Sunday, November 30, 2014

Take A Look, It's In A Book

For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie David, Noah Wiseman, Benjamin Winspear
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The hype machine is an insatiable monster more devastating than any horror villain. And the Australian psychological shocker The Babadook has been its victim for the past couple months, receiving rave reviews and accolades with many critics proclaiming it as the scariest movie of the year. Many audience members are bound to be disappointed because the film sold to them isn't quite what they will receive. 

This is a massive shame because, much like The Exorcist (a victim of the even more deadly "scariest movie of all time" hype), The Babadook is a downright fantastic horror film with nuance and insurmountable tension. By a first-time director who is also a woman, no less! It's a low budget masterwork that will chill your spine to sub-zero temperatures so severe that Walt Disney himself will be thawed before you ever feel warm again. It's easy to love. But it is a more subtle, understated horror than the reviews make it sound.

No, you won't be jolting out of your seat during The Babadook. You likely won't have nightmares after your screening. You may not even be "scared" for a single frame of the 93 minute run time. But that isn't a detraction. The Babadook is more insidious than that. Instead of throwing all its energy into startling the viewer, it gets into the back of your mind and starts slowly squeezing, squeezing, squeezing until you want to scream "Make it stop!" In fact, I've never seen a movie in my life that I more dearly wished to be over, to end the screaming torment of the mind.

And there goes the hype machine again. The Babadook has that way about it. Of wiggling itself into the deep crevasses of your brain cavity and peeking out over the edge, daring you to love it. It's hard not to. And once the dust settles, people will see the film for what it is: a tiny film with a minuscule budget that borrows more tropes than it creates. But The Babadook synthesizes these elements into the best possible iteration of itself that it could be within those constraints.

With all the trauma that that implies.

Many people are eager to forgive an indie movie for its flaws, stating that due to the limitations of the budget it couldn't be exactly what it wanted to be. This is a rare example of a film that achieves its exact intention to great success, but it is of necessity a smaller, more intimate affair. At certain (few) points, I do wish that the intentions were slightly larger with a budget to match, but The Babadook deserves no pity. It is shrill, taut, adventurous, visually stunning, and one of the best horror films of the year, "scary" or not.

It tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a young mother who works at a nursing home. She struggles to care for her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) - in every sense of the word. Raising him is a chore due to his shrill disobedience, and his very existence is a grim reminder of the loss of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital when Amelia was in labor.

As she faces the challenge of dealing with a lifetime of raising a child she's not sure she wants to have, a mysterious pop-up storybook appears on her shelf, telling the tale of one Mr. Babadook, a monster who sneaks into kids' bedrooms during the night wearing a friendly disguise, before gobbling them up. Naturally Samuel doesn't quite want to sleep after reading it, and over the next few weeks his constant bleating about the monster drives his mother crazy. When strange happenings begin, well, happening around the house, is it Mr. Babadook after her son's soul? Or is it something far more sinister inside Amelia's own mind?

Mind you, I think we'd all go a little bananas after finding this on our doorstep.

The answer to this question is far less obvious than in Oculus, which set up a fantastic Haunted Mirror vs. Damaged Girl plot before quickly spinning into Yeah OK There's Ghosts Let's Eat A Light Bulb. It's still a good film, but The Babadook on the other hand prolongs any revelations, letting the audience marinate in psychological torment, making it a great film.

The Babadook explores an area of motherhood that pushes the boundaries of traditional cinema, even in the horror genre. Many similar films with single mother protagonists (like The Ring or New Nightmare) focus entirely on a brave woman's attempts to save the life of her child. But The Babadook fearlessly asks the question: What if the brave woman has to face this threat to her child but doesn't actually care for the little stinker all that much?

I won't spoil things by leading you through the layers of metaphor involved in this process, though I could - and might - write an essay on it at a later date because that's how delicious the subtext is to chew on.

Yummy yummy childr- metaphors.

The beauty of The Babadook is that, in the midst of this daring tale of child rearing gone wrong, it combines age-old tropes of the genre into new meanings. Whether its things that go bump in the night, or bugs that appear where the patently shouldn't be, the horror of this horror film comes from how its events are depicted, not what they actually are.

The film's brilliant use of editing and sound design hammer the audience over and over, even if the scene is something as simple as watching TV or going to the doctor. Whether it's amplifying normal sounds by a thousand percent or creating an entirely new sonic experience for a familiar sound, the audio pummels the senses, battering the ears into submission. And the rhythm of the editing is thoroughly modern, using smash cuts and abrupt halts in music as well as alternating between smooth, swooping shots and quick 'n dirty choppiness.

This erratic pattern keeps viewers on their toes, all the while slowly turning the dial to Boil. By the end of a whirlwind scene, the sound and fury is enough to shake tears out of one's eyes through pure, unmodulated power. Not to knock the actors, who are brilliant (even the kid, thankfully), but even Essie David's door-busting performance is no match for the pure cinema of the best moments of the film.

The Babadook is an exercise in tension, preferring to create prolonged, unbearable pressure rather than momentary frights.

Although closets are never not scary.

The Babadook does have its share of flaws, though they are extremely minor. It gets a little pacy in the first act, and it has a touch of Third Act Syndrome when the finale unspools with a "kitchen sink" mentality. But this is not a film to miss. It's improbable that everyone will be able to see it in theaters thanks to its unsettlingly brief visit to our shores, but I urge any horror hounds to check this out on their nearest VOD outlet. 

Since, presumably, you are using the Internet to read this, the nearest one is in your hands. Close out this page and watch The Babadook right now. Don't expect the film to shock you out of your Armani socks (since you're reading this, you're obviously the epitome of fashion and taste), but appreciate it for its clever, nauseatingly nerve-wracking ability to twist your soul apart.

TL;DR: The Babadook is so tense, you should print out coupons for a Deep Tissue Massage before going into the theater.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1294

Friday, November 28, 2014

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Year: 2014
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Well, that was unexpected.

No, not that Suzanne Collins' third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay was adapted into a film. That was inevitable, especially after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire nabbed the 7th and 6th highest opening weekends in box office history. Nor was it unexpected that they would split that film into two parts. Twilight and Harry Potter proved beyond all doubt that, despite the format's limitations, it's a surefire box office bonanza. What's unexpected is that Mockingjay - Part 1, an adaptation of the worst half of the worst of the three books, is kind of awesome.

And not just because of the Sexy Lumberjack District.

While the book itself was a bit of a snooze, Mockingjay - Part 1 brings its best elements (namely, the scenes of rebellion) to the forefront and reduces its worst (Katniss's endless emotional outbursts which ring true to a teen girl's responses to a traumatic situation, but murder the pacing in cold blood), both by nature of being a visual, rather than written medium. 

While this is done without any real technical distinction save for a few moments, this turns Mockingjay into an emotional barrage, perfect for capturing the tone of this film's shift in genre from its predecessors. Where The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were bleak and dystopian and child-murdery, they couldn't even hold a birthday candle to Mockingjay, which is nothing more and nothing less than a brutal war film.

So, yeah. This film picks up where the last left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was busy hungry gaming for the second time when she broke the game's force field and was whisked away to District 13 - a rebel safe haven long thought to have been abandoned. Ousted gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final film role) has teamed up with District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to rebrand Katniss as the Mockingjay, a symbol behind which the disparate districts can unite in opposition to the tyrannical Capitol, led by the despotic President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).

As Katniss explores the damaged districts with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she battles her PTSD and harnesses her anger against the Capitol to inspire all of Panem. Although her goals are more singularly focused on the rescue of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol's clutches, her words ignite the flames of war.

And the fervor of a thousand fanfictions.

As the skirmishes increase and the districts band together against the Capitol Peacekeepers, the film becomes a slamming gauntlet of war and civil unrest. Although it retains the violence-obscuring shaky cam of the earlier films, Mockingjay largely casts away the YA trappings of the franchise to depict a grown-up, mature vision of a reluctant teen crossing into adulthood and finally realizing her responsibility to do all she can to fight the injustices that she has grown up with.

Looking at the news this week, the increased sense of social responsibility present in Mockingjay hits hard. That's all I'm gonna say about that, but this film came at the right time to (albeit slightly accidentally) be bold and shatter political boundaries, much more than it could have even a couple months earlier.

Every element of the film emphasizes the hard facts of war and injustice. Especially notable is the costume design, which actively denies the actresses of their typical level of makeup, stripping away the cinematic facade of normalcy and highlighting the bleak, unpolished reality of the situation. Although Capitol fashionista Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) finds a way to make a military jumpsuit her own, her costume is perhaps the most affecting, transforming a gaudy glamor queen into a pale shadow of her former self.

Though Lord help me, she makes it work.

Behind those simple costumes lies the powerhouse of Mockingjay. Elizabeth Banks outdoes herself as the garish spokeswoman stripped down to her essentials and Jennifer Lawrence gives the single best performance of her career as a shattered teen girl scrabbling for a kernel of hope in a colorless world. The rest of the acting is competent all around (although Natalie Dormer as Cressida the propo director is perhaps a little showy), but these two women really bring the house down, quite literally in some cases.

This visual bleakness is accented in the score with a dazzlingly simple composition by James Newton Howard with lyrics pulled from the book itself - "The Hanging Tree." This song of rebellion spreads like wildfire from district to district, eventually being pulled into the underscore itself in one of the most well-composed sequences in the film.

Luckily, side characters like Banks and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch provide brief moments of levity to protect Mockingjay from becoming a grand tour of humanity's most awful tendencies. I mean, this is a film in which the opening title is led in with the line "I wish we were dead." It's tough to watch - whether it's the bombing or the shooting or the sneak attacks or the ruthless propaganda, there's something to hit everyone's disturbed sweet spot.

I spent a great deal of time dithering over my numerical rating for the film because it's so much better than Catching Fire, but it lacks the intangibles necessary for me to rate it a 9. The visuals just aren't spunky enough for me to look at it as an astounding piece of cinema - although as a series of emotional beatings, it's top notch. So take that 8 with a grain of salt, knowing that I'd give it a half if I could.

See you next year when we can finally lay this franchise to rest with maybe the best entry yet? Until then, may the odds be ever in your favor.

