Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Movies: I don't think little big girls should go out walking in these great big woods alone.

In the special features of the DVD of the thriller Hard Candy, the film's producer mentions that viewers have told him that his flick – a tight, commercially-suave suspense film that is part Rope, part torture porn, part cloying issue pic, spiced heavily with the "girls kick ass" meme that flavors so many current chick-friendly action and horror flicks – will be shown in feminist studies classes of the future.

I suggest, instead, that it be shown in filmmaking classes as a sort of "indie flick success for dummies" primer. The visual look of the flick alone is a master class on doing more with less. In an era were "indie" has become nearly synonymous with a shaking, digital hand-cam post-Blair Witch aesthetic, Hard Candy represents something like a lavish riot of technique and polish. Shot for less than a million dollars, mostly on a single set, Hard Candy has a slick, ruthlessly stylish, pro-perfect sheen that could easily be mistaken for the work of Tony Scott of Michael Mann. It is a real testament to the progress to filmmaking tech, and the technical laziness of many indie filmmakers, that something so visually competent can be made on such a tiny budget. It is somewhat like a garage band vanishing into their basement with an unfinished room full of off-the-shelf equipment and emerging with something like Pet Sounds.

Not to beat this dead horse – but this is a blog, so the point is to obsessively flog my particular deceased hobby horses, right? – but digital filmmaking and the ever dropping cost of widely available post-production equipment were, we were told, supposed to democratize filmmaking. For the most part, this was a wishful thinking. A short of shaky-cam pseudo-realist look became the common vernacular of independent filmmaking. This visual vocab and syntax was easily aped by mainstream studios – I site Joel Schumacher's Dogme-style Tigerland (when the dude behind Batman and Robin is lifting from dude who made Breaking the Waves, the concept of aesthetic integrity needs to be put to pasture) – but the traffic was all one way. The big guys could rip off the little guys, but the little guys couldn't rip off the major players. Hard Candy, whatever its flaws and problems might be, should be remembered as a sort of turning point. This flicks represents the democratization of filmmaking. If you can buy a car, you can afford the tools to make a polished, pro-grade film.

Still, the master class doesn't end there. It seems the plot of the film was approached with the same meticulous, commercial-hook care. Inspired, the producer claims, by news stories about gangs of Japanese girls who would lure cyber-molesters into muggings, the plot of Hard Candy involves an online pedophile who brings home a fourteen year old girl that turns the tables on him and assumes the role of predator. It is "controversial" in concept alone. The plot summary hits a ton of media-friendly hot buttons, from childhood sexuality to Internet perversion; but the film knows that the book office buck is in the threat and not the actual delivery. The pedo-sleaze is played with squirm inducing queasiness from the first scene and the avenging teen shows less flesh than one sees in the music videos of any of a dozen or so interchangeable post-Brittany underage blue-eyed R&B lolitas. Furthermore, the plot, once it gets underway in earnest, is a relentless thrashing of the evil kiddie molester – ensuring that even the densest audience members couldn't mistake the viewpoint of the filmmakers. If there's any exploitation going on in the flick, it is a clever and perhaps cynical manipulation of a media that can be relied upon to freak out over anything hinting at teenage female sexuality and drive up your ticket sales.

Speaking of teenagers, the female lead is amazingly well-played by Ellen Page, who popped up in the third X-Man flick as Kitty Pryde. Ellen, who probably had a blast playing her scene-stealing role, does such a great job that it makes you completely forget how essentially absurd her character is. Like some Buffy-by-way-of-Hostel, her brutally clever character is less a human than a giant plot device created to punish the chat room child stalker. She seems to have planned for every contingency, is always one-step ahead of her adult victim, cracks safes, performs surgeries, and so on. Basically, the filmmakers so want her to win the central conflict that it is as if she and her victim live in a world where the gods are clearly and actively on her side. In the hands of a less interesting and capable actress, the role would be unconvincing and laughable. She pulls it of with real skill. Weirdly, she ends up the abused in the upcoming An American Crime where she'll be playing Silva Likens. Guess she's Hollywood's go to girl whenever they need an under-aged chick for their torture themed flicks. (Sweetie, talk to your agent. Is this really what you want?)

Hard Candy is a sheep in wolf's clothing. It is a solid, remarkably efficient thriller, accented with hints of buzz-inducing controversy. Ultimately, though, these controversial themes are just window dressing. The film is skilled rather than thoughtful, exciting rather than introspective, and entertaining rather than disturbing. Candy's a nice little treat for fans of quirky thrillers, but its workman-like professionalism prevents it from treading more dangerous territory. Using the infamously unpredictable Irish State and Public Buildings Movie Rating System, I'm giving Hard Candy the Under Secretary's Lodge. It isn't the Chief Secretary's Lodge, but it didn't really didn't ever really intend to be.


Anonymous said...

Dialog.. Looking at the IMDB, the dialog looks like it was written by a catch-phrase generator. I mean, "Buddy Cop III, Yippikaiay" has better scripting.. I'm wincing at most all the "memorable quotes" there..

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I don't remeber noticing it at the time - for better or worse. That it left no impression is typical of the flick - it pops along at the time and leaves little impression later.

Heather Santrous said...

This is a movie I have been wanting to see but didn't realize it was out on dvd. Glad to see that is so I might have to actually go rent it our bump it up in my netflif queue. The fact that you liked to so well just adds to it.

spacejack said...

Yes, yes, yes! I agree with this review exactly, as well as your sentiments on low-budget filming. I think I wrote a short diary-review of this film some time ago.

Another good low-budgeter is Brick - a 1940's noir-style film set in a present-day high school. Super low-budget, but every scene is smartly shot.

I find that clever scenes are like the new special effects; what awesome model shots or tricky compositing used to do for me as a kid, intelligent direction does for me now.

Primer is another contender in this little "genre" if we can call it one.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

It is worth the rental, in my opinion. At first I was expecting something more, I don't know, sort of edgy and out-there. But once you get in the groove and treat it for what it is, it delivers the goods.

I'll look for your review.

CRwM said...

Brick is in the queue. I've heard good things about it and I'm looking forward to it.

Interesting point on direction being the new special effects. Personally, I'm finding that special effects have entered into this sort of pattern of diminishing returns. We expect so much of them that we now only notice when they're bad. Furthermore, there's this sort of escalation of impact that leaves me numb. I saw a horrible preview for the lame looking Next (poor Philip K. Dick - why does Hollywood keep pissing all over his work?) in which some city - LA, New York, Portland, Boise? - gets nuked. Things fall over, giant freight ships get tossed in the air, the air burns, etc. But at this point, we've seen it all and destroying a major city strikes us a perfectly unexceptional. There's a lesson to be learned, I think, by the fact that the car chase in Death Proof was good ol' stunt work and it excited me more than all these massive shots of the death of city X.

But I ramble on and on . . .

spacejack said...

No, I fully agree with that. All this CGI stuff has ceased to be thrilling or impressive; we all know they can render just about anything so we're not going to wonder "how did they do that??" Even the physics are looking more and more "correct", but the probability of all these crazy physical stunts happening one after another in your typical action movie is zero - and we're aware of it.

In Hard Candy, I remember being surprised that there basically no onscreen violence at all, yet there's a ton of suspense. I think I was cringing through half the movie.

Anonymous said...

It seems I keep starting comments on this blog (and not just this post) and then for some reason or another, I never actually post the comment.
But I keep thinking that I have. So, sorry about that.

I haven't read this post because I want to see the movie, but what little peeks I have had at the post plus the comments seems like an interesting subject.
First, yeah, the NEXT trailer is a good example of how blase total destruction has become. Which is sad.
I've just finished working a whole week on a low-budget horror film called BANSHEE, produced, written and directed by Emil Novak. It's shot on digital video (DV).
And the production crew is made up of talented film geeks and everybody has an opinion on how to set-up a shot and how you should do this and that, etc., etc.
Which is good news and bad news.
Good news, passion-wise; bad news for the director because there's always kibbitzing.
Oh, and I should include myself in the gang of kibbitzers, because I freaking am.
Anyways, bla bla bla...

As a wannabe filmmaker, and not only in the horror genre and its various permutations, I really haven't much experience in actually making my own films, short, experimental or otherwise.
But I still have my opinions.
And I think it's an interesting challenge trying to craft an interesting entry in the genre with limited funds, trying to make something that may be direct to DVD but not totally disposable and will make some sort of visceral or emotional impact.
Just going to CGI with a large budget does not always succeed.
I think the GRINDHOUSE creators embraced the rejection of CGI for retro reasons AND that there's a certain quality about the effects that you achieve when done live, that the audience picks up on.
I always think that what attracts me the most about the horror genre is that the best emotions that the films of that genre trigger are the result of the intellectual use of the film images, sounds, concepts, etc. NOT by how much blood, gore, explicitness, etc.
Hitchcock helped legitimize the suspense genre because he manipulated the audiences thoughtfully and intelligently.
Yes, he also made murder slicker with the way a knife blade shines in the air when held high by a killer, but that's not the only lesson he taught. Although, that may be the only lesson later generations of suspense and horror directors may remember.

Aw, crap... did I say anything?
I want to see this HARD CANDY movie, though. Like the title alot.