Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gosa: Not The Movie You Think It's Going To Be

Sometimes, when I'm trying to decide what movie I want to watch, I'll play a few minutes of a given movie to get a feel for it - the cinematography, the pacing, the mood, stuff like that. It's not always a predictor of quality or anything - Undocumented starts strong and craps out, Night of the Living Dead starts low-key and keeps ratcheting everything up and up -  but I get an idea of what kind of ride I'm about to take.

Gosa (Death Bell) starts with a young girl surveying a blasted ruin, dotted with burning school desks. The girl calls for someone, and then undead schoolgirls, smeared with ash and blood, erupt from the ground and begin attacking her. The schoolgirl wakes up from what we realize is a nightmare, just as her white nightgown blooms with the blood of her menstrual period. And my  first thought was "oh shit, I cannot wait to see where this is going from here."

Where Gosa was headed, I would have never seen coming. Which is too bad, because that opening scene promised a lot of weird on which the rest of the movie couldn't deliver. 

It's the story of a group of students at an English High School in Korea who are being held over the weekend to drill for some sort of demonstration/competition with their sister school in America. There's some unspecified intra-school drama and weirdness between some of the students, punctuated by real-time reports of academic standings among the top students. Just as the special weekend class begins, the assembled students are confronted with an image on the school monitors: One of the students, suspended in a tank of water, drowning in front of a complex mathematical problem. If they solve the problem in time, the student will not die. They are not successful, and the doors are locked from the outside. In the chaos, another student disappears, only to resurface as the centerpiece of another grisly puzzle. 

Someone wants to play a game, and everyone seems to think it's the vengeful spirit of a dead student. So we've got this sort of Saw/Ringu/The Breakfast Club thing going on. The big hook, then, is whether or not what's happening is supernatural or not. Well, that and whether or not the heroes can figure out what's going on before more people die. It's got the problem, then, of being neither fish nor fowl, less a combination of genres than a couple of different approaches to the same story slapped together. As much as I don't like bitching about movie logic, I couldn't stop wondering why a ghost would need to set up elaborate deathtraps when it's a fucking ghost, already in ugly defiance of all that is natural and holy. Can't it draw the life from their bodies? How does it set up the weird puzzle/deathtrap situations? 

Apart from an inability to settle on an antagonist, it feels a little off in terms of pacing - the heroes have to solve a puzzle or a student dies, but it's less a race against the clock than sort of a stumble - they try to solve puzzles, but it seems like even when they do solve it, someone still ends up dead, so there's not as much tension as there should be. There are a couple of red herrings, but there's no clear sense that we should be thinking in terms of the red herring, so they're less misleading than confusing. The action isn't so much rising as sloshing around in a bucket.

Which is too bad, because as much as I'm not a fan of slashers, and am pretty much on record as not being a huge fan of the whole Saw-style elaborate deathtrap movie, this would have been a great one with better pacing and no ghost imagery. It manages to wrap up the explanation for what's happening and why pretty nicely - it's believable and internally consistent without being obvious from the word go -  and there are some good set pieces amid the desultory murk. For once, I wouldn't mind seeing a remake - not so much because I think an American version could do it better, as because I think American movies of this nature could use a shot in the arm.

Still, that opening scene, with the burning classroom ruin and the zombie students and the menstrual nightmare? Had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. And I still want to see that movie.

Not available on Netflix

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Now Showing

Within a few days of each other, I have learned that...

...Srpski Film is now available in the United States in uncut DVD, digital, and Blu-Ray formats. Although I'm glad that this film isn't going to sink into obscurity, and is being made available intact and uncensored, the vigor with which it's being marketed and merchandised (t-shirts? Really?) makes me throw up a little.

...Snowtown (under the title The Snowtown Murders) is now available on Netflix Instant. This is easily one of the best true-crime movies I've ever seen, and one of the best movies I've seen this year. Check it out.

...Australian classic Wake In Fright has not only received a gorgeous restoration, but Drafthouse Films is bringing it to the U.S. in October. Comparisons to Deliverance and Straw Dogs aren't off-base, but there's a queasy surrealism to it that makes it more explicitly nightmarish. If you can, catch this, and check out the trailer at Apple's trailer page in the meantime.

Plus I didn't have to use my AK, so today was a good day.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Rite: The Really, Really Reluctant Hero

If you're going to do a movie about exorcists and exorcism, you pretty much have to have at least one priest who is grappling with his faith in the cast. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, just that it seems to be an inevitability of the genre. It's not always a bad thing, by any means, but in the case of The Rite, it really doesn't help things.

Michael Kovak works in the family funeral home, washing and preparing bodies for their final viewing and burial. He goes about this business with calm and patience, as a plumber might tighten a pipe fitting or a mason might lay brick. It is work, and should be done well, but it's nothing to get all freaked out about.

He doesn't want to be a mortician like his father, though. He wants to go to college, but family expectations hold him back. Everyone in his family is an undertaker or a priest. So he makes the decision to go to seminary, with the intent of dropping out before he takes his vows. One college education, minus the hassle from Dad. He toasts his last night of freedom over beers with a friend and one last fling with an attractive bartender.

So Michael isn't what you might call a paragon of faith to begin with. It's one thing to be grappling with a faith you feel or once felt, it's another thing to have never really had it and cynically exploit its existence in others. I mean, nothing's happened and still, fuck this guy, you know?

Sure enough, his attempt to hustle an education is pretty much brought to a halt when he tries to resign, because how stupid does he think these priests are? The dean of the school is all "yeah, we can make you pay that shit back if we want to, but here, go talk to this dude in Rome instead." Said dude is Father Trevant - a thoroughly eccentric but well-practiced exorcist, and Michael is to be taken under his wing. Maybe his combination of smarts and attempts to explain everything in terms of secular phenomena makes him especially good exorcist material. Maybe the dean of the seminary just wants to fuck with him. It works either way.

What follows is Michael's education in exorcism, from lectures and films, to time spent with Trevant, who is attempting to exorcise one of the local townsfolk. Throughout, analogies between possession and illness are made, and as much as it serves to tread well-worn issues of faith and reason (possessed or mentally ill? asks every demonic possession film ever), it also provides a nice framework for the nature of possession itself. Trevant tells Michael that you treat possession like you would chronic illness, over many sessions, and its most visible symptoms are physical ones - social withdrawal, self-harm, tremors in the hand.

It's a nice detail, and it makes the initial exorcisms a little anti-climactic. It could be a session in Gestalt therapy as much as anything else, and this is a good thing. It's not clear initially if possession is the problem, so when it is (because you know it totally is), the way its evil seeps into the world around Michael and Trevant is spooky and effective, and as it escalates, the movie starts to become genuinely scary and tense…

…or would, if it weren't for Michael. He is full of doubt throughout, but the things he sees don't seem to have the effect on him that they should. What should probably play as curiosity plays as indifference, what should play as cynical amusement plays as indifference, and should play as shock and terror at the violations of time, space, and nature swirling around him plays as…casual interest. It's only when things get to pants-shitting terrifying that he really feels scared and engaged.

I understand that part of the text is supposed to be the renewal of faith in the unbeliever as he witnesses miracles and horrors, and I hate resorting to "if that were me" criticism, but shit happens to this guy that would have me, as rational and skeptical as they come, peeing my pants and saying "welp, so much for not believing in the Devil." Which is too bad, because that enervation and passivity really drags down what could otherwise be a nicely underplayed take on demonic possession. As it is, we're sort of waiting for Michael to stand up and take on the mantle of hero, as the reluctant hero eventually must. He never really does, and The Rite is found wanting as a result.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Not available on Netflix

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back, For The Most Part

So I'm finally settled into my new job in a new city, after a relocation that could generously be described as "challenging." So regular posting should resume shortly.

In the interim, I just saw a trailer for a new (wait for it) found-footage movie that looks like it might actually be good and interesting. Check it out: