Friday, April 21, 2017

Krampus


Looking back at my original review of Krampus, it's amazing how little has actually changed in my opinion. I no longer dread the movie starting, I'm now filled with excitement. However, most of my major thoughts are still in my original review. I still think the movie is, in an odd way, fully a Christmas film. I also still think the visuals are stunning.

That said, I've now watched the film with a friend who has far more extensively studied folklore. The experience was interesting, because while she enjoyed the movie, she found herself horrified by how much the source material had been altered. She felt that this movie heavily conflates the legend of Krampus with the Wild Hunt. This is an interesting perspective, and I can certainly see her point, however I feel that these are legends that fit together far better than one would expect.

I still love the family. They're all fundamentally good people, who are driven apart by wildly different values. Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) is a brutally-honest alcoholic who drives the rest of the family crazy with her lack of tact. Uncle Howard (David Koechner) and his brother-in-law Tom (Adam Scott) have a passive-aggressive relationship based on their wildly different values. Their wives, Linda (Allison Tolman) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are the very picture of sibling rivalry, constantly trying to be polite, while bitterness from years past keeps bubbling to the surface.

Our main character, Max (Emjay Anthony) finds himself the target of bullying from his cousins Stevie and Jordan (Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel). The whole family relationship is captured in a microcosm there: Max, being an only child, has no understanding of his cousins' teasing as anything other than cruelty. The two of them seem to see Max as a surrogate sibling who they can play their usual games with.

During all of this hostility, Max's sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and his German Grandmother Omi (Beth Engel) try to keep the peace. His remaining cousin, Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack) is kind of just there...Also, there's a baby (Sage Hunefeld).

It's this family rivalry that eventually leads Max to tear up his letter to Santa, and throw it out the window. With that, Krampus comes, and they begin to get picked off. The action scenes are, for the most part, awesome, and the visuals remain stunning in their use of practical effects. Every character gets at least something interesting to do, and kudos to them for finally making Krampus deal with the situation personally, after his minions have been defeated.

The big reveal of the movie is that Omi had been visited by Krampus previously as a child. I'm curious if this means that Krampus has a particular interest in Max's bloodline, or if it was just an amazing coincidence. The flashback, told as either CGI or stop-motion (I'm still not sure) is stunning, mixing Rankin/Bass with shadow imagery that reminds me of the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

The plan, apparently, was to leave Max behind as a reminder to keep the Christmas spirit, as Krampus took all the others to the Underworld. However, Max eventually begs Krampus to take him instead, and the entire family appears to wake up in Max's home on Christmas Day, with their spirit newly restored. The final shot of the movie makes it ambiguous if Krampus is still watching them, or if they're now trapped in a snow globe, but I lean towards the former interpretation.

This movie is a new classic. It should be watched every Christmas with the same regularity as It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Krampus is a great character, intimidating and mysterious, but also complex. I really hope he gets to meet Sam someday.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Knock Knock


(Author’s Note: I wrote this review before listening to Eli Roth’s commentary on the film. I feel that Roth does not understand his own movie, and his belief that this is a movie about cheating rather than rape horrifies me. That said, I decided not to update my review, because my feelings are still mostly sincere.)

Knock Knock is a film that makes me happy for my lack of star ratings. It's a film that needs to exist, and tries to exist in the most boundary-pushing manner that our culture will allow. That does not make the viewing of this film a pleasant experience. Furthermore, it says a lot that even a director as sick as Eli Roth was unable to get through this entire movie without coping out.

This is a movie about rape. Let's get that out of the way upfront. Our main character, Evan (Keanu Reeves), is both physically tortured, and sexually violated by two women for sick thrills. I'm glad that this is a subject that can, for the most part, be taken seriously in this movie. That said, I really want to know why this movie is labeled as an “Erotic Thriller.” I don't know what anyone could find to turn them on in this movie, past perhaps the first half hour.

The movie is set in the kind of idyllic family life that absolutely no one can relate to. Evan is a wealthy architect, married to a successful artist (Ignacia Allamand), with two children (Dan and Megan Baily, who I assume are siblings in real life, but can find no confirmation of that). They live in a large, gorgeous home, and the closest thing to conflict in Evan's life is going without sex for the last few weeks because of their busy schedules.

