Sunday, March 25, 2012

Antarctic Journal: Getting Away From It All

Some movies keep you guessing. Is what's happening actually happening? Are the protagonists crazy? Is it ghosts? Is it isolation? I don't necessarily mean the "it's really happening but everyone else think's you're crazy" conceit - that can be done well, or done like it is in pretty much every slasher movie ever.

(One of the redeeming features of Halloween IV for me was that when Dr. Loomis came into town and was all "holy shit Michael Myers is free and headed this way," the local constabulary didn't laugh him off and call him a crazy old man, they set up roadblocks and a curfew and locked Haddonfield the fuck down. For all the good it did, sure, but it's nice seeing the protagonist taken seriously.)

The Blair Witch Project is a good example of this conceit - what we're watching could be three college kids being tormented by the spirit of a long-dead witch, or it could be the slow mental disintegration of three college kids who are thoroughly lost in the woods and completely unequipped for finding their way out.  It's usually better to hold off as long as possible before committing to one solution or the other. If you can hold off completely and leave people guessing after they've finished the movie? Even better. It can be rewarding during (or after) the movie to be sure of one explanation, only to recall or notice some clue or small detail that unravels that particular explanation.

Antarctic Journal makes it a tough call for most of the movie, and by the end it's almost irrelevant anyway. I just wish it didn't take its sweet time getting there.

Six men are pushing their way across an endless white plain - just them and sledges carrying all of their equipment. They're a South Korean expedition to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility - the point in the Antarctic that is furthest from any coastline. The leader of the expedition is practically a national hero - sort of the Korean equivalent of Sir Edmund Hillary, and he wants to be the first since the Soviets to reach the pole. (In real life, it's been reached more than twice, but for the time in which the movie is set, that could very well not be the case.) Four of the guys are new and are pretty much in awe of the leader. One guy has gone out with the leader before and knows him a little better. They're getting along about as well as you can expect six guys living in close quarters in some of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth to get along. They've got a communications radio link to their base camp, and an emergency beacon in case they end up in serious danger. They've got scant weeks to get there and back before the sun sets in the Antarctic, plunging the whole area into dangerous cold and utter darkness for six months straight.

Now, if this were an uneventful expedition to the remotest parts of the Antarctic, I would not be writing about it, because it would be a documentary on National Geographic.  Instead, the expedition comes to an interruption in the endless white - a tattered black flag, planted into the ground. It's a marker for a diary from a British expedition who attempted the same journey about eighty years before. The diary is damaged, but still pretty readable, and though it starts off innocuously enough, things get weirder and weirder the further into the diary they read. The team is following in the near century-old footsteps of the last expedition, following them into a freezing white void, and the leader's starting to act a little…off.

Antarctic Journal is, in every sense of the word, glacial. The men are remote - distanced from each other and in some cases themselves. The team are little smears of color on a vast field of white. It's a movie about the derangement of emptiness, told mostly in space and silence. It is as slow and deliberate as they come, with a pace that takes minutes between beats. Nothing happens suddenly or violently out here. The further these men press on into the interior, the less anything makes sense. Time and space begin to break down. They are following the footsteps of those who went before, have always followed those footsteps, will always follow those footsteps. And still the leader wants to press on. These men aren't going to snap, they are going to erode. This feeling of emptiness and slow disintegration extends to an ending, of which there seem to be about three. Which is unfortunate, because by the time you get to the conclusion, you are as exhausted and tense and worried as you should be, and having it drag out even further takes you out of it. Details get lost, things that should have an impact don't. You want it to be over, but for all the wrong reasons. Until then, though, it's a death march into the abyss - a journey into the heart of darkness, under the midnight sun.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Outcast: Show, Don't Tell, But Don't Show Too Much Either

Monster movies are a tough proposition these days. Unless you're talking about a slight variation on the human form (vampires and zombies, of which enough already Jesus no more), doing a really good monster means creating something out of whole cloth, out of practical and/or digital effects. Which isn't impossible, but it requires a pretty decent amount of money most of the time - the kind of money most horror movies don't have to throw around. As much as I love the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's take on The Call of Cthulhu, I would love even more to see it made with WETA-level resources behind it. Making smaller monster movies requires being clever and inventive and doing less with more. This is because the effectiveness of a monster movie can live or die on the quality of the monster.

You can't not show the monster - as Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, at some point you have to put on the mask and go ooga-booga. The problem is what happens when you show the monster. I think we've largely lost our ability to suspend disbelief as a result of better and better effects work. Artifice is easier to spot, and more likely to take us out of the movie as the result. I also think there's a cultural unwillingness to really buy into stories anymore, so the likelihood that we're going to be looking for artifice is pretty high anyway. We're more likely to see the zipper on the back of the suit, and that zipper's going to undo a lot of whatever narrative goodwill a movie had gotten from us up to that point.

This is why I ended up being disappointed by Outcast. It's a movie that does so much right for most of the movie, before dropping the ball at the end. At its best, it's a nicely underplayed story of the uneasy tension between the modern world and one much, much older. Unfortunately, the story dictates that at some point a monster will have to show itself, and along with the narrative choices surrounding it, that tension is lost.

Outcast opens without a lot of exposition - we see two sets of characters going about their business, and it's apparent pretty early on that the movie is going to be about what happens when these two groups of people finally meet. Liam and Cathal have some business in a Traveller camp somewhere in Ireland. Negotiations are made, permissions are asked, ending with a series of symbols tattooed onto Cathal's back using the old tapping method. No motorized guns here, this is an ancient method, used to write ancient symbols for an ancient purpose.

Mary and Fergal have just moved into a run-down housing estate in Scotland. Fergal doesn't seem like he gets out much - he's shy and awkward around people. Mary doesn't like him spending too much time away from the house or making friends. She really doesn't like the idea of him meeting girls. They discard their van in a field next to an abandoned factory. Mary sets it on fire, and through the smoke, she tells Fergal that this is the end of the road.

They go back to their apartment, and Mary paints a series of runes on the wall in her own blood.

This movie is about inevitability, basically. Mary and Fergal have stopped running, and Liam and Cathal are coming for them. Once they arrive in Scotland, Liam and Cathal begin performing rituals, small sacrifices. They are trying to find Mary and Fergal, who have managed to neatly vanish from the sight of most people. The rest of the movie is about what happens as both groups move toward each other, and as Fergal does what all young men do, and takes up with another despite his mother's objections. And people are starting to disappear from around the housing estate.

For most of its running time, Outcast is a nicely underplayed story of people who move in the shadows of the modern world, people who follow ancient, secret ways in the middle of modern ideas of progress. These aren't the witches and wizards of Hogwarts, consorting with Muggles, these are people like you and me, who just happen to know how to curse others, how to melt into shadows, and how to make the dead speak. So in that sense, they are completely unlike us. Nobody ever sets out the rules for the viewers, we are spies observing the conversations of others, and it's our job to figure out exactly what it is they're saying. As we piece it together, we realize exactly what these people are and why others are starting to go missing. I like movies that make you think and pay attention - that show you things and let you become scared by their implications, rather than movies that show you things and tell you that you should be scared because these things are scary, if that makes any sense.

If that's all this movie were, it'd be great. But these people are going to collide over the fate of the beast that's killing people in the estate, and that means we need to see the beast eventually. It's not bad, necessarily, but the longer it's on camera the harder it becomes to take it wholly seriously. And it's pretty much on camera non-stop for the whole climax of the movie. There's also additional exposition that we probably don't need, and to the extent that the story is about the beast, a lot of the plot and narrative choices felt obvious to me, even in places where they had enough ambiguity to play with our expectations a bit. For most of the film, there's little clear sense of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are - motives are complicated and none of these people are ones you'd want to cross. Their story is compelling, the beast's is less so. In the end, what happens is exactly what you think is going to happen, and I think that does a disservice to what came before.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fun With Google 6

srpski film sas porno

Do not want to meet this person.

google4 little girls

REALLY do not want to meet this person.

how is the virus pantypool

Pretty sure the porn remake of Pontypool will be called Pantypool. I would not be opposed to this.

Snowtown: Evil, Unblinking

It's my opinion that 95% of all movies about serial killers suck. Mostly, it's because of the tension between their depiction and the reality. Vampires, zombies, and ghosts aren't real, so whatever you want to do with them you can, no matter how cartoonish or stupid. But serial killers are a real and terrible thing, and I think that turning them into criminal masterminds who commit complex themed murders is turning them into another type of movie monster. Which is tremendously disrespectful to people who have been affected in one way or another by a very real-life, non-fictional horror, and it also makes for hackneyed, formulaic movies. If you're going to make a movie about serial killings, that movie should come as close to the ugly, squalid truth as possible. The reality is so much worse than any fiction, even if it isn't as sensational. Serial killer movies shouldn't thrill and entertain you, they should upset and unsettle you.

