Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vampires In Culture - VMP230 - Section 1

Welcome to Honors Zombie: Vampire Studies. If you're looking for Professor Tyree’s class on Mummies, it's down the hall. Ho-ho, I do have fun. I hope everyone had a good break. This semester will de dedicated to studying vampire films and the way they've shaped and fit into our culture. We'll be taking a look at the very first feature length vampire movies and then moving up through history to see that the makers of vampire films have been at the forefront of cultural trends (mainly and fittingly the standards of sexuality and obscenity becoming more and more lenient by the day) and though I don't think they are as crucial as zombie films, try explaining that to everyone else! The last year has been an incredibly important one for vampires (those fucking Twilight movies most apparently if unimportant as genre films are at all concerned) because they've been host to a number of very interesting and capable filmmakers looking to test the waters of the horror genre. Park Chan-Wook, Tomas Alfredson, David Slade and countless others have turned to vampires in just the last few years and the previous decade was the scene of a full-on Vampire renaissance if you'll allow me to be so bold. So we're going to hit the most recent entry in the pantheon and then we'll go back and take the whole mess of them by force, because as Hunter Thompson once wrote, "If the things worth's worth doing right."

by the Spierig Brothers
Well apparently I'm not the only one who's had it with Twilight and everything those neutered teen/housewife/conservative friendly vampires stand for because the first thing we see is a preteen girl (or someone who looks like a preteen girl) write a suicide note then sit outside as the sun rises. She is burnt to death before our very eyes. Well that's certainly not the most appealing opening to any film I've seen but it did drive a few people out of the theatre on opening night, so clearly our auteurs want the tweens to take it on the Arthur Duffy. Yes, as you may or may not have guessed this is a slightly more cynical view of society than we ordinarily get. Taking the take-no-prisoners attitude of 30 Days of Night and applying it to the rest of the world, Daybreakers envisions a world in which vampires came, saw and conquered. Human beings are on the ropes, living in secret, while Vampire inhabit giant cities, run the government, operate coffee shops, work in office buildings, have their own television networks, program cars to protect them from sunlight and live in gated communities. In other words they're people today except they're actual bloodsuckers. This has led to some problems - kill enough people and you're bound to run out of blood and the Bromley Marks Corporation, one of the world's largest blood farms, is feeling the recession in their wallets. CEO Charles Bromley has been searching for solutions to the problem and to that end he's asked Edward Dalton in R&D to come up with a substitute. Dalton's come close but his latest attempt had the rather serious side effect of literally blowing up the test subject while the investors looked on.

Driving home after a day's worth of dead ends, Dalton gets into a minor scrape when he notices something in the camera system that operates as his flip-down mirror (no reflection, ya see). What he sees in his mirror is evidence that he hasn't been eating enough human blood - those who go without (called Subsiders) develop Kurt Barlow syndrome and look like the spooky wall-climbers who used to haunt the nightmares of little children. The first symptom is pointed ears which Edward's managed to develop since he doesn't believe in drinking human blood if it can be avoided - what I like to call a Sunday vegetarian. He's so busy looking at the ears that he almost plows into a car full of human beings. If he didn't offer them shelter from the approaching police they almost certainly would have killed him but he does and while waiting for Dalton to ditch the fuzz, the lead human, one Audrey Bennett sneaks a look at their saviour's personal information, things like what he does for a living and where he lives. She sneaks into his house later to tell him that a substitute ain't gonna cut it and that if he's looking for a cure she should meet him outside the city limits on Wednesday. It's there that he meets Elvis Cormac who used to be a vampire but now walks about in daylight free as a bird and he's been helping refuges with Audrey ever since. Elvis accidentally crashed his modified antique Chrysler and flew through the windshield into a pond, but not before the sun cooked him alive for a few seconds - when he resurfaced, he was human again. Dalton's gotta figure out how it works and if he can reproduce it before Bromley's security force finds him and the refuges and puts a stop to their work and the last of the human race in the process.

There's a lot more going on in the film than what I just described but it isn't totally crucial and though important in getting everyone in the same building for the conclusion feel a little tacked on. There are subplots involving Bromley's daughter, Dalton's little brother, a senator, one of Dalton's co-workers and a crack-down on Subsiders but ultimately that stuff doesn't have much to do with the story proper. In a round-about fashion I'll get to why the subplots don't concern the main action. Ok, so our directors, still going by that most unbecoming of screen-names The Spierig Brothers (Peter and Michael), have made a lot of improvement since the last time we tangoed, their debut, the 2003 zombie crime Undead. That movie was quite awful but apparently someone at Lion's Gate didn't think so (those fuckers, despite the few great films that come bearing their logo every year, have also given us every Saw and Tyler Perry film thus far, which makes them financially smart and morally reprehensible). Anyway, that Daybreakers is made by two basement dwelling teenage boys is immediately apparent. First of all the movie is, I believe, supposed to take place in the United States? Maybe? I don't know that but I do know that Daybreakers was shot in Australia and nearly everyone in it is Australian, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Kirby, who funnily enough was in the remake Salem's Lot on American television from 2004, the exceptions. The names in the script are all Australian (you know many Americans called Jarvis Bayom or Colin Briggs or Joy Watkins? it's not that they couldn't be American names but it's just clear that these were the first names they thought of: Frankie Dalton, Bromley, Barrett, etc. They're just all-Australian names and most of them are played by Australians). Why the Spierigs either couldn't hire Americans or set their film in Sydney is anybody's guess but there it is.
The other thing that outs our directors as teenaged boys are the asides into illogical, the-bad-guys-have-terrible-aim action territory. These are fun to watch, sure, but they make nothing like sense. People sneak up on each other despite being in open fields, cars explode when their drivers are killed, sometimes exploding vampires knock those in proximity into walls sometimes they just disorient them; in other words continuity disappears for the sake of a nicely executed shot. Then there are the moments that seem to crop up in every third action film, yet still get written into screenplays like when people are continually and 'unexpectedly' shot as someone new enters the room. My dad's theory is that if you're a kid making low budget films in his hometown and Lion's Gate gives you a bag full of cash, you'll either give them their stand-by set-pieces or you do it anyway because you think that's what people want to see. The film's loaded with action movie clichés to the point that the thing Daybreakers most reminded me of was not a post-Blade revisionist vampire film but a graphic novel brought to life. If you remember that you're watching a comic book everytime adults talk like teenager's conception of adults or the action becomes ridiculously over-the-top and gory, it becomes easier to enjoy Daybreakers. And for those of you seeing your first Spierig Brothers film, let me remind you that shotgun-crossbow aside, this is a major step up. They remind you that you're still watching their movie when they blow vampires up or or paraphrase Day of the Dead (I wonder if Sam Neil ever thought he’d end up tied to that chair when he started acting) execute vomit-related jolts and slow-motion burnings but when you factor in just how awesomely shitty Undead was, it's almost impossible to think of the same people making something as good as Daybreakers.

