Film Review: The Bay

bay

Like any commercial industry, film follows trends. Along with superheroes, the other trend that has been bothering multiplexes cinema screens over the last ten or so years is the faux-found footage schtick. From the groundbreaking Blair Witch Project, up to the abysmal Generation X, it’s been an appropriately shaky gimmick, but hopefully Barry Levinson’s ‘eco-horror’ The Bay will be the final nail in the coffin.

The chameleonic director behind the phenomenally casted thriller Sleepers, and satire Wag the Dog, Levinson’s latest is his first ever straight up horror flick; a mock polemic that perfectly fits the found footage aesthetic. In the summer of 2009, the idyllic provincial town of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland was put into red light crisis mode when an unknown sea critter infected the water supply. Quickly enough, people start showing signs of infection, from rashes, to swellings and bugs crawling out of places where bugs should not be crawling out of. The entire town is shut down, and things start to get even more desperate as people fight for survival and dead bodies start crowding the streets. Right after the crisis, the government confiscated all video footage and proof of the crisis, but good ol’ WikiLeaks has managed to release some of the evidence. Now it’s up to aspiring reporter and survivor Donna (Kether Donohue) to tell the world the shocking truth.

His first foray into horror, Levinson handles the required jumps and tonal unease well, whilst also using the sloshy found footage aesthetic with such panache that you feel like you’re watching a trashy TV documentary, minus the ad-breaks corny voiceover.

For all the daringness of the directing, it doesn’t stop The Bay from being an incredibly ugly and unfulfilling film. Because the story is played out in a mockumentary format, neither the characters, nor the audience have any idea what is going on. Just like the Dogme ’95 movement, every found footage movie breaks it’s limited format in the post-production department, with heavy jump cuts ladened with the routine suspense music of Marcelo Zarvos.

Following Soderbergh’s Contagion, perhaps there is a new, icky trend in the eco/epidemic horror. However, the experience of seeing The Bay is just like any uninspired modern horror (and there are many). Sitting in the darkness watching purposefully shitty quality footage for a thankfully short 84 minutes, you’re gingerly waiting for the next scare, rather than getting anything truly transgressive narrative depth or momentum.

After some disappointing comedies and TV movie work, it’s great to see Levinson given the chance to tell stories on the big screen, even if The Bay is best suited for a home viewing. Whatever you do, don’t start a google image search of the film’s villainous aqua critter. I found the footage, but I really wish I’d left it lost.

★★☆☆☆
IMDb

The Bay opens in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from Friday 1st March, 2013.

#357: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

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Lauded Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin takes an old dog and teaches it new, stunning tricks, with 2002’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary.

I love Maddin. Unashamedly anachronistic, he’s made a lucrative film career from borrowing the tropes of archaic silent cinema and early expressionistic talkies. But this 2002 theatre-film transcends those old celluloid days and sees maddened Maddin present Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic novel Dracula, via a performance by The Winnipeg Ballet.

It’s certainly not for everyone, but I found this film to be an absolute feast. Maddin brings out the inherent xenophobic plot points of the novel (Dracula is played by an Asian dancer, whilst Van Helsing is a white supremacist), and mixes them with striking expressionistic facial expressions that harken back to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Such grimness is matched with great beauty though. Shot in chiaroscuro black and white on Super-8 stock, hand-drawn colour seeps into shot, with dripping blood red and decadent golden yellows. Although most of the film is told in slow-motion to match Mahler’s 1st symphony, the brilliant balletic choreography makes the entire film move with great poise and spectacle.

Not my favourite Maddin – and it may not be my favourite adaptation of Dracula either – but it’s certainly the most audacious I’ve ever seen. As with all of his films, Maddin has the ability to trepidatiously guide us through the maze that his mind. It may be filled with cobwebs, dark fantasies and personal nostalgia, but it’s fueled on an appreciation for sheer cinematic spectacle.

