by Carole McDonnell
Beyond (2014), UK, Directed by Joseph Baker, Tom Large; Starring Richard J Danum, Gillian MacGregor; April 25, 2014; 89 minutes.
This film poses as a scifi film and features some creative existentialist scenarios about the intersection of real life and science fiction. But it is not a scifi film. I suspect this is why so many folks on IMDB hate it. They expected an apocalyptic film and they got a film that is a psychological examination of the apocalyptic mind.
I have a bad habit of giving low-rated movies the benefit of the doubt. I tend to think, “Well, most folks don’t like such-and-such types of film. But, who knows? I might like it.” I cannot begin to explain to you how much horrible swill I’ve fallen into because of that attitude. But every once in a while I am deeply, richly, rewarded.
This film is a meditation on suicide, world-weariness, and the grinding daily stressors that cause people (especially poor or emotionally-wobbly people) to feel overwhelmed.
It begins with Cole meeting Maya after he has challenged a robber at a store. Just as Cole saves Michael, the store clerk, there’s a report on the TV news about a comet hurtling toward earth. Cole and Maya philosophically ponder the ramifications of all this. If the comet were coming in a mere three days, Cole says, a kind of peace would exist because earth folks would have no choice but to accept their end and would not be burdened by trying to stave off disaster; folks would have no power to stop ye olde killer asteroid so there would be no striving. On the other hand, knowing that the comet will arrive in two or three years would bring a different response: people would be continually agitated because they would keep trying to save themselves. The whole world would be affected by hope and the burden of living with the knowledge of certain death.
You can see that Cole is already world-weary. It’s not as though he’s not a fighter, but life is problematic and he would rather keep himself from being too entangled with it. So, of course, he’s cool with the idea that Maya can’t have children.
Well, the next thing you know, Maya is pregnant, a gigantic alien spacecraft has arrived with the comet, and the family has no food. Why? Because no one is hiring laborers. Because who the heck builds houses when the world is on the brink of destruction? There’s a scene where Cole sees another character sick in the hospital. The character is connected to an IV. One can just see the quandary on Cole’s face. In a world where one is daily the possible prey of disease, violence, poverty, and Lord knows what-all-else, why should one choose to live?
The great thing about this drama is that these two lovers are arguing about relationship issues when the world is ending. Apocalyptical issues (such as finding food) can cause stress. But this film shows apocalyptic stress in a mundane way. Apocalypses do not bring out the best in us, and a stressful life cries out for a death wish. Whether or not that apocalypse is God-ordained or nature-caused, it is a cosmos-sanctioned annihilation. Thus, we can simply commit to our death wish and world-weariness. There is a lot to be said for communal worldwide destruction, in that regard, but the most important is that those with death wishes cannot be accused of being cowardly weak humans. After all, everyone is in the same boat. The ending might seem a bit too easy for some (and many films have used this kind of ending) but for me this is a film that shows how difficult it is to choose to live in this world. Streaming on Netflix.
Webjunkie, (2013) Israeli production, Mandarin language; Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia. July 20; 79 minutes.
Oh I loved this little documentary. It’s not scifi by any means but it touched my heart because it spotlighted what has become a major problem in many Asian countries: Internet Addiction. Internet Addiction has gotten so bad that China has now labelled it a mental disorder.
Internet addiction in Asia is not like internet addiction in the USA. In China, the one-child policy is very much in effect. Imagine most kids having no brother or sister to play with at home. Imagine not playing video games on computers at home but in internet cafes with other only children. Internet cafes that give off a gambling den vibe, I might add. These are not the only reasons for China’s teenager’s internet addiction but at least in the US, a teenager’s annoying sibling or snack-bringing Mom would enter a kid’s room and create a blip in their virtual world.
In addition, these teenage boys have no same-age family ally to battle their parents as American kids do. (Parents’ whose hopes and future depend on their kids’ academic achievement.) Moreover, there are no teenaged girls around for the boys to date.
The majority of the documentary takes place in a rehab center called Daxing Boot Camp. And it focuses on five kids who are in the process of being deprogrammed. These kids have been put in the camp by their distraught parents. The struggle against their internet addiction is really a struggle against their parents, society, or alienation. But some kids have harder struggles. One mom describes how she stalks outside the internet cafe, wringing her arms in fear that her son has died. It’s totally heartbreaking. But other parents are more aggressive or emotionally rigid, which causes the teenager to react equally aggressively.