For all my complaints (which I think are more than justified) Daybreakers does an awful lot right. The world that the Spierigs created is a truly bizarre and really excellently designed place. The clash between dreary modernity and colorful kitsch is an interesting (if not particularly rational) choice and the Spierigs find really intriguing ways to remind us that they've thought out every aspect of their vampire's existence. The cars daylight driving function and solution mirrors, the various ways they've concocted for vampires to walk around during the day, the blood-coffee stands in the subwalk, combined with the malt-shop attendee uniforms that stand employees wear, the Frank Miller-type characters who show up in the form of corpulent detectives and hour-glass secretaries and those antique cars Elvis drives and you have one of the least conventionally designed films of the last year or so. In fact the world is so cool that the plot can't measure up to it. the subplots feel perfunctory and don’t have much to do with how the film ends and many of the film’s best elements go unused. The dialogue is largely terrible and broad and stolen from other movies; could you really imagine the situation where you'd write an argument where someone says "are we really going to have this conversation"? I was greatly looking forward to a clash between the security force and the Subsiders but twenty or so minutes before the film ends, the Subsiders completely disappear from the action; a major bummer. It feels to me that you’ve created a whole world, why not make better use of the neo-noir possibilities you’ve laid the foundation for? And though the action sequences don't make a lot of sense, they are fun enough and the same goes for the pseudo-science and all of Willem Dafoe's dialogue. The cinematography is great especially the difference between the cold interiors of Bromley Marks and the dusty winery where Dalton races to find a cure. The editing and plotting move even if subplots arise every few minutes and before long the film is racing towards its fairly satisfying ending. I enjoyed the anti-capitalist switcheroo moral and though it raises more questions than it answers I like the solution to vampirism and the scenes where they test it out. The Spierigs even manage a few quite exquisite shots, my favorite involving soldiers in the lobby of Bromley Marks.
The vampire movie's been around since pretty much the beginning of commercial cinema and the action movie too and after almost a hundred years of both you really don't have an excuse for a subpar example of either and Daybreakers makes up for its run-of-the-mill plotting with its meticulously crafted design and, as far as I know, original ideas on the subject. Is it as good or innovative as Thirst or Let The Right One In, films that make you appreciate the creativity required to bring something new to something as time-worn as the vampire movie?  Is anything? No, not in my estimation, so that in mind I still rank Daybreakers as one of the more successful vampire films of the decade and I certainly rank it above the likes of 30 Days of Night (though they get equal points for their distinctive look) or Underworld (not really hard, but still) and worlds more entertaining than those fucking Twilight movies; jesus I fucking hate those films. I had fun and that's not something I say often after watching modern day vampire movies and that's about as great a reccomendation I can imagine giving a film with the line "Being human in a world full of vampires is about as safe as bare-backing a five-dollar whore".

Friday, January 29, 2010

Shut Up, Already, or Die

I will change up the theme around here in a day or two I swear but I wanted to talk about one last zombie film before I change the subject and lose my train of thought. I can't tell you how many times I've sat on films because I was in the middle of a theme month or some such thing (my apologies to Horrors of Malformed Men, The Hanging Woman, Let's Scare Jessica To Death and the works of Dario Argento). Anyway today I want to look at a film that illustrates a point about auteurism and about the communicative powers of various medium. It is crucial in evaluating genre films, especially those made by outsiders, to look at the history of those people making that. It provides context and helps explain the uniqueness of many a directorial vision. A ghost story told by a committed B-movie madman like Teruo Ishii (apologies once again to Horrors of Malformed Men) is going to be fundamentally different than one by Nagisa Oshima. Similarly a story made for radio has to take on different qualities than one written for TV or Film. In Dead Set, a TV mini-series made for British Television about zombies, a producer takes the notion of exploiting young bodies to the extreme when he literally cuts up one of the cast of Big Brother with a serrated knife. Today's film, Pontypool utilizes a similar media-specific modus operandi. I'd been wanting to see Pontypool since it hit last year's Independent Film Festival in Boston but because it was playing at midnight and seeing as someone was living on their friend Rachel's couch and couldn't secure a ride back to the apartment, someone couldn't go. At the end of last summer I went to Toronto to interview musicians for a work-in-progress documentary and had an appointment to interview Pontypool's director, Canadian rock documentarian and creator of the occasional quirky drama Bruce McDonald, but he had just been dicked over by someone in the press and wasn't doing interviews - the very nice people in his production crew gave me an advance DVD copy for my troubles. And just to show I harbour no resentment I'll say now that his movie is a solid B+ and I had a blast watching it with my friends when I came home I've just been waiting for an opportunity like this one to talk about it. Pontypool illustrates perfectly that a horror film, and a zombie film in particular, is the perfect medium by which to dissect the baggage and style of a director.

by Bruce McDonald
Grant Mazzy is what I believe what you call a Shock Jock. He's a morning DJ fired from whatever big city he came from (one assumes Victoria or Toronto). In exile in the small town of Pontypool, Grant's new boss is Sydney Briar who's more concerned with her star not pissing anyone in town off by giving them his savvy big city paranoia and smarmery than with giving Grant enough space to work. Pontypool is a one-horse town (the pilot of the weather chopper is really reporting from his Dodge Dart parked on a hill overlooking the town) and it clearly cramps Mazzy's style; he's depressed as hell and nearing the winter of his life but there isn't much he can do about it. Little does he know that relief is on the way in the least likely and most horrific way imaginable. A little into his morning broadcast Grant starts getting reports about isolated acts of violence. First, word reaches them about what appears to be either a hostage situation or just some drunken ice fisherman making cops nervous, but the suspects run off before they're apprehended. Then the police call to tell them to drop the story. Next a mob of hundreds of people starts swarming a doctor's office. It starts off peculiarly but then gets violent as the weatherman reports that the mob is trampling people but he gets cut off before he can figure out what the hell's going on.

Grant naturally wants to pursue the story but at the moment the weatherman gets cut off the morning's guests arrive, cutting short his attack. The group (a strange family singing group modeled on Lawrence of Arabia, one of whom is screenwriter Tony Burgess, who also wrote the book Pontypool is based on) sings a song but towards the end one of the younger girls starts talking in circles and stops making sense. It throws Grant, but a witness to the mob calls in and he's forced to forget it. The caller gets nothing but a piercing shriek out before the call is cut off. Sydney and Laurel-Ann the radio technician try to get someone, anyone on the phone but can't. When a coherent report finally comes in, it appears that over 75 people are dead and the attackers were all chanting something. Next they hear that a family was trapped in their car while dozens of people covered it and imitated the sound of the windshield wipers. Soon the BBC are calling wanting the story from Grant, who turns out to be the last person on the air in the area while the crisis grows in size. When the weatherman gets through, he is in mortal terror and babbling about cannibals and people with animalistic eyes, soon he's close enough to see a neighborhood boy with no hands who's whispering something to himself but the line goes dead just after this. Another signal breaks into their live feed, a male voice reads something in French and then disappears. I won't tell you what it says other than that it ends with "Don't translate this message."
Pontypool is an incredibly interesting movie and I want to get to the things it does right so I'll start with my few complaints. As much as I do hate to generalize there is a kind of static, slowness to the film that one can't help but attribute to its country of origin. There are moments where the frame is way too vacant, which sucks all the tension out of the scene and the stuff towards the end suffers greatly because of this. The film's low budget is in evidence but I honestly don't think that has much to do with it because one of Pontypool's most effective strategies is that it all takes place in the church basement that Grant's show is broadcast out of. Beyond that what I could have used more of was on-screen violence. When the zombies do show up, they don't do much making them not as much a threat as they were off-screen, which was a bummer. McDonald creates palpable dread with just phone calls so it was disappointing when he couldn't reproduce it in the flesh. Overall the film just isn't quite as well made as it ought to have been and drops the ball when it most needs to balance it (also never wild about last-minute romantic subplots, least of all when Stephen McHattie is called on to kiss someone), but it does more than make up for its shortcomings in many respects; Pontypool is a quite unsettling and really intelligent movie.

