Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Last Days On Mars: What Is This Quintessence Of Dust?

Science-fiction horror, like historical horror, is a tricky beast. You're already asking your audience to suspect disbelief on one axis (monsters exist), and at the same time you're asking them to suspend disbelief on a second (this is all occurring in a future yet to happen). If the viewer's too caught up by the implausibility of the setting, it makes it harder for them to invest in the story to a degree that they'll be scared when you want them to be. And, for that matter, I suspect that "aliens" occupy a different space in our head from "monsters" - they may be adjacent, but our expectations for how the protagonists interact with them may differ enough to make the experience a little confusing. The best way to approach it, then, is to try and minimize the degree to which the details establishing it as a science-fiction story make it feel fantastic (e.g., the truckers-in-space angle taken by Alien), and make your alien as indistinguishable from a monster as possible (e.g., the Lovecraftian nightmare at the center of The Thing).

(Speaking of, I re-watched the director's cut of Alien recently, and was watching some behind-the-scenes stuff, and hearing Ridley Scott describe it as his attempt to make "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space" was illuminating. I don't know that he succeeded at doing that, but I suspect that taking that approach to the film IS a big part of what made it successful.)

So on these two counts, The Last Days On Mars does things right. I wouldn't put it in the same league as Alien or The Thing, not by a long shot. But it's a well-constructed, almost meditative film about, essentially, the failure of humanity - both as a species and as essential nature.

Sometime in the distant-enough future, mankind has sent people to Mars. Not once, but twice. The second mission is coming to a close after six months. They're on short time, with 19 hours and change remaining until the relief crew shows up and they get to board a ship home. They're trying to wrap things up and two crew members - a paramedic named Lane and a technician named Campbell - are driving a rover out to one of the research sites to pick up Kim, who is busy collecting core samples. They're in a hurry because there's a massive sandstorm coming and everyone needs to be back at base for a debriefing. Lane and Campbell are grousing because they know Kim is going to be a pain in the ass about it. Nobody seems to like Kim too much. Sure enough, she stalls for time and complains about not finding anything. She's abrasive, but there's a layer of frustration underneath it. Her research is coming up snake eyes - she's been on another planet for six months, just spinning her wheels.

Their arrival back at base sharpens this - there's a second scientist, Petrovic, who ducks out of the briefing by feeding the base commander a line about needing to repair a sensor. As it transpires, he's really trying to get back out to a dig site to collect some more samples - samples he intends to backdate, scooping Kim and securing for himself sole credit for discovering evidence of bacterial life on Mars. He is cheerfully unapologetic about this - he thinks it's funny - and we wonder just how well he's fooled everyone else. It's no wonder Kim is so angry. In fact, the whole situation is really dysfunctional - Brunel, the base commander, is largely ineffectual at keeping his crew in line, and there's a lot of hostility and free-floating resentment in the air, punctuated by frequent power outages and other equipment failure. The vehicles are falling apart. The base is falling apart. They are falling apart. They're less than 20 hours away from leaving, and not a moment too soon.

And then, as you might expect, something goes very wrong at the dig site. Petrovic has just discovered something really important in a core sample, but before he can communicate what it is, the entire ground around the sample site collapses into a sinkhole, taking Petrovic with it. Back at base, Kim - in open defiance of regulations - has gone through Petrovic's work and has figured out what he's up to. Before anything can be done about it, the technician who accompanied Petrovic calls in a mayday. After assessing the situation at the site, it's concluded that Petrovic must be dead because there's no way he could have survived the fall with his suit remaining uncompromised. Base doctor Dalby volunteers to stay behind while everyone else goes back to retrieve the gear needed to pull the body out of the sinkhole. Only when they return there's nobody there. No Dalby, and no Petrovic. The hole is empty, except that it's teeming with some sort of mold or fungus.

Back at base, there's a knock on the airlock door. Petrovic and Dalby - or, rather, what's left of them - have returned.

In the basics of its premise, The Last Days On Mars isn't much of a surprise - this is a story of contagion and transformation. To the extent that it succeeds, it does so by not overplaying things. Everything feels plausible, and it's helpful because we don't spend too much time on the science-fiction trappings as a result. Yes, they're on Mars, but it's never really played for spectacle - it's just there to highlight that this is a hostile environment, and there's a very low margin for error as a result. Early in the film, a massive sandstorm thunders across the landscape, but nobody is awed by it - it's just another hazard they've had to deal with for the last six months. It's helpful because being on another planet isn't really the point - the point is that everything is dangerous, and the sooner the specifics of why that is fade into the background, the sooner we can engage with what's happening in the present.

This sense of restraint is extended to the characterization as well. We don't get a lot of depth on all of these people - there's eight of them - but most of what we do learn we learn economically, through their actions and reactions, not exposition. You can infer a lot based on how people talk about other people, and how they respond to events. Dalby and Petrovic probably have a thing based on the vehemence of her reaction to Kim's criticism of him and to news of his assumed death, but it's never stated outright. Petrovic seems to be better liked by the crew in general than Kim, even though Kim isn't the one lying and falsifying records to snag credit for a major find, and you get the sense that Kim's the only one who sees through his bullshit and it's made her even angrier. Lane and Campbell seem to have a bit of history, but it doesn't seem to be romantic, Brunel seems tired, worn down by six months in this (literally and figuratively) toxic environment. Complex relationships are sketched in quickly and efficiently through acting choices. And just as our initial understanding of these people is established, much of it gets upended when the other shoe drops. We know just enough to be surprised, but it never feels like a convenient or plot-driven reversal. As one of the characters puts it early on before things go bad, crises are how you find out who people really are. The answers aren't always the ones we expect here, for good or ill.

Where this movie works especially well is in tension - when things go bad, they go bad quickly and then do not let up for the rest of the film. The pacing is relentless, but splitting the crew up early means that cuts can be made from frenetic action to quieter suspense and back again so that we aren't fatigued by non-stop running and yelling, but the sense of threat never dissipates. Everything is at a premium - air, power, fuel - and that scarcity makes every decision count, and every setback that much worse. The crew is extremely vulnerable - they're at the mercy of the environment and the threat that's overtaking them, and one injury can mean certain death one way or another. Every success comes at a cost, every failure pays a high price and you're just sympathetic enough for the most part that you want to see these people survive.

