Strange Vistas

Movies, anime, books, and games

The Irishman - Poster

I gotta level with you here – I'm not sure why y'all are going crazy over The Irishman. It's a competent movie, but you wouldn't expect any less out of Martin Scorsese. It's also over three hours long, and it feels like it.

Let's get the faint praise out the way.

This is the kind of movie Scorsese can do in his sleep, and he stays within the quality parameters he has taught us to expect. One can't say the same of everyone else involved – both Pacino and De Niro have put out buckets of mercenary dreck in the last couple of decades. They perform well, though, as do Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel with what little they're given. The de-aging effects do their job and mostly don't call attention to themselves. De Niro's character, for once, is a mere foot soldier who keeps a narrow view throughout, with the script never falling for the trap of making the movie about his rise through the ranks.

Yeah, lots of “showing up to work on time” up there. If The Irishman had been made by a novice director, working with an unknown cast of elderlies and a large special effects budget, nobody would be throwing Oscar nominations at it. At best, it would have gotten comments calling it a promising first effort and a Scorsese pastiche.

If it wins Best Picture, it's going to feel like it was a Lifetime Achievement Award that happened to come with a movie attached to it.

Here's the most fascinating thing about it, though: even though it's a good old-fashioned film which Scorsese could have made at almost any point in the last 25 years of his career, The Irishman exists in the exact way it does only because of this specific moment in media.

Catering to the long tail only lasted Netflix so long. It was ideal for bootstrapping, back when they started, giving you access to every existing video library they could get their hands on. If you were interested in watching or re-watching something, they wanted you to be able to find it there on a whim.

Once Netflix proved that would work, others rushed in, and a movie right turf war started. Netflix, staffed and ran entirely by smart people, realized that original production was going to be the new battlefield.

Now every competitor out there is throwing billions a year at creators and licenses, scrambling to get unique content that keeps people from canceling for just one more month.

It turns out, nobody in Hollywood wanted to back another Scorsese-De Niro joint. Nobody but Netflix, who seems to have told him to knock himself out spending $175 million.

And so we get a kitchen-sink kind of movie. Scorsese gets to hire everyone he ever enjoyed working with or hadn't been able to afford casting on a single film. De Niro and Pacino starring? Sure. Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel in bit parts? Why not?! Millions in de-aging special effects, so that the septuagenarians didn't have to wear motion capture hardware? Go ahead! Hiring Anna Paquin, an Academy Award winner, to show up in the background a few times, say six words, then disappear? Hey, at least we don't have to de-age her.

I shouldn't complain. I'd rather companies spend their money on money actors and writers and directors, not Superbowl commercials and summer PR campaigns. It's a mad scramble for talent and at least we get new movies that would otherwise not get funded.

I worry, though, that having production houses too willing to overpay will get creators fat and snug. We've seen enough of that in other areas where indiscriminate investment rushes in – entire generations of entrepreneurs, spoiled because they happened to start during a massive boom, getting rusty on comfort too early.

And then there's also that this money is going to big, recognizable names. There are only so many Scorseses and David Lynches and Finchers to go around, so better scramble for them now and worry about fostering independent talent later, maybe.

Netflix got the pendulum to the end of the long tail and then kicked it back, hard. Everyone now cares mostly for the fat head of the mass market again. I suspect we're about to enter an age of cultural gray goo, every service generating shades of the same content with slightly differentiated big names, everybody discussing the same two series at the office.

It's going to be a winter for original content. Discovery is about to get bad. It's time to start stocking up on original creators, subcultures, experimenters, before you get snowed in and can't even find them on a search. Best get ready to hibernate.

#theirishman #martinscorsese #netflix #robertdeniro #alpacino

Hellboy poster

I watched Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot so you didn’t have to.

Guillermo del Toro released his first Hellboy in 2004, after a series of visually intriguing but disparate movies – from a thriller about giant killer cockroaches, to a story in a haunted orphanage, to a sequel to a comic book vampire movie. Intriguing may sound like faint praise, but you couldn’t quite describe them as unique back then – his style lifted movies that could otherwise have been pedestrian and hinted at a creator with a unique eye, but you weren’t sure how it would develop. You could tell they had a heart, you could see the passion in them, but it was hard to convey what called you to them.