Snowtown (being released in America as The Snowtown Murders)  is a retelling of the real-life case of the Snowtown Murders, a series of killings in southern Australia over the better part of the 1990s. No bizarre clues, no themes, no elaborate staging of crime scenes. Just six industrial barrels filled with the remains of eight people, stored in the vault of a former bank building in small-town Australia. Everyone implicated is either dead or in prison for a very long time. So the story isn't really a mystery - people die, and the killers are caught. In this case, the movie isn't so much about the destination as the journey. How do things play out? Why did this happen? The inevitable carries with it its own sense of dread.

The movie is mostly focused on Jamie, who lives in a bleak, run-down section of suburban Adelaide with three of his four brothers/half-brothers/stepbrothers and his struggling mother. It's a drab, aimless, joyless life, stretches of time staring at video games alternated with bicycle rides to nowhere. A grim picture painted in browns, beiges, and grays. Mom meets a new man, and he's a pretty nice guy - friendly, good with the kids. He takes a liking to Jamie, and the two of them start hanging out. He's a father figure to Jamie and his younger brothers. The longer he's with Jamie's mom, though, the weirder things start getting. He's pretty strict, hates homosexuals, and enjoys defacing the house of a local sex offender with the dismembered remains of kangaroos. And then there's the shed out back. And then people in their circle of friends start disappearing.

Like I said, it's not so much about what the story is, since Wikipedia and most true-crime sites will tell you that much, but how the story is told, and Snowtown tells the story of these killings from Jamie's perspective very, very well. It's shot beautifully, even when the scenery is ugly. People are dwarfed by their surroundings, the world presses in on them. The sky is often both gray and bright at the same time, something flat and harsh, and clouds loom over everything. The narrative is fragmented, taking us out of time to someplace where days just sort of go by. Things happen, then nothing happens, then more things happen, and eventually the not-happening is as thick with dread as the happening because you know something is going to happen. Violence in this world is both brutal and as casual and matter-of-fact as anything else, an eruption into an otherwise ordinary day, out of nowhere, signifying nothing. Nothing and nowhere is safe, the movie tells us. Horror comes from anyone and anywhere.

Most of it is told in terms of aftermath - with one utterly horrifying exception, the killings pretty much take place off-screen. A scene opens on a bloodstained bathtub, and we know. An answering machine message plays over an otherwise innocuous scene, someone telling their parents they're going on vacation or moving away, and we know. Full garbage bags are loaded into a car, and we know. This isn't a movie concerned with sensationalism, because actual serial killing isn't sensational. It's cold, ugly, and mundane. Scenes of quiet domesticity lie side by side with episodes of physical and sexual abuse, conversations, disappearances, a slow spiral to its conclusion, a door shutting on another person's life, and on the audience.  Little is said directly, if at all, just like the movie tells us things through aftermath, it also tells us things through silence and small talk. This is what happened in Adelaide, the movie is telling us. Here is the good, the bad, and the inconceivable, and nothing will be used to distinguish them because life doesn't distinguish them. People died here, and they suffered, and their loved ones suffered. No, you don't get to look away, because none of them got to either. 

To be really reductive about it, if you can imagine the cinematic love child of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Gummo, and Kill List, then you've got some idea of what Snowtown is like. And in its restraint, it manages to be just as uncomfortable to watch as Srpski Film, without being as transgressive. This isn't a fun film, this isn't an entertaining film, but it's powerful, beautifully made, and a portrait of evil in its simplest, most implacable form. The killers killed because they could. Pretty much one of the best films I've seen this year, and exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about when I say that horror films at their best are works of art that deal with upsetting and unsafe ideas fearlessly.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

La Casa Muda: No Relief

When was the last time you were really scared during a movie? Not just responding to what was on the screen, but actually honest-to-goodness oh-shit-I-can't-look-tell-me-when-it's-over scared. I think that as we get older, it gets harder and harder to get to that place. Not to be scared necessarily, that's still certainly possible, but that sort of tense scared that demands catharsis, something bad happening to allow us to let it all out. It's that feeling right before the protagonist opens that door they shouldn't, or the camera panning around to a view behind someone where we just know something horrible will be waiting. You're being drawn tighter and tighter, and something will have to give.

La Casa Muda (The Silent House) is, like, an hour straight of nothing but that.

No lie, it took me three tries to get through the whole movie because I kept getting all freaked out and tense, waiting for something horrible to happen. It's that kind of scary.

The setup is minimal. All we know is that Laura is going with her father to clean out a family cottage to prepare it for sale. It's her, her father, and her uncle Nestor. The house has been closed up for years, and it's dusty and full of junk. We don't really know anything else about them, their conversations are sparse and functional. Nestor goes back into town, and Laura and her father set up some lanterns, light some candles, and lie down to catch a nap before Nestor gets back. Laura wakes up to the sound of someone moving around upstairs. Dad says there's nothing there, they're alone in the house. And then the noises start up again. Laura stays put as Dad goes to investigate.