The heart of this movie, then, is how these people let each other (and themselves) down - physical frailty in the face of the environment is matched by psychological frailty. These people are selfish and weak, almost to a person - just as the base keeps breaking down, so do they. The question then becomes to what degree their failures as people are or are not liabilities in the face of this larger outside threat. Some of the least sympathetic people turn out to be the strongest, and some of the most sympathetic turn out to be the weakest at a tremendous price. One of the symptoms that plagues people infected by the alien bacterium is the gradual stripping away of humanity, of memories and experiences, and the characters wonder out loud if the people their teammates were aren't still trapped inside their bodies. Humanity fails itself, and so humanity recedes. In the end, everything - air, water, food, fuel, power, humanity - is a scarce resource, and decisions have to be made about what needs to be conserved and what can be expended. Crises strip away humanity and lay bare what lies beneath it.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

Monday, March 24, 2014

Altitude: Avoiding The Obvious "Crash Landing" Joke

Everyone who writes has different ways of coming up with stories, and in some cases it's not even a process into which the creator has conscious insight. I can understand why "where do you get your ideas" is such a frustrating question. But it's also a reductive question, assuming that the idea is the most important thing in the process. Coming up with a premise isn't necessarily that difficult, but a premise is just the bones, the basics - you still have to put flesh and muscle on the premise by coming up with a setting and characters and the events that get them from plot point to plot point. The best idea in the world lives or dies on the details, even the best story is going to come out like shit if it's told wrong. It's not just the idea, it's knowing what to do (and not do) with the idea as well.

Altitude is a classic case of filmmakers who mistake cool ideas for an actual story, and end up with something so enamored of those ideas that it fails to cohere into a decent film.

We open on a woman flying a plane, carrying a family of three and making casual conversation to distract them from the turbulence they're hitting. It's a tiny puddle-jumper, so they feel every bump. They talk about their son and his love of comic books, the pilot talks about her daughter and her love of dinosaurs. Everyone's trying to reassure each other when another plane comes hammering out of a cloud bank, and the collision leaves us with the pilot plummeting to earth.

Jump forward however many years, and a young woman is talking to her father as she goes to meet some friends, who are unloading baggage out of a car. She's Sarah, and her father is concerned about her taking a trip with her friends to a concert, and as it transpires, Sarah is that dinosaur-loving daughter all grown up. She and four friends are indeed going to a concert, but what Sarah's dad doesn't know is that Sarah is flying them there in a twin-engine plane that she's rented for the purpose. She's a licensed pilot. (Yes, it seems like a strange choice for someone whose mother died in an aviation accident when she was very young, but just roll with it. It's not like you have a choice.)

The friends are very much stock horror movie teenagers going on a stock horror movie road trip - Sal, a dumb jock who embodies every awful bro stereotype to the point of being actually repellent within five minutes of screentime; Cory, an affable musician/rock climber laid-back guy who's just sort of, you know, there; Bruce, a shy, quiet weirdo who likes old comic books and reads Sartre; Mel, an otherwise unremarkable young woman who exists primarily in relation to other characters (she's Sal's girlfriend and Sarah's best friend), and Sarah herself. Sal's swilling beer and making racist jokes and generally getting in the way, Cory's not doing much of anything, Mel is videotaping everything for some reason (she's a film major, I guess?) and Bruce is standing really far away from everyone else and is acting really tense. Nobody else knows Bruce - he's there for Sarah, and Sarah's busy between pre-flight check and trying to reassure him that everything's going to be okay. They're all very much collections of traits instead of fully-formed people. Really, the only ones who don't come across as complete nonentities are Sal and Bruce, and they're both pretty unsympathetic. It's not a promising start. So, dynamics firmly established for the viewing audience, they get on board and take off.

Everything's more or less going okay - there's some tension between Bruce and everyone else, Sal is never not an asshole about anything for any reason, and they're all bantering about whatever, but unbeknownst to them, a bolt has rattled loose somewhere in the fuselage and is now blocking the elevator. Sarah discovers this when she tries to lower their altitude after going through some weather and can't descend (Sal's comment: "There's an elevator on this thing?" I cannot make this shit up.), which wouldn't be an issue except that they're headed into a massive black cloud, and Sarah's not instrument rated. They're about to fly blind, and they can't do anything about it. From here, things start to get bad in a hurry - the plane keeps ascending into this massive cloud, the plane isn't rated for the sort of altitudes that commercial airliners are, there's no breathing gear on board, they've lost radio contact, and they're running out of fuel.

And then, Sal sees some sort of massive, tentacled…shape…darting in and out of the cloud.  

Altitude basically has a lot of the same basic beats as the far superior The Descent (The Ascent?) - a day trip goes wrong due to a mixture of accidents, hubris and poor planning, then it takes a bizarre turn into something far worse, creating a crisis that lays bare all of the hidden resentments and failings the characters have. But Altitude is not The Descent, because it fucks it all up by trying to cram entirely too much shit into 90 minutes, the last act of which is a gauntlet of plot twists that pull everything in such increasingly ludicrous directions that you just want to throw your hands up and say fuck it. It's not content to tell a single story, it has to tell three or four instead, all piled up on top of each other. It's not just the malfunction, it's not just the hostile environment, it's not just the stress getting to people, it's not just something strange outside, it's all of these and even more, all crowbarred into this tiny little plane. None of them get the attention or care they deserve, and in some cases they don't even make sense in terms of what's gone before. Nothing's allowed to simmer, nothing's allowed to build, everything has to be full-bore crazy from the first moment things start going bad so the overall feeling is "oh, what are they yelling about now?" instead of "oh shit, things just got worse." Once they realize that they're having mechanical problems, everyone sort of starts panicking loudly at once, which, although plausible, feels a little silly in the confines of a six-seater plane. Whatever traits the characters have just get turned up to eleven - Mel sort of freaks out ineffectually and keeps taping things for no apparent reason, Cory tries ineffectually to calm people down, Bruce freaks out entirely, Sarah desperately tries to keep it together since she's flying the plane (except when she engages autopilot so the filmmakers can have her do other things), and Sal kind of becomes a monster, a one-man Lord of the Flies remake.

And in cataloguing the traits that define these characters, it highlights what is probably this film's second major weakness - not only does it pile on a surfeit of plot, but everything about the characters (and for that matter all of the ancillary details in the film) only exist in order to tell this story. Everything matters, but not in a way that feels organic - it all feels crammed in so that it can be used to advance the plot or provide a twist later. It's a film so full of Chekhov's guns that there's no room left for an actual story. Why does Cory rock-climb? So that there's ropes on board when they need them. Why is Sal a wrestler? So he can put Bruce in a sleeper hold when Bruce freaks out. Why does Mel take pills for motion sickness? So she can O.D. on them later. Why did Sarah give Bruce a comic as a present? Well, that one's a spoiler, and a head-clutchingly ridiculous one at that. But the point is that it all feels really artificial. If something's going to matter later on, it should be as unobtrusive as possible so when it does slot into place, there's a feeling of surprise for the viewer - we shouldn't see it coming. Here, it's so obtrusive that it feels like everyone and everything in the movie only exist in order for there to be a movie - there is no larger world here, just whatever traits and features are strictly necessary for this particular plot to move along.

It's too bad, because there is something salvageable here - it's one of the few monster movies I've seen of late where I felt like the effects didn't fall short, being stuck in a plane is great for tension and claustrophobia, and then taking what is already a precarious environment and adding something even more bizarre to it could really push things into a great scary place (as in The Descent). But it really feels like the filmmakers started with some cool ideas, and then instead of being editorial about it and asking "what would make the best story?", they just went ahead and built just enough of a narrative structure around all of the cool ideas to turn it into a 90-minute movie, and then came up with characters sufficient to serve those cool ideas without actually making them recognizable as anything other than vague stereotypes. As a result, none of it ever really comes together into something worth watching.

Unvailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Vinyan: Until Human Voices Wake Us, And We Drown

It’s easy enough to make scary movies in which bad things happen - watching something horrible happen as it occurs raises our hackles, triggers startle responses, gets us wondering about what’s going to happen to the characters with whom we nominally identify. The tagline to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre said it best: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”

But what about movies where the bad thing has already happened? We can all respond emotionally to the crash or the explosion, but there’s something to be said for films that manage to create something out of the experience of crawling from the wreckage. Case in point: Vinyan, which is less a horror movie than a hallucinatory tone poem about the rage, grief, and nihilistic despair that attends the loss of a child.

The film opens with the sound of crashing water, and what sound like screams. It’s suffocating, everywhere at once. When it subsides, it is because a woman has surfaced in the ocean. Her name is Jeanne, and she and her husband Paul are a presumably well-to-do European couple living in Thailand. They’ve been instrumental in helping to fund relief and rescue efforts in the area in the six months following the massive 2004 tsunami. It’s not just first-world philanthropy, though - they lost their son Joshua in the storm. Presumably carried out to sea in a massive wave. Crashing water, and the sound of screams. They’re at a small gathering for like-minded individuals, other rich white expats who have been generous with their money and time, and a woman who has been sneaking across military blockades into Burma to assess the situation there is showing some footage she shot surreptitiously to convince these people to help fund efforts there as well. In the middle of the footage, Jeanne asks her to stop and rewind, because she sees a little boy in the footage, walking away from the camera.

A little boy who looks just like Joshua.

And as far as Jeanne’s concerned, that’s all it takes. It was only six months ago, the grief is still so raw she’s practically bleeding. She wants to go into Burma. There’s a chance that her son is still alive and she is determined to take it. It’s going to be tough - the only way to get into Burma is to get in touch with the Triads, who do not fuck around. It’s a flat-out illegal trip into what is basically terra incognita. Jeanne does not care. Her mind is made up. Paul isn’t anywhere near as convinced, but who is he to say no? They talk to the woman who shot the footage and she puts them in touch with some people. And from there, it’s all one long trip into darkness.

Sometimes, when people talk about stories, they talk about the idea that the journey is more important than the arrival, or something like that. Vinyan is very much a film about a journey - it’s both a literal and metaphorical instantiation of the question “how far are you willing to go?” Part of it is geographical - they are still strangers in this country, unfamiliar with the language and local custom, and there’s never really a point once they get underway that they aren’t totally out of their depth. Everyone is taking advantage of them, capitalizing on their desire to find their son, and our awareness of their vulnerability runs like a tight wire through every frame. They spend most of the movie one bad decision or wrong word away from being just straight-up robbed and murdered and left to rot in the jungle. It’s hard to tell how aware of this they are. Paul seems to have some idea, but he’s largely ineffectual in the face of Jeanne’s single-minded determination, and the way he sort of helplessly objects only for her to undercut him without even really bothering to acknowledge him lends the proceedings a dreamlike feeling of impotence, like when you’re in a dream and something bad is happening but you move like you’re stuck in molasses or you try to scream and only a whisper comes out. In fact, the whole thing feels dreamlike - everything feels disconnected, desultory, characters slip completely out of frame and before we know it, we're as lost as they are. We’re as adrift as Jeanne and Paul.

And that’s the second big thematic through-line here - water is everywhere in this movie, so the ideas of drowning or being adrift and traveling echo throughout. Jeanne and Paul lose their son to water, they have to travel downriver by boat for most of the movie, stopping at increasingly dilapidated villages along the way, and there is rain, constant and torrential. Water is an element to which the protagonists return again and again - it is treacherous, and they can't escape it. As the film goes on, tellingly, they sometimes even seek it out. Lanterns are lit to float across the water, guide lights to show lost ghosts the way to the land of the dead. The further they go downriver, the stranger things get, the less attached to normalcy they become. They are at sea, they are rudderless. They are in over their head. They are going down for the third time.

It'd be easy to say that this is about a mother who goes crazy when her child dies, but that'd be reductive and it also misses the point that this voyage into the heart of darkness isn't just about Jeanne. Paul is also carrying his own grief and guilt and it drives him to make bad decisions as well. He may seem like a voice of reason, but he's equally as haunted and damaged by what's happened - and as we come to discover, his role in what happened, which may explain his willingness to indulge Jeanne - and the further they go, the more his ability to contain his own grief and guilt and rage fails him. The further they go (how far are you willing to go?), the more who they are is stripped away (who will survive, and what will be left of them?), until at the end of the journey, nothing remains but what kept them going to begin with, and in a place utterly alien and absent of anything we know as life, they are swallowed whole.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Love Object: They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

Cinematic conventions come and go. Sometimes the changes are due to new technology, sometimes they're due to new generations of filmmakers taking some things from their predecessors and discarding others, sometimes they're due to audiences responding more to one way of telling a story than another. Why these changes happen is probably more of a question for film historians than for people like me, but the end result is that to one degree or another, films reflect the times in which they're made, and as times change, some ways of making movies fall out of favor. If a particular approach is brought back, it's usually brought back to evoke a particular time and place through the way movies were made back then - consider the unwinking top-to-bottom 1980s homage The House of the Devil, or the more stylized but no less evocative 1970s grindhouse aesthetic of The Devil's Rejects or Rovdyr (which has the added benefit of not having the word "devil" in its title).

Love Object is a clever, tense, well-constructed film that evokes a singular and bygone approach to filmmaking without feeling deliberately or self-consciously retro. If you've ever wondered to yourself "why don't movies like Body Double or Dressed To Kill get made anymore?", well, wonder no longer and watch this. If you've never wondered this, and aren't familiar with the aforementioned films? Settle in, because you're in for a ride.

Meet Kenneth. Kenneth is a technical writer at a company that makes instruction manuals. Kenneth takes his work very seriously. He's the first one to the office in the morning, and he's the company's star writer. He's just finished a project and is raring to go, asking his boss for more work. His boss proposes a tough one - a government agency needs a 3-volume technical manual written for a complicated database program, and they need it in three weeks. It's a high-risk, high-reward project - if they can deliver it, it'll put the company in line for all kinds of sweet government contracts, but it's a shitload of work in a very small time frame. Kenneth gets the job, as well as a temp word processor/layout person to help him. Her name is Lisa, she's new, and she's pretty. Needless to say, Kenneth...well, actually, Kenneth freaks out a little.

See, Kenneth, as we discover pretty quickly, is wrapped a little too tightly. In an office full of writers in shirts and ties, Kenneth wears a suit. Kenneth's apartment might as well be his work cubicle with a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen attached. Nothing personal anywhere, and dominated by a home office and project bulletin boards. So it's hard to know who Kenneth actually is, and what glimpses we get aren't encouraging - he has a tendency to spy on his neighbors through his apartment door peephole, and he listens to them having sex. There are furtive trips to adult bookstores. Whatever's going on underneath the surface is kept very, very well in check, but it ain't good.

So in very short order, a bunch of things are happening to Kenneth - he's given a high-pressure assignment, he's not working alone on it (he prefers to work alone), he's working with an attractive woman. It's a powder keg of a situation, and then an oafish coworker lights the fuse by showing Kenneth the website for a company that makes custom sex dolls. Lifelike, made to order, whatever you want them to look like.

Kenneth orders one that looks just like his new co-worker, Lisa.

What follows is, on its face, pretty much what you'd expect. It's a film very much about the lines between the real and unreal blurring, but it's not as simplistic as all that. Love Object has a lot to say about the difference between living life and commodifying life experiences. It starts with Kenneth's doll, but it extends to Kenneth's neighbor, who leafs through swinger's magazines like he's shopping for the (actual) women he brings home for sex. Another neighbor - a police detective - carries a real sidearm and likes to play shooter videogames in his spare time. Kenneth's very job is an excellent example of this as well - he writes instructions for discrete slices of everyday life - programming VCRs, using first-aid kits, operating DVD players. He turns doing things into a product. Lisa isn't immune, either - even though she's very much the odd person out at the company, she does a personal 'zine, the story of her life as she sees it, which include diagrams of waltz steps (instructions on how to dance) and her list of the steps to finding Mister Right (instructions on how to love). Life is kept at arms' length, turned into something to be consumed, rather than organically experienced. And, at least in Kenneth's case, the more actual life begins to intrude on his approximated, packaged life, the more his stunted, unhealthy ideas about love and intimacy bubble to the surface in increasingly creepy ways.

The story itself is told in a manner as artificial as the experiences it depicts - everything is highly stylized, from the dialogue to the lighting and cinematography - when Kenneth walks into his new office, for a moment everything is washed out in total white, the adult bookstore is shot in glaring, lurid reds, time spent with Lisa is shot in soft-focus, and time spent at home with his doll is stark and grainy. It's all done very dramatically in the plainest sense of the word, evoking the singular vision of 80s-era Brian DePalma without feeling like a deliberate homage. Were it not for the occasional anachronism - the idea of Real Dolls, email and the Internet, body piercing - this would feel very much like something that had been recently rediscovered or pulled out of a storage vault somewhere. That it doesn't come off like a self-conscious examination of a particular style is a big strength. All of this is further sharpened by a tightly-plotted story that shares, interestingly enough, a lot of the same beats as a screwball comedy, balancing the creepiness and tension with black absurdity. Misunderstandings and misconceptions abound, and they're just as likely to evoke nervous laughter as undercut things in such a way that the laughter dies in your throat. It's all faintly ridiculous, but again, playing it completely straight sells it. It's silly the first time something happens, and dark as hell the second.

Its lack of realism doesn't mean that it sacrifices feeling, though - this is not a case of style over substance. It's pretty obvious from go that Kenneth is wrapped a little too tight and is not completely healthy, but even so his interactions with Lisa feel sincere and sort of endearing. It doesn't seem like he's deliberately trying to maintain a mask of sanity or anything, which makes his descent all the worse. He's not pretending to be a good guy - he really is a good guy, but he's socially and emotionally stunted, and has some really unhealthy interests. The tension between these two parts of him (who he is with Lisa, who he is at home) is making him come unglued (an apt expression in a movie about a doll). When the other shoe finally drops and things go bad for him it isn't a huge surprise, but it is really upsetting and sort of sad when it's not oh-holy-shit tense. He's trying to be a better person, and he's failing. Kenneth has the opportunity to trade manufactured experience for authentic life, and his decision is devastating.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix (available on DVD) 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fun With Google 8: The Googlening

Difference between age of woman in horror films

Huh. That's awfully specific.

equal and noneequal answering

Hey, that's kind of poetic.

modern horror demanding audience

Hmm. That's sort of flattering.

French Retro Fuck Films

Wow. That's just, I don't even. Something tells me they left disappointed.

The Pact: A Cinematic 7-10 Split

The word "average" is slippery. It's usually used to connote something that is typical, neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad - the middle of the distribution. What makes it slippery is that an average isn't necessarily descriptive of a particular type of distribution - you can get the same average for a bunch of middling scores as you can for a bunch of really high and really low scores. When I was a student in high school, I brought home a report card with four A's and two D's on it. My father looked at it, paused for a moment, and said "boy, you made a 3.00 the hard way, didn't you?"

The Pact is an average ghost story, but it's not average because it's consistently mediocre, it's average because for every thing it does right, it does something else equally wrong, which makes for a deeply frustrating viewing experience.

Nicole is at her mom's house, taking care of various and sundry matters in the days leading up to her mom's funeral. She's not too broken up over the death, and she's on the phone with her sister, who is most pointedly not there to help take care of stuff, and we learn through a lot of really awkward exposition that Nicole used to have a drug habit, and people don’t trust her to follow through on anything anymore.

(When I say "awkward exposition", I mean this is a conversation occurring over the phone, and in the middle of the call, Nicole for no apparent reason switches to speakerphone so we can all hear what her sister is saying, long enough for her sister to be all "you were using I can't trust you blah blah blah", and once that particular character beat has been delivered, Nicole switches back to talking privately. It's awkward and artificial because she's not doing anything that necessitates switching to speaker. It's strictly because we need to hear what her sister is saying.)

Once they're done being testy with each other, Nicole pulls out her laptop to fake-Skype with her daughter back in wherever Nicole lives. She's having trouble getting a strong enough signal to maintain the call, and wanders around the house asking if her daughter can see her. Sure enough, at one point her daughter asks "Mommy, who's that behind you?"

Nicole is alone.

Sure enough, spooky things happen in short order, and Nicole vanishes. Enter her sister Annie. She's come for the funeral, and to find out what happened to her sister. Well, that last part is sort of a lie, everyone assumes Nicole flaked out and went on another drug bender and would surface in a few days. Their cousin is looking after Nicole's daughter and Annie seems pretty peeved and resigned about the whole thing. What follows is her attempt to unravel the mystery around her sister's disappearance and the strange goings-on in the house of her dead mother. It's most definitely haunted, but by what?

I'm being pretty glib about this movie, and that's not really fair to it, because for the most part, it does a lot of things well. The Pact is a ghost story, and most good ghost stories have at their heart a mystery - who is haunting this place, and why? Here, the mystery unspools slowly but surely, and there are some nice twists and turns to the story as it makes its careful, deliberate way to a conclusion. It's equally careful and deliberate in much of its cinematic and narrative technique as well. The filmmakers are willing to rely mostly on static or slow-moving shots, images repeated with slight but significant variation, and inference instead of outright exposition. It's not clear right away how all of the pieces fit together, all of the seemingly unrelated imagery and odd occurrences, but in the end they do, and in a way that largely feels organic instead of forced.

But please, note my caveat - when I say "for the most part", the exceptions are glaring and egregious. The dialogue, especially in the beginning, is uniformly wooden and expository in a way you'd typically associate with a Lifetime Movie of the Week. It's a lot of people telling each other things or saying things about themselves out loud instead of talking to each other and communicating through inference like normal human beings do. Characterization is pretty much accomplished through the aforementioned unnatural dialogue and obvious signifiers replacing actual behavior. We know the two sisters had a bad childhood because Nicole has a bunch of tattoos, in addition to us being helpfully told that she's a drug addict, and Annie rides a motorcycle and is surly and gives no fucks and works as a waitress for lack of any more focused ambition. We know all of this because we see it or are told it outright. There's a police detective too, and he's all stubbly and rumpled and takes an interest in Nicole's disappearance for reasons, and apart from an estranged wife and daughter (that we know about because he talks about them), that's pretty much all he is - Detective Scruffy. They don't feel like people, and I'm becoming more convinced every day that if you're not going to go balls-out full-tilt crazy with weird shit in your movie, you should probably invest a good amount of effort in characterization so we feel like we're watching a bunch of actual people go through something horrible and scary instead of a bunch of stock types.

There are also two or three moments throughout where the slow & subtle approach is jettisoned in favor of the most obvious resolution to a given scene possible (to the point that I anticipated a specific line of dialogue verbatim seconds before it actually occurred). In at least one case this resulted in a really ham-handed scare, complete with fast pan left and music sting in a movie that otherwise eschews that approach. I don't necessarily mind using lots of sudden camera moves and jarring strings to pull off a scare, it's a time-honored technique. But it's so at odds with the approach taken throughout the rest of the movie that it feels wildly out of place, especially because it occurs at a point when the action hasn't really reached a fever pitch yet. It feels pasted in from a separate film.

And just when I thought they were going to pull off a decent ending - meditative, quiet, ending on a note of unease, they go for a last-second stinger that's as obvious and hackneyed as possible. Had they ended the movie 45 seconds or so earlier, it would have largely redeemed itself, but nope, all kinds of goodwill burned away with a cheap "The End…or IS IT?" that completely kills what is otherwise a solid ending to a problematic film.

