Review: The Entity (1982)

Scorsese called this one of the scariest films ever made, which makes sense, because this is maybe the most Catholic horror film ever made. The sexually violent ghosts attacking Barbara Hershey (who really is amazing in this movie, absolutely stunning work) externalise classic notions of Catholic guilt into their most extreme form. While these scenes of sexual-assault are quite scary, The Entity finds the most power in its (sadly still relevant) depictions of systemic patriarchal abuse. Ron Silver’s dismissal of Hershey’s experiences as “hysteria” is more bone-chilling than any of the lightning fingers or green-glowing monsters.

Unfortunately, The Entity gradually seems to lose interest in the misogyny at the heart of its story and turns into a goofy ghost-hunting procedural, complete with para-psychology students and a lot of pseudo-scientific technobabble. There’s a braver, more uncomfortable movie here than what it turns into, and in brief moments – like when Hershey’s boyfriend calls her “tainted” by the rapes – it holds onto that potential, even as it morphs into nonsense, but it’s all too little too late.

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Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

So immaculately designed to be of a future aesthetic that really hasn’t existed since the late 90s that it’s hard for me not to at least fall a little under its spell. Johansson brings a Deneuve-like blankness to the role that’s perfect for the role, recalling her amazing work in Under the Skin. As a person who never really cared for the original anime’s goofy sci-fi, philosophical speeches, this one’s purely superficial interest in those aspects worked for me. It moves like the original never did, probably because this is an action movie, first and foremost.

As for the whitewashing controversy – well, yeah, it’s still fucked at a very basic level. However, I was surprised to find that the writers had at least attempted a justification for it, a justification which has thematic threads throughout the script. Whether or not this was a post-controversy rationalisation, the choice the filmmaker’s make is purposeful and almost works. Ghost in the Shell attempts to be a commentary on a post-nationalist, globalised culture – one that informs its very production and the way film distribution is changing day to day. Is globalisation the result of the still lingering tendrils of imperialism? What will be its effect on the future? These are the questions that the film raises when it reveals the origin/rationale for The Major’s race.

Now, the big problem with this approach is that the film doesn’t actually make a statement regarding those questions. There’s no opinion posited, even though it feints at the obvious negative. And so it ends up feeling half-assed, insensitive. Which, I guess actually plays into the heart of its explorations.

Review: The Discovery (2017)

“What kind of atheist talks to God?”

In the near future, a scientist (Robert Redford) discovers definitive proof of the afterlife. In response, millions choose to commit suicide. What no one has figured out yet is exactly what said afterlife looks like. This is where we meet Redford’s son, played by Jason Segel, as he heads to his father’s compound to confront his mistakes – but not before he runs into a ghostly Rooney Mara and feels an instant connection.

The Discovery has a premise rife with potential. Regardless of the plausibility behind it (wouldn’t other scientists have to recreate the results? Why would people off themselves if the form of the afterlife isn’t clear?), the basic conceit could allow for a direct and poignant rumination on mortality built upon a loose science fiction backbone.

In theory, there’s plenty of human drama to mine from. Segel projects an exhausted fragility in every interaction, and the ways in which he, Redford, and Jesse Plemons (as his hilarious jam band brother) interact find intimacy behind their estrangement. Segel presents his affections for Mara as simultaneously romantic and selfish – though Mara doesn’t really make an impression, seemingly sleepwalking through the role as a distant waif. Potentially, there’s a hell of a lot of character to be tested against the backdrop.

Unfortunately, Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader’s script chooses to focus equally, if not more so, on the machinations of the science, rather than its emotional implications. The inner lives of their characters and their motivations seem created purely to move through the various twists of the plot. And though their is a powerful grace in its final moments, and a certain profundity in the optimism it wrings out of the hell of its final third, one still wishes that these people – and their very human problems – had been given more room to breathe.

Review: Goodbye, Uncle Tom (1971)

Arguably more noble in its intentions than Jacopetti and Prosperi’s previous exercise in questionable ethics, Africa Addio, but so unbelievably, bafflingly misguided that, at the time of its release, both sane people and David Duke hated it. Somehow, Goodbye, Uncle Tom can’t even commit to being a vile, racist piece of trash, instead existing as a strangely broken example of Satan wanting to be God and failing.

The film opens with a helicopter descending upon a plantation filled with slaves, and we are quickly introduced to the premise: two documentarians travel back in time to document the horrors of slavery. This requires the character of the filmmakers to sit back and watch said horrors without doing anything, which is already a questionable idea. From this auspicious start, we become witness to an enormous production that subjects hundreds of actors of colour to the degradation and torture that was put upon the slaves of the time. Goodbye, Uncle Tom sits in the horror, relishes it, uses it as the very foundation of its being. If one believes that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s intentions were pure, one could argue that these sections are intended to break the viewer, make them understand the despicable terrors of slavery. Whatever they meant to say, it’s all for nought because not a single character of colour is given any characterisation beyond an inarticulate, de-individuated mass. Every white character, regardless of how negatively they are portrayed, are shown as articulate persons with actual personality. On top of everything, every goddamn thing, the brief stabs at narrative exploitation the filmmakers inject into the picture primarily involve sexual assault, such as the scene wherein one of the documentarians takes advantage of a virginal 13 year old slave who offers herself to him – FUCK.

JESUS.

And yet.