The next thing Laura hears is her father cry out, then a heavy thump. He doesn't come back downstairs.

Everything forward of this is as spare as what came before, and wound tighter than a watchspring. Laura makes her way through the dimly lit house, aided only by a lantern or a flashlight or, occasionally, the bursts of illumination given off by the flash of a Polaroid camera she finds. She is locked into the house, blindly navigating a confined space in which something is stalking her. Every new room is a discovery, as she searches the detritus of the house for ways to defend herself against her unseen assailant and to try and understand why this is happening, so the uncertainty of the environment is compounded by the possibilities behind the things she unearths. It's an odd old house, filled with bottles and flasks and candles and dolls and photographs and mirrors and mysterious paintings.

On top of this, the whole movie is filmed to simulate one continuous take. I'm sure there are cheats here and there, and I'm sure the Internet will find them, make a big deal out of them, and completely miss the point in the process. Whether or not this film actually was shot in one take is less important than the feeling that is conveyed. The camera hovers around Laura at all times, sometimes turning away from her and back again like a second set of eyes, sometimes circling her, sometimes holding her firmly in its center of vision. The end result is no relief from the tension - no cutaways, no establishing shots, just us, the audience, watching Laura at every moment. By being deprived of traditional shot setups and scene structure, we have to be constantly vigilant for the bad thing that could be around every corner.  Laura's not safe, but in being deprived of the distance we usually have on events in a movie, we're not safe either. And that's scary as hell.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

The Shrine: An Outline Is Not A Story

There are only so many stories and characters under the sun. If you want to be reductive, you can boil it all down to man versus man, man versus self, man versus nature. My sister-in-law used to write sitcoms, and she says that all sitcom plots can be boiled down to "Dad doesn't know that I'm not the mayor." So attempts to subvert plot or narrative tropes are, to me, generally a good thing. Especially in the horror/thriller/various other scary movies genre, where formula is sometimes embraced enthusiastically in the quest for the next franchise. Oh, sure, sometimes this approach can bite you on the ass. Some folks don't like not getting exactly what they expect, and sometimes you can end up typecast. But generally, new ways of telling old stories inject hybrid vigor into what could otherwise become an inbred art form.

Of course, in all of your ambition to defy expectations, you need to remember pacing, mood, setting, character motivations, and getting your audience to care about your protagonists. You need to remember to actually tell a story.

This is where The Shrine falls down, and falls down hard.

Carmen is an ambitious young reporter, and we know this because she keeps bitching that her editor won't send her out on bigger stories, and this is what ambitious young reporters do. She's also got a photographer boyfriend who complains about how her ambition is negatively affecting her life, so she's ambitious. She also works with a young, naive intern, and we know this because we get told that the intern is young and naive. So I think you see where I'm going with this.

Ambitious reporter Carmen comes to her editor with an idea for a story about people who have disappeared while backpacking through rural Poland. 5 people over 50 years, all missing from around the same general area, and an American college student most recently. Her editor pooh-poohs this idea, preferring instead that she follow up on the disappearance of local bee colonies. She dismisses this as fluff, but honestly, I'm pretty sure this is way scarier than a few missing backpackers. So she promises to follow up on the bee story and then talks to the mother of the missing backpacker, looks through his personal effects, and promptly takes off for Poland, intern and boyfriend in tow.

Once our Scooby Gang gets to the backpacker's last known location (completely unequipped for a trip through rural Poland), they discover a mysterious fog rising out of the forest, hanging totally still in the air. Needless to say, the trio plows into the forest, and soon Carmen and Sara the Intern get lost in the fog. At the center of the fog is one creepy-ass statue, and Carmen's discovery of the statue is probably the creepiest and most effective part of the whole movie. It's once Carmen and Sara leave the fog that things get really ill, as Carmen and Sara start seeing monsters everywhere, and a bunch of dudes in robes come after the protagonists.

If I've made the beginning of the movie sound mechanical and clichéd, that's because it is. Not a moment goes by when we aren't told something instead of being shown it. What's worse, is that once we're told something, we don't really get much else on it. It feels like the majority of the movie is a series of establishing shots, signifiers of a type of scene instead of being the scene itself. Here is the part where we introduce you to the characters, here's the part where one of them experiences a foreboding omen, here is the part where the are characters in danger, here is the part where we suddenly reverse your expectations, here is the part where we explain the whole thing. Not a lot of narrative thread connecting each bit, not a lot of depth, just sort of a series of parts.

