Thursday 11 October 2012

15 Second Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I came to terms with remake culture some time ago. After a four hour rant following a first viewing of the Hills Have Eyes remake, I concluded that remakes are not the originals, and neither are they trying to be. After all, when treated as the covert sequels that they are, they fare much better. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was far better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Friday the 13th (2009) kicked Jason Takes Manhattan‘s ass. The Hills Have Eyes (2005) cooked, killed and served up Hills Have Eyes part II (1985) to its inbred offspring faster than I could say ‘Reaper no dumb like papa Jupe’.

By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street was slated for remake, I was in the right frame of mind. ”How can it possibly be worse than Freddy’s Dead?”, I thought. Nay, I even scoffed at the idea that it could be worse than Freddy’s Dead. In fact, I began to regard the idea of a remake with some hope. The new Elm Street presented a good opportunity - a return to the dark Freddy, real creepiness, no jokes. That is exactly what Bayer & Co promised – so far so good…

Two unprecedented events followed: (a) I went to the cinema to see it after vowing to never set foot in a multiplex again (long, grumpy story), and (b) I walked out mid-way through the film. I have subsequently sat through the full film twice on DVD. It does not get any more tolerable with repeated viewing.

What went wrong? I’ve seen a lot of bad films over the last decade, surely this cannot have been that bad? Surely… it must have been… better … better than Freddy’s Dead…?
Well, that depends on how much tolerance you can muster for 95 minutes of gaping plot holes, implausible decisions, and illogical events (even accounting for the supernatural nature of the plot). The script is awful, and the CG effects are so bad that they make the 1984 original look cutting edge. The acting isn’t much better. Rooney Mara is a vacant mannequin drifting through what can only be described as the most limp and pathetic final girl performances that has ever (dis)graced the genre. That she later disavowed the film is only to be expected: she should be embarrassed.

Freddy is put on display too openly from the outset. He isn’t scary because he is always just there, shouting at the protagonists, mimicking Heath Ledger’s Joker, or exclaiming ‘MAAAAHHH’ to-camera to signal the end of each nightmare. What is scary about that? The original worked because Freddy was rarely displayed in full – he was present in fragments, back-lit to obscure his visage. Freddy didn’t need to shout. Englund was physically small, but the character was powerful because he was genuinely creepy. Bayer has obviously decided that characterisation is all a bit unnecessary since he has a ‘loud noise=big jump’ button. Our respective ideas about what constitutes fear-inducing differ greatly.

Nancy is fluffed then, but so too is her counterpoint. Without the bedrock Freddy/Nancy relationship, the film has no centre to speak of. We had better hope the peripheral ideas are creative… In fact, they are, but it only makes matters worse. The film offers glimmers of hope in the form of nascent ideas – micronaps, a computer entering sleep mode, a reference to the pied piper of Hamlyn – which never come into fruition. The filmmakers present these various elements as ‘interesting’, but there is no substance and no follow-through. If they are interesting ideas, they need to be nurtured rather than presented as self-evident.

This problem infects the film at all levels. Nightmare (2010) is all surface, and no depth. Aside from the well edited pharmacy sequence, this is a rag-bag collection of missed opportunities and lessons in generic, sterile film-making. At least Freddy’s Dead had personality. Granted, it was the personality of an obnoxious 13-year old, but at least it wasn’t soulless. Amanda Kruger is spinning in her grave, along with Bob Shaye’s vision of New Line’s bright future (circa 1985). As a way to flip the bird to its founder and the flagship series that made the company name, the remake is fitting, not least since it replicates the facelessness of New Line’s new owners. The dream is over and the nightmare has begun.


Thursday 4 October 2012

15 Second Review: Satsu Satsu (Ayame) (1999)

This is a difficult movie to discuss. It is very cheaply made. In fact, it looks like it’s been shot on the type of standard tape-based video camera that was de rigueur in the last days of the 20th Century. Direction and create an uncomfortable, realistic atmosphere. I’m yet to find a subtitled version of the film, I am also shut out of the dialogue. Granted, this makes the film more challenging for those of us who are language-impaired. However, these technical aspects mean that I come to the films disarmed of the central critical tools I would usually utilise. I confess, I must be a cultural masochist because…*I like it*.

The other difficulty is that reviewing this unreviewable film means essentially describing what happens, and I’d hate to give anything away. Suffice it to say that film is divided into four vignettes (3 live action, the last “puppetry” (to some extent)). Those chapters - as the international title may have given away – revolve around the theme/motif of suicide. The first story is long, and very slow. Yet, that mood reflects the boredom and isolation felt by the protagonist. The film prompts that feeling of tedium and repetition for the viewer too. Since the protagonist is driven to suicide by her isolation, inducing that same feeling for the viewer is unnerving. It also makes the film strangely compelling.

This disquieting atmosphere is prevalent. The second story is predictably gloomy, and pretty short. The title notwithstanding, the first chapter established that there is only one possible conclusion for each vignette. The events that lead to suicide are imbued with ominous inevitability. The third story is, not to undersell it, pretty gory. It may be a bit too much for some viewers, as the protagonist’s death is filmed in graphic detail. It is nothing that hasn’t already been done in countless other splatter films, but its juxtaposition with the previous downbeat sections renders this tale somewhat sensational. As a stand-alone piece, the gore would be nowhere near as affecting. The pacing across the film is what makes this so impactful.

