Strange Vistas

Movies, anime, books, and games

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

I only got one episode into the three-part documentary Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates. Not that it's bad, much less offensively so. It's not what I was looking for.

I came for a vivisection, maybe with a sprinkle of analysis on top, and they instead served me a hagiography.

I wanted to see the hunger, the drive, the callousness that gets you to the point where you can then decide to be anything – even a saint who channels his non-insignificant brainpower to finding people who are capable of solving the world's greatest problems, and then convincing them that they should help.

Instead, the documentary focuses on the latter, and inevitably, lionizes his efforts with the Gates Foundation.

It's great work, sure. Want to eradicate polio? Bring affordable sanitation to areas where children are forced to drink pestilent waters? Awesome. Big pat on the back for you. But there's nothing for me to learn there.

To do these things you need fuck-you money, and you don't get to Gates' heights of fuck-you money without having said fuck-you to a few people and the drive to step on them. Pretending that Gates' capacity to help tackle these big issues is all about how smart and uniquely talented Bill happens to be is disingenuous. His intelligence and drive help when pushing against apathy and inertia and corruption, I'm sure, but also do his uncountable piles of money. And to get there, you need to have behaved in a very particular way.

That behavior is what I wanted to see, to examine, to reverse engineer.

You can spend all your runtime lovingly zooming into perfectly glazed steaks which slowly in balanced light which brings out the impeccable garnishes.

Gorgeous, but that's advertising. What would teach the viewers something is to see the farm, abattoir, and butcher shop.

#documentary #billgates

Poster for Mandy

I saw Mandy early this year. I scribbled on my notebook as I was watching it, transcribed the notes a day or two later, then let the file sit in a folder for months.

I can put some of that on switching sites. I wasn't sure if I was going to continue writing but knew it wasn't going to be at Tumblr. When I started back in here, I had a long queue of things to get through (still do), and a discipline to rebuild (ditto).

Mostly, though, it's that doing one of these requires recapturing a movie's feeling, and with Mandy that feeling was a thick, oily unpleasantness I was in no hurry to taste again.

Mandy is what you do when you need to try heroin so you can hate it yet don't want to take the drug yourself, an electronic moving picture mix of William Blake and Richard Corben.

We can call it a revenge movie. Red Miller (Nicholas Cage, frantic, feral) lives in the woods with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, disheveled, doomed). The woods are both home and asylum, as both seem to have traumatic and violent pasts. There is peace for them in the mountains, but it doesn't last, as they get dragged into the libidinous machinations of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache, lascivious, languid), a Manson-like mix of charm and insecurity. When that is done, Red goes on a revenge rampage.

Anything I write could be a spoiler yet nothing could prepare you for how the movie feels when the plunger slams into the syringe and the movie turns into the bad trip version of an 80s metal album cover. Sex-obsessed cult leaders, redneck cenobites, mystical militia negroes, makeshift medieval weapons, and the Nicholas Cage-iest scene Cage has ever made, wading through a nightmarish miasma awash in red and purple hues, scored by Tangerine Dream's long-lost deranged twin.

It makes you feel dirty about having ever lost control, while simultaneously making it an alluring siren song.

It's memorable, it's well crafted, and it has some moments of pure gonzo. It will embed itself in your brain, which is both a recommendation and a warning.

#mandy #panoscosmatos #revenge #horror #nicholascage #andreariseborough #linusroache

It's hard to dissect Quentin Tarantino's latest, Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, without going into anything that would spoil some aspect of the movie, so read after the image at your own peril.

Short summary: the performances are sensational, there's a lot to love in it, but the movie never comes together and feels like a rambling, improvised in-joke, where if you know the guy who's telling it you can tell where he's leading, but you're still going to have to wait for almost three hours for him to get to his punchline.

I want to love it. I was mostly entertained by it. But it's a bit of a mess.

Poster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Hardy har har.

Let's first get the negative out of the way.

In the odd chance you didn't know, Hollywood is set around the Tate Murders. It's not about Sharon Tate – not for the most part. It's about washed-up TV cowboy Rick Dalton and his stunt double and rent-a-friend Cliff Booth. Tate features prominently from the start of the movie, though, including a voice over introduction by Damian-Lewis-in-a-wig's Steve McQueen, as does her friend Jay Sebring who was murdered alongside her. Manson's family also keeps popping up, even if Charlie himself only shows up briefly.

If you knew about the Sharon Tate murders, and you know what Tarantino pulled on Inglorious Basterds, then you know where this is going the moment you find out that Rick Dalton lives right next door to Tate and Polanski, and that Cliff Booth can handle himself in a not-so-friendly contest against Bruce Lee.

