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Creepshow: Franck Khalfoun’s guilt-free MANIAC

In Film Reviews on November 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Franck Khalfoun’s (P2, Wrong Turn at Tahoe) third feature, Maniac, is a remake of William Lustig’s schlocky serial-killer flick from 1980. It makes a few adjustments to the original: employing Elijah Wood’s nerdy neurosis as Frank, the titular maniac, in place of Joe Spinelli’s fat, sweaty menace; relocating from seedy, pre-Giuliani New York to the urban wasteland of L.A.; and, most notably, shooting the entire film from a first-person POV perspective. As a formalist experiment, the film succeeds surprisingly well. While being inside Frank’s head is certainly vertiginous and nauseating, both for logistical and thematic reasons, the grand experiment of Maniac is sure to become, as Hollywood Reporter’s Megan Lehmann described the original, “a grubby touchstone among genre fans.”

Lustig’s 1980 original

So, Khalfoun succeeded in his gamble, with ample assistance from his fellow Frenchman Alexandre Aja (who co-wrote and produced the film), the director of such torture-porn gems as High Tension and the execrable remake of Craven’s Vietnam-era classic The Hills Have Eyes. Between the two of them, Aja and Khalfoun have made quite a name for themselves in horror-fan circles as directors who push the envelope and aren’t afraid to show as much gratuitous violence as they can pack into a single feature. Maniac features several very graphic scalpings; Frank takes the scalps home to adorn his female mannequin collection, trying to cover the emotional scars left by his neglectful prostitute mother. The blood and gore are so prominent both visually and thematically, and so well rendered, that these murderous set pieces would make even Cronenberg proud.

One of Frank’s trophies

Or would they? In Cronenberg’s films, extreme gore is always tied to a larger moral issue, or at least a larger theme relevant to the character’s development (or society’s dissolution, as the case may be). In Maniac, we are forced to identify with Frank’s every glance and action, because the POV strategy does not allow the viewer any critical distance from what he’s doing. We watch through Frank’s eyes as he scouts the sidewalk for his next victim and hide with him in closets and bathrooms as he ogles a panoply of skinny, naked women, each of whom represents something that sets Frank off by reminding him of Mommie Dearest. One girl is too forward, too confident in her sexuality; one is a dancer, too proud of her body and too happy displaying it; one is successful, middle-aged and drunkenly sardonicto him—the first two seem to be enough to put Frank over the edge. All are stalked, murdered, and scalped before Frank retreats to his house of horrors, and the audience has the ultimate front-row seat to the entire show.

One of the only non-POV shots in the film–Khalfoun described researching serial killers who described having out-of-body experiences while committing their murders.

Only one girl inspires both Frank’s bloodlust and his romantic interest simultaneously: Anna, a photographer and fellow mannequin enthusiast, whom we first see brandishing a large camera. Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s work and theories of the male gaze—no longer a theory in this case, since the entire film is literally a male’s gaze—will recognize a woman with a camera as a symbol of female agency, a character who can’t just be reduced to a watchable (and scalpable) object because she is dealing with the male gaze on its own terms, often turning it back on itself by creating images of her own. Indeed, the only glimpses we ever see of Frank himself are either in mirrors or photographs, and most of these are taken by Anna herself. The metaphor is ploddingly obvious here: Frank creates fake women out of mannequins and Anna is in turn creating Frank, in a way, by capturing images of him and forcing him to look at them. To Frank, women are nothing but images, so being forced into such a role from Anna’s point of view makes him feel both vulnerable (the watched instead of the watcher) and at least slightly guilty about his murderous ways.

A photo Anna takes of Frank during their first encounter

Unfortunately, Anna ends up being just another of Frank’s trophies, though her scalp gets the distinction of adorning a bridal mannequin, complete with dress and diamond ring. Frank tries to convince himself that treating the mannequin-Anna differently than all the others will make her death mean something different, or at least make it less reprehensible in his own mind. Of course, it does neither, and he eventually dies surrounded by his grisly trophies, by a horde of his ideal women, none of whom could lift a finger to help him even if they wanted to.

Anna looks at the mannequins

Here’s my problem with this film, and with Khalfoun’s directorial perspective: he takes no ownership of the film’s misogynist content, and doesn’t seem to think there’s anything problematic about it. Let me be very clear about this: the entire point of Maniac is to put the audience inside the mind and behind the eyes of a disturbed man (whose disturbance is entirely the fault of his mother) who stalks, tortures, and murders women. All the shock value and horror of the film come from the inventive ways in which Frank does each of these things, and the film’s suspense comes from the nerve-jangling waiting game Frank and the audience experience between kills.

Women are objects

The way women are treated in this film is not a minor issue; it is the entire point of the narrative. This isn’t a character study of Frank’s disintegration into insanity, because the audience never has the opportunity to observe him outside of his own subjectivity. We are him and, by implication, he is us. Therefore, the thrill of this film, as well as its horror, must necessarily reside in the opportunity it affords audience members to vicariously participate in Frank’s stalking, torturing, and killing of women. The fact that the film can blame everything Frank does on his slut of a mother is a perfect analogy to the fact that Khalfoun can easily shift responsibility for his film’s virulent hatred of women onto Lustig’s original. Even when misogyny is so glaring, so blatant, and so obviously reveled in, its source can always be pinned on someone else.