Tony Burgess' script is loaded with fascinating ideas and little details about the titular town that are not ladled out in liberal portions. The exposition goes by quickly - in fact the rapid-fire dialogue is one of the film's recurring and most interesting motifs. Something is always happening and there is more than one thing to pay attention to at any given moment; if you're not quick something's going to pass you by. That Pontypool doesn't mince words is one of its strong suits; this must be one of the only zombie films in which someone doesn't sit around discussing something the audience clearly already knows. When there is exposition it's two-fold and handled extremely well. The first comes from the many phone calls and reports that Grant and Sydney have to then make sense of as the plot ever so slowly starts to make sense. Pontypool owes a good deal to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast but it also has enough ideas to not seem like imitation. But still, a War of the Worlds-inspired Zombie movie? What about that doesn't sound awesome? It's when the calls start to come in that the strength of the performances is shown. In a film in which most of the dialogue is with people we never see, voice acting is absolutely crucial and the callers do a splendid job. If even one of the emergency calls seemed inauthentic the film wouldn't have been as effective but everyone's call is really quite spooky. Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly are all also great as our leads; Reilly and Houle have the thankless straight roles but were it not for their perfect nonchalance the horror wouldn't be nearly as thrilling. Next is when Dr. Mendez shows up with his theory and that's when the movie enters modern classic territory. I don't want to ruin it for you but it is, to my knowledge, the only film that has used this particular method of explaining zombies.
When you discover what's causing all the chaos you realize why only someone like Bruce McDonald could have made this movie. McDonald got his start making films about rock music so that his first horror film should take such a bent is logical. The very nature of the explanation is funnily enough also intrinsically Canadian (it has to do with the dual cultures). So really what I mean is that under no other circumstances could Pontypool have been made and you know something really different is happening as you watch it. Furthermore once you know the secret, it makes for exciting repeat viewings as you scour the opening scenes for clues. Pontypool is a movie with very interesting ideas and is effectively a commentary on modern media, and the nature of emergency coverage. And in between it also manages to tell a story about community and about the sting of hasbeendom - McDonald's rock movies have covered the issue before but never quite like this. Pontypool balances its humour and horror pretty well and thanks to its eeriness and subtlety and the personality of its leading man I was at times reminded of some of Val Lewton's movies (Cat People, Bedlam, The Ghost Ship), and if McDonald were out to make a more direct homage, I might even forgive his use of the romantic subplot. With some very interesting concepts being given the breadth of consideration they deserve under McDonald's efficient if broad direction, Tony Burgess' fascinating screenplay and with loads of help from Miroslaw Baszak's moody cinematography, Steve Munro's excellent sound design and a host of great performances, Pontypool is one of the most intriguing and endearing zombie films of the decade.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Till Death Do Us Part: This Year In Chaos

I thought it only right to take a look at some zombie films before I delve into the curriculum change I've been planning since last year. Think of it as cleaning out my notebook if you will. Today we examine three films with more in common than the undead. One is brand new and one of the only French zombie films in existence, two of them aren't exactly new but they were made with help from my favorite independent studio Glass Eye Pix and all deal with the idea of love and family withstanding members of that family becoming zombies. The reason I don't devote more time to each specifically instead of doing this here threesome is because that though each has their say about love at the edge of life and death, none of them gets it right, but each does it differently. This gives me hope because not only does it show that filmmakers are always trying to do new things with the zombie genre, but that there's still a chance that someone's going to come along and really nail this. Well let's work our way up, shall we?

Mulberry Street
by Jim Mickle
When a diseased rat takes a bite of some people on the bottom of the food chain in a New York neighborhood, a virus begins to spread. The first bite is at dawn; by nightfall the whole city's been infected. Not only are they flesh-eating zombies, but they also take on rat-like countenances a la The Witches. The people we'll be concerned with are the residents of a tenement building. Clutch, the handyman is awaiting the arrival of his daughter Casey, an Iraq war veteran. He was planning a surprise party with the help of his friend Coco, a black gay man who starts out as a welcome diversion from all the ugliness and low-budget performances but wears out his welcome near the middle of the film, and Charlie, an older Jewish man who lives with his even older friend Frank. Clutch seems to have a sort-of-a-kind-of-a-thing for Kay, the single-mother who works at a local bar run by Big Vic, but neither has made much of their mutual attraction. Sadly, though these are well-defined characters (in a 30 Scenes for Two Actors kind of way) the only thing that writers Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who also plays Clutch, are all that interested in is killing everyone off.

Mulberry Street starts off strong enough, promising a sort of slice-of-life zombie film on the The Fog model but with a decidedly Spike Lee-esque undercurrent; it is New York after all, and chaos and a heat-wave spell Do The Right Thing even in a film as lowly as this. And what's more this movie becomes a kind of love letter to New York based character actors. Damici and Mickle cast people who I have to guess are friends of theirs like Larry Fleischman and Glass Eye guru Larry Fessenden and in an uncredited and touching cameo, departed character actor Victor Argo appears with Damici in a picture in Clutch's apartment. So as a love letter to those thousands who struggle to make it as actors, Mulberry Street is kind of heart-warming. As a movie, movie or even a zombie movie, it doesn't really do much more than set 'em up and knock 'em down. The most compelling things about the film are the relationships between the characters (Clutch and his daughter, Kay and his son, Coco and Clutch, Charlie and Frank) but the script dispenses with nearly all of these characters before they can prove much about their friendship.
Mickle makes for an uneven director at the best of times, relying heavily on cheaply rendered fake news footage and oddly static action scenes and poorly done CG effects and obnoxiously muddled editing. His camera sits at a strange angle, which in the claustrophobic apartment building where the film takes place gets old fast. And for a film that takes place almost entirely in the same building Mickle doesn't establish a definite sense of place - the building needed to be another character, not just the place where people hide and die. And unfortunately the zombies weren't even that well executed and for all their menace, Clutch has an easy enough time punching their lights out for them to create much tension. Still I've seen much, much worse.

Zombie Honeymoon
By David Gebroe
Now here's a film that promises a real delving into the idea of romantic love and the undead intersecting. Open on a wedding. Wait, scratch that, open on the credits set to the sound of people chewing. Not a great move, kids. I get that it's supposed to be unnerving but really I just kept thinking how rude it was. Noisy chewing's like nails on a chalkboard to me, not a surrogate string quartet. Anyway, Denise and Danny get married then rush off to their rented honeymoon home. I don't get this place one bit. It's a beachside home (not a mansion but big enough I guess) with expensive shit in it, like big TVs and arcade games. Now I've never spent enough time on the west coast to get acquainted with anything like this, but is this a thing in California? Weirdly overstocked beach houses that middle class newlyweds can rent for a week or two? But ignore the arcade games and shit, they never return...come to think of it I can't really see why they're there in the first place. So they have fun and do a lot of having sex and laying out and such until one afternoon a man wanders out of the ocean and spews up black bile into Danny's mouth. Denise rushes him to the hospital but for whatever reason it's too late and Danny dies in front of her and the attending physicians. She's naturally crushed until he starts coughing and comes back to life, good as new that is.

Ok, so I think you can guess where this film is headed. Danny appears normal at first but soon he's killing and eating small animals, then people, then his flesh starts to decay, then the police get involved and Denise has to decide what's most important to her. If I had one complaint it's that we don't get any real sense of these two despite spending the whole movie with them. Their personalities change for the sake of whatever kind of scene writer/director David Gebroe wants to try and carry off. He makes a pretty huge mistake in telling Zombie Honeymoon like a conventional young-love story with just a few substitutions because he also doesn't bring enough to the telling of the story to escape its pitfalls and inevitable dullness. I knew the minute that fellow spewed up in Danny's face how the film was going to end so it was up to Gebroe to then make the next hour as tense and horrifying and claustrophobic as can be and he failed to do any of those things. The first of Zombie Honeymoon’s problems is that it's shot in oppressively bright colours to emphasize the youthful, west coastness of everything from the house the newlyweds stay in to the small animals Danny winds up eating. It's hard for there to be much darkness in a film that refuses to get dark. Every frame is full of wasted space and there is never the sense of urgency a story like this requires.