(And yep, a casual perusal of IMDB reveals that a sequel is in production. Of course there fucking is. Why not? What does it matter if a complete story is told and we end on a note of supreme unease that invites us contemplate what we've seen? We need a franchise, dammit!)

And this is the problem - the shortcomings subvert and sometimes outright kneecap the strengths. The Pact shares some DNA with the far superior Lovely Molly (the lingering unease of being back in a home where you experienced a lifetime of abuse) and Absentia (two troubled sisters trying to make sense of the experiences that shaped them), but doesn't really handle any of their shared features quite as well. We get a sense that life in the house was bad, but it's never really explored, and we know that Nicole and Annie are supposed to be sisters, but - it's not necessarily that it's not believable that they're sisters, but we never really see them interact in a way that describes any sort of sisterly relationship. For that matter, nobody in this film is really all that believable as people. Like those other movies, it takes place in a typical middle-class home, and it's supposed to be a story told in character beats and small, quiet moments, but character beats require actual characters and small, quiet moments only work when you trust them to build atmosphere on their own, and you don't sell them out with easy jump scares.

And it's too bad, as I swing back and forth from its weaknesses to its strengths. There are some nifty narrative reversals and surprises that take time to play out - yes, the house is haunted but maybe not exactly how you think. Yes, there are obvious bad guys here, but also less obvious ones. There are a lot of right choices made, they just aren't couched in as much narrative or technical restraint and confidence as they need to be to work as well as they could. It's the C that you get when you get A's on half the assignments and D's on the other.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Berberian Sound Studio: This Is A Journey Into Sound

I cast my net pretty wide in terms of what I consider horror movies, and this is largely by design, since after a certain point a lot of the distinctions between horror movies, thrillers, and even dramas become sort of arbitrary. Genre classification is inherently limiting and as I've argued, can have some icky class implications. In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, I try to stick to one simple criterion: Does the movie evoke (or seek to evoke) one of the constellation of emotions we have come to associate with horror? Whether it was the intent of the filmmakers to make a horror movie is, to me, less relevant than the experience we have actually watching the movie. And horror movies haven' t just been about horror for ages. Fear, disgust, anxiety, dread, doom, sadness, terror - all of these are part and parcel of what we have come to call the experience of watching horror films. And ultimately, part of the success of a horror movie (loosely construed) has to be the degree to which it evokes an emotional response. A bad horror film is one that offers no opportunity to experience any of the abovementioned emotions, or which attempts to evoke them and fails, or sacrifices any sort of emotional resonance for empty signifiers and cheap startles.

That's a lot of words about movies (which isn't all that dissimilar from words about music, which is like dancing about architecture), but there's a point to it, and a point to the analogy I just made in that parenthetical statement just now. They're all necessary to talk about Berberian Sound Studio, which manages to be not so much a horror movie as a movie about the horror of making horror movies, and still evokes, albeit incompletely, a range of emotions that - I would argue - make it a horror movie.

It's the story of Gilderoy, no other name given. He's a quiet, shy, retiring English man who is apparently a very talented sound engineer. He's been hired by an Italian filmmaker named Giancarlo Santini to do the sound work on Santini's latest masterpiece, Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex). We get the impression that it's not the sort of film Gilderoy usually does (his typical gig being documentaries about small towns in the English countryside), and although we never get a clear sense of exactly what the film is about, a wonderfully hallucinatory opening credits sequence glimpsed by Gilderoy as he arrives at the titular recording studio makes it apparent that it's about as far from being his typical gig as possible.

The problems start almost right away. Gilderoy would like to talk to the director, but the director is absent, and instead he has to deal with the film's producer, Francesco. Francesco is casually evasive about Santini's absence, saying only that he's "busy", and that Gilderoy will meet him soon enough and why all of the impatience, hmm? Santini's very excited to work with you, he admires your work very much, so don't get so hung up on these things. The message is clear: Shut up and get to work. Even the simple act of getting reimbursed for his flight to Italy turns into a dead end for Gilderoy, as the receptionist tasked to deal with it flat-out dismisses and ignores him, and Francesco chides him for being so hung up on money, suggesting that he should be working for the love of film. It's a working environment that's immediately toxic.

And that's pretty much the movie. It's the story of one meek, reticent man with excellent ears, stuck in another country working on something that is completely outside of his experience and sensibilities. Gilderoy is immediately understood as a man for whom simple home comforts are best, and a letter he receives from back home details the lives of his neighbors, business surrounding the little local interest pieces he does, and some birds who are building a nest in his shed. That the letter is signed "Love, Mum" tells us everything we need to know about Gilderoy. He is a man in completely and thoroughly over his head. The entire film seems to be set in the studio over an indeterminate amount of time, loosely conveying our protagonist's slow disintegration. Here is someone who doesn't seem capable of standing up for himself in an environment where everyone is more than happy to walk all over him. It's hard to parse how much of the free-floating hostility he experiences is the culture and how much of it is the politics of the studio (there's a strong undercurrent suggesting that there's not enough money to make the film, and the whole thing feels really dysfunctional), and we're left just as much at sea over this as he is, because the film is largely in unsubtitled Italian. Gilderoy's left out of the loop on almost everything and so are we, unless we're fluent in Italian. Having viewed it once, I wouldn't mind watching this again with subtitles to see how my understanding of the movie differs, but I think going in without that context is actually preferable, because it forms the foundation for a sense of profound isolation that is thus both the experience of the protagonist and our experience as the audience.

