Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Task: Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

I seem to be on a streak right now of movies that don't have the courage to stick to their original premise, that almost make it to the finish line as (to one degree or another) a well-told story but then oops! It's a horror movie, so we need to throw more horror shit around, and any goodwill the film has built up to that point goes right out the window. The Dead tries to do too much in its last 15 minutes, Undocumented doesn't have the guts to do something non-obvious with its premise, and Wake Wood is a great low-key supernatural tragedy until someone decides there needs to be more EEEEEEVIL in it. They get close, and then blow it.

I pretty much feel the same way about The Task, though there's a lot more whipsawing back and forth before all is said and done.

The movie opens on a guy helping a woman with some packages she dropped, after which he is dragged into a van and hooded, along with a bunch of other people. Oh shit, they're being kidnapped! Well, no, not if you know the premise. Said helpful dude, along with six other people, has signed up to be on a reality show called The Task. They have to spend a night in an old abandoned prison (maybe prisons are the new hospitals) and perform a number of tasks (see what they did there?) in order to win a big ol' cash prize. One of the other contestants helpfully exposits that they're all crazy for doing this because don't you know what the brutal, autocratic warden did to prisoners in this prison? It's a place of evil, et cetera ad nauseam. He even wets his pants at the sight of the prison. Oh shit, it's really that haunted and scary? Well, no, the guy who peed was just a plant by the production company to rile up the other contestants. So, see, it's not really a damned place after all, they just want the contestants to think it is.

This is actually the part with which I had the least trouble. MTV used to run a series called Fear, in which teenagers who were probably skimmed off the bottom of the Casting Vats for whichever iteration of The Real World was on at the moment competed for cash and prizes by doing a series of tasks in abandoned places with terrifying histories (which were made up wholesale and tacked onto thoroughly scouted locations). So these kids go in to these old abandoned buildings, pretty much pre-scared, and have to do things that are just going to ratchet up their level of terror and anxiety (sit alone in a totally dark room, stick their hand into an opening to retrieve something, that kinda thing). And the whole thing was captured by fixed cameras and cameras worn by the contestants in sickly nightvision green. Like anything else MTV does, it didn't last, but it seemed like a pretty effective exercise in the power of suggestion and context. So the game in this movie is pretty much Fear, only a little cornier, with even less likable contestants.

Yeah, this was the part that bugged me the most - the protagonists are annoying as shit, to a person. The African-American man (the one getting kidnapped in the opening) speaks mostly in slang, the blonde who wants to be on TV isn't so much a ditz as the cardboard cutout of one, we know the smart girls is smart because she wears glasses and speaks in the verbose pseudo-scientific bullshit that people do when they're trying to appear intelligent,  the British girl and her brother are both edgy and tough and cool and, well, British, and the gay guy isn't just gay, isn't just openly gay, he's a lisping, mincing twink with a fauxhawk who says things like (when told to walk straight ahead) "there's nothing straight about me" and "closets are scary - that's why I came out of mine." It's like, the characters don't annoy me as people, but as a lack of people - they're flat, empty stereotypes. Walking signifiers. People with air quotes around everything they say and do.

(On the other hand, and I'm pretty sure I've said this before - that isn't necessarily a problem for narrative plausibility because those seem to me to be the exact sort of people one expects to try out for reality shows. So I spent a good chunk of the movie wavering between being annoyed by them and wondering if that wasn't actually the point. You get an answer eventually, and I have to give the movie golf claps for it, but more about that in a minute.)

So long story short, one of the contestants has to perform some creepy ritual for his task, and it appears to inadvertently raise the ghost of the brutal warden who ran the prison (wasn't that just part of the backstory? Oh shit! There really was a really brutal and horrible warden and he really committed atrocities!), and then blood, stabby-stabby, people start dying and it's mostly sort of static and enervated. It's pretty much a cycle of 1) Someone leaves the base to complete a task 2) That person ends up dead somewhere 3) GOTO 1. In between, we get to look in on the production crew, who are all sort of awful in their own showbiz ways (and the acting is pretty terrible here too, but again, golf claps) and it takes them too long to react when things start going south and they don't seem too fazed when someone they send out to fix some equipment never comes back, but believe it or not, there's actually a decent explanation for all of this. I was continually irritated by this movie, so when we get to the third act and some mounting suspicions about what we're seeing get confirmed, I was actually a little pleased that they made the choices they did, no matter how obnoxious those choices were up to that point.

