Film Review: Compliance


Compliance is just about one of the most abhorrent films I’ve ever seen.

In 2007, there were 70 exceptional cases were reported across to the American Police department. While they all had their own, unsettling idiosyncrasies, they were all loosely connected by subterfuge and prank calls. This is no Steve Penk or The Jerky Boys, but real vile cases of human maltreatment.

It’s an extraordinary topic that is crying out to be debunked in an explorative, Errol Morris style documentary. Compliance isn’t that film.

Writer/director Craig Zobel decides to focus this seeming pandemic on one exceptional example, based on a mélange of different real cases to make one mega-horrific fictional one. It’s just another regular day at an Ohio fast food chain, until a meticulous prank caller convinces the restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) that one of her employees Becky, Gossip Girl‘s Dreama Walker, is being accused of stealing from a customer. What proceeds is a manipulating interrogation, where everyone idly agrees to whatever increasingly insane task the caller will have them do. Why? Without proving any of his credentials, the prank caller deceives everyone involved into believing that he is a police officer, and thus establishing his unobjectionable authority. By Compliance‘s nasty end, Becky is naked, humiliated, and sexually violated, and the audience are accomplices; watching on through guarded eyes and clenched fists.

Even though the story comes from a bastardised real place, Zobel really pushes the boundaries of plausibility. Not in a “stranger than fiction” way, but rather because the characterisation, narrative, and Zobel’s misguided compulsion to tell it, is shallow. The ninety minute running time lingers for what feels like days and, whilst the repetitious sequences are relatively tame and implicit, it all feels incredibly ugly and exploitative; as if Zobel is forcing the audience to watch a security camera.

At it’s most tenuous, one could wring-out a slapdash argument that the film is forcing the audience to look at this injustice like a reflexive meta-narrative, like Haneke’s Funny Games. Unlike the unflinchingly austere Austrian, Zobel lacks directorial flare and balls to actually critique or comment on the true events and populace servility to the law.

Even when the film was snapped up at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it was met with notoriety, with walkouts and boos. Later, in a public Q&A, Zobel plainly admitted that the film is misogynistic. But for what reason? Zobel is trying to be forthright and polemical with Compliance, but simply projecting these images isn’t enough to warrant a political license. An artless, meaningless, pseudo-video nasty that doesn’t earn the discomfort it will leave you with.

☆☆☆☆☆ (0 stars)

#278: Another Earth (2011)

Fox Searchlight were quick to nab Another Earth after it won a host of awards at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The debut film feature from Mike Cahill, who co-wrote the script with his leading lady Brit Marling, it’s the common story of ‘what if?’. With a distant planet encroaching our own, it is less apocalyptic than Lars von Trier’s visually magnificent depression drama Melancholia, but similarly gruelling and morose.

With it’s name and wooly premise, Another Earth is somewhat of a sci-fi maguffin movie, using the extra-terrestial ideas to tell a human tale of isolation and unlikely love.

The night a new planet appears in the night sky, a gifted young physicist student Rhoda (Brit Marling) drunkenly crashes her car into a family of three, with a mother and her young son killed. The only surviving is the lonesome dad, John (William Mapother), who gets off easy by being put into a coma. Four years after that fatal night, Rhoda is freed from prison, and wanders the street feeling depressed and lifeless. Lacking the courage to admit her crime to the now alive, and understandably tetchy John (who fails to recognise her for a huge chunk of the film), Rhoda turns into his housemaid and the pair form an unlikely, clandestine bond.

With the planet sinking deeper into our orbit, scientists soon realise that it is identical inevery way to our own: it’s a mirror Earth. Rhoda enters a competition in the hope of winning a seat on a Spaceship that is going to fly to the 2nd Earth so that she can escape the misery of her life and start a new one, but what about the love that’s right there in front of her?

Not only sharing similar themes as Tarkovskiy’s 1972 movie Solaris, Cahill embodies the same filming techniques as the Russian auteur, with intricate focus and close ups mirrored with expansive landscapes. It’s a style that is remarkably assured for a relatively newbie, and proves that, perhaps if he isn’t bogged down with scriptwriting, good prove to be something of a David Fincher-esque figure.

The big problem Another Earth arises when it forgets about the other Earth entirely. A problem of tone, tension about metaphysics and a parralel universe builds for thirty minutes, only for Cahill and Marling to push Earth 2 into the background (much like the omniscient moon it is eclipsing), and focus on the complex, subtly Freudian relationship between Rhoda and the man she made a widower, John, only to pull back the science themes as a nice way to tie up the film’s end. Not denying the pair’s acting chops and chemistry but, even to a mere science fiction dilettante like myself, it’s frustrating to see such a drastic shift in tone and the promising, if a little derivative premise go on abused. Topping it all off, the final gotcha! moment is a fanciful cheapshot after the heavy-hearted movie we’ve had to endure.

