Thursday, October 15, 2015

Stuff: "Spicy, Tantalizing Fashion"

Unless you consider the use of guacamole as a canape spread an unholy abomination, I'll admit there not much in the way of scares here. But a movie-time treat with a nice pedigree is always welcome. 

If you ever wondered how Boris Karloff liked his guacamole, now you know. And now the double dipping starts . . . 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Games: The Call's Coming from Inside the Smartphone.

Augmented reality, a sort of mid-stage between virtual reality and a clear user-interface mediated experience in which a portable device - like your phone - reacts to the dynamic environment around it to create novel experiences, is mostly just a gimmick now. There have been a lot of fun games built around the concept, but few have really taken advantage of the fact that players could be fully mobile and that the virtual NPC's within the game could adapt to the world around them. Mostly, the games have exploited a stable map with experiences tied to specific landmarks. The developers of Night Terrors want to change that. They have a promo concepty video above that discusses how their game will turn any home (presumably you'd need one big enough, loft apartments would kind of suck for this game) into a haunted house. It's worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movies: What, was home depot out of olive drab?

Let's just get this out there. It is baffling to the point of distraction that Amelia, the mother going through what can only considered a serious downgrade in the QC of her parenting skills throughout Jennifer Kent's justly lauded debut The Badadook, and her dead-before-the-story-starts hubby decided that the best color to paint every freakin' surface in the interior of their home was gray. And, like, super gray, total gray, industrial background color of a WWII era battleship gray.

I don't expect the victims in horror flicks to get all feng shuish (feng shuiy? feng shuesque?), but seriously, what the fuck is up with that? Are we to assume that in the happy, pre-banana-town-crazy-pants days of the husband's still-aliveness the happily married couple decided that every room in their house should have walls the color of a dead pre-flatscreen television's screen? Are we supposed to believe that Amelia did the repaint after her hubby died and nobody thought that the chromatic equivalent of choked sob was a sign of incipient weapons-grade depression? Were they just looking to save a buck on paint and somehow got a hold a bunch of cans of Navy surplus gray-wash?

I'm reminded of the bizarrely aggressive design of the titular spaceship at the center of the ghosts-in-space flick Event Horizon. Watching that film for the first time I couldn't help but be distracted by the idea that some complete and utter jackass back at whatever will pass for NASA after we've privatized nearly every aspect of space travel thought, "I was thinking, this is a longterm space mission and these folks are going to be stuck in this tin can for a long, long time. Better make their environment as conducive to mental health as possible by designing it to look, as much as it can, like a cross between a haunted house and the inside of a meat grinder."

That form follows function door swings both ways. You don't want a haunted house, don't make a haunted, and there won't be no haunted house. Just sayin'.

That said, I feel like there is truly nothing constructive I can add to pretty much universal chorus of praise Babadook earned. Consider, interior decoration issues aside, my voice added to the chorus. And, yes, I get the metaphorical significance of Amelia's inexplicably dumb color scheme choice. In fact, it is rare misstep into "aboutness" that this obviously allegorical flick makes, which means this film pulls off the truly rare stunt of wallowing in implicit real world themes without dragging the viewer into a tedious lecture.

So here's my cheat for Babadook: just imagine that Amelia and the dead hubby were about to paint the house in some seriously bold colors, but the hubby died and derailed things after the gray softening base coat went down. Then push that completely absurd objection out of your mind and enjoy a remarkable film.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Music: I bet you didn't know someone could love this much.

Big Data's video "Dangerous" combines so many things I love: overtly sexualized female jogger berserkers who headbut random people to death, nice bass work, and a smart critique of the cliches of modern love songs and an amoral culture of marketing that would sell death in jar to to their own mothers if it made them a buck. It also includes the single best close captioned sound-effect in the history of video: [HOT DOG SLAP]. What more can you ask for?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Movies: Off the preservation.

The film opens with credit our first protags – big brother Sean, little brother Mike, and Mrs. Little Brother, (punningly and aspirationally named) Wit Neary – driving down winding country roads. We know from a montage of the their supplies that they plan mostly to hunt with Chekhov’s guns: there’s a quick progression of shots, covering everything from rifles to road flares to hunting dog, that was probably described in the script as “montage shows all the stuff we use to fight the baddie later.” This also reveals, and I’m not sure if this is due to the filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with firearms or if we’re meant to actually understand this about the characters, that they are woefully incompetent. Their rifles, though nice, are not kept in cases. Their road flares are just stacked in the back. They also drink while they drive. Ultimately, it’s a damn good thing that plot demanded that they get somewhere were a masked psychos were waiting to kill them or, honestly, these two gentlemen might have just bought it due to misadventure.

They make a short stop at a gas station. I mention this here simply because it is notable among gas stations in horror flicks for being at once remote and staffed by local yokels and, yet, does not resemble either a country general store from some sort of splatter-cinema version of 1845 or seemingly a fanatically deliberate effort cultivate every sort of filth, spore, mold, and fungus. Along with just a few other gas stations – the gas-and-shop at the front of Dusk ‘Till Dawn; the clean, but questionably lit with green and yellow colored lights petrol station from High Tension - I’m going to go ahead and give this one, despite some weird shot featuring a trapped animal hanging from a plastic bag on the roof, the ANTSS Award for Horror Flick Gas Station I at Which Would Actually Ask for the Bathroom Key. Ghouls and Gals: look for the ANTSS Travel Advisory Seal of Approval – if it isn’t ANTSS okay, stay away!

The final destination of our trio is a shut down national park. There they trek into the forest with a weird combination of bro-ish hunter zen – “The real hunter doesn’t give chase; the real hunter is already there” – and casual disregard for the environment. They tromp deeper into the woods, taking turns pontificating about the sort of bushido-focus one needs to conquer the wilderness and committing casual acts of pollution.

The next sequence drags a bit. Sean becomes increasingly rugged in direct proportion to how often he appears in a tank top. Mike takes every opportunity to wallow in his city-weak ready-to-be-Darwinistically-selected-against-ness. Wit struggles between a clear attraction to the manly man biceps of Sean and the fact that she’s actually walking stereotype of urbanized elitist softness (she proclaims she’s a vegan, making her willingness to be an active participant in a deer hunt somewhat curious). There’s a whole why-no-babies subplot between Wit and Mike. Sean is revealed to be a drunken soldier who got discharged under vaguely sinister circumstances. It’s like a poor man’s Pinter wrote cinematic cut-scenes for Buck Hunter. Weirdly, in this section, Sean retells the story of Artemis and Callisto, but completely just makes up some bullshit out of his ass. The story he tells has no significant relation to actual myth, even to the point of changing Callisto from woman into a man. It’s another moment when it is unclear if the filmmakers just didn’t give a crap or we’re supposed to take this as a sign of Sean’s mental imbalance and the fact that he’s untrustworthy.

There’s a too drunk, too late fireside conversation. Sean drinks Wild Turkey. There’s some flirting. A chocolate fountain is discussed. Awkward return of husband. Wit and Mike retire to their tent to sleep. Then . . .

Let’s take an aside here. Wild Turkey is like coffee temperatures: it’s an excluded middle sort of thing. The same way you want you coffee hot as fuck or ice cold, but everything in the middle sucks; you want Wild Turkey not at all, or enough of it to ensure you are physically incapable of doing something stupid. A reasonable amount of Wild Turkey is a crap idea.

Okay, back to the movie. Then . . . Wit and Mike wake up with their sleeping bags on the ground. Everything from the campsite is gone. I mean everything. Their tent was cut out from around them. Their shoes are gone. The guns. The dog. The big brother. Everything. They also have X’s drawn on their heads. Mike immediately blames Sean for going PTSD on them. Sean claims he detects three distinct footprints from the crew that stole their stuff, but Mike thinks Sean’s just lost marbles. The scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that you can see a fairly substantial road in the background of the shot. They march back to the car. There’s the inevitable “do you want to fuck my brother” scene, Sean breaks off from the group because he won’t leave his red herring – I mean dog – behind, and it’s reveled that Wit is preggers. Then, finally . . . FINALLY . . . the baddies makes their move.

The masked killers in this flick are a cross between the nameless manhunter in Trigger Man and the masked thrill-killers in The Strangers.  Interestingly, one of the killers has the logo of Men Going Their Own Way, a bizarre Men’s Rights (I guess that’s a thing now) group that espouses rejecting society’s imposed norms on manhood, but has a site filled with jet fighters, lonely travelers down dusty roads, and pretty much every other well accepted cliché of manhood imaginable. The idea that these are wacked out Gamergaters or something is novel.

The rest of the movie starts to quickly coalesce around the elimination of the male protags and Wit finding her way out of her vegan, lady-ish, weak uselessness and becoming a fighter. On one hand, Wit turns out to be a pleasingly effective hero. She’s brave, handy with first aid, and, when the time comes, effective enough when it comes to doling out the violence. Still, there’s something unsettling about her transformation. The film makes it baddies some weird MRA-types playing at some sort of LARPy “Most Dangerous Game”, so that suggests disapproval of the “movement’s” paleo attitudes to gender essentialism, but the film also has a running thread of contempt for Mike and Wit’s supposedly laughable city folk liberal lifestyles. Ultimately, it can only place Wit in the driver’s seat when it has stripped her of her values and identity and turned her into another avatar of its basic “kill or be killed” ethos; an ethos, one imagines, the masked killers use to justify their own grotesque behavior. I don’t know what to make of this. Or even if anything should be made of it. But it’s there and, I think, worth noting.

Despite my snark, there’s a lot this flick does right. The masked killer chasing stupid teens in the woods thing is pretty freakin’ tired. It’s nice to see our victim pool made up of adults who – some sibling and bedswerving squabbles aside – immediately latch into survival mode. The results don’t really differ, but the stakes feel higher. Also, the film is actually quite lovely. There’s also some effective use of contemporary elements that, as a general rule, your standard crazy-killer-in-the-woods flick avoids. To keep things simple, most of these flicks plunge the protagonists into pretty Year Zero situations: no phones, no cars, weapons that would be at home in the 15th century. This uses firearms and cellphones and the like really well. This includes a charming scene in which one of the killers must chat with his mom, who has called his cell at an inopportune time. Perhaps it is simply the cheaper cost of high quality cameras and such, but Preservation makes the most out of the beauty of its wilderness surroundings. And I’m inclined to not to simply chalk it up to the low price point of premium filmmaking tech given that this technical prowess is wed to an aesthetic that takes it time and allows characters to pause, react, and be still. This approach is so rare in this particular subgenre that it, unintentionally, causes the viewer anxiety: sometimes you’re simply watching a character do some bit of emotional work, but you’re assuming, from the rules of slashers (and, presence of guns aside, this is basically a slasher) that any sort of slow down is necessarily a set-up for a jump scare.

Preservation won’t blow you away, but it isn’t some strictly by-the-numbers phoned in effort. That’s commendable. If you’ve got room for such modest pleasures in your film-watching schedule, you could do far worse.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Science: Given how we've treated their funding of late, they might just do it on purpose.

PBS's Space Time video blog series ponders whether a routine space mission could accidentally kick off a zombie apocalypse. The answer is no. Of course not. The kicker is the whole reanimation bit: we don't really have any scientific analog for a bacteria or virus that can pull of that stunt yet. At least not in humans. That said, there's a long and interesting bit about how time spent in space has the unfortunate tendency to make existing bacteria and viruses more contagious and deadly. Neat stuff.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Movies: But back to Whitford/Hadley’s fish-man boner.

Remember the running gag about mermen in Cabin in the Woods?

Let’s assume that the whole “the film’s a metaphor for films” thing is true (which, of course it is, they all are), than you can posit a scenario in which Bradley Whitford’s character is a horror audience member (which is kinda a sloppy metaphor, since he’s kinda also the co-director of the “movie” of the ritual – which reveals something of the real driver here: it’s less a metaphor about film as art than a metaphor about being a filmmaker and yet another lecture on why we should be grateful to pay for marginal improvements because, oh dear God, they could do so much awesome if we just wouldn’t tie their hands with our ignorant audience entitlement . . . but I digress) whose obsession with seeing mermen, which is constantly thwarted by the repeated appearance of endless variations of the zombie subgenre, speaks to our alleged desire to see something new.

Yes, I decided to appear again, after a, what?, more than three year absence, with a paragraph long sentence. I’ve missed you guys so much.

But back to Whitford/Hadley’s fish-man boner.

So Hadley is desperate for something other than zombies and he’s pinned his hopes on mer-people. This might seem odd, given that, cinematically, the dominate image the vast majority of us have of mer-people is a just-no-longer-tween red head in a shell bra who needs to be reminded by a pan-Caribbean crab that things are better down where it’s wetter. . . Get your mind out of the gutter, you sad, sick reader. But, taking the longer view, Haldey’s on point. Traditionally, mer-people are total vicious bastards. I’ll cite a single example. In 2009, Bavarian cultural curator Erika Eichenseer found a stash of previously undocumented fairy tales from Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a historian who transcribed them in the 19th century. Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who had their daughters filter the tales and clean them up for public consumption, von Schönwerth’s tales were recorded as raw research materials, and not intended for a larger, commercial audience. These tales depict mermaids as creepy seductresses, who lure men away from their homes with promises of the untold pleasures that wait in the mermaid’s watery realm. The only condition, of course, is that the victim completely forget his surface life (mermaids, in the old tales, never prey upon women). Mermen, on the other hand, are far less cunning and graceful. They’re basically what you’d get if you crossed Jaws and the Creature from the Black Lagoon with a serial rapist. It isn’t pretty. There’s no hot crustacean band.

But back to Hadley’s fatal jones for mer-based horror: Hadley, of course, gets his wish. And it kills him. In terms of the film’s central metaphor, it’s a basic be careful what you wish for theme.

Keeping that in mind, Killer Mermaid (a.k.a. Nymph, a.k.a. Mamula) is the mermaid horror film you’ve erroneously been wishing for, Hadley.

Killer Mermaid follows the adventures of two young women on a get-your-groove-back Euro trip. The first, Kelly, is an uptight American, whose work and romantic hang-ups provide a sort of running tsk-tsk throughout the movie. Oddly enough, Kelly’s agreed to vacation on the seashore despite the fact that her suitcase is full of backstory explaining why she fears the water. She’s the wingwoman of Lucy, an absurdly hot ex pat local who is arguably a supporting character, but is far better loved by the camera and given far more plot points to claim as her own. And I mean absurdly hot, emphasis on the absurd. There’s a certain beauty that is a product of an almost monastic commitment to being pretty. It comes at the cost of individuality and is the result of a deliberate program of becoming what a vast constellation of industry and media have set as the collective definition of the beautiful. There’s an almost suicidal heroism in achieving it. The result is high-gloss, discomfortingly robotic, but undeniably beautiful. It has to be: even when you know it is fake and impersonal and imposed upon you, you are also aware that the shared paradigm of concepts we use to dissect the world around us doesn’t give you any other choice but to give in. (This is weirdly relevant later, when the titular homicidal fish-lady shows up.) It’s beauty that demands a kind of bitter submission. When we first meet Kelly and Lucy, Kelly is busy trying to text work and Lucy is busy letting the camera goes into full “mostra the riches” mode on her bikini clad pert posterior. This effectively sets up everything we need to know about these to protagonists: one is a work text, the other is precision-tooled hot ass in a bikini.

Turns out that Kelly and Lucy are in Montenegro (which reminds me, later, ask me to tell you a kind of funny thing about this bartender I know who is from Montenegro – she’s a peach and it’s a cute little storyette) to touch base with a college friend, a former party boy Alex. Lucy still holds a bit of a torch for Alex, which is complicated because the once famous rover is engaged. This doesn’t stop Lucy from totally wetting down his wick . . . Ah, fuck it, you know what, none of this matters. This shit goes on for like 50 minutes of a 90-minute movie. And seriously, who cares?

 The thing is there’s a bunch a fakey drama that eventually gets Lucy, Kelly, Alex, Alex’s wife-to-be, and this painfully horndog Euro bro Bob (Americanized from something vaguely Bobish in Montenegran) stuck on an island the aforementioned mermaid of lethal variety and a weird murderous guardian fisherman guy who, sadly, is actually played by Franco “the first Django” Nero.

 What doesn’t work with Killer Mermaid? Pacing mainly. For nearly an hour the flick wanders about, exploring the “problem” of Lucy’s lingering desire for Alex, as if we clicked play on a film called Killer Mermaid to ponder in depth the relationship problems of seemingly wealthy without working hot younger people. There’s a place for that and it’s called “not anywhere in a movie called Killer Mermaid.” I hate to sound philistine here, but when you put a killer mermaid in the title of your flick, I’d like to see some killing, preferably done by mermaid. That title makes a promise and, call me naïve, I think it is fair for me to expect you to keep it. Instead, the film strolls towards the mermaid thing, sticking in weird kill scenes involving Nero’s fisherman character, seemingly just to remind us that this is ostensibly a horror flick. The film, on multiple occasions, introduces some nameless character whose sole function is to get offed by the fisherman. They rarely get more than a minute or two of screen time.

What does work? Well, Montenegro for one thing. If there wasn’t a weirdo killer fisherman and an especially mean mergirl in this pic, it could serve as an ad for the tourism board. The only thing the camera loves more in this flick then Lucy’s generic hotness is the beauty of the Mediterranean coast of Montenegro. And I can find no fault with that; it is truly stunning.

I’ve already droned on too long about this particular flick. Killer Mermaid is a pretty drag. It nice to look at, and when it is getting down to crass tacks, it can deliver the goods; but it takes too long to get there and you’re probably better off budgeting time for a less leisurely flick.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movies: Half-way through the morning of the fourth day of the week after the 6-month anniversary of the second Tuesday after the Day of the Woman.

I Spit On Your Grave, the 1978 revanchist rape exploiter that also traffics under the somewhat deceptive label Day of the Woman, reads better than it plays. This is because, in conversation and in writing, you can filter all the problematic elements of the flick through a critical scrim that invests them with nuance, depth, and significance. In the moment, however, all vulgarity is experienced as the same thing. We can, for example, discuss how the film critiques its own violence, but before that we're all going to have to sit through a 20-minute long gang rape scene. Or, depending on your definition of "rape" and "scene," perhaps we're just watching four five-minute long rape scenes. Either way, it amounts to quite a bit of forced penetration, screaming, bruising, bleeding, and generally rapey unpleasantness. Later we can discuss themes and craft and whatnot, but the immediate experience is entirely present and needs no explanation. Later, we can cluck at the shoddiness of it all or put on our post-third wave feminism hats and deconstruct it, but the immediate experience is that we're watching a woman get raped for entertainment. The result is that ISOYGorDotW works like the opposite of a really good joke: it's better if you weren't there and somebody explains it to you.

The weirdest thing about ISOYGorDotW is that it is, simultaneously, better and worse than you've heard. The usual line for the film's defenders is that it is some primitivist feminist piece in which a victimized woman masters the very violence that subjugates her and turns the tables her patriarchal oppressors with extreme prejudice. This isn't a critical view so much as plot description with a politically correct escape hatch for those who consider themselves enlightened, but need to explain why they spent nearly a half hour of their life volunteering to watch four dudes take turns brutally raping a woman. For our purposes, the important thing about this standard take isn't its self-serving moral cowardice, but the fact that it is wrong. And not just wrong: wrong in such a way that obscures the few things worth discussing in the film.

Our main character, Jennifer Hills, a writer who has left the big city to finish her new book, is a plot device rather than a character. She exists in the story mainly to get raped by four locals - Johnny, Matthew Lucas, Stanley, and Andy - and be the conduit for their Old Testament style reckoning. Her history is a blank, her interactions with others (when not sexual or violent) are vapid, and her most characteristic expression, an affectless stare, suggests the defining shallowness of her as a concept. My initial reaction was to wonder if Jennifer's relentless nothingness was part of a larger strategy: perhaps director/writer Meir Zarchi meant her to be a sort of everywoman and thought he needed to scrub her of individual details so she could better serve as vessel of viewer identification. But that's not how the film feels to me. Compare Jennifer with the other protags: the four attackers. In contrast to Jennifer, the men have internal worlds. We see them negotiate their own emotions and the pecking-order style politics of their micro-community. They exhibit savagery and remorse, fear and desire, sexual confusion and even a weirdly primitive sense of justice. We're talking about a b-grade grindhouse flick, so I'm not saying these guys are a quartet of Henry James characters here. But compared to the not-a-person that is Jennifer, they are notably robust. To be fair, I'm willing to bet you've got furniture that exhibits more personality than Jennifer.

This imbalance reveals the wrong-headedness of the whole wishful feminist take on ISOYGorDotW. It's a movie by a dude about dudes. The story really is about four men who commit a crime and then pay for it. It isn't about female empowerment, but rather about the lines you don't cross and the fatal logic of the consequences. Jennifer is little more than a marionette the director yanks on to stage, gets dirty, and then manipulates into offing his central protagonists. This is why I prefer I Spit On Your Grave as the title: it is easy to imagine Meir Zarchi playing God an saying that directly to his flawed and transgressing creations. For Day of the Woman to make sense, a real woman would have to appear somewhere in the film.

This is why I say the flick is worse than you've heard: the feminist apology for it is pretty much BS and it is no friend to the ladies. If you were hoping for some sort of social value here, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. There's a reason exploitation cinema was called that. Let's just admit it.

So how is this movie better than you've heard? Once we get over trying to excuse it, there's some pleasingly strange things about the film. Vengeful-Jennifer is as blank as Victim-Jennifer, but she's an interesting blank. First, there's the strangely dispassionate way in which she goes about her business. You get the feeling that Jennifer is sleep walking through the whole thing, a sense that is strengthened by the increasing sense of unreality throughout the whole last quarter of the movie. Jennifer doesn't just kill her attackers, but seems to need to do so in very specific ways: for example, Jen actually passes up popping a cap in Johnny and ending it quick so that she can entangle him an unlikely sexual situation and then dispatch him. The illogic of it - forgoing the opportunity to gun him down when you've got him at your mercy in order to get into a situation where you're far more vulnerable and the whole thing could turn into a battle of strength he could easily win - is striking and never resolves into something reasonable. There's also post-rape Jen's weird use of sex as a weapon of revenge. The most common take on Jen's post-rape predatory sexuality is that she's luring her attackers into a false sense of dominance. Unfortunately, this makes no sense. The first time she plays siren, her victim is a mentally retarded man who really poses no threat to her anymore. This guy shows up ready to be her victim, the whole seduction seems strangely unnecessary. Then, in the scene in which seduces and cuts the john off Johnny, her use of her sexuality as a weapon only makes sense if you ignore the fact that she already had a perfect opportunity to kill Johnny and opted instead to get into a situation where using her sexuality would be necessary. Why? I don't have an answer. It's weird, right? Then there's the methods of murder. Jen has access to firearms, but she chooses again and again to dispatch her attackers in overly elaborate ways, often involving some heavy-handed visual pun. This tendency towards the pun is odd in that, outside of the context of the viewer watching the movie, the puns make no sense; that is to say, since nobody within the film except Jen and her attackers knows what happened (the whole film seems to take place in world without law enforcement), the punchline of these pun-based deaths would mean nothing to any other character in the film. They appear to be something Jen is specifically doing for the viewer of the film, without ever showing any "meta" awareness of being a character in a film.

Whether or not the curious way the movie spirals into a crooked semi-surreality will outweigh the unpleasantness of the first half of the film is a debate you'll have to have with yourself. I would like to propose the following though: when you watch, keep open the possibility in your mind that all of Jen's revenge is a fantasy on her part. She's supposed to be a writer, right? What if, just what if, she gets attacked, is helpless to avenge herself, and concocts a story of unnecessarily elaborate revenge killings? Her character never worries about leaving behind evidence for the police because she controls the story-world and she knows they're not ever coming. The puns behind the murders are for her, the viewer of her fantasy. Her willingness to toss aside good opportunities in favor of carrying out unnecessarily dangerous schemes makes sense if she is in charge of the story-world: she knows everything will work out for her. Finally, it explains the strange sense that the Jen we see is a sort of story-device/ghost, a tool for a story-teller to impose his/her logic on the story-world. I'm not saying this is "the answer" to the movie. Movies aren't riddles that can be solved. Not good ones anyway. I'm just suggesting it as an alternate way of looking at the flick. Let me know how that works out. I'm probably not seeing it again any time soon.