I feel that the one thing that would have saved Zombie Honeymoon would be if the filmmaker stopped fucking around. Why is it crucial for us to see the "let's buy our house and move to Portugal" scene in quite such ecstatic detail if we already know it's not going to happen. I mean, it never happens in typical romantic dramedies, and we already know what the score is, so why waste everyone's time? Not to mention that Denise and Danny become two completely different characters during this scene. They're also completely different characters when they argue during dinner with their friends Buddy and Nikki and when they feud over Danny's just having killed and eaten their travel agent (if someone could tell me whether I'm supposed to find this funny I'd appreciate it, because the tonal shifts are all out of left field and have no consistency or level ground to return to). We're obviously meant to care for Denise but she just isn't a real character, she's a series of actions with a semi-sad look on her face who is too well-lit and nicely composed to be a real character who's actually watching the love of her life become a zombie. It's also mildly distracting that Tracy Coogan who plays her is from Ireland and her American accent slips more than it ought to in an eighty-minute film. One minute she wants to cover for his killing, the next she can't stand him, and the only thing that remains consistent is that this film wants a rewrite it never got.
I guess if I had looked at Honeymoon's poster and seen that John Landis had recommended it, I could have stayed the hell away from it. Ultimately a film with the word "Honeymoon" in the title that is about the cross-section of horror and romance could have used a more believable dose of either. Gebroe presents Zombie Honeymoon like it was made-for-TV or like he was gathering footage for a music video. Things happen and have no impact on our emotions, which is damning in a little movie. Little films are supposed to have heart, that's why the rest of the world goes to them (to deliver the romance they weren't going to find in either Transformers 2 or He's Just Not That Into You because both are about science-fiction, implausible relationships and special effects, really). Zombie Honeymoon thus comes off like Gebroe's resume film rather than anything he cared enough about to instill with the kind of heartbreak his plot required. What would you do if your husband were turning into a goddamned zombie? Don’t you think you might be on edge all the fucking time? Might you make every second left of your life together count? For more on this subject, we head overseas where the situation is much worse than the one in California.

by David Morlet
I admit to being really psyched about Mutants because I was told that this was slowly building up steam in Europe and that it was being kept out of US cinemas for the usual reasons (subtitles). That said, early word was mostly positive and I simply had to have it! And for a few wonderful minutes it really seemed like Mutants was going to be the perfect close to a decade of pretty excellent horror films. In a beautifully composed opening sequence a woman runs away from zombies in a creek, heading desperately toward the road nearby. But just as she dodges her pursuers and gets to the road she's hit by an ambulance and literally explodes as if she were not a person but rather a poorly sewn burlap sack of blood and thin vital organs. This should have been my first-clue that Mutants was perhaps not the first-rate zombie film I'd been expecting. Anyway, zombies are running amok but we don't really get a sense of how bad things are all over. The ambulance is being driven by Sonia, a paramedic. Her husband Marco tries to revive the man in the back and both are watched by Perez, a SWAT with a large gun pointed at both of them. When the critical case stops breathing she forces Sonia to stop the van so she can shoot the dead man in the head. And to prove just how nice she really is, she then makes Marco and Sonia clean the blood out of the back of the van with river water. Perez evidently needs these two for some reason because she won't let them out of her sight. They stop at a gas station for fuel and supplies and things take a nasty turn. The discovery of someone who is probably infected leads to a showdown between Husband and Wife and the lady with the gun. The boy who attacks Marco doesn't look infected, just mentally impaired, so Sonia won't leave without him and Perez won't risk his presence. Marco grabs a gun, the boy attacks, and things get ugly. When Sonia gets back in the ambulance she has Perez's gun and a gutshot Marco who may or may not have swallowed some of the infected boy's blood.

She rushes him to a derelict office building to operate on him in peace...or anyway it looks like an office building on the outside. Inside it looks kinda like a basement they rented to do their interior filming with and doesn't match the outside at all. Regardless, they're stuck here and even after Marco recovers from the gunshot, there's still the chance that he's got the virus. As his hair comes out in clumps and his mood turns dour, his doomedness seems assured but Sonia won't let him die without a fight. She too was bitten, it seems, over two weeks ago, but nothing ever happened to her. Maybe if they can find out what about her makes her immune, they can cure him. That's all well and good but Marco has three good days left in him maybe and if they ever get help to come, the chances of finding someone to figure that shit out in time are slim to none. Sonia seems to know they'll never get that far but she doesn't care; when time is just about up for her husband she pumps him full of morphine and locks him in the basement so she can work out a solution on her own but just as she goes back upstairs the marauders arrive. Four survivors arrive and basically force Sonia to help them get fuel for the ambulance. The fuel is in a roadside office through the woods and as their leader doesn't want to risk going back to get it, he's going to send Sonia to get it. She agrees to help only when she hears that there's a radio in the office as well. It's hear that we learn that she has another reason to want her husband to come out alive; she's not just immune to the virus, she's also pregnant, so she books it to the radio and back, but, as we're about an hour into the movie, things spiral out of control and loads of folks get theirs in a messy and fast-paced fashion.
In Mutants' defense it is easily one of the most beautifully shot zombie films of all time. Director David Morlet or possibly cinematographer Nicolas Massart has a real eye for the scenery that surrounds the abandoned building and it really is just a joy to take in every exterior shot they have to offer. Though soon after they get to the building I found myself wishing for more shots of trees and less time with the characters. Morlet is clearly a student of old-school horror as there are a ton of things in play. In the setting there's plenty of The Shining, in the editing, the gore and interior cinematography Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, in the interplay between the people and the virus and the notion of the government's role in things and that it is a virus that's causing the zombies there's a good deal of 28 Days Later and in Sonia's pregnancy and last-ditch escape Children of Men. There's a nod to Rosemary's Baby and of course to Romero's film in the general atmosphere of hopelessness, especially in the context of a married couple alone with zombies all around. And though I could spy a lot of references going by, none of it strengthened the film's narrative, leading me to think that Morlet didn't really have confidence in the story he was telling. This is further underlined by his choice of editing style. The problem with slick, modern editing and frenetic high definition camera work is that character stop being characters and start being objects. They move around a good deal and they never slow down and the most directors think that sheer momentum of bodies is the same as getting to know these people.

And furthermore the story really is quite thin. Sonia and Marco are alone for what is maybe a day, during which time we learn nothing of their relationship, other than the fact that it doesn't mean quite as much to Marco as it does to Sonia. Then when the gang shows up the film turns into a 28 Days Later paraphrase with Sonia, like Jim, bringing the zombies down on the heads of her oppressors, except that we haven't been through enough with Sonia for her arrival to be all that heroic and we haven't spent enough time with the gang for them to really have earned their villainy. So their deaths feel perfunctory more than satisfying. I could see Morlet scripting the scene and shooting it feeling like he had a conclusion as strong as Danny Boyle's and in the staging it appears like he should have but there's no weight behind it. We know that the villains will die and we don't like them so it doesn't matter, we know Marco will emerge and save Sonia at the last minute, and we know that Sonia is immune. Where exactly does the tension come into play? Hélène de Fougerolles is such a strong physical performer as well that it's a shame that Morlet almost makes no use of her. Her beauty, hidden under sweat and grease and blood and fear, makes all her scenes interesting just because she's in them but I can only imagine how good they could have been if Morlet had actually gotten us into her head. Also the film's score in no way matches up to John Murphy's for 28 Days Later. It's fucking awful; rhythm people, tell the drummer to slow down or you'll wind up inviting Ghost of Mars comparisons and NOBODY wants that. Forgive my sounding so cruel but Mutants started out so strongly and is handsomely put-together but the script just couldn't meet the direction halfway. Beyond that the gore effects are distractingly over-the-top, especially when they punctuate what should be difficult emotional scenes between the two leads. Morlet cared much more about how the film looked than what the people who occupied the frame for 90% of the movie thought or felt. I've seen break-neck editing, and hopeless looking characters with an abundance of fire-arms despite this being the end of civilization and I've seen gore and I've seen the ending to 28 Days Later (though for the life of me I can't think of where...). I need more than different scenery, no matter how arresting it is.
Mutants is the most recent of the three films discussed today and it really does represent the most mature and concise directorial vision but it still isn't good enough. Morlet clearly speaks the language of horror films and that to me says that he should have had a better and more interesting story to tell, not one that is interesting in its being superior to amateurish films like Mulberry Street and Zombie Honeymoon. In the end despite my enjoying the tension created in at least the first 40 minutes of Mutants, I can't really rate it heads and shoulders above the others which both went straight to DVD. The problem, so far as I can see, is that director's think that the idea of a zombie film is enough to make up for listlessness and aimlessness. Not a one of these movies has a great ending but most importantly not one of them has a consistent stance on relationships. Mulberry Street clearly has ideas about families as it presents several of them it's just too preoccupied in set-pieces for the characters to actually have a conversation about what they're feeling. Zombie Honeymoon is about two people who are in love but that love is never conveyed in the script, direction or performances. Mutants is a movie about love lasting after death has changed the nature of your life and your struggle to survive, but it happens to people we never get to know. What the makers of low-budget horror films always need and seem to always forget (there are of course exceptions) is that we need to care first before we can be shocked and we need to care when it's all over too. You can't drop characterization in favor of action, nor can you have empty gestures that amount to something in other films. In order for a film about zombies to work, you need the one thing they lack: a beating heart.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Horny Zombies I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