Evan, in a tragic irony, has to stay home and work while his family goes on a Father's Day vacation. That night two girls named Genesis and Bell (Lorenzo Izzo and Ana de Armas) show up on his doorstep, soaked from the rain and claiming to be lost. Evan, being a gentleman, agrees to let them come and until he can call them a car.

Credit to the movie for not projecting the girls as evil upfront. Their introduction comes across as innocent fun. They ask to throw their clothes in the dryer, and Evan is decent enough to provide them with robes. They put on some music, dance, and wish our hero a happy Father's Day, but Evan is careful to maintain his boundaries.

The turn comes when the girls lure Evan into the bathroom, and make an explicit effort to seduce him. The scene is one of several points in the film where I'm not sure how Roth intends for us to interpret Evan. Evan tells them “no” repeatedly, and only gives in when they begin sucking him off without his consent.

The next morning the girls completely change their tones. They vary between hostility and seductiveness apparently based on nothing more than what they think will annoy Evan the most. When Evan threatens to call the police, the girls claim to be fifteen, and threaten him with statutory rape charges. Eventually, after they've made a mess of his kitchen, and drawn on his wife's statue, Evan drives the girls to a suburb they claim as their home, and leaves them.

Of course, the girls break into his home again, knock him out, and tie him up. The remainder of the film is variations of torture and build-up. The girls repeatedly accuse Evan of being a cheater, a bad father, and a pedophile. There are two sequences that I think are worthy of specific commenting.

Firstly, there's a far more explicit rape scene, which is actually quite hard to watch. Bel puts on Evan's daughter's school uniform, and forces Evan to have sex with her in it while she calls him Daddy and apparently relives her own molestation by her father. Not only is Evan tied to the bed, but the girls force him to be an active participant by threatening to show his children video if he doesn’t go along with it. This particularly sequence is really the heart of the movie, putting on display just how sick these women are, and how utterly victimized Evan is.

The other sequence I need to comment on is notable for the opposite reason: how quickly it seems to be forgotten. Karen's assistant, Louis (Aaron Burns) comes over to pick up a statue. He's able to see through the girl's act, and finds Evan tied up, but for some reason decides to fight with the girls over their attempts to destroy a statue, rather than freeing Evan and calling the police. The idiot dies when Genesis steals his asthma inhaler, and he falls over and hits his head trying to get it back. The girls dispose of his body, and his presence in the movie is forgotten.

This is a major flaw, as it's the only time in the film that the girls actually cause a death. It puts them well beyond the point of sympathy, but somehow the movie continues to play with the idea that they're somehow “punishing” Evan for giving into them. In fact, the ending seems to make this idea explicit, completely forgetting that the girls committed a murder.

Specifically, the film ends when the girls getting tired of their games, and leaving Evan buried up to his neck in the back yard, a video of him having sex with Bel now on Facebook, and his wife coming home to find the house trashed. The scene plays almost like a raunchy comedy, rather than the truly disturbing film it's been until this point. The final line of the film is Evan's son saying “Daddy had a party.”

This stands in stark contrast to the original, now deleted ending, available on the DVD. Never have I seen such a blatant example of a film chickening out. In the original version, the movie closes when Evan knocks on the door of Bel and Genesis' next victim. The implication is clear: while we won't be shown it, a gender flipped I Spit On Your Grave is about to take place.

But, apparently Hollywood's fear of showing a man as justified in hurting women is truly unbreakable. Instead, we're left with a mostly positive film that ends with a truly out-of-place joke. Are we really supposed to assume that Evan's wife will blame him for being raped? Even accepting that the first encounter was cheating, there's no evidence of that left. Apparently we're just supposed to accept that an erection is consent.

