Sunday, September 18, 2011

From Within: Teen Suicide (Don't Do It)

Okay, so adolescence sucks. This is news to exactly nobody. It's a time of massive physical, social, and intellectual upheaval, when your body rebels against you, your mind is opened to entirely new ways of thinking about the world, and the people around you - some of whom you've known your entire life - take on new, strange meanings. Being a teenager in a small, tightly knit community is possibly even worse. You don't get to decide which secrets are yours to keep and which are community property. If you're the slightest bit different, people come down on you hard. The people who've known you your whole life have no intention of letting you become anyone else, for good or ill.

From Within isn't a movie about the horrors of adolescence, but it isn't not about them either. It's what happens when an already scary time finds new ways to be scary.

We open with a young couple - a boy and a girl - sitting on a pier at the edge of a lake. The boy reads something from a book, and then apologizes to the girl before blowing his own brains out. Getting things off to a bang, as it were. The girl, promptly and thoroughly traumatized, runs back to town, only to end up a short time later with a pair of scissors jammed into her neck by her own hand. It's a small town, a folksy, all-American town. A good, old-fashioned American town full of God-fearing Christians (except for those weirdos we don't talk about), shocked by two suicides so close together.

Among those upset are Lindsay and her friend Claire. They both go to the local high school and attend the local church like most everyone else in town (everyone except that one family with the house outside of town). Lindsay's a nice girl, she's sweet and friendly, and the pastor's son seems to have a thing for her. Still, Lindsay has her own problems - Mom's a drunk who clings to her faith as tightly as the bottle, and Mom's boyfriend Roy is an ex-con who shares Mom's devotion to the Lord but manages an aura of greasy creepiness to go along with it. Lindsay's sad, yes, but she's also got her hands full. It's tough enough to just be a kid in a small town without bringing down other people's grief on top of it. The town searches for answers, and of course there are rumors, rumors drawing on long-standing town grudges and unpleasant past events nobody wants to talk about. But that's typical for a small town - nobody ever forgets anything.

Then another girl is found dead, her wrists slashed with broken glass. A girl whose final minutes were spent running from an apparition who looked just like her. As if she were haunting herself.

On balance, From Within is a ghost story that makes as many smart choices as it does poor ones. The setting works - the whole town feels like it's balanced on the edge of an early fall evening, like Halloween is coming. The church is an omnipresent force, communicating a sense of constraint without falling into cultishness, and most (most) of the characters are nicely underplayed - I kept waiting for hysterics and melodrama and for the most part, they never came. Lindsay feels like an actual kid instead of some self-aware parody of adolescence. Even the inevitable "terrible secret" has some room to breathe and doesn't necessarily drive the action. There are moments of bitchy dark humor and it's nicely scary, with an ending that avoids sentimentality. On the other hand, some character progression and events feel rushed, throwing off the sort of rhythm absolutely necessary for a good ghost story. More to the point, the creators sacrificed an opportunity to tell a really good horror story about adolescence for a really easy horror story for adolescents.

Much of the action in this movie revolves around Lindsay's evolving friendship with Aiden - a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He's all broody and tormented and dark and shit. It was Aiden's little brother who killed himself at the beginning of the movie, and he gets his ass kicked at school because his family has weirdo non-Christian beliefs in a town where everyone goes to the same megachurch. So there's kind of this Romeo & Juliet (or, you know, Twilight) thing going on where the whole thing started as the inevitable next step in some feud and who cares. Take the broody pagans out of it (along with some of the worst dialogue in the script) and you could have a story about what happens when you grow up in a small town with the weight of everyone's expectations on you, and how that weight pushes children in the throes of adolescence into odd shapes, stunted by all of the growth they have to do and no room in which to do it. Some turn to drugs, some turn to casual sex, some turn to alcohol, some turn to weird clothes and music, why wouldn't some turn to messing with forces beyond their control?

The bones of the movie are there, the directorial instincts are generally good, but the obviousness is disappointing. This could have been a story about teenagers, with remote adults disconnected from everything until it's all far too late and people start dying. It could have been a story about how the upheaval of puberty makes it hard to tell when you're crossing a line, about the secrets we keep from our families, ourselves, and each other as we grow. Because at its worst, adolescence is practically a nightmare anyway - why not make it literal?

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Friday, September 2, 2011

Four Boxes: Bait And Switch

I'm not especially picky when it comes to the movies on which I'm willing to take a chance.  Some movies are going to be a pre-sold commodity for me because of the director or what I'm able to glean from a trailer. Then there's all the ones about which I know next to nothing - the Netflix Instant queue is great for these, because for every two or three direct-to-video hack jobs, there's one hidden gem. If I'm a little judicious, I don't run into too many stinkers - usually if the premise sounds interesting to me (not too hackneyed or hackneyed in a way I like) and it's got more than one or two stars, I'll give it a shot. At the very least, I'll run into something flawed with potential, or a good idea brought low by poor execution.

Four Boxes is none of these.