Reappropriating the gaze?

I am not asserting that Maniac is going to turn anyone who sees it into a woman-hating freak, bent on murdering the first comely dancer who crosses his or her path. Clearly, the relationship between film and viewer is far more complicated and nuanced than censorship advocates would have us believe. (Indeed, it would be interesting to investigate the experience of female viewers of this film; for me, the scariest scene was a long sequence of Frank cruising for victims, when the POV style forced me to see every young woman on the street—and myself, by implication—through his eyes.) I do not want people to boycott this film, or any film; in fact, seeing Maniac was a uniquely instructive experience for me, because I had the opportunity immediately afterwards to ask Khalfoun, in person, what he had to say to critical allegations that his film is misogynist.

Unsurprisingly, Khalfoun took the usual evasive line, stating that “the film isn’t misogynist; it’s about a misogynist,” and defending himself by declaring, “I love women! Look how many naked women are in the film!” While my hopes for any sort of socially responsible introspection on Khalfoun’s part were obviously very low, his responses to my questions were even more puerile than I had expected them to be. What I found far more disturbing, however, was my next confrontation of the evening, which came after the end of the Q and A as everyone was filing out of the theatre. As I made my way towards the door, the moderator, who is the Editor-in-Chief of the country’s premiere film criticism magazine, walked up to me and asked, “I’m curious: if you knew what the film was about, why did you even come?”

This is my problem with Maniac, and with our culture’s acceptance of misogyny in general, whether it be in politics (see Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan) or in the world of my beloved horror film: no one wants to admit that this is a real issue with real consequences in the real world. No one wants to believe that their 90 minutes of fun might come at the ideological expense of an entire demographic. No one wants to be told they are complicit, even when they watch a film that puts them directly inside the mind of a killer. No one wants to believe that the women Frank watches on the sidewalk are no more vulnerable than the women on any given sidewalk in today’s America.

Judging by my experience, anyone who calls attention to misogyny as such is regarded as a femi-Nazi killjoy, someone who can’t possibly understand the aesthetic pleasure of a good serial-killer film, or simply a raging shrew who doesn’t know the first thing about film in general or horror in particular (during my back-and-forth with Khalfoun, a male member of the crowd defended the director by helpfully reminding me that Norman Bates, too, was screwed up by his mother). I feel no need to provide any credentials to the contrary, because calling out films for their hatred of women, something absolutely endemic in our culture and every culture around the world, is always a subject worthy of discussion, even if the most influential film critic in the country doesn’t seem to think so.

Needless to say, I won’t be renewing my subscription.

© Lita Robinson 2012

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V/H/S

In Film Reviews on October 29, 2012 at 7:40 pm

*Find an abridged version of this review on DiaboliqueMagazine.com!

For a film with 10 directors, 10 writers, and five unique segments, you’d think V/H/S would be able to do something innovative. Unfortunately, for all its moving parts it’s just a giant mishmash of genre cliches and jiggly, low-fi camerawork. Its few transcendent moments don’t even come close to making up for the rest of it; the whole, in this case, is dramatically less than the sum of its parts.

I saw this film at a press screening in a trendy Williamsburg gastropub-theater, where appropriately hipster-attired representatives from Magnet Releasing were on hand to talk up the film and distribute free drinks. This strategy may have backfired; after imbibing quite a few cocktails before finally settling in for the film, the audience’s prevailing mood was rowdy and full of giggles. This didn’t do the film any favors, since the gotcha moments were met with more peals of laughter than they might have received had we all been sober. On the other hand, perhaps my not being able to recall the film in precise detail—full disclosure: I enjoyed three delicious “corpse reviver” cocktails beforehand—is actually a good thing.

The film’s background story into which the five vignettes are inserted follows a group of stupid young men always on the lookout for easy money, and vulnerable women whose tops they can yank down on camera for fun. Are we supposed to hate these characters, or find them vaguely amusing? It’s unclear. The film certainly leans toward the latter, but I, for one, was instantly turned off by this suggestion that sexual assault can be, you know, not a big deal and sort of funny. If the directors were seeking an easy way to get their audience interested in the story and the main characters, they definitely failed on that count. At any rate, the group of losers soon catches wind of an abandoned house that contains a massive VHS collection, a dead guy (or is he?!) in a chair, and a single tape that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay them serious money to retrieve. The rest of the film is set up as them watching various tapes they find in the house to try and find the one they’re looking for.