But they could not leave well enough the fuck alone, and attempt yet another twist in the last ten minutes, and although it doesn't unravel the whole movie, it's just predictable and poorly executed enough to take any air out of whatever saving grace this otherwise by-the-numbers creepy-stuff-in-abandoned-buildings film gets from its final act. This wasn't going to be a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a little frustrating to see what little charm the movie had snuffed out because somebody didn't think what they had was obvious enough.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dead: To Dust We Will Return

Zombies are mostly a defanged nerd-culture joke now, and I'm generally over in the corner with copies of Night of the Living Dead and World War Z and 28 Days Later, sulking. But I've started thinking about the contexts in which most zombie stories are set. Basically, the modern zombie story is an urban one, where the zombies are actively predatory and there's a lot of interpersonal conflict. After a certain point, it's less about the zombies than it is about what zombies mean for civilization, relationships, society. This is a function of the urban setting - supplies and shelter are pretty accessible, so once the protagonists have set up their little fortress, the zombies start to become window dressing. What happens when you strip all of that away, all of the first-world resources that mean we have the luxury of interpersonal drama in the face of a plague of walking dead?

The Dead got me thinking about all of this.

The movie opens on a desert landscape of blue and gold, interrupted only by a lone figure swathed in black. He makes his way across the dunes, AK-47 on his back. He could be the hero in some Lawrence of Arabia-style badass war movie, but for the figure who captures his notice - an African man, blank-eyed, managing to hobble along on one really, really broken leg. He's too badly wounded to be alive, and yet he walks. Just the two of them against the desert sun. There's no sense of threat or danger - the man in black just walks around him, out of reach. This is happening now, most of the rest of the movie is an extended flashback to how the man in black ended up here.

The setting is Africa, and the dead walk. The dead walk, and consume the flesh of the living. The man in black is an engineer named Brian, and he is the sole survivor of the last evac flight out. He told the pilots that the plane wasn't ready, but they took off anyway. It crashed in the ocean, and Brian washed ashore. He heads inland. Meanwhile, some time before, it is nighttime and a village is burning. The dead move through the village, falling onto the inhabitants and chewing hunks of their flesh. There's nothing predatory about it, it's just blunt, implacable need. A soldier named Daniel arrives home too late, finding his wife dead and his son missing. The rest of The Dead is the story of how Brian and Daniel meet, and their journey north - Brian to find a plane out, Daniel to find his son.

The Dead is pretty much the antithesis of the modern zombie movie. It is stripped down, stark, and quiet. There's barely any dialogue. These are two men driven by necessity, by their individual destinations and what it will take to live long enough to get there. In the African bush, nothing can be taken for granted - transportation, food, ammunition, fuel, safety - none of it is guaranteed, and the dead are always there. They're in the distance, they come out of the long grass, they're just standing there, and although they're easy enough to outrun, they never get tired. That's something I think a lot of modern treatments of zombies forget - what makes them scary is that they justkeepcoming. Zombies do not sleep, zombies do not retreat and regroup. Zombies just walk and walk and walk, and long after you've run out of breath and ammo and food and water, they're still walking, closer and closer to you. This is a movie that actually manages to make changing a tire into something tense, and the discovery of a working water supply into a major victory.

And that's what I think The Dead does right - it provides a correction of perspective. Brian and Daniel have their differences, and they don't always get along, but instead of being the biggest threat to the group, it's almost beside the point. It doesn't matter whether they like each other or not, because all of that is irrelevant in the face of the threats before them - the walking dead and the desert, both silent and uncaring. You can reason with neither, you cannot hope for mercy, so you stay alive instead. Talking is beside the point, sharing feelings is beside the point. All of that goes out the window when what little safety there was in the world is completely gone.

And the dead are always there. They're in the background, they're walking slowly into focus, unhurried. The steady march of entropy made flesh. The problem is not that you don't get along with the other survivors or that one of them is going on a power trip like on some bullshit reality show, the problem is that the dead are fucking walking and they are going to eat you and you cannot outwit them or outrun them forever. In a land where life is hard, you learn very quickly what's important and what isn't. This is what made the gritty nihilism of Night of the Living Dead so powerful. It's not so much that they're going to end your life, it's that they never stop.

That's not to say that this movie is flawless - I was sort of disappointed in the last act, where the mood the rest of the movie has built sort of goes out the window and way too much happens in the last 10 minutes, not giving any of it time to breathe, but as a response to what the modern zombie has become, it speaks little, but says much.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Bunny Game: Here It Is...Look At It

Comedian Wanda Sykes does a bit about strip clubs, describing the different levels of (un)subtlety the dancers have. She wraps it up by describing one stripper at an especially seedy club who comes out already stark naked, stands in front of the customers, opens her legs, and just stands there saying "well, here it is…look at it! Look at it!"

