Rubber

[Screenshot]I thought a movie about a sentient tire going around killing people was a pretty oddball premise, and one that had some promise. I got a rather stranger movie than I expected. I’m not even sure whether it’s supposed to be about the tire or the people watching the tire, and the central horror-element plot ends up as a sidelight to a strange but internally self-consistent set of rules governing observers and actors.

All in all, Rubber is one odd duck of a film. It is more than it might seem but also less than the sum of its parts, and the overall effect is of an intriguing experiment which is something of a stew of not-entirely-cohesive ideas. The whole is mostly clever, teetering on the edge of self-indulgence and only rarely falling on the wrong side, but whether it actually ends up “good” in spite of its flaws is a trickier question. Unmistakably it’s doing something different, and throws out some spoofing of the horror genre with a liberal larding of extradiegesis games and a quasi-Dadaist philosophy. Certainly a lot of the actual individual elements have been done before, and the whole is a splattery ball of unblended bits, but there’s a scale between “individual conceits” and “the whole film” at which a lot of the elements seem pretty imaginative and well-done.

On actual technical issues this movie doesn’t exactly shine, and “low-budget” seems to be the phrase of the day. I’m sure there’s some neat trickery involved in making the tire move around, some of which, I assume involves just plain rolling it in from off-camera, but the sets are pretty bare and the acting honestly fairly wooden most of the time — although a good half of the cast has the excuse, perhaps, that their acting is supposed to be terrible.

On balance, it’s mostly worth the watching. It’s not heinously long, it’s occasionally funny, and at its high points it’s actually rather interesting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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Hocus Pocus, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut may not be a writer so much as a collection of narrative tics. In many of his works, his compulsions mesh to form something actually enjoyable to read. Hocus Pocus is one of his later works, and unfortunately is not as enjoyable as his better books. Many of his stories don’t have plot, but they do have a certain narrative intensity which keeps the reader invested; I didn’t really get that at all here; there was a disjointedness which made the story hard to actually maintain interest in. In some ways this story seems consciously imitative of many of Vonnegut’s less well-regarded works: it has the disjointed and fragmented narrative style of Slapstick, the obsession with genetic disorders of Galapagos, the amorphous socialism of Jailbird. It would be tempting to accuse Vonnegut of self-indulgence, and indeed this book is more than a little self-indulgent, but it doesn’t commit the sin I’d reasonably expect. Vonnegut’s always pretended to a certain shared-world continuity, and I half-expected to be bludgeoned with references to Kilgore Trout and Rabo Karabekian and the Rosewater Act and suchlike. But this wasn’t all that injokey; the only winks and nudges I saw were reference to Tralfamadore and the novelist Paul Slazinger. Nonetheless in spite of not falling into this trap, it wasn’t actually a very good novel. It’s all the structure of a Vonnegut novel with very little of the actual wry humor and soul of his better work, which makes it a bit of a grim slog.

See also: Wikipedia

Plagues & Peasures on the Salton Sea

[Screenshot]The Salton Sea is one weird place. I never went there in the 5 years I lived in San Diego, and in fact had only a hazy idea of what it even was. It’s hard to know what to make of the place: it’s both tragic and funny. The predicted real estate boom that never actually came meant that it was a cluster of intricately planned streets and lots (the weirdness from an urban-planning standpoint comes through on Google Maps), almost none of which ever saw development. The recipes for a fascinating story are all here: an overdeveloped community on the banks of what was once thought would be a new Riviera, now one of the world’s major ecological disasters, periodically vomiting enormous quantities of dead fish and birds onto the shores. And, most important for the story, the exceedingly strange people who still live in this hellhole.

Plagues and Pleasures manages to not screw up this tailor-made story. It gives enough background to explain the particularly colorful aspects of its history, and presents a light touch in interviewing residents. Living on the banks of the Salton Sea definitely attracts an odd group, and their stories are played for a certain amount of absurdity, but nonetheless they’re presented sympathetically, avoiding veering into either pity or mockery, which are two pretty easy attitudes to take.

It’s a really odd part of the world. On a large scale it’s obviously a tragedy: there’s basically no mitigation which will turn it into anything but an extraordinary ecological crisis waiting to happen (or indeed going on now — it’s the primary resting point for migrating birds in coastal California, and it kills most of them). But on a small scale, seeing a fisherman relax on the edge of a shore covered with rusty benches and lounges (quoth the Park Service: “they should not be eating those fish. Those fish will kill them.”) you can’t help but laugh a little at the absurdity. It this sounds as fascinating to you as it is to me, you’ll not regret watching this one.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Military Intelligence and You

[Screenshot]This one is probably the result of some drunken bet between filmmakers. Someone probably dared Dale Kutzera to make a movie out of nothing but military training and informational films, and the idea got so embedded in his head that there was nothing to do but to make the damn thing.

It’s not made entirely from recycled footage (that would be a feat); but it’s certainly got a lot of it, enough so to give Ronald Reagan a nonvocal starring role, a neat trick two years after his death. The few original war-room scenes and the voiceover actually manages to lend a plot to a series of scenes which never had one before, which is neat in a gimmicky sort of way. The plot is nothing special, but you have to work with the material you have, which is an awful lot of video of moving tanklines, flying planes, tearful farewells at train stations, and so forth.

As for the original material, it’s sort of hit-or-miss. The screwball comedy works for about half an hour and starts to get stale. The film relies on a lot of deadpan snark (or in the case of the narrator, perky snark), and you can only sustain a comic effect with that for so long.

Kudos to Kutzera for pulling this off in a way that worked and getting it out of his head though. Maybe his next gimmick will be less limiting and allow the original sections to be interesting.

See also: IMDB.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

[Screenshot]I was first introduced to this film by accidentally catching the last 15 or so minutes on cable in a hotel some bored evening. The last fifteen minutes bear no particular resemblance to the rest of the film, but they’re definitely curiosity-inducing.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is unmistakably a cult film. It’s nonsensical and largely random. It has gratuitous sex and drugs and violence. It has a director whose career has constantly teetered on the edge of over-the-line. It has a random trivia fact to draw your eye (Roger Ebert, not notable as an actual creator of film, wrote the script).

It is, for all that, actually moderately effective, in its savage way. It’s never clear what if anything they want you to take seriously, but it oscillates between the absurd and the soberingly chilling in an actually surprisingly effective way. The film twists around so much that I’d hate to divulge any of its peculiar developments, but if you like your cinema ultraquirky and aren’t squicked out by depravity, BVD is worth a look.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

片腕マシンガール/The Machine Girl

The Machine Girl is an insane, stupid, and surprisingly enjoyable film. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure, not unlike Battle Royale. You probably already know if you’ll like this one or not. There’s one definitely odd part of its craft: pretty much everyone expects Ami to lose her arm, assuming they saw the trailer. There’s a scene early in the film where her arm is subjected to the kind of injury which one could reasonably expect to make it completely useless (there’s a one-word spoiler for this one). But instead she uses it effectively for about 20 minutes more before getting it chopped off.

Anyways, this is gonzo crazy weird. There’s the eponymous machine girl. There’s a self-styled Grief Brigade, whose mourning gives them superhuman powers. There’s a woman with drills for breasts, which means this film gets shelved alongside Meatball Machine and Tenga Teppa Gurren Lagaan under “Drills, unhealthy Japanese fascination with, Evidence of”.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.