My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Dogtooth (2009)

So ends my week of cleaning out the Netflix queue…and what a way to go. Dogtooth is a genre hybrid, a coming-of-age tale crossed with lingering, shivering horror. It’s a story told between extremes…one where we don’t know the beginning or the end, but whose middle is open to us and lets us know that its beginning and end are being withheld as an act of mercy.

The film is a relentless hour and a half of Hell. A family is held on some remote estate by its patriarch, who keeps his children in a state of fear so constant and extreme that they dare not set foot off their lawn for fear of being killed by creatures unknown.

Their mother is complicit in this scheme, though it’s unclear why. She has knowledge of the outside world the likes of which her children will never know, but agrees with her husband that it’s best to keep the children confused, ignorant, and in abstract terror at all times.

They feed their children misinformation to keep from developing as human beings. This ranges from lying about the simple definitions of words to larger, more loaded deceptions…such as when the father comes home covered in blood to report that their nbever-seen brother has been killed by dangerous creatures because he disobeyed orders. The children are forced to deliver eulogies for this boy who never existed, and learn — as far as their father is concerned — a valuable lesson in the process.

We encounter this cruel and unexplained social experiment at the very point that it begins to fray. The children begin to behave monstrously toward each other, lashing out with knives during minor disputes. The son spies a stray cat on the family’s property, and guts it with hedge trimmers in case it’s one of the dangerous creatures they’ve been warned about. And a woman who is brought to the home to service the son sexually inadvertently triggers something in t leads the children to explore their own sexuality with each other.

It’s unflinching and difficult to watch. The camera has a habit of lingering long after we’d wished it would turn away, but that’s an important part of the experience. Great films know what to leave to the audience’s imagination, but Dogtooth knows that these things cannot be left to the imagination. That, in this specific case, the imagined horrors can never live up to the reality. And so you see every last terrible thing.

There’s very little story to Dogtooth, but it’s a powerful and cohesive experience, one which raises a wealth of questions about parenting, about childhood, about family, about society, about truth, about perception, about relativity, about love, about responsibility, about identity, and about knowledge.

It answers none of those questions. In fact, that might be one of the film’s themes as well: questions are deflected, deferred, or answered with a deliberate lie. Like the nameless patriarch of the anonymous family, Dogtooth doesn’t want to give us answers. Unlike the patriarch, it can’t stop us from discovering them on our own.

Next up: Nothing. The series is over. My regular schedule of not posting anything ever shall now be resumed.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: The Last Man on Earth (1964)

This is one I’ve been wanting to see for a while, and I definitely enjoyed it. Vincent Price is predictably fantastic as the titular Last Man, and it’s a delight watching him simply go about his day. Radioing for help, seeking out fresh garlic for the front door, clearing corpses from his yard and dumping them into a pit…post-apocalyptic New York is a lonely place, and Vincent Price has been trapped there, alone, for three years.

It’s taking a toll on him, but he moves forward. Humanity has been decimated by the very disease he was once working to cure…but now it’s too late. Even if he finds a cure, there’s nobody left to give it to.

Something keeps him going, though. Something keeps him broadcasting on all frequencies every day for three years straight, even though there’s nobody out there to hear him.

He spends his days collecting food and survival gear from abandoned supermarkets, but he’s careful to take only what he needs. Inside he still harbors the hope that somebody, somewhere, must have survived, and he doesn’t want to consume all of the resources himself. It is with this small act of self-restraint that he hopes to provide that phantom pocket of humanity some hope. What’s more, he even makes daily sojourns through the city, methodically slaughtering the deranged mutants as they sleep, just to make the streets a little safer for anyone else who might have to cross them.

If this sounds similar to Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, there’s a reason for that: they were based on the same book. The Last Man on Earth, however, is exponentially better. Granted, the mutants never register as much of a threat here, but the ones from The Omega Man were even less frightening, with their religious-cult overtones and and 1970s souped-up MonsterMobile. The same book was also adapted into Will Smith’s The Last Man on Erff…I mean I Am Legend. That’s a good number of high-profile adaptations for a single text, and in this case the first was probably the best.