That's kind of how The Bunny Game made me feel.

I'm not one to shy away from transgressive or upsetting films, as I think past posts will attest. Still, when I first read about The Bunny Game, I was given pause. It's the story of a prostitute who is abducted by a truck driver and tortured for five days.  There's almost no dialogue, it's shot in stark black and white, and consists almost entirely of the victimization of the prostitute (referred to only as "The Bunny") at the hands of her johns and the truck driver. There's some interstitial footage of The Bunny at some other unspecified time and of the truck driver (referred to as "The Hog") torturing and eventually killing another victim. That's it. No story of which to speak, just scenes of violence and degradation punctuated by abrasive noises and equally abrasive music.

Okay, so, minimalist and sensationalistic. Perfect fodder for the market depicted in S&Man, the jaded violence fan looking for the next August Underground. But, trangressive? Disturbing? Really? Well, see, here's the thing: All of the violence inflicted on The Bunny by The Hog is unsimulated. The Bunny really is getting the shit kicked out of her, getting asphyxiated, getting dragged naked through the desert, getting branded. None of that is fake, and that's where people are up in arms about this movie. If you're watching this, you're watching someone being tortured, full stop.

So this required some thought on my part. According to an interview I've read with the director, this was a pretty much improvised piece in which the actress playing The Bunny was an active collaborator. They came up with the idea, and she went into it eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what could happen, even embracing the potential risk of making herself completely vulnerable to a stranger (and non-actor, at that) about whom she knows nothing in terms of his capacity for violence.

And there's precedent for this in other films to one degree or another - Christian Bale lost unhealthy amounts of weight for his role in The Machinist, Lars von Trier terrorized Björk throughout filming of Dancer in the Dark, and it shows in the harrowing final act. The shooting conditions for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were so physically uncomfortable and inhospitable that Marilyn Burns was pretty much bleeding and screaming for real. Hell, even Peter Jackson used a take in which Viggo Mortensen broke his foot for The Two Towers. Never mind the isolation Heath Ledger endured to turn in his brilliant performance in The Dark Knight. This point gets lost, I think, in the discussion around this movie. People hurt themselves in film and for film all the time. It is primarily a matter of context and degree that separates movie trivia from moral panic, then.

So given the subject matter (bleak), and the style (unsparing), what is the end result? For what was blood shed and flesh scarred? From where I'm sitting, not a whole lot.

The movie opens cold, hard, and ugly, with The Bunny fellating someone in a back alley. It's unsimulated and violent, with The Bunny gagging on the john's penis as he forces it further and further down her throat. She is a victim from the first frame. The first half of the movie is pretty much a cycle of degradation, grief, rage, and drug abuse. The Bunny wanders around Los Angeles, teetering on impossibly high platform shoes which seem less like a way to make her taller than a way to keep her perpetually off balance, to keep her from standing her ground. She fucks dirty strangers in cheap motel rooms. Some of them beat her. Others take advantage of her being unconscious to rape her and steal her possessions. In between, she cleans herself off, sobbing, and snorts line after line of either cocaine or speed, it's never made clear which. As if it matters. Snort, fuck, cry, rinse, repeat.

We get glimpses of The Bunny's life outside of this as blasts of jumbled imagery, but it all moves by too fast to give us anything to hold as true or real about her. What she is here and now is basically meat - a thing to be used and discarded. At one point, she squats, braced up against a fence, and urinates on the sidewalk. She rearranges her clothes and moves on. It is like we are being dared to see her with anything other than contempt.

The second half of the movie is primarily concerned with her captivity and torture. The Hog is an older man, a truck driver. The Bunny shares some drugs with him, offers him a blow job. He responds by chloroforming her. He puts her in the trailer of his semi, chains her to the wall, and drives his truck out into the desert, where nobody can hear them. What follows is scene after scene of The Hog terrorizing either The Bunny or an earlier victim (listed in the credits as, surprise, "Martyr"). He cuts their clothes away, asphyxiates them, brands them. Plays with their bodies, forces himself on them while they lie bound and gagged. Sometimes we see this directly, sometimes we see it recorded and played back for The Bunny. Point of view is less important than just seeing it. It's just there, people getting hurt by this man. It's often accompanied by loud, harsh music and primitive editing tricks, looping scenes over and over again. Pretty much all this accomplishes is taking us out of whatever drama builds up. With one hand it refuses us the comfort of it just being a movie, and with the other it pushes its artificiality in your face.