With artistic, slightly sporadic direction, and two very good central performances from the ever-underappreciated Mapother and ‘star in the making’ Marling, Another Earth is an ambitious American indie that just manages to strike a chord, even with some major problems.. It’s a little emo, but don’t let that get you down.

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#267: Undertow (2009)

An audience award winner at 2010’s Sundance Film festival, Undertow (Contracorriente, in Spanish) is the feature length directorial debut from Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León. Lusciously shot in Peru’s Cabo Blanco fishing village, it’s a magic realism love triangle fable, tugging a little too hard on your heartstrings.

It’s the story of Miguel (played by Cristian Mercado), a young fisherman living with his heavily pregnant wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). The picture-perfect couple, Miguel leads a second life as the lover to the village’s token, openly gay man, painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona). With the families newest arrival soon approaching, plus a fatal sea accident with ghostly consequences, Miguel goes through turmoil; losing grip on reality as he attempts to live two conflicting lives.

Far from being just another Brokeback Mountain, gay cash-in film, what is most thought-provoking in this sensitive romance drama is the stories’ incongruity to the setting. Although Peru is presented as a small paradise, homosexuality is still regarded as taboo; making Miguel’s struggle with polyamory and piety all the more sympathetic.

Some overtly poetic imagery and excessive use of underwater shooting aside, Undertow lives comfortably in it’s 100 minute running time. The naturalistic, affecting performances from it’s three main players make for a powerful, sea-breezily paced movie.

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PS – If anyone feels  like taking me on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Cabo Blancho I’ll willingly accept. I’m free from the 3rd of always.

#218: The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010)

Remember the sanguine, hopeful and cheery years of youth? Through the bad skin, red hair and rotundly exterior, I recall these penny-sweet times with great fondness. American filmmaker and certified grown-up David Robert Mitchell recalls these times too, only with a bittersweet spin. He’d like to spend ninety minutes in your company mumbling about teen anomie and angst in the jejune flick The Myth of the American Sleepover.

Set in a nonspecific suburban locale around Michigan, with an eerily undeterminable time setting, this quiet little movie seems uncomfortable in its own skin. Like a modern day Lord of the Flies, in the unmitigated absence of adults, a group of awkward teenagers take rank during one summer night, all yearning for that one last-ditched attempt at hedonism before the school term starts.

Just like the first time director, almost all of the cast are total newbies, but at least they are acting their age. They all exhume a refreshing wide-eyedness to the unsympathetically dark mood of the film. Amongst the plethora of characters, we set off with Maggie (Claire Sloma) who, along with ugly duckling friend Beth (Annette DeNoyer), boycotts the thrills of pillow fights and Spice Girl sing-a-longs at a girls-only sleepover to pursue more mature endeavours, i.e. boys. Another girl, Claudia (Amanda Bauer), is the pretty new thing in town who awkwardly outstays her welcome at said sleepover when she is caught chirping someone else’s boyfriend in the basement.

Onto the meaty leading man parts, there’s Scott (Brett Jacobsen), a creepy college junior who’s back in his hometown trying to get lucky with the younger Abbey twins (Jade and Nikita Ramsey, the only would-be stars of the whole picture). Finally, there’s Rob (Marlon Morton) who is left besotted with an older blonde in a supermarket aisle and spends the whole night trying to find the potential love of his life. Throw in an extra handful of ancillary characters, a couple of bottles of cheap booze, a swimming pool, some heightened sexual tension and you’ve pretty much got the movie.

Only you don’t. Aside from a few more baudy elements, on paper, The Myth of the American Sleepover resembles a John Hughes film, or even something as outlandish as the American Pie series. What sets Mitchell’s film apart and, to it’s detriment, is that it takes everything so seriously; with themes of loneliness and apathy threading throughout. In a word, it’s unabatingly emo.

To be fair, this is a pretty confident spectacle for a directing debut. If you know anything about it’s successes over in the States you’ll appreciate how this is the quotidian “Sundance” film I’ve seen all year. A tiresomely indie affair; with a dark colour palette, dodgy pacing, allusions of grandeur, offbeat dialogue and a montage soundtracked by a Beirut song.

It’s a simplistic and empathetic premise, but Mitchell aims for a whimsy lyricism which feels unnecessarily mature and incongruity to his characters. It’s a great shame, Mitchell clearly has the talent to produce something of quality, but this isn’t it. The narcoleptic tone running throughout The Myth of the American Sleepover doesn’t make us want to relive those brilliantly stupid, carefree times of youth, it wants us to embrace boredom and grow up. Not now Mitchell, Ferris Bueller and I are having a day off.

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The Myth of the American Sleepover premieres at the ICA in London and the Showroom Workstation, Sheffield from Friday 31st August, 2012. Pick it up on Region 1 DVD here