I suppose it was only a matter of time before sex began to play a pivotal role in zombie films. I mean it's always been around (after all what motivates Charles Beaumont to seek out Murder Legendre and his zombie-making formula in White Zombie) but the fusion of the two in both a content and thematic sense has been surprisingly few and far between. Ken Wiederhorn pays lip service to the idea in Return of the Living Dead Part II, Michel Saovi played with it further in Cemetary Man, in fact the only movie I can think of that makes the connection perfectly explicit was John McNaughton's under-rated Masters of Horror entry Haeckel's Tale. So I thought before the cicrriculum change I would delve into two repulsive zombie tales that deal with sex in a manner both frank and polarizing. These are by no means the only two ways to take the notion of a sexualized zombie movie, but these are two of the only movies to take an exclusively sexual approach to the zombie movie. One posits a world in which humans and homosexual zombies co-exist and the other is as good an argument I've yet seen for mass male sterilization, yet strangely they make for an interesting double-feature if you're hoping to teach a lesson about extremes.

Otto; or Up With Dead People
by Bruce LaBruce
Otto takes place in the not too distant future where our narrator informs us that zombies have become "if not commonplace, then at least unextraordinary." They're a fairly common occurence and have even learned to "speak and reason." In the midst of her extemporizing about this, that and the other thing we learn of the titular Otto, a recently deceased and walking dead soul, "a zombie with an identity crisis." Our narrator, who we learn is an experimental filmmaker called Medea Yarn, lets us know that she studied Otto with her camera and was fascinated by him. He was about twenty one or so when he died and then came back. He has flashes of the life he once lead and it haunts him in death (one of many ideas that LaBruce sadly doesn't do anything with). Yarn tells us that a wave of gay zombies has struck, inciting more fervor than ordinary zombies. Once the public found out about this, gangs took to the streets trying to kill them. Anyway, we watch the exploits of two slightly older gay zombies as they spread their message of equality to a homophobic and violent public....or maybe there are no zombies and it's all part of Medea's film....or maybe some of them are real zombies and others are just fetishists who like the idea of looking like a zombie......or maybe Otto is the only zombie.....or maybe he's not one at all.....? All of this is left infuriatingly vague by the film's end.

Bruce LaBruce is one of cinema's most committed punks and if you need proof of his dedication to the same kinds of ideals that guided the best punk musicians just remember that before now you've never heard of him except maybe in the context of this movie. Like Kenneth Anger before him LaBruce is a gay filmmaker who lives to make films that will arouse the contempt of any poor bourguoise sap who stumbles on his movies. His is a body of work steeped in filmic tradition but in no way willing to play by even the most basic of rules. I'd hazard a guess that aside from today's film (which only appeals to a broader audience in the sense that it is nominally a genre film) the closest LaBruce had ever come to the mainstream was his Fellini homage Super 8½, which was probably never shown to more than 20 people at a time in rented rooms at film schools. The blessing and curse of a personality like LaBruce is that though there is not even the slightest chance of him compromising or doing what is asked or expected of him, he will also neccesarily never find an audience big enough for him to make a lasting impression on the art form. The only other downside to his remaining on the fringes of film culture is that he has apparently resisted learning how to construct a decent movie from his self-destructive and minimalist urges; like Sid Vicious, he tries but he never really learned how to play the bass guitar in the first place. Otto; or Up with Dead People looks like shit and though it's jam-packed with interesting ideas, it never does any of them justice, winding up under-cooked, pretentious and only ideaologically more appealing than straight-to-dvd fare like Dead Summer or Ozone. Even Medea's cameraman Adolf uses a Bolex yet LaBruce sticks with lo-res video (film nerds only complaint). Though I'd have over-looked its craft if it had managed to create characters I could care about Otto's biggest problem is that it's dull and, perhaps fittingly, lifeless.

The reason I stayed with Otto is because despite looking terrible and by the end not really having solved any of its problems, it is a film with ideas. From the opening where Medea says that the zombies learned to communicate with each other mentally (which we never see any evidence of...possibly because it's all just a part of her movie....or not...?), possibly because they want to rebel against the "unceasing hostilities of the living", it becomes clear that LaBruce went out of his way to apply every ounce of reactionary leftist thought he could into Otto but he stopped at that. He never develops any of his ideas beyond running them off like the quotable phrases of his previous film Raspberry Reich; his insolent sloganeering is acceptable if a film's sole purpose to stir up trouble and cause both discomfort and awareness (as all of his films are) but in a film that purports to be a zombie film I wanted more. I wanted a story. The closest thing to a narrative that LaBruce manages is split between the exploits of the two revolutionaries (who wind up being characters in the movie-within-a-movie), Otto's stumbling from one sexual encounter to the next as he remembers his old life, and then the making of Medea's film Up With Dead People. The story of the film-making is a paraphrase of the story of LaBruce's Super 8½, which is kind of a shame. A shame, incidentally is how I'd generally describe Otto. This was the first openly gay zombie film that squanders its ideas as throw-away lines, pays attention to its least interesting characters, and alienates all but committed fans of LaBruce's audacious style.

As far as that style goes, there is as I've said, the ultra-pretentious collegiate jargin that, while not as bad as the dialogue in The Addiction, is still irritatingly facile. Then there are the few film school touches that LaBruce adds as inside jokes for die-hards like that Medea's girlfriend Hella only appears in silent, scratchy black-and-white footage for some reason or that when he mentions violence against zombies, he shows an animation instead of real action (my guess is the budget precluded showing any real violence). Finally the film is full of hard-core sexual inserts (a staple of LaBruce's films) which while admittedly interesting, will scare off anyone interested on the surface in a queer-themed zombie film who is not already used to pornographic images in horrror films. I was expecting it and wasn't bothered anyway, but I feel like there are a few curiousity viewers who are going to get a shock at about the twenty minute mark. I do think there is something compelling about the contact between the two nameless twenty-somethings. LaBruce's portrayol of their sexual contact as involving disembowlment and, in one scene that will undoubtedly have people grabbing for the remote, fucking an open wound is fascinating. It opens all kinds of doors for talk about human sexuality that it then promptly walks away from, leaving it and many like it maddeningly ajar.
Otto is about those maligned, still not given equality - obviously gays and zombies are meant to be viewed as one and the same because LaBruce makes them one and the same. It's an interesting idea but it's also very loud and naked in LaBruce's hands. He has ideas but nothing like a real story to tell, in fact the storytelling often gets in the way of his fountain of ideas. While I understand the impulse to make extreme cinema, I don't think that ideas are enough to carry a film. Craft is equally important. That said, when you have a dearth of ideas and minimal craft (in the case of our next film, decent cinematography), your film is likely to wind up even less appealing (to most straight men, I guess. I don't presume to know what turns people on) than watching an orgy of men painted up like zombies.

by Jake West
This film probably shouldn't have started with a helicopter shot of London. I know that what they meant to do was put us in mind of 28 Days Later but nothing will ever match up to 28 Days Later if they try to. Some films may be incidentally as good but nothing, least of all antiquated sex crimedies with Danny Dyer, is going to beat 28 Days Later at its own game. We next meet the unlovable man-children we'll be spending the film with. There's Mikey, who's kind of an asshole and Matt who's a nerd and an asshole, there's Patrick, who's kind of a new-age asshole, Neil, who's the head asshole, Graham, an asshole who's the only one of the bunch who's not straight, Banksy who's meeting them there thanks to car trouble who is a corpulent asshole, and Vince who's the only one seems a decent chap. He's just been divorced and the rest of the gang are taking him out to the village of Moodley for some pre-Deliverance but instead of sex-crazed hillbillies, they've got something else, something far more sexually regressive, waiting for them.