I don't want to comment on whether or not I recommend the film. My feelings are so mixed that saying yes or no to that question seems like missing the point. I definitely want to see the movie Death Game, which was the basis of this movie, at some point. I'm curious how the 70s might have dealt with this concept differently.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Crimson Peak


Re-watching Crimson Peak on DVD gives me much more mixed feelings than my theatrical viewing. I think the change of format was part of the problem. I don't think I'm able to get the full experience of del Toro's visual style on such a small screen. The ghosts, in particular, no longer look quite as stunning.

This is a major blow for a film this utterly immersed in visual symbolism. An ancient house whose heirs are degenerates is sinking into a clay pit, while also falling apart. As the house sinks, red clay seeps out of the walls, giving the appearance that the house is bleeding. Yellow butterflies are fragile innocence, while black mouths are hardy bitterness. The final confrontation even takes place on top of a field of snow dyed crimson red by the clay. The impression of all of this is deluded in a home viewing format.

That said, the film still holds up. Mia Wasikowska gives a decent performance as Edith, the wealthy heiress who finds herself seduced by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After the “accidental” death of her father (Jim Beaver), Edith marries Thomas and leaves for England with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

The movie makes very little effort to hide the fact that Sir Thomas and his sister want Edith for her money. Their estate is falling apart, and Thomas is desperately working on a clay-mining machine that he hopes might restore the family fortune. Edith, who has the power to see ghosts, is surprised to find a number of them haunting the manor, leading her to realize that Sir Thomas had married three previous women for their money, all of which were killed by Lucille.

The movie likewise makes the “twist” that Thomas and Lucille are incestuous lovers fairly obvious as well. We're eventually told by Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith's other love-interest and would-be rescuer late in the film, that the two were also suspected of murdering their mother. However, the real horror hits when we're told that this happened when she found out about their incest...when Thomas was 12, and Lucille 14.

This effectively rewrites everything, and makes Sir Thomas the most interesting character in the entire movie. He was molested by his sister at an age when he could not possibly consent, explaining why throughout the film he concedes to almost everything she wants. Even as we see him sincerely fall in love with Edith, it takes tremendous will on his part to even object to her murder, and this eventually causes Lucille to kill him in a moment of rage

Del Toro's goal with this film was to invert traditional gender roles by having a female character save herself, another female character as a “slasher,” and Sir Thomas as an inverted Femme Fatale. Unfortunately, I think Del Toro missed the memo that his subversions come a few decades late. In fact, we're living in a time when Edith's pure “final girl” status is not only a cliché, but a cliché Hollywood started subverting in mass years ago. As for the female killer, see the original Friday the 13th for more.

That's not to say that these characters don't work here. They definitely do as throwbacks, and it's likely that if this film had been made in the time of the Hammer films it draws inspiration from it would have been far more subversive. However, the only role-swap that really works is Sir Thomas, and not because of his status as a seductive and dangerous man, but because of his status as a male survivor of sexual abuse by a female perpetrator.

The final confrontation between Edith and Lucille is somewhat anti-climactic. Lucille chases Edith, Edith leads her away from the wounded Dr. McMichael. Then, out in the clay-stained snow, the ghost of Thomas distracts Lucille so that Edith can finish her off with a shovel. I think the lack of anything truly sensational is part of the point. Much of the last act is simply a crazy woman running around an old house with a bladed weapon. The theme of degeneracy runs deep enough that I think Del Toro decided that to give Lucille a remotely dignified or dramatic death simply wouldn’t have fit.

The film ends with Edith and Dr. McMichael fleeing into the snow to get away from the house, while the ghost of Lucille plays the piano. She's now trapped forever in her family home, as Thomas appears to have finally passed on. I would love to know what happens to the house.

If I don't seem to have mentioned Dr. McMichael much, it's because he borders on a Red Herring. We're supposed to expect him to save Edith, but his only real contribution is delaying her death when he shows up at their door, and Lucille wants to avoid killing Edith in front of him. If I give him points for subversion, it's that he's saved by an otherwise traditional Final Girl. Usually such characters are forced to save themselves when their men are axed, not forced to protect their wounded men.

It's truly shameful that more people didn't experience this film in the theatre. I do still recommend it. It's a solid throwback to the days of hammer, and a great chance to see Tom Hiddleston in a truly magnificent performance.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Bay







(note: I won't be identifying actors as thoroughly as I usually do, because I've decided there are so many characters, many of which are on screen for comparatively short periods of time, that I'm not easily able to figure out who the appropriate actor for each character is.)