TL;DR: Mockingjay - Part 1 is the best film in the franchise so far - and a harrowing emotional journey.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 989
Reviews In This Series
Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

But Saw, What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks

Year: 2009
Director: Kevin Greutert
Cast: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We're past the point of no return. After this post, there's only one movie left in my marathon of the infamous Saw series. Luckily by this point, the films have established a baseline of "competent but dreary," largely accomplished by keeping crew duties in the family. Seeing as our director this time around is yet another longtime friend of the franchise, editor Kevin Greutert, it would be quite reasonable to assume that Saw VI might be in the same vein as its cohorts.

As it turns out, Saw VI is even better than the baseline. In fact, it's the best film in the franchise since Saw II. Don't take that to mean it isn't pretty darn bad, but it's like finding a Fresca in the middle of a cooler full of Club Soda. I'll take what I can get with the Saw movies.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't recall there being an actual saw in the franchise since day one.  It must be the work of those wicked hardware lobbyists.

We pick up almost exactly where the last film left off (after an entirely unrelated and gratuitously grisly trap, as per tradition) - Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) is crushed to death by a shrinking room as Jigsaw's new protégé Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) laboriously lowers himself into the ground in a box filled with broken glass, smug as a bug. Saw V, everyone.

The next scene is the biggest twist in the entire franchise. You might want to listen to this song while you read the next sentence in order to be adequately prepared for the supreme level of twisting that is about to happen to your mind. Alright, are you ready? The scene that follows is entirely based on character development. For perhaps the first time in six films, a moment plays that isn't coated in grime as we visit Will Easton (Peter Outerbridge) in his fancy high rise office.

Will is the owner of a corrupt health insurance company and employer of the Dog Pit, a team of six highly trained individuals who look for discrepancies in insurance forms and find reasons to terminate contracts with sick patients. While we learn about Will, his work, and his life, the film acquires a slick, bright aesthetic that - for a single shining moment - allows us to forget that we're watching a Saw movie. 

What a gift. We should write thank you letters to Mr. Greutert.

So anyway, traps. The more the merrier, and because there's already been five consecutive movies to one-up, the more there are. Will is abducted and put through a gauntlet of four traps that viscerally depict how the choices he has made with his company have great impact on human lives. A mother (Shauna MacDonald) and her douchey son (Devon Bostick) - who has only two types of lines in the film, either "Acid Facts" or "The F Word." - are trapped in a cage with a vat of hydrofluoric acid above them. And Pamela (Samantha Lemole), a journalist, is trapped in a cage with a video monitor overseeing the other traps. So... That's something. It kinda reminds me of my Saturday nights, actually, what with all the Saw films I've been zipping through lately.

While all this mess is going on, Hoffman works with Agent Erickson (Mark Rolston) and the secretly not dead Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis), attempting to prevent them from discovering his true identity and feeding them clues that Strahm may have been perpetrating the killings. And he has flashbacks to when Amanda (Shawnee Smith) was still alive because why not. Also Jigsaw's ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) pops in from time to time to be ambiguously evil and remind us that - for all the bad acting and stilted line deliveries Mandylor and Co. bring to the table, things could be much, much worse.

Seen here in a brief moment of repose before attending the Unskilled Performers Association Convention & Yuletide Ball.

For once, the film has enough good elements in its production to counteract the blistering inanity of the script. Alas, that script thing will never change - although it's commendable that Saw writing duties have only been shared by about four people and change throughout the entire process. With such uniform work behind the camera, the stories may have wooden dialogue and incomprehensible twists, but at least they have consistent internal logic and characters. 

So even if Saw VI contents itself with unmotivated villains, a shrilly preposterous ending and over-explanation of its metaphors using Jigsaw as a mouthpiece ("The blood on your hands will literally represent the blood that's on your hands," he says), even getting him to gaze wistfully into a piranha tank ("Piranha," he says) while remonstrating Will in a flashback, at least it's coming from a place of organic nonsense.

But hey! Good elements! We've watched the "all the cool kids tint the frame" Saw aesthetic go from blue to green to yellow and back to blue, each shade more ugly than the last. But here in Saw VI, we get rooms that are only shadowy and grimy to increase tension when necessary and a much gentler teal color to guide us through. This color offsets the gore, which appears in full, steaming force in the opening scene, though it tones down until the grand finale once the traps get more plot-centric.

And all the plots service a political point, providing some of the only truly analyzable "subtext" in the franchise thus far. Having Jigsaw expound the virtues of healthcare reform while staring at a piranha tank and watching Hilary Clinton on the news may be overdoing it, at least it's doing something.

I swear, this scene feels important, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Unfortunately, Jigsaw's pedantic MO is pushed extra hard to contrast with the more topical political appeal. Haven't we figured out by now that, despite his claims, Jigsaw is a far from "moral" killer? A good 70% of his traps this round involve at least one person being forced to die for the benefit of another. Sure, that person may be learning one of his soporific "lessons," but the human bait in their traps is afforded no true means of survival.

This flies directly in the face of Jigsaw's philosophy, as repeatedly stated throughout the six films in the franchise, vigorously so in this very film. I shan't mention that his philosophy is inherently flawed (punishing people who don't value their life by murdering them isn't exactly a motivational speech), because without it the Saw films have nothing. But in Saw VI their established logic is spit on again and again, yet nobody seems to notice or care.