His Hellboy came from a similar place and amped the unique elements with fantastic yet human characters, but as a movie still felt almost there.

This would change a couple of years later when he released Pan’s Labyrinth. You could now finally see all his stylistic flourishes blooming at once – creatures simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, nature coming literally alive, baroque details that felt hand-carved, a fear and fascination with the night and the place that our stories come from.

He followed it with Hellboy: The Golden Army. del Toro and Mike Mignola wrote a new story and they created a beautiful, imaginative world filled with rollicking adventures while still providing conflicted, tragic characters. del Toro had come out of the cocoon as a creator of artistic, arresting crowd-pleasers.

Marshall’s sequel came out 11 years later. The movie resets the Hellboy chronology, wiping out the events of the previous two films and re-staging it with a new cast.

On the one hand, it attempts to hew closer to Mike Mignola’s source material, cramming the narrative behind The Wild Hunt and a bunch of background information into just about two hours. On the other, it either has no idea or doesn’t care who these people are and how they think, removing any shades of personality they may have had and dropping the movie’s characterizations into a profoundly uncomfortable uncanny valley.

There’s a fight with a trio of rampaging giants where the situation and setup are taken straight from the comics, but where the emotional core is flat-out wrong.

In the comic, we don’t initially see most of the fight, only its aftermath. Hellboy flashes back to it a couple of times, reluctant to talk about it. It’s only when he opens up to Alice that we learn how much he relished it, how filthy he felt by enjoying his death-dealing, how horrified he is by how his efficacy at violence turns him into the thing people perceive him as.

The way Marshall plays it, it’s an action set piece full of rock music and one-liners, showcasing how much of a tough guy our boy is.

Oh god, and the one-liners. The terrible one-liners. Hellboy 2 had sensational comedic moments, which worked because they were interludes. This thing is crammed with hardy-har-hars and forced guffaws, littered with “funny” bits that they can’t help add in even the worst places. Even when they ruin a character.

Gruagach, the fairy man-pig, comes out of this worse than anyone else. He is a tragic figure in the comics, doing what he does out of a desire for revenge, but without thinking about the consequences until they catch up with him. Here he is just another quipping baddie who looks like a left-over from a homemade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation.

It’s even worse when they almost get it right, like a scene where Hellboy ends up in Baba Yaga’s wandering hut. It has every right to work, with its atmosphere of painterly grotesque, David Cronenberg meets Ivan Bilibin. There’s horror in it. And even there they have to make a bloody joke.

This lack of discipline dooms it.

You can see a good movie from here, if it was pared down. You can see a good series, if they had taken time to develop it. This isn’t either, and without the budget to see through its over-reach, you get neither plot development nor spectacle.

Even its visuals are a dog’s breakfast, with Scorpion King-like effects and modern-day Manimal transformations. The Cheddar Goblin looked and fit better than this.

The cast should have been enough of a give-away. Milla Jovovich needs a spectacular director, or she’ll default to playing a cardboard cutout. Ian McShane is only at home as a drawling gangster, so his tough-love father figure is a far cry from John Hurt’s bookish but caring Trevor Bruttenholm. David Harbour has so far not shown himself as being capable of nuance, and his Hellboy is a loudmouth braggart, more the image Hellboy tries to project than who he is.

What happened to you, Neil Marshall? You were never one for subtlety, but you were much better at spectacle than this. It took two flights to finish this movie. I should have trusted my instincts and drank myself to sleep instead.

#hellboy #neilmarshall #davidharbour #millajovovich #mikemignola

Young cadets with red berets look at each other

A man in a suit barks instructions at a group in uniform. One, in particular, displeases him, and the man berates the cadet as he works on his AK-47.

“Don't lose focus!”, he shouts. “Vova, how do you disassemble an assault rifle, dammit? Who the fuck showed you that the sight goes against the ground?” He pauses to glare. “Are you serious?”

