Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Demon Gets Its Due: The Paranormal Activity Trilogy


So it comes to pass that what was once seen as a novelty work around for no-budget filmmakers to create effective, rudimentary, and in many ways experimental exercises in horror now reaches that divide where the more conventional world of franchise horror film oozes into the frame. Which isn't to say that this was unexpected, but in the challenge that comes with straining out a singular premise based on the technology available, it's virtually inevitable that their verite element would be compromised for the sake of sequel dollars. And since I was among the thousands who took the brilliantly placed marketing bait of the original hook, line and sinker, part of me knew upon seeing it that Paramount would go out of their way to make sure this become a protracted series of works, all in the name of being the next in the neverending trend of horror being allergic to singular success. Which isn't to say that in today's climate is not understandable with attendance numbers waning, and ticket prices increasing. Anything that is capable of engaging the crowd in new and interesting ways is bound to inspire a repeat. The problem comes when this method is so threadbare simple, that any greater expansion of the conceit invites contrivances and nuances that threaten the foundation of such an idea.

Which is at the essence of what has happened with Paranormal Activity as a franchise. Inevitable perhaps, but a part of the viewer in me can't help but be compelled by things happening in between what has become the films' expected pattern. And even when readers might already be asking the expected "whys" regarding my own interest in this series of films, I have to go ahead and admit that it has been years since a horror franchise has kept me coming back. Having grown up in the heyday of the trend (the 1980s was in many ways the petrie dish by which most of today's film marketing  and creation habits spring from) I have long since ignored most horror movies made to cash in on the success of the original. Especially when the sequels clearly have nothing more to say regarding the myth established, save for a repeat of the same, all the while increasingly wandering away from scares and thematic heft. While the same can be said regarding the PA films, there has also been an interesting set of themes that have sneaked themselves into the mythology.

Themes that help the films work in spite of their minimal nature.

But first, what is the surface mix? The initial hook? What is it about this take on the "found footage" verite subgenre that connects so well with the general public?
For me? Unassuming showmanship.

Particularly when thinking the $15,000 price-tagged original film made in 2007, and released wide in 2010 via purchase from Paramount Pictures, PA's secret weapon resides in the use of drawn out static shots, phantom sounds, and an absorbing lack of polish. It's resourcefulness being the primary element in delivering the scares made for a unique experience in mainstream multiplex horror. Suddenly, the audience was compelled to watch more closely than they had in perhaps decades. Not unlike a Where's Waldo book, or even a Magic Eye Painting, the viewer is required to involve themselves in ways unusual for a modern horror film. A technique perhaps best pioneered historically by the Lumiere brothers..

Since then , as viewer habits, and technique evolve, it has become increasingly more challenging to draw in the senses in ways that deliver a potent shock. Which brings us to the internet age, and perhaps a turning point for the genre in general.

In the years post- The Blair Witch Project, as well as the J-horror boom of the late 90s, a hunger had been growing for more entertaining means of exploring the unexplained, particularly in the realm of low to mid-grade video. In fact, as an extension of the Japanese fascination with ghosts in lieu of the success of such films as Ringu(1997), and Ju-On(1998), variety tv shows began flirting with so-called "found footage" of hauntings, as well as explorations into long spoken of ghost tales.

And as the internet began to gain ground on the international level, it also became prominent to share videos, often claiming to capture moments often inspiring fear and even more fascination. So once online video came to greater maturity with the advent of YouTube, a growing appetite, and openness for found video set the stage for a new type of vernacular that films like Blair Witch, and even Cannibal Holocaust flirted with. Only made more relatable by way of video technology's increased affordability, the last barrier dividing filmmakers and the everyperson has dissolved, making these movies ripe for pilfering.

Now onto the second-level, and this is where it truly piqued my interest.

For those unfamiliar, I had shared a few words regarding the original film. While a part of me admired the achievement, its bare bones nature, not to mention the reliance on a character to act beyond reason almost hurt the film. ( and of course, there's a tacked on scare in the last moment that cheapens a lot of what comes before) And yet despite these small quibbles, I found a lot to like in regards to its view of not only the unknown externally, but also internally.  It turned out that for my money, it was the internal conflict of the film's two leads that made the piece especially effective.