Basically, I walked away from this feeling like I just saw a treatment or highlight reel for a longer movie. It's a sketch, it's the major story beats, but there's no reason to care about the protagonists, no reason to get really frightened for them, no real sense of shock when our expectations are upended. Even the conclusion is pretty much just a few lines to the effect of "yeah, we're cursed, but what are ya gonna do?" It's tremendously unsatisfying. It's uneven on a technical level, with some beautifully-shot sequences alongside glaringly obvious digital and practical effects. I don't like to harp on things like that, but it was noticeable enough to take me out of the story, such as it was.

There's a reasonably good idea for a movie here, though I don't know that the plot twist is really all that revolutionary at the end of the day. But more importantly, that's all this is - an idea. The characters don't feel like people who actually have lives in a world where horrible things can happen, and it's not much of a world, for that matter. It's inescapably people on sets saying lines - competently, don't get me wrong - but not much more. Having ideas about what should happen in a movie isn't the same thing as convincing the audience that they are happening or could happen, and that's the difference between an outline and an actual story.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dying God (Redux): I Watched This So You Don't Have To

Okay, so in my first post on Dying God, I suggested that it might be my new standard for worst movie I've ever seen. This is a distinction that gets thrown around on the Internet for pretty much every movie ever made ever, and I think it's important to have standards. I like having a movie to which I can compare others to say "is it really worse than this movie? Is it really?" As I started watching Dying God, I thought that it might be the new standard by which terrible movies should be judged. But, to be fair, that was after watching maybe a third of it. So I went back and finished watching it, mindful of my current standard, Four Boxes.

Final decision? It is not worse than Four Boxes. There are moments in Dying God that are entertaining in their badness. Four Boxes has no such moments.

This is not to say that Dying God is a good movie. It's not. It's fucking terrible. As entertainingly bad movies go, there are better bets out there. But if you're at all curious about what's going on in this direct-to-video pile, here are some highlights.

So as I said last time, this is a movie about Sean Fallon, a hard-bitten renegade cop on the edge who doesn't play by the rules and has his own code and does what it takes to solve the case even if the brass doesn't like it and yadda yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah blah argh fuck. But it wouldn't be fair to call him a walking cliché, because this movie can't even be bothered to follow up on the cliches. Fallon isn't an antihero who is willing to bend a few rules, he's an alcoholic, misogynistic thug who engages in unapologetically criminal activity and treats his follow cops with utter contempt. He isn't so much charged with investigating a series of bizarre sex crimes as he is constantly butting into the investigation and making things difficult for all of the cops trying to do actual police work. Once he's done insulting all of the people trying to do their jobs, he runs some confiscated guns to local criminal groups and slaps a few hookers.

This, folks, is our hero.

So there's some kind of monster running around the city raping women to death, and this bothers the pimp community considerably, so Fallon allies himself with the cities' pimps (instead of, you know, the cops) to track down the killer. There's also a prostitute who alternates between serving as Fallon's punching bag and making him nice dinners and dreaming about settling down with him, and a pimp named Chance. Chance is confined to a wheelchair, which he has equipped with a harpoon for no goddamn reason. Some people say some things and the pimps corner the killer in an old factory. The killer turns out to be a cheaply made green bodysuit with a retractable, anatomy-defying penis. Apparently it's driven to mate with every woman it sees. Sometimes it impregnates them, and they don't survive delivering the children, or it kills them if the woman is infertile. Why? Who knows. It just does.

So long story short, Chance (played by Lance Henriksen, in the best slumming-it part since Eric Stoltz in the entertainingly bad Anaconda and Sir Alec Guinness in the surprisingly-pretty-good Mute Witness) spears the creature with his wheelchair harpoon (WHY THE FUCK WHY A WHEELCHAIR HARPOON WHY) and Fallon takes a circular saw to it. The creature dies, Fallon dies. There are some dying words and then the credits run, The creature might be dead or it might not be. Who cares.

So that's pretty much Dying God. You don't need to watch it now, but here are some choice pieces of dialogue for your enlightenment and edification...

(a woman lies on the floor with a fist-sized hole in her abdomen, and a pile of intestines in her lap) "She's dead."

"Nothing I like more than seeing a cop hit another cop."

"Buy me a bottle of booze or I'll punch you in the mouth."

"It's not a good time to be in a wheelchair."

"Thank you for your help. Doctor."
"I'm not a doctor."
"Well, you should be."

Dying God. I watched it so you don't have to.

Part 1