They arrive in Moodley only to discover the place is a derelict. A little searching (with way too many "we can see it but the boys are oblivious" gags) reveals that the place is over-run with hyper functioning zombie women. The way that our director introduces them is via some gender specific sight gags - never a good sign. First Neil looks under the doors of a toilet and some thick gore falls between the girl inside's legs. Fucking charming. Next we see a woman who I believe is supposed to be a bride carrying an axe, but she's actually dressed in the lingerie equivalent of a bridal gown. Next is a hair-dresser with two pairs of scissors in her hands, a barmaid with enormous tits carrying a sword, you notice the pattern yet? All the women are zombies and they each carry some tool that vaguely matches the costume they're wearing (well, except the barmaid...still a bit puzzled about that). The only man left in town, a Sgt. Gavin Wright, fills them in on what's been happening. Yeah, it's a virus, yeah it only effects women, yeah we still only have these pricks to root for. So, the reasons they're stuck: their bus-driver got the virus and Neil put all their phones in a bag to keep them from calling girlfriends before they got to town which he left on the bus. The reasons to watch the film are even fewer than that. Actually, there's no reason to watch this movie.

Here's Doghouse in a nutshell. When Matt asks the group a logical question, Neil replies with the kind of reductionist mysognysit humour that characterizes the whole movie. "What kind of virus only effects women?" "Bird flu." HAHA! Get it? Cause British people call women birds! I'd love to make a joke like that if I'd been stabbed in the hand, like Neil just was in the story, but I just don't think I'd be smart or witty enough. If you don't get it I could explain it to you in detail, it's a really subtle and nuanced kind of humour and it's just...cause I really want you to get it if you don't. The film is just one gory, anti-feminist set-piece after another. The female zombies exist as the sort of grotesque caricature that only douche bags who cheat on their girlfriends and go to strip clubs imagine. Women are there to be reacted against, not viewed as people. Which is not only harmful toward women, but also sells men short because it fundamentally lacks imagination. Between Dan Schaffer's truly awful, trite and painfully unfunny script and Jake West's clumsy and tension-free direction, the film doesn't even work as the "men and women are different" expose it would like to be. And can I just...the film was made and released in 2009 and as I write this it's 2010...people don't actually invest this much money and energy into this kind of fucking trash, do they?

By the time you figure out the zombies are a government project gone awry, you really couldn't be bothered as its played out its one trick. As a side-note the movie goes to great lengths to explain that its indebted to The Evil Dead. Yeah, no! That film was intelligent and fun and scary. This is awful. Stephen Graham and Lee Ingleby try to rise above the material but can't and in fact appear more than a little embarassed to be here while Danny Dyer and the others are only too happy to sink beneath it. Also, quick clarification, though I know there's no point in this case: Neil says that the zombies are feminist at one point. This isn't even right in its wrongness. Feminism doesn't imply a hatred for men, it's about equality on every imaginable level, which is impossible when fuck-ups like Schaffer insist on getting it wrong for the sake of a bunch of jokes that are older than fucking time. So, yeah....fuck this movie, its creators, producers and everyone who enjoys it. And now I don't think I'm being overly harsh because there are ten thousand zombie films that don't make me furious in their sexual politics alone.
So while I'd take Otto over Doghouse anyday, I can't say either won me over. Otto, at the very least has a reason to exist beyond its many forgotten ideas. People really do fear and despise homosexuals (and as we've seen, almost as badly as some men hate and fear women) so to make a film that points this out and tries to insist that homosexuality is normal is something I absolutely stand behind. Both films are reactionary and both are about the fear of castration/impotence, and though one has the balls to own up to it, neither has a combination of ideas and craft that satisfied me. I know that there are good ideas to be found in Otto, and I know that everyone involved in Doghouse owes it to themselves to do better work than this. So until someone fuses sexuality and zombies in a satisfying way, I suggest you stick to the tried and true, or as one of Otto's victims says, "Come on, it's dead in there"

Friday, January 22, 2010

Domestic Demons I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of the advantages that today's filmmakers had over yesterday's is that if you've got a little film that wants to be big, there are ways of achieving the illusion. Imagine what William Castle would have done with internet marketing and flash mobs and a budget for faux-live appearances comparable to that lavished on The Dark Knight. Well today relatively inexpensive movies like Cloverfield (relatively. I SAID RELATIVELY!) can make full use of every avenue for tricksy marketing strategies. The other thing that the internet provides in spades is hype. I've spoken here before about the fact that so many of the opinions one generally finds on here are just opinions from regular people (I'll come clean now and say I don't actually have a Ph.D., a doctorate or a degree and I can't give you college credit for Honors Zombie) and though they can't provide qualified expert advice, they sure know when to get together mob-style and tell you when to pay attention. At the end of last year all anyone wanted to talk about what was that a little film called Paranormal Activity did or didn't scare them. I had never heard of the film so couldn't enter into the discourse but I will say that when a gauntlet like that is thrown down everyone has something to say. You don't want to be the one guy on the internet who was terrified by the film all the other kids say didn't scare them, do you? Well I've never really believed the majority so it was with some reservations that I approached this movie. When The Blair Witch Project came out at the start of the decade you couldn't talk about film without someone wanting to tell you that it was either the scariest or stupidest thing they'd ever seen. Like Blair Witch, Paranormal is told in faux-verite style and gives us twenty-something protagonists and has forums alight with discussion. It seems fitting to finish out the decade the same way it started, though I can say that at least one thing is different - today's film is pretty scary.

Paranormal Activity
by Oren Peli
Katie and Micah are two dense rich kids who've just moved in together; I feel like if they were smarter and a little older you could call them yuppies. Micah commemorates the event by buying an expensive digital camera. Katie is a little miffed at first but thinks she has a practical use for her dipshit boyfriend's new hobby. Katie has, for months now, been visited by microscopic evidence of something otherworldly. She's heard whispering voices and footsteps and felt like someone or something has been watching her. Well Micah thinks for the most part that she's full of shit (I'm right there with him, incidentally) but he's looking for a reason to combine girlfriend and camera and as Katie won't sleep with him on film, he agrees to film them while they sleep. The first night's footage appears normal until 3:09 in the morning when the door to their room moves a few inches on its own. Micah examines it the next day and notices that nothing else in the room is affected by a draft and had locked all the windows and doors. He still views it as more or less a practical joke but that's proof enough for Katie who calls in a psychic called Dr. Fredrichs to talk shop. Of course Fredrichs believes her but Micah remains unconvinced of the gravity of the situation even as it becomes creepier and creepier.