Quick Recap:

Paranormal Activity chronicled the lives of Katie & Micah (using their real names) whom soon after moving into a tract home in the San Diego suburbs, begin experiencing nightly disturbances. Leading Micah, already hooked on capturing life on video, decides to set up a camera on a tripod to capture them while sleeping for what he possibly hopes is a sense of comfort for Katie, who already seems more sensitive to the situation than he is. Over the course of several nights, the disturbances increase in their ferocity, eventually coming to a crescendo when it becomes clear that Micah's doubt has opened a door
 to what is ostensibly a doomed finish.

So what leads me to retain the opinion that the original once again claims more potency over later films, is the underlining notion that despite the American ideal of cohabitation, even in the most secure neighborhood & housing, living with others is fraught with an eternal nihilistic edge. From a universal perspective, security is merely illusory. No togetherness. No understanding. It is the classic "fundamentally alone" perspective that reigns supreme in the original piece. It is made even more evident in the film's original pre-studio version, where Micah and Katie's ending is even more viscerally pronounced. And this is possibly a fear that runs much deeper than any idea regarding malevolent spirits. The real malevolence, being our inability to connect and accept a more realistic view of a universe in perpetual flux.

Not sure if this was what original creator, Oren Peli had in mind, but it is worth considering.

Paranormal Activity 2:

So when it came time to franchise the film by following it up with a quasi-prequel involving the days prior to the events just witnessed, much of the same was employed, which not only expanded the mythology regarding Katie's family, but increased the number of cameras/opportunities to witness another rift between worlds. This time, involving Katie's slightly younger, married sister Kristie, her new husband, Dan, his daughter from a previous marriage, Ali, and most importantly, the newest addition to the family, infant son, Hunter. With a larger, more lavish home, a more diverse cast, and a handy home security video system, its safe to joke that the franchise has leaped beyond credibility right out of the airlock. However, there is enough care in the film's craft and tone that does well to keep the fear potent for those open to the experience. Not to mention a larger, broader thematic target. Just as it becomes easy to question the logic of all the moments captured on video of characters reading up on what could be haunting them via the internet, and reading it aloud to themselves, there are many new takes on the same stretches of eerie quiet once the family takes to bed. The dreaded "Day X: Date and Time" again marks the moments when the audience is asked to look closely before things take their expected turns. The expected bumps and shrieks unfold as before, but it is here that much of what was left vague in the previous film begins to coalesce, implying that the spirit that haunts this family may very well be the product of human desire, and not so much of universal apathy.

And while this may undermine my previous statement regarding the first film, 2's implications regarding two sisters either marrying into money, or loving into it begins to take a sinister turn when one considers the revelations here.

Which is where I bring in a most unexpected thematic bridge to this very writeup:

One of my initial film analysis writeups was regarding the fantasy-comedy favorite, Ghostbusters(1984), in which several down and out scientists, with the assistance of a sarcastic-salesman type, create a revolutionary business model based on age-old superstitions, only to awaken the wrath of generations worth of angry spirits. Upon good-boy character, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd)s exasperated sadness at having sold an old family home to buy a loan to start this new (potentially fraudulent) business venture, we are in full 1980s zeitgest mode, as the film spins a fun FX-laden comedy regarding the era of Reaganomics, and the potential ruin inherent in its methodology. By the end of the film, Zuul & Gozer are vanquished, and despite all that occurs in the film, we see the classic Ghostbusters logo emblazoned on clearly street-made T-shirts, all while Rick Moranis asks a local New York firefighter who does his taxes. And while this was all in the name of comedy, there is this sneaky element that perhaps helps best inform what Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist had warned of previously. A deal gone awry, only to incite future ruin by way of forces long neglected by modern pop-ideology and greed.
Actions of the past may very well have paved the lives of both Katie and Kristie, only to secure that a future simply isn't possible for any involved. Made all the more clear by Paranormal Activity 2's unquestionably bleak finale.