Wow, this movie impressed me. The Paranormal Activity movies could take some serious lessons from this film. It’s presented as a mockumentary, giving us the information the in-universe filmmakers want to present us. Furthermore, much of the film plays out as a fairly realistic depiction of a major environmental crisis. The military never shows up to murder everyone, but the government and corporate interests still want to cover up their own liability.

We're told this story by a reporter named Donna. She's apparently leaking the story to the in-universe filmmakers, because she's been silenced until this point by the government. Apparently the filmmakers were somehow able to get their hands on her confiscated footage of the events, and are adding in bits of her commentary. I'm not going to do the research to try to figure out how much could be legally done to silence her in the real world. I'm so happy that the army isn't murdering the entire town that I'm willing to just accept this.

The film is set in a town built around Chesapeake Bay. The town's economy is based on chicken farming, which uses heavy doses of hormones to grow the chickens to edible sizes as quickly as possible. The chicken dropping are being dumped in massive amounts into the Bay. As the town has grown more prosperous, a Desalinization Plant is built to provide the town with water. We're told that the people of the town assume that the Plant will remove anything harmful from the water, not just salt. (Dun dun dun!)

The crisis begins at a local festival, where people begin vomiting and developing rashes and boils on their skin. The reactions are quite realistic. They realize fairly quickly that exposure to water and eating local seafood seem tied to the disease, and within somewhere between an hour to a day or so they've realized that there's a new strain of tongue-eating louse (a parasite usually harmful only to fish) that's making people sick.

It's in the final twenty minutes of the film when the CDC finally ties the hormone-filled chicken manure to the growth. However, the filmmakers have indicated that this was the cause several times. This is a touch I love. The filmmakers aren't saving up for a shocking reveal any more than a real documentary would. They have information, and they present it to us.

About half an hour into the film the ante is upped. We're shown a louse at least three-times the size of a cockroach that bites a man, and fish are being eaten down to the bone. We're even shown footage of a girl apparently being attacked and killed in the water, although we're told her body is never discovered. All the while the Mayor tells everyone that he hasn't had time to fully examine the issue, but is sure everything will be fine. His fear is visible, but so is his concern for his own reputation.

Is the science here realistic? Clearly not. The reactions, though, feel very real. We're shown various medical professionals scrambling to deal with an emergency. Whether parasites growing hundreds of times their natural size and attacking a species they previously had no interest in is possible is completely beside the point. Also, I doubt growth hormones for birds would affect insects at all.

The gigantic bugs are only on screen a few times, for fairly short periods. I don't blame them one bit. They clearly didn't have the budget to make them look particularly good, but could handle boil and rash make-up just fine. Their most dramatic appearance, crawling out of character's neck, the image is taken with a low-resolution camera so that the bad CGI isn't even noticeable.

If there is a major plot contrivance, it's the failure of the town to be immediately evacuated. People continue to go about their lives as the bodies are dropping, rather than immediately running for the hills. I'm willing to concede this, however, as tracking the infected as they scattered around the State and Country would make for a much harder narrative to follow.

Towards the end of the film there are two scenes of human-on-human violence. The first is an infected police officer is confronted by two men who try to convince him to go to the hospital, but the officer believes he'll die either way. I have mixed feelings for this scene. On the one hand, it is effective because the scene is so unique within the film, presenting a human threat otherwise absent from the film. The officer becomes belligerent and threatens the men with a gun, eventually shooting one of them. On the other hand, the scene is resolved far too quickly, with the officer then killing himself. It was like they just wanted the scene to be over, and not deal with the emotional fallout of making this character a murderer.

The second scene is the standard “someone in the back seat” jump scare. I have no idea why it exists, and it feels quite out of place. Apparently for this one scene being infected makes you violent. Maybe the woman was just in a lot of pain, but if that's the case how did she convincingly hide when she should have been screaming and moaning?

