Archive for September, 2015

The Green Inferno (dir. Eli Roth)

Posted: September 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

A common theme is beginning to show in Eli Roth’s films.  Inevitable, one class or civilization clashes with another, the former class thinking it’s better than the latter.  The latter class ends teaching the former class a lesson.  In “Cabin Fever”, it was the backwoods rednecks that show the teenaged/twenty-something city folks that looking down on them is not smart when a flesh-eating virus is about.  In the “Hostel” films, ethnocentric Americans are punished for underestimating the eastern Europeans adaptations to post-Soviet Capitalism in the face of squalor.  Now we have “The Green Inferno”, which has a surprisingly nuanced political message, one being missed by a number of critics who underestimate Eli Roth’s intelligence.  People have laughed when I’ve insisted that the “Hostel” films were really savage attacks on American Capitalism and post 9/11 ethnocentrism and American foreign policy, even though Roth is clearly influenced by the highly political exploitation films of the 1970s. Hell, even “Cabin Fever” had a jab at Capitalism with infected water being bottled and sold. A useless and exploitative product such as bottled water spreading the flesh-eating virus was a not-so-subtle, closing credits jab at business.  “The Green Inferno” is about activism, what it can and can’t do, false idols, and ends justifying means.

The films begins with Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s real-life wife), an upper-class college student in NYC whose father (Richard Burgi) is a lawyer for the United Nations.  Justine, like many upper-class young people, feels a need to do something about important issues, and in particular she is concerned with female genital mutilation around the world.  This, along with a mini-crush on the campus activist leader Alejandro (Ariel levy), leads her to meet up with the activist group.  Alejandro wants them to take a trip to the Peruvian Amazon to stop a militia-backed private corporation from destroying tracts of rainforest, and indigenous peoples’ villages to drill for natural gas underneath the ground.  Alejandro’s plan for this is to livestream the company and militia’s activities online to shame them into stopping.  I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler or common sense to say that this activity doesn’t really accomplish that goal, and that’s part of Roth’s point.

We see a few different examples of activism in the film.  Early on, Justine is woken up by a handful of students on the quad who are on a hunger strike to get the school to offer its janitors healthcare.  They have Occupy Wall Street-esque signs and are chanting, and look rather pathetic for being upper-class bourgeois kids who are more likely protesting to look like they care rather than actual giving a shit about the campus janitors.  Despite this, the film tells us that their protest works, indicating that while Roth seemingly views this type of protest as childish, somewhat ignorant, and self-serving, he will concede it occasionally works for some issues.

Roth’s problem, I think, is with so-called hashtag activism.  As the students who have traveled to Peru chain themselves to trees, wear bland masks over their faces (think Anonymous co-opting the Guy Fawkes mask from “V for Vendetta”), they wear shirts proclaiming #saveamazonia, and the whole livestream video to stop Capitalist destruction of nature deal is Roth’s criticism of the types of people on the internet who think creating a hashtag or using public shaming as a tool can affect real change.  In real life, we’ve seen the limits of public shaming. “19 Kids and Counting” can get cancelled, but “Duck Dynasty” makes too much money to face a similar fate. Anthony Weiner can be forced to resign Congress, but not David Vitter.  Volkswagen may face criminal charges for violating emissions standards, but GM merely pays a fine for a product that killed people.  Public shaming as a tool against the powers-that-be only goes so far, and when it’s later revealed *SPOILER* that the protest only served to transfer the contract from one private company to another, and that Alejandro and his Peruvian contract were in on it, Roth is warning of us following charismatic leaders who may just be self-serving assholes pursuing their own gain and agendas. *END SPOILER*

 

After the initial protest, the students are on their way home in a little puddle-jumper of a plane when it malfunctions (likely due to sabotage), and crashes in the jungle.  Many of the passengers die, and the ones who don’t are soon beset upon by a group of the indigenous peoples, who knock them unconscious with drugged blowdarts.  They wake up and are paraded into their village, where we soon find out the tribe is one of manhunting cannibals, who plan on eating the survivors, and possibly do worse.

It’s been a while since a film like this has been made and shown in American cinemas.  While the film is not as disturbing as I was hoping, or as gory, the fact remains that “The Green Inferno” is one of the goriest films to be released in American cinemas in some time.  Sure, the “Evil Dead” remake has gore, but that was often comedic gore.  While “Inferno” does suffer from Roth making some cheap, juvenile jokes here and there (his inability to mix comedy and horror, and tendency to resort to cheap humor, is what made me not like “Cabin Fever” as much as others did), the gore is largely over-the-top in a non-comedic fashion.  Still, we have marijuana playing a major role in the plot, and a female character having absurdly-sound-effects-accompanied diarrhea.  Unlike “Cabin Fever”, the jabs at humor didn’t completely take me out of the film, and I largely felt thankful that Roth was able to get a film like this released in theaters, as most films of this nature have been, for my generation and later, only available to us in the home video market.  Truly violent, exploitative horror films, including films that have influenced this one like “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980), have been absent from cinemas in recent years as Hollywood decides to only give wide releases to PG-13 pieces of shit (“Ouija”, “The Lazarus Effect”) or neutered found footage films (“The Gallows”), with an occasional remake thrown in the mix (“Cabin Fever”, barely a decade old, is getting a remake).  Whatever you may ultimately think of “Inferno”, this is the type of horror film that is either not being made these days, or is being relegated to the forgotten dust bin of history after a silent, VOD release.  Hell, Roth’s next film, “Knock, Knock”, is being released VOD in a just a couple of weeks (“Inferno” was delayed from release a year due to issues with the financier, hence why Roth has two films coming out in the same year after 8 years without a directing credit).  I miss movies like this being a common occurrence, as the horror genre is slowly killed by a young audience who has been weaned on garbage on “The Visit”, the advent of Redbox and Netflix making it unlikely new horror fans will just stumble on the forgotten greats of the horror genre, and Hollywood only allowing the shittiest horror films to get theatrical releases while gems from the indie scene, which used to be where the next great horror films were discovered, get shuffled off to die on VOD after maybe making a small profit.

“Inferno” was filmed with a digital film camera, but not one of the higher ends ones like the Red.  The result is an image that looks cleaner and crisper than the films which inspired it, but it still has an oddly low-budget, non-polished feel that really works to suck you into the world, and feel like anything is possible.  When was the last time you watched a horror film and felt unsafe because you didn’t trust the filmmaker to pull their punches, and felt like the film was willing to show you just about anything?  Roth didn’t exactly deliver a truly disturbing horror film, like a “Martyrs” or a “Cannibal Holocaust”, but for a while, watching the film, you think the film is capable of showing you anything.  The lush, green jungle becomes a character of its own, and you as an audience member feel as trapped as our characters.  If there are any complaints I have with the nuts and bolts of the film, it largely centers on a scene featuring obviously CGI ants (not done well), and some of the acting.  Ariel Levy could have used some help with line delivery and Sky Ferreira, who plays Justine’s roommate, cannot act in the slightest bit, but then again the films that inspired “Inferno” often had less-than-good actors.