This isolation extends to the visual language of the film as well. Much of the run time is occupied with montage - reels, tape, capstans, projectors, mixing boards, effects lists, recording, sound divorced from imagery, silence. It's all process, and that plus the language barrier makes it a profoundly alienating experience, as it should be - if Gilderoy is who we're meant to identify with, we're as on the outside as he is. He is his work, and that's all he's allowed to be. He continually asks what the movie is about, and never gets a straight answer. We're denied any understanding on that ground as well - everything we know about the movie being made we know from inference. There are lists of sound effects ("interrogator yanks hair", "monica falls", "monica hits ground"), foley artists making awful squishy, stabby, splattery noises with produce, Gilderoy's reactions to what he's seeing onscreen with bewilderment and unease. Is it going to be a good movie? Who can tell? When we finally meet Santini, he's kind of up his own ass, telling Gilderoy not to call his movies horror movies, they are movies "about life itself", but every clue we get as an audience suggests that it's a cheesy horror movie about witches who are tortured and cursed and who get their revenge, and there's a goblin in there for some reason. Everyone's saying it's one thing, and it's pretty obvious that it's another. The recording continues. There is silence, then there is sound. There are disembodied screams and people in recording booths, screaming soundlessly. The reels turn, the projector flickers to life. The pile of rotting produce (used to produce the sound of casualty, then discarded) grows higher and higher. Nothing is certain, our protagonist (and the audience) is denied understanding at every turn, and soon there is nothing left to hold onto.

It's not strictly a horror movie. It's subtle, careful, and isn't especially interested in spelling things out for the viewer. It's a highly impressionistic piece about one man's disintegration in the face of a profoundly alienating experience, and it's a comment on the relationship between representation and reality - we're denied the experience of watching a movie (or even the movie within the movie) and made to confront the artificiality of the process to such a degree that the lines blur between them. Don't call it a horror movie, call it life itself. In the absence of any way to exchange immersion in the work for the fresh air of home, Gilderoy drowns. Berberian Sound Studio isn't especially scary in a conventional sense, but in a way it's telling us that the denial of any conventional understanding is just as horrifying in its own way. The end result doesn't quite drive the thesis home - you could argue that its climax is just as much an exercise in denial as the rest of the film, but the whole thing feels like it's building toward something and doesn't quite reach it. Nevertheless, the end result is disquieting and sad, just as worthy of the title "horror" as the pulpy (in multiple ways) extravagance whose bones it lays bare.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

The Loved Ones: Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets

Looks can be deceiving sometimes. Ad campaigns and trailers promise one type of movie and deliver another. This is understandable to a point, since you need to get as many people as possible to see the movie you're promoting, and not every movie is an easy sell. There's nothing wrong with making a hard-to-categorize movie, but every movie is an investment and needs to recoup its costs, and "this movie isn't for you" isn't how you do that. I only bring this up because I'm just as susceptible to marketing as anyone, for good or ill, and occasionally it steers me wrong. I put off watching the movie about which I'm writing for awhile because although I'd heard it was good, I hear that a lot when it comes to horror movies, it wasn't the sort of story that usually piques my interest and well, given the premise, how much could you really do with it that I haven't seen before?

I was wrong. I was really wrong. The Loved Ones is clever, thoughtful, deeply tense, and absolutely masterful.

Before we see anything else, when we're still on a black screen, everything starts off with a song, before suddenly cutting to a different song, and then a different song, and then a different song, like someone changing stations on a radio, because that's exactly what's going on. But this is important because it's basically preparing us for a movie that's going to establish a mood and then cut away to something very different, and the degree to which it uses sudden contrasts effectively is part of what makes it an excellent film.

Open on two men in a car, the younger one giving the older one shit about the music he's put on. It's not a serious argument, just typically back-and-forth ball-busting as the older man gives the younger man shit about the "wrist-slitting shit" he likes and extolling the virtues of a good melody. Their camaraderie is easy, like two brothers, but they aren't. The younger man is Brent, and the older man is his father. Brent's dad barely looks old enough to be his dad. Maybe he had Brent when he was really young, maybe he's just someone who managed to grow up without growing old, but either way, it's a pretty positive father/son vibe, out in the car for a drive, until Brent almost hits someone standing in the middle of the road. Someone just sort of standing there, uncomprehending, just for a second. Brent swerves to avoid the figure and plants the car square into a tree in doing so.

Title card: Six months later. Brent looks different. Hair's longer, messier. He looks sallow, drawn. Something bad happened that day. He's standing at his locker at school, copping some weed and talking to his friend Jamie about the big school dance coming up. Brent doesn't seem that excited about going, but he'll take his girlfriend, Holly. Jamie's about to go ask Mia, who is the straight-up goth-vamp bad-girl of the piece. Jamie is punching WAY above his weight here, but she says yes. This is some classic, unreconstructed Sixteen Candles teen-comedy setup shit here except that Brent looks really fucking haunted. After everyone else walks away, another girl - Lola - walks up to Jamie. She's obviously spent quite a bit of time screwing up the courage to do this, and manages to say hi to Brent and ask him if he'll go to the dance with her. Brent, not at all unkindly, tells her that he's taking Holly.

See, now, if this were a teen comedy, the stage would be absolutely set. We've got our handsome protagonist with the good-looking girlfriend, his goofy comic-relief friend whose date screams "wacky trouble" from a mile off, and the shy, mousy-but-by-no-means-ugly girl, who, a little preoccupied with ideas of love and romance, resolves to transform herself into a beauty capable of luring the protagonist away from his bitchy-but-gorgeous-but-really-bitchy girlfriend and teaching him the meaning of True Love.

That's not a horror movie, though (well, from a sociocultural, gender-roles perspective it kind of is), that's a breakout role for an ingenue from the Disney Channel farm team. And that's not why we're here, and that's not what The Loved Ones is. From jump, it's shot through with all sorts of notes discordant to the easy narrative. Brent isn't teen-movie tormented. He has something seriously wrong with him, as the drugs and fresh self-inflicted scars on his torso attest - scars made by a razor blade he wears on a chain around his neck. Holly isn't bitchy at all. She really loves and cares about Brent. And Lola?

Lola's just standing there, watching.