So what in the world could a third film- and also a bigger prequel, do for this theme? Well, to be honest, it does what virtually any other mythology building block can do in the horror movie landscape, repeat to mixed success.

Paranormal Activity 3:

In a quick prologue, we are introduced to the revelation as to how a certain item was found inside Katie & Dan's home, prior to the events of the first film. We also witness the dropping off of a box filled with VHS cassettes, many of which chronicle the childhoods of our central characters. Flashing forward to the burgulary that opens 2, we are informed that nothing was stolen amongst the rubble left behind, save for these cassettes. So what 3 will be, is the documented account of events both sisters hinted at in some of the more dramatic moments of the second film. This time, the video is captured by way of their mother, Julie's boyfriend, Dennis, who has his own wedding video and editing business. And once again(or perhaps for the first time), we witness the beginning through the eyes of Kristie & Katie's family, as an imaginary friend turns out to be anything but.

And again, I'm hesitant to grant this anywhere near a typical review as these pieces work less on a traditional level, and demand as such. That said, this installment can easily qualify as the most "movie-like" exercise of the bunch. In fact, many elements here play full well in the pantheon of an older school of horror sequel. To the point that the film begins to blur the line between traditional narrative film and verite-style document. When the piece makes open references to films such as Poltergeist, and even Back To The Future, one knows that we are in a warped mirror vision of reality. And yet, despite this, a good ninety percent of the film succeeds where most 1980s period pieces fall short. Helmed by  Ariel Schulman, and Henry Joost, the minds behind the controversial indie, Catfish, PA3 is as far removed from their dent-making debut as imaginable, but also offers decently unique scares and some truly impressive performances by the young actors playing the sisters, while remaining true to the spirit of the series. In many ways, this could very well have been the kind of film Book Of Shadows would have benefitted being more like: a traditional scare film, with an almost meta spine running through it all.

So naturally, the big question of this film's existence lies in just how Dennis is able to capture hours upon hours of video in the days of EP/SLP mode, and incessant tape changing. (Not to mention lesser quality video-which this film brazenly sidesteps for questionable reasons. There is also a welcome addition into the method involving an oscillating fan that not only made my inner DIY geek smile, but plays havoc with our line of sight.) The further down the rabbit hole we go with the premise, the louder the question of why the camera is there and only grows louder. The crux of the whole film being wholly dependent on how much one is willing to believe in this scenario. So when the expected flooring of the gas taken by the demonic presence reaches it's logical conclusion, the only way to go, is to bring us face to face with...Well...Perhaps it is best not sharing here. But if this franchise has any remaining thematic integrity in store, this is a most appropriate finale, which again supports the 1980s Baby Boomer Curse bridge theory.

The seething anger inherent in the subtext of these films can only remain as fresh as they are if the premise isn't taken beyond this point. There is a cutting, vicious edge to what has been shaped here in regards to our modern culture, and what we are waking up to realize about the generations prior to us. As Schulman and Joost performed an occasionally fun bonus chapter in the tale, taking advantage of whatever limitations the era and budget could provide, and based on the audience's reactions at my screening, it may be best to hoist up anchor and move on. Once the audience catches onto the format, ready to squash it tightly into a  neatly labeled box,  it's time for horror to find new ways to engage and surprise again.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Fleeting Fear

The last days of October are rushing by with almost distressing speed, and all the while I'm pretty bogged down with work and stuff to watch. So much in fact, that my annual diet of horror has been left more than a little wanting. And finally having a workable Netflix Streaming setup has run at odds with an unpredictable bandwidth- an unexpected development. Regardless, time will be made over the next few days to drink in a few of the more recent films available on streaming. Some of which include John Carpenter's The Ward, which came and went earlier this year with me unable to catch it. Also recently added has been The Last Exorcist, which has received enough positive talk to pique my curiosity. And speaking of the verité-horror, despite my more rational wishes (again), a part of me feels the need to check out Paranormal Activity 3 after such a strong opening weekend. Something must indeed be working with that kind of haul. And with the two guys responsible for Catfish at the helm, no doubt it should have a unique feel.

Also here to report that a review copy of a book covering the life of one of my original movie inspirations has been in my possession for a little while, and nearing completion. Am currently debating whether or not it would be best to review it in sections, rather than in one post. And seeing as how lunch has been my designated reading time, it hasn't been the most expedient manner to fully digest it. That said, there's a lot of illuminating stuff in it that deserves sharing about in these pages. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for the Attack The Block Blu-ray extras. Oooh yeah..

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fighting The Fall 2011 Anime Season Blahs..

That's right. Having not hopped onto the fall season's staggered roster of anime titles, a friend inspired me to take the time on a Friday night to go full-hog binge to see if there was anything worth crowing about. And since it may wander into the timing initially reserved for another protracted older anime writeup, Anime Diet will be host to a batch of mini-reviews set to be up sometime this weekend. And while I won't disclose said opinions here, I will say that the night wasn't all dreary.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Thing (2011) Movie Review

Well it isn't as if we didn't see this coming. As if the ghost of Tron Legacy were back to haunt us, only this time in a much more blatant, offputting manner, Universal and Morgan Creek deliver the backstory to what is possibly my personal favorite remake, as well as favorite John Carpenter film. As a bleak and intimate tale of isolation and paranoia, the apocalyptic tale of Outpost 31 has long become a major patch on the quilt of my love of cinema storytelling, so the very idea of a prequel, while questionable certainly carried an interesting cache of curiosity within me. And yet despite better judgment, going, and now feeling utterly suckered yet again has left me bereft of much hope that some visually capable filmmakers today have little to no understanding of what made works of the past so effective. There is simply nothing to this addition that gels as a prequel, or even as a stand-alone feature. It's a messy, shallow thud of a film that only makes one appreciate the clever, well-executed magic act Bill Lancaster, Carpenter, Rob Bottin and company pulled off to a stunned public all those year ago even more.

So when I roll off the description of the film, it should be relatively easy to parse out what this film needs to be in order to be a successful prequel-

After having accidentally unearthed what seems to be an alien craft deep within the arctic ice, a Norwegian scientific team enlists the help of American grad student Kate Lloyd to investigate what Dr. Sander Halversen believes to the the find of the century. Soon after bringing a block of ice carrying the remains of what looks to be the last survivor of the crashed UFO, the creature escapes, sending the team into a flurry of fear and mistrust when it is discovered that the organism is capable of absorbing and imitating anything organic it comes in contact with.

And while this should prove vital to helping story development, especially in regards to the kind of mind game that is being played on both the characters (as well as the audience), the new film completely drops the ball, and opts for a straight-up CG jump scarefest which is the complete antithesis of the titular creature's diabolical  survival strategy. And the most disappointing thing here is the writing talent involved (including Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore) claimed to have been working on a way to reverse engineer the events leading to the 1982 film, when it's clear that little but a few minor references actually exist while the rest seems to be its own film entirely. And if that were so, what's on screen is so by the numbers dull that it's hard to care about anything that is happening, let alone anyone within it.

From virtually frame one, there is indication that there is trouble brewing. The choice of Universal logo(from the 1990s no less) is confusing to say the least. Further going in, the initial character introduction is so awkward in execution, it's hard to believe any studio found it acceptable. Fast forwarding to the moment when the team brings the ice block back to the camp, and a member seeks to have a look at the creature for himself. The cliched jump scare here isn't so much the issue, as is the hilariously inappropriate stinger music.(Beltrami's score continues this way throughout-indicating a possible disconnect between the director, and modern local sensibilities) If the film wished to create any memorable characters this time around, the attempt never seems to come across at all. Adding to the list of missteps, is the revelation that this film's preoccupation will be with the alien, and how unafraid it now is of attacking out in the open- something the previous film established as never being its raison d' etre. That's right, 2011's The Thing is nothing more than the atypical BOO-grade creature feature with zero understanding of Carpenter's film, characters or structure.