At the end we're told that the government killed the outbreak by dumping chlorine in the water, and then paid off the town in exchange for silence. This is one point that actually seems like the opposite of reality. Why would the government pay for an ecological catastrophe that was clearly the fault of corporate chicken farmers? I can certainly imagine Chris Christie jumping in to negotiate down their payments, but I'm fairly certain that the government had nothing to do with this, and would not be paying a “settlement” for it.

Even with these flaws, however, The Bay is a strong film. It's definitely worth a movie night.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Babadook


The Babadook is a fairly divisive film. It's not hard to see why. The monster of the film is clearly intended as a symbol of mental illness, and it's not entirely clear whether or not the creature actually exists. However, I've heard a number of people suggest that the film would have been better off nixing the monster, and focusing on the purely literal struggle with mental illness. While the movie remains strong, it's not hard to see their point.

The movie opens with a new mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) losing her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) in a car accident. Six year later, she's trying to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) by herself, despite his ongoing behavioral problems that make him virtually uncontrollable. He builds weapons out of things he finds around the house, orders firecrackers online, and talks openly about death and monsters to such an extent that he freaks out everyone around him.

Amelia's grief, as her social and personal life fall apart, attract a creature called the Babadook. Throughout the film it's very difficult to tell where the activities of the Babadook begin and end, but among it's powers seem to be giving people visions, and possessing parents in an effort to kill their children.

Over the course of the film we see Amelia become more and more frustrated with her son, until the Babadook is finally able to gain complete control over her. Prior to that moment, however, she'd already displayed extreme cruelty, and it's not totally clear where her anger ends and the Babadook begins. Even after her possession, she shows moments of clarity that may or may not be faked.

This movie is very hard for me to watch, because I relate so much to Samuel. I'm autistic, and wasn't diagnosed until college, so I know what it's like to have something undefinable wrong with you. I was certainly not as uncontrollable as him, but I definitely didn't think like anyone else, and I certainly made people uncomfortable.

I remember being in Kindergarten, wondering what my testicles were for, and getting an “I don't know” from every adult I asked. I also to this day struggle to find the words to make people like me, or to understand why they don't. Quite frankly, Samuel's story-line is painful for me to watch without breaking into tears.

Watching Samuel fight his mother with improvised weapons after her possession is a painful sight to witness. You can compare the scenario's to Home Alone, but simply inserting the mother into the role of the aggressor makes the child hero far less funny. I honestly can't imagine having watched this film a second time if not for my review.

The movie's greatest weakness by far, though, is it's ending. Amelia frees herself of the Babadook by finally dealing with her grief over her husband, and keeps it satiated in her basement by feeding it worms. Samuel suddenly becomes controllable, and they have a wonderful relationship.

The idea that mental illness can be dealt with so easily and so quickly is pure Hollywood fantasy. Quite frankly, I do not think that a few good days proves that this woman is not an ongoing threat to her child. I've known far too many people suffering from mental illness, and the solution is never this simple.

For a movie like this “recommend” isn't really the right word. It's a type of movie for a very specific type of person. If you're an art-house buff, there's a good chance you might like it. Also if you don't mind being depressed, or you have no reference for relating to people with mental illnesses, you can probably deal with it. For me, though, the film is just unbelievably depressing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Grudge 2


Going in, this movie has two things working against it: Firstly, it's the sequel to a movie that wasn't very good in the first place. Secondly, the first movie at minimum told us more-or-less what we needed to know about the haunting. There was a final shock to provide room for a sequel, but I feel this movie horribly under-uses that opportunity. If the ghosts are no longer bound to the house, then why are we still going back to the house at all? Why not have them rampage all over Tokyo? Or follow Karen (Sarah Michelle-Gellar) home to America?

This film did give me the creeps with at least one visual. A girl slowly drinks milk straight from the carton, then throws it up right back into the carton, then begins drinking again. I imagine this was a metaphor for the karmic cycle of the haunting. I don't deny that the movie has had thought put into it, it's just not thought that I especially care about.