The group is comprised entirely of boys. The one being yelled at can't be older than 12. An even younger boy looks at Vova with a measure of incredulity. They are on stage, preparing for some sort of function, armed with assault rifles.

Ksenia Okhapkina's stunning Immortal looks at life in the town of Apatity, an overgrown industrial village of not even 60,000 people in the north-western-most point of Russia, as boys and girls prepare for a ceremony to be inducted into All-Russian Military Patriotic Youth Army.

She documents their indoctrination into this Putin Youth, which starts from an early age (some of them don't even look on their teens). We hear how they are told about self-sacrifice, about medals awarded on death, about serving the state. We attend their lessons, meet their teachers, see how everyone is taught to fetishize war paraphernalia, to goose step, to live with their assault rifles. We participate with them in combat games, hunting each other through industrial ruins, where an announcer calls out “Killed in battle: return to base to resurrect”.

This is interspersed with views of the machinery from the mining corporation that is Apatity's main employer, large machines built with a single purpose: to dredge up and carry raw material for fertilizers in bulk.

In a show of self-discipline, Okhapkina doesn't impose a narration to give us her perspective – she just points the camera at her subjects and lets them speak as they will. The adults, emboldened, act up. The boys and girls perform as their trainers have taught them.

Her imagery, though, leaves little doubt as to how she feels about the proceedings.

The camera looks at life in the town through claustrophobic angles that would be perfect for a Nordic horror film: on an alley, partially hidden behind a wall; focusing on a railing, as shadowy figures run across it; just behind anonymous individuals, under their shoulders, rendering them faceless as they wait for something unspecified. There's the hint of something predatorial, waiting.

Anybody who believes in the freedom of the individual and the virtues of inquisitive thought will be revolted. Okhapkina's restraint, though, may run afoul of Poe's Law. While it is clear she disapproves of this brainwashing, someone who is on the side of the massive state apparatus could come out of this movie with a misplaced sense of patriotism.

Look how good a job we are doing!, they could think. And that's just Apatity.

That thought by itself is the most unsettling part of Immortal.

#documentary #poff #russia #kseniaokhapkina #immortal

Contains minor spoilers for secondary characters.

Oleg holding a gun in the forest, Andrzej on the background

Oleg, the second feature by Latvian filmmaker Juris Kursietis, is a mixed bag of sensational performances and problematic elements.

Valentin Novopolskij plays the eponymous Oleg, a timid butcher from Riga who travels to Ghent, Belgium, looking for higher wages. It's not just a chance for a better life – we learn early on that he has debts to some people back home who are not above aggressive collection.

It's a tough job but it pays cash. It doesn't last.

Oleg gets fired when he gets blamed for an accident by a lying co-worker. He can't even get a new job, since his work permit is attached to the current company. He gets a lucky break when he meets Andrzej, a charming young Polish who promises that he will not only get him a job but his own room and – if that wasn't enough – an EU passport.

Uh-huh.

It doesn't take too long for that to go south. Andrzej is the very definition of superficial charm, a violent psychopath bubbling just below the skin, spilling out at random intervals. Dawid Ogrodnik plays him while avoiding most of the cliches of suave behavior that have plagued filmmaking since Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar. Ogrodnik's Andrzej is not a cold mastermind – he is little but a vicious little creature with low impulse control, looking for the next petty scheme. Oleg isn't a key piece on Andrzej's plans – it isn't even clear if he does have a plan.

The interactions between the two of them, and the way things develop, make the story feel organic. It avoids some narrative clichés (although I won't go into which), makes small moments compound, things flow more or less realistically.

Its internal politics, though, are nowhere near as well thought out.

Lithuanians come across as thick. Romanians steal from their workplace and sell it on the blackmarket. Polish characters range from drunken lying slobs to volatile psychopaths. There are two female characters that get any amount of screen time, and neither comes out well. The first is a shallow, older woman who is happy to fuck Oleg while she thinks he's an actor, but horrified when he isn't. The second is a younger girl who is introduced doing her nails, and whose character arc is from enabling a criminal, to victim, to attempting to use and seduce Oleg, to prostitution. Only Latvian men come across as capable of holding an honest job or doing something other than running scams (a genius theater director).

Even with all that, its main issue is Oleg himself.

We never learn why Oleg is deeply in debt. There's an argument that we don't need to, if we take it only as a motivator, but it would tell us something about this shapeless lump of clay: Is he gullible and was conned into a raw deal? Did his appetite for risk taking burn him, which is why he is now so passive? Is he just terrible at making choices?

This is compounded by his passivity. Oleg only makes one single active choice during the first 95% of the movie, a clumsy but opportune attempt at escaping his situation... and then his next immediate decision wastes it, causing just enough of a delay so that the script can push him back to his captors. While his inaction during key points could be in character – and we don't need every male lead to be a hero – this feels like lazy writing. Oleg has made a choice, has come up with a plan, and then he fumbles it in a writer-mandated way because otherwise the film would end half an hour earlier.

You need to feel that Oleg is trapped by circumstances. You need to see the light coming in through the cell door, and want him to reach for it, then it be snatched away. The movie never gives you that.

Decisions, no matter how big or small, are the what draws the line between timid and bland. Oleg, the man, ends up on the wrong side of that line, and in doing so it only helps highlight how the film portrays everyone else around him.

And then the ice cracks beneath its feet.

#poff #drama #oleg #juriskursietis #latvia

A woman, in a factory, in front of a pile of plastic spoons

Spoon opens with a black and white shot, a sign of things to come. An enormous industrial machine fills the screen. A few thick pipes flow out of it. A woman sits to the side, near a comparably small control panel. A few people scamper around, nervously trying to get out of the frame. A pulsating electronic soundtrack mixes with what we can only assume are noises from the machine. After a while, the woman reaches up to the control panel, right below the SAMSUNG sign, and taps the touchscreen while turning to the camera.

This has taken two minutes. The scene changes to a different environment. Lingers. Changes. And again. And again.

It will be another 47 minutes before we get something other than a wide shot of some unexplained location.

Spoon is a documentary by Laila Pakalnina, tracking all the moving parts involved in the creation of the disposable plasticware we think so little of.

Nobody narrates or describes what is going on. The film doesn't overtly pass judgement, but for the longest time, it isn't clear what there is to judge. It merely documents ships from Russia and the Netherlands, factories and materials from China and who knows where, excavation sites all over the world, trucks, industrial trams, oil rigs, and the workers involved in menial tasks, going into creating something that we will use for a few seconds, maybe minutes, then discard.

All I see are people carrying out repetitive motions, human machines, workers whose jobs won't exist in 10 years once the artificial apparatus behind them has gotten good enough.

I appreciate where it's going, but even with it clocking at just 65 minutes, it takes too long to get there.

It feels like a few shorts munged together. It sometimes veers into kōjō-moe, gazing at the factories and their intricate arrangements. Other times it seems to feel for the workers, who keep breaking out bunches of spoons and stuffing them into plastic bags, as the machinery accumulates more and more clusters behind them. When spying shoppers at a market, enticed by a taste conveyed at the end of such a throwaway yet laboriously produced implement, it seems to wag a finger at how little heed they pay to the utensils themselves.

It never picks between any of these paths, but stumbles and wanders between them.

Any of these approaches could have carried a shorter, more disciplined documentary. Its current incarnation takes too long to get to the point, and by the time it gets there, it may have lost its audience in its meandering.

#spoon #documentary #poff #lailapakalnina

Sense - this picture makes none

Woke up this morning, it seemed to me that every night turns out to be A little bit more like Bukowski and yeah, I know he's a pretty good read But God who'd wanna be, God who'd wanna be such an asshole? God who'd wanna be, God who'd wanna be such an asshole?

— Modest Mouse, Bukowski

“It's all symbolic. The bicycle is Swedish, which is the country that will be most affected by immigration”

In Bed with a Writer

You were talk, talk, talk, talkin' in circles that day When you get to the point make sure that I'm still awake, OK?