And that's pretty much it. There's no real story here. It's just a lot of torture, and then it ends. There's some ham-handed Christ imagery toward the end, but to no apparent effect. She gets hurt one way, then another. There's no rhythm to it, no rise and fall, no quiet to make the noise worse, just blasts of imagery and noise and screaming. There's no reason to care about The Bunny outside of her basic humanity, which the movie spends its first half trying to undermine as much as possible. As near as I can tell, it signifies nothing outside of itself. I know the director and actress intended it as a way for her to work out some issues she had around something traumatic in her past, and maybe that's the case, but whatever came from that isn't really shared with the audience. We don't get included in that, and so all we have are the images on the screen, and they don't say much outside of pain, helplessness, and fear. I'm not big on authorial intent, and I firmly believe that a film's vocabulary communicates as much as the content of the film, but at the end of this, I was left feeling nothing. Not numb, not emptied out, just indifferent. All I could do was ask why - not the "why" of "how can this exist under the gaze of a just and loving god?", but the "why" of "what was the point of doing this?"

Any film - no matter how transgressive - should leave us with something at the end of it. It should communicate something and leave us feeling something at the end of it. The Bunny Game did neither for me. Whatever the filmmakers' intent, what I saw on the screen was empty and awful, and left me no different for the experience.

It did not haunt me. It did not move me, except maybe to feel slightly sad that for all of the blood and tears shed for it, this was all that came of it. A filmic voice saying "here it is…look at it", as if that is reason enough.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Undocumented: If Truth Is Stranger Is Fiction, Stick To The Truth

There's something about ripped-from-the-headlines horror movies that sort of bugs me. I feel like associating a story with some real-life events is supposed to lend it legitimacy, sort of a "oh shit, this could have happened to you!" sort of vibe, which should make it more frightening, but I think what it ends up doing is detracting from the story. You can either play it gritty and realistic, which might not be over-the-top enough, or you can embellish the story for the sake of dramatic impact. But if you're expecting real and you get fake, it kind of blows the whole thing. Which is pretty much what happens with Undocumented.

It's not based on a true story, but it's highly plausible. The story concerns a group of student filmmakers who are making a documentary on the trafficking and exploitation of illegal Mexican immigrants. They interview laborers who have been injured on the job, a sweatshop owner, and a friend of one of the film crew, who is hoping to bring his wife and daughter over the border. The filmmakers are going to travel with him and his family and allow themselves to be smuggled back into the U.S. along with a bunch of other hopefuls. They're young, idealistic, and on balance, kind of annoying. All is going as well as a spectacularly illegal smuggling operation can, with a truckload of Mexican nationals sneaking through an old drug cartel tunnel under the border, until they run smack dab into a corpse left strung up in the tunnel.

But - awful as it may be - between the realities of human trafficking and the drug trade, that's not necessarily unexpected. Worse has happened. When the group gets pulled over, well, getting busted by the border patrol is an occupational hazard. Only it isn't the border patrol. It's a group of masked militia members - people who have decided to take the immigration problem into their own hands, and are more than aware than illegal immigrants sometimes just disappear.

The militia leader strikes a deal with the film crew - he'll let them go if they agree to document what his group is doing in their remote desert compound. Of course, what it is that they're doing is exactly what you'd expect a bunch of zealots with no accountability to do to a group of people they've completely dehumanized. They spend a lot of time hosing blood off the floor, and shit starts getting pretty weird pretty quickly.

By all rights, this should be a great setup for a movie - a bunch of people, locked up in the middle of nowhere by xenophobic lunatics, and nobody knows they're missing.  But to take advantage of this, it's probably best to keep it low-key, gritty, realistic. There's nothing about the situation that isn't plausible. It's what would happen if some group like the Hutaree Militia started kidnapping illegal immigrants. I mean, terrible shit like this already happens every day. The story pretty much writes itself. But instead, what we get is entirely too close to a bog-standard teens-in-trouble sort of movie. The characters are just on the wrong side of caricature for the most part. Not wildly off, but just enough that things feel artificial. The sound guy's an irresponsible doofus who can't go five minutes without making some horrible decision, the director is pretty much of one of those "keep shooting, this is great footage" types from the word go, and he's got a past with the producer, whose current boyfriend is apparently a huge douche (his douchiness is firmly and evocatively captured in a single exchange - it's one of the most economical character beats I've ever seen in a movie, and may be my favorite thing about this).  But it all feels a little too loud and stereotypical.

This artificiality and staginess is also a problem with the antagonists - there's a single sequence with the film makers blindfolded, being interrogated by members of the militia, that comes off really well, thick with menace, but once we're introduced to the group's leader (who calls himself "Z") that goodwill is squandered as well. He's too over-the-top, ranting and making dramatic gestures, and what makes it even worse is that most of the other militia members are believable, exhibiting the sort of bland menace I've seen in documentaries about real-life white supremacist groups. They aren't self-aware bad guys, they really believe this shit, and everything they do to the immigrants they capture they do because they genuinely believe these people are less human than they are. That's scary, not the torture-porn bullshit Z cooks up.