For starters, it has a not unforeseeable but still quite brilliant (and Twilight Zone-worthy) twist to Price’s actions that The Omega Man doesn’t have, opting instead of a graphic interracial fuckfest because that’s definitely what we expect from a story about the last human being alive. I Am Legend ditches both of these developments…for all I know, as I haven’t actually seen it…presumably in favor of having Will Smith rap with some mutants, while they all wear nice suits and sunglasses.

The Last Man on Earth interestingly contains a flashback sequence of film-dominating length at its center, which shows Price and his wife and daughter living out the last days before the plague hits America. As might be expected, the death and devastation being felt by Europe at the time feels distant and impossible here in America…until we flash forward, and see his little girl and the woman he loves falling victim to it in turn. Price himself is immune, but all that means is that he gets to watch everybody he’s known and loved die before him.

There’s a particularly lovely moment in the film when Price comes across a stray dog, alive against all odds in the wasteland. He lets the dog into his house and is so excited by the prospect of company that he launches immediately into promises of all the fun things they will do together…only to find out that the dog has been wounded, and is infected with the virus. Cut to the last man on Earth burying a small figure in a shroud with a stake through its heart, and a figurative one through Price’s as well.

There’s more I could say about it, but I won’t spoil it in case anyone out there wants to watch it. It’s early-ish Hollywood horror, so don’t expect to have nightmares over it or anything, but there’s an enjoyable story with a wonderfully conflicted central character, and it outlines perfectly valid arguments about perspective and intent. It’s certainly better than watching Charlton Heston fumble with boobies, or Will Smith and the mutants teaching Carlton how to dance.

Next up: something is explained, a problem is encountered, the problem is compounded, and then the problem is resolved. Whew!

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Dororo (2007)

A friend of mine has been insisting that I watch this for well over a year, and now that I have, I can say one thing for sure: this was definitely a movie that I watched.

Dororo is…well, a summary would take around four thousand words to hit all of the cardinal points so forgive me if I gloss over many of them in the interest of time. (Something I wish the film-makers did as well, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

In the distant future of feudal Japan, Lord Daigo finds his land and his people besieged by unstoppable enemies. On the verge of finding his world and heritage wiped out, he makes a dark pact with 48 demons: if they give him the power to fight back and conquer them, he will give them his unborn son, which they can divide into 48 pieces as they please.

Unfortunately this moment of weakness for Daigo evolves quickly into a lust for power, and he uses his dark blessing not just to defeat his enemies, but to enslave humanity.

Okay, that’s the background information. The actual plot is still more complicated: Daigo’s son is born, but he’s nothing but a barely-formed lump of flesh. He has a torso, a waist, a neck and a head, and that’s it. No eyes, no ears, no limbs, because the demons took all that shit…it’s creepy, okay? Daigo wants to kill the abomination but Mrs. Daigo puts him in a basket and sends him down the river, where a brilliant inventor finds him and builds him, piece by piece, a new body, in the hopes that he will someday be a real boy. So the origin story reveals that our hero is basically Moses, Edward Scissorhands and Pinocchio rolled into one. He’s also a samurai with a blade for an arm and he’s blind and deaf but can see and hear with his heart…even though he doesn’t have one of those either.

Actually, that’s still the background information.

So, the plot: he must seek out each of the 48 demons and destroy them with his special demon-killing samurai arm so that he can replace the parts of his fake body with the actual parts from his real body that the demons were just kind of chilling with, and a female thief who unconvincingly impersonates a man because her parents told her never to be weak like a woman unless she wanted to die with the rest of the villagers joins up with Pinocchioses Scissorhands, because she wants the blade when he’s done with it, and they eventually find out that Lord Daigo was both our hero’s father and the guy who killed the thief’s parents, and…

…fuck. That’s still background information.

This movie’s complicated, okay? It’s also really long. Clocking in at two and a half hours, I really do feel that something should have been cut.

…and yet I’d be loathe to identify which scenes should go, because taken in isolation everything is pretty damned beautiful. The demon fight sequences are a little ropey, but they’re made up for afterward when our hero falls to the ground coughing up some fake version of one of his organs so that he can regenerate his real one. It’s wondrously disgusting.