★★★★☆
IMDb / Trailer

#213: Primer (2004)

Feel the Force

Primer is the purest science fiction film I’ve seen all year. It’s also one of the most discombobulating I’ve seen all my life. Right, where do I begin…

With his name plastered all over the credits in every capacity from actor to director to producer to screenwriter to editor to cinematographer to composer (breathe), there’s little doubt that first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth is a Renaissance Man. Unfortunately, he has channeled all of his efforts into the modern-day equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Primer looks and feels everything as cheap as its’ $7000 micro-budget. With all the hallmarks of an amateur production too: questionable sound, dodgy picture quality, crude performances, and dubious editing. Eventhrough all of these technical limitations, it didn’t stop Primer from winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie’s screenplay is incomprehensible. It is deliberately, frustratingly obtuse. With an academic background in mathematics and work experience in engineering, Carruth’s script is dense and incomprehensible. Deliberately confounded and obtuse, it’s a real test on the audience’s patience and attention span. The upside of this is that if no one can piece together the semblance of a coherent narrative, it’s tough to point to plot holes. Without spoiling the plot, Primer’s central premise revolves around time travel – in particular, it’s about two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine, then start using it for personal gain, and begin to understand the dangers and casuality that can result from time travel paradoxes.

Told throughout by an unrelenting spew of “techno-babble”, mirrored with condescending, explanatory narration which purposely takes aim to stupefy audience, the sci-fi stock story is unoriginal and uninspiring; having been projected more compellingly elsewhere in film with the likes of La Jetee, The Terminator franchise and Back to the Future. 

Primer‘s protagonists, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), are uninteresting and charmless in the extreme. We don’t care about them, their invention, or its potential profitability. To further exacerbate matters, neither Carruth nor Sullivan is an accomplished thespian, and their wooden attempts to bring these characters to life are utterly unconvincing.

Maybe I’m being a tad harsh on Carruth and his first foray into filmmaking. Considering it’s non-budget and unique presentation, Carruth is an uncompromising, veritable filmmaker worth looking out for, with his second project now in pre-production it is set to be one of the most anticipated second features since Jeff Nichols’ maddening Take Shelter.

Recalling my opening statement, it’s essential for any science fiction flick to be cryptic, bewildering and extraordinary. Primer is all of these things, but so many complexities come at the expense of entertainment. Some have argued that Primer might start to make sense after a second or third viewing. That is a possibility, but – considering I didn’t care enough watching it first time around – it’s a hypothesis that I’m not willing to test.

★★☆☆☆☆
IMDb it.

Primer is available everywhere. Like, right now.

#205: Livid (2011)

Save the Last Dance

Livid is best described as a horrific fairy tale, laced with familiar horror movie traits. Recruited as an in-house nurse, teenager Lucie (Chloé Coulloud) tends to the comatose Mrs Jessel (Marie-Claude Pietragalla) in her dilapidating mansion. Presented with the information that deep within the confines of Mrs Jessel’s sprawling home is some form of hidden treasure, Lucie, her boyfriend William (Félix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jérémy Kapone) sneak back into the house one evening in an attempt to track down the fabled trove of loot. Unbeknownst to Lucy and her wide-eyed cohorts, their snooping endeavours will reveal the dark, supernatural history the house possesses. A sanctuary to bizarre rituals and cruel captivity, a great many atrocities have been committed in this home, and will be relived for the (dis)pleasure of the unwelcome guests.

Sitting uncomfortably between a routine haunted house venture and an experimental art house horror film, Livid is a perplexing little french film. The first forty minutes of exposition is languished and irksome, trying to create suspense from the wafer thin plotting. We see the naive Lucie going about her work routine, wandering up and down Mrs Jessel’s mansion just waiting for something horrifying to happen, but it never does. The result is exhausting, with filmmaking duo Bustillo and Maury really testing the audiences patience and willingness to continue watching.

So with the slow burn first half done and dusted, the stage is all set for all hell to break loose. From the moment the evil that haunts the halls of Livid’s creepy mansion is revealed, the film takes on an entirely different tone. The decidedly old school approach it took in the first half quickly evaporates in favour for a far more artistic feel, looking like a macabre tea party, or gory last meal. An entirely new overarching narrative is introduced that revolves around the former balletic tenants of the house. As a result of this brave new direction the narrative takes, the flow of film is interrupted by constant flashbacks which are neither scary, exciting or relevant, serving only to complicate the already sagging narrative.

As one would hope from a horror movie, there are some gruesome and terrifying moments in Livid, but they are infrequent and unsuccessful when compared to Bustillo and Maury’s previous body-horror film Inside. Dropping the relentless gore, the filmmaking duo seem to be channelling the wicked energy and fantastical charm of Guillermo Del Toro’s mesmerising Pan’s Labyrinth or even Bayona’s El Orfanato from 2007. Unlike these inevitable influences, the pair have failed to balance visual decadence with a compelling story.

Despite some moments of chilling beauty, Livid lacks is a somewhat benign enterprise, and never builds enough momentum to keep viewers compelled, let alone terrified.

★★☆☆☆☆
IMDb it.

PODCAST no.2: Week 31 / Films #188-194

Ernest Goes to Podcast

Popping down the quill and warming up the vocal chords, this is my second weekly round-up podcast for your ear’s delectation. Seven reviews, movie clips, and  thirty minutes of me talking. Why wouldn’t you want that?

Subscribe to the iTunes podcast HERE, or listen in to the Soundcloud hosting episode below. I may be biased, but I’d say that it is at the very least listenable.

#189: Onibaba (1964)

Way down in the hole

Minimal, abstract, allegorical and difficult to endure. Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba is all of these things, but somehow manages to pull a trump card and leaving you horrified. In a good way.

Set sometime in the 16th century, a quarrel between rival emperors has torn feudal Japan apart. Rather than focus on the brutalities from the front line, Shinado presents the vicarious effects that war can have in a small, otherwise placid rural setting. While they wait for their man Kichi to return from civil war, a peasantry woman (played by Kaneto Shindo’s own wife, Nobuko Otowa) and her submissive daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have taken desperate measures to survive, murdering any soldiers who wander through their inescapable high grass patch, dumping their bodies into an ancient hole and exchanging the armour for food with local blackmarketeer Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama). The peasantry life is gruelling, but just bearable, until their reprobate  neighbour Hachi (Kei Sato) comes home from the battlefield, torn from his armoury and bearing bad news. Hachi’s primitive, surprisingly contagious sexual desire threatens to disrupt the two women’s fragile interdependence, leading the older woman desperately attempting to keep balance of the constant corruption. I won’t spoil the reason for the mask, but safe to say it’s pretty important.

Onibaba is a slow, meditative film, and certainly not for everyone. The epitome of showing-over-telling filmmaking, the first hour presents a day in the life of our unnamed female protagonists going about their painstaking daily routine. Shot so lusciously in crisp black and white by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, we see them fetching water, slovenly tucking to to bowls of rice, catching livestock like prey and left restless and perspiring throughout the humid night. Shindo doesn’t just want to explain the tough, barbaric rituals of this world, he almost wants us to experience it first hand through a beautiful, cinematically raw aesthetic.

That’s not to say that Onibaba is minimalist and visceral throughout, with Shindo tying it all together with a great deal of  social commentary. To some degree, the film explores contemplative issues such as women’s role in Japanese society, the omniscient suppression of religion, inescapable sexual politics and the impact of war on society. Most interestingly, the film takes a undermining stance on capitalism, with the hidden pit at the centre of the field, fed by the strong and devouring the weak, serving as a poetic allegory. As a committed communist filmmaker (the film was produced by his polticially independent production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai), Shindo’s attack on callous dog-eat-dog mentality and survival of the fittest, quickest and greediest once again heightens the sense of unease and terror prescribed to Onibaba.

As the cherry on a particularly unsettling cake, the soundtrack from Hikaru Hayashi is memorable and merciless. A free jazz collage of primal drums, vociferous saxophones and moody chanting bleakly swarming through this amoral setting like a gust of tumultuous wind. Onibaba is an austere portrayal of lust, jealousy and raw hunger.

The result will certainly be a turn-off for some, but if you let it in, Onibaba is an entrancing and horrifyingly stark portrayal of the human psyche.

★★★★★☆
IMDb it.