And the torture-porn bullshit doesn't make sense in context - it's all theatrical, but until they run into this film crew, there's nobody for whom to perform. There's also not really a clear through-line on the events, how things get worse, or how the film crew get worn down. It suffers a little from being episodic. A bunch of stuff happens, they try to escape, they fail, they end up locked up again, start over. There are moments of menace and suspense, but they're sort of isolated as another set piece among set pieces.

This is all too bad, because Undocumented could have been a good, taut hostage drama - all the pieces are there. A leader with a strong personality and a bunch of alienated rednecks with their own little kingdom out in the desert, an Other who can't even speak the language, and the sort of escalation and craziness that this sort of situation breeds. But - much like Wake Wood, in the end - the creators of this film didn't trust what they had, they gussied up the truth with some bullshit that only happens in the movies, and the final product is the weaker for it.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Wake Wood: All Creatures Great And Small

There are only so many stories you can tell. This is a true thing. I don't mean sequels, prequels, or reboots, but pretty much the same premise with different details. The sort of thing where you read a synopsis and say to yourself "I have already seen this", and how different could it be?

I am here to tell you that the details make quite a bit of difference. In the broad strokes, Wake Wood is pretty much Pet Sematary, but in the fine points, it tells a very different story and handles the same conceit with more maturity and grace.

Patrick and Louise lost their daughter, Alice, in a vicious dog attack (ironic, since Patrick is a veterinarian) and are trying to start their lives over again. They've moved to the small village of Wake Wood, where Patrick is taking over the veterinary practice from Arthur, who seems to have stepped straight out of a James Herriot book. Louise reopens a local pharmacy. They're trying to move on, but it's hard. Louise isn't ready to get rid of Alice's things. She holds them close. They can't have any more kids, and they've seen their only child torn apart in front of them.

They like Wake Wood well enough - they're going to be the new people, the city folk, for awhile, but they're settling in, and Arthur's been nothing but helpful with the transition. So when Patrick and Louise run into some car trouble, they make their way over to his estate to get some help, only to discover some sort of ritual in progress. The next day, Arthur drops by to explain…

Now, if you're at all familiar with the abovementioned Pet Sematary, you can probably see where this is going: Couple grieving the death of their child moves to a small town/village with some kind of mysterious secret related to the raising of the dead, couple does a thing they are Not Supposed To Do, and Bad Things happen. Honestly, that's not giving anything away. You can figure out that much just from looking at the poster. But the beats are different. It's the same song in a different tempo and key, and that makes them effectively different movies.

The story told in Pet Sematary is lurid, ghastly, very Tales From The Crypt.  Wake Wood, by contrast, is much more human, much more stately and sad. It's less a story about what lies on the other side of death (nothing good, according to Pet Sematary), and more about the problems of rebirth. The situation in Wake Wood is, in fine English tradition, one of a small village keeping the old ways right along with the new. There's nothing histrionic or bizarre about how Arthur and the town go about the business of resurrection, no robes and gibbering in forgotten languages, just the same calm, practiced hand that Patrick brings to his work with animals (it's no mistake that the resurrection process looks a lot like the delivery of a calf that Patrick performed early in the film). It's set in a quiet courtyard, among implements and tools that look repurposed from large-animal care, but not in a creepy way. It's all very practical and utilitarian. Even the more magical instruments and talismans they use look more practical than anything else. Resurrection, like birth, is a bloody, messy thing, but nobody minds because the end result is good.

So oddly enough, it isn't the supernatural elements of this story that really drive the scary part of the story - it's human frailty. It's people not accepting the limits placed on the gifts they've been given, stepping outside what they're allowed and paying the price for that. In a way, what makes Wake Wood special also makes it less effective as a horror movie. It's a great story about human weakness and not being satisfied with the time we're given, but the last act of the movie forgoes that narrative (and the wonderfully understated mood up to that point) for a more standard creepy-kid one that comes off as muddled, alluding to what seems like some terrible secret, except it turns out it wasn't a terrible secret, it was something we were supposed to guess early on, and so the dramatic impact is wasted.

We go from a moving character study to a lot of people dead because some kid is evil, we guess, because everyone keeps saying something is wrong? The story rights itself for its conclusion, which is as understated as the best of the movie and really fucking disturbing, but it's too bad the filmmakers didn't trust what they had instead of trying to do what Pet Sematary already did.

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