The adventures of the demon slayer and the thief are fairly episodic, broken into long sequences that see them encountering some bizarre situation and needing to fight their way out of it…only to have it never brought up again. This is true to Dororo‘s origin as a manga series, where an issue-by-issue stop/start abruptness is inherent to the format. Here it might sound frustrating, but it works well enough. The quest is neatly broken into 48 pieces anyway — though by the end of this film we still have 24 body parts to go — so it’s not so strange that each situation would seem to exist independently of the others.

It’s not a bad movie at all, but it is overbearingly Japanese. You’ll need to get around a few things that seem pretty bizarre in order to enjoy the movie — see the gigantic naked baby in the picture above, and then ask yourself how likely you are to get around that — but if you can, it’s a good deal of fun and not without moments of admirable consideration and depth.

After all, once our hero is told by a dying demon that he should really be angry at his father instead of them, there’s a genuinely emotional turning-point. Dororo is about adventure and bloodshed, without a doubt, but there’s a current of humanity and self-discovery that runs beneath. I can’t promise you that it’s worth seeking out, but if you do watch it, it might be a more rewarding experience than you expected.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to kill this fire-breathing potato bug to get my ankle back.

Next up: a film in which plot and character feature heavily. Fuck, I spoiled it didn’t I?

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Submarine (2010)

Richard Ayoade has been involved in some great stuff. The IT Crowd, AD/BC: A Rock Opera, and my probable candidate for funniest television show of all time, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. I was surprised to see that he directed a film, though, and would have been a bit apprehensive if the reviews didn’t all seem to conspire with one another to convince me that this was exactly the sort of movie I’d fall madly in love with.

And this was exactly the sort of movie I’d fall madly in love with.

Submarine plays games with cinematic grammar, with unreliable narration, and with basic plot and character development, but that’s not what’s impressive. What’s impressive is that it does all of these things in service of a sincerely affecting and bittersweet experience. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading endless volumes of modern and postmodern literature, it’s that absolutely anybody can subvert expectations. It’s a trick pulled so often that it’s no longer surprising. Not everybody, however, can utilize that game in the necessary service of a vaster emotional statement.

Submarine does this. And I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon.

The film is about Oliver, a teenage boy living in Wales, who finds himself drawn to the crude, nasty beauty of a female classmate as his parents’ marriage disintegrates in the background. But it’s not the plot that holds the film together…it’s the sensibility. It’s the appropriately confused nature of the film, which glorifies the enormity of youth while never losing sight of its fleeting, graceless unimportance. Oliver is prone to flights of internal fancy that border on outright hallucinations, muddling so often the line between imagination and reality that one of the film’s biggest shocks comes after a scene in which he reads aloud his suicide note to the class…only for us to learn in the following scene that, for once, this was not imaginary.

It’s a bitter film, but it’s an affectionate bitterness. It’s the affectionate bitterness that comes with looking a good friend in the face and telling him to fuck off, and meaning it, while still understanding him to be the best friend you’ll ever have.

The object of Oliver’s affections is Jordana, a dangerous and equally disturbed young woman who torments her peers and delights in setting fire to things. She brings out the worst in Oliver by mere virtue of existing, and an early, gorgeously-presented moment in the film finds Oliver bullying an unfortunate girl in order to impress Jordana and another friend of his. But then his friends leave and there’s just Oliver, his victim, and silence. Without changing a thing, the entire perspective of Submarine shifts, and it’s a perfect film-defining moment that haunts Oliver in ways he can’t ever understand.

As Submarine progresses Jordana finds her own life injected suddenly with a malign tragedy, and we see at times from that point forward an outward reflection of her own humanity. As we plumb the depths of Oliver’s problems and erase, letter by letter, our perception of his innocense, we find Jordana assembled, piece by piece, to something like a sympathetic human being. Both Oliver and Jordana are rich, challenging characters, but we start at the opposite end of each’s spectrum, and work backward toward the middle, where, with luck, they might finally meet, and be for the other what they each most need.

Submarine is an unquestionable delight. Beautifully flawed, and devastatingly frank. There are no good people, apart from Noah Taylor as Oliver’s milquetoast father…but he gets steamrolled by everything life puts in his path.