Rounding off this arc is a bizarre final section, featuring plastic dolls and some distorted hardcore/extreme techno. I liked it, some will hate it. And who can blame them? As a conclusion, it makes little sense. It doesn’t even involve suicide, just murder…if you can call “doll death” murder. Given the thoughtful way the previous sections were established, paced, and placed, it may be that I am entirely missing some ominous political subtext. Perhaps there is a running theme that I am missing out on, not least since I am unable to translate any of the dialogue. Maybe there is some ‘chant[ing] in the darkness’ that I am not hearing. Make of it what you will.

Initially, I was disappointed by Satsu Satsu (ayame). It is not quite the extreme cinema it is hyped to be, or that anyone familiar with Psycho: Tumbling Doll of Flesh might expect. However, it has forced itself under my skin. Seven years after I first saw the film, my mind is still trying to decide if it is filmic genius or exploitative trash. Yet, I have responded to it rather more positively on a visceral and subconscious level…or i wouldn’t be writing this review. Anyone expecting another sick-fest from Anaru will probably be disappointed (especially during the first half). Unlike most other straight-to-VHS J-sploitation films I have seen, this one has left me thinking…and that can be no bad thing.

This is a hard film to get hold of, but, with prior warning, is worth checking out. Let it bury into you.



Monday 1 October 2012

15 Second Review: Girl Model (2011)

A couple of weeks ago, I would have pegged Into the Abyss as my strongest contender for ”creepy documentary of the year”. However, that was until I saw the innocuous sounding Girl Model.
Anyone horrified by the infantilisation of women in contemporary culture, the prevalence of eating disorders, pedophilia or child sexualisation will be disturbed from the outset. The first shots are of what seems to be hundreds of scrawny, half-naked,
barely pubescent girls being critiqued by agents at a model casting. This is an environment in which the young women are spoken about as if they are not present, and so have to stand by while their appearances are judged. One girl is rejected for having hips that are too big, for example. This wouldn’t be so bad if she had hips. What the talent scouts mean is that her pelvis is the wrong shape.
The system of beauty they herald exposes how flawed the idea of “natural beauty” is. The agents reject the model on the basis of her natural attributes – her bone-structure - which she is unable to amend. Simultaneously, this regime version of beauty is a highly artificial construction. The models edit their own bodies in the sense that they must remain thin. Those boundaries are stringently enforced. Once signed, the models are contractually obliged to regulate their vital statistics, ensuring that they do not gain a centimetre on any of those dimensions. The agents also construct beauty by imposing their own aesthetic criteria, and by editing the field: a very particular look is opted for. Documentary is the perfect medium via which to expose such tensions since its method of relaying these themes inherently entails selection and juxtaposition.
A model called Nadya is “lucky” enough to triumph over her fellow teens this bastard version of Siberia’s Next Top Model. To say she ‘wins’ a modelling contract is like painting a trip to Abu Ghraib as a romantic weekend getaway. The 13 year old, who speaks only her native tongue, is sent to Japan…alone. From that point on, the film implicitly challenges the viewer to pick out their most disturbing moment, which is no easy matter. Each incident that unfolds seems to actively vie for that title. For me, the pinnacle was when Nadya was filmed by her Japanese agent and told to say to camera that she was 15. Presumably the footage would be stored as evidence against future legal recourse, but she naively complies. The punchline is that from that point on, she simply is 15 according to the agency. Their control over what Nadya represents is all-encompassing. This minor decision resonates in her first contracted photoshoot for the company in which her face is entirely covered, and for which she is not paid.
To make matters worse, Ashley, the talent scout that selected Nadya, supplies a running commentary regarding her own experiences as a teen model, which is intercut with self-shot footage from that point in her life. At first I thought this might humanise Ashley, who is essentially a professional human trafficker. Yet her understanding of the girls’ plights only augments Ashley’s monstrousness. The sequences come off not as vindication, but as confession. In one sense, it is tragic that her experiences have deadened her empathy. In another, her comments make it seem as if she is taking her own hideous experiences out on a generation of teens who share the ambitions she once had. The propagatory nature of Ashley’s path is echoed in the film’s final shot of a new model being selected.
That inexorability is the film’s rub. The teens are never physically abused, but that does not make the systemic violence the documentarians capture any less pernicious. As the film explicitly states, no one person in the chain can ultimately be blamed for what occurs: the whole structure is an injurious, yet apparently ceaseless cycle of decay. One of the most disturbing aspects of the documentary then, is that seemingly nothing can be done to hinder the machine: the film is upsetting, but the shock it inspires is encoded as being futile. This is not a campaign-piece that asks the audience to protest the models’ plights. Instead, it reflects the powerlessness felt by girls trapped within that system.