Night after night some minute occurence will occur scaring Katie but only exciting Micah. One night Katie steps out of bed and simply stands looking at the bed for an hour then sleepwalks downstairs to the swing on the porch where Micah finds her when he wakes up alone. She refuses to come upstairs and then when he confronts her about it later she has no recollection of the incident - creepier still the television in their bedroom spontaneously turns on while both are downstairs. On other nights there are loud banging sounds and lights turn on. Katie grows increasingly worried but Micah just gets confrontational. Being the alpha-male type, he views the presence as more a threat to his pride than a real danger to himself or his girlfriend. His insistence on pissing off the entity bugs her almost as much as his perpetually filming their problems with the malevolent entity. Some research into the subject convinces them it's a demon, not a ghost, that's hiding in the house but what finally convinces them that they're in over their heads is two-fold. Micah puts powder on the floor one night to trace the beast's footsteps; this leads them to the attic where they find a picture of Katie as a girl. When Micah decides to disobey Katie's wishes and buys a Ouija board, there's no denying that the beast wants something.
Let's start with the good, shall we? You may recall in my Drag Me To Hell review that I said something along the lines of "nothing much scares me anymore." Well, this is not strictly true and I said it more to bolster my sentiments about Raimi's film. I still do find things scary, in fact probably more so than your average genre junkie, but it takes a little more than flesh and blood or a few garden variety scare moments. I'll let potential filmmakers and/or people looking to frighten me for the sake of a practical joke in on something. Something that invariably scares me is when someone with human features but an inhuman expression stares right through the camera. It works just about everytime. Works in both version of The Grudge (despite the remake being a far less interesting film), works in The Exorcist, works in X, Y and Z. Well I approached Paranormal with something like reserved skepticism. My best friend, who is a little more susceptible to the tricks in horror films than I am (which is not her fault, I've just grown up with scary shit and routinely seek out the most frightening and depraved things in the history of film), said that it was terrifying and I can't tell you how anxious I was to prove immune to it as so many other snarky internet horror buffs claimed to be. Sadly, even with my problems with the film as a piece, it did in fact do a sound job terrifying me to the point that I actually wanted to cover my eyes.

I watched Paranormal alone in my room at around one or so in the morning with the lights, which I think we can agree are ideal circumstances (opening night would have had a lot of chatter and probably would have just distracted you). So I was able to pay full attention to the bedroom stuff. I greatly enjoyed the anticipation provided by the leaps ahead in time in fast motion as they built an atmosphere of expectation broken masterfully by the great sound effects. I found myself quite terrified by the big things as well as the little, like Katie's final attacks by the beast and the conclusion had me by the hair. I even liked the wierdly compelling stuff with the Ouija Board. The effects were all nicely executed and the performances believable for the most part (Katie Featherston has a little trouble conveying surprise at having been caught out of bed, but that's more writer/director Oren Peli's fault than hers as it is a slightly overused device). The problem was that though just about everything the film wanted to carry off as a horror film was convincing, the film around the effects feels conspicuously like the set-up to shock scenes and not like a proper movie.

Ok, it's time for a truncated film school class. Ever see Annie Hall? Remember when Marshall Mcluhan shows up in that fantasy sequence while they're queued up for a film? Ok, so his deal was that the medium by which you see something contains a message. If you watch reality TV, it isn't really important what you get out of that episode, it's that you're watching something that purports to be reality that matters. That's what's going to effect ratings, demographics, etc. etc. etc. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was an internet phenomena, a really thin showcasing for a few effective scares rather than a movie with characters and a plot. I mean, yes, the characters are believable but they're also one-note and rather unlikable. They do things that put them in the most amount of trouble, they buy into the idea of the demon almost immediately, they hang around longer than they should and they do what's most advantageous to get them to the next scare. They, like the plot, are a bit like the house they inhabit: unfurnished and flat. The film quickly becomes about wanting to get to the next bedroom scene because you don't care in the slightest how they spend their days. The editing is mostly arbitrary and the film's aspirations to realism dissappear whenever a cut happens. The effects are good but they also feel like the bare minimum, like Peli figured out what he could pull off, then built a paper-thin film around it. So really the effect is like watching the world's longest and scariest youtube video and only manages to shake its flimsiness in the final fifteen minutes. It's certainly to Peli's credit that he manages those solid fifteen minutes but the film still feels like something that made its way to theatres by virtue of its popularity rather than its cinematic qualities. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that but it just sits with me awkwardly. I don't know why, exactly; most of AIP's and Monogram's films did roughly the same thing for most of their early history, so its not as though it's unprecedented for a film to feature two or three characters in a house setting, I just...I don't know I can't put my finger on it. It's just to me there are films as good as this made every day that never get the attention they deserve yet this has so captivated people. I would have loved to see I Sell The Dead or Cairo or [Rec] get this kind of attention when they were new.
I won't ruin the ending on the off chance that you still haven't heard of or seen Paranormal Activity, but I will say that at two in the morning with the lights out, I was nearly catatonic and was afraid to go into the hallway to use the bathroom after watching it (my apartment and every door in it creaks like a motherfucker). So there you go, my reservations aside, it does what it sets out to do and that's indeed something worthy of praise. And for once all the hype has pointed out something deserving of discussion (I would, however, like the ten bucks I spent on The Dark Knight back). Now in spite of all that, here's what I suggest you do. Ignore everything anyone has said about the movie (myself included) find it on DVD and watch it for yourself. No one's going to be able to predict your reaction to it and I think the beauty of a film like this is that it is so small and will definitely provoke something from you, if only the acknowledgement of tiny films with big hearts. The more you hear about a film, the more your reaction's going to be colored by the things you hear. So, ignore the hype and see the movie and maybe in future we can all talk more about some little movie made for no money at all.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Emigrant Extraterrestrials I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

This may just be the best time in history for filmmakers with ideas. The numbers behind dollar signs on a film's budget are becoming more and more arbitrary as indicators of the end result. In the last twenty years the independent filmmaker has risen to prominence in a huge way. The makers of small films are being recognized for their ideas and given chances to expand their vision into big budget projects. David Gordon Green, the same man who directed the beautiful, no-budget George Washington is currently directing a remake of Suspiria. Small time quirky comedy directors Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach now have access to the Hollywood elite and whatever resources they could hope for. Music video directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are now making critically acclaimed children's and super hero movies. Those mumblecore kids are getting more and more famous by the day despite my continued perplexity at their popularity. People have caught on to my favorite independent director Ti West and the fellows at Glass Eye Pix, giving them some much-deserved love and attention. And recently South African called Neill Blomkamp, on the strength of a delightful and clever short film called Alive In Joburg, in which puppety alien throw cars around while the locals bemoan their presence, was given the chance to direct a film that the whole world would have seen. That project fell through but he still got to show the world that first-rate talent doesn't come from major studios; it typically comes from people with ideas that extend beyond how best to frame explosions and women in cut-offs. 

District 9
by Neill Blomkamp
Open on a slight, nervous corporate lackey called Wikus Van De Merwe. He's just been given the job of a lifetime or so it would seem. In 1982 an Alien ship came through our atmosphere hovering just over Johannesburg, South Africa. Nothing happened for a good long while and eventually the government sent some guys up to cut their way into the ship. What they found inside had the look of an alien crack house. The aliens (which are given the nickname "Prawn" for their resemblance to the sea-creature, though they look more like human cockroaches to me) were mal-nourished and seemed to be living in their own filth. They were brought down in helicopters so that they could be taken care of, but trouble soon followed. The South Africans learned their language and taught their own to the aliens and soon after people started taking advantage of them. Like some ethnic groups in South Africa, the aliens were not treated quite as nicely as say, a visiting white soccer team. Soon the squalor they were found in is replicated on the ground and they're relegated to a slum called District 9 where polite society doesn't have to interact with them. Of course they're still awfully close to civilization and the rest of the world is watching so a shady firm called MNU is tasked with finding a home for them. Their solution is District 10, a tent city set-up even further from the speciesist public. As you may have guessed it's Van Der Merwe who's been put in charge of the move - his first task: getting all the aliens to sign their eviction notice so that the move is nice and legal. And because MNU isn't quite as amiable as Van Der Merwe seems on the surface, they send a gun-toting mercenary escort led by the bloodthirsty Koobus Venter to make their argument a little more persuasive.

