Monday, 4 May 2015

Trailer Review: Infini




Because everyone loved Doom so much.
Because everyone's forgotten this happened once already, and we called it Doom.

At the tail-end of a too-long chapter in film history, 'round about the time when all the carefully delineated subgenres spiral downward into chaos and self-parody, comes Infini. Infini will either deliver us from The Era of Re (as in -boot, -make, -hash) or it will dig us deeper into this cinematic rut I call Early 21st Century Grit.

That's not to suggest there weren't some truly great and/or gritty "res" in the past 15 years. I'm just saying the res have run their course. They've done their job, and now it's time for them to retire and give way to a new re, the resurgence. I'm talking old-school, back-to-basics genre film. I'm talking everything from story to effects to mise-en-scene. I'm talking Wrong Turn and It Follows and The Guest, three contemporary movies that take an old aesthetic and make it new again.

We crave decent horror and we don't even know it. We're spoon fed gore and jump scares and we're told we want more, and we nod yes, more please. And so the feeding continues only now with a funnel jammed in our mouths. Into that cakehole is crammed every trope and cliche, every archetype and stereotype, every thing we've seen before.

And now here's one more. Maybe. I don't know. My love for genre film makes me naive and hopeful for the future, even though a lot of contemporary horror sucks balls. Also, I'm one of the few people who like Doom so I don't really care if someone has forced it to breed with the plot of Aliens, creating this blasphemy. All I care is that Infini doesn't fall victim to its era, that it doesn't pander or insult or offend because it misunderstands its own genre.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Pyramid

Spoiler warning: there's actually no mummy in this pyramid.

I think I just witnessed the death of found footage.

Also, the death of science, history, and common sense.

I'm no Egyptologist, but I know enough to be able to scoff at the glaring inaccuracies in Ancient Egyptian history and religion that are peppered throughout the script. And I don't mean preposterous stuff like sand traps and tiger traps hidden within the depths of a three-sided pyramid that was buried underground thousands of years before the Great Pyramid was good idea. I mean the embarrassingly (insultingly?) bungled explanation of the weighing of the heart. Also, Anubis and The Devourer are two different entities. Just saying.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Pyramid is the story of a father-daughter archaeology team and a documentary crew who get lost inside the aforementioned mysterious three-sided pyramid. They encounter monsters and booby traps in their search for a way out. Also, there's some kind of horrible infection in the air or something, but that storyline is neither properly developed nor resolved.

So yeah, a bunch of morons get themselves lost inside a tomb. With a camera that's been recording everything. Do they ever stop to review the footage to see if it can help them backtrack? No. Do they review the footage of the "dog" that attacks them? No. Do they review the footage of the thing that kills one of their own? Yes. I can't tell you why, finally, with ten minutes to go in the movie, the survivors now decide to take a time out to watch an earlier part of the film. And, I bet, neither can the filmmakers.

Curse? What curse? No one said anything about a curse.

Found footage is built upon a strong foundation of cinematic postmodernism. To ignore that is to admit to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the subgenre works, and the fun things you can do with it. You can be satirical and self-reflexive and meta, but The Pyramid only succeeds in being laughably inept at even the most basic principles.

Namely, this is not a found footage film even though it wants to be. Now, there's nothing wrong with making a movie in the found footage style without it actually being an epistolary document. But you can't switch back and forth between 3rd and 1st person POVs and still insist on maintaining a found footage aesthetic. It's as if the filmmakers knew their vision wouldn't work but they insisted on it anyway because found footage is hot, still. Kinda.

Worse yet, their attempts at documentary verisimilitude are painfully awkward. Remember the early mockumentaries? The ones that were so well made you could totally believe they were real? Well, this is nothing like that. Also, there doesn't appear to be any internal cohesiveness regarding the mockumentary's look and feel. In one scene, the lead archaeologist is being coached on how to respond to interview questions so as to cut out the interviewer in post, but interview is shot with two cameras. Moreover, there's no visual cue to distinguish between the documentary footage and the 3rd person POV.