Part of the problem starts right out of the (hahaha) box. Here's the premise of the movie:

Trevor and Rob are enterprising young men who run an eBay business specializing in the liquidation of unclaimed estate property. They look for recent deaths in the obituary section and check to see whether or not the deceased has any next of kin. If not, they basically clean out the property and auction the person's possessions on eBay. Ghoulish? Yes. Sleazy? Kind of. Truth be told, one of the few successful things about this movie is how well it portrays the sheer awfulness of the kind of people who'd make a living doing this (the name of the business? "Go Time." So, you know, nice). Their most recent score is a bland McMansion in the middle of some unnamed suburban development. The previous occupant left behind what appeared to be a life of bleak desperation. No furniture to speak of, just mattresses and a lot of boxes and Tupperware bins containing all of his stuff.

Upon investigation, it emerges that there were some not-quite-right things about the previous occupant. He appeared to be suicidal, certainly depressed, mourning the loss of a wife who apparently hung herself in the basement. Photo albums full of defaced pictures, faced cut out or scratched through. Cryptic notes and codes. Odd collections of objects. Rob discovers that the tenant was following a mysterious website called "", ostensibly a voyeuristic webcam site where the original occupant (a hot girl) had moved out and not removed or switched off the webcams. As a result the current tenant was under surveillance without their knowledge. As it transpires, the new tenant is up to no good.

So, you've got two guys going through the personal effects of a deeply disturbed man who was obsessed with an equally disturbing website. On this basis, I was happy to say "okay, let's give it a shot."

But that's…the premise. The execution reads more like this:

Trevor and Rob are shiftless, obnoxious manchildren who speak in appropriated slang slathered with a layer of irony so thick that their voices practically come equipped with air quotes. They see their efforts to resell the property of dead people as a way to get rich, something they can eventually franchise. They are stunted in their lives and relationships, incapable of honest communication. Trevor is slightly more mature, but this just means that he's more sleazy than anything else, and Rob is, in many ways, infantile. Think of Dante and Randal from Clerks with absolutely no charm or redeeming qualities. These, ladies and gentlemen, are our heroes. Their arrival at the house is followed by a desultory examination of the deceased's effects, complete with contemptuous mockery of the man's life and how he must have arrived at the end of his rope. They toss keepsakes and mementoes around, parodying the grief he must have felt.

Into this modern exercise in grave desecration steps Amber, Rob's fiancée (and Trevor's ex-girlfriend). She's equally as horrible as they are, just as prone to completely empty, inauthentic conversation, punctuated with terrible songs played on an acoustic guitar. These three are our protagonists, and they are so disconnected from any sort of empathy as to border on the autistic. Thirty minutes into the movie, I looked at my wife and said "I cannot wait for these people to die." So yeah, it's going to be very difficult to identify with these three. They're as empty and soulless as the suburban sprawl outside their window.

The titular website is equally inert. We're supposed to be watching somebody engaging in scary, dangerous behavior remotely, but it's almost impossible to make out anything on the webcam footage. Everything has been treated with what appears to be a heavy posterization filter, so we get still-frame sequences of muddy color to which the protagonists react with, well, mild interest. The surveilled occupant appears to be a man who walks around his apartment in a gas mask with a towel over his head like a hood. Rob calls him "Havoc." Why? Who the fuck cares? 

Nobody comments on Havoc's strange getup, and there's never really any progressive sense of danger from the website. Every now and then one of the characters looks at it, registers that they're looking at it, maybe invites over one of the others to look at it, and that's pretty much it. Even in the house of a disturbed dead man, watching footage of someone who might be a killer over the Internet, they're more occupied with themselves than anything or anyone else. They come up with cute names for the people they see on the camera footage, and when Amber points out that maybe they should call the police because it looks like Havoc has imprisoned someone, Rob scoffs, saying that nothing on the Internet is real, and even if it is, it's someone else's job to do that. The incident is soon forgotten. 

This is pretty much all the movie is, until close to the end. Inert sequences of three awful people sitting around talking about nothing in the most annoying way possible, and reacting to a possible real-world atrocity like they would an embarrassing video on YouTube. There's nothing scary about Havoc or his potential plans - there's some nonsense about him being a terrorist, building bombs to put in people's tailpipes, and he apparently kills people with a leaf blower, but that's about it. The closest thing the movie has to a climax is preemptively negated by a plot reveal that is probably supposed to shock the viewer, but doesn't because it's just as detached and hackneyed as the original story, making some kind of heavy-handed point at best, and at worst coming off as something the creators did because they had the attention span of a crack-addicted squirrel. This twist is upended yet again, but by that point there's absolutely no reason to care, and all of the arty match cuts and slow dissolves in the world won't give the ending impact. Somebody either thought they were being artistic, or maybe just "artistic", as an ironic comment on artistry in the age of webcams and YouTube.

And out of everything about this movie, I think that's probably the worst part - it refuses to commit to its premise, almost as if that level of sincerity is a bad thing, as worthy of derision as the sad testament to a sick man's last days. It sabotages its own story at every turn, by giving us nobody to care about, by refusing the buildup of any tension or sense of fear, by throwing in twists which not only negate everything that came before, but seem almost contemptuous of the audience, revealing the fraud of the filmmaking process (oh yeah, I get it - what we SEE isn't always what IS, wow, that's "deep", man…) and letting the entire enterpise slowly collapse like a balloon losing air. We're told that we're going to get a story, and what we get instead is the message that wanting a story or expecting to feel something in response to what we're watching is for losers, and this movie doesn't earn that. It's a trite, self-indulgent, piece of shit.