Most notably puzzling/mercenary is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who's paleontologist audience surrogate never rises beyond "token xenophobic-American identification figure number one". Something that is in no way a fault of hers. But it truly does feel desperately tacked onto the production as a good 60% of the film is spent seeking out a way for her to actually have a function in the film to little (if any) success at all. This is also true of most of the cast, as the script never decides to let us in on any characters for the viewer to identify with. Events simply happen as if the makers were merely marking time before it was time to break out the FX again(which again, come nowhere near the still-astonishing work of a young Rob Bottin) in hopes of distracting us from what really isn't being addressed; an actual story with actual characters. No tension, no quiet moments of creeping dread, and most importantly, no under the skin terror.

One last comparison:
There is an early scene in the 1982 film that while to some may seem like a near-wordless, superfluous moment that goes like this:

Introducing the helicopter pilot, MacReady, we are watching him play a very crude computer chess game while nursing a glass of alcohol. And in only a few cuts, we witness his character reacting to what is implied to be something of a harsh play by the computer. Nonplussed by the machine, MacReady exposes his disdain for losing by pouring what remains of his drink into the now-sparking chassis.

Now while that little moment may seem needless to a modern studio, it is moments like these that define character before major incidents occur. An element that is well implied in the original short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. It wasn't so much the monster in the midst that was the central alarming element, but the rising lack of trust between a group of people who had already begun to fray on each other's nerves as winter had only begun for them in a desolate landscape with no shortage of cold days. Much like the MacReady scene, the rest of the 1982 film becomes something of a blind man's chess game, bringing forth a most unlikely leader as the team dwindles. With the alien finding even more clever ways to deceive those who remain, the stakes rise, and a deeply absorbing gut feeling of despair arises in ways few horror films are capable of, and yet the new work is seems completely unconcerned with this. The writers along with director, Matthijs van Heiningen Jr simply look incapable of mounting that kind of mathematical structure, and end up making the kind of film Carpenter's work rails against. In fact, whatever math was used within the creation of this piece, results one of the most out-of-gas fade outs in recent memory. A virtual admission that in the end, it had absolutely nothing to say, let alone anything new.

The lack of understanding of the nature of the creature, and what it offered to the pantheon permeates every section of the piece, and leaves it in the ever-growing smoke-caked heap of wreckage alongside an entire decade's worth of unnecessary remakes/reboots/prequels. Simply reducing the tale to that of a cheap CG-drenched ALIEN knockoff is not only mind-numbing, but insulting. Adding greater insult to this particular injury is a clearly patched-on final scene seemingly aimed at covering a multitude of bases that could easily have been addressed within the entire running time, effectively making the Winstead character look even more unnecessary (Sad, considering that I rather like her work. Having made remarks about the lack of agency given to her in even Scott Pilgrim, it is an even bigger waste here.) . It only sports a powerful halogen light on just how pedestrian and uninspired the final shooting script actually is.

One of the great secret weapons Carpenter had while preparing his film, was an entire year of planning. One wonders how much was provided here. And if it was even near six-months, this is pretty inexcusable. If anything, this will further raise interest in the previous film which was initially considered a box-office disaster, only to later become embraced as something of cult royalty, and understandably so. More still have yet to experience Carpenter's The Thing, so if this film doesn't sour people into catching that, then thank goodness for microscopic victories.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spoiled By No-Choice?

A few hours ago, running across twitter was another hashtag under the name #inthe90s in which a fellow tweeter remarked about the questionable quality of japanese animation that had been available in the VHS era. While there is some truth to me mined from such a statement, it was also clearly geared towards many (myself included) who have often gleamed highly about those days of brick and mortar stores & the lamented thrill of the hunt. But there is also something to be said about where we are currently, and how that may distort much of what folks like myself are attempting to convey. While it may on the surface seem to be another case of one generation bemoaning the existence of the other (while it often devolves into this), it also stands to reason that the current landscape, as well as many who have grown within it, are lacking in the context of what it means, not to only have required a little additional legwork in order to find hidden treasure, but that the lack of instant access to a world of media beyond the localized few was the proverbial sequence of hurdle necessary to tackle before even finding anything worth reporting about loudly.

Which perhaps leads this into one of the core reasons behind I'm sure not only my infinitesimal crumb on the internet, but of many fellow bloggers covering cult films and/or anime; the ability to share thoughts regarding the lesser known, the unusual, or even just articulating on the current and ever changing landscape of popular culture. And with bandwidth speeds now at a wilder clip than ever before, as well as the inevitable complete cross-generation of visual media & marketing, we are now within the most accessible era of entertainment choice to date, with providers popping up, vanishing, and at times intermingling, one might also easily quip like old curmudgeony folks about how the current crop are so spoiled. And while to a degree, this couldn't be more true, there is also the creeping inevitability that in a realm so inundated with choice, much like wandering an olde tyme video store, after all is considered, there rarely is ever as much quality within quantity. A truism, sure, but a truism that at times must be kept in mind.

So when one gets down to it, despite these amazing advances, it can still be said that a need for articulate discussion regarding works such as these is as great as it ever was. Even if there was less stuff being brought over here from places like Japan, what was often brought here were the thoroughbreds of a medium, followed by the expected carrion. And while many more of the lesser titles were never snatched up by US licensors, we are now in a time where streaming services can serve as a virtual dumping ground. It isn't that a medium became "better" or worse (though that can definitely be debated), but rather that we are now privy to the whole instead of the proud sum.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Bigger Mystery

In the year-plus since establishing the Wandering Kaijyu, it has come to my attention that either I had rushed into naming the blog, or had assumed more folks would be somewhat hip to the gag. Understandably, many have asked whether I had hastily named the blog what I did without doing my homework, or if there was some other significance to the Y in Kaijyu. Now for those who have delved deep into Japanese studies, many are aware of romanization, IE- the means by which languages are transliterated into latin-based sounds. And while I will not go into a detailed lesson here, I will also point out that the most popular latin-based spelling of monster is Kaiju was considered, but a part of me found it potentially fun to personalize it by way of using a spelling of it used in one of my personal favorite films.

                                             Can anyone guess the source?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Trollhunter (2010) Review

Personally speaking, I never expected the concept of verite genre cinema to go anywhere beyond what had been blown into utter spectacle after Matt Reeves' CLOVERFIELD. And yet, in the years following the success of films such as Paranormal Activity, this already bordering on antiquated gimmick receives a unique shot in the arm by way of this sporadically fun entry from Norway of all places. Following the exploits of a small film crew as they investigate a mysterious man dubbed a poacher of sorts deep into the norwegian wilderness, only to discover that the only live quarry the grizzled veteran is after, are a large and nasty race of beings only spoken of in fairy tales. Initially skeptical, the group are soon witness to a frightening encounter, and after their vehicle is demolished by an unseen creature, ask to accompany the man in search of several trolls possibly responsible for a number of incidents, including the disappearance of two German tourists. Under strict instructions, the filmmakers are host to a bevy of bizarre rules, and eventually butt heads with not only the lumbering behemoths, but a shadowy group operating to keep the legend under wraps. The hunter's impetus for being so inviting being due to his tiring of the life, and all he has seen as the sole hunter of these wandering creatures in a land ever faced with expansion. And the further the crew is taken by the man's candor, and hardbitten nature, it becomes clear that the danger is only going to rise to insane levels.