— Modest Mouse, Bukowski

“Now I just make duck porn”

In Bed with a Writer

#poff #estonia #peetersauter #manfredvainokivi

Three kids from Jelgava 94

You've seen this movie before.

Buttoned-down, smart kid is bullied at school, discovers girl, starts trying to find his path. Budding rebellion. Teenage awkwardness. Embarrassing stunts. Tentative renegades. Careless camaraderie. Kids, talking about all the great things they will do, which they will never do.

Janis Abele's Jelgava 94 captures the ungainly freedom of wasted years with mortifying accuracy. It is a coming-of-age movie – one of its first scenes includes a discussion about how our hero is now a man and should decide his future. It's a sweet construction, even if you know the layout of its rooms in advance and only wait to see what the decorator chooses for the drapings.

It connected with me because I was that kid, all gangly steps outside the nuclear family's sphere of influence, all plans for the future, all day spent idealizing foreign culture from a distance, all year with a gnawing dead-end feeling of suspecting that you ain't going anywhere even if you are the best in your class.

If you didn't grow up in a place that was shitty enough to make you feel that way, but maybe not shitty enough to give you writing material beyond a sub-par Breakfast Club, it may not connect with you in the same way.

But even if you've seen this movie and heard this story before, you may find something endearing in the way Jelgava 94 tells it.

Even if you haven't been that kid yourself.

#jelgava94 #poff #latvia #janisabele #drama

Military sitting down and having tea during Nova Lituania

It takes a while to find out what Karolis Kaupinis is trying to do with Nova Lituania, his first feature film unless you have the historical context. It isn't clear if he's parodying a difficult time in his own country, creating alternate history, or just making a tragicomedy about the unlikely friendship between hangdog characters.

He might be doing all of the above.

If you know about Lithuania's first president, and his actions around the time that the country got carved-up between Germany and Russia, seeing the country's leader posture and proclaim about their strength provides some dry amusement.

If you know the actors playing two of the main characters are – in Kaupinis' word – “choleric”, then seeing them play their muted weaklings adds to the entertainment value (like watching Nicholas Cage play a meek Franciscan monk).

If you know that there was indeed an academic arguing that Lithuania needed a back-up landmass in case of an invasion, where they could restart the country with intellectuals and bureaucrats, who would “build it right this time” and entice the diaspora to move there, then you know how to take his particular monomania when it comes up.

If you don't... then you will spend a long time trying to figure out the details behind this particular bit of droll inside baseball.

Those of us who grew up in less-than-developed countries can relate to the oppressiveness that comes through on the creamy black-and-white photography and tight angles, to the frustration of popular incompetents always getting ahead, but will have a hard time getting beyond that. Kaupinis seems to be attracted by absurdist realism, judging from what he said about his next project. Nova Lituania, sadly, is neither absurdist nor realistic enough to connect with the layperson.

#novalituania #poff #karoliskaupinis #lithuania

A boy hanging on a parachute from a tree, a creature watches him

A boy wakes up on a desert, hanging above the sand, his parachute caught on a tree. A translucent hominid, empty white eyes set on a meters-tall inky body, approaches and engulfs the boy. It transports him to a hopeless, pulsating void, which he barely escapes from by unhooking his parachute and running away.

The creature follows.

That's about the first 2 minutes of Gints Zilbalodis' animated feature film Away, a dream-like chronicle of the boy's attempts to outrun the ruiner who pursues him. It's an emotional story, told solely through movement and sound, without a single line of dialogue.

It is Zilbalodis' movie. He animated, scored, and wrote it, creating it on his laptop on a micro-budget across three years. He didn't write a script for it: he only created an outline and went from there to setting up scenes, characters, playing with things in real-time, finding the movie in the process. He wanted to start directing, and didn't think the industry would let him get there until he had climbed the ladder and was in his 30s or 40s, so instead he went off and did it himself.

It's not only an emotional movie but a lesson on using your limitations to your advantage.

Physics take a while to calculate and render, so they would have slowed Zilbalodis' process down. Hence, no physics. The boy runs with a frictionless quality, a rock skipping across a surface is animated by hand, a motorcycle skids across the land, all lending the movie even more of a dream-like quality.