And yet,

There is undeniable artistic craft pumping through the veins of this racist trash. As I wrote in my review of Africa Addio, Jacopetti and Prosperi have an innate understanding of how to match image and sound to make a sort of magic, utilising Riz Ortolani’s gorgeous (if at most times disturbingly upbeat) score to mold this destitution into something resembling art. If these men were saints instead of monsters, they could have made a film to change the world.

But they’re monsters.

What this mess adds up to is a film that condemns the brutalisation and exploitation of a people while doing the very same thing. It is impossibly fascinating as a historical object, endlessly rewarding a thing to explore; but it’s also sickening, disturbing, and morally reprehensible.

I don’t know.

Review: We Are the Flesh (2016)

“Something like love doesn’t exist. Only demonstrations of love.”

In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Mexico, two siblings stumble upon an older, grimy gentleman (a fantastic Noe Hernandez) who offers them food and shelter on the condition that they give in to his sensual proclivities.

As with Swiss Army Man, We Are the Flesh is an exploration of bodily desire and instinct when removed from the confines of polite society. Unlike Swiss Army Man, which seems primarily concerned with the link between self-denial and unhappiness, We Are the Flesh seems concerned with the contradictions inherent to applying a system of morality upon the feral, animalistic soul of humanity.

As such, We Are the Flesh intends to shock. It features incest, possibly un-simulated sex, necrophilia, cannibalism, the exchange of fluids – all enacted with a sensual glee, intended to disorient the viewer by presenting these supposed horrors as desirable outcomes. Hernandez’s un-named man is unbelievably charismatic, a grimy God whose sheer will drives the dream-like narrative, almost every choice and action making sense as part of his seductive will. He gives a great monologue early on about loneliness and the way that he allowed himself to succumb to it. I’m paraphrasing here, but it comes down to this: “When you can longer avoid the grotesque thoughts in your head, you must embrace them. And after a while, they no longer seem so grotesque.” If, deep down in the parts we don’t like to acknowledge exist, if deep down there the mind desperately needs to enact something, how can we call it wrong just because society says so?

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter makes his thesis palatable by injecting his film with gorgeous cinematography and a healthy dose of dark humour. The whole film is bathed in a haze of never ending caverns and deep blacks, luring you deep into the frame and into the world of it. The intimacy provided by the camera makes the occasional outright hilarity that much more surprising and welcome, such as the music cues, which usually occur at moments of extreme deprivation, and are so perfectly unexpected and real that I choked on my red wine a few times.

We Are the Flesh is not as disgusting as the buzz might lead one to believe. It is, however, an inaccessible and at times frustratingly abstract descent into debauchery – but it’s well worth the investment.

Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

“There is no end.”

A feral, feverish nightmare of a film that is well worth your time.

The first hour is basically just abstraction, speeding through the suggestion of plot rather that a real thing. Then, it becomes a nonstop brutal whirlwind of action, so vicious and surreal that it’s both darkly comic and terrifying.  It’s essentially a horror film, bringing up questions of free will and identity – are you the product of your choices?  What if your choices were illusions, a series of pieces set from the start? If you are without choice, if you have no input on where you end up, are you really anything other than a vessel for others?

When Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning finally reaches its conclusion in a fight with a phantom-like, face-painted Jean Claude Van Damme, it feels less like a release and more like a quiet failure, the only victory in the fact that no one has to kill anyone for at least a little while.

This film will haunt me.

Review: It’s Alive (1974)

“He could have killed you upstairs. You why he didn’t? He knows you’re his father!”

A baby is born and immediately murders everyone in the operating room. It’s got fangs and claws, and now it’s not only the run from the police, but from the father too.

My heart breaks and it breaks, even with a scene where the baby kills a milkman.

Larry Cohen paints a picture here of traditional masculinity stubbornly, and dangerously, refusing to evolve with the times. This is a story about a man terrified that he’s lost his dominant role in society and refusing to accept both his mistakes and the future.

The husband, Frank, immediately disowns the child (‘he’s not related to us’) and takes agency away from his wife (referring to himself as doctor Frankenstein), and proceeds to hunt it down against his family’s wishes. It is clear that it is his flaws that have created the monster, not his wife (as is so often done in horror films). Frank will hunt done and kill what he subconsciously deems entirely as a failure on his part as the man of the house. He will destroy any evidence of his impotence.

But Cohen does something wonderful here (besides letting a killer baby movie actually be quite funny in addition to having serious high-minded concerns. There’s a scene where a bunch of cops take out their guns and descend upon what turns out to be a normal harmless baby on a picnic blanket, and it’s delightful.). He generates sympathy in the monster by never letting the audience forget that it is indeed a frightened, lonely baby. As Frank’s behaviour grows more violent, Cohen subtly pushes the audience to go against him, to make him the antagonist. And it all comes to a head when he’s given a rifle and heads into the sewers with the police. It seems like the film is going down a road of pure rage, of fear – perhaps even on Frank’s side of the gender politics.

Which makes it all the more surprising and fantastic when it doesn’t.

In a climactic moment of responsibility and sympathy, I actually broke down and cried. During a mutant baby film, would you believe it? But that’s because I figured out Cohen’s secret. He doesn’t just make genre movies – he makes tragedies.

Now, the resolution to all of this powerful stuff feels quite rushed and doesn’t entirely emotionally satisfy (and sets it up unnecessarily for a sequel in a fashion that seems a bit antithetical to the character-driven drama), but this is still a damn good film.