The first vignette tries hard to dispel the misogynist tinge already firmly in place by having a demonic female character wreak bloody revenge on a group of almost-rapists (problem solved, right?!). The rest of the pieces feature a faltering married couple trying to rekindle their connection while being stalked by a murderous first-person cameraman, a group of friends chasing a demon in the woods, a mentally ill girl being gaslighted by her boyfriend via Skype, and yet another group of young frat boy types who head to a halloween house party only to interrupt something that looks like a lost outtake from ROSEMARY’S BABY. Again, in this final segment, a ham-handed attempt is made to counter the sleaziness of the film’s reliance on naked ladies, voyeurism, and general boy’s-club mentality by having the characters rescue a damsel in distress. I honestly don’t remember the ending terribly well, because by then I had already half gotten up to walk out three times, and was drowsy from the free cocktails and absurdly overlong running time (the film clocks in at a self-indulgent 116 minutes). Everybody dies, of course, but I don’t think I was alone by that point in totally not caring.

Here’s the problem with this film: the writers and directors (who are mostly, but not entirely, the same group of people) are all 30-something men who have achieved enough success in the world of low-budget mumblecore films that they seem to feel they no longer have to try. There are some truly talented people in this group, chief among them Ti West, whose 2009 The House of the Devil was a study in how to effectively reappropriate the classic genre markers of 70s/80s horror cycles for a modern audience. His follow-up (politely overlooking his Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) was 2011’s The Innkeepers, a film that started nearly as promisingly as House but that ultimately crashed and burned with an unforgivably botched ending.

Unfortunately, West’s increasing reliance on gimmicks and mindless clichés over actual suspense and character development seems representative of this group of up-and-coming filmmakers in general. Nowhere in V/H/S is the same level of attention given to any character as it is to the star (Jocelin Donahue) of West’s House even in that film’s first ten minutes. Well, you might argue, how could there be? The film is an anthology, not a straight, single narrative. My point exactly: the filmmakers have chosen to make a choppy, half-assed film that tries to cover its shortcomings by stuffing itself full of different bodies and different gimmicks every twenty minutes, rather than actually collaborating on a story that is well-thought-out and sustained enough to display any of the group’s talent.

Pointing out V/H/S’s shortcomings will surely get me labeled a malcontent, an angry feminist (guilty), or just someone who just doesn’t understand how AWESOME it truly is. These filmmakers certainly have a devoted coterie of like-minded and similarly-aged fans, mostly male, who seem to enjoy their work more for its in-jokes and clubby informality than its actual craftsmanship (did I mention the entire thing is shot, nauseatingly, in what looks like hand-held mini DV?). But giving kudos to this film (as many are also doing to P.T. Anderson’s The Master, I believe for the same reasons) purely because of who’s involved in it and in spite of how bad it actually is is not only dishonest from a critical perspective, but just bad form for the serious horror aficionado. I sincerely hope V/H/S isn’t a harbinger of where the horror genre at large is headed. Even with free cocktails, I’m not sure I’ll be able to take it.

Wondrous/Strange: DIAL M FOR MURDER in 3D

In Film Reviews on October 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I had never seen Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) before, but I knew its reputation as one of his lesser works. Dial M is widely reputed to be too close to its theatrical source material to be considered a cinematic masterpiece—people complain that it’s too stagey, and just feels like theatre on film (a complaint also frequently leveled at another overlooked Hitchcock film, Rope [1948]).

In stark contrast, Hitchcock’s other 1954 effort, Rear Window, is widely viewed as one of his best. It’s an institution in film studies: if you ever take a class in film theory at the university level, the first film you will watch will likely be Rear Window. The two films even share a star, the luminous Grace Kelly, who also went on to act for Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief (1955). However, seeing Dial M in 3D, as it was originally intended, makes me wonder whether the fact that it was mostly projected in 2D upon its release negatively—and unfairly—affected its reputation forever afterwards.

As film theorist and historian David Bordwell details in an exhaustive blog entry on the 3D re-realease of Dial M, 3D was an already fading fad by the time the film was released theatrically, and the lack of standardization when it came to 3D exhibition technologies meant that many (if not most) theaters opted to just screen the film in 2D and save themselves the trouble. I could easily imagine, while watching the 3D version, that looking at the rather confining space in which the story unfolds for an hour and forty-five minutes could get pretty boring.

As a Hitchcock world, the physical environment of Dial M is pretty uninspired; a good 80% of the film happens in two rooms of a wealthy couple’s London apartment, the couple being Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) and Kelly. The story revolves around Milland’s plot to have an acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) murder his wife, and the ensuing complications. However, though it certainly doesn’t display the stunning visual acumen of films like North by Northwest (1959) and Vertigo (1958), there is something complex at work in Dial M, a surprisingly understated yet concentrated mixture of composition and camerawork that not only animates the story but creates an enormous amount of tension and surprise within a very restricted onscreen world.

Innovative camerawork typical of Hitch animates a confined space

Often, Hitchcock composes shots in Dial M expressly with his camera focused on something far back in the frame, thus emphasizing out-of-focus images of the mise-en-scene up close to the audience (what J. Hoberman refers to in his Village Voice review as, “a clutter of monumental bric-a-brac”). This repeated use of out-of-focus props serves to draw the audience into the frame and remind us that we’re involved in a three-dimensional world, not just the flattened milieu of cinema.