Adolescence is about learning to fight, because that’s the only way to move forward. And it’s also about learning to hurt. And learning to be hurt. And learning to heal. And learning to help others to heal. In short, it’s about learning why you’re never going to be up to the task of guiding your own life, and it’s about that last sunset at summer’s end, that sees you knee-deep in water and facing an uncertain horizon. At your back are all the mistakes you’ve made, and in front of you are those you’re doomed to make all over again.

It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s heart-breaking. And I loved it.

Next up: The one with that character who needs to accomplish something.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)

I have no idea what I just watched.

I do know that its full title is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension but that was too long for WordPress.

That’s all I know about what I just watched, because I have no idea what I just watched.

It’s about some brain surgeon who performs experimental surgery, but that doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie at all. The movie focuses more on this same man’s career as a rock musician / physicist / comic book hero / cosmic adventurer / crash test dummy / sex symbol, but that doesn’t tie into it really, either. I have no idea what I just watched.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. Mainly because it immortalized in film Yoyodyne, the shady corporation known to literary geeks like myself from The Crying of Lot 49. That means that this film is one of very, very few that could possibly be said to take place within the same universe as any of Pynchon’s works, and that’s worth a recommendation in itself. As an added bonus, one of the characters employed there in Lot 49 was first introduced in Gravity’s Rainbow, which itself featured a character whose ancestors we meet in Mason & Dixon, a-and…I’ll stop myself there, suffice it to say that this indirectly ties the film not just into one of Thomas Pynchon’s books, but — by virtue of intratextual connectivity — the entire Thomas Pynchon oeuvre.

Of course, none of that factors into the plot here, which finds Buckaroo Banzai driving through a solid mountain, only when he comes out there’s a sort of alien fetus attached to the underside of his car, but that can’t be very important because it never comes up again. So the President of the United States calls him up to congratulate him on finding the alien fetus or something but it’s not really the President…it’s an alien from a race that wants to destroy Earth (and doesn’t live inside of mountains so I guess it’s a different alien species to the alien species that includes the alien fetus Buckaroo found on the underside of his car, which makes sense because if you destroy Earth you destroy those mountains AND THEN WHAT). But these aliens that prank called him don’t actually want to destroy Earth, they’re exceptions to the rest of their species, so they electrocute Buckaroo through the phone line and make him write equations on his hand. I have no idea what I just watched.

There’s also, of course, the Wes Anderson connection, and as Steve Zissou Saturdays kick off next weekend, I thought it would be worth seeing the film from which Anderson borrowed the end credits sequence for The Life Aquatic.

He also, I can see now, borrowed the electrical kiss from this film for Moonrise Kingdom. I’m glad he borrowed these things, because I can understand them in their reappropriated contexts. Here, I have no idea what I just watched.

Buckaroo and his band / fellow spies / sex people have to stop the aliens before they destroy Earth, which all started because a long time ago John Lithgow got flung through a wall by a go-kart, obviously. Christopher Lloyd is one of the aliens and that’s about the only thing that makes any kind of sense to me.

I have no idea what I just watched.

And while Buckaroo is at a club playing that rock and roll that the kids love so much, he hears Ellen Barkin crying so he says ELLEN BARKIN WHY ARE YOU CRYING and she tries to shoot herself while he plays a sad song so she goes to jail and he lets her out, because I guess he has that authority as some guy from the 80s who plays Zeppelin covers at a club, and it turns out she’s the identical twin of his ex-wife, who died in some way that nobody cares enough about to explain. So he hangs out with her for a while and puts her in mortal danger, because the aliens can spit spiders and Ellen Barkin is wearing a dress.

Seriously, what the fuck did I just watch? Jeff Goldblum is in it, too, eerily foreshadowing his future roles in the film of anybody who thinks to ask him. He doesn’t do much apart from dress like a cowboy and say to Buckaroo something to the effect of I’M SORRY I DID EVERYTHING I COULD DO TO SAVE HER and then Buckaroo is sad and almost accidentally orders war with Russia, but it turns out she’s just fine so Jeff Goldblum was trolling him I guess. I have no idea, no idea, no fucking idea what I just watched.

If you have any idea what I just watched, please let me know in the comments.

Because I have no. Idea. What I just watched.

Five stars.

Next up: something I understand. Please.