Dark Days, and a few other movies


Dark Days (2000) 

Under the streets of Manhattan, a town's worth of people live makeshift lives in the holes, alcoves, and blank space abutting an old but still in-use Amtrak tunnel. It's a world of brick and darkness, rats and rubbish and drugs, but it's home for the homeless.

They've tapped into the city's water and electricity, built sheds and shacks of sheet metal and plywood and sweat, and made themselves into a community, with friendships you'd almost call family.

Some of these illegal residents are drug addicts. Some are unbalanced. Some are simply hermits. All are unable to afford life on the surface, and even if they could snag a bed in a homeless shelter, they couldn't stand the rules of living there (which, in addition to other indignities, usually involve a low-limit on the number of nights you can stay).

So they live under the rest of the city, rising up through stairs and ladders to go to their day jobs, or to scavenge or panhandle, and then coming home again. It's kinda like your life or mine, until the next Amtrak passes four feet from where you're sitting on someone's discarded sofa.

The stories these people tell to the camera are fascinating, and some are tragic. This man, who looks like a boy, ran away from his abusive parents maybe a few months ago. This lady's two children both died in a house fire, while she was in jail for using crack.

It ain't delightful. It's life.

Your reaction to this documentary depends on your reaction to homelessness. Lots of people simply say, "Ick," and for them this will be a horror film, more terrifying than Wes Craven's best. But if you see the homeless as people in a tough situation, the film is exhilarating, a study of somehow surviving no matter the odds. The cliché is, "a triumph of the human spirit."

Dark Days was made by documentarian Marc Singer, who, Google tells me, became so enthralled with the subject that he lived among these folks for two years, while filming. The undergrounders became his crew, listed in the credits by their first names or nicknames only — Ralph, Tommy, Tito, "The Twins," etc.

Toward the end of the film, word under the street is that the authorities above have learned that their community exists (and perhaps also that a movie is being made), so of course the cops will be coming to wipe everything away. Why? You'd have to ask America, but I didn't see any damage these people had caused, any reason to force them out.

One wonders, after the sweeps, where did the people who lived underground go? We've gotten to know them well enough that you'll want to believe most of them found new, perhaps more obscure cracks and crevices in which to live their lives, or they came back to the Amtrak tunnel once the hubbub had calmed.

In documentaries, my preference is for complete reality. Staging re-enactments is a cheat (there are none in Dark Days), and I'm not even wild about having music in a documentary — it cues the viewer's emotional response. No, I'm an absolute absolutist: In a film about facts, just give the facts and only the facts.

Had to say that as a preface, before mentioning that the movie does have music, and damn, the music is great — haunting and tough, dark as the underground, and oddly somewhat surf-inspired, which ought to be all wrong but is exactly right. The score is credited to DJ Shadow, an unknown to me but something of an icon in in NYC, per Google again. 

Dark Days is beautiful, fascinating, and one of the finest documentaries, period.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Bamboozled (2000)

Spike Lee presents black people in blackface, doing minstrel shows on nationwide television. Betcha didn't see that coming. Bamboozled piles such offensiveness all over the screen, and you're an ass if you're not uncomfortable watching it.

A TV network tries to broaden its audience and ramp up its ratings with a new show featuring black people playing caricatures of black people. And Americans tune in and love it, an all-black variety show, set in a watermelon patch. 

Lee's message comes through clearly, overpoweringly. It's gotta be the bluntest mainstream movie ever made tackling racism. And who am I, a white guy in a recliner, to question Lee's tactics?

It would help, though, in a satire, if there were at least a few laughs. I never chuckled, never even smiled. Funny guy Damon Wayans stars, so you're expecting a sense of humor, but almost all the jokes fall flat, intentionally. That's the point, see, that racist tropes aren't funny. Even the few lines that might be trying for laughs don't get any, so don't call this a comedy.

At the end, there's an excruciating montage of racist imagery from old movies, which more effectively makes Lee's point than the rest of the film has.

Overall, I'd say Bamboozled is unwelcoming, prickly, difficult, but worth the work of watching it. It's better in small doses, though. I watched it as a mini-series, 15-20 minutes at a time over several nights. Sitting through it in one sitting, even in this comfy recliner, would be asking too much.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Elysium (2013)

"In the late 21st century, Earth was diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated. Earth's wealthiest inhabitants fled the planet to preserve their way of life."

So the billionaires, millionaires, and thousandaires have slithered away to live on a space station, called Elysium, and the rest of us are stuck on Earth. Only citizens of Elysium get health care, but Earthers don't qualify for citizenship, and immigration to Elysium is not allowed.

Manly and muscular Matt Damon plays an Earther of no means, an ex-con named Max, hassled by robotic brutal cops and an android parole officer. He's a manual laborer at a big corporation, where his prickish boss orders him to clean out a radioactivity chamber and then forgets he's there.

When the juice comes on, Max gets plenty more than the maximum radiation. Now he has only a few days to live, and they'll be miserable days, but — it's a movie, so Max's hacker buddy 'Spider' sets him up with a flimsy-looking exoskeleton and a back-room surgery, and after that Max becomes an action hero.

This is writer-director Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9, and it's big, expensive, loud, and fun. Mostly the movie is action, with very realistic visuals of things you'll hope are never real.

There's a message here, but it's nothing more complex than, "People should be treated better than this," which goes without saying unless you're a Republican. 

The movie's ruined Earth seems awful, but it's more pleasant than the ruined future that climate change has already begun delivering.

(End of snark, back to the review.)

Jodie Foster takes on a South African accent in a supporting role, and she's great, but c'mon — if you've got Foster, she should've been plugged into a bigger part. No complaints about the cast, but Foster would've been better than any of them in the bigger roles, right up to and including Damon.

It might've been a mistake on Blomkamp's part to follow District 9 with another dystopian sci-fi. All the specifics are different here, but the vibe is so familiar it feels like a sequel, or a rerun. Still, Elysium is better-than-good for a big-money flick.

"Now, if you will excuse me, I have to not speak to people any longer. Thank you."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

• Coming attractions •

Animal House (1978)

Brain Donors (1992)

Edge of Fury (1978)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Labirynt (1963)

The Thing from Another World (1951)

    • And then •

American Revolution 2 (1969)

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

Caged Men: Tales from Chicago's SRO Hotels (2017) 

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Delicatessen (1991)

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

District 9 (2009)

Eight Characters in Search of a Sitcom (2003)

The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980)

Following (1998) 

Freaked (1993)

Go West (1925)

Go West (1940)

High-Rise (2016)

Hit! (1973)

Inherent Vice (2014) 

The Invisible Man (1933)

Jurassic Punk (2022)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

My Life in Monsters (2015) 

Naked (1993)

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (first season, 2022)

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)

Tunnel Vision (2023) 

12:01 (1993) 

Upstream Color (2013) 

White Lotus (first season, 2021) 

Who Killed Captain Alex (2010)    


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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1 comment:

  1. Dark Days this weekend I hope, it sounds ecxelent.

    Elysium disappointed me when I saw it. The first third was great but along the way it putters out and turned into a formula.

    Thank you for the reviews.


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