Kelly is nearly obscured by the “bric-a-brac” in the foreground

Far from fading into the background, Hitch’s mise-en-scene takes center stage in 3D

Oddly, though, the few exterior shots, most of which involve characters in or getting in/out of cars, are composed very obviously using mattes and studio-shot footage. It was difficult to miss; the 3D effect amplified the jiggly edges of the matte and the cut-out film, and the discrepancies in lighting between the matte footage and the studio footage were glaring at times. This—for me at least—created an opposite effect to that I experienced during the interior scenes; the matting served to flatten the exterior sequences and collapse the depth of the world outside of the apartment. In short, using 3D and careful depth-of-field composition, Hitchcock was able to make the world inside the apartment seem more real, more immediate, and more tangible than anything outside.

The use of mattes and back projection in the film’s exterior shots is glaringly obvious.

To this end, there are only two moments in the film when the 3D effect is used for its own sake: first, when Grace Kelly extends her hand toward the viewer as she’s being attacked (it’s the image on the poster), and second, when another hand reaches out to the audience to show a crucial piece of evidence to us. Both these moments work well within the narrative and don’t interrupt the audience’s experience too drastically, but both also give off a distinct air of playfulness even in very suspenseful scenes. They’re such quintessentially Hitchcockian gestures, even down to the symmetry of both moments featuring hands reaching out to the viewer—though they’re very different hands reaching for very different reasons. Though this was to be Hitchcock’s only 3D feature, it seems that even with an enormous stereoscopic camera to contend with, he still managed to enjoy himself making it.

Dial M is a rich film for Hitchcock aficionados, and a fascinating experience when viewed in 3D. Warner Bros. is releasing a 3D blu ray on October 9th, along with a (2D) blu ray of Strangers on a Train (1951). What with all the hysteria over the rise of the DCP and the decline of 35mm projection, this is one restoration that we can all be thankful for. Bring on the goofy glasses!

© Lita Robinson 2012

They don’t make ’em like they used to: The decline of the haunted house movie

In Film Reviews on September 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm

The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is just what you’re hoping it’s not: a bad amalgamation of all the slasher movie cliches that can be crammed into an hour and a half. Plucky heroine who nonetheless can’t save herself when it counts? Check. Creepy shut-in next door with a basement full of secrets? Check. Intimations of something nasty/potentially supernatural running around the forest? Check. Bad acting, worse writing, and unforgivable plot holes? Check, check, check. Even Lawrence, with her respectable acting chops (see WINTER’S BONE), can’t save this trashy, disappointing flick. However, rather than spend any more time bemoaning the state of current big-budget horror I am devoting this column instead to an examination of the place of the house in modern horror film, in the hopes that a look back will inspire at least a modicum of hope in you, dear readers, for the future.

Let’s begin with PSYCHO (1960). As critics from the popular (see David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho”, 2009) to the academic (see Slavoj Zizek’s “Looking Awry”, 1992) have long pointed out, Norman Bates’s family home plays a key role in the film, almost functioning as a character in its own right. (I always find the scene in which Lila (Vera Miles) explores Mother’s bedroom, with its many mirrors and creepy tchotchkes, to be one of the scariest in the whole film.) The place of the basement in PSYCHO has achieved nothing less than legendary status and led Zizek, in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006) to construct an entire theory of the house as being divided into Norman’s id (basement) ego (ground floor) and superego (second floor), with the relevant parts of the story thus occurring in the appropriate parts of the house. It’s no accident that detective Arbogast is murdered at the top of the stairs, as he’s about to break into Norman’s superego zone. (The superego strives for perfection, according to Freud, and for Norman would be the place where the discrepancies in his split personality—and anyone finding out about them—would be the least tolerable.)

PSYCHO may have been the film that really cemented the house itself as a fixture in the horror film, but another film from the same year, Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM, did just as good a job of making home sweet home into the ultimate horror show. The protagonist’s profession as a photographer gives him the perfect cover for getting close to women who catch his fancy, and also allows him to construct a darkroom in his apartment where he menaces his girlfriend and his landlady, her mother. These scenes are nothing less than spectacular, both for their perfectly choreographed use of light and shadow and for their sudden cuts to the living room just outside which, jarringly, appears welcoming at at least somewhat normal. Like the cavern in the basement of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PEEPING TOM’s darkroom is a cabinet of horrors nestled skin-crawlingly close to the seat of domesticity.

Isn’t this really what’s frightening about haunted house movies—the collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe? I think so. This foreign, threatening force can take many different forms, however, from an intruder lurking out of sight (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS [1979], BLACK CHRISTMAS [1974]) to an invading supernatural force (POLTERGEIST [1982], A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1985]) to the idea of the house itself being alive, possessed, and malevolent (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR [1979], THE SHINING [1980]). Sadly, with so many role models to choose from, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET settles on precisely none of them. While it gestures towards the unseen-intruder trope several times, nothing ever comes of it, and though there is a secret room in a basement, it proves not too difficult to escape from.