*Spoilers Follows*

 

So what is Roth’s message with this film?  We see a pathetic group of bourgeois college students have success with a small protest on campus.  We see a group of activists manipulated by a charismatic leader into taking place in an impotent protest which only serves to line the leaders’ pockets and maybe recruit more people to his cause, which is ultimately only about himself.  Then, we see that the very people that group was trying to save ending up viewing them as enemies and proceeding to kill and eat them, with their saving grace being the very militia and private corporate drilling operation the group were trying to stop.  This isn’t Roth arguing “just bulldoze the natives” as some critics have argued, but rather a more Star-Trek-Prime-Directive, anti-imperialism argument of leaving other people’s alone to develop at their own pace.  As one character puts it, in an obvious jab at the Bush Doctrine, “we can’t just invade every country that behaves in ways we don’t like or agree with…any more.”  Also, if the indigenous peoples view the outsiders as a threat, their actions, while horrific, make a bit more sense.  Much as American intervention and drone bombings in the Middle East turn originally West-friendly or at least West-neutral citizens into anti-Western terrorists, sometimes the invading peoples, even if their motives are prima facie good, do more harm by intervening than if they had just left well enough alone.  That’s not even taking into account the peoples who don’t have good intentions, as the militias and private corporation (and by extension the Peruvian government) don’t in this film.

When Justine is eventually saved, she sacrifices the truth by lying and saying that the tribe helped her, and that the real enemy is the company and the militia.  Knowing that nothing can save her friends, it is a greater good to stop the exploitation of nature and destruction of native peoples’ land for Western imperialist profits, which causes massive harm globally every day, than to tell the truth about this one little tribe in Peru, who causes great harm to herself and her friends but is otherwise contained.  Justine lies for the greater good, even if it’s uncomfortable.  Compare this with Alejandro, who subscribes to Horseshoe Theory (that two extreme opposing ideologies are not that different, and closer to each other than to the center), is a 9/11 Truther, and justifies his nefarious actions.  The film is obviously on Justine’s side, about the greater fight being worth more than her individual struggle, and that being saved by the militia does not make them the “good guys” regardless of what the tribe did to her.  The critics who have seen this film seem to think the film is taking Alejandro’s position, but it is obviously siding with Justine.  Justine’s friends suffer because they were ignorant or ignored risks, and didn’t know what they were getting into. Roth is arguing against activists who have only a shallow understanding of what they’re talking about.  However, Roth does allow that those types of people can affect small changes, as the campus protestors show us.  Justine is someone who is no longer ignorant, as seen the different levels of horror, and makes a cold and calculated decision about how she can best effect change for the greater good.  She puts her own personal struggle secondary to the global struggle.

The film ends with a shot of Alejandro’s face on a t-shirt, stylized art work which calls to mind images of Che Guevara.  Whether Roth is making a comment about Che as a false idol, or for the appropriation of his image by young people who know nothing about him I couldn’t say, but it’s a powerful image to end on (though there’s a mid-credit sequence, so technically it doesn’t end there, but you get the point).

*SPOILERS END*

I realize I haven’t even touched on the implicit animal rights message of the film, which differs from films like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Cannibal Ferox” which featured real animals really killed on screen, but the connection of human meat to animal meat (the cannibals in the film also raise livestock to eat, showing their entire diet is not just eating the Other) is made clear in montages of meat preparation and such.  One character, forced to eat human meat, mentions that she’s vegan, also showcasing that sometimes morality and ethics are a privilege of the bourgeoisie.  After all, if you’re starving, you can’t afford to not eat certain foods, can you.  I guess Roth is just mad at limousine liberals and champagne socialists who think they’re effecting change through the use of an iPhone or shopping for organic produce at Whole Foods.

“The Green Inferno” wasn’t the disturbing film I wanted it to be, and in a year that gave us “It Follows” it’s not even the best horror film released in theaters this year, but it is a welcome breath of fresh air, and a highly enjoyable and message-packed horror film that recalls the glory days of 70s and 80s horror cinema.  I kind of loved it, despite its flaws, and I hope it lets audiences know that we don’t have to settle for the shit Hollywood tells us is horror nowadays. A-

The Scorch Trials (dir. Wes Ball)

Posted: September 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Scorch Trials” is tasked with building on the mythology that was shoehorned into the last 10 minutes of “The Maze Runner”.  That mythology is not very original, involving some sort of apocalyptic event making the world semi-inhabitable and releasing a virus that turns people into zombies.  This is basically “28 Days Later” meets “Mad Max”, but for teens.  For some reason, a large number (but not all) of kids and teens are immune to the zombie disease, and a really poorly named government agency (World Catastrophe Killzone Department, which is called WCKD and hopefully the bureaucrat who came up with that was killed by that zombie virus) seems to be testing these kids for…some reason…by putting them in isolated areas that have mazes near them.  This new film takes place after the kids have broken out of their maze and are brought to a facility that is supposedly run by insurgents fighting against WCKD but are actually WCKD.

“The Maze Runner” was a decent little film, and “The Scorch Trials” is similarly decent.  The mythology is not original, the characters are paper thin, and the holes in logic are plentiful, but individual scenes work enough to make the film an enjoyable piece of unoriginal nonsense.  Our main character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), finds out fairly quickly that their “saviors” are just WCKD and they plan to harvest the teens in an attempt to find a cure for the zombie virus.  WCKD seems to have a just goal, as they seem to be a mix of doctor and military officials who have the goal of curing this virus and saving humanity (at least saving them from the virus, the world becoming less inhabitable they don’t seem to even want to try and take on), but their methods are unnecessarily ruthless.  After all, why go around kidnapping kids, putting them in mazes, killing other people, and harvesting kids.  A lot of this is completely unnecessary.  They could just force the kids to undergo some basic, barely invasive blood tests and fluid extractions (a brain enzyme, or something) under penalty of prison.  That’s it.  They don’t need to keep playing these elaborate charades and lies, especially because WCKD is a fairly inept organization.  Why put the teens in cells if you’re going to make human-sized openings to vents that are capable of supporting the weight of multiple teen boys comfortably, thus making your prison the most easily escapable in recent film history?  What good is having a huge military apparatus in nifty body armor (with their acronym on the arm, because you might confuse them for ANOTHER heavily armored organization existing in this somewhat post-apocalyptic world) if they can’t successfully subdue a few teens, only one of whom is armed at the time of the prison break?

The film has many gaps in logic, but not having read the source novels, I don’t know which are the fault of the film itself and which are inherited from the books.  If the zombies are just infected persons, why don’t more succumb to the harsh elements of the desert outsides, which are called “The Scorch”.  If there is land up in the mountains that are more inhabitable, why does ANYONE live in the desert?  Why aren’t WCKDs bases built in this much more inhabitable area?  Why did sand make a desert out of San Francisco, but roads just outside of the city are still visible and drivable?  How is it that enough non-infected adults are able to live outside of a WCKD base, to the entext that they set up shanty towns, marketplaces, and emo/goth raves?  How are they making alcoholic beverages is water is scarce?  Where are they getting the water?  This film is full of questions that only go to show how poorly thought out the world is.

So if we have a story based on mythology that is tenuously put together, and two-dimensional characters, why bother to see this film?  Well, it has its moments. Giancarlo Esposito seems to have fun as a desert Capitalist who wants a better life for himself and his adopted daughter (Rosa Salazar).  There’s a scene in the concrete tunnels below the city that features some cool vine-infested CGI zombies that are genuinely creepy and miles better than the PG-13 CGI zombies of “World War Z”. The CGI shots of the ruined city are blended much better than similar establishing CGI shots of recent big budget films.  A scene in an inexplicable rave with heavily made up teens (how does one find mascara and eyeliner in the apocalypse?) makes good use of slow motion and claustrophobic tight shots.

“The Scorch Trials” cannot be called a good movie by any reasonable rubric, but it’s fun and silly and it looks good.  It’s perhaps 20 minutes too long, and it’s of slightly lower quality than “The Maze Runner”, but it’s a fun little film, and finding the hundreds of logical holes in the premise ends up being a fun secondary game to play while watching. C+

It seems like lately only the shittiest horror movies (“The Gallows”, “The Visit”, “Ouija”, “The Lazarus Effect”) get theatrical releases, while the good horror films are relegated to Video-On-Demand (VOD) and maybe a token theatrical release in NYC and LA.  This is the opposite of how it used to be. When I was growing up the good horror films got theatrical releases, and the bad ones went direct-to-video or even direct-to-HBO or other to cable networks.

The conditions of the horror genre are such that a horror film can often be made very cheaply.  You don’t need stars because, well, the genre is the star. Big budget special effects are often antithetical to what makes a good horror film, so a lack of money can often inspire more creativity and a better film.  Also, the genre has a built in audience, so that these films, regardless of quality, almost always turn a profit.  This is why we got a glut of horror films in the 70s and 80s.  Unfortunately, the film industry had changed.  Studios don’t want mid-level hits any more.  A film that cost $5 million or less to make and grosses $30-$40 million used to be pretty standard; a not very risky investment that turns a healthy, though not spectacular, return on that investment.  Nowadays, studios are only interested in films that will make the most money from the most people.  You see tons of big budget franchise films, to the point that superhero fatigue is finally settling in.  You see expensive animated family films that make millions more in toys and product tie-ins than they do in box office receipts. Low budget films and mid-budget films are often times not worth the cost to a studio for prints and advertising because it won’t move the needle on their quarterly profits which, as corporations, they are focused on for their shareholders.  A $100 million film that grosses $600 million, is rated PG-13, and appeals to men, women, young, and old is a safer business move than an R-rated horror film that appeals primarily, nowadays, to people older than 30.

If you see a mid-level priced film, and it’s horror, chances are it is PG-13 because, well, the R rating cuts off a large chunk of the teenaged movie-going audience. PG-13 means more money.  Also, the teen audience doesn’t really want to be ‘”scared” or “disturbed”.  They want to be startled.  They want a safe, easy, lazy jump scare. Gore, tension, and suspense are not want they’re paying for.  They want a quiet moment, followed by a semi-unexpected loud moment, followed by a giggly release. They’re fucking philistines.  When an R-rated horror film DOES get a theatrical release, it is often a neutered piece of dreck that may have some points in its category (this year’s “Unfriended”), but ultimately makes money by ratcheting up the jump scares and appealing mainly to younger audiences who don’t know the first thing about what makes a good horror film (“Sinister 2”, “The Gallows”).

So where are the good horror films going?  Are they simply not being made? Of course not.  The problem is, if they are made, they are more likely to be forgotten now than they were before.  In the old days, which I’ll call anything before 2005 or so, a good, non-studio horror film was made independently, entered into film festivals, and maybe picked up by a studio and released in theaters.  The theatrical release may or may not have done well, but it served as an advertisement for the later video/DVD release.  The under 17s who couldn’t get someone to take them to the film or sneak in themselves would see it, as would people on the fence about shelling money to see a horror film in theaters (most horror films are not good, and I say that as a huge fan of the genre) and the film would gain its fanbase and its place in the collective knowledge of horror fandom.  Now, thanks to a combination of studios not wanting to release indie horror movies in wide or semi-wide theatrical engagements for money reasons (aside from this week’s “The Green Inferno”, you might have to go back to “You’re Next” for a similar wide theatrical release of an indie horror movie, if we’re discounting Blumhouse films like “The Lords of Salem” and “The Gift”), and the bottom falling out of the home video market as more people pile onto to streaming versus physical media, horror distributors tend to smaller companies that buy horror films cheaply and, not having the muscle to put indie films in major chain theaters the way, say, Lionsgate had to put “Saw” and “Hostel” in theaters in the early 2000s, put the films in a few token theaters and then stream them through cable and internet VOD services.  This usually allows that small horror film to make a reasonable profit without the costs of making a bunch of digital prints and shipping them across the country, and doesn’t require the large marketing campaign that a theatrical release entails, with posters and standees and TV commercials and the like.

There are a few problems I see with this problem of good, intelligent, well-made, indie horror movies largely only existing for the VOD market. The first is a practical one.  The moment a film is released VOD, it ends up on the torrent sites.  If your film is available VOD, it’s available for free illegally on the internet.  Horror fans tend to skew young and tech savvy, and eventually the number of fans willing to download a film for free illegally will outnumber the amount of fans willing to pay to download or stream it legally.  The profit margins will drop out of this very fast, and as a result fewer horror films will find distribution because there will be no money in it.  Second, the stigma of VOD exists because it has inherited the stigma of direct-to-video.  As soon as VHS and Betamax hit stores, we had a two tiered system of films that went beyond the A-movie and B-movie double feature marquees of old. Direct-to-video was for films of a lower quality that weren’t good enough, quality-wise, to get theatrical releases.  Sure, this wasn’t always true, but it was true more often than not.  VOD does not operate the same way, and neither does the theatrical film system. Remember, films used to stick around in theaters for months, and they wouldn’t hit home video until 6 months after their theatrical release, and they wouldn’t be available to buy for a YEAR after theatrical release. Now, a film might be in theaters 4 weeks if it’s lucky and it’s on Blu-Ray and OnDemand within 2-3 months.  If a film isn’t a big thing that appeals to a large audience, the film is barely in theaters anyway.  So, if a film is aiming at a smaller, niche audience, why bother with a week or two anyway?  VOD is not for lower quality films anymore, it’s for films that may often be of high quality, but appeal to a smaller audience.  Horror fans, TRUE horror fans, are a niche audience.

