio to the director to the audience, no one got what they signed up for. Time usually heals all wounds, and most films abandoned by its producers eventually find some kind of audience and posthumous life. For me and The Keep, the jury’s still out.

The Keep wasn’t exactly slumming it. On a $6 million budget (around $15 million today), this was a solid mid-level production, perfect for the breakout director of Thief (currently out on Criterion Collection). The source was a popular horror novel, and it was a cross-genre dream: blending religious occultism, war films, haunted houses / castles, and Nazis. What could possibly go wrong?

According to online sources, mostly a 210 minute cut of a genre film, and the death of its SFX lead, Wally Veevers (of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zeppelin, et al.). The film’s production tumult is well-documented by more interested parties. All that really matters is, the footage is cut beyond oblivion, blown to cinema hell.

But the pieces are there to make a cult item. The film begins with Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) in a kind of dream state, after the camera descends from on high, through fog, delicately, to an army in advance. His squadron arrives in an isolated Romanian town, living in the shadow of an cryptic citadel known to them only as The Keep. They are there to protect their army in the Dinu Mountain Pass during Operation Barbarossa. This is the first interesting thing about The Keep: good Nazis. Or, at least, we are meant to side with, and generally support the decisions of, Capt. Woermann, who without the typical blood-red red swastika on his arm is surprisingly sympathetic. (When he catches one soldier trying to pry the nickel crosses out of The Keep’s walls, he respects local heritage over his footsoldier’s greed). Eventually, when SD Sturmbannführer Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) comes a callin’, we have a Nazi to hate – the first things Kaempffer does are murder some villagers and call out the clearly pragmatic Capt. Woermann on his ineptitude. And Kaempffer wears a swastika, which makes hating him easier.

The second key piece to The Keep’s continued fandom is its clear visual fidelity. The shots are generally impeccable – with Mann’s trademark detail work evident in every aspect of the production design. In one long take, somehow left in the 96 minute cut, a boat approaches the Romanian seashore at dawn, and the camera pans from left to right, in the true Magic Hour, revealing the boat in darkness to appear in silhouette as the sun just touches the horizon. It’s the kind of shot that takes one’s breath away. Cinematographer Alex Thompson began with fare like Dr. Phibes Rises Again before upgrading to Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Then The Keep. What is remarkable about his work is that it retains that distinctive 1980s fog and grit, while simultaneously representing everything that would come to define Michael Mann’s visual flair: carefully executed alignment of details within the frame, periodic dynamic use of bright light, a distinctive color scheme cascading towards monochromatic cerulean. Frankly, the work often surpasses the objects in the frame.

And then there’s the music by Tangerine Dream. While it doesn’t fit the timeline of the story at all, it fits the mood, offering the visuals a perspective outside of time, much like falling into meditation. Like Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner work, or Kenji Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell pieces, the repetitious horns and chords create a feeling of ritual, adding an otherworldly character to already outlandish visuals. While there are only five to six leitmotifs, they lend the proceedings an air of respectability not otherwise derived from a story about a rock demon that may be Jewish in a Christian castle inhabited by Nazis and under siege by an angel-alien played by Scott Glenn.

This is where the film falls apart, as a film. If The Keep were a 96 minute screensaver with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack and no dialogue, it may hold more interest than the movie as it currently exists in its truncated form (and, actually, that may make a fantastic Guy Maddin picture; or an opportunity for someone to go all Rose Hobart  on the existing footage). Going from 210 reported minutes to 96 means all kinds of inconsistencies – Glenn’s character, Glaeken Trismegestus, is hardly Thrice Great because he’s hardly in it at all, and his existence is never appropriately explained. Ian McKellen’s Dr. Cuza arc seems more lunatic than nuanced (his character makes more sense as a Smigel under a time crunch). And Alberta Watson’s Cuza is embarrassingly underutilized – when she makes love with Glaeken (about 10 minutes after she’s raped by German soldiers), it feels like another violation because it’s so abrupt – the character is practically raped by the script. By that very point, the film loses me each time. The narrative is either on autopilot or overdrive, and the subsequent litany of scenes consist of either undercooked dialogue or overbaked contrivances.

Which is to say, it should be scary, but frankly isn’t. The evil Golem(?) of The Keep, Molasar, is most probably a vampire of fear and of light – as the Nazis release his power from The Keep and he begins his subterfuge of the humans’ lives, he steals some kind of light/soul essence from each; the villagers, especially the village Priest, go slightly mad by the film’s end. But there is no single scene of explicit or even insinuated exposition to frame the goings-on for us. The Keep was a great opportunity for Lovecraftian madness in ancient Romania with Nazis, complete with a sealed underground city of terrors and ancient evils with world-shattering power. The result doesn’t have enough menace to intimidate McKellen’s apathetic performance. Scott Glenn shows up to save the world from Molasar once he puts on his Rob Liefeld neck.

