Qwikster Movie Reviews – Berberian Sound Studio, Man of Tai Chi, VHS, Cutie and the Boxer, The Return
Ever heard of Qwikster? Qwikster died before it ever truly lived. It was an errant idea from Netflix, who in the throes of spring cleaning passion wanted to cleave off its aging DVD division and make a clean break into the streaming frontier. It was hugely unpopular, prompting mass cancellations and bombing Netflix’s stock. It was probably also prescient; using physical mail is increasingly quaint and streaming media has become a way of life. The biggest lesson we can learn is that timing is important. Well, the same can be said for movie criticism. Often the biggest splash is made by reviewing films immediately upon release, although paradoxically it’s easiest to watch and discuss films at your leisure when they show up on a streaming service. Well just like Mr. Hastings, I’m willing to risk the Synthetic Error market cap on a bold move – reviewing old films. This segment is for brief reviews of films that are available on a streaming service.
Berberian Sound Studio
Director – Peter Strickland
A strange moody investigation on the power of aural suggestion, this film takes place almost entirely in a single room in an Italian sound studio working on a 70’s horror film, which may or may not involve horses. Toby Jones plays a somewhat hapless British sound engineer brought in as a specialist to help finish the foley work on the already shot slasher. Any fan of horror knows that sound makes the medium; watching a terrifying scene on mute reduces it to a mewling kitten. Berberian Sound Studio explores the opposite side of the equation, what if you had scary sounds but no visual cue? Peter Strickland uses the film as a playground to explore all of the ways sound influences us, using crunching leaves to recall home and chopping melons to simulate co-ed butchery. Then he offers us a piece of the slaughtered melon. If we eat it, are we in on the act? Strickland doesn’t seem interested in adhering to formal filmmaking. Unfortunately in the end, perhaps necessarily, we never do see much happen.
Man of Tai Chi
Director – Keanu Reeves
After perhaps too many years of denying his martial arts inspired cult status, Keanu Reeves has jumped back into the action movie world with both feet forward. Reeves plays the hulking, death match loving billionaire antagonist to Tiger Chen Li Hu’s diminutive do-gooder. Man of Tai Chi sticks close to the reluctant warrior genre conventions seen in films like Ong Bok, but to its credit wastes almost no time on the hero’s journey and plays to its strengths instead. There’s a temple to save and inner demons to face but mostly there are matches to win through pugilism and displays of sheer athleticism. The film is well shot, giving the action choreography nice spacing and continuity. Another nice touch is the clear delineation of martial art styles. Tiger Chen will fight practitioners of karate, tae kwon do and so on with his own soft then hard counter style and each fighter clearly stands out. In the end Reeve’s evil machinations don’t amount to much and the hero’s journey barely slides across home plate before unraveling, but with this kind of movie the part that stays with you is that one time that guy beat up those two other guys at once.
Director: Various including Ti West and Adam Wingard
The horror film anthology VHS refers to something that its target audience probably has never seen in person before. However, after a convoluted setup magnetic tape ceases to matter, as the various shorts that make up this film all use the cutting edge tech and narrative tricks that found footage horror has developed during its 15 years of existence, justifying wearable cameras or steady frames with brief 2013 appropriate contextual excuses. Each of the 4 horror shorts that make up VHS spend significant time establishing normalcy in the settings and characters before they tear everything apart. Ti West’s short, a trust based thriller, spends almost its entire run only hinting at dread before turning on a dime with the shocker. This is cynical genre horror to the core; flesh is exposed and, regardless of whether warnings are heeded, blood is let. Powerlessness is so pervasive that the prevailing theme of the collection may as well be lack of autonomy. Besides that, the subjects are generally varied (if a little rote) and some of the shorts double down on the concept (and effects budget). Still, the best short is the cleverest, a Skype conversation based interlude that doesn’t require much in the way of flash but builds a disturbing image in your mind. The rest of the shorts are mostly filled with appropriate sacrifices, dumb suburbanites with little in the way of interesting conversation who may or may not be generic enough for you to identify with before they become roadkill.
Cutie and the Boxer
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Perhaps equal to the difficulty of creating art is the act of living with artists. To achieve even middling success, most artists need to be willing to sacrifice financial and emotional stability, to the detriment of anyone in their fallout zone. This documentary traces the relationship between the temperamental and macho Boxer (Ushio Shinohara), famous for his motorcycle art and for paintings made by punching a canvas, and the slightly diminutive Cutie (Noriko), an art student who became enraptured with the bohemian life in her 20’s but now must make the day to day work in her 60’s. Though partially biopic, mostly the film just spends time with the two of them, observing how the years have both created and dissipated tensions between them. Although they dance around but never state the idea that perhaps their relationship has limited them in one form or another, it also becomes clear that Cutie and the Boxer have perhaps grown in ways they couldn’t have without leaning on each other.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s freshman feature is a Russian story similar to the morose tales about the death of suburbia which accounted for much of American indie cinema at the end of the 90’s. Though it shares its DNA with those emotive films, The Return distinguishes itself by remaining cryptic. A father returns home after a decade away but his two boys, on the cusp of adolescence, see only a stranger at first. Cautiously observing and imitating, the boys have trouble warming to this new authoritarian figure. Rolling around the Russian backcountry with him, the boys must decide what to make of this man who is equal parts paternal and brutish, all the while drifting on some errand of unknown import. Eventually the film decides to saddle it’s motifs with an emotional weight it can’t quite bare, but until then it’s an interesting portrait of how the brothers grapple with a father who they never knew they needed.
Originally published on Synthetic Error March 10, 2015
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