In an attempt to lighten the stuffy mood ’round here, here’s a few brief thoughts on a couple of recently released, old-fashioned genre pictures from debut filmmaker Oren Peli and those purveyors of putrescent schoolboy schlock, Neveldine and Taylor.
Paranormal Activity just came out of nowhere, didn’t it? It popped up two years ago, and quietly disappeared – and then suddenly, it’s grabbing everyone by the collective cajones in wide release, and being called “one of the scariest films in recent years.” And, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, it’s certainly a new and welcome instalment in that sub-genre of horror and action films that just won’t seem to go away, they of the hand-held camera. It also reiterates a simple moral philosophy that we haven’t seen a lot of, for a while – that ghosts, poltergeists and other supernatural ghouls are just assholes who take constant enjoyment out of screwing with people, constantly.
Luckily, Oren Peli brings a slight freshness to what would, in other hands, become as stale as the eleventy hundred other similar hand-held camera films that seem to be released, every year. Namely, for most of the film, the camera is held static on a tripod in the corner of the couple’s room – and it watches, as the couple’s life gradually falls apart. And, more than any of it’s subgenre-counterparts, this is the only one that really feels candid in construction. There’s no strange, distracting justification for the placing or usage of the camera, and perhaps because of it’s ultra-low budget, it’s in-frame effects feel all the more astounding. Katie being pulled out of her bed, limb by limb, and dragged through the halls into the basement – steps, steps pounding on the carpet outside, becoming quicker and quicker, louder and louder. And, then a door slams! – from a lesser director, these kinds of things would lose their power through over-editing, but because of Peli’s long, uncut shots of the couple asleep and at the height of vulnerability, it becomes all the more frightening, and sudden, even though we haven’t once looked away.
The illusion is helped by the performances of the two actors who basically play themselves it seems like as the main characters. The relationship between these two feels authentic – the way they interact with each other, their conversations, the way they dress. Micah comes off as someone with a very punchable face – but, that seems deliberate, and when our sympathies are meant to align with him, they do. And, although they’re occasionally broken in on by a bit character that feels like he’d be more at home in something like a Halloween – although, perhaps that’s entirely the point, as he ends up being entirely ineffective – this is really their film, as there really are only three constant characters throughout the whole movie: Katie, Micah, and the House.
I viewed the screener copy that was released online just a little while back before seeing it in theaters, and I have a great preference for the original ending – what’s ended up in theaters is just pure silliness, coming from the mind of Spielberg himself, with a comical growl and a leap toward the camera that both feel out of place in the relatively low-key surroundings of the rest of the film. But, I’m certain that, come the DVD release, the original ending will be reinstated in some form or another. Fingers crossed.
In my weird quest to see every film by two guys who’s popularity just confounds me, and whose previous work has just left me cold, I saw Gamer, by Neveldine and Taylor, just a little while back. I didn’t pay for it, however. Somebody else did, and I thank them kindly for that. This review is also a kind of test to see how long I can go without making the obvious “this is one game this critic just couldn’t get into” pun.
Around the time of their respective releases, a lot of critics and armchair film bloggers just like myself speculated that the Crank films were really Neveldine and Taylor’s attempt at poking fun at the conventions of the action genre. But, if this film is any indication, they really do think themselves just terribly clever people. The film is essentially 2008’s Death Race – but in a videogame! – with the old chestnut of a man falsely imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, forced to perform in a rehash of The Most Dangerous Game on live television for the masses who (satirically, y’see) eat it all up. Which is fine, I suppose – but, they don’t really do anything with it. Butler growls nonsensical dialogue as he makes his way through monochromatically coloured obstacle courses, and we see crowds cheer and gasp for him, and then – well, that’s about it.
Still, it’s a better film than Crank 2. That much is certain. But visually, it’s garishly bland – too much high contrast everywhere. It’s cranked so far up to eleven that it almost feels like we’re watching a negative print, half the time. There’s a shot early on where Butler’s character is talking to John Leguizamo in the desert prison, and it almost looked like Leguizamo’s skin was about to start glowing. However, there are some genuinely nice shots, sprinkled here and there. In particular, one just after we’ve gotten our close-up view of Leguizamo’s unnaturally luminescent teeth, there’s a wide shot that really sets a nice contrast between the two of them and the wide wall of rock that sits behind them. And, they’ve re-learned how to shoot a kind-of well done chase sequence that recalls those moments of clarity from the first Crank film that’s hampered by the film’s glum color palette. And, the dance number may be the best scene in the film – although, it’s interrupted by something, I don’t know what it was. Just a weird series of flashy images with loud noises in the background for a second or two that are never mentioned again.
The first twenty minutes of the film are like that, however. A bunch of stuff is thrown at the screen, and the filmmakers – students of senility-addled Tony Scott that they are – seem to expect us to assemble it into a coