Friday, August 22, 2008

Movie: Frontiere(s)

Frontière(s) embodies the elements of “new French horror” so well that one might be tempted to think that I extrapolated my theories from this film alone. Originally slated to appear in After Dark’s Horrorfest 2007, Frontière(s) was given an NC-17 by the MPAA and was given a limited release later. And while the gore isn’t more extreme than anything seen in Hostel (compare the two tendon-cutting scenes), its brutality and sheer intensity—particularly towards the final survivor, who has been so beaten and debased that she can hardly stand—brings more than a few cringe-inducing moments.

The set-up is achingly familiar—almost cliché: a group of youngsters on the run convene in a secluded inn only to discover horrific goings-on. And while it perhaps introduces too many elements (neo-Nazis, cannibals, mutants, torture, claustrophobia) to have the single-minded effectiveness of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Frontière(s) offers an explicit backdrop of the Parisian riots. The opening credits appear as televised images of rioters clashing with the police, with newscasters announcing the election of an extreme right-wing government (paging President Sarkozy). The image of the young rioters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails highlights the underlying theme: the new generation versus an established quasi-fascist power. Even as the murderous von Geisler family decry integration (while mocking Farid, a Muslim), the youngsters show integration as a fait accompli. Yasmin (presumably Arabic and Muslim) is pregnant with Alex’s (a Caucasian) child. Farid calls Tom (another Caucasian) “brother.”

Director Xavier Gens capitalizes on the neo-Nazi imagery: in one particularly gruesome moment, a character is steamed alive in a chamber reminiscent of the gas chambers. Gilberte, the seductress of the family, has a creepy, sexualized air that calls to mind Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The patriarch of the family wears black jackboots and gives fatherly lectures even as his victims lie writhing with shackles around their necks. He presides over his brood with an iron fist, and the yellow and orange color palette indicating chaos in the early scenes of Parisian riots return during a candle-lit “dinner” scene with the family.

Frontière(s) is most hopeful point in its insistence that evil—as expressed through intolerance—is a learned behavior. Just as the child-like Eva has not yet been corrupted by the von Geislers, so Yasmin attempts to spare her unborn child (which appears before the credits in ultrasound form) the fate of being inculcated into the family—or, by extension, the new right-wing government. Still, this hope is tempered by the final image: Yasmin, approaching the freedom and the border, only to be stopped by policemen who slowly reach for the guns as she approaches.

Welcome to the new world.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie: P2

One problem with having a solid, verifiable trend is that people—naturally—will try to cash in on it. In the wake of the J-Horror craze, how many Ringu rip-offs did we endure? After The Sixth Sense, how many movies had to have a mind-blowing twist ending (well, other than the ones the M. Night Shyamalan himself put out)? So when the producers of P2 receive top billing, you can almost hear the cash registers ringing in the background.

So even though Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have their fingerprints all over the screenplay, it’s Franck Khalfoun (perhaps best known as “guy-with-axe-in-his-back” in High Tension) who has actually puts on the director's hat. And while the set-up of the film is brilliant—one woman, one psychopath, and an abandoned parking garage—the execution somehow didn’t hold up.

The film—essentially a folie à deux—therefore hinges on the two main characters. Both Angela, the victim, and Thomas, the psychopath, suffer from being woefully underwritten. Eager to get to the red stuff as quick as possible, Angela furrows her brow, calls her family (it’s Christmas eve), and frets—none of which really makes her endearing. Thomas has screaming fits and glares angrily at the camera, but none of this makes him threatening. He’s too busy chloroforming Angela and handcuffing her to tables to be a fully-formed character. Supposedly, his loneliness is the source of his madness, but this is something that’s announced (somewhat unconvincingly), rather than evinced. Imagine a movie in which you both fear and pity the protagonist… now how scary would that be? (Hint: think of Asami in Audition.)

It’s a pity, since the set-up of P2 had so much potential. Usually “trapped in a bad place” films take place in the countryside, where the entire locale has been steeped in cannibalistic hillbillies. But to have a common urban landscape become utterly defamiliarized… this is the stuff of nightmares. P2 also hints at some underlying class tension (Thomas might as well be singing “Uptown Girl”), but it dispenses any deeper examination with a character that might as well be wearing a sign that says “dead meat.” It's much too easy to kill yuppies; everyone secretly cheers. (And it's a nasty death, too; the scene drags the entire enterprise into sleazy territory. And of course you can’t have torture porn without a wince-worthy fingernail extraction or ocular damage scene.)

Aja and Levasseur still have a little ways to go before they can establish themselves as a reliable brand name in horror, à la Romero. They can craft some effective thrills, no doubt, but for P2, it feels like they punched a button, got a ticket, waited for the gate to go up, and then just finally drove away.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Movie: Them (Ils)

A second film which makes my grand, overreaching statements on French horror sound like blather? So be it. If anything, Them (Ils) has some elements of torture porn—namely, the torture part—the violence isn’t the centerpiece of the film. Instead, tension—pure, unadulterated—permeates every frame. Have Surround Sound? Good. There’s a recurring sound effect that's both familiar and mysterious; once its source is revealed, the sound moves from terrifying to deeply disturbing.

Ostensibly based on a true story, the film plays primarily on fears of displacement. First, the universal fear of being in a foreign place. Lucas and Clementine, the French couple, are already estranged from their Romanian surroundings. Although Clementine is a school teacher, she has difficulty with the language and is somewhat resentful of her students—in other words: normal. And if living in a large, cavernous home deep in the countryside weren’t enough, the film hints at a impossible, bureaucratic police department: either you’re put on hold until you’re dead, or you just don’t have the correct paperwork—and no less dead.

The second displacement is a more bourgeois, though no less effective: the fear of home invasion. And here is where the film works with brutal force. At first, the mysterious assailants simply frighten the couple: cutting off the power, turning the television on and off. But as the attacks grow more violent and begin to come from all directions, the safety of home becomes the inverse: the mechanisms used to keep the external world out (locks, shutters) are used against the couple, as their options for escape become increasingly limited.

The tension in the film never relents. Once night falls, the film hits its go-go-go stride, and the action doesn’t relent until daybreak (and not even then, really). The camera rarely stops to linger; instead, directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud keep things constantly in motion. Careful, judicious use of soundprimarily silenceprovide much of the creepy, restless feeling: it's one thing to jump because of a loud noise on the soundtrack; it's another altogether to be feel the same nerve-wracking fear that the protagonists feel as they strain to hear something—anything.

The directors owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the original home invasion nightmare (unless you count Lady in a Cage or Wait Until Dark—and why wouldn’t you?). Obviously, Them has none of the postmodern conceits of Funny Games, and the sadism is ratcheted down a notch. As well, the pacing differs: Funny Games excels in delivering long, excruciating suspense; Them, on the other hand, rarely gives you time to catch your breath. But films share, however, a bleak worldview. The motives of the attackers in both films is eerily similar, and while the identity of the omnipresent, hooded figures in Them isn’t revealed until later, the dual revelation of both the “who” and “why” provides a well-placed gut kick. Remember how I said that French horror films have placed their hope in the new generation? I may have to revise that…

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Movie: Silent Hill

So after all the hoopla talking about “the new wave of French horror,” here I am, reviewing a film that’s: 1) an American production; 2) based on a video game; and 3) pretty poor. Let’s just go with the assumption I’m working from worst to best.

Now, Christophe Gans is by no means a bad filmmaker; after all, he helmed entertaining, if flawed, Brotherhood of the Wolf. In other words: he’s not Uwe Boll. But this seems to be the fate of French genre directors who make a big splash in their own terroir: they come to the US with stars in their eyes and are blessed with a big-budget video-game adaptations or remakes which still rake in ungodly amounts of money.

Having not played Silent Hill, I’m in no position to judge how faithful the film is to the game, but video games, at least, have an interactive element which allows the player to invest in the character on-screen. Films don’t have that immediacy, so it falls upon the screenwriter to provide that connection. So here’s problem #1: Radha Mitchell—no stranger to genre films herself—has little to do during the first hour of the film except run around and scream “Sharon!” Sean Bean is similarly squandered as he races around in a subplot that screams “Padding!”

Gans does manage to conjure up some striking images, but, unlike the visions of Guillermo del Toro, Gans’ feel shopworn, second-hand. Pyramid-Head might have been more frightening if he didn’t feel like a Cenobite on steroids. The town cut off by sudden, endless cliffs? You can thank Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore for that. The uniform worn by Officer Bennett (Laurie Holden, whom you might remember from the X-Files as Marita Covarrubias) seems as if it were designed by Tom of Finland. The tightly choreographed Rockettes-of-the-damned scene (nurses in latex!), however, is something that I’ll give Gans credit for, but for every interesting moment, there are at least two that will leave you shaking your head: the trip-hop showdown march, the grainy explanatory flashback, the cryptic crazy lady. I kept shaking my hand at the TV screen, hoping a cursor would appear so that I could click Radha Mitchell into a different part of the movie.

Apparently Gans is slated to direct the movie version of the game Onimusha next. Wake me when he gets to World of Warcraft.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Behind-The-Curve Trendwatch: France is the new Asia

Gosh, it seems like only yesterday that you couldn't go into your local multiplex without running into a long-haired vengeance ghost with Japanese origins. The turn of the millennium belonged to the Japanese and their creepy, atmospheric (and sometimes gruesome) J-Horror. J-Horror, of course, bled into the nearby countries—most notably Korea—and finally came to the Americas, via a steady stream of remakes. But, as it happens when something becomes a culture meme, the market quickly got oversaturated, and Sadako became as much as a stereotype as any other boogeyman. Or, woman, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, French filmmakers have becoming increasingly visible in the genre. While French forays into horror have been spotty (though with a few classic examples), they roared into the consciousness with Alexandre Aja's High Tension (Haute Tension); now, French horror auteurs have become the enfants terribles of the genre.

It seems to me that this new thrust of extreme French horror has three major influences:

1) Torture porn. The obvious forerunner for the French taste for torture porn would be Takashi Miike's indelible (and still unsurpassed) Audition, and, to a lesser extent, Eli Roth's Hostel. Graphic violence, of course, has always been a secret pleasure of horror movies, but recent French directors have turned up the gore level to 11. And while this might not necessarily distinguish them from American directors who have done the same—torture porn itself is an American phenomenon (which has, thankfully, seemingly passed)—recent notable French horror films have been able to imbue their torture with cultural significance, stemming from

2) the French riots of 2005. If one believes that horror films are the culture's way of exorcising its demons, then this is the catalyst for the most recent explosion. After the accidental death of two teenagers in a Paris suburb, the Arab and African immigrant communities burst out in protest. (It certainly didn't help that then-Interior Minister and current-President Nicholas Sarkozy said that those neighborhoods should have been "cleansed with a power hose.") The anger and violence spread throughout France and continued for almost two weeks, until new police powers—including the banning of public gatherings—eased the pressure somewhat. But the racial underpinnings of the riots remain a definite subtext—if not an outright one—in the best of these films. Besides, racial tension is one of the key factors in

3) the changing demographics of France, particularly the Paris suburbs. Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine in 1995 was the first high-profile French film to address the "new generation" of Francophones. Since then, the view has only gotten increasingly bleak. On the upside, though, many of these new films—especially those depicting French youth—have consciously (perhaps self-consciously) introduced a racially and culturally mixed cast as a representation of France as it is today. Granted, most of that cast is offed in various gruesome ways... not to mention the whole violence and pessimism thing... but there does seem to be a distinct, if faint, note of hope towards the upcoming generation, even as the current one heads off towards its doom.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at some of these French horror films, taking a look at some common themes and exploring why France is the new Asia. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie: The Deaths of Ian Stone

The main drawback of horror movies is that there are very few truly horrifying tropes out there, including (but not limited to): the division between the living and the dead; the necessity of bodily integrity; the line between sanity and cloudcuckooland. So when a new idea comes into play, it seems genuinely exciting.

I was genuinely excited to see The Deaths of Ian Stone. It promised Groundhog's Day... but with gruesome death scenes! But here, we come against the flipside of having a great concept; without an equally great follow-through, it becomes a wasted opportunity.

What The Deaths of Ian Stone offers is essentially a mystery story: why does good ol' Ian Stone, all-American boy, keep on getting murdered every day? Why does he retain only a few fragments of his previous “lives”? And what the heck is he doing in England? Does he have a valid work visa? Indeed, the mystery should propel the story forward, and, in theory, it should be maintaining our interest as we piece together the answers, breathlessly anticipating the form of Ian's next demise.

Only in theory, of course. The actuality, the film spills the beans far too quickly (thanks to the traditional fount of exposition, the Creepy Old Man). This seems to indicate that although the writer (Brendan Hood, who also penned the rightly-maligned They) had a killer concept but didn’t know where to take it. So instead of a spooky meditation on the possibilities of predestination, change or alternate dimensions, we get some hooey about supernatural beings called Harvesters, which, for all their smoky, eerie beauty, seem rather limited in their choice of deaths for Ian Stone. Impalement, throat-slitting, and speeding trains. Twice!

Mike Vogel does his best to inhabit each of Ian's new lives as best as he can; he's particularly convincing as both a junkie and a resentful office worker (although having him as a hockey jock reeks of typecasting). On the other hand, Jaime Murray is squandered in a role that involves way too much hissing. She has a sinewy sexuality, but given her actual role, it doesn't make a lick of sense.

The final third of the film devolves into quick cuts and voice-overs from previous scenes, plus a little latex and sunglasses fetishism cribbed from The Matrix. Now that the "why of the story has been answered, there's little left to do except throw in some more visual effects, add some lackluster fight and chase scenes, and ensure that, yes, love does conquer all. Ian’s last line in the movie, “What’s the matter? Scared?” seems to sum up the problems with the film as a whole. To answer his first question, the matter is a riddle is only as good as its solution; to answer his second, no.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Greetings from: VATICAN CITY

Some people come to Italy for the architecture; others, the history. I’ve told anyone within earshot that my trip through Italy would be the gelato tour. And so it was: south of the Vatican, in the tree-lined Trastevere section of Rome, I began my tour. Odd, then, that I would make three stops at the same shop—La Fonte Della Salute—for three different flavors: chocolate orange, pear, and then peach. Not all at once, of course. Each time I returned for more, the girl at the counter gave me a cock-eyed look, a bemused You again? When I finally stumbled out of the shop, satiated, I fell into another shop, ready for some cinnamon gelato.

I know the Vatican is a huge pilgrimage site for Catholics, and as I walked through the Basilica, I saw nuns from around the globe in their habits of different colors and a smattering of priests. (Several shops along the street sold a calendar that offered a new hunky Italian priest each month; alas, none of them were in the Vatican at the time.) But the tourist-to-devout ratio was skewed more towards the former end. And why not? While I’m ambivalent about using one’s cultural heritage as a cash-in (on the one hand, it pays for upkeep and maintenance; on the other, it’s tacky), the Basilica is one of the few free historical tourist spots in Rome. I don’t think the Holy See is hurting for cash: lots of marble statues of saints, wax figures of dead Popes behind glass, everything gilded and/or filigreed. Alas, no religion offers total one-stop shopping; while the Vatican provides plenty of spiritual fulfillment, it does not provide gelato.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Greetings from: ROME

On the train ride to Rome, I silently played “gay or Eurotrash” with the guy across the aisle from me.

Eurotrash points:

  • plastic frame aviator sunglasses
  • black leather loafers with rubber cleated soles with navy blue socks
  • ostentatious ring on right hand with undecipherable symbol
  • polo with a full-color brand symbol the size of his palm

Gay points:

  • sings along and seat-dances to Madonna on his iPod mini
  • carries a Prada manpurse
  • fashionable female friend with chunky necklace
  • wears a Louis Vuitton belt
  • has “concerto Madonna” written in big block letters in his day planner, which he then proceeds to color in
Sorry, gals. The gays have it.

I’ve noticed that the Roman men wear great suits and great shoes but only OK glasses. They also, it seems, a penchant for bikini briefs (don't ask me how I know, but it has to do with watching too much MTV Italia, all right?). But don’t take this as a complaint; it’s hard to criticize too much when surrounded by good-looking, dark-complexioned men who aren’t afraid to have body hair creeping out of their shirt collars. I’ve always wondered if the Italian-American machismo attitude was directly imported from Italy, or if it’s another all-American creation, like the fluffernutter. I think it’s probably an altered form of that machismo: the swarthy I’m a man pose blended with a Protestant-cum-Catholic work ethic. It goes beyond simply being a cultural phenomenon and transforms into a pose that Italian-Americans have to actively cultivate. Of course, I didn’t suffer the horror stories I’ve heard some female travelers tell about Italy: stares, catcalls, eyeroll-worthy pick-up attempts, and the ever-popular ass-pinch.

In fact, I kind of felt left out.