Please excuse my fervor, it has been a rough couple weeks. But don't dismiss this as a nerd rant (hashtag) either. The biggest issue with the Saw films as a mainstream tentpole is that the lessons they teach are highly dubious. I'm not saying a torture film will inspire novice serial killers to pick up some iron shackles at the next Home Depot sale, but Saw's incessant moral-peddling encourages easily-plied douchebags to truly believe that this villainous character is righteous. You can toss me all the gore gags and extreme material you want, but that pandering moralism just doesn't sit right with me.

Unfortunately for these six, they'll never sit right ever again.

If the inherent hypocrisy of Jigsaw's ideology isn't apparent in the reprimanding scene where he yells "He's a HUMAN BEING!" at Hoffman after he dumps an unconscious man onto the floor, immediately before attaching him to a machine that will twist his limbs off one by one, then it can't be helped. I'm ready for this to be over.

Anyway, the film really isn't the worst. That's just been building up for a while and I had to blow off some steam before our closing number. Really, if you're picking one Saw film past Part III to watch, you're best off with this one. It's got its share of grotesqueries and idiocies, but at least it has a more intelligent aesthetic and a political core to prevent them from shallowness.

See you all soon!

TL;DR: Saw VI is the best of the back half of the franchise, though you should necessarily take that with a grain of salt.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1411
Reviews In This Series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw: The Final Chapter (Greutert, 2010)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Don't Wanna Be A Dystopian Idiot

Year: 2014
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Will Poulter
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The room is cold and dark. You can hear others around you, murmuring in confusion. Through the gloom all you can see is slate gray walls, oppressive in their austerity. All hope is lost. Have you woken up in a dismal dystopia? A grim reminder of the path our society is implacably heading down?

Nope, you're in a movie theater in 2014. Every couple of months, Hollywood brings us some fresh hell conjured up from the seemingly inexhaustible pool of dystopian young adult literature, whether it be the relatively stately The Giver, the insipid and quickly forgotten Divergent, or this week's inevitable blockbuster Mockingjay - Part One (based on the most irritating portion of the most irritating Hunger Games book - a real recipe for success).

Our topic for the day is yet another of those films - September's The Maze Runner, which evens the scales by being almost confrontationally typical.

Each stone block represents another YA adaptation's corpse that this film pilfers from.

Typically, this is the part of the review where we complain about the liberties that the film takes with the book and how it bastardizes the original property's legacy. Take a deep breath. Find your center. Get ready for this fresh air. The Maze Runner is miles better than the book, actively improving upon its dreadful, leaden prose. 

Though it suffers from being stuck with the broad strokes of the source material (this being an adaptation and all), The Maze Runner largely reduces the book's infuriating Diablo Cody-lite slang and many of its conspicuously imbecilic plot beats. Also gone is its grating tendency to capitalize just about every noun with any shred of importance to the story ("Thomas walked down The Path toward The Tree to complete The Bathroomening."), though by nature of being a visual medium it would have done so regardless.

That said, The Maze Runner's still not a terrific story, weighed down as it is with paper-thin characters and a heaping helping of ass-stupid dialogue. But the ways in which it is monumentally better than the outrageously dire book are worth noting until the cows come home. And, this being a dystopia and all, the cow species has probably been wiped out so we have plenty of time.

Olly olly oxen free!

So. Thomas (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in an elevator as it lifts him into a walled-off Glade. He has no memory of his life, nor idea of where he might be. He soon discovers that he has arrived at a Camp filled with boys led by the altruistic Alby (Aml Ameen). After an interminably lengthy time, the boys finally decide to explain what's actually going on, as far as they know.

Basically, every month one boy is lifted into the Glade along with supplies. They are surrounded by walls on all sides. Every day, a door opens up that leads into a Maze. There are people known as Runners who try to map the maze. Every night the doors close and the Maze is patrolled by Grievers, strange biomechanial flea-slug-scorpion monsters that are surprisingly not the worst-rendered CGI I've ever seen. Yadda yadda yadda, nobody survives the Maze. Because Thomas is a Special Flower, he is convinced he will be able to help the boys find a way out.

I really don't care to discuss Maze Mythology in detail with you all, especially because of how little gravity the Maze actually invokes upon the plot. What with it being in the Title and all, you might assume it would be a little more important than it eventually ends up being, but you would be woefully mistaken. So - the boys are trapped, Thomas only wants to help although he tends to muck things up even more, and we don't even get to see them explore the Maze all that much.

And there's not a David Bowie codpiece in sight.

The remainder of the plot tumbles through a variety of hoary Tropes including, but not limited to Give It To Them Yourself, a preponderance of Dream Sequences, a half-hearted Love Interest that is (exquisitely) tossed to the side almost immediately, and a "massacre" in which every boy with a name or a line of dialogue gets off scot-free. If I had a mind to pick at Holes, The Maze Runner would be more tattered than my favorite childhood blankie.

The writing is likewise quite nefarious, challenging audience patience as the characters try to decipher such arcane and mysterious Clues as "What does the note 'She's the last one' mean?" or "What could this metal device marked '7' possibly have to do with the eight zones labelled '1' through '8'?!?" Never mind the fact that the villainous Organization in charge of this whole affair is called - and I'm not kidding - "W.C.K.D." - affording us all the exclusive opportunity to hear the phrase "Wicked is good" repeated ad infinitum.