If you don't... then Tate, Sebrig, McQueen and all the rest being there probably won't make all that much sense to you. They have no place in the movie other than as a lure, to give us a hint of where this circuitous exploration of lates 60s film production is going to end up.

There's two ways this could have gone and worked. In one, Tate is a key part of the story and we spend our proper time getting to know her. On the other, it's not about her, either because she doesn't matter or we know who she is, so we can skip over the boring bits. The latter is what you do if you expect that we're all in on the joke.

If we are already in on the joke... well, then... just keep the story focused on Rick and Cliff, whydontcha.

With all this narrative meandering, we end up in a situation where the performances are sensational, but the movie never gels.

Leonardo DiCaprio is impressive. He plays the part of a washed-up burned-out drunkard former star so well that, in a scene with Timothy Olyphant, a stiff actor who barely has a single face to show up with, DiCaprio manages to make Olyphant look like a natural performer at ease with his craft.

Margot Robbie is a delight as Sharon Tate. She's in it for no particular reason, and she isn't in it very much, but when she shows up, she glows. There's a lovely little scene when she's sitting in a theater, watching herself in The Wrecking Crew, where she comes across as an overgrown girl excited about how far she's gotten.

Brad Pitt is in it. His effortless cool must take a lot of effort. His best scene – drunk, in a boat, half-ignoring his wife's angry ramblings – is gone in a flash. He seems to be having fun.

Oh, nevermind. I forgot. Almost all performances are great.

Why is Al Pacino even in here, sucking the air out of a couple of scenes? Unlike others playing bit parts – Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Zoë Bell – he's not even an in-joke for Tarantino fans. But Quentin had never worked with him, though, so why not throw him in as well?

Because Tarantino is running wild and the movie suffers from it. It's so self indulgent that it feels like half the movie are ladies’ feet.

Which is sad, because I'd actually recommend Climax and The Naked Director (which I've yet to write up) as stories where the theme of running wild is the fuel that the movie burns, but the movies themselves are better for their restraint.

Sure, create for yourself. Throw a foot close-up here or there.

But if you are a chef, you cook not only for yourself but for your diners as well. Hollywood has all the right ingredients, and Tarantino managed to wrap it up with a violently amusing desert at the end, but the courses before it were all bunched up, piled on top of each other, as if he couldn't decide what to serve and what to leave out. Most of the flavor ends up washed out.

#quentintarantino #leonardodicaprio #bradpitt #margotrobbie

Climax poster

A new movie by Gaspar Noé, the Robert Altman of nasty, is always cause for dreadful anticipation.

Climax has the good grace of warning you what you are in for, in case you knew nothing about it. We start staring at an old TV, where young faces are interviewed about dancing and fears and drugs and if their families know what they do. The paint on the wall behind them is peeling. The screen is bookended with hardcovers and VHS tapes: Suspiria, Schizophrenia, Possession, Un Chien Andalou, Salò.

This will end well.

There is a bloody escape through the snow. Credits. A choreography. A dance crew, somewhere isolated judging by their comments, practicing. It's their final night, and the crew is happy with the collaboration, about to launch into their final party, relaxing around a sangria which they'll soon find out has been spiked. We hang around with them for a while, see them revel, get to know them through their conversations and interactions, hear them protest too much, watch them swirl, bodies already contorting in unexpected ways even before things turn gut-kicking, throat-ripping, floor-pissing mad. Dancing is art you can leave unfinished only to have someone else pick it up. So is torture.

We never see what they see, only how they act as they communicate with each other in some butoh-fu that we barely grasp. Noé's long takes are perfect for following around a group of hallucinating performers, light pulsating, screams and cries echoing on the halls as someone in a daze tries to walk from one room to another while grasping as much coherence from the reality around them as possible. The acting is spotty – most of the cast are dancers, not actors – but their performances are electric. Sofia Boutella, likely the only face you'll recognize, is just one more in the crowd, until an indelible scene where she barely stops herself from devouring a nuisance then wanders into an empty room to explode, possessed, snaking up the walls and twisting back onto herself.

Run, scramble for shelter, find an anchor until it all passes, anything that helps weather the storm.

It's grueling. It's tense. It can get vile. But it'll be the strangest, most violently alluring whodunnit you've seen.

#climax #gasparnoe #music #drugs

Jesus Harold Torrance, has Stanley Kubrick been dead for 20 years?

#stanleykubrick #theshining

Halt and Catch Fire, main characters

I originally reviewed Halt and Catch Fire in two parts, first seasons 1-2 and then seasons 3-4. Here are both short reviews together.


Halt, Midway Through

Come on.

Nobody was adding math co-processors to computer kits back in the 8086 times, much less portables.

Yes, that's a nerd's complaint.