Though its most obvious progenitors are the slasher films of the early to mid-80s, HOUSE doesn’t even have a fully-formed commentary on gender dynamics to offer, something that can often be found in the best films of this period. (Those who haven’t seen the original BLACK CHRISTMAS should do so straightaway; its politics are so far ahead of their time you’ll be checking the box to make sure you’re not mistaken.) The slasher cycle gave rise to what theorist Carol Clover (“Men, Women, and Chain Saws”, 1993) termed the “Final Girl,” a female character who isn’t sexualized as much as her compatriots and—partly because of this—manages to outwit the aggressor and kill him in the end. Though this is the general arc that Lawrence’s character follows in HOUSE, the story is so tired and the characters and dialogue so cliched that her eventual triumph and escape are not only not a surprise, but downright disappointing in their simplicity and predictability.

While there have been a few haunted house movies in the past few years that approached the greatness of some of the classics I’ve already mentioned—THE ORPHANAGE [2007] and INSIDIOUS [2010] spring to mind—the subgenre as a whole has been woefully anemic. Unfortunately, even with a compelling lead actress, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET does absolutely nothing to reverse this trend. Here’s hoping that Lawrence gives horror another try in a better film sometime soon.

© Lita Robinson 2012

Cosmopolis

In Film Reviews on September 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm

*A shorter version of this review can be found on DiaboliqueMagazine.com

To say that a Cronenberg film represents a “departure” from the director’s oeuvre to date is to make a profoundly empty statement; anyone who knows anything about Cronenberg knows that he never shies away from trying something new. The fact that he has chosen to follow up last year’s A DANGEROUS METHOD—a period biopic about Siegmund Freud and Carl Jung—with the narratively unconventional, difficult-to-sit-through talkfest that is COSMOPOLIS should, therefore, make perfect sense. And while it’s difficult to endorse the film on anything other than formal grounds since much of it is, by design, opaque and meaningless, it’s also impossible to dismiss COSMOPOLIS out of hand as some sort of creative misfire. While Cronenberg certainly gives in to every type of self-indulgence throughout the film (and even before; he adapted the screenplay himself), he has also, oddly, come as close to accurately encapsulating the existential crisis precipitated by the financial collapse as anyone has so far.

This tonal precision is especially apparent if one compares the world of COSMOPOLIS with that of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, another film about the post-Occupy world (or at least the post-Occupy New York City). While the latter relies on clunky, prop-filled set pieces and overblown scenes of class-based anarchy—throwing old ladies in fur coats out into the streets, for instance—to get its ultimately conservative point across, COSMOPOLIS portrays anarchy and senseless violence as almost mundane, the primal bubblings of an entire culture’s repressed carnal urges all coming to a head in a single afternoon. In the same way that the star of COSMOPOLIS, young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), views sex, food, money and death as not much more than basic necessities devoid of real significance, so the film itself depicts the social upheaval that animates the otherwise stultifying narrative: dispassionately, but with a sardonic wit.

It is the quest for this missing archetypal significance which leads Eric, ensconced in his futuristic limo, on a daylong journey across town (a journey which, as any New Yorker knows, can indeed be almost as harrowing as sitting through this film). As he progresses at a snail’s pace, he is joined in his silent, rolling palace by a procession of guests whose philosophical musings grow more and more absurd as the film unspools. Juliette Binoche and Jay Baruchel make appearances, but Samantha Morton is the apex of the film’s absurdity, introducing herself as Eric’s “chief of theory” yet still peppering her logorrhea with a mantra of disavowal, constantly stating, “I do not understand this.” She prattles on for several minutes, as protestors toss dead rats and try to overturn the car, about the meaning of time and the morality of capitalism. It’s by turns amusing, suffocating, and nonsensical, like listening to a lecture on Derrida underwater.

After being rejected by his sexless, robotic wife (Sarah Gadon), Eric finally finds what he’s looking for—catharsis, in the person of Paul Giamatti, playing an ex-employee of Eric’s money management empire bent on assassination. Theirs is the only exchange in the movie that actually hums with any resonance of real meaning; even though their sentences are festooned with self-reflexive bullshit, they slowly manage to spiral their way towards something definitive. Of course [spoiler alert!], Cronenberg denies us our catharsis of seeing this encounter all the way through, preferring to leave his viewers in a state of perpetual unresolvedness, as Eric is for all but the final moments of the film—and as, one supposes, we all may be in this era of LIBOR and bailouts and millisecond stock trades; forever waiting for something definitive to actually happen.

