Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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Monsters

A photographer is tasked with escorting his employer’s daughter to safety through the “Infected Zone” of northern Mexico, where giant extraterrestrial monsters roam.

This has some similarities to “Cloverfield,” in that it focuses on the smallness of humans fleeing giant and largely unseen monsters, though it’s much less frenetic, with more character development. It also feels a bit like “Annihilation,” with its characters making their way through a dangerous jungle landscape, but without the bio-chaos weirdness of Jeff VanderMeer’s story. There are some quietly moving moments, especially in the surprising final minutes with an unexpected echo between the monsters and the humans, and its vision of a massive American wall on the Mexican border that ultimately fails to provide protection against a misunderstood danger feels eerily timely a decade early.

Cloverfield

When a giant monster attacks Manhattan during his going-away party, Rob defies the evacuation to go back into the city rescue his girlfriend Beth, with his camera-toting friend Hudson right behind him.

I grew up watching badly-dubbed Japanese monster movies that ran on Saturday afternoons after cartoons, and I recall the cinematography being comprised of long static shots of lumbering beasts smashing cardboard cities, with very few close-ups of the human victims of the mayhem. “Cloverfield” undercuts the conventions by focusing almost exclusively on the human carnage, with shots so close-up to be dizzying to the point of nausea, and no context provided for the chaos and destruction. The characters are in no position to know what’s going on, and so we as the audience are left in the dark as well. We are trapped in the “fog of war,” directionless and dizzy, just trying to make our way through the rubble.

I liked the conceit of the video tape palimpsest, with little glimpses of a very different day not so long ago when Rob and Beth had a much less terrifying adventure on Coney Island. The juxtapositions made the characters more interesting, and their present condition more harrowing.

The Perfection

Charlotte, a former cello prodigy who had to give up music to care for her dying mother, seeks out her former teachers and their new protege, Elizabeth. But Charlotte has more than music on her mind.

This didn’t go where I thought it would go, and it got there by way of some suspect routes, but overall I enjoyed it. It’s very much a suspend-all-disbelief story that relies on some ludicrous assumptions, but the performances by Allison Williams and Logan Browning bridge the ridiculous situations with believable and complex emotions. There’s some gross stuff along the way, which is what gets the most attention in the buzz this movie has generated, but it’s really the acting, appropriately melodramatic and intense (Steven Weber’s Anton is also satisfyingly creepy), that makes it worth a watch.

Blue My Mind

Mia moves to a new school, where she has to deal with making new friends, tries to fit in with the cool kids, and faces a terrifying physical transformation.

This is a coming-of-age-body-horror tale not unlike “Raw” or “Ginger Snaps,” where the physical transformations of puberty are amplified to horrific levels while the person suffering the change tries to cope with sex, drugs, alcohol, and generalized rebellion, before finally embracing the transformation in all its terrible glory. It’s pretty brutal and stark, but also poetic and lyrical; that mix makes it a highly recommended watch.

Also, thank goodness for subtitles; I think I could probably have caught a lot of this had it been in standard German as taught in American universities or spoken in Bavarian cities, or even in a Plattdeutsch dialect, but Swiss German really is its own thing.

Rökkur

When he receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend Einar, Gunnar goes to Einar’s secluded family cabin, where together they face their loneliness, isolation, regret, and something dark on the uncaring lava fields of Iceland.

Four the first three quarters of the movie, this is a story about loneliness and regret, quite lyrical if stark (perfectly capturing the feeling of Iceland’s empty spaces). It takes a strange turn toward the end, where some night-vision camera footage, an abandoned apartment building, and a strange old man who lives alone on the lava fields give the movie a brief horror vibe. While it’s certainly creepy and haunted throughout, it’s not really a scary movie, unless what scares you is coming to terms with your regrets. It’s a beautiful movie, though, and strongly recommended.

