Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Blu-ray reissue: Liquid Sky (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

https://i2.wp.com/diaboliquemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Liquid_Sky-Margaret-620x349.jpg?resize=474%2C267&ssl=1Liquid Sky – Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray

A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Director Slava Zsukerman co-wrote the electronic music score.

This 1982 space oddity has been long overdue for a decent home video transfer, and Vinegar Syndrome gets an A+ for its 4K Blu-ray restoration (devotees like yours truly were previously stuck with a dismal DVD release that, while sold “legitimately”, screams “bootleg”). Extras include commentary track by director Zsukerman, plus a 50-minute “making of” documentary, a new interview with star Carlisle, outtakes, and much more.

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this bold, anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time.

In his breakout performance, Malcolm McDowall plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would reprise his “Travis” persona in Anderson’s (loose) sequels O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis leads a trio of agitators (revolutionaries) who foment insurrection against abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e., the draconian System).

Some reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). Politics aside, Anderson’s film could also be a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, The Chocolate War, and Heathers. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

SIFF 2018: Little Tito and the Aliens ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss.

I want to believe: The Endless (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

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Solaris meets Wild Wild Country in The Endless, a new horror-sci fi-thriller from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead cast themselves as (wait for it) “Justin” and “Aaron”, two 30-ish brothers who managed to escape from a UFO death cult in their early 20s. One day they receive an enigmatic message via VHS tape. Something really “big” might be going on back at Crazy Town Ranch; something tangibly intangible. Intrigued (if wary), they decide to hit the open road and head back to the camp, hoping to gain a sense of closure about their experience.

 Yes, of course it’s a dumb decision on their part…but then again, if they laughed off the tape and moved on with their lives, you wouldn’t have much of a film, would you? Predictably, their old “friends” are overjoyed to see them again back at the old enclave (located somewhere in the scrubby wilds of Southern California’s rugged back country). The brothers make it clear this is only a visit. The cult members smile. They understand.

That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?

I won’t risk spoilers, suffice it to say if Justin and Aaron were hoping to discover there really is “something out there”, they get all that and a large orange soda. For me, the “twist” ending demotes all that precedes it into a glorified Twilight Zone episode, but hardcore genre fans should appreciate the genuine sense of dread, and what the filmmakers lack in budget is effectively compensated by their imaginative workarounds.

Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2018)

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first collective selfie…the “Earthrise” photo from the Apollo 8 mission. It may seem “ho-hum” now, but it provided a profound moment of “cosmic perspective” (if I borrow one of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite phrases) for anyone in the world who gave a damn.

The iconic portrait was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind the photo is recounted on NASA’s official website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

The Trump administration’s tumultuous first year has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.

Needless to say, many “updates” follow that intro (the most recent one is from April 6, and there will be more to come). Bookmark the link, if you dare (sick bag on standby).

So…are you doing anything special for Earth Day (April 22)? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one “pretty place”, best to my knowledge).

At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, here are my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. As long as you don’t print out a hardcopy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun- I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern is the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth). While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli:

 

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2017

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 23, 2017)

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With the year nearly over, ‘tis the season for my roundup of the top 10 feature films out of the 50+ that I reviewed in 2017. Granted, there are several intriguing late December releases that I have yet to see, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, and the biopics I, Tonya and Film Stars Don’t Die in  Liverpool.  However, it appears those films will not be opening in Seattle in time for me to review them in 2017, so what you see here is my “official” top 10 list:

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After the Storm – This elegant family drama from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story. All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when star Hiroshi Abe and scene-stealer Kirin Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be richly rewarded.

Full review

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Bad Black – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

Full review

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Becoming Who I Was – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

Full review

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Blade Runner 2049 – So many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo. Not this one. Which is to say that Blade Runner 2049 is leisurely paced. The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

So why is it on my top 10 list? Well, for one thing, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. Star Ryan Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances, and it works. I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s film is: “Are the ‘big’ questions that were left dangling at the end of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. You may not find the answers you seek, but you may find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credit roll.

Full review

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A Date for Mad Mary –  The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood.

Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective.

Full review

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Endless Poetry – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope. His new film, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet.

Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself.

Full review

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I Am Not Your Negro – The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film.

Full review

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Loving Vincent – If I liken Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s first feature film to staring at an oil painting for 95 minutes…that could be misinterpreted as a negative. But I’m only making you aware that their Vincent van Gogh biopic is literally a collection of the artist’s paintings, brought to life. It’s actually an ingenious concept. Utilizing over 120 of van Gogh’s paintings as storyboard and settings, the filmmakers incorporate roto-scoped live action with a hand-painted, frame-by-frame touch-up to fashion a truly unique animated feature.

The screenplay (co-written by directors Kobiela and Welchman along with Jacek von Dehnel) was derived from 800 of the artist’s letters. It is essentially a speculative mystery that delves into the circumstances of van Gogh’s last days and untimely demise. While this is not the definitive van Gogh biopic (Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1956 effort Lust For Life, featuring an intense and moving performance by Kirk Douglas, takes that honor), it is the most visually resplendent one that I’ve seen to date.

Full review

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The Women’s Balcony – A warm, witty and wise Israeli dramedy from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. What begins as a joyous celebration at a small synagogue takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses. This leaves the congregation with no place to worship, and no spiritual leader until their aging rabbi recovers from his resulting nervous breakdown.

Fate delivers an ambitious young rabbi, who quickly ingratiates himself as “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hasty remodeling eschews the open balcony for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services. Soon, the women find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. This coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts, resulting in a truly superb ensemble performance.

Full review

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Your Name – I have sat through more than my fair share of “body swap” movies, but it’s been a while since I have experienced one as original and entertaining as Makoto Shinkai’s animated fantasy. The story concerns a teenage girl named Mitsuha, who lives in a bucolic mountain village, and a teenage boy named Taki, who resides in bustling Tokyo. They are separated by geography and blissfully unaware of each other’s existence, but they both share the heady roller coaster ride of hormone-fueled late adolescence, replete with all its attendant anxieties and insecurities. There’s something else that they share: a strange metaphysical anomaly. Or is it a dream? Sinkai’s film is a perfect blend of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, comedy, coming-of-age tale, and old-fashioned tear-jerker (yes-I laughed and I cried). In short, it’s one of the best animes of recent years.

Full review

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

However, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), I must say the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong…like this 1000+ word review).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (2001) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Metropolis – Eureka Blu-ray (Region “B”)

Japanese director Rintaro’s visually resplendent 2001 anime is based on Osama Tezuka’s manga re-imagining of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic. The narrative (adapted by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo) is framed as a detective story (not unlike Blade Runner), with a PI and his nephew attempting to unravel the mystery of Tima, a fugitive robot girl who has become a pawn in a byzantine conspiracy involving a powerful and corrupt family that rules Metropolis. Intelligent writing, imaginative production design and beautifully realized animation make this a must-see. Extras include interviews with cast and crew, and a “making of” documentary.

[Note: Region “B” edition; a multi-region Blu-ray player is required]

Blu-ray reissue: Man Facing Southeast ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Man Facing Southeast – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

I originally caught this 1986 sleeper from Argentina on Cinemax 30 years ago and have been seeking it ever since. Kino-Lorber’s Blu-ray edition signals the film’s first domestic availability in a digital format.

Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case.

While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable,  family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching. Extras include interviews with Subiela, Soto, and DP Ricardo de Angelis.