Although, again, Context is everything. Things don't seem so bad when you realize that in the book, the company was literally just called "W.I.C.K.E.D." with its own aggrieved Acronym to match.

Honestly, I'm pushing the screenwriters for an Oscar nod solely because they somehow made this trite garbage even a little bit more subtle.

At least The Maze Runner is shot competently enough, despite its obligatory YA reliance on Handheld Camerawork, even in long pans or insert shots where it really has no business being. There is a nice reliance on blackness in the editing, mirroring the opening and closing of the mysterious walls surrounding the boys. The production design is expressive and expansive, effectively evoking what a lived-in community run by teen boys might theoretically look like. And the mostly-CGI Maze doesn't show a crack, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the world onscreen.

Perhaps the most consistently terrific element of the film is its Sound Design, which evokes the silent mystery of things that go bump in the night far better than the plot properly deserves. This keeps the tone in check, especially in the moments where it tilts into horror territory. And there are a lot of these moments, whether it be a nod at zombieism (don't ask), a Teen Graveyard, or a monster attack. It's actually rather Cabin in the Woods-y, an eclectic mix of tropes compressed together in a closed-off environment controlled by unseen forces.

So despite some flaws in the Acting (Kaya Scodelario - as the useless love interest - chomps around in a poor attempt to disguise the British accent clawing its way out of her tortured throat and Dylan O'Brien provides far too little motivation to augment the thinness of his character), at least The Maze Runner looks and sounds decent, which allows the other manifold Grievances to slide down much more smoothly. 

It also really doesn't hurt to have a couple attractive actors lying around.

The Ending - which ladles out a Tolkienian level of unrelated Exposition setting up the second film - is wildly unsatisfying, preventing the film from operating as an individual story with a contained conclusion. And the Reveal is bonkers, providing perhaps the most arbitrary and thoughtless villainous plan in cinema history including all the James Bond films.

Whatever happened to just a knife, some teens, and a little stage blood being enough?

It is typical of dystopian fiction to reveal a Flaw in our Society, one that could lead us into the world we see now. The Hunger Games has its stabs at class disparity. Most of the others (like Divergent and The Giver, from what I've read) espouse standing up for individuality in a sea of conformity. But The Maze Runner is as shallow as the Grave it dug for itself by allowing a second film to be greenlit.

It occupies the time well enough, preventing the two Hours it takes out of your life from dragging. And it's decent enough as a mechanical teenybopper thriller, setting up all the pieces and knocking them down in unsurprising but generically satisfying ways. But by stripping the bedraggled Genre of the one vital thematic piece that keeps it thriving, The Maze Runner prevents itself from rising above the muck.

All in all, The Maze Runner is not a Bad Film, though it's a supremely unnecessary one. Fans will certainly get a kick out of it (if they can manage choke down that prose and smile, this film will be like Citizen Kane to them), but the casual YA enthusiast might want to steer clear.

TL;DR: The Maze Runner is perfectly average low-grade entertainment that is at least better than the book it's based on.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1459

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Black Magic Woman

Year: 1981
Director: Riccardo Freda
Cast: Stefano Patrizi, Anita Strindberg, John Richardson
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Italy was in a strange place in the early 80's. Aside from the ways that Italy is a strange place in general. The highly successful gialli of the 70's were winding down in favor of gory zombie and/or cannibal films, which were produced with deranged proliferation in the decade to come. And the pool of the "unsettling colorful imagery first, plot second maybe never" giallo films had been tainted by the increasing popularity of the American slasher genre.

The elegant gialli of Mario Bava and his brood were swiftly becoming a thing of the past. Though the decade would still see some Argento classics and quality Italian slice-and-dice pictures like StageFright: Aquarius, the country's increasingly slasher output was mostly anemic fare. Anyone who read my review after I choked down 1980's Trhauma can understand why I would attest to that.

Our newest entry to Census Bloodbath is no different. Murder Syndrome aka Follia omicida aka Murder Obsession aka Fear aka Texas Chainsaw VII: The Deadening (probably) was the latest cheap cash-in on the slasher craze, mixing in classic slasher elements with a Psycho structure and a dash of hyper-Italian supernaturalism for spice. Although it's a dreary bore, at least one thing can be said about Italian slashers - Murder Syndrome included. They're never typical.

I wouldn't argue that this means they're GOOD, but at least it's something to chew on.

This is a film which opens with a traumatic rape/strangling sequence (revealed to be a scene being filmed for a movie, one that seems even worse than the one we're actually watching) then immediately cuts to a man playing guitar on his couch for a full minute. This is a film in which a woman's friend tells her to take a hot bath, somehow doesn't hear her screams from through the door as a man attempts to drown her, then later reprimands her for having taken a bath.

But I've jumped ahead. The story of Murder Syndrome is a simple one. Until it isn't. Michael Stanford (Stefano Patrizi) is an actor who experiences a mild spot of uncontrollable violence on his latest film set. He rightly decides that he should probably grab a little R&R and brings his shrill girlfriend Deborah (Silvia Dionisio) with him to his mother's stately mansion in the country. There, they are greeted by the creepy butler Oliver (John Richardson), who informs Michael that his mother Glenda (Anita Strindberg) is extremely ill. Because this is Italian cinema, the ailing, aging woman is played by a breathy blonde vixen.

Why grandmother, what big bazongas you have!

