Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Creative Control": An Act of Cinematic Masturbation

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

An early line in Creative Control is a direct quote from Tommy Wiseau’s The Room: “You’re my favorite customer,” said by the protagonist’s co-worker in order to mock him.  Ironically enough, this moment perfectly encapsulates why Creative Control does not work as a movie; the reference exists for those in the know, but doesn’t serve a purpose in the narrative and is meant to portray the character speaking as someone we aren’t supposed to relate to because he knows it.  The movie doesn’t seem to understand that it is purposely offending the very people who would find its aesthetic and cultural touchstones entertaining.  The film uses hipster bullshit in order to take potshots at bullshit aspects of hipster culture, which just makes it a hipster bullshit snake eating its own tail.

Set in the near future, David (played by director and co-writer Benjamin Dickinson, making the comparison to Mr. Wiseau again more apt) works for an advertising agency, and the stress of the position causes him to lose interest in his girlfriend and become interested in his best friend’s girlfriend, Sophie.  When his company takes on a campaign for a new reality augmentation system called Augmenta, David uses his sample of the product to design a virtual version of Sophie, which he masturbates to as it goes through the motions of fucking him.

The first thing one is likely to notice about Creative Control is that it is shot in black and white, with color only entering the frame in the form of David’s interactions with Augmenta.  It’s a pretty pedestrian way to show that David is more connected with his virtual world than with reality, particularly when he’s downing handfuls of anti-depressants and spanking it to his high tech hologram love toy in vivid color, but it would actually work if the film had much more to say than “Hey, hipsters are kinda self-destructive sadsacks, aren’t they?”  Unfortunately, the dialogue and story beats really only convey just that, as characters spout niche referential tidbits and produce ironically commercial “art” with barely an arc to be seen until the film’s final moments, when David has to make a contrived choice about how he wants his life to proceed, only to cut to credits before that choice is shown.

Dickinson asks us to accept his artistic pretentions while attacking the same pretentious sensibilities of the privileged hipster class that serve as the grounding for his film’s sense of humor, cinematographic style, and self-contragulatory, masturbatory story about douchebags being douchebags.  He either wants to be the butt of his own joke or wants to take down those he perceives as egotistic hacks without realizing that he is one himself, and I’m not sure which.  He’s like Tommy Wiseau in that regard, but with much more raw talent; he can frame a shot, write some entertaining dialogue here and there, and can even act to a certain extent, yet he doesn’t understand that the methods by which he tries to communicate his points are self-defeating and, ultimately, self-indulgent.  Creative Control could have benefited from a more straightforward, less artistic-for-artistry’s-sake mentality, but as it stands, Benjamin Dickinson is just jerking off into the camera, literally and figuratively.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"The Hallow": Raimi-esque Horror Without the Fun

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

The recent upswing in the quality of horror films has made me much more receptive to what I had thought was a pretty creatively dead genre.  It wasn’t that I thought good horror films couldn’t be made, just that good horror films probably wouldn’t be made considering the budgetary and studio greenlighting restrictions in mainstream cinema.  However, the indie circuit has responded with some modern classics as of late, so I was willing to see if The Hallow, another of that brood, would be able to live up to the reputation of the modern horror renaissance.  It didn’t.

Adam, Clare, and their infant son Finn move to a backcountry Irish town so that Adam may survey the local flora, which is set to be cut down by Adam’s logging employers.  The locals shun Adam’s presence and warn of The Hallow, a supernatural group of fungal creatures who live in the forest and steal infants.  The creatures eventually attack Adam and Clare so that they may steal young Finn away from them.

As far as horror plots go, it’s a pretty conventional creature feature, though props must be given to the practical effects used to create the Hallow themselves.  Apparently human, yet moving in otherworldly ways and covered from head to toe in fungus, they are gross to behold and move appropriately.  First-time director Corin Hardy seems to have taken a lot of inspiration from Evil Dead, because his jump scares and fascination with body horror seem very reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s early work, right down to images of eyeball penetration and skin-breaking distortion.

What’s missing from Hardy’s freshman effort, however, is any sense of investment or fun.  Adam and Clare are mere cyphers, their only defining character trait being that they love their son and (I guess) each other.  This makes the creature-less first half of the film a slog to get through, presumably filling out time to meet the all-important no-creature-for-the-first-hour rule.  But by not using that time to make the characters interesting or relatable, all the later setpieces fail to be tense because no effort was put into making the audience care about those suffering on-screen.  This could have been mitigated by a more lighthearted tone, a la Raimi, but Hardy pushes the film so straight that it falls flat.

There is potential in The Hallow, and its commitment to practical effects alone makes it stand out among other horror films.  However, it’s by no means an entertaining film, and it doesn’t succeed as another indie showcase of the potential horror has to make a comeback.  This will likely be forgotten rather quickly by those who even hear about it, and that obscurity is probably for the best.  Corin Hardy likely deserves another shot at directing, and if he can learn from the story-structural mistakes of this stumble, he just might have a career ahead of him.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"Rams": The Drama Shines Through This Supposed Comedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I feel a bit cheated by the marketing for Rams.  Billed as a comedy, I didn’t find myself laughing a whole lot at this tale of two feuding brothers.  I’ve noted before that comedy can be quite difficult to translate across language and culture, so perhaps I just don’t have a firm grasp on Icelandic comedy or didn’t find the subtitled delivery as nuanced as I should have, but this was never a film that made me laugh.  However, as a drama, Rams works quite well and serves as a reminder that Iceland can produce some touching cinema.

The two aforementioned brothers are Gummi and Kiddi, sheepherders who haven’t spoken to one another in forty years, yet live on adjacent properties and deign to only ever communicate via written messages carried between them in the mouth of a dog.  An outbreak of scrapie is discovered in Kiddi’s herd, so by government edict all the sheep in the area much be exterminated to prevent infection from spreading, leaving the farmers without a means of production or income.  Gummi keeps some of his sheep and a single ram hidden in his basement, yet things get complicated when a drunken Kiddi stumbles across them one evening.

The double entendre of the title is where most of the dramatic tension comes from, and as a character piece there’s quite a bit of meat to this film.  Gummi and Kiddi are characters defined by an ill-defined feud, the origin of which doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that their lives have evolved based on a resistance toward reacquainting.  Circumstance ultimately forces them to communicate once more, and the result is trying as it is touching, a poignant reflection on the bonds of family and the pettiness of old grievances.  The final shot alone is enough to make the preceding ninety minutes worth it, even if the pacing of those minutes can be slow at times.

But I once again have to come back to the fact that I can’t wrap my head around how this is supposed to be a comedy.  There are a few physical gags that I suppose would be funny in theory, yet I didn’t think the timing worked to encourage laughter.  There are moments of supposed shock comedy where we see our aged leads in the nude, but again, I don’t see why that on its own is apparently funny.  I have read other reviews that call this film riotous, yet the human drama at play is much more engaging and much more consistently on point that any attempts at slapstick.  In fact, if any of the comedy actually registered as such, I’d be tempted to call it inappropriate, given the gravity of the situation to the characters and the somber tone inherent in a premise where livelihoods are on the line.

So yeah, maybe I’m not tuned to this film’s comedic wavelength, but that doesn’t mean I think it doesn’t work as a good film.  It’s a touching piece of relationship drama that revolves around a couple of humanly flawed characters.  I just wish I were in on the joke.