Now given in that description, one would assume that the narrative would take on a consciously horror-esque tone, however much of what makes Trollhunter stand out within the subgenre is in how it is less about the fright, and much more about exploring the life of the fantastic within the context of a "found footage" piece. In many ways, a fantasy is a much more apt description. A folklore laden journey, with an experienced vet at the helm, all the while the audience continues to wonder how much of what occurs in the film would happen in real life without the crew giving up halfway, and hitchhiking it home. Our on-camera host, Thomas (played with apt enthusiasm and growing unease by Glenn Erland Tosterud) is injured early on in the film, and yet is dogged in his interest in the wary hunter Hans (Otto Jespersen, who pretty much owns the film.), to perhaps the detriment of the health of everyone else involved. He eventually comes to better sense, but not until things have reached such an absurd pitch that its pretty hard to see him, let alone his cameraman, Kalle(Tomas Alf Larsen), and sound engineer, Johanna (as herself) survive as their filmed encounters in the wild with an assortment of increasingly dangerous woodland creatures. The bigger issues that keep the tone wandering listlessly at times come when one begins to question the filmmakers need to continue on despite the peril they are clearly placing themselves in.

And in how the film does little to tell a truly compelling story, it makes up for it in places by instilling a good amount of classic troll lore, as well as an almost X-Files-esque conspiracy edge to the proceedings which seems to suggest that the film is going for a more direct sociopolitical angle which loses me I must admit. In the almost more nuisance than threatening Finn (Hans Morten Hansen) we are given a few instances in how he and his crew (hiring immigrants in disguised vehicles to provide proof of the mundane to the public- in one case a dead bear to explain away a recent incident) do their part in protecting the Norwegian wilderness from trolls, as well as keeping the world ignorant of their existence. As the film rolls on, it becomes apparent that the patience of the filmmakers is thinning the longer they experience the truth, wondering why it is so important that such a secret be kept.

Of the film's use of often handheld, the results are relatively mixed to unimpressive. Especially when there are at times so many cuts within crucially tense moments that play less like something captured in the moment, and more like a standard film. It is as if the film at times forgets what it is, or exposes its limitations to glaring degrees. Some effects work is a little so-so in areas as well. Much of the effects focus is with the trolls, which range from mixed to outright fantastic in the finale.

One of the more straight-up fantastical elements that in many ways clashes with the handheld approach (especially in a post-CLOVERFIELD world) is the design-work of the trolls themselves. Not satisfied with rethinking their look in regards to more animal-like, or contemporary monster designs, there is a sweetly classical look to them that is purely out of Nordic, Scandinavian aesthetics. In many ways, it has been so long that such a style has been seen in a movie of this manner of effects scope (particularly in a film set in a non-fantasy world) that the impression can be a bit jarring for some. But when we reach the final reel, and it comes time to deliver on showing a species only hinted at earlier, there is a certain majestic charm to its appearance that almost salvages the piece from becoming little more than a fun weekend diversion.

So in all, Trollhunter doesn't offer too much in the way of remarkable story, or scares, but it does at least share a rare type of fantasy vision amongst what is some eerily beautiful landscape. Word has it that the film was a huge success in its home country, and understandably so. There is an undeniable quirk-packed charm to the whole affair. I only wish there was a little more meat to these bones. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010) Review

I know I often shouldn't, but damnitall the Thai action film industry is such a young and dangerous place, it becomes hard to resist when word spreads regarding another martial arts film seeking to outdo the bonecrushing precedents made by Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa and the like. The problem is that every time I do, it is more akin to a trip to an abusive relative who happens to cook delicious meals. Sure the food tastes good, but you know the shouting and humiliation aren't far away. Even after experiencing Rittikrai's previous films, the siren call continues to reach me despite my better judgment. And upon seeing that this time, we had a film comprised of not one martial arts master, but a class of nine young, potentially crazy stunties ready for their spotlight, the urge to oblige won yet again. And after watching 2010's BKO: Bangkok Knockout, a long-delayed moratorium may very well be in order.