15 Second Review: Das Komabrutale Duell

Where to begin… Legend has it that Das Komabrutale Duell is the product of several short films stitched together. Well doesn’t it just feel like that is the case. Much like Spookies(1986) – again the product of splicing together existent material – the result is incomprehensible. I don’t always take it as a good sign when I come away from a film thinking “what exactly was that supposed to be about?”. I could lay out the plot here, but I would only be regurgitating those after-the-fact rationalisations that I have read elsewhere. In my experience of watching it, the synopsis goes a little like this:

People attack one another. I’m not sure if they die or not. One of the “characters” keeps a mini chainsaw in his car in case of emergencies, and as luck would have it, it comes in handy. Someone else gets their crotch kicked repeatedly (and that is undoubtedly more times than you are imagining). People keep attacking each other. Eventually the film ends.

Das Komabrutale Duell has gained something of a reputation among indie-horror fans for being “THE GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!” It is certainly gory. However, there are four immediate problems with that label:
1) When the viscera is this cheap-looking, it is not so much ‘hard to stomach’ as it is hard to engage with. For instance, someone is crucified and nails are hammered into their hands. Their “hands” look like stuffed latex gloves rather than flesh. What exactly is horrific about seeing someone nail a glove to a 2×4? Gore should be kin to a good magic trick. This is like a child showing off their new clumsily-executed sleight-of-hand illusion. It is sweet for what it is, but it is doomed not to dazzle
2) Playing the “GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!” game is risky. Given that Andreas Schnass was on the third entry in his similarly vibed Violent Shit series by the time Das Komabrutale Duell was made, Fipper’s project cannot claim an originality crown. Schnass’s Violent Shit was – for my money – just as incomprehensible, and its 3) Without context, the gore doesn’t mean anything. It is simply splatter. In that case, the viscera had better be damned good -or highly unusual – if it is going to constitute entertainment. Das Komabrutale Duell doesn’t manage that.

4) The absence of narrative movement stifles other forms of engagement. I doubt I am alone in assuming that Fipper did not intend the film to have any symbolic or political subtext. That is not to say that the film does not mean anything politically. My reading certainly is not based on intent. However, my assumption stems from what appears to be Fipper’s lack of filmmaking ability. The film does not prompt me to seriously engage with the ideas presented onscreen, because it does not appear that Fipper seriously engaged with the ideas he was offering.

I’m not sure whether Fipper encouraged people to recieve Das Komabrutale Duell as “THE GORIEST FILM EVER!!!!”, or if its reputation is entirely fan-imposed. Either way, the hype doesn’t pay-off. The remaining film has to stand on its own merits. Unfortunately, Das Komabrutale Duell has few merits to speak of. My advice for anyone intending on watching it is to do so on double-speed. One thing I will say in its defence – I liked it more than Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010).


15 Second Review: Damages Season 5

Not too long ago I posted a capsule review regarding Damages season 4. In that review I bemoaned the series’ decline, and expressed my hope that the writing would return to form Having just finished watching the final season, several clear reasons for that decline shot into focus. Seasons 3 and 4 were so (comparatively) unengaging because the focus was primarily placed on cases and corruption. Despite John Goodman’s best attempts, his storyline could not match that given over to Ted Danson’s Frobisher n seasons 1 and 2 – Season 2 wisely followed Frobisher’s re-invention and that gave his character much greater depth. What the series really missed in focusing on the cases is the Ellen versus Patty dynamic. In other words, by focusing on new characters and legal action rather than on its arch rival protagonists, seasons 3 and 4 neglected the show’s core strength.
Only a few episodes into season 5, it became apparent that season 4 neglected the Patty/Ellen dynamic because Kessler et al were reserving their storylines for a magnificent swan song. Season 5 is not only a return to form, it is possibly the most interesting season in the show’s all-too-brief history. The interplay is so rich and nuanced that it makes season 4 look positively one-dimensional by comparison. Season 5s case – loosely based on the wikileaks scandal – is a vehicle and nothing else. Indeed, Ellen and Patty uncover virtually no evidence, and both refer to the case as a battleground. Consequently, their interactions – even when sitting silently apart in an airport lounge – are seething, allowing Close and Byrne to really shine.

Yet the trump card comes in the form of the season’s thematic structure, which lends a so much depth to the proceedings. Season 4 was preoccupied with torture as a metaphor for corruption and powered exploitation, using Erickson’s family life as a counterpoint only to highlight the path of cruelty deceit and betrayal his greed takes him on. Season 5 pounces on parent/child relationships in various guises to illuminate what is at stake for both Patty and Ellen. Be it via the ongoing custody battle between Patty and her son, revelations about Patty’s relationship with her father, the disturbances that unhinge Ellen’s parent’s marriage and another relationship (which I won’t spoil), familial relations are characterised as power-struggles. Each of those , of course, parallel Patty and Ellen’s metaphoric mother-daughter relationship. Those tensions have been present since seasons 1 and 2, where Patty’s attempt to have Ellen killed was paralleled directly with the revelation of Patty’s stillbirth.
The writers resist the temptation to detonate the charges they set in place, opting for a poignant, satisfying finale that is utterly devastating. The closing shot of Close resonates with all of the bitterness, hatred, and sadness that made the character so compelling in the first instance. After five seasons, the show closes by assessing Patty and Ellen’s choices, and finally by tallying the damages.