It shouldn't be what I say about this show, since it doesn't have a lot of tech background. Its history feels retrofitted, retroactively convenient for the times. They are too visionary, too misunderstood, too under-appreciated. It's got some well-written drama, but as far as tech or entrepreneurship goes, it's lacking.

Its main sin is that, two and a half seasons in, it doesn't make me want to run out and build something. Anything.

It does make me want to pitch, though.

I guess that's something.


Halt, at the end

Halt and Catch Fire continues its “tech's greatest hits” tour in seasons 3 and 4, with their characters inventing even more things ahead of their time. In less than 20 episodes, they manage to come up with:

  • Anti-virus software;
  • Web crawlers;
  • Yahoo;
  • Internet service providers;
  • and the commercial World Wide Web.

It's a techie's face-palming wonderland. It features an anti-virus written in BASIC, a packet sniffer which can sniff packets hour or days after the fact, and Unreal Engine-level graphics in 1994 (for an Atari game, no less).

But finally. Finally, at the end of season 3, they capture the builder spirit. That thing emanating from a few people, alone inside four bare walls, trying to figure out if there's something they can create out of someone else's concept. The angles of attack. The frustration of being left out. They get it right. Even if the writers can't stop themselves from making Cameron a über-genius who can build entire tech epochs by herself.

Its tech is window dressing, anyway. It's just there to anchor the drama and give them something to argue about.

This thing we do – programming, engineering, building businesses, the whole thing – is nothing but a hack. It's a hack implemented on top of a system force-grown, on a budget, against much more modest requirements: to avoid getting eaten by a tiger.

Season 4 understands that. Building stuff is great, and it provides a purpose, but it's also methadone to keep you calm while you find out if you were one of those who made it. Methadone only gets you so far.

You throw rational people into a room, give them something they all feel strongly about, and watch the apes club each other with keyboards.

Most of them do OK. Boss takes one step outside himself, gets a glimpse of greatness, but it costs him himself. Gordon realizes his potential, grows as a person, even if that growth is stunted. Donna wakes up, starts walking her own path, then runs, picks up so much speed she can't stop herself, no matter how conflicted she is about where her legs take her. Joe goes from charismatic salesman to hating his success to Jobs-wannabe to somehow coalescing all the personas into a cool John Cusack, then back to Joe. Only Cameron remains Cameron, her wardrobe gradually less janky but her persona just as sketched, the chip that doubles for a pauldron just as big.

She's only there to introduce chaos, anyway. Yeah, she's the one coming up with most of the impossible breakthroughs. But her whole shtick is to proclaim, in anger, why she's right and everyone's wrong. With as much door-slamming as she can manage.

It works, as a tactic. A decade of fighting about implementation details can make you feel you belong, even if the place is at each other's throats. Arguing means you care what the other thinks.

Frenemies are still friends.

#haltandcatchfire #tvseries #leepace #scootmcnairy #mackenziedavis #kerrybishe #tobyhuss

Radhika Apte in Ghoul

A movie's autochthonous nature needs to come from more than its setting or cast or direction. It needs to permeate the whole.

There's nothing inherently Indonesian about The Raid, for example. It's set there, and the entire cast is Indonesian, but writer-director Gareth Evans is Welsh. Its pacing is Western – nay, American – and its setting would translate to any other city where crime has metastasized. If you need any other indication of its universality, you can consider how its theme and structure transferred blow-by-blow to Dredd's decaying future North America.

Contrast it with Wong Kar-Wai's In the mood for love, which is not only undeniably Chinese but couldn't be mistaken as anything other than a Hong Kong movie. Its mis-en-scène smacks of back alleys and steamy dumpling shops and steak restaurants that have seen better days, even if photographed by an Australian. Wong's brand of platonic relationships is rooted not only in place but time – he aims to convey the spirit of 1960s Hong Kong – to the extreme that it didn't translate where he tried his hand at capturing Americana.

Throw Ghoul into that whole discussion. It's set in a future, radicalized India, where the Hindu majority considers Muslims to be an infectious vector for terrorism, drags them away for “re-conditioning” and forces those that remain to burn the books connecting them to their past. Even children's stories must go into the too-on-the-nose bonfires.

Maybe if they weren't so busy burning folk talks they would have learned about the movie's namesake, which comes from Arabic myth: the anthropophagus who could turn into the last victim it had devoured.

The ghoul is repurposed here as a spirit of vengeance, haunting a secret prison where police drag suspected Muslim agitators off to so the army can torture confessions out of them. It's a good setting for a labyrinthine cavern, all concrete tunnels and blacked out windows so that prisoners don't have a chance of even getting a hint of the passage of time.

It seemed like a good idea back when the soldiers were in control.