Here’s the thing.  It used to be the true fans that dictated which horror films were successful.  They came out opening weekend, they told their fence-riding horror fans which ones were good even for non-horror-junkies, and the film was in theaters long enough to let a fanbase discover it.  Remember “Scream”?  It opened in December of 1996 to pitiful results, but it stuck around in theaters until almost April of 1997 and grossed over $100 million dollars.  Horror films weren’t necessarily making $100 totals at the box office, but their success used to follow a similar fashion: hardcores come out, word of mouth spreads, monetary success comes after many weeks in theaters, and popularity explodes months later on video.   Now? It’s the plebeians who decide which horror films get theatrical releases, because they are a larger group, which means they’re worth more money.  We’re getting a “Ouija 2” because of these people.  So the theatrical release-as-higher-quality metric no longer exists.

The other major problem with VOD is that if a good horror film, or a REALLY good horror film, or a GREAT horror film happens to be released through this medium, it’s more likely to be forgotten.  Most film critics don’t review VOD releases, and entertainment reporters don’t write articles about them, except maybe a blurb when it’s still on the festival circuit.  Unless you happen to read a horror-specific news website like a Bloody-Disgusting, you’re unlikely to hear about these films at all, much less actually watch one, unless you’re bored at 3AM scrolling through a list of new VOD releases.  I mean, look at me: I am a hardcore horror nerd with a degree in Film Studies, and I barely know what new horror films have been released VOD in the past few months.  If someone with my level of love of horror hasn’t heard of most of these films, what chance is there that a casual fan will?  If films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Hellraiser” were made today, they would be dumped on VOD and forgotten about.  Right now there’s a good chance that a great horror film, one that deserves to be a part of the cultural zeitgeist and to be studied in film classes and passed on through generations of horror films, has been forgotten.  That saddens me to no end.

This year a great horror film was released.  It was called “It Follows”.  This film was originally supposed to only be released on VOD and forgotten, but it got great reviews on the festival circuit and did good numbers in a very small number of theaters, and had a last minute semi-wide theatrical run.  True horror fans, and film critics, loved it.  You know who didn’t love it? The morons who think “The Gallows” is a good movie. The people who think “Sinister” was a good example of the horror genre.  Today’s horror fans have worse taste because they’re so used to be exposed to crap that when they’re exposed to a great horror film, they confuse it for crap because they don’t know what great horror is.  These are the types of people who have HEARD OF all of the great horror films, going back maybe as far as “The Exorcist”, but have ACTUALLY SEEN relatively few of them.  To them, a “classic” horror film might be some of the PG-13 garbage that flooded theaters in the late 90s and early 2000s like the American “Grudge” and “Ring” remakes, and by growing up with crap as their childhood nostalgia, crap has become their benchmark for good.  Sure, the 80s had a lot of crappy slasher films, but it was also the decade of Carpenter’s “The Thing”, Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and others.  That generation, and the one immediately following it, knew the good, the mediocre, and the bad.  The current crop of horror “fans” know only jump scares or gore as two categories of horror films.

I am sad that good horror films, from this point on, will likely be forgotten or not made at all.   It’s a travesty that for a great horror film to “earn” a wide theatrical release, it needs to defy all odds to get universal critical acclaim and made massive amounts of limited release money like “It Follows”, but garbage gets a free pass as long as it’s either PG-13 or Jason Blum decided to produce it (not a particular slight on Blum, who has produced a number of good horror films as well as garbage).  I am sad that the economics of the film industry have changed to the point that indie films of any genre can barely escape the pull of the black hole that is Video OnDemand.  I am sad people flock to crap, and that at some point soon it won’t even be their choice, because the only films that can get a theatrical release ARE crap.

The horror genre is dying, and the existence of all other good films may follow in its wake. But don’t worry.  “Fast & Furious 10”, “Minions vs Frozen” and “The Avengers & Justice League vs Jurassic World” will be coming to a theater near you.

The Visit (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Posted: September 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Visit” is one of the most arrogant films I can remember seeing.  Naturally, it comes from M. Night Shyamalan.  The film is arrogant in that it gives us a twist ending so obvious that it is actually insulting that Night thought it actually come as a twist to anyone.  Since the twist is so obvious, it also means that the vast majority of the film is spent with the film spinning its wheels.  Oh sure, the film thinks it’s building suspense, but Night clearly doesn’t know the difference between building suspense and merely giving clues to a twist we figured out 18 minutes into the film.

It’s very obvious what Night is doing with this film, and in case it wasn’t, he hammers his point home at the end by literally having a character speak his intended message directly in dialogue.  The message Night wants to tell us is “don’t hold on to anger”. Apparently the reason we’re not supposed to hold on to anger, even if the anger is justified (dad leaves his family for a bimbo he met at Starbucks, for example) is because you never know when the person you’re angry at might be murdered with a hammer.  Okay.  But really, what Night is trying to say is that he forgives us, the audience, for disliking his last few films. Oh, how big of you, Night. Your powers of forgiveness are inspiring to us all.

The main character of this film is Becca, who is played well by Olivia DeJonge. In fact, all of the actors in this film are quite good, and not at all at fault for what is wrong with the film.  Becca is a wannabe filmmaker, and Night largely makes the as much of a pretentious prick as he is.  We get it, Night.  You’re trying to tell all of the audience members who claimed you were a bad director that you actually know something about the language of cinema.  Oh, you know what mise en scene is. You have a character describe a type of shot that you use in you movies a lot.  What Night seems to be forgetting is that most of his critics don’t think he’s a bad director.  They think he’s a bad screenwriter.  While I have issues with “The Visit” in that it has the same problem many found footage/faux-documentary films have, in that there are scenes where it makes no sense that the characters are continuing to film, there are scenes that are well shot, and some moments in the third act work very well.  “The Visit” isn’t a film that made angry based on its direction, it made me angry because Night spends most of the movie screaming “I forgive you for not liking my films, and here’s a film that does the things you want me to do.”  Yes, “The Visit” is much closer to “The Sixth Sense” through “The Village” Night, and not the even-worse dreck he made after, like the execrable “Lady in the Water”.  Night obviously views himself as giving the audience a gift by returning to the films he made earlier in his career, apparently thinking that his audience abandoned him for trying things new (like making an R-rated movie with “The Happening” or adapting other works like “The Last Airbender”).  That’s not why your audience abandoned you, Night.  They left because your films became twist-centric exercises in idiocy, then dissolved into navel-gazing masturbatory exercises “Lady in the Water”, and then just went off the deep end.  The talented filmmaker who made “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” bought into his own hype, and self-destructed.

“The Visit” had some things going for it.  The concept of children going to visit their estranged grandparents, who then act weird, is a decent clothesline with which to hang a narrative.  The film ended up cast very well, to the point where characters who are supposed to be related to each other actually LOOK like they could be brother and sister.  Our other main character, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) looks like he’s actually Becca’s brother.  You forget how rare it is for film sibling to look like they’re related (or parent and child relations, etc) because you’re not reminded until you see a film where people who are supposed to be related are actually plausibly blood related.  That’s the only good thing I can say about Tyler, who is an obnoxious, rapper-wannabe 13-year-old and completely unlikable.  This isn’t the actors fault. When one character in the film tells him “I never liked you”, as an audience we have to accept that we didn’t either.  Becca, when not being a mouthpiece of Night’s dialogue proving he knows things about film, at least has moments where she seems like a very intelligent and soulful girl who has been temporarily stunted and hurt by recent life events. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) is very believable as a former wild child and party girl who never quite outgrew her character flaws despite becoming a good mother to two kids.

The kids take the train and meet up with their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie).  At first things go well, and then they start acting weird.  How weird? Well, about as weird and as normal as the screenplay requires them to be.  While the characters always remain realistically “crazy”, given what we figure out about them and the film admits to 90 minutes after we’ve figured it out, the screenplay pretty much lets them fluctuate between normal-acting and crazy, and differing levels of crazy, whenever it feels like it.  I don’t doubt that some mental illness works like that, but in the film it just feels like Night had their characters act however they needed to act for the plot to work, and not according to any organic purposes.

There’s not much else to say plot-wise, except that there are many opportunities for the kids to take it among themselves to get out of harm’s way, once they figure out what’s going on, but they refuse to do so for…reasons, I guess.  I am aware that they are at a house in the middle of nowhere, but if the danger is old, feeble people, you can still run til you reach a passing car, or you get into town, or you can hide in the abundant woods.  Hell, there’s a scene where Tyler literally stands frozen, for no reason, when he could easily take some sort of action.  I don’t care if the film gives him a useless germ phobia just to lead up to a gross out gag in that scene, it is unbelievable that he would stand still like that, 13-years-old or not.

Permeated through the film are small, attempting-to-be-sly in-jokes about how the genre, and film itself, is constructed.  They’re not that clever, and especially annoying when delivered from the mouth of a 15-year-old girl who acts like she’s a film expert because she’s watch a few Youtube tutorials on filmmaking.  Night, regardless of his stupid “message” at the end, obviously still harbors some anger at the audience that abandoned and insulted him.  The film comes off as a passive-aggressive person fake laughing his way through a fake apology, and then patting himself on the back for being the bigger person and not holding a grudge.

A better film would have ditched the idea of a twist, revealed what was going on early to the audience BUT NOT THE CHILDREN, and let tension build on what the audience knows and the characters do not.  You see Night, I may not have gone to film school, but I do have a degree in Film Studies, and that is what Hitchcock, a better director than you will ever be, would have done.  When you frame your film as a mystery, and the mystery is easily solvable, you don’t build tension, you just waste time.

There are enough good elements in the film to say it’s not a bad movie.  The good movie inside of this movie is just trapped in a basement by its screenwriter.  It’s arrogant, passive-aggressive screenwriter.  Also, the faux-documentary shit, because Night is using it in this manner, is just annoying.  This film could have easily been shot in a traditional manner and been the better for it.  This film is lucky that “The Gallows” came out earlier, saving it from being the worst found footage film of the year.

So I like the acting, I like the casting, I like the basic set-up for the film, I like some of the directing in the very last act (if we set aside found footage issues).  Everything else is so permeated by the director’s presence that it is salted Earth.  I can’t think of a film I’ve seen recently where the director’s presence is so pronounced.  I don’t mean films where the style is so tied to the director that you know it’s their work.  I mean a film where you are so distracted by the director inserting himself (figuratively) into every shot that you can barely focus on anything else.

Hey, at least it’s not as bad as “Lady in the Water”. C-

War Room (dir. Alex Kendrick)

Posted: September 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish a genuine Christian film from a parody of a Christian film.  Take one scene in “War Room”, the latest film from Christian filmmaking superstars Alex and Stephen Kendrick.  Our main character, Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) walks around her empty kitchen yelling at the Devil.  Apparently, she blames the Devil for the trouble in her marriage.  Why an evil supernatural being who has powers rivaling the omnipotent creator of the universe would be concerned with the marriage of a single, upper-middle-class married couple the film makes no attempt to explain.  Apparently, between the civil war in Syria and concentration camps in North Korea, the Devil likes to take a break and ruin individual marriages in the United States for fun.  So yes, Elizabeth walks around her empty kitchen, as dramatic music plays, and she yells at the Devil to get out of her house, much in the way a priest in an exorcism movie would yell at the Devil to leave a little girl’s body.  Then, Elizabeth walks out onto her front porch and continues to yell at the Devil.  Surprisingly, none of her neighbors call the cops or mental health authorities for her yelling into the neighborhood that “my joy comes from Jesus.”  Then she goes back into her house, only to IMMEDIATELY COME BACK OUT and yells at the Devil that she is “sick of you stealing my joy.”  Honestly, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

The Kendrick Brothers have always made films that are a bit goofy. In “Facing The Giants” they seem to argue that God decides high school football games.  In “Fireproof”, Kirk Cameron smashed his computer with a baseball bat because he couldn’t handle his porn addiction.  “War Room” is something else, though.  The plot of this one involves the marriage of Elizabeth and her husband Tony (T.C. Stallings, whose eyebrows make him look constantly angry).  The marriage is on the rocks because Tony is quick to anger, demeaning, and travels for his work as a pharmaceutical rep all the time.  Elizabeth doesn’t know what to do about this, until one day, in her role as a real estate agent, she meets with an old woman named Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie).  Elizabeth is going to be handling the selling of her house, yet despite this professional relationship, Miss Clara asks Elizabeth very personal and invasive questions about Elizabeth’s faith.  Miss Clara is meant to be the hero of this film, but she’s an arch old-black-woman stereotype in the Tyler Perry’s Madea model, and she showcases the worst aspects of a nosy religious person who thinks it’s their business to butt in on other people’s lives.  She also seems to be a but full of herself, despite pride being a sin, and seems to have anointed herself with the holy task of helping women in their marriages.  Her marriage counseling jihad is meant to come across as well meaning and funny in the film, but it actually comes across as downright creepy.

In any case, Miss Clara teaches Elizabeth about her War Room, which is really just her closet. Miss Clara tapes pieces of paper with prayers and Bible quotes on the wall of her closet, goes in there, and prays that things will happen.  She tells Elizabeth that she cannot solver her marriage problems herself, and instead needs to get into her closet and pray because only God can solve her problems.  As much as I’d love it if evangelical Christians went into the closet, this is a rather shitty message for a film to deliver.  Rather than communicate with your spouse, or go to marriage counseling, the film argues that the solution to problems with your asshole, absentee husband is to talk to yourself in your closet and hope things works out and your husband is hit with a massive dose of empathy for you.  Then again, this is also a film that asks women to “submit” to their husbands, and even includes a joke about kneeling before their husbands so that God can take a swing at them (the husbands).  Look, I know Christians don’t care that numerous scientific studies have been conducted on prayer, and that these double-blind, empirical research studies show that prayer has no effect beyond a mild placebo effect on those who know they are being prayed for.  Christians will always assume that when they talk to God, that their supernatural, omnipotent overlord is actually hearing them, and they aren’t really just talking to themselves.  Fine.  But there’s a bigger lack of logic when it comes to prayer in general, as well as in the film.  If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he knows everything that is going to happen, and has planned it out.  In that sense, you cannot CHANGE GOD’S MIND by talking to him. No amount of praying will change the course that he has laid out.  So, either God just wants to hear you beg and ask him for something, like a narcissistic mafia don, or your prayers do nothing even IF you think God exists.  If you have the power to alter God’s plans, and make a being of infinite wisdom CHANGE HIS MIND, then that implies you have a better idea for what is supposed to happen then God, which makes you prideful on the level of Lucifer questioning God’s judgment, and he ended up becoming the Devil and trying to break up your marriage, so…yeah.

Okay, but the issue with how stupid the concept of prayer is belongs more to Christianity as a faith than just “War Room” in particular.  Still, the fact that the film argues that you should, in essence, do NOTHING when your spouse is treating you poorly; not communicate or ask for help from a professional or stand up for yourself, and instead be a passive tool to events as they would play out, is reprehensible in the sense that we can extrapolate it outside of the small context of a single marriage and bring it to the larger world.  After all, isn’t this what Christians in American government say about Climate Change?  That only God will decide when the world ends, so why do anything about it?  This “Let Go And Let God” philosophy is the closest thing that makes the silly “War Room” morally reprehensible.

And yes, this film is silly.  If I were to tell you that the film’s climax largely takes place during a double-dutch jump rope competition, would you think I was making it up?  Well, I’m not. Between this and Kirk Cameron doing the worm in slow motion in “Saving Christmas” I have to wonder what it is with Christians and finales based in dance moves.  Still, the film did show me something I’ve never seen before, which is a scene taking place at a competitive double-dutch jump rope competition, so I guess that’s something.  That our protagonists’ family only comes in second place is a bit odd.  Apparently God only wanted to reward their faith with 2nd place. Perhaps more time in the closet alone talking to themselves will allow them to get to first place next year.

During once scene in the movie, Elizabeth is asking God to keep her husband from straying from the marriage.  At the time, Tony is having dinner with a female business associate who is very obviously keen on sleeping with Tony.  For some reason, rather than God giving Tony conscience or a change of heart, God gives Tony food poisoning, and Tony is only stopped from cheating due to vomiting.  Teaching someone that their actions are wrong and have consequences is not the same thing as physically blocking them from committing actions they were inclined to commit, but I guess “War Room” doesn’t care about the difference.  Tony doesn’t actually see the errors of his ways until he walks in on Elizabeth’s closet and sees the nice things she’s written about him.  Apparently a selfish asshole can pull a complete 180 merely by seeing that someone wrote a nice thing for them.

But wait, that’s not all.  There’s a scene where Elizabeth and Miss Clara are walking through a parking garage and the LEAST CONVINCING MUGGER IN CINEMA HISTORY jumps in front of them with a switchblade.  He looks like a very clean, late-30s, white guy who doesn’t know what muggers are supposed to look like, and the framing of the shot tries to hide that our main characters would have been able to see this guy much earlier than they do.  Anyway, Miss Clara basically says “the power of Christ compels you” and the mugger runs away without taking anything.  Yeah, if someone tries to mug you, and you refuse to hand over your money and tell that mugger “in Jesus name stop this”, that mugger is probably going to shoot you.  Also, this mugger incident totally does not fit the tone of the film, and the movie comes to an abrupt, hysterical halt for this scene.

Think the film can’t be more silly or inept?  Oh, you are mistaken.  So Tony is a pharmaceutical rep who travels all around the country giving doctors samples of drugs his company produces in the hopes that the doctors will prescribe those drugs more, and the company will make more profits.  Now, Elizabeth and Tony live in a very large, expensive house.  According to statistics I just Google right now, the median salary for a pharmaceutical rep is $121,000 a year.  For some reason, there’s a subplot in this movie wherein Tony is stealing samples of drugs so that he can sell them on the side.  The income he’s making from these side sales? $19,000.  This makes no sense.  If you make $121,000 a year, have access to a free company car, and get paid travel all around the country, why on Earth would you risk all of that for a measly $19,000, especially when the film tells us Tony gets frequent bonuses and, as the film’s awkward expository dialogue tells us, he is the company’s “top salesman”?  If he’s the top salesman, he probably makes closer to $200,000.  I am left with the conclusion that the Kendricks have no knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry, much like the creators of “God’s Not Dead” had no knowledge of the field of philosophy.  Oh sure, you could simply argue that Tony is an idiot of massive proportions, but then explain how, later in the movie after he’s been justly fired, he says he can get a job at the local community center for “half of what I was making before.”  That means the director of this local community center, which seems to be located in a North Carolina mountain town, pulls in an annual salary of, on the low end, $60,000.  Yeah, the Kendricks know nothing about the profession they placed one of their main characters in.

Tony is fired at first for inflating his numbers, but he later goes to his bosses and admits his theft. His boss then, inexplicably, asks for two days to decide his fate.  My guess is a boss would know on the spot whether he wanted to prosecute Tony or not, but the Kendricks needed to add some suspense to the proceedings, I guess. One wonders how they had the self-restraint to not make it the more biblically significant THREE days. But yeah, obviously they decide not to do anything because Tony is really sorry, and as we all know, Christians believe that any bad behavior in which the person who committed it is REALLY SORRY is sufficiently handled, even if you sexually assault underage relatives (Josh Duggar).

I haven’t even mentioned the running “gag” of Elizabeth having extremely smelly feet, which the film thinks is funny but seems to add to the film’s implicit, religious-based sexism.  As if making Elizabeth submit to her husband and her God doesn’t weaken her as a character enough, the filmmakers also have to give her feet that smell so much that they cause a rank odor that wafts into adjacent rooms and chokes delivery men outside.  An odor that powder does not help, and which causes a husband to place a surgical mask over his nose and mouth before giving his wife a foot massage.  What in the hell?

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, the film is at least better made than “Facing the Giants” or “Fireproof”.  The editing is less choppy, the camera angles are looking for professional, the acting is slightly better (if still either stilted or arch), and it simply doesn’t look as cheap as the other films.  There are some really badly done scenes, like a dream sequence in which Tony imagines a man in a hoodie assaulting his wife, only to find out that the man in the hoodie is HIM!  The scene is shot in a slightly blurry slow motion that makes it look cheesy and makes it unintentionally hilarious.  Never mind the loaded symbolism of a professional black man in a suit fighting his hoodie-wearing alter ego (as if all upstanding black men must fight the ghetto thug inside of them to become a good person…where are Black Lives Matter protests when you need them), the dream sequence shouldn’t have been included.

Another late scene in the film involves Elizabeth showing Miss Clara’s vacated home to two potential buyers, a couple. Unbelievably, the male half of the couple walks into the closet, walks out, and says “Someone’s been praying in here.”  When, understandably, Elizabeth asks how he can tell. The man, revealed to be a pastor, says “It’s just BAKED IN to the place.”  Yeah, because people can tell that prayer has taken place in a room the same way they can tell weed has smoked in a room because of the lingering stink.  *facepalm*

The very ending of the film is some frightening, cult-like shit.  The film ends with Miss Clara in her closet…ahem, WAR ROOM, praying to God to “send her another” young woman, and then the film plays a montage of different people praying around the country as Miss Clara asks God to raise “an army” of the faithful.  Then there are shots of kids praying in school, and a stick shot of the U.S. Capitol building.  So a film that was mainly concerned with small-level prayer activism (saving an individual marriage) now becomes a chest-thumping battle cry for Christianity to take over public schools and the U.S. government?  It’s a freaky ending, especially since it seemingly contradicts the film’s reasons for there being a “War Room” at all.  The film quotes the Bible with Matthew 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” On its face, the quote seems to imply that prayer should be a secret thing done alone, and yet the film wants kids to openly pray in a classroom?  Make up your mind, Christians.

Ultimately, I can’t say “War Room” is as morally reprehensible as the worst films of the Christian genre, like “God’s Not Dead”, and it has better production values than a “Saving Christmas” or a “Last Ounce of Courage”.  The film is silly to no end, and lacks the polish of a “Do You Believe?” or “The Christmas Candle”, so can’t be ranked among the “best” of this thus-far horrendous genre.  “War Room” is simply an intellectually lacking, unintentionally hilarious pile of crap. D.

I’m not sure what the point of “American Ultra” is.  It has too much drama for a comedy, too much gory action for a drama, and while it apes the premise of the “The Bourne Identity” and the director of that film’s last name, Liman, for the town in which this film takes place, it’s not a satire.  The beginning of the film feels like an indie relationship drama about two lower-class West Virginia pot heads, and a rather good one and potentially moving one at that.  Our two leads, Jessie Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart, once costarred together in “Adventureland” one of the best films of 2009 and a film you should absolutely see if you haven’t already, and they have remarkable chemistry together.  Despite having some pot, this isn’t a pot comedy the way that “Pineapple Express” was.  I honestly have no idea how exactly to classify this thing, other than that it’s a genre mash-up with a greatly shifting tone that more-or-less works as entertainment but feels like it had grander ambitions which do not at all come across.  It’s also unrealistic and cynical as fuck about how the CIA works.

Eisenberg plays Mike, a loser pothead with an anxiety disorder that causes him panic attacks if he attempts to leave the small town he resides in.  He works at a convenience story and lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), who is very understanding about Mike’s issues. Mike wants to propose to Phoebe but can’t find the right time. This is greatly hindered when a CIA agent (Connie Britton) says some weird words to him, and as people inexplicable try to kill Mike, he suddenly has some really good skills in unarmed combat, found-object combat (for lack of a better term), memory retention, and other skills.  The previews for this film already reveal that Mike was programmed by the CIA to be an agent (or an assassin, or something) and he’s activated when another agent (Topher Grace, playing a smarmy, spineless bureaucrat really well) who wants him eliminated. Why? The film never really gives us an adequate explanation, other than that Grace’s character launched a similar program and wants to eliminate Mike, the one success from the original program, which was launched by Britton’s character.  The original program used people who signed up for it when facing their Third Strike (mandatory minimums are a bitch), whereas Grace’s character is using mental patients.  This has got to be the dumbest government program since “The Men Who Stare at Goats”.  Why would the CIA recruit low level drug offenders and mental patients when I’m sure there are hundreds of Chris Kyle-wannabes who would readily sign themselves away to their country for the chance to be a super-assassin?  I guess maybe the film is making the point that government is big, dumb, and unchecked?  Hell, Grace’s character is able to shut down an entire town, launch a fake media blitz about that town, and coordinate massive military resources and drones, all on a mission he’s gotten no authority to launch and is highly illegal.  Not even Tea Partiers think this badly about the United States government.

What follows is a film that goes from emotional, to silly, to gory, to emotional again, and repeats for about 90 minutes.  Individual scenes work well, but it adds up to a disjointed final product that is so far-fetched and without any conceivable message or purpose that I really don’t know why Max Landis chose to write this movie.  Landis, son of filmmaker John Landis, also wrote the really, really good found-footage supervillain movie “Chronicle” (2012), and in that film he was original and his purpose was clear.  “American Ultra” has a culty sensibility.  It’s weird for the sake of being weird, it seems.  It’s a midnight movie with fairly A-list stars and a polished execution (the director, Nima Nourizadeh, previously directed the found footage teen party film “Project X”, which was a delightfully madcap celebration of excess).  My main complaint is that the makers of this film are capable of doing more, so the film feels original and lazy at the same time, which is something I haven’t felt since Eli Roth’s astoundingly tonally disjointed “Cabin Fever” (2002).

When the film actually wants to be funny, it can be fairly amusing. The early relationship drama works well, and the action is goofy and gory to a pleasing extent. John Leguizamo has a nice but too-short role where he’s clearly having fun, and Topher Grace has a nice turn as a petty asshole.  I just wish the portrayal of the CIA was either more realistic (at least movie-realistic) or even more absurdist and madcap than it is.  I wish the film had a point for existing, even if it were a minor message.  I liked enough of the parts that I wished they formed a more cohesive whole. “American Ultra” feels like an untossed salad. B-.