While there are a few moments of squeamish body horror in COSMOPOLIS, the centerpiece perhaps being Eric’s daily prostate exam, precious little in this film would give it away as a Cronenberg picture apart from its inscrutable male protagonist and air of claustrophobic nihilism. Recalling VIDEODROME (1982) in particular, Eric’s gradual realization of just how fucked both he and the world around him are mirrors that of James Woods as Max Renn, renegade TV producer. Both characters are totally unscrupulous and only interested in fulfilling their own desires. However, the similarities between the two pretty much end there; while Max ends up being physically co-opted by the nefarious corporate conspiracy behind the Videodrome, before ultimately turning against it and killing himself (after famously declaring “long live the new flesh”), Eric faces no conspiracy except the absurdity of the super-rich and the existential void of a possible post-capitalist future.

While Max is assaulted by meaning on all sides, even in his dreams and hallucinations, Eric can’t seem to find any meaning anywhere—not in sex, not in marriage, not even in the act of murdering one of his security guards on a whim. It is only in the chaotic filth of Giamatti’s character’s dwelling (it can’t be called an apartment) that Eric finally brushes up against mortality, when he impulsively puts a bullet through his own hand. With that he finally tastes something real, something that can’t be explained through currency fluctuations or charted on a luminous screen, and he seems to have come close to finding his catharsis. It’s a truly Cronenbergian moment: only through the messy realities of physical flesh can the most arcane, post-postmodern questions be even partially answered.

However, even as his film gestures toward a definitive, almost humanist statement, Cronenberg undercuts himself. When Eric, a propos of nothing, asks Giamatti’s character what having an asymmetrical prostate “means,” Giamatti looks at him with both tiredness and pity, as though Eric were a querulous child. “Nothing,” he says firmly, “it means nothing.” Obviously, this is an epitaph for the whole film—a far cry indeed from “Long live the new flesh.”

© Lita Robinson 2012

The Good Doctor *Distribution Update!*

In Film News, Film Reviews on July 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm

*Update: This film has finally reached a distribution deal in the US with Magnolia Pictures, and will be released theatrically on August 31st.  Here’s my review, back when it premiered at least year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The Good Doctor – Tribeca Selection 2011

In Film Reviews on May 16, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Orlando Bloom stars as a dour, disillusioned young doctor in this thriller by Irish director Lance Daly (“Kisses,” 2008).  Just starting out as a resident in a Los Angeles hospital, Bloom’s character, Martin Blake, is lonely, far from home (he retains his delicious British accent throughout), and close to his psychological breaking point.  After he is repeatedly shunned and disrespected by people he sees as his inferiors—a feisty nurse (Taraji P. Henson) and a suspicious orderly (Michael Pena)—Blake tries to ingratiate himself to the chief resident (Rob Morrow), but even that doesn’t work.  The only person who takes him seriously is a young female patient with a kidney infection (Riley Keough).

Soon, Blake has developed a full-blown obsession with his patient, and things only go downhill from there.  In classic thriller tradition, one bad turn leads quickly to another until it seems impossible for Blake to escape from the web of deceit he’s woven himself into.  However, Daly’s film resists the reductive tropes that are often deployed to resolve this sort of conflict.  There is no confession or courtroom drama, and despite a very emotionally overheated scene in which Blake contemplates escaping the situation entirely, he is eventually left to simply contemplate his actions and go on with his life.

“The Good Doctor” has a lot to say about men in the medical profession; some of Bloom’s best scenes are those in which he visibly covets the lives that the accomplished doctors around him have made for themselves.  It’s clear that Daly and screenwriter John Enbom are well aware that medicine is often as much about ego as it is about helping others, and this tension is perfectly expressed in Bloom’s performance.  Throughout the film Bloom’s acting is nicely understated, at least until he encounters some of the more histrionic moments in the script.

Overall, this is a solid film—its only shortcomings arise from the friction it tries to balance between its very restrained protagonist and the almost hysterical emotion that bubbles out of its climactic scenes.  The soundtrack gets similarly overblown in many places.  It’s problematic because it feels artificial: Blake doesn’t seem the type who would suddenly fall into such an infatuation with a patient, and after he’s done that he suddenly seems capable of many other things not in line with his character.  Of course, that’s often the point in thrillers like this—people do things we never thought they would.  But there’s an element of what could be described as magical realism in “The Good Doctor” that left me, at least, more perplexed than fascinated.

Oscar Shorts Explained!

In Film News, Film Reviews on February 22, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Just in time for Sunday’s big to-do, excellent fellow critic Dan Walber over at Movies.com has put together a comprehensive survey of all the short films that are up for the golden statue.

Head on over and check it out; it’s a great way to get a broader taste of what’s going on in cinema than just tuning in at 11pm to find out what wins Best Picture!

KILL LIST

In Film Reviews on February 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Ben Wheatley’s hotly anticipated new thriller “Kill List” has had critics buzzing since it premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Festival. Overall, the response has been surprisingly positive for a thriller starring relatively unknown actors that was made for around half a million pounds. One tagline declares that the film “will unhinge even the most hardened genre fans.” Well, speaking as one such fan, it is my sad duty to report that that’s just not the case. This is (yet) another film that has fallen prey to the trend of the twist ending, and it’s enough to ruin an otherwise compelling story.