It wouldn't be Italy without a healthy dose of seething eroticism. But more on that later. We still have to meet the Meat Michael's houseguests! There's Hans (Henri Garcin), Michael's somewhat voyeuristic director who carries a camera wherever he goes; Shirley (Martine Brochard), the assistant director who carries one of those annoying little dogs around; and Beryl (Laura Gemser), the stunning lead actress.

As these people wander around the grounds "scouting for locations" but mostly just banging each other, Michael struggles with memories of murdering his father, The Maestro. As supernatural occurrences begin to... occur, the group grows more and more anxious until eventually they die one by one. After over an hour of the film has already farted itself onto the screen.

The biggest problem with Murder Syndrome is by far its languorous pace, but the piss-poor production values and poorly executed gore likewise give it a leg up in the "being bad" regard. You've already seen the massive rubber spider up above, but toss in some rubber bats and a papier-mâché head and you've got yourself a movie that looks more like a not-particularly-crafty parent throwing a Halloween party for their seven-year-old.

The candelabras are a nice touch though. What is that, Party City?

Luckily the gore sequences are ambitiously bloody enough that their shoddy design is more charming than grotesquely inept. The dummy head explodes with the force of a watermelon when smacked with an axe, and a chainsaw to Shirley's neck provides a veritable waterfall of ketchupy blood.

Actually, most of the good elements in Murder Syndrome elicit the same "aw, at least you were trying" reaction. There's some interesting nightmare imagery in the second act (vomiting nuns, balls of snakes, groping spider hands) that is frightening enough for how cheap it is. And there are plenty of vigorous stabs at metaphor and thematic resonance.

Though plenty of these attempts are admirable (especially the recurring superstition that photography erodes the soul and the repeated motif of the lights in the house spontaneously going out), they mostly peter out after the middle of the second act in favor of a series of nonsensical supernatural revelations. Sure, I can accept that the mother performed a Black Mass to subtly force her son to come home. Sure, I can accept that we are given two completely separate explanations for what has been happening in immediate succession. But when this claptrap is at the expense of a plot thread so rife with potential, it's a real disappointment.

But hey, at least there's plenty of exploitation!

Said no one ever.

Murder Syndrome cheerily indulges its audience with topless scenes sewn into the fabric of just about every other minute of the film. Many are brazen, of course. Like when Deborah runs through the rain in a dress so gauzy you worry it might dissolve off of her. But others are so subtle, you doubt their very existence. The middle portion of the film is something like a Where's Waldo book of stray nipples. Brambles tear open shirts as ladies run, bare chests form a great deal of the background of the Black Mass, and anytime a female character is wearing a robe, an errant boob finds its way to freedom more often than not.

So, at any rate, Murder Syndrome is very much a vivaciously exploitative product of its time and its country. So academically there's more than a little interest to be had. But it is eternally bogged down with "sit and let me tell you a tale" storytelling that destroys the pace, and the storylines are far too uninteresting - at least proportionally to their potential. Murder Syndrome is a wash, but at least we'll always have the nightmares.

Killer: Oliver (John Richardson) and Glenda (Anita Strindberg)
Final Girl: Deborah (Silvia Dionisio), but only incidentally.
Best Kill: Shirley gets her head chainsawed off.
Sign of the Times: Most of the female cast members are alumni from the Women's Prison cinematic movement in Italy.
Scariest Moment: An extended nightmare sequence beginning with Deborah getting caught in a giant spiderweb, middling out with bleeding tree skulls, and capping it all off with a Black Mass.
Weirdest Moment: Oliver is revealed to have psychic powers in a line given about the same weight and gravity as if he had said "I made you a sandwich."
Champion Dialogue: "In case you don't know, I murdered him."
Body Count: 6; Not counting Deborah, who surely died soon after the credits rolled - and not double-counting the Maestro, who was killed over again in two contradictory flashbacks.
  1. Beryl is stabbed in the abdomen.
  2. Hans is axed in the head.
  3. Shirley has her head chainsawed off.
  4. The Maestro is stabbed in the chest.
  5. Oliver poisons himself.
  6. Michael is stabbed to death. 
TL;DR: Murder Syndrome is dull and ill-paced, but offers up mild Italian exploitation charms.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1264

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not In The Saw, But In Ourselves

Year: 2008
Director: David Hackl
Cast: Scott Patterson, Costas Mandylor, Tobin Bell
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Strap yourselves into your metal cuffs, it's time for our fifth Saw marathon review! To begin, let's ignore how easy it is to make "hack" puns on director David Hackl's name and instead focus on how he came to be here. After production designing parts 2-4, he stepped up to the helm after series director Darren Lynn Bousman opted out, presumably in a last ditch attempt to save his soul. 

As so happens with these films, this means no discernible change in quality because 1) it was handed off to another member of the incestuous Saw family who undoubtedly knew what they were getting themselves into, and 2) pretty much all the films suck equally anyway. Essentially the only difference between Saw V and its queasy predecessors is that new production designer Tony Ianni splashes the sets with repellent yellow lights rather than repellent green ones. Oh, how fascinatingly nuanced these Saw films are.

Although the green does return for several cameo appearances to the comfort of absolutely no one.