We’ve all seen tons of films about teenage girls who get involved with older men who aren’t good for them.  Or we’ve seen films about young girls who are sexually curious, and how that leads to dark places for them.  This not a new genre.  There are plenty of bad Lifetime movies about this topic, and even some good real films like “Thirteen” (2003).  What most, if not all, of these films have in common is their moralizing.  Whether the films are preachy after-school specials, whether they involve drugs or rape or pregnancy or other events in a parade of horribles, they all pretty much argue that sex when you’re a young girl (between 13-17) holds nothing good for you.

As more attention is now being placed to how women are portrayed in film, thanks to things like the popularization of the Bechdel Test and other feminist film critiques, the American film industry is beginning to get better at this sort of thing. It was just two years ago that we got “The To-Do List”, a sex-positive female spin on that old genre of the teen sex comedy.  That film was very funny and refreshing.  Now, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” gives us a sex-neutral female spin on the coming of age story.  It’s set in the late 1970s, so it has more in common with female-centered films like ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and  “Ghost World” 2001), films which were contemporaneous but felt period because of their off-kilter tones and production designs, than the coming-of-age films we generally think of.  The film doesn’t break any ground in the nuts and bolts of the story, but the film is handled in such a refreshing way that it feels a lot more original than it is.
Our protagonist is 15-year-old Minnie, played by 23-year-old Bel Powley.  I mention her age for two reasons: Powley delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance that truly feels like a naïve but above-average-intelligence 15-year-old girl, and because she does a very large amount of nudity in the film, and if you don’t know that she’s 23, you may feel really, really bad while watching the film.  The nudity isn’t particularly erotic, and given the context of the film it is not gratuitous, but it’s ever-present.  The nudity, shot in clinical close-ups and matter-of-fact wide shots, function to show us what Minnie thinks of her body.  She’s self-conscious much of time, proud and comfortable at other times, pleased with the effect it can have on men sometimes, not-so-happy other times.  The film is attempting to show us female nudity away from the famous “male gaze”, yet to not drain it completely of its inherent sexuality.  The film is attempting to show us female nudity from the outside, but viewed almost as the person who lives within the body views that body.  It’s a tricky feat, and the director, Marielle Heller (an actress before now, as this film marks her first writing and directing credit) pulls it off.

The plot is, as previously stated, fairly familiar.  Minnie lives with her single mother (Kristin Wiig, in a completely dramatic role) and her younger sister.  Her mother is a latter-day hippie who dumped her previous husband (Christopher Meloni) and now does a moderate amount of drugs and engages in a small amount of free-love.  The mother’s crimes as a parent are not so much the drugs, or the implied sex, but her selfishness.  She’s not negligent, exactly (the family has a decent dwelling, and they don’t seem want for necessities, or even family time in front of the TV), but she’s so focused on herself and acting younger than she is that, well, she’s not even viewing what’s going on with her daughter.  By the end of the film, she’s not an object of scorn so much as one of pity to her daughter.

He rmother’s non-committal boyfriend is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard).  In other films, Monroe would be the older male preying on the young and virginal Minnie.  This film decides to not take things so black and white.  Monroe is clearly in the wrong, and clearly a scumbag, but the film doesn’t make him into a one-dimensional monster.  Monroe is a realistic alcoholic who dreams big dreams about himself, but who no one views all that positively.  He’s a loser, he knows he’s a loser, and when Minnie starts making tentative moves on him, Monroe is at least as much turned on by someone viewing him with rose-colored glasses as he is by sex with a teenager.

So, Minnie and Monroe have a sexual relationship, which is odd as Monroe and Minnie’s mother also have a relationship.  The course of the relationship involves Minnie in a competition with her mother in her head for Monroe’s affections, her insecurities about her body (she thinks that she is fat, she’s not, and that her breasts are too small, of which Monroe never complains), and as to whether Monroe really loves her and finds her attractive.  She records a diary of her life on cassette tapes, and she begins to draw odd, Robert Crumb-like comics (which sometimes spill over into the real world, adding some visual flair to the film).  When Monroe puts the breaks on things, Minnie has sex with a boy at school, until the boy is later put off by her sexual enthusiasm.  Yes, this film is not afraid to tell us what should be obvious: young girls can have a sex drive too.  The real question is not whether Minnie wants sex, or wants sex with Monroe, but rather how Minnie can even really know what she wants at 15, and what the proper way to figure that out is.

I want to give an example of how this film differs from other films that deal with these topics.  There is one scene in the film where Minnie and her friend (Madeleine Waters) go out to the city to see “Rocky Horror”.  Afterwards, they are at a bar, and see two cute guys.  They joke about whether the guys will think they’re prostitutes, and engage in conversation about how prostitutes must be really beautiful and strong to have men want to pay them for sex. (Again, they’re 15 and have no idea what they’re talking about).  Minnie walks over to them and quasi-jokingly offers the boys to blow them for $5.00 or have sex with for $15.00.  The boys pool together $5.00 each and Minnie and her friend blow them in the bathroom.  The very next scene is Minnie and her friend in Minnie’s bedroom calmly deciding that they don’t feel good about they did and don’t think they should so it anymore.  Now, setting aside that the film is set before the AIDS epidemic, in any other film this would be seen as a horrible, dark thing that totally ruins these girls.  Instead, this film treats it in a fashion that feels realistic and not as judge-y: they have the wrong idea about something, they do something rash and inadvisable, they feel bad about what they’ve done and decide not to do it again.  How many things in life, sexual or otherwise, does each of us have of these types of life events?  Rather than the film continuing to shame them, the film lets them make a mistake, learn from it, and move on.  They are not forever sullied by their dirty, immoral action, as other films would have them be.  The film has many other scenes that fall into the same category (not all sexual) and while the film comes close to falling into the narrative of a spiral of bad behavior, it stops the spiral just when the film feels like it’s flying too close to the sun of after-school special land.

While the unoriginality of the plot keeps the film from being great, the tone of non-judgment raises it above the level of most films with a similar plot.  The period setting and music drop us into the world of late 1970s San Francisco so well that it adds an extra little something to the proceedings as well, and as the 60s sexual revolution made its way to the bourgeoisie and middle-classes by the 70s (see the 1997 “The Ice Storm” for a film on that topic) the setting feels really right for the telling of this story in this way.  I like how the film ends with Minnie viewing her mother as her mother really is, and Monroe as Monroe really is.  Minnie is not damaged from her experiences, but she’s learned about herself and is changed for the better.  No one is changed without a few scars in life, and Minnie gets her.  Instead of feeling bad that Minnie went through this to get there, we as an audience should feel good that she realized life’s lessons early and without any permanent damage.  This is an oddly uplifting film in how pain and bad decisions are not always ruinous forces, but a part of everyone’s life. B+