But it’s more complicated than that. The film starts out strongly with a nuanced, sustained character study of its protagonist, Jay, an ambivalent hit man played by Neil Maskell. Short, slightly pudgy and constantly on edge, Jay has taken a few months off after a botched hit in Kiev—which is referenced repeatedly but never explained—and is trying to reconnect with his materialistic wife (MyAnna Buring) and young son. Gal (an excellent Michael Smiley), Jay’s friend and literal partner in crime, tries to cajole him into getting together for the proverbial “one last job,” but Jay is adamant about sticking to his newly clean lifestyle. Whatever happened in Kiev rattled him to the core. However, as his wife complains about their lack of disposable income and Jay feels his masculinity slipping away, his resolve crumbles.

Soon, Jay and Gal are on the road to the seedy outskirts of Northern England, where they receive the titular kill list. They trek around the depressing moors and vales in search of their victims—among them a librarian who makes snuff films, a sadistic priest and a doctor, all of whom creepily thank Jay before he kills them—the greyish, muddy surroundings mirroring Jay’s inner ambivalence and despair. This is the most interesting part of the film; the relationship between Jay and Gal is fleshed out nicely during their journeys. They joke, argue, fight, and betray a deep brotherly love for each other. It’s a good melding of two classic British film subgenres: kitchen sink drama and gritty crime thriller.

However, as the hits pile up, Gal starts to grow concerned about Jay—instead of simply executing his victims, Jay begins to take pleasure in maiming and torturing them in ever more creative ways. It’s clear that something primal and cruel has taken root inside Jay, and Gal doesn’t know how to bring it up in conversation, let alone how to keep it under control when they’re carrying out their morbid duties. Several of these scenes are indeed shocking in their clear-eyed portrayal of the violence that Jay unleashes on his victims; there’s no handheld camera or cheesy special effects to shield the viewer from what the film is determined to show. In an age of “gotcha” thrills and cutting-away-at-the-last-moment torture porn, that at least is an admirable aspect of “Kill List.”

What’s less admirable is the bizarre turn the narrative takes with about 20 minutes to go. I won’t spoil it entirely with specifics, but here’s the gist: on their way to assassinate a government minister, Jay and Gal discover that they’ve been the victims of a grand conspiracy, nothing is as it seems, and apparently the English woods are frequently overrun with torch-wielding hordes of naked people wearing masks that recall “The Wicker Man.” With breathtaking audacity, the film proceeds in its final ten minutes to negate all the work it did in the previous 75, undoing its careful character development and revealing key plot developments to be—you guessed it—part of the aforementioned grand conspiracy.

It’s a real shame that Wheatley (whose 2009 comedy “Down Terrace” was quite well received) didn’t see fit to stay focused on his characters and resist the urge to cheapen his story with an improbable twist ending. Here’s hoping that his next effort will stick closer to where his talent clearly lies: in documenting the minutiae of contemporary male relationships, whether or not they involve contract killing.

The Divide

In Film Reviews on January 5, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Anyone who’s ever been in a car accident knows about the moment of inevitability: that instant, right before the impact, when you realize that this is actually happening, that the SUV skidding towards you isn’t going to stop at the last moment but really is going to plow right into you—and that you can’t do a thing about it. It’s a terrible feeling; that vulnerability, that lack of control, being at the mercy of forces so much bigger than yourself.

A similar feeling tends to descend on me, for one, when I encounter a truly awful film. At first, as it sets up its premise and introduces its characters, I’m forgiving almost to a fault. Perhaps they mean to be vague, I think to myself. Perhaps that character is intentionally one-dimensional; perhaps they’ll come back to that non sequitur later. But finally, after an hour or so, when it becomes clear that what I’m watching isn’t an artfully disassembled film but a maelstrom of half-formed ideas that no one took the time to think through, I can no longer deny the moviegoer’s own moment of inevitability. This is absolute crap, I think to myself, and there’s no two ways about it.

Sadly, this is the conclusion I came to about the new post-apocalyptic thriller “The Divide,” which opens in limited release on January 13. Directed by the dubiously talented Xavier Gens (“Frontier(s),” “Hitman”), the film follows a disparate group of tenants who find shelter in their New York City apartment building’s basement during an unspecified nuclear disaster. As the motley group assembles underground the building superintendent, Mickey (Michael Biehn), becomes its de facto leader. This doesn’t bode well; an obvious nut obsessed with 9/11, Mickey seems like the last person who should be in charge—that is, until another survivor (Milo Ventimiglia) takes over and things go from bad to worse. Finally, the erstwhile protagonist, Eva (Lauren German, the poor man’s Milla Jovovich) manages to escape, but finds her prospects outside the survivors’ dungeon no better than they were inside it.