So when all is done and the credits roll, everything is truthfully left unresolved. The experience feels unsatisfactory, because you know deep down it is. The cult surrounding the film is fed by this nagging doubt. The impulse to want to know more is self-perpetuating. Indeed, a lot of The Keep interests me still, even though every trip into its underground caverns leaves me wanting. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does an audience. The Keep becomes a film more about what is left unsaid than what is – a strange meditation on loss, on creative powers cut down. Perhaps its inherent unsettled nature, its curious abandonment of both art and entertainment, is the pull that continues to drive us into The Keep.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

Returning to Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

I forget who said it, exactly, but it helps in one’s appreciation of good food to eat crap food sometimes. If one swims in high art without every once in a while redefining one’s frame of reference, the best becomes average, and there is no appreciation for just how great the great really is. Mystery Science Theater 3000 has always been the Tapatio of bad films: a dash makes nearly everything palatable (I’m looking at you, Monster a Go-Go (1965)). So I was pretty darned stoked when Netflix Returned to the series after a too-long hiatus. Gone were hosts Joel (although Joel Hodgson did direct these Season 11 episodes) and Mike, back was the Invention Exchange, and the series’ bootstrapped cardboard aesthetic was back in welcome force. New host Jonah’s (we hardly knew ye) propensity for musical interludes was, admittedly, a tad distracting – it was clearly a source of comfort for the creative staff, and a device to fall back on when the films’ badness became too unwieldy (most films this season seemed to come from the worst of Roger Corman’s wheelhouse from American International Pictures and New World Pictures). Yet still, I only hope Netflix makes a matching contribution to the Kickstarter that built this new incarnation, so we can get more riff on with a season 12.

(Image: Slate, Netflix)

While marathon-viewing this season I kept brief notes on each film, scribbled in delirium (and kept on my Criticker profile), edited below for clarity:

Reptilicus (1961)

The Danish attempt at a monster movie ranks low on the suspense, but high on the unintentionally hilarious misogyny! The monster idea is halfway decent, unfortunately – remake! remake I say!

Cry Wilderness (1987)

Easily one of the more objectively “polished,” visually, of the MST3K lampoons. The whole movie you’re like, “Wow! What a great vista. Yep, still shit.”

The Time Travelers (1964)

Full of awkward moments. Like when you dead on recognize Oskar Fischinger’s sound/light installation the Lumigraph in a groovy bar makeout scene (see above). Or you awkwardly see Vilmos Zsigmond in the credits as the cinematographer, and try not to make eye contact, like when you accidentally see your mom at a dive bar. Or you check the dates and see the ideas for Lost in Space and Star Trek: Space Seed may have been cribbing this, like when you flee the bar you wonder if your dad really is your dad.

Avalanche (1978)

Jaw-droppingly idiotic. It’s like the bulleted list for a disaster flick seen through a fun house mirror: everything’s there, but it’s distorted or in the wrong place. Seeing a young Robert Forster rebounding Mia Farrow from Rock Hudson is not a career highlight for any of the actors. It comes off callous, and you wish the snow would wipe off the ick.

The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Ah, the great American frontier! A vast untamed wilderness full of cattle rustling, social intrigue, love trianglOH MY GOD IS THAT A DINOSAUR F*&% RUN FOR YOUR LIVES

Starcrash (1978)

I knew everything before it happened. The dead came back to life and those I loved died before I recognized their passing. It was as if… my mind… oh, God! my mind!… could halt the flow of time. Time is no longer, and I no longer feel. I am finally free of this frail corporal form. With Starcrash I achieved singularity. I float in the great Abyss.

The Land That Time Forgot (1975)

Hello. I’m Doug McClure. You might remember me from such television specials as, “Don’t Ask Me, Ask God” and “The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special”. But I tell you what you won’t remember: “The Land That Time Forgot”. Unlike what I hear from my probation officer, some mistakes really can be forgotten. Especially after 5-to-10 and, if I may say so, rather excellent behavior.

The Loves of Hercules (1960)

The fact that Hercules and his “loves” each behave like serial rapists is actually pretty funny once you realize our creepy bustacular Hero is the real-life father of Mariska Hargitay.

Yongary: Monster from the Deep (1967)

A dollar store Godzilla faces off against a kid with a diabolical itch ray death gun – for the fate of Seoul, they decide to hold a dance-off.

Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985)

Lord of the Rings : The Legend of Zelda :: Wizards of the Lost Kingdom : Quest 64

Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989)

“I never thought I would miss Kor and Simon.” So bad I hardly noticed that was indeed David Carradine

Carnival Magic (1981)

A rather magnificent piece of Americana trash that plays at times like a family-oriented remake of Freaks starring porn actors (this may or may not include the talking chimp. Frankly, nothing surprises me anymore. My soul is a vapid wasteland). I kinda liked this movie.