The documentary states that China has about 400 rehab camps. Most of these kids are in these camps because their parents either deceived or drugged them to get them there. One father pretty much wants the psychologists at the boot camp to break his son’s will. I should say that with the exception of the chief psychiatrist, the therapists seem to be mostly women. Very kind, intelligent women who have to walk a very fine line between saving the kids from parents and saving the kids from the addiction. Although I consider China to be very patriarchal, the confessions and family therapy we witness throughout the film can be emotionally intense.)
So why are the boys drawn into the internet? As one kid puts it: “The real world is fake.” It’s not the romantic online relationships, game scenarios or online friends that are false . . . but the world of the parents.
The viewer leaves the documentary in a bit of a quandary. The whole rehab center idea seems to be a bit much, and the country’s idea of internet addiction seems like a kind of modern version of Reefer Madness. The kids seem downright broken when and if they leave the camp. But, on the other hand, the viewer does feel that these children do need some help. Because they are in a society that lacks the truth, emotion, and reality of the virtual world. And sitting in front of a computer screen for ten to thirty hours straight is not the proper corrective. Recommended.
After the Dark (USA/Indonesia); Directed by John Huddles from his screenplay; Release July, 2013 and Febrary, 2014; Starring James D’Arcy, 107 minutes
Every nerdy kid has a film that he/she considers deep, the kind of film that “blew their mind” when they first saw it; a film that made them feel they were being taught about the larger adult world, but a film which also is rooted in teen angst. After the Dark (aka, The Philosophers) would be a good find for most thoughtful teenagers, but I sincerely hope no kid develops an attachment to it.
The story begins on the last day of classes at an international college in Jakarta. The teacher, Dr Zimit, is coldly logical, and — as a finale for the semester — has come up with one final philosophical thought experiment. The experiment is about a what-if future Apocalyptic nuclear event. Each of the twenty student is given a job (harpist, poet, engineer, etc) and some other traits (genetic, sexual, emotional, intellectual.) The students then have to logically discuss whose skill set makes them worthy to enter the protective bunker and be safe from the bombs for a year while the radiation fades away. They are to use logic to judge human value. They must prioritize. They must consider morality, ethics, and biology and use all these to help perpetuate the human race once humanity begins anew after they leave the bunker.
The film unfolds by showing scenarios within the larger story. The frame of the story depicts the students in their college class in Jakarta. The scenarios within the frame are the three areas where the three what-if apocalyptic scenarios take place. There are three “trial and error” scenarios. The first two are pretty much directed by the professor. But as the students and the audience begin to see how cruel the teacher’s logic is, the Teacher’s favorite student takes charge of the third bunker survival scenario and thumbs her nose to the professor’s “realistic,” coldly logical worldly way of judging the worth of others. She chooses whom to enter the bunker by illogical and unreasonable heartfelt reasons.
I will just say wow.. just wow! That third scenario is plain gooey, sentimental, sacrificial, and childlike… no… childish. Art, literature, creativity, the illogical, the spiritual are all chosen. I’m an idealist but even I had to groan at the sneery triumph of these college kids. Basically we are shown a kid-pocalypse. True the teacher represents the old cold way of looking at life but I’m not good at sneery (“See there! Take that!”) smugness. And these college kids are smug. The kind of spiritually-evolved smugness some teenage idealists tend to display. The end of this youth “love” scenario, when they kill themselves together, gave me a terrifying chill. Romantic group suicide doesn’t go over well with me. I left this film feeling it was dangerous.