“The Divide” seems to be attempting to make some sort of grand statement about the evils that man will do to man when the chips are down, especially in light of such post-9/11 concerns as torture and the dichotomy between personal freedom and national security. As the group’s dynamics shift, all the characters are subjected to some form of torture (for Rosanna Arquette, it may be having this film on her resume) and the audience is forced to endure a succession of senseless vignettes highlighting sexual violence, sadism, dismemberment and a grab bag of other forms of degradation. However, this breakdown of civilization is rendered without wit, subtlety or imagination; it’s what would happen if Eli Roth were somehow allowed to direct a production of “No Exit.” In short, it’s awful.

What the film is driving at is never clear; a plotline early on involving a massive government conspiracy is abandoned precipitously, without explanation, and the characters’ various motivations are similarly muddled. All in all, “The Divide” is a confused mess with little to offer, except to audience members anxious to spend almost two hours trapped in a dark, unpleasant place with a bunch of bloodthirsty lunatics. And, really, those people could just ride the subway for the evening and save themselves $10.

The Innkeepers

In Film Reviews on December 31, 2011 at 12:58 am

Director Ti West’s feature debut, “The House of the Devil” (2009), was a deftly executed homage to both classic haunted house flicks and the great female-centered horror films of the 60s and 70s (particularly “Rosemary’s Baby” [1968]). Fanatically aware of the conventions of the genre, its titles were even lovingly rendered in a classic 70s burnt orange, which matched the nostalgia expressed through its protagonist’s wardrobe (Farrah Fawcett haircut, high-waisted jeans) and props (period Volvo, first-generation Walkman). This extreme attention to detail gave the film’s lengthy atmospheric sequences, in which little is said and hardly anything actually happens, the weight of familiarity; when blithe Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) wanders around the titular Gothic mansion, bopping obliviously to her music, the menace hanging in the air is as palpable as anything conjured by Polanski.

A measure of this earnestness is still visible in West’s second film, “The Innkeepers” (due out February 3rd). This time plumbing “The Shining” (1980) for inspiration, the film follows Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as they keep the moribund Yankee Pedlar Inn open for its final weekend. Economic pressures and persistent rumors of hauntings have driven the giant Connecticut rooming house to bankruptcy, but Claire, a very young looking 20-something and Luke, a cynical nerd ten or fifteen years her senior, are determined to document the hauntings in hopes that putting their evidence on the internet might win the hotel enough notoriety to keep it open a little longer.

Naturally, what starts out as a half-assed scientific experiment quickly devolves into a full-blown nightmare for Claire, who is soon set upon by deranged guests as well as a Victorian-era ghost, clad in a wedding gown and apparently left at the altar once upon a time. The first half of the film builds tension nicely, and showcases the same flair for the atmospheric that West displayed in “House.” We spend long stretches of time wandering around the hotel with Claire, just as we did with Samantha in her own haunted house. The bit characters in “The Innkeepers” are also reminiscent of those that populated West’s first film: introduced individually, each one is the incarnation of a different kind of strangeness—the strangeness of old age, the strangeness of faded notoriety, the strangeness of grief.

What animates the story far more than the inn’s weird tenants and sporadic apparitions, however, is Claire and Luke’s ill-defined relationship. At first they seem like high school buddies stuck together on a boring field trip—initially, Claire’s androgynous wardrobe and teenage-boy affect help her brotherly relationship with Luke make sense—but as the film wears on, sexual tension inevitably rises to the surface. West makes some interesting parallels between the hauntings in the inn (which only Claire sees, at first) and Claire’s inscrutable inner thoughts; what is she doing with her life? Where is her family? What does she really feel for Luke? However, instead of following through on this theme a la “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which the outer and inner worlds of the protagonist become hopelessly intertwined and create the tension that keeps the narrative going, West abandons his focus on Claire in favor of highlighting some rather gimmicky scares involving a dank basement and a bathtub of fake blood.

Unlike “House,” “The Innkeepers” fails to mix all its variations of strangeness together into a satisfying conclusion. Instead the film ends abruptly, without any sort of explanation—not even enough to justify a gratuitous sequel. It feels as though West originally conceived an ending to the film that he ended up trashing at the last minute, without having the courtesy to substitute anything substantial in its place. To call the ending a cop-out is too generous; an opt-out would be more accurate. Rather than setting up a great ending only to willfully discard it (see “The Last Exorcism” for a good demonstration of this), “The Innkeepers” reaches a muddled climax only to completely dissolve immediately thereafter without a shred of explanation.

Much as I wanted to like “The Innkeepers” for its commitment to crafting a genuinely creepy atmosphere, I was left so nonplussed by its ending that all my goodwill toward West was exhausted by the end of its brief running time. Inexplicably, the film made it onto Film Comment’s “Best Unreleased Films of 2011” list (albeit at the very end); I can only chalk this nod up to an anxiety on the part of the editors to diversify their end-of-year favorites beyond the esoteric European art films they tend to favor. I get it; they want to stay in step with what people in this country actually watch, and to encourage young directors like West to keep their work interesting without getting sucked into the Hollywood machine. I applaud both these efforts, but just can’t muster the same level of enthusiasm for “The Innkeepers.” To West, I can only say: better luck next time.