And though the plots make increasingly less sense if you haven't closely inspected the previous films in the franchise, let's pull out its intestines and display them for the world to see. I would give a spoilers tag, but at this point, we're in too deep. I'm so very tired. So, we have Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), Jigsaw's (Tobin Bell) successor née apprentice, overseeing two very different tests.

The first (and best) involves five people forced to go through a gauntlet of grueling traps in order for them to learn how to work together in spite of their backstory having nothing to do with lack of teamwork. Of course, this is the Saw universe, so these people are venal and awful and destroy each other before they can even shake hands. The second involves Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) trying to uncover the mystery of who is carrying on Jigsaw's legacy while ignoring the constant tape recordings telling him to leave well enough alone. He finds himself in a series of vile traps and makes the wrong decision exactly always.

All this is intercut with flashbacks that are poorly shunted into place, not aided by the fact that Patterson and Mandylor look exactly the same. At first I was able to distinguish the two bland white men by the fact that the latter used a gravelly Batman voice and the former didn't. But when Strahm performs an emergency tracheotomy on himself (don't ask) and spends the rest of the film barking out his lines like he's coughing up marbles, the last vestige of my sanity is stripped away and I'm forced to give up even trying. 

Especially in the closing climactic fight sequence, it actually improves comprehension if - instead of watching two medium build white stunt doubles swipe at each other - you instead turn the TV off, go take a walk, and never return. There's an important distinction between encouraging an active viewer and drowning that viewer in quicksand. Saw V finally closes the gap.

At least the dastardly Slicker of Evil helps ease the tension from time to time.

It is here in Saw V that the flaws germinating with series writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan in their previous script flower into full bloom. The characters are irredeemably awful and Jigsaw's MO is inconsistent even by the incredibly lenient standards of the franchise. Despite his constant admonitions of Hoffman's more direct murder style ("Killing is distasteful!"), he is remarkably unwilling to give Strahm even the semblance of a chance of survival. 

I know his "tests" have grown increasingly arcane and dubious, but since when does sending someone in a pig mask to punch a guy who walks through a door count as a trap? And it doesn't seem entirely fair to then shove him into a box that slowly fills with water, completely bereft of instructions. It's one thing (an admittedly bad one) to set people up to learn lessons by mauling themselves, but these new ones are epically juvenile and petty with nary a comprehensible moral in sight. And one of them rips off The Pit and the Pendulum, assuming we're too stupid to notice. I dearly hope we aren't.

Also he claims that his traps "instantly rehabilitate" people. You know, like Amanda, the one survivor of his games, who continued to cut herself then instantly failed the very next test he put her through. Man, this guy has a worse track record than the Dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. At least that guy admitted that he was a sociopath.

And the ever-present clunky dialogue of the franchise rolls in like a square wheel from the very first line. I won't bother ruminating on this for too long, considering that my notes by themselves occupy about 200 words worth of space. But if "It needs blood. Our blood." or "Dr. Gordon, a healer who needs some healing," are the best lines we as a society can produce, we might as well just close the book on cinema as an art form.

If you imagine this cube filled with vodka, you have an accurate representation of the Saw V script's writing process.

Like the previous entries, one of the few saving graces of Saw V is that it's a veritable slop chute of mockery fodder. Why does every villain in existence seem to have an engineering major? How is Strahm extrapolating his clues from empty rooms? Why does one of the men in the gauntlet trap act with both hands simultaneously like he's trapped halfway through a mirror and his body is now forcibly symmetrical? I don't have answers to these questions, but I do have plenty of sardonic wit to pump into any willing ears.

The waterfall of dumb is plentiful, including but not limited to two separate reveals that (gasp) Jigsaw is, in fact, Jigsaw. Not even Charlie Clouser's "Hello Zepp" score (inexplicably rearranged into what sounds like a 74-year-old clergyman's xylophone solo) can save the film from its pure, unadulterated banality.

For fans of the franchise (and - woe is me - they exist), the gore is spicier than ever. Thankfully the frantic dubstep video cutting vanishes with Bousman, but the result is an unflinching gaze upon some immensely sickening grue. It would be supreme folly to suggest that Saw V is indicting our voyeurism of the first four films and punishing us with exactly what the audience was asking for, but I fervently wish this were the case. A cruel, vindictive, but moral Saw V is infinitely philosophically preferable than the wanton, wicked trifle that lies before us.

At least it was better than Saw III, I guess.

TL;DR: Saw V is gruesome, generic, and idiotic, only brought levity by scenes so dumb they transcend the genre of bad cinema.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1159
Reviews In This Series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw: The Final Chapter (Greutert, 2010)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Be As Thou Wast Wont To Be

Year: 2008
Director: Tom Gustafson
Cast: Tanner Cohen, Wendy Robie, Zelda Williams
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

It is difficult for me to even begin discussing Were the World Mine without slipping into hyperbole. Despite its flaws - and any canny viewer may note that there are several - the film is the single non-horror movie most attuned to my preferences. In addition to being an aggressively stylish, gleefully campy, devilishy handsome, subtly meaningful film, Were the World Mine is above all most notable for two things:
  1. It is a musical.
  2. It is a gay retelling of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you are patently not myself. But although its core concept is immensely appealing to Yours Truly, the film has enough bulk to break through my bias and prove its wonderfulness in its own right. But I may not be as biased as it seems -Private Romeo, the gay version of Romeo and Juliet set at a military academy is conceptually perfect for me, but it's one of the only movies in existence that I turned off halfway through. And I've sat through all 82 soul-gouging minutes of The Outing. Hell, I've survived Bee Movie. I'm a veteran of this kind of thing.

I mean, scenes like this help, but the movie is legitimately good. Trust me on this.

The story revolves around Timothy (Tanner Cohen), a gay student who goes to an all-boys private school in a very conservative neck of the woods. He lives with his mother (Judy McClane) in a realistically worn-in house (I only note this because aren't we collectively getting tired of "poor" characters living in luxury in opulent palaces? We are the 99%! The part of the population who aren't fictive TV personalities.) as she struggles to find a job and pay his way through his education.

While the school's rugby team sees fit to bully him all day long, Timothy nurses a crush on their hunky captain Jonathon (Nathaniel David Becker) - his only classmate who actually seems to see him as a human being and not just a pincushion of relentless torment. Dibs on the band name. He is thrown into conflict with them more and more as they are forced to spend time together rehearsing the mandatory senior play. You win absolutely nothing for guessing what that play just so happens to be.

As is true of nearly all films on the LGBT spectrum, Were the World Mine has a disastrously low budget. The "living in a crackerjack box eating the shoes off your own feet" kind of low. But unlike just about every single glittering one of those other flicks, it turns that lack of means into an outright strength.

You see, when Timothy discovers a secret recipe hidden inside a magic script (did I mention camp?), he recreates the flower from the play. You know, the one with the juice that can make anybody fall in love with the first person they see? Put yourself in Timothy's position. What would you do with a flower like this if you discovered it in high school? He absolutely uses that sh*t to get Jonathon to fall in love with him and make all the rugby guys turn gay for each other.

The flower also gives them impeccable skill with a chrome makeup brush.

Rife with fantasy sequences and mystical forest dances numbers, the ambitious aesthetic of the film must have had the accountant tearing his hair out by the roots. But by using a trick harnessed in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street of all things, these sequences gain their power from their homegrown design. Utilizing high school theater sets and costuming and reappropriating actors from the student body ensemble, the film at once saves money and unites the film under a singular theme.

Director Tom Gustafson's visual prowess is such that, even with these limitations, he manages to assemble dazzling compositions of color and light, utilizing the human form in his staging in a way that wouldn't be out of place in the most high-falutin', champagne reception, Sundance exclusive of art films.

Show me a gay movie at this budget with a frame even half as lovely as this eye-popping purple extravaganza and I will show you a lying charlatan.

But the best part about this quite literal high school fantasy is the message, taken from Midsummer itself. Though Timothy has his puckish fun with the young lovers, he learns that he is interfering with their true feelings, much in the way that they were with him. It is unusual that a gay film has a bifurcate message, but Were the World Mine pulls it off with aplomb, simultaneously depicting a "teach the town to be open minded" fable with a dash of "teach yourself the same thing." In this way, Were the World Mine is utterly human, embracing our flaws and pushing us all to change and be a little more forgiving in all regards.

It also doesn't hurt that the songs are hella rad.

With lyrics culled exclusively from Shakespeare-penned lines, Cohen's soaring falsetto, and an Eastern musical styling providing a tonal undercurrent, the music in the film is unutterably perfect, by far the most consistently satisfying and unimpeachable element of the movie as a whole. Whether it's perfectly capturing the feeling of "catching" in an audition after a wobbly start or the hellish sting of a broken heart, the music pumps the film with pure, unadulterated feeling.

And let us never forget that this aesthetic is SO.


(Also, that's Robin Williams' daughter, Zelda.)

Were the World Mine exists in a register halfway between camp and sincerity. But whether it's Ms. Tebbit (Wendy Robie), the zany English teacher appearing out of nowhere to spout hilariously stilted lines like "I'll note you in my book of memory" with the zeal of an older actress who has nothing to lose or a final moment that is reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery, the entire picture is utterly genuine. This renders the camp moments fun and the serious moments (especially the strain on the relationship between Timothy and his single mother) tender. Honestly, if I fully understood how Tom Gustafson managed this, I wouldn't be here writing about it. I'd be out there making the sequel.

And any doubts about the acting (Wendy Robie is an eternal gem, but Tanner Cohen has a little trouble shifting gears during the first act and the ensemble is occasionally dubious) are swept away with a tidal wave of style and pure musicality.

In spite of its strong style, there are a few intractable issues with the film, typically due to its low budget equipment. The sound in the exterior scenes is murky at best and the cinematography during the non-dazzling moments has a perplexing tendency to cut together a little roughly, like there wasn't enough coverage for certain particular moments.

But we takes what we gets with indie cinema and Were the World Mine is such an eminently euphoric fantasy film that its faults are occluded by pure joy. If you're not in the target audience for this dazzling film, you know who you are. But I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. Gay or straight, young or old, Simon or Garfunkel, this film has something for everyone and deserves to be appreciated far beyond its mild cult audience.

Also it's on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Go. Now. Let me know what you think. I hope you love it. And if you don't, well... If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended- that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear.

Good night unto you all.

TL;DR: Were the World Mine is certainly beholden to some low budget indie movie flaws, but is next to perfect stylistically and musically.
Rating: 10/10
Word Count: 1323