Another nit: Teachers in movies generally come in three categories: the kindly wise teacher, the emotionally-damaged wounded teacher, and the cruel or overbearing maestro. Whether the teacher’s actions were well-meaning or not, the child usually learns to understand adult life –or life in general– because of the teacher. Think of To Sir With Love or one of the countless Japanese “sensei” trope films like Suzuki Sensei or Aoi Tori. Even in films where teachers are incredibly nasty, the student’s rising up against the teacher is generally full of humility. The kids are happy just to have survived and escaped the Big Bad Teacher. But by the end of this film, there was an heavy aura of mean-spiritedness. And death. (I won’t even discuss the whiteness of the folks in the bunker. Heck, even the black kid looks white.) The film rang with a hollow triumph and seemed deeply-shallow. Not simply because there were moments when I thought other logical avenues in these scenarios weren’t being explored, but because it felt like cyanide-laced ice cream. A good film until it fell apart.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Japan; Director, Mami Sunada; Nov 28, 2014; 118 minutes
I don’t know what it is about me and reverential documentaries. There is nothing particularly wrong with a director having a worshipful attitude toward the subject of his documentary. Except that I always find myself distrusting all that veneer of wonderfulness. Even when it tries to humanize an artist as great as Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps I shouldn’t have seen this film after I saw the more engrossing Webjunkie.
At first, the underlying, overlying, infused praise of Studio Ghibli made it difficult for me to endure the first fifteen minutes. But after battling my desire to just drop the film entirely and watch something else, I ventured on. Even though it was obvious from the get-go that Filmmaker Mami Sunada was making a kind of eulogy for an animator who was considered one of Japan’s natural treasures. Even though I found the object of the film to be more exciting than the film itself. (Yes, I know this film is universally praised. It’s possible that I don’t know great art when I see it.)
The film recalls the creative, financial, and marketing phases behind the making of Miyazaki’s magnum opus, The Wind Rises, and Isao Takahata’s equally masterful The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Both animators (along with producer Toshio Suzuki) represent Studio Ghibli, but most of the film (and most of the assistant animators that are a part of Ghibli) are focused on Miyazaki and his film. Sad, I think. I would’ve wanted to get a more rounded view of the studio. Still, we get a fairly good behind-the-scenes look at Miyazaki. Which — considering the importance of such a subject — isn’t bad. I wouldn’t recommend this film to everyone. It’s slow-moving, a bit too meditative and too mundane in its direction and examination of mundane things. The narrator’s voice and the sleepy score doesn’t help matters. I had to struggle to keep my eyes open. If one isn’t a hard-core Studio Ghibli fan, it’s best to skip this.
I hadn’t intended to include this in my reviews but dang! After sitting through Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I needed something light and fast-moving. So, although this has absolutely nothing to do with my general review subject, I figure I’ll review it. Since it perked me up and raised my slowly-moving blood pressure after my journey to the kingdom of Ghibli.
Lou Garou — a sly wink there — is a town cop in small-town Woodhaven. Alcoholic, tardy, uninterested in his job, he’s not the best of cops. There’s a bit of a crime spree going on. “The Piggies” are masked robbers who are knocking off stores. There are also missing pets. Some folks think it’s the mythical Woodhaven beast. But, he hardly cares. There is also an election in full swing. Then, ya know, something happens.
Next thing you know, our cop is bonding with abused dogs, can sniff the perfume of women miles away, is unable to hold his liquor on moonlit nights, and is waking up (even with a shave) with a really powerful five-o-clock shadow.
At first, Lou is clueless about his transformation. Being an alcoholic isn’t exactly conducive to being aware of lupine transformations. But Willie Higgins, the town’s paranormal expert and resident conspiracy theorist, (who believes the cause of the pet disappearance is the work of devil worshipers), is ever alert. Willie is there to protect, tape, and show Lou what’s up. But let us not forget that Lou is also a cop. With a super-improved ability to sniff out the perpetrators of criminal activities. The leader of the Piggies will obviously not be pleased. But the Piggies are the least of Lou’s problems. Because things (and people) in this town are not what they seem to be.
Okay, I liked this movie. Sure it was cheesy as heck and there were a few moments there when I got a bit nauseated at certain elements but it’s a fun flick. (If I don’t ever see another human penis changing into an airy wolfman penis, it’ll be too soon.) The film feels like a super-hero origin story and the beginning of a future film franchise. And yes, there will be a Wolfcop 2. Hopefully, that will feature our hero fighting crime instead of all this shape-shifter/witch/werewolf town backstory and infighting. When it comes to the small screen, the more sexual scenes will probably be cut. So if you see it on TV rather than on Netflix, the kids might like it.
Happy creativity, All.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.