In this film Aubrey (Arielle Kebbel), Karen's sister, is told by their bedridden mother (Joanna Cassidy) that she must go to Japan to retriever her now-insane sister. I suspect Gellar didn't want to be in this film, because her screen time is fairly minimal, and she kills herself fairly early in the movie. Instead, Aubrey teams up with a journalist name Eason (Edison Chen).

I felt like the attempts to expand the story in this film seemed fairly ineffective. We discover that Kayako (Takako Fuji) was trained by her mother (Ohga Tanaka) as an exorcist. Apparently this has something to do with why she and her family became ghosts, because dying in a horrible way wasn't sufficiently terrifying enough.

This is shown in parallel to the story of Allison (Ariell Kimble), a Japanese school girl who enters the house on a dare, and what happens to her and the bullies who entered with her. While Allison might learn far less, I'd say most of the actual scares come from her story. A series of creepy things happen because she's under attack by ghosts.

...oh, and pretty much everyone dies...duh...

As with the last movie, I feel like this movie tries far too hard to be subtle. Some extended scares would have gone a long way. As it is, it's probably marginally better than the first Grudge, but only marginally.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Grudge


Time can change our perception of movies. When The Grudge first came out, Roger Ebert said of the opening “I'm not sure how this scene fits into the rest of the movie, but then I'm not sure how most of the scenes fit into the movie.” Now, in the year 2015, with the benefit of Wikipedia I can easily figure out how the various scenes fit into the narrative...I simply don't care.

To summarize: A Japanese man named Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama) killed his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji) and son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), because he read his wife's diary and realized she was having an affair with an American professor (Bill Pullman). After this, their spirits killed him, and the three of them haunt their home and attack anyone who comes inside.

I haven't seen the original Japanese film this is based on, but I'm torn on the decision to set this film in Japan. Rather than setting it in America, the creators apparently decided it would be easier to justify the use of English by having a bizarrely disproportionate number of Americans involved in the story. Not only was the Professor an American, but the next residents of the apartment were an American couple and the husband's aging mother (William Mapother, Clea Duvall, and Grace Zabriskie).

Even more bizarrely, after the couple are killed, the mother, apparently suffering from Alzheimer's, remains in Japan for some reason, being cared for by caretakers who come to see her daily. When her regular caretaker (Yoko Maki) is killed by the spirits, an American Exchange Student named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is sent in her place. Even if the woman had no family back in the US, I strongly suspect that the Japanese government would send her to a nursing home in the States rather than pay for her care.

That's three independent trips to Japan by Americans who all end up as part of this story, to say nothing of Karen's boyfriend (Jason Behr). For the love of God if you're that determined to have Americans in .your film, just set the film in the US of A. I don't see anything difficult to culturally translate about “people who are murdered violently become violent ghosts.”

Putting that aside, however, I've tried hard to put my finger on why most of the scares don't work. My best guess is that it's a combination of factors. Most of the scares are fairly generic, and the movie is far too willing to show the ghosts. The build-up to the horror isn't especially tense, either.

All of these problems can be easily seen in the portrayal of Toshio: he seems to just exist around the house, and periodically say hello to someone, who typically doesn't even realize he's a ghost...oh, and he occasionally meows in the voice of his dead cat, who his father also killed. How are we supposed to be afraid of something treated with so little awe or reverence. Granted, most of the attacking is done by Kayako and Takeo, but having a ghost so open about his own existence cheapens the concept.

More significantly, though, the scares passed too quickly. The ghosts show up, then they attack...next scene. I found myself mentally comparing the film to The Woman in Black, a film that had a truly dazzling extended ghost attack (if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about). There were a number of sequences here that could have been frightening, if they'd been given proper time.

A perfect example of this is the famous shower scene. Karen is showering, and we see a hand start to emerge from the back of her head. She feels it, and...that's it. She's scared, but we're still anticipating. We're hungry for more, and we're not being fed.

The movie ends with Karen burning the house, and the implication that she inadvertently freed the evil. I intend to review the sequel (the first one, at least) next. I certainly hope it's an improvement over this entry.

There are worse films out there? Sure. But, honestly, this movie kind of made me wish I was watching them. I'd rather see amusing trash than this overly slow bore-fest.