While Van Der Merwe and his Black Water escort fuck shit up in District 9, a Prawn called Christopher Johnson and his son are busy collecting something. When the mothership landed someone turned a camera on in time to catch a piece of the ship detaching; as no one's found the piece, they don't know what it's for. Johnson has spent his time on the ground collecting drops of fuel from other scraps of the technology brought down by his fellow aliens. I think you can guess what the fuel is going to power. On the day Van Der Merwe shows up Johnson collects the last drop but is interrupted when the gawky man makes his rounds. Johnson abandons the bottle of fuel and Van Der Merwe finds it and accidentally sprays himself in the face with it. That's when the fun begins - the fuel gets into his blood after he's injured by a prawn and then it begins fucking with his genes. He starts turning into one of the aliens. This fucks with his day in more than one way. First of all, how is he going to explain his changing into an alien to his wife? Second of all, once the head of MNU, also Van Der Merwe's father-in-law, gets wind of this transformation he has the poor dope secreted off to a lab in a sub-basement at headquarters. Now, the reason MNU is so interested in solving the alien problem is because they are also one of the world's largest weapon manufacturers. They've been trying to figure out the secret to the alien weaponry for years but haven't gotten very far because the prawns engineered their guns to interact with them biologically - you can't fire a prawn gun without a prawn arm. So naturally when they find out that something is turning Van Der Merwe into the world's first prawn-man, they want to dissect him to figure out what it is, mass-produce it, and start using the alien weaponry. Wikus knows that there's little chance that his having a wife (the head honcho's daughter, no less) is going to stop him from getting cut open for science, so he breaks out and tries to find the one person - or should I say prawn - who knows what's happening to him. But he's only got so much time before either MNU catches up with him or he resembles just another impoverished alien.
Well if you want to talk about unprecedented, you could do worse than to talk about the people involved in District 9. First of all Sharlto Copley as Wikus gives one of the strongest performances of any first-time actor. It could be that he really is the nervous Van Der Merwe (minus the bigotry, of course) in reality, but that his performance seems authentic for every second of his screentime is incredibly impressive as he is almost always the focus of the action. I'll admit that I find something inexplicably hypnotic about the South African accent but I still think that everyone in this movie is great (most of them first-timers), Copley foremost among them. The editing, sound design and production direction are all first rate and cinematographer Trent Opaloch must be commended as his only prior experience was on the director's early shorts. Neill Blomkamp had never directed anything longer than a few minutes in length before today's film. In what has since become fanboy lore, Peter Jackson had, on the strength of Blomkamp's few short films, asked the director to helm the big screen adaptation of Halo he was executive producing. When that fell through, Jackson gave him the keys to Hobbiton and said "go nuts." With 30 Million dollars and the crack special effects team behind Jackson's latest projects, Blomkamp turned in one of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Pretty impressive, no? His and Terri Tatchell's script is at turns thought-provoking and irreverent and his direction is pretty goddamned excellent. The film becomes all the more impressive when you consider the sheer amount of footage that must have been shot. District 9 employs the ever-popular found footage tack, alternating between interviews/documentation of the mission happening in the present, security camera and TV news footage, and then the source-less narrative angles for the stuff that happens with Christopher Johnson and Wikus' attempts to save himself. I was a little skeptical of the switch from verite to source-less footage but eventually I stopped caring because the story begged for my attention. 

If you're the kind of obsessive who can't let lapses in logic pass by unnoticed, District 9 is probably not gonna be your movie. Whatever, more movie for me. Sure the film has a lot of loop-holes, but it's science-fiction so take it easy. The whole point of science-fiction is to posit something implausible to get people thinking about shit. I know that some people's wariness came from the fact that sci-fi has recently meant serial killers in space and robots putting each other in headlocks but trust me when I say that District 9 is still as good as all that with its flawed logic. I will say that I was willing to overlook the majority of its flaws because people are the villain of the story; I was unabashedly rooting for humans to get blown up with lasers for most of the movie. Blomkamp has said that the film is based on his experiences growing up in South Africa during apartheid and really if you set anything in South Africa and someone's going to think apartheid. The aliens are a fairly obvious stand-in for the blacks who were treated with contempt by those in charge of the country those few years ago. Blomkamp doesn't strictly blame whites for the hatred though. No the real problem is that people were not viewing each other as equals. So rather than draw color lines (though it does make sense that both the head of MNU and the lead mercenary would be white men) Blomkamp simply takes his anger at the situation out on people in general; it's only when Van Der Merwe treats the alien Christopher with the same kindness he reserves for his family does anything positive happen. Now that's the kind of moralizing I can get behind.
People have accused Blomkamp of being less than his message because of his portrayals of the Nigerian warlords who run guns and prostitutes in District 9 but I really don't think he was trying to say anything overtly negative about them as a whole. I view this as more a Grampa Simpson aside that doesn't mean quite what you think. After all a few dozen gangsters don't stand in for the whole country, do they? One can criticize the disgraced former governor of Alaska without humiliating the people of her state, so why does a fictional warlord mean that Blomkamp has it out for Nigerians? I would argue that between the violence and greed (represented by MNU and the gangs in equal measure) humanity has a tough time emerging. Van Der Merwe is far from perfect and it takes quite literally the most extreme circumstances imaginable for him to look past his own prejudices and rise to the occasion. And when he does the film enters its most enjoyable phase, the "let's blast the shit out of things with Peter Jackson's special effects crew" phase. Blomkamp's handling of the action sequences is really stellar and he takes every opportunity to do something innovative and nifty with the camera. The siege of MNU and the crawl to the mothership at the end are so awesomely directed that its not hard to wish Jackson had secured him that job directing Halo. As an aside I'd like to say that this is the kind of film that carries on the legacy of James Cameron's best work while the man wallows in his own egoism; this is the film I wanted when I heard he was making Avatar. This is a film as good and exciting as Aliens or Terminator that shares their fusion of hi and low tech, their heart and brains.

Peter Jackson's influence is all over District 9. The faux-documentary that makes up the first act is right out of Jackson's excellent Forgotten Silver and the splat-tastic second and third acts all drip with the same gooey excesses and harrowing claustrophia of Bad Taste and Dead Alive. In fact the only thing missing is Jackson's sentimental streak and after seeing his dreadful take on The Lovely Bones I'd say it's a good thing he's got this movie to be proud of this year. The effects in the film are also about as excellent as I've seen. The prawns are a thing of wonder and make for convincing (not to mention sympathetic) enough company that you don't mind spending the movie with a subtitled alien pining for his home-planet. Their animation is pretty seemless and their design sufficiently other. Beyond that, all the havoc that Wikus and Christopher wreak is both fun to watch and flawlessly incorporated. Like J.J. Abrams, Blomkamp makes sure to mask his effects with shaky cam so we don't notice them being effects (something Jackson would do well to take note of). So not only could I enjoy the idea of people exploding I could also revel in the realistically gory spectacle.
District 9 has precedents and is far from a wholly original film but it is both winning and about something, so I look past its derivativeness and occasional plot-hole and simply enjoyed myself. I could root for both of its leads because they were concerned for the well-being of others, even as not-great examples of their species roam around breaking shit and indulging in their most base impulses. As much as you or I might like to go around blowing shit up to take our aggression at the staggering amount of people who waste time banning marriages, shooting each other, driving SUVs and keeping women under burkas, we can't. Part of me really enjoyed vicariously taking my rage out on humanity, but the rest of me felt for Blomkamp, who had to live through apartheid in order to tell this story - that he emerged from the conflict with a sense of humour is really kind of amazing - knows that it's people who are their own worst enemy and his film is rather more touching than I expected it to be. Does everything in the film make sense? Certainly not, but the point is to get people talking and if anyone walks away from District 9 just a little afraid that they'll get blown up if they treat other people like shit based on something as trivial as where they're from or how they look, then I'd call the film a success. Granted we live in an age of Michael Bays and McGs so who knows what penetrates the massive unconscious anymore. Regardless of its reception, I still call District 9 a success and one hell of a movie.