Lights Out; or, Lets Not.

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We all saw it: that absolutely brilliant 2-odd minute short horror film that was terrifying in its simplicity. The Lights out short was a marvel, a true, horrifying standout that made you squirm in record time. The film drew on the common phobia of fear of darkness which works well for the horror medium itself, in that horror movies often pit what we can see and what we cannot see against each other in order to entice suspense and fear into the viewers.

But what happens when you give a short film director a big budget? The same exact thing that happened a few years ago with Mama (2013, Andres Muschietti). This was also a powerful short horror film, that was incredibly effective in its medium, but rather was most effective in what was left unexplained and not explicitly stated.

When drawn out to fit the 90-minute format, however, both films fall flat and lifeless. Stretching a 2-minute film out to 45x its size leaves us with holes and weak spots: poor writing, bad acting, questionable twists, inexplicable turns and abrupt endings and conclusions. For a film with a powerful fear behind it (fear of the dark) I expected a lot more from the premise… instead we are subject to a drawn out affair that is predictable and annoying in its delivery.

Into the nitty-gritty: the criminally negligent mother, played my Maria Bello, basically sleep-walks through the film, in what may be one of the worst roles I’ve ever seen her in. The semi-emo, pseudo-alternative daughter played by Teresa Palmer seemed to take a page from Christian Bale in Batman, but forgot that raspy voice is not actually acting.

Again, I cannot help drawing a parallel to Mama, because Jessica Chastan’s character in that was basically one and the same: Angsty alt-female thrown in to motherhood role. There are other rudimentary parallels: the poorly developed yet hastily introduced plot; the “ease” at which the mystery is unraveled as there is never really any great mystery, instead clues are clumsily tossed into the plot; Same goes for the summation of the story, which is recklessly and haphazardly slapped together, often leaving the audience with more questions than answers.

All of this being said, I’m not mad at the directors of either of these films (David Sandberg for Lights Out and Andres Muchietti for Mama). For what could be blamed as “selling out” I see as “taking a chance at a huge opportunity”. What new director wouldn’t take a chance on their film if Hollywood producers were willing to throw money at it? It’s not as if every director can pass up monetary opportunities for artistic integrity, which is a disappointing, but ultimate reality. In these circumstances, I blame producers investing to make a quick return, rather than investing in quality. Because, again, the concept centering around the fear of the dark is one rife with opportunity, and could have been potentially as memorable as the source material it came from. Instead, the movies comes across as hastily and slapped together as it no doubt was made.

But I guess I’ll just have to wait for the cyclical nature of the film industry to come aorund: perhaps someone will do a remake of the feature-length short film, and perhaps then, they will do it right.

 

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The Conundrum of High-Production and Bad Writing

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This is a movie dump focusing on two of the higher-budget horror movies to emerge from 2016: The Forest, and The Boy.

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These movies are the definition of spectacle and voyeuristic viewing: we watch sometimes behind clasped fingers and sometimes between gulps of laughter. The appeal of films such as these are that they are constantly including the viewers, breaching beyond the bodily text of film to achieve active and involved viewing. These films draw me back time and again in that they deliver what they promise: twists and turns, jumps and starts, inexplicable conclusions and unsuspecting deaths. The review whether good or bad is irrelevant – the point is I’m watching, I’m engaging with the film itself through a plethora of emotional and physical responses, including, but not limited to, fright, terror, anger, confusion, humour and laughter.

Plot aside, these two films actually hold a lot in common: female protagonists, high-production, hidden filming locales, cheap scares, and awful writing. Again, what these films do tend to succeed in, and do well, time and again is to evoke visceral physical reactions out of the viewers. Whatever our reactions may be, a sigh from disbelief, a jump from  fright, covering our eyes from gore, shock from a right-turn plot twist, these movies successful cause us to engage with the film body itself, the textuality of the film code.

Many movies can cause such reactions but none so easily as the horror movie itself, particularly the high-production one in that they pull out all the stops and make full use of all the elements they have access to in building a diegesis. Elements such as lighting, camera angels, terrifying makeup or realistic effects, and powerful mood music.

Often I hear people say they either love or hate horror movies: I think it’s this visceral interaction that they are actually referring to. Some people simply do not like to engage with the filmic (horrific) body, while others are addicted to such interactions. I go into these films with preconceived expectations I assume from the genre, including these bodily reactions. It’s very often when these movies fail to adhere to these codes or exceed them that we get the truly stand out movies: the truly awful and the truly great.

But these movies are neither, really. They just exist as a part of the horror medium. They do not change the genre or surpass it, nor did they miss the mark: they just are. Which in a way is maybe the most insulting thing one can say about a horror movie in that they do not stand out for any memorable reason, they just fade into the pile of already “okay” horror films.

 

The Witch – Band of Bitches

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Robert Eggers has made a massive directorial debut with this chilling supernatural-psychological horror film.

This New-England style folk-tale follows a family as it is torn apart by possession, betrayal and of course, witchcraft. It is superbly made, as equally chilling in aesthetics and theme as in subject-matter, however, this film ultimately works on as many levels as it fails.

Some critics have argued that it works better as a psychological horror than a supernatural thriller. I, however, feel it works well in its use of uncanny, where everything is wrong, in some way or another, and one never fully knows what is the cause of such unrest until the climactic reveal.

I do still feel that the film could have pushed harder on the titular Witch who is reduced to only a few on-screen occurrences and possibly never even the true threat to the protagonists.

According to Eggers, the devil as evinced through the Goat, Black Philip, was initially supposed to be more involved in the film with much more onscreen presence. However, a lack in the animal’s training reduced the Goat’s on-screen time. Eggers claims he is still pleased with the outcome of the film despite this, which I agree with, in that it certainly made for a thrilling climactic reveal. But again, I do see it as a bit of a failing in the film as well, in that after learning Black Philip’s true nature, the constant references to the rabbits and the eerie presence of nature itself, can come across as a tacked on post-thought.

Many questions are left unanswered: was there only one Witch? Or were there many? Why was the family kicked out of the commune at the beginning? What was with the rabbits, anyways?

And what does this film say about women, really? The satanic looks damn enticing compared to the squalid living conditions of their farm. And all only at the cost of a simple baby. But what is this film really saying about women, the divine feminine or even female community? That the only way of getting out of arranged marriages or being literally sold to another family, is through allegiance to Satan and murdering a baby or two to bathe in their blood and live forever?

I know I’m being a bit over-dramatic, but it is still an example of the gendered nature of horror films – in that the role of the female is somehow intrinsically dark, and ominous. That the anxieties of women can manifest themselves into very real, very dangerous entities like ghosts, demons and of course, witches. It’s a fear perpetrated from the puritan age and really very little has changed from then to now.

TIFF Top 10: Sleeping Giant

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Sleeping Giant is an excellent comparison piece to my previously reviewed film Les Demons, in that this film touches on similar themes of youth and fear, but, as the boys in this film are slightly older, themes of sex, desire and rebellion coalesce.

Synopsis: Adam meets troublesome cousins Nick and Riley while on summer vacation on the shores of Lake Superior. Clearly from different worlds, Adam struggles to fit in and find his place in their stimulating world of carpe diem adventures.

The film, written and directed by Andrew Cividino is a first feature-length for the young director and a very touching and humbling film. The film avoids strong assertions and obvious lessons; like Les Demons, this is another film where often what is left unspoken is much more powerful and important than what is overtly stated. These dynamics are played out on screen visually with the interactions between the boys: Nick and Riley are loud, often saying far too much about superficial things, while Adam is quiet, not nearly speaking up enough, even in defense of himself. What the film lands on is the possibility of language to fail us – that we may feel things we cannot express, and that simply by speaking one may be suppressing their true emotions.

I am specifically avoiding labeling this film as a “Coming of Age”, in that there is no singular defining moment in the film that fits this genre. The movie is riddled with moments, rather, of “coming of self” in which every character (except, notably, one) on screen at some point, eventually, has the realization that their actions have consequences, and affect others, perhaps more than they wish.

We are also subject as viewers to some powerful cinematography, by James Klopko,which truly gives power to those moments of quiet emotion as previously mentioned. We as an audience, can often only assume or sympathize to how the characters are feeling, we are not overtly or explicitly told. Thus, the film is a tactile, sensual, affect-experience. 

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This film is also, joyously, as Canadian as it gets. The location is never hidden and is rather celebrated (Sleeping Giant being an actual physical canadian location as well), full blown Canadian accents are often in effect, and even the musical score is Canadian, from original score by the band Bruce Peninsula, to tracks by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco. This is a rare distinction for many English-Canadian films that bend to outside pressure and “Americanize” in order to reach a wider audience. By not “avoiding” place, Cividino has actually presented a story defined not by place itself, but by true human experience. 

 

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Les Demons

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This is a continuation of some of the films that were showcased at Toronto International Film Fesitval’s annual top ten of Canadian Content: #seethenorth.

While I struggled to see the merit in Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest, Philippe Lesage’s Les Demons is, in a word, exceptional. Undoubtedly Canadian, the film is complex, nostalgic, quirky, funny and simultaneously tragic. The film follows Felix, a young boy on the brink of adolescence, who comes to understand the emotion that plagues so many adults: fear.

Les Demons is the first (completed) feature film by Lesage, and as such is a tremendous accomplishment. We can see Lesage’s work history as a documentarian influence the film in that one of the strongest features of the film is the camera-work and cinematography. The film evokes constant use of the deep-focus long-shot: in which the camera slowly zooms-in on something on screen while never having any of the shot go in or out of focus. It is a beautiful technique that fits the lackadaisical pace of the film.

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The film focuses on main character Felix, but also those immediately around him: His family and their friends, his friends and their problems, his teachers and other authority figures. All of the characters, however long they are presented on-screen are adequately rounded, dynamic and complex – a very difficult feat to reach, but one Lesage accomplishes admirably and thus a feature of his film-making I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

My one critique of the film, however, is the story-arc involving the life-guard from the neighborhood pool. While it’s a necessary and poignant plot-line, at times it feels too disconnected from Felix’s world, in that these are scenes that are not facilitated by Felix directly, and as such feel strangely added-on at times. It’s a shame because these scenes could have been integrated more smoothly into the narrative without coming across as disruptive to Felix’s story.

As previously mentioned the film revolves around the emotion of fear: fear riddles Felix but also every character in the film to some degree: Fear of rejection, of punishment, of heartache, etc. all the fear is being gazed upon by Felix who quietly acknowledges and reacts to it all. There are some very real fears in the film, a possible pederast and kidnapper, but mostly it is the emotional fears that are at play, fear of the family breaking apart, fear of abandonment and so on. By employing a dark, ominous classical score, the music in the film is also an excellent accompaniment to help instil a constant stream of dread while never fully giving way to full-blown misery.

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Fear is the driving movement in the film, yet, the film has surprising and touching moments of relief when the pain is somehow rectified by points of happiness and joy. This makes the film much more even-handed and relatable, in that, while youth can be a scary time, there are still junctures of joy and safety.

For a movie entitled The Demons I was expecting an all-out Canadian fare: depressing, and everyone dies at the end. And while there is most certainly a tragic and horrifying few scenes in the film, mixed with the light-hearted moments I mentioned previously, it is a much easier film to digest than other French-Canadian, suburban-Montreal studies of coming-of-age, such as the beautiful but emotionally gut-wrenching Canadian-classic Leolo (Lauzon, 1992). That being said it also appears to me that while tragedy seems to be on it’s way out, the other distinctive attribute of Canadian cinema, “weird sex”, does not seem to be a defining narrative for many of these newer Canadian films anymore. Felix beginning to discover his sexuality is briefly covered in the film, but not dwelled upon, and certainly not as disturbing as when touched on in other films like, again, Leolo.

Based on the few movies I saw for the festival, I think new-Canadian movies are moving away from the depressing. While not abandoning it completely, it seems that sad-moments and pure anguish are no longer the conclusion to a film, but rather a plot point the characters move around, and try to survive against, hopefully, coming out stronger in the end. Despite tragedy, there is still joy, despite fear, there is still hope, making this new era of Canadian cinema much more accessible.

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Into the Forest

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Toronto International Film Festival recently played their collection of Canadian content in their annual screenings of Top 10: #seethenorth.

The festival was initiated by the high-profile Patricia Rozema film Into the Forest (2015) starring Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page.

The reception of this film is as turbulent as the psudeo-sci-fi plot line: In the not-too-distant future a massive power outage causes two sisters to band together in the face of apocalyptic adversity.

This is not a movie of quiet subtlety. I’m convinced it was intended to be, however, with moments that included Crystal Pike’s dance-choreography, the secret eating of chocolate, the importance of half a can of gasoline, etc. All moments that were intended to make the audience realize our reliance on modern technology. Thus, small moments unfold obviously, and at many times without adequate or satisfying explanation.

Is this a feminist film? While not overtly feminist it is clearly feminine. The primary location is set deep within the forest, as the title would suggest, and as such there becomes a clear and rather forced binary between the forest (feminine) and the man-made (masculine). This dichotomy tends to follow the same tired association of the feminine being linked with safety, warmth and comfort, while the masculine is connected with pain, hardship and hurt.

There is a painfully obvious motif at play with the girls “tree fort” in the woods behind their home. The fort, built into the stump of an old tree, and only accessible through a small opening one must crawl through. It is a place in the film where Ellen Page has sex (for the first time), that keeps the women safe during a storm, and a place where Wood’s character gives birth. Plainly, this is a womb: a place of pleasure, safety, and creation, it even LOOKS like a womb with the entry one must crawl through to enter or exit. The family home, a man made creation, natch, is spontaneously and inexplicably burnt to the ground using the remaining gasoline – man-made destroyed by man-made: a taste of it’s own medicine. But why did the women burn down the house that contained ALL the books page’s character referred to throughout the film? The ones that helped them eat, survive and, you know, give birth? The movie is riddled with such thoughtless momentum.

All of the men in the film are portrayed as static archetypes: the father, potentially the only interesting character in the film meets his end after having his chainsaw backfire while trying to chop down a tree (read: he attempted to use a man-made instrument while attacking the feminine thus he deserves to die of his own hubris). Page’s boyfriend is portrayed as “annoying” and irresponsible, ultimately problematic as he is a wedge that would drive the sisters apart. And the only other male character on screen: a rapist who inexplicably finds the girls home, literally in the middle of nowhere in the woods, and proceeds to rape Wood’s character making her, temporarily, afraid of the outdoors and the feminine, since it betrayed her sense of safety.

In place of what could have been an interesting feminist study in the face of apocalypse, one is left feeling annoyed by the obviousness of it all. Across the board, reviews seem very set on the mediocrity of the film, some arguing that the film didn’t push hard enough. However, I felt that the film pushed too hard, just in all the wrong places. 

There is is another problematic aspect to this film in the wake of a “canadian top 10” film festival. Again, this is a film largely hidden in its “place”. Though one can recognize the superb, pristine British Columbian landscape, it is still easily interchangeable for California redwoods. This is coupled with the fact that half-way through the film “Boston” is dropped as a pin on the map. This is simply an example of yet-another “Canadian” film disguised, hidden, as if that very label is somehow shameful.

To conclude, this is a “Feminist-Canadian” film that is neither feminist nor Canadian; a “sci-fi” that relies solely on melodrama;  an obvious-film trying too hard to be subtle; a film one can confidently say fails. Lights out, just like the power in the diegesis.

Irma Voth: How Much Do You Believe?

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Is it possible to communicate loneliness if the only person you’re sharing it with is yourself?

Irma Voth is the 6th published work by Canadian author Miriam Toews and her 5th work of fiction. The novel follows the eponymous protagonist Irma through her struggles for identity and place within a rural Mexican Mennonite community. Toews once again pays homage to her own Mennonite descent by returning to a rural small town community as she did in A Complicated Kindness.

And while both novels follow young women during a critical phase in their life, Irma Voth is not entirely routed in reality as A Complicated Kindness is. I think this rhetorical effect is done both intentionally and inadvertently.

Irma is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. As the filmmakers come to her community to film, Irma falls into their crowd and increasingly looses her grip on reality. This is made explicit in certain parts of the novel where she describes an event and goes so far as to say “no, that didn’t actually happen”. This was a rather enchanting part of the novel, one which made you sympathize with the character who has been emotionally abused her entire life.

Her escape is what I found more unbelievable. And maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I find the amount of people who give the girls breaks once she leaves the community unrealistic. The taxi driver, the random civil protestors, the hotel keeps, the random tattoo clad man… all beyond nice to her. And the scene in the move theatre where everything comes full circle and she learns about her husband’s fate. It all just seemed a bit too coincidental and revealing. Perhaps it was meant to be a biting social commentary on the nature of her home town being a harsh environment both physically and emotionally, and the greater wild world being less frightening than she was taught her entire life, but it just came off questionable.

This being said, Toews’ quality of writing remains strong, and it was interesting to see that the novel somewhat mirrors her own experiences in the film world. Toews made her first acting debut in a Mexican independent production, Silent Light, in 2007 about a Mennonite community. The Mexican film crew in the novel and the other actors were some of the strongest characters in the novel and would be interesting to hear if they reflected her own experiences.

And while I may have revealed quite a bit about the plot there are still several mysteries which riddle the novel. A good read and unique in its subject matter.