Netflix bills it as a mini-series, but it feels like a movie split into three 45-minute chunks. It's surprisingly restrained, for something with its critter in the marquee. It takes its time, not bringing out the monster right away, even if everyone involved senses there's something amiss. We spend that time with individuals who have been indoors too long, push each other's buttons trying to edge out an advantage, revealing their characters in the process. That pays off when it comes time to let the creature loose – we have a better sense of the people getting chowed down on.

But it doesn't come across as native. It's got a strong Hindi accent, but it might as well be set in Texas.

At least as an outsider, there's nothing that feels Indian about it. There are some color splashes – at a roadblock, a character attempts to hide his bag under a jacket, and prompts the challenge “What do you have there? Books? Beef?”. But when it gets down to plot or characters, everyone but the monster feels like they could be anywhere else.

It oversimplifies the country, making it Hindu vs. Muslim and ignoring the other minorities. While those are the two larger groups, you could also take that situation and transplant it to the United States – specially in the current climate. There's no other politics or flavor or touches that make it feel rooted in a culture.

That's not against its suspense chops. When it comes down to building tension, seeding doubt, making you guess, the miniseries does its job well. In fact, it executes well enough to make you wish it was less Blumhouse and more Bollywood, just so you could see something you haven't seen before.

#ghoul #horror #india #blumhouse #garethevans #patrickgraham #hongkong #wongkarwai

Mr. Six photo

There are so many ways in which you can lose whatever relevance you had in the world.

It can be taken from you, by force, from others. That happens early, when it still has value. You would notice.

It can also wander away without you realizing it. You while away the days, keeping to your domain, while whatever influence or knowledge you had becomes less important, friends drift away, few remain behind you other than those who had similar trouble holding on.

Or, saddest of all, your can hold on to it for ages. You are still what you were, in your own back alley, while others build a new world just outside your borders, a world which continues to expand and accrete and compound without your knowledge until, a decade or so later, you are still holding on to your tiny speck of importance and your outdated code, neither of which has any relevance on this new environment.

That's Mr. Six. He was a gangster, used to settling problems with his code of honor and stern talking-tos and the inevitable back-alley fight. When his erratic son disappears, Mr. Six and his tools are inadequate to deal with the brave new world of impossibly rich kleptocrats and their well-insulated princelings. Too proud to ask for help, just sticking to what is exactly within his means or what he is owed, he tries. He brings along his band of old timers, small enough to fit around a tiny back-alley restaurant table and, like the restaurant, colorful, noisy and unpolished.

Nostalgia and its core cast, though, is most of what Mr. Six has going for it. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how much you get out of those two. The veterans need to face off against wooden young models and clunky camera angles. They convince you to stick around for a script that meanders before turning cloying, that backpedals from a brief critical look at its central character to lionize him, that abandons the personal scale for flash.

They almost carry the day.

#mrsix #china

Poster for Bad Guys

Am I done watching this one?

I think I'm done watching this one.

Bad Guys' pitch must have been “imagine the A-Team... but they're all evil!”

(Cue Korean drama executive pissing his pants)

A cop gets killed in Seoul, chasing after a serial killer. On his own, for some reason, with just a camera-man following. Suicidal tendencies notwithstanding, he's not a random cop but a Big Shot's son, so this time someone does something. Big Shot asks Hard-Drinking Loose-Canon Cop to put together a team to deal with crime. The cops are too rigid-minded for criminals, so Loose-Canon hand-picks a bunch of criminals. They're supposed to compete with each other – whoever solves a crime or saves a victim first, gets time off his sentence.

They are:

  • A cute serial killer who could be in a boy band (and probably is), doesn't remember any of his murders (so he might be innocent!) and is also a young genius with a handful of PhDs (aren't they all?);
  • A handsome assassin (who could have been in a boy band), whose methods and victims are unknown (I guess we take his word for the whole “being a hitman” thing), who's never made a single mistake (how would you know if you don't know his victims or methods?), but who gave himself up for no obvious reason (a woman, duh);
  • The tough-guy mobster who took over Seoul in a blink, got caught, took over prison, and is obviously the class-clown actor auditioning for straight-man roles with better material.

Oh, and there's a token woman too, as a the straight-laced, stiff-necked official trying to keep them in line.

But wait, it's not that simple! Pretty boy might not be a killer at all! Assassin model has a heart of gold! Mobster... mobster... might be the only part worth salvaging!

The crimes they deal with are a teenager's idea of what would be both shocking and totally rad: they not only make no plot sense but might be physically impossible (a villain chops a body into 356 pieces with a knife). There is so much plastic surgery that if I blink while watching it, my ears smart. The soundtrack is perfunctory “cool guys doing cool stuff”. The only thing more bombastic than the dialogue is the camera work.

I lasted three episodes. On my defense, I was trying to get my ear re-accustomed to Korean. And I was drinking.

#tvseries #southkorea