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966)

Makes several huge missteps, but I’ll be absolutely damned to perdition if I didn’t have genuine feels during the film’s conclusion. The rifftrak couldn’t diminish that. It’s embarrassingly naive in a way that may be objectively bad, yet makes perfect sense. I mean it’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

Hello. I’m Doug McClure. You might remember me from such films as, “The Man Who Understood Women” and “Because They’re Young”. Although my latest film, “At the Earth’s Core”, is a rollicking, sleeveless, sexy good time, remember kids: the Hollow Earth Theory is no laughing matter. I’m legally obligated by the terms of my parole to remind all you young whippersnappers out there: there’s nothing to look into here. You live at the zenith of civilization. Enjoy the show.

(P.S. Of course I don’t own any of the above pictures or videos. I share because they need to be shared.)

Fear and Loathing in Detroit (2017)

In the early moments of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Detroit (2017), the Dramatics’ lead singer Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith) takes to an empty stage – the audience has been vacated because of the impending doom of the nearby 12th Street riots – and sings acapella to an empty hall. In a brief moment of clarity in an otherwise muddy film, we come to realize that this terrible, unnecessary outbreak of violence is harming art. Culture. Specifically, the African American experience and its expression. Sure enough, after the events unfold in Detroit’s Algiers Motel, Larry’s singing voice – both his career and totem of identity – is used as a symbol of his emotional scarring. By the end of the film, Larry simply cannot sing for white people anymore, he tells us with indignation, and he breaks up with his group: the Dramatics go big without him, and he suffers through a cold Michigan winter before landing a gig in a local church choir. Here, in safety, he can sing about redemption. See, there are no white people in the congregation.

Detroit is Crash (2004) for a new decade. A decade post-Tamir Rice, post-George Zimmerman, post-police bodycams, and mid-Trump. I have no doubt that Detroit will find its proponents and swim in Oscar rumors and various accolades. But Bigelow and Boal’s final product is shockingly misguided; the equivalent of Bradley Whitford’s character in Get Out (2017) when he breaks the ice by pining for a third Obama presidential term, with a twinkle in his eye. Like Crash, it is racist when tackling racism, and suffers the worst kind of ignorance.

Often, this irony is palpable. After a night of Hostel (2005)-like torture at the hands of Detroit’s white Boys in Blue, Larry is discovered by an anonymous beat cop. This character’s simpering line read, “Who could have done this to you?” elicited unintended laughter from the audience I was with; and it’s when we, now also free from the horrors of the Algiers Motel and given an opportunity to catch our breath, recognize the fallacy in the film’s moral. Detroit addresses the effects of racism but not its causes, and is quick to blame without speaking truth to the powers of racism and bigotry. Nothing said or seen heals very real, and present, wounds.

Bigelow’s Detroit begins remarkably well, with an animated prologue inspired from Jacob Lawrence’s great Migration Series, and an on-the-street 15-minute exposé detailing the beginnings of the 12th Street rebellion. This brilliant sequence, winding through seething crowds and a few distinguishable faces using a combination of historical footage and dramatized reenactments, very clearly wants to be The American Battle of Algiers (1966). If it kept to task, following that film’s documentarian point of view and socialist humanism, Detroit just may have worked as intended. But once we arrive at the real (motel) Algiers and are introduced to our cast of historical characters, the film stumbles into unfortunate cliches. Bigelow fills the film’s second act with an overlong sequence of misguided torture porn, with all the cartoonish characterizations and unnecessary voyeurism that destroy the genre’s credibility: the police are buffoons or lechers, and the victims are unforgivingly unsympathetic, save for the superficial attachments inherent in any filmed character. Then the film’s third act dry heaves unexpectedly to nothing less than a pedantic courtroom drama; but by now, all tension in the film has dried up. It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

When Larry reconnects with the Dramatics after the police are acquitted (see last sentence), they have achieved the success he once longed for but can no longer ascribe to: singing in harmony in shiny suits to the mixed-race audience that paid for a ticket. For Larry, his group, love and art has become a commodity: blackness swinging and singing under a spotlight to put paying butts in the seats. Ultimately, Detroit feels the same: blackness on display for the cruel enjoyment of anyone that pays, a chance for us to be on the receiving end of the horrors of racism for two hours and then quietly retreat back to the sanctuaries of our daily lives, without consequence. For some, that alone may feel like an accomplishment. For the rest, though, no justice has been done.

Obligatory First Post

For far too long I’ve been watching films – an armchair savant if there ever was one – and this is my brief and, frankly, personal attempt to liberate my viewership experiences onto an unwitting and unknowing public forum. While these various reflections may explore themes or cinematic epochs, I do not intend to impose structure on it. Film is too open an art to inflict restriction. At the very, very least, I intend to share my modest perspective on the filmed discoveries I have made. Ideally, though, I hope these musings enable discovery and excitement – a tiny reflection of my enthusiasm when I discover a remarkable fragment of cinema hidden at the bottom of the bargain bin or an imported DVD. While film school taught me that Hitchcock was the Master, Kurosawa the Sensei, Bergman the Philosopher, Dreyer the Sage, Ford the Warrior, Cocteau the Poet, and Bunuel the Priest; so much more can be discovered with an open hand and a little curiosity.