Before I get into reviews, I just would like to note that we've crossed the halfway mark of SIFF, and most of the complaints I had last year have been resolved. Specifically, you don't have to sit through what feels like a two-hour pledge drive to get to the movie. The pre-movie experience feels streamlined and enjoyable now. I think SIFF should get some recognition for that. So: Good job, SIFF!
I know that a three-hour documentary about the relationship of technology to our self-image as a species is the hardest of hard sells, but All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is absolutely worth your time. Adam Curtis's latest documentary—it aired in three parts on BBC—covers a whole lot of ground. The first part examines how Ayn Rand gave birth to the weird libertarian streak of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and it also serves as a scathing indictment of Bill Clinton as the unwitting father of the 2008 economic collapse. The second part examines the problem with viewing the world as a computer program, tackling the birth of ecology, the problem with our understanding of ecosystems, and why this faulty logic leads to serious problems in the real world. The third part is about the concept of the selfish gene and its relationship to colonialism in Africa.
This movie feels like sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal. It's packed with asides and concepts and digressions —about internet commenting, about fistulas in bison, about whether some suicides are more valiant than others—that would themselves make worthy subjects of their own documentaries. Watching all three episodes at once isn't the ideal viewing experience. I'd rather see them one evening at a time, and savor them as they come, but since several of Curtis's documentaries aren't available on DVD in the United States, you take what you can get.
At times, Machines can be too ambitious. The third chapter closes with a too-pat, unearned declaration that the glory days of human ambition are over, which is the same kind of good-old-days bloviating that Curtis gleefully attacks in other moments in the documentary. Unfortunately, it's the last moment of Machines, and it leaves you feeling slightly unfulfilled. But in a way, that's the greatest trick of them all—at the end of three hours, you're sitting there in the theater with the lights up, wondering to yourself, "Is that it?" (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace screens tonight at the Harvard Exit at 7 pm.)
How you feel about V/H/S hinges on three things: How you feel about horror movies, how you feel about found-footage, and how you feel about anthology films.
The framing story—a group of scofflaw youths invade a home in search of a valuable videotape—is pretty much standard framing story fare: A man in a room with a dead body and a stack of videotapes keeps shoving tapes into a VCR in search of the one he and his friends are looking for. Each of the tapes is a short found footage horror movie featuring young people who get into trouble and then die.
A few of the movies are terrible. Some of them are decent. None of them are exceptional. The worst, about a killer in the woods, features terrible acting—seriously, this is student-film level performance, here—but also shows off a great, scary special effect of a man who can't be recorded and comes across on tape like a walking smudge of static. The best one, about some men who happen into a ceremonial killing in a genuinely scary haunted house, ends too quickly. The rest all have some major flaw in logic or follow-through, though each one has something to recommend it.
In short, as I said: It's an anthology horror movie. If you like anthology movies because you feel like you get more bang for your buck, this could be just the thing for you. If you're the sort of person who freaks out at onscreen violence, you should stay far away. (V/H/S screens tonight at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown at 9:30.)