BKO tells the tale of a young martial arts stunt team, having won a grueling competition to travel overseas to Hollywood, and their night of celebration ending horribly resulting in waking up the next morning to find themselves, along with fellow friends and party-goers, awake in a seemingly abandoned project filled with empty buildings and warehouses. Their vehicles, wallets and devices gone, they are now within a deadly game caught on camera as they struggle to survive while being stalked by hooded thugs. All this while sleazy international interests led by the cigar-smoking Mr. Snead (?) wager on the outcome of the ensuing matches. So in essence, this is a backwater, ensemble martial arts rendition of stories such as The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, etc. Except the impetus here is on not having one action hero, but several young guys, two girls, an elder uncle-type, and an unbaked Chris Tucker virus likely intended to be comic relief. Utilizing an impressive array of fighting styles including Muay Thai, Judo, Tae-kwondo, Ninja sword, and even Capoeira, the film is pretty much a loud succession of fight choreography set to a booming soundtrack, with little to no character.

And while this may not be of much concern to some, many may forget what helped some of the most notable names in these types of film become so ingrained in our collective minds. It certainly wasn't merely because of the life and limb  risked wholesale on screen, there is also a reason why Tony Jaa wasn't seen as much more than an impressive fighter. And when a film introduces this problem and multiplies it, what one has is an often confused, random action reel with no feeling of consequence, let alone feeling of any kind. In the end, the film is pretty numbing. The lack of character, reason, or rhyme bleeds the film dry of any potential impact the film might have had. So when the film makes attemmpts to pull the proverbial rug(s) from under us, it only serves to annoy, and borderline insult intelligences across the board.

Look, plot twists are fine. But the prime service of them is to not only advance the plot, but to often subvert what has come before, and hopefully expose neglected character elements planted earlier. To do them merely for the sake of doing them simply makes the film more arbitrary,  and sends a message that those involved either had no idea of what kind of story they were telling, or they simply did not care. I'm voting resounding for the latter as I have yet to mention the sheer number of times the film opts to give us convenient five-second "backstories" as specific "story" movements occur. No buildup toward them, just a pause, some swelling music, and an unexpected, almost completely random bit of previously unseen footage to fill us in on character motivations not seen until now. It's undeniably lazy, and it happens numerous times to almost irritating effect. Of course, this is a martial-arts free-for-all, but even in some lesser HK fare, there was often a simple sense of build bridging the fights together, leading us toward the big final brawl. And in the case of BKO, the stakes are so thin, and clumsily executed, they are near nonexistent. So when a number of double-crosses happen at the 75-minute mark, it is almost a completely deflating experience. All one can do is continue to watch in near apathetic rigor as amazing stunts continue to happen for almost no reason at all.

And that's the biggest tragedy of all. The action choreography in this film is astonishing to behold. Among the highlights are a cage fight that the old Battle Arena Toshinden game series could only have dreamed of, an encounter with a metal-faced, axe-wielding Jason clone (Burning axe!- Kane Hodder would have been proud.), motorcycle-fu, and even some stunning bodies pounding through a car chassis. It is clear that parties involved were going out of their way to take the Thai martial arts film to even more ridiculous heights. But with no clear characters, or solid story, it becomes very easy to be distracted away from all of it. All this clearly difficult, painful work, all for what amounts to zilch. I've watched my fair share of arcade game demos with more emotional involvement than this.

So in many ways, this exposes a phenomenon I have come to regard as audience disengagement. Films of this ilk almost exist either as a showcase for stuntmen, or merely as a test to see just how much certain viewers actually invest themselves in what they watch. The less one actually cares about what is happening on screen, the more enthusiasm is generated by the candy in between. While this is certainly something one can opt for given the material they are watching, there are limits inherent in the viewer. Unfortunately, I am one of those people that when the caring is clearly not there, I become less and less engaged in even the shiny things being dangled in front of me. It especially smarts when character traits are introduced, and payoffs are ignored. There is so much in the way of inconsistency here, that it feels less like a movie was even in mind during production, and rather like some kind of elaborate business card with flaming axes was the whole inspiration in a nutshell.

When just about anything can be visualized, to merely have this with no bridge to comprehension or humanity, what else is left? Noise and fury ad-nauseum. If that was on tonight's menu, I'd be out clubbing. In fact, there are so many other things one could be doing other than watching Bangkok Knockout. Hmmmm..laundry..