Models take time to create, so he duplicates a clutter of cats, uses the same animation loop. The obsidian felines come across as possessing a mechanical whimsy, not unlike Mononoke's kodamas.

Nobody would trust him with a budget for a feature film, so he instead got funding for four shorts. All come together in the four parts of his movie, creating distinct sections of the story. When he was done with the fourth he realized the first one wasn't as good, so he re-did it, but could create this do-over in isolation.

Away invites comparisons to Miyazaki, which Zilbalodis is happy to name as his influence, but in actuality comes across as more like a collaboration between Fumito Ueda and Makoto Shinkai. Its environments, its tactile light, its emotional connection, all brought together by a single person, are a reminder that when someone talks about “democratizing creativity”, they are trying to sell you something.

If you want to create, right now, you can. The tools are out there. You just need to grab them and let the process consume you.

Ride that road until you reach its end, then turn around, start again.

A mountainside road, a boy on a bike

#away #latvia #animation #poff #gintszilbalodis

The Endless movie poster

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

That quote has become so threadbare that by now it is the horror equivalent to the fading sign at a decrepit funhouse warning the faint of heart away.

There is truth in it, though, and the line itself encapsulates Lovecraft's output well. He was terrified of the unknown, as defined by anything he wasn't comfortable with, and it showed in his literature – whether this discomfort came from the depths of the sea, foreigners with accents he didn't grasp, or people with different skin color. Lovecraft has become associated more with the tentacle-twisting, sanity-melting that became more fashionable as special effects became cheaper, but his characters were more likely to recover from encountering Dagon than from marrying anyone but a white protestant girl and embarrassing their family.

This is the type of dread that The Endless goes for.

Brothers Justin and Aaron receive a Betamax tape in the mail containing a message from Camp Arcadia, a death cult they escaped ten years earlier. It arrives just at the time that Aaron is getting fed up with the dreary tedium of their bare survival. At his insistence, the brothers take a break from cleaning people's houses, boiling packaged ramen, and going to deprogramming therapy, so that they can check if their old friends are still alive. Justin dragged them both out of there, convinced the cult members were about to kill themselves to “ascend”, so how come they are still around a decade later?

Aaron wants to reclaim the past he sees through idealized memories. Justin wants to humor him, but you can tell that – at least partly – he wonders if he made the right call.

They encounter the suspiciously pleasant and accommodating cult members they escaped, who not only have managed to not “ascend” but not age, and don't exactly look worth escaping.

Until things start getting a wee bit unnatural.

The Endless is what a disciplined, cosmic-inclined David Lynch would come up with, and I was so stuck on my preconceptions that I almost missed out on enjoying it.

Benson and Moorhead don't do horror – what they do is supernaturally-flavored drama. They are resourceful, too. The Endless feels like their largest production and it doesn't feature anyone you'd recognize, keeping it so low-key that the pair stars as Justin and Aaron, likely to save the budget for more expensive things.

The trouble with writing these pieces is that it changes how you watch movies. Often, you sit down to see a movie while a few hundred words coalesce in your head about how something matched against what you expected of it. You are not appreciating the ride as much as you are chronicling its major turns.

I came into The Endless expecting a fun romp, a slightly less deranged The Void on a shoestring budget. I was writing even before the credits came up, mostly around its being a prosaic approach to a supernatural mystery (which I didn't mean as unimaginative but as commonplace or unromantic).

Then it hit me that was not what they were going for. Benson and Moorhead, who had also created Spring, get a thrill out of setting the brothers' story against what might be a Shub-Niggurathian backdrop, but they spend as much time with the family struggle as they do with the metaphysical mechanics around camp.

Did Justin make their last decade unnecessarily harder by letting his preconceptions get the best of him? Does Aaron belong there more than in a city? Have Justin's prejudices against an oddball religion and I-know-better-ness irreparably damaged the relationship?

Those are more important questions than what exact brand of weirdos the camp members might be.

#theendless #horror #drama #justinbenson #aaronmoorhead