Monster Party

Three young burglars plan to rob a house where there’s a dinner party going on for serial killers in a sort of rehab program. Several of the serial killers fall off the wagon, with gruesome results.

This was a fun twist on the “home invasion” sub-genre, with some delightfully gory kills and a surprising amount of tension. Though it’s played pretty straight, there’s a satirical edge, and a lot of fun to be had with sending up standard horror tropes, like the disfigured monster in the closet and a final girl who has a murderous streak of her own. It’s certainly not deep, nor does it mean to be; it revels in its implausible gore (including various limbs being lopped off, a skull split with a katana, and a pile of apparent sausage links expelled during a disembowelment), its characters are thin to the point of being cardboard props, and there is no motivation for the violence except the violence itself. “Monster Party” succeeds on its own terms.

Thelma

A college student suffers unexplained seizures, and discovers a dark history of repression and power.

This is an odd and sometimes dream-like film; I’m not sure what parts of it to take literally, and what parts to take metaphorically or even allegorically, and I think that confusion is entirely intentional. At its core, it’s a story of a repressed young woman embracing herself and her own future, even if it’s at odds with her parents’ wishes; it’s also a story about parents who seek to repress their childrens’ paths, and what comes of such interference. As a parent preparing to send a couple of young people off to college in a few months, I take this movie’s lessons quite seriously …

Butter on the Latch

Two women leave the city behind for a camp in the woods where there are classes in Balkan folk music and dance. A budding romance creates tensions and some apparent fugue states.

This movie left me with more questions than answers, but not especially good questions. For one, why a Balkan folk culture camp? Neither woman expresses a particular interest in Balkan culture nor seems to be participating much in the classes; one of them seems to be able to pronounce the words in a Slavic song, but it’s never explained if she has any sort of relationship to the culture. And why “Balkan”? It’s a weird sort of pan-Balkan camp, spanning Greek to Serbian to Romanian; maybe “Balkan” is meant metaphorically, in that these women, who seem to share so much, are driven apart and isolated by the very things they share? Or could this have been set in any old camp to the same effect?

And why is the camera work so disorienting and occasionally evokes motion sickness? I understand that it was shot with a DSLR, so it was necessary for everything to be framed between an extreme closeup and about five feet away, and that the auto-focus gets gimpy when things move too fast (or move at all), but surely it was a choice not to use a tripod, or not to rent the appropriate gear?

From the synopsis I expected something like “The Wicker Man,” or what I expect the upcoming “Midsommar” to be: city people stumble into a pagan ritual where Dark Things Happen. And there were some moments of creeping dread and unsettling oddness, and the lighting, so bright and green, was characteristic of classic folk horror. But except for a conversation (to which Sarah is only half paying attention) about evil spirits that can inhabit animals or the landscape, there’s nothing to tie the events of the movie back to the milieu of the camp or the setting in the woods. Perhaps there is something magical going on here, but the main characters are too dense and self-absorbed to see it, and because we’re trapped in close-up with their perceptions we can’t see it either, and if the damned camera had pulled back just a few feet and been bolted onto a tripod and FOCUSED FOR ONE DAMNED SECOND, everything might have been made clear.

Ugh.

The Untamed

A woman befriends a male nurse in a small Mexican town, and introduces him and his sister to a tentacled creature in a remote cabin that offers both unspeakable pleasure and pain.

If H.P. Lovecraft wrote tele-novellas, this would have been the result: a blend of cosmic horror, family drama, and dangerous desire, with a fair bit of gore and skin. It’s interesting and disturbing, which is a good combination.

Lake Mungo

After 16-year-old Alice drowns on a family outing, her parents and brother experience unexplained sounds and discover secrets that Alice had buried.

Shot as a very believable documentary, “Lake Mungo” is a subtle exploration of grief, belief, secrets, time, and memory. It spools out its revelations slowly, with twists that force you to reconsider how you’ve been interpreting the story. Right through the credits there are misdirections and revelations that make this a quietly creepy and disturbing film.

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