Come the day of the dance, everyone's getting ready. Brent gets into some back-and-forth with his mom - she's even more haggard than Brent is, and his father is completely absent. It's as we expected - Brent's dad died in that crash, and nothing has been the same since. Brent's mom doesn't want him in a car and definitely doesn't want him driving. A lot goes unsaid between them. Holly's making herself beautiful. Jamie's doing the best he can with what he has. Brent goes for a run to the quarry, leans himself out over the edge holding on to a tree by one hand. He can feel it, the ease of letting go, letting all of the pain and grief sadness go in a single plummet. And then his foot slips, and it all becomes very real. He hauls himself up, and takes a moment to sit there and reconsider…

…only for strong hands to muffle his mouth with chloroform and drag his limp body back to a truck.

Fade up on Brent, in a tuxedo, bound to a chair, sitting at a small dinner table. There's Brent, there's a man, there's a woman (oddly affectless with a strange wound in her forehead)…and there's Lola, resplendent in a pink dress and makeup. The room is festooned with balloons and streamers and end-of-year dance banners.

This is Lola's party.

As it turns out, Lola is, well, batshit crazy (looks can be deceiving). And her dad really wants to do everything he can for his daughter. His utterly, homicidally, batshit crazy daughter.

So this is the situation, and it isn't this that makes the movie as good as it is. Anyone could see the setup coming (this was marketed as a horror movie, not as a teen comedy). No, what makes The Loved Ones excellent is what it does with the setup, the skill with which it does so, and the degree of thoughtfulness that goes into it.

The rest of the movie is concerned with fundamentally parallel storylines - Brent's efforts to survive what's happening to him at Lola's house, Jamie's night at the dance with Mia, and Holly's realization that something's happened to Brent. Like many good teen comedies, it pretty much all takes place in the course of one crazy night. These storylines intersect, sometimes in unexpected ways as we learn more about everyone in this little expanding circle of people. It's especially effective because all of the juxtaposition and cross-cutting gives us just enough relief from the horror of Brent's ordeal to sharpen it when we return to it, and even the comedic moments with Jamie and Mia are believably awkward and cringe-inducing. Holly reaches out to Brent's mom, and the two of them talk (and don't talk) about what's happened in Brent's life as they both wonder if they've lost someone else. It's intimate enough to give us plenty of opportunity to empathize with all of the protagonists, which makes what's happening to them even worse.

It's less easy to empathize with our antagonists, but their monstrosity is framed against a prosaic setting. Lola lives in a modest home, in a pink bedroom filled with inspirational collages from the Australian equivalent of Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, hearts and flowers everywhere, and she is a monster. Her bedroom isn't deception or fa├žade, it coexists with whatever black, rotten thing remained when something snapped deep inside of her. I'm okay with this, because antagonists tend to lose their power when we know too much about them. This is the banality of evil - a home that looks like everyone else's, except for the parts of it that really, really, really don't. People that look like everyone else, but have things chittering away in their head.

The effective contrasts extend into the cinematography as well. Most people's homes are shot in shadow and soft colors, even during the day, reflecting a sense of grief and loss (even if the reason for that grief isn't immediately apparent). On the other hand, Lola's home is lit plainly, and its homemade prom decorations stand out garishly against the modest, careworn furnishings - a manic smile on a homely face. This has the added effect of locating the horrors visited upon Brent among bright blues, pinks, and yellows instead of the usual po-faced rusty metal, brick, and concrete surroundings, and this gives it an edge-of-hysteric-laughter quality. The juxtaposition of Lola's fairytale ideas of romance with the means by which she achieves them is vivid, sharp, and uncomfortable. Pools of blood, mixed with glitter.

Even the music pulls its weight here, and for the most part, the best I hope for in most horror is that the music not get in the way. Here it's as active a part of the story as anything else. The score heightens tension without being obtrusive, and songs regularly punctuate (or ironically comment upon) the character's self-images and emotional states in meaningful, believable ways. Which makes sense, because they're teenagers, and being an adolescent means having a soundtrack for your life. Brent and Mia listen to aggressive metal (that "wrist-slitting shit", Brent's father called it in a nice little moment of prescience) Jamie listens to garage rock, because he's just a bloke, nothing complicated about him. Lola's theme is a teen pop song that opens with the line "Am I not pretty enough?" That communicates volumes about her, and it's devastating.

All of this is done with great narrative economy - we understand who these people are and what their relationship is to each other through small beats - conversations, looks, little reveals that gradually fill in the bigger picture. Very little is wasted in this film, but it rarely feels obvious. Even when it is a little obvious, it doesn't feel like something is being set up to be important later on as much as an important part of this character ends up coming in handy, sometimes in ways ironic to their original context. Little beats play out in the background without too much attention being called to them, and as the night's events play out, our understanding of the larger picture fills in bit by bit until the enormity of what has happened to this little group of people reveals itself.

And it manages all of this without sacrificing a real visceral sense of terror - this is a very violent movie, but the violence isn't gratuitous. It communicates the stakes for which Brent is playing. Terrible things happen head-on so there is no mistaking just how bad things are and how much worse they're going to get. And as bad as the situation is on its face, it still manages to find ways of getting worse that we might not expect, and being confronted with that again and again creates a feeling of profound anxiety and discomfort. Just when you think you know where it's going, shit gets even worse. It starts off as one kind of story, becomes another, and another, and another, until we are well and truly down the rabbit hole, but it never feels jarring, like something was inserted for the sake of cheap shock. It all makes sense, and so it feels like a nightmare - we turn a corner, and there are new horrors there facing us.

In the end, the emerging understanding of what everyone is going through, has been through, blurs the sharp contrasts so effective in the beginning. The climax is as blackly funny as anything I've seen without actually being played for comedy, in imagery that is simultaneously silly and awful in equal proportion, but the initially comic elements turn into something sadder as well. We all expect the antagonist in a film like this to victimize people directly, but here we also get a sense of all of the people Lola has victimized indirectly as well, the emotional cost that she has levied on the living as well as the physical cost levied upon the dead. There are no shocking twists, no last-minute revelations or stingers, just the inexorable awareness that there are awful people in the world, they can't always be explained, they take away what we love, and all we can do is climb out of the dark and face them.

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