Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mixed reviews, plus The State of Things re: video in the 'burbs

Unless you count Meadows Video - I personally think of it as being in a different town, since I can't walk there from here in under three hours - Maple Ridge has one functioning video store remaining, Little Shop of Movies, a small indy shop that opened after Rogers Video and Blockbuster shut down. Once every two months or so I'll head down there to see what's new; it usually takes about that long for a few titles to amass on the new arrivals wall that strike my curiosity. It's no Black Dog, no Limelight, no Happy Bats (RIP) - it has a very limited, crowd-pleasing, standard suburban Mom & Pop video store stock, with very few foreign films, cult films, or classics (unless the original version of Total Recall is your idea of a classic); still, the fellow who runs it is personable enough, and I find the whole process of renting movies that I could steal for free without leaving my home vaguely morally rewarding, as well as being a source of nostalgic pleasure and familiarity. Just as some people prefer vinyl to CD because they appreciate the rituals of taking the record out of its sleeve, selecting a side, placing the needle in the groove, I enjoy the rituals of perusing the New Arrivals wall now and then, and there's an added poignancy to knowing that it will inevitably eventually be a wholly extinct pastime. Plus occasionally the odd one-off that I'd been meaning to see pops up on the shelf there and surprises me, like Rec3, which, contrary to the consensus, I enjoyed immensely (I understand why some fans of that franchise were disappointed, but I personally loved the idea of situating the onset of the zombie apocalypse in the midst of a wedding, so the zombie-narrative is subordinated entirely to the love story at the film's centre, as the separated newly-weds struggle to survive and reunite; it'd be a great film with which to introduce a non-zombie-loving girlfriend to the genre).
This week's rentals were a mixed lot. End of Watch uses a sort of shakycam, pseudo-doc aesthetic, and has engaging performances from the leads (Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Pena); but it really doesn't do much that's new or daring, it has utterly nothing to say about video, voyeurism, or technology - it's not like Gyllenhall's character ends up filming something that ends up being key to a case, or such - and politically, it's somewhat boringly conservative: a film about how tough the cops have it, how nice they are once you get to know them, and how sad it is that they're treated so badly. The film makes a few attempts to humanize the gangsters, too, but by the climax, the bad guys are reduced to signifiers of subhuman evil, to be gunned down without hesitation or compassion - not exactly breaking new ground, here. While I'm not against pro-cop movies, this is no Electra Glide in Blue, and I generally prefer the James Ellroy mode of representing Los Angeles cops either as violent, morally complex, conflicted men, often scarier than the criminals around them (Dark Blue, Rampart) or as careerists trying to negotiate (and occasionally compromise with) systemic evil on their rise up the ladder, sometimes including coming into conflict with corrupt and vicious superiors (LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia, Street Kings). End of Watch is well-made, and  Pena and Gyllenhall work well with each other, but in the end its still sort of Adam 12 with a downbeat, somewhat predictable ending (the filmmakers toy with the possibility of offering a less predictable ending, so presumably they're well aware of how formulaic it all ends up: if you don't mind a spoiler, the issue at stake is whether the white guy is going to die so the brown guy can live, or vice versa. Which ending do you think mainstream white audiences would be more satisfied by?).
Speaking of brown guys, Searching for Sugar Man tells a great story, has terrific music, captures some of the delights of amateur musicology, and has some surprisingly beautiful footage to boot, but on the other hand, at this point, it almost feels like watching Jandek on Corwood after Jandek started playing live: the story has changed quite a bit since the film's release, in part due to the movie itself. (I suppose I should call a spoiler alert - if you know nothing of Rodriguez, the musician who is the subject of the film, or the story that the film tells, of an obscure US musician who was, unknown to anyone in the States, a runaway success in apartheid-era South Africa, then go check out the film forthwith, and skip the rest of this paragraph). Rodriguez played Vancouver half a year ago, so the key surprise of the movie (Rodriguez is alive!) comes as no surprise at all. There is still considerable interest in its depiction of South Africa before the end of apartheid, where white music fans somehow attached to Rodriguez in the millions -- though the film, oddly enough, does nothing to explore the racial dimension of this. As much as it may have contributed to his non-starter of a career in the States, did Rodriguez's brown skin, combined with his more or less "white" music - there's nothing at all Latin about it - appeal to white South Africans as some sort of image of unthreatening, idealistic cultural/ racial fusion? (At one point one of the white folk interviewed describes Rodriguez as "white," which is a curiously colour-blind thing for a white South African to say, particularly given that Rodriguez is a fairly dark dude. The film avoids querying such moments). Meantime, no mention whatsoever is made of whether Rodriguez appealed to any non-white South Africans, who are almost completely excluded from the film - one guesses there wasn't a lot of crossover between demographics, but its a question the filmmakers never think to address, maybe because they take for granted a level of knowledge about how things were in apartheid-era South Africa that I don't actually possess. Still, there is a lot of charm in their efforts to decode clues from Rodriguez albums as to who this man is and where he might be, which will remind everyone of their own experiences poring over records (or, uh, CDs) at age 13 trying to glean as much information as possible from what's present. It's a good documentary, with several magical moments... but it doesn't need my praise, it's getting enough from others.
Another rental, The Possession, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a concerned father trying to look after his youngest daughter after she's possessed by a dybbuk, has almost nothing to add to the genre, save for the Jewish content; almost every idea in it originates in another film, most notably The Exorcist, and there are lots of moments when you'll see things coming miles away. It's also a fairly conservative film, with everything hinging on a return to tradition and a reuniting of the divided family. Still, it's a well-crafted, watchable film, it has some imaginative effects, and Morgan does a good job as the affable but somewhat lackadaisical dad who must mobilize to save his child. People who like the use of moths in horror will definitely want to see it, as well: I guess that's an innovation, it makes more of its moths than most horror films do.
What I really enjoyed this week, that merits some attention? The shakycam horror anthology, V/H/S, which is surprisingly smart, shockingly gory, and very, very effective at times (even if it cheats a little now and then - I actually prefer my shakycam movies to adhere rigorously to the limitations they set for themselves). There are more fresh ideas on hand than in any dozen other horror films I've seen lately, and the film as a whole is anything but conservative; it aims to unsettle, on a very deep level, by offering one upsetting "found-footage" story after another, all  themed to some extent on the mutual mistrust between the sexes. The overarching narrative follows a group of thuggish amateur pornographers, who break into a house, searching for a particular videotape that someone is willing to pay a great deal for. They bring their cameras to record their crime, as suits their MO. We're never told what's on the video, but they presumably know, as they find hundreds of tapes to choose from in the house, and set about watching a few of them to try to locate the one they're after; these make up the bulk of the film. I loved each of these stories in a different way. The first, "Amateur Night," directed by David Bruckner, involves another group of amateur pornographers who set up to surreptitiously film a sexual encounter that goes very, very wrong, in ways that I for one found utterly delightful. Hannah Fierman's character, Lily,  is one of the best, erm, "monsters" I've encountered, and totally deserving of a feature of her own; if only the film industry were such that her fellatio scene could have been depicted in full! Some reviewers have noted a disgust with the female in this episode, found misogyny there, but - as horrifying as Lily might get, I utterly fell in love with her - especially in the dismissive, uninterested way she rips one of her would-be exploiters cock and balls off and flings them away, while feeding from his neck. It goes up there with Hostel II, I Spit On Your Grave, and (sorry, Oshima-san) In The Realm Of The Senses as one of the great castrations in film history, precisely because it is done so dismissively - "get this shit out of here!"
The rest of the film deserves to be seen without spoilers of any sort - you can read about the individual episodes on Wikipedia, if you must. Ti West's "Second Honeymoon" probably cheats a bit, but has a couple of genuine surprises, borrows very well from the Paranormal Activity technique of having people observed while sleeping, and has what may be the most realistic, snuff-level gore I've encountered in a film. (Normally that sort of thing is not appealing to me, believe it or not, but the "money shot" in the scene is so intense and realistic I had to watch it twice; it makes the throat-slitting at the end of S&Man look like child's play). Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th" is probably the silliest episode, with an absurd, it's-almost-a-joke premise,  reflected in the smirking title: a group of friends go into the woods, where one of them was previously traumatized by a killer, whom she proposes to confront. Somehow, however, despite being none-too-original and none-too-serious - it reminded me of the episode in Creepshow 2 where the kids are stuck on a raft, menaced by carnivorous pond-scum - it was genuinely the scariest of the film's episodes: the killer and his appearances are terrifying, the video effects highly disturbing, and the gore upsetting and not at all easy to watch. I felt acutely uncomfortable watching the film alone in a dark apartment during this segment - it got deeply under my skin, in ways that didn't make a lot of sense, tapping into some fear that reality might dissolve and irrational things start to happen; the film makes reference to the idea of getting "The Fear," and it certainly gave me "The Fear" in spades.
Mumblecore man Joe Swanberg's episode, "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" is, by contrast, the least scary of the film's stories, and the one episode that depends on a technological unlikelihood - a Skype conversation recorded on VHS tape! But it marks what surely is the first ever use of Skype as a vehicle of horror,  which is interesting in its own right, and expands the theme of the mistrust between men and women in new directions. Voyeurism has often been represented onscreen through killer's eye view shots, but never before via a picture-in-picture insert, showing us the voyeur's face!
The film's final episode, "10/31/98", and the "close" of its overarching frame narrative, are relative weak points, but only because the previous episodes are so good; they still have their satisfying and surprising moments. V/H/S has been somewhat lazily received, with almost everyone emphasizing that it's uneven, but I liked every minute of it, thought it offered a host of different perspectives on both video voyeurism and the state of relations between men and women. I imagine fans of retro media will find it interesting, as well (though it's curious that there are a lot of audiocassette junkies out there, but very few obvious videocassette ones). Maybe if I'm lucky I'll score a PV'd copy from Little Shop of Movies!

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