So that's what's technically wrong with The Pyramid. Now let's examine the script. Right at the beginning of the movie, the script conflates research methods and interpretation. Using satellites to help you look for stuff and using that stuff to re-interpret the historical record are two different things. Yes, there are a lot archaeologists out there who'll be highly skeptical of a find that questions a well-established chronology, but no one's going to forsake ground penetrating radar for a dousing rod. That's just stupid.

Sometimes the only way out is in. Down this tunnel of cliches.

But a lot of things about this movie are stupid. Like how an archaeological dig is even taking place at Giza during the Arab Spring. And what does that even have to do with anything? (The answer is: nothing. It has nothing to do with the story.) Or, why do the monsters attack the crew and then not attack them later on? And how could anyone possibly think that turning off the light is a good way to hide from a dark-adapted monster. This is the same monster that gets scared away by a flare later on, I might add.

Sadly, perhaps unbelievably, there's actually a cool idea buried under all the garbage. You can see it, a gleaming spark of an idea, but the script has been changed and revised so many times, so many different plot points added and removed, that the writers lost the thread.

It's a mess, is what I'm saying. The movie is so contradictory, I can't understand how anyone reading the script didn't say at some point, "Now how does that make any sense?" Was it rushed into production? Did someone owe a favour? Contractual obligation? I've seen movies that probably cost way less and achieve so much more simply because someone cared enough to take the time make sure the script was good.

And I guess that's really the heart of the matter: no one cared about The Pyramid. No one cared how it looked or if it made any sense, and still it got made. And that's why I think it heralds the death of the found footage genre.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Tin Can Man


"I need a palate cleanser," I said.
"Me too."

Not two minutes after finishing Tin Can Man, we were watching something else. It's not that Tin Can Man is gross or disgusting or distasteful, but something about it left us feeling, I don't know, yucky, I guess.

Tin Can Man played a whole bunch of festivals, so I thought it had to have some merit. But no. No merit. Unless you consider David Lynch fanfic meritorious. Tin Can Man looks and feels like a student film made by a guy who really likes experimental film, horror movies, and David Lynch. That's me being complimentary.

Me being less charitable reads like this: Tin Can Man is a confused art project made by a guy who hates his audience, the film medium, and quite possibly himself, to boot.

Here's what happens in the movie:
-Pete gets dumped by his girlfriend and is reamed out at work
-A guy claiming to be his neighbour asks to borrow his phone because he had an "accident" and can't use his own phone to make a call
-The neighbour reveals he's not really Pete's neighbour, and that he killed the real neighbour
-Pete and the fake neighbour visit Pete's dad where the fake neighbour introduces himself as Dave
-Dave tells Pete to kill his dad, and Pete refuses
-Dave takes Pete to meet the Tin Can Man, whom Dave kills after forcing him to dance around
-Dave takes Pete to meet his family where they force feed him cake
-Dave turns Pete into the new Tin Can Man
-Pete tries to escape and stops a motorist, who promptly returns him to Dave
-Pete "performs" as the Tin Can Man, which I think is some kind of fever dream but I can't be sure because nothing in this this movie makes any sense so it could be that Pete really is introduced by a clown to an audience of people from his life, and that he really does take the stage and bow to great applause

Now would be the part of the review where I explain what all this means, but I'm not going to do that because I don't know what it means. Moreover, I truly believe the whole thing is completely meaningless. There's no story here, no logic or thought process. There's just Pete who completely fails to learn or grow, and Dave who just talks a lot of nonsense and yells.

Also the whole thing is lit by flashlight. Which really has nothing to do with story, but goes some way in validating the whole "experimental" angle I'm pushing. And experimental film, in my experience, has little interest in storytelling.

I can't fully explain why I disliked Tin Can Man so much, why it made such terrible impression, and left me feeling icky. I have very little time or patience for experimental film, and although I, too, was once a pretentious film student, I got over it. So that likely has something to do with it--why I roll my eyes and make exasperated noises at the mere mention of Tin Can Man. Whatever writer-director Ivan Kavanagh's problem is, he needs to get over it, too.

The poster claims the movie is "truly terrifying" and a "masterpiece." It's not scary, nor does it showcase any sort of mastery of the cinematic medium. Difficult to watch and impossible to appreciate, Tin Can Man is bad art masquerading as genre film.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Movies We'd Rather Be Watching

True story: someone stole my VHS copy of Bowfinger.

There are movies, and then there are movies. Terrible movies. Movies so bad they make you wish you were watching something, anything else. With these god-awful films in mind, I present Movies We'd Rather Be Watching, a list of films-within-films that look to be much, much better than the movies in which they appear.

Dynamite Jones, as seen in Boo!

Boo! is your run-of-the-mill haunted asylum movie. You know the story: kids get trapped in old mental hospital and ghosts happen. What you probably don't know is that Boo! features a character named Arlo whose backstory is that he starred in a movie called Dynamite Jones, which is about a vampire killer. The film plays on a TV in a bar where Arlo is either drinking or working--possibly both. While I can criticize Boo! for being just another haunted asylum flick, I'm keen to watch Dynamite Jones, which, by all accounts, looks like just another blacksploitation vampire hunter movie.

Face Punch, as seen in Twilight


Like it or not, Twilight is shite. Utter, utter crap. Buried under this steaming pile is something called Face Punch. Face Punch is an action film--that's all the movie (or the book) has to offer. It could be about an underground, invite-only face punching competition,or it could be about something else. Like about a guy who has to enter a face punching competition in order to win custody of his son. Whatever the case, Face Punch, by virtue of its name alone, is infinitely better than Twilight.

Mant!, as seen in Matinee


Truth be told, I kinda liked Matinee. But then again, I don't remember much about it, other than Mant!. Mant!, which looks like a rip-off of The Fly, is the movie that screens at the cinema in which Matinee is set. Meant to be a tribute to William Castle, Mant!'s legacy is that it's better known and more well liked than Matinee itself.

Alex's student film, as seen in Grave Encounters 2

Grave Encounters 2 has a very strong beginning and end, but is terrible throughout the middle. A real shit sandwich. The film rehashes the same scares from the first movie, and is largely one-note for most of its running time. But before the plot enters the asylum and takes a powder for forty minutes, we spend some time on-set with Alex. A film student, Alex is in the middle of making a movie, which he abandons in favour of pursuing a documentary about Grave Encounters (which, in the world of GE2, is a real movie). By all accounts, Alex appears to be a competent filmmaker (he's a crap documentarian, though) and his unfinished student film looks to be a satire of modern horror tropes. If only Grave Encounters 2 was as inspired. And short.

Stab!, as seen in the Scream franchise


In Scream, Sidney voices concern over who would play her in a movie based on what's happening in Scream. She jokes that'd she get stuck with Tori Spelling. Sure enough, when Stab! is shown at the beginning of Scream 2, Tori Spelling appears as Sidney. It's a wonderful callback to a great film, made even better by the fact that Stab! was directed by Robert Rodriguez. Within the world of Scream, the Stab! franchise grows larger and larger, until the irony can't be contained in one film alone. The postmodern joke finds its punchline in Scream 4, which opens with not one, but two Stab! films. And, as if that weren't enough, there is a fan site dedicated to making Stab! movies. For real.

Muckman, as seen in Chainsaw Killer


Chainsaw Killer is a terrible movie. And not in the good way. It's just straight-up bad. At the centre of the story is a mysterious film called The Force Beneath. A characters gets his hands on a copy and plays the tape, and the screening includes a handful of movie trailers. Most notable is the trailer for a movie about a bog monster called Muckman. Not only does it have better production values than Chainsaw Killer, it turns out Muckman is an actual movie that you can actually watch.

Honourable mention:

Kickpuncher, as seen in Community


Community is not a movie (sixseasonsandamovie) but it gets a mention here because Kickpuncher might just be the greatest fake movie series ever made up: a low-rent, low-budget series of films about a cyborg whose punches have the power of kicks. A cop living in the "future" world of 2006, Kickpuncher is a Robocop 2 of sorts, fighting to rid the streets of Mega Dope. Other films in the Kickpuncher franchise are Kickpunder II: Codename Punchkicker, Kickpuncher III: The Final Kickening, Kickpuncher Detroit, Kickpuncher Miami, and Kicksplasher.


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

An Unpopular Opinion: Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity

Here comes the end of neo-grindhouse era.

When Here Comes the Devil won all the horror awards at Fantastic Fest in 2012, I was a little disappointed in the horror community. Sure, it was a good movie, but certainly not the best one at the festival. Perhaps Berberian Sound Studio was too cerebral, The Collection too much of a sequel, and Antiviral too Canadian, but still.

I recall a conversation I had on the subway with a friend one August night. We were talking about The Raid and he said he didn't think the movie had lived up to all the hype. I like The Raid, I think it's a fine movie, and loads of fun to watch, but I responded with something like, "Well, maybe people make a big deal because it's foreign." He was inclined to agree.

The issue here is one of ethnocentrism, meaning we think we're awesome and everyone else less so. That then translates into a kind of perverse and vaguely biased criticism of foreign-made product. In this specific case, genre film. What I mean is this: non-western genre cinema is looked on favourably by western critics regardless of whether those movies are actually any good. Thus, Here Comes the Devil wins Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture because it's a Mexican independent horror feature.

That's not to suggest Adrian Garcia Bogliano or any other Mexican filmmaker isn't capable of making a really good movie, I'm just saying this particular film didn't merit all the accolades it received. Were the film made in the US, by an American indie filmmaker, it's unlikely it would have garnered as much positive press.

Or would it've?


At the end of 2014, everyone in the horror blogosphere was lining up to praise indie horror feature Starry Eyes. Likening it to Rosemary's Baby, horror critics and fans were calling it the best horror movie of the year. Starry Eyes has as much common with Polanski's devilishly slow burning gyno-horror as it does with The Servants of Twilight, a rather decent horror/thriller a lot of folks have never heard of: Satanic seniors. That's it. That's the whole comparison and, very likely, the foundation upon which the film's success is built.

Granted, Alex Essoe does a great job in the role of the starry-eyed (get it?) Sarah, but the the movie waffles between an indictment of ambition and an odd nostalgia for a Hollywood system that burned itself out decades before the main character was ever born. Sarah's struggle for stardom is set against the backdrop of a stagnant group of up-and-comers who talk about starting projects they'll never finish, and the look of the thing is as bland as the characters (with the noted exception of Sarah).

Starry Eyes adopts the modern western horror aesthetic of washed-out colours and an aggressive anti-tableau visual direction. I should say western indie horror, which I interpret as some kind of misguided reaction against mainstream horror that still places value in rich colour saturation and mise-en-scene. If Starry Eyes' director, Dennis Widmyer, really was channeling Roman Polanski (or even Jeffery Obrow), he would have paid more attention to setting the scene and having his characters move through it.

And yet Starry Eyes captured the hearts of horror fans. It's confusing and ultimately self-defeating, but because it's indie, it was held to different standard. Not lower, mind you, just different than what's expected from mainstream horror.

So the question now is how would Starry Eyes stack up against Here Comes the Devil? I can't answer that. But I will say that both films were equally, if for different reasons, forgiven their shortcomings. I'll also say that I'm not above being lenient to special movies, but I know when I'm doing it. I know that I'm sometimes too nice or, conversely, too mean to a low-budget movie. But I also know that a budget of $3 is no excuse for turning out a crummy film, and that cheap indie films can and do exceed expectations.

This image selection is deliberately misleading.

Found is a super-low-budget feature from first-time director Scott Schirmer. And it's great. Found's success, unlike so many other indie movies, is founded upon a solid script. Schirmer optioned a novel (he payed a whopping $1) and worked hard to adapt it to the screen. Schirmer also knew an FX artist and enlisted her and her students to work on his film. Now, not all first-timers have access to great and wonderful blood and guts and severed heads, but they do have access to educational resources and materials. Schirmer knew something about filmmaking and editing before he set to work and it shows in Found's storytelling.

It's entirely possible that Found is an outlier, a rarity. But it proves that with a little hard work and dedication, something as abysmal as Chainsaw Killer (one of the cheapest and worst movies I've seen) can rise above its station. Furthermore, a good movie is a good movie regardless of where it came from and how much it cost to make.

A movie's pedigree shouldn't influence opinions about its quality. Granted, film criticism will always be partly subjective, no matter how objective we try to be, but we have to resist the temptation to give certain films a pass. I'm not arguing for one standard that applies to all movies all the time--that's simply not fair. But if we're honest with ourselves about our opinions, we can be more transparent in our judgements.

We might sound like ethnocentric jerks to qualify our criticisms with "pretty good for a Thai movie," but it's necessary if our only point of reference is Hollywood. Indeed, something like Shutter stacks up well against against a lot of horror offerings from all over the place, but there's little to be gained from comparing Art of the Devil to Skeleton Key. A more culturally relativistic approach would be to evaluate Thai, or Mexican, or American indie horror, etc., in relation to other Thai, or Mexican, or American indie horror, etc., and work outwards from there. That way we can be reasonably sure our value judgements have merit.

So then what do we do in a festival setting where we can't judge emically" and must judge "etically"? Where Here Comes the Devil has to be held up against Antiviral? Honestly, I'm not sure I have a quick and easy answer. I guess, in that case we have to answer to politics and popularity, because that's was these kinds of contests are all about. Frankly, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter who wins, but the how and the why can be very telling indeed.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Low-Budget Film Fest: Found Footage/Mockumentary Edition


Found footage was invented for the low/no budget filmmaker to exploit. That, of course, hasn't stopped high profile directors and studios from hijacking the FF bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, big-budget FF movies are often less well made than their low-budget country cousins, the result of confusing money for creativity.

Here's a short list of brilliant FF and mockumentary movies, made on the cheap. I could go on about how the proof is in the pudding, but the mention of pudding has made me hungry. Onto the list!

The Blair Witch Project


BWP should have launched the FF genre but that wouldn't happen for another ten years. Made for $30-50K, depending on who you read, the movie scared the crap outta audiences with the mere suggestion of a monster living in the woods.

The Last Broadcast


Made for an estimated $900, and released a year before BWP, The Last Broadcast is a more accomplished but less well-known take on the monster-in-the-woods trope. Unfortunately, the ending is terrible and completely ruins the film. But everything up to that point is amazing.

Lake Mungo


A fake documentary about how a family deals with grief, Lake Mungo is very nearly perfect in its verisimilitude. This slow burning film is less scary than the others on this list, but the climax will leave you cold. It's impossible to say anything more about the movie without spoiling it, so just go see it already.

The Conspiracy


This mockumentary about a conspiracy theorist weaves together documentary and found footage to tell its story. What begins as a run-of-the-mill doc about an unbalanced conspiracy nut is, in fact, a meta-text about conspiracies. Listen to my interview with the director. But also, see this movie.

Ghostwatch


The infamous British TV broadcast. In a modern-day version of Well's War of Worlds, Brits tuned into the BBC1 on Halloween 1992 and thought they were watching a live broadcast from a haunted house in London. Viewers were so upset with the show that it was banned for ten years. Even watching it now, knowing that it's a fiction, doesn't lessen the impact of the story or its scares.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon


I have no idea how much this cost to make, but I'm guessing less than my $3M cutoff. If you love slashers, you'll appreciate all this mockumentary has to offer. Behind the Mask is an intimate look at the life of a slasher villain, at the challenges he faces, and the planning and detail that goes into successfully executing his killing spree.

Long Pigs


Ever wondered why or how a man becomes a cannibal? Long Pigs answers that question. Two documentary filmmakers stumble upon a serial killer/cannibal who agrees to let them film his exploits. Although you can imagine how it ends, the meat of the film is dedicated to profiling the cannibal. At times funny and disturbing, it's a good little film that's worth seeing. DO NOT confuse this movie with Long Pig (2008), a long and boring diatribe about the evils of corporate greed.

Honourable Mentions:

Devil's Pass


This Renny Harlin-directed FF movie seeks to answer the mystery of what happened to the ill-fated hikers who died in Dyatlov Pass in 1959 (true story). The answers, when they come, are completely unexpected. The film has received middling reviews but it's creative in ways other lower-budget films can't afford to be, and I rather liked it.

Troll Hunter


Screw Cloverfield. If you really want to see an FF movie with giant monsters, Troll Hunter is the one to watch. What Cloverfield failed to grasp is that no one gives a damn about the people and their plight--everyone just wants to see the monsters. Troll Hunter is a delightful FF movie about a group of documentary filmmakers who stumble upon then follow around a government-paid troll hunter.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Year in Review: 2014


The time has come to again take a look back over the year that was and reflect on all I watched. Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Listed here are the best and worst films I had the pleasure and displeasure of seeing over the past year.

I watch so many movies, there's a good chance I've overlooked or forgotten some titles. For that, I apologize. You might remember some of these movies differently and for that I don't apologize. But anyway...

Holy wow: The Fly
Yes, I've only recently seen the fly and it kind of blew me away with its sustained grossness. Haven't been that grossed out and horrified in a long while.
Oh, come on!: Transformers Age of Extinction
What a terrible mess of a movie. It's too long and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And I'm pretty sure a whole love interest subplot was cut out in favour of...China?

OMG: Guardians of the Galaxy
I wasn't at all looking forward to this one, but Marvel pulled off a coup with this rag-tag misfit space adventure.
OMFG: Robocop
Whoever decided a Robocop remake was a good idea should be fired. Honestly. This movie takes everything you love about Robocop, craps all over it, and flushes the whole thing down the toilet.

So good!

Rolled the dice and it payed off: The Machine
A quiet little indie flick about real and artificial humanity. Don't be romanced by Ex Machina, see this one instead.
Snake eyes: Jack the Reaper
Oh Tony Todd, is there nothing you won't do? Is there no plot too thin? No story too half-assed that you won't say no?

Blew me away: Housebound
A delightful and surprising horror comedy about a young woman under house arrest. Think Disturbia only better in every way.
Just blew: Wolf Creek 2
Christ, was this awful. The thoroughly unappealing Mick continues to stalk visitors to the Outback. He hates foreigners, see. So he kills them. Really doing Australia a favour, he is.

So much more: Tower
So much more that an rip-off of the end of Die Hard. Tower is Towering Inferno on steroids.
So much worse: Great American Snuff Film
Of all the snuff-themed horror movies I've seen (and I've seen quite a few) this one's the most boring. For Sean Tretta completists only. (If you don't know who that is, don't worry about it.)

Could have done with less human drama, but it is an American movie so...yeah.

What could possibly come next?: Dead Snow 2
A huge crowd-pleaser at TADFF this year, this excellent sequel continues the story of everyone's favourite Nazi zombies.
Ugh, what's next?: You're Next
Lot of people liked this one. Not me. With a few notable exceptions I found the whole predictable and largely uninspired. Hard to believe these same guys made The Guest, which is amazing.

Unexpectedly amazing: The Guest
This oddly funny thriller takes a hard left and leaves you speechless by the end.
Surprisingly mediocre: The Purge
I know the Purge 2 came out this year, but I only ever saw the first one. Fraught with problems, this is really just Wasted Potential: The Movie. Also, it's not like Ethan Hawke forced his neighbours to buy his security system.

Don't wait another minute: Arsenic and Old Lace
Looking for a non-traditional Halloween movie? Look no further! Halloween actually has nothing to do with the plot. It's about a guy who learns his aunts like to poison lonely old men.
No rush: Robovampire
It's like the spaghetti western of Kung Fu movies. New footage featuring a walking copyright infringement was spliced into an unfinished martial arts movie about vampire drug enforcers. So bad it's ridiculous. But not quite bad enough to warrant seeing.

Loads of fun! Just don't ask me to fully explain the ending.

Way better than the first: ABCs of Death 2
The first was so bad that it was a bit of a challenge finding filmmakers for the second. But they all rose to the occasion and put the original to shame.
How are there two of these?: Bunnyman
Half of what happens on screen makes no sense and the rest is just garbage.

I can't believe this got made: Tusk
It's entirely possible the story of Tusk is more entertaining than the film itself, but I really liked watching Michael Parks turn Justin Long into a walrus. The horror, when it comes, is thoroughly alarming and satisfying.
A new low in cinematic "achievement": Hospital
This film has been added to my short list of "worst movies I've had the misfortune of seeing." I turned it off ten minutes from the end. After having fast-forwarded through part of it, I still couldn't make it to the end.

Honourable mention: The Uninvited
It's about a killer mutant cat attacking people on a yacht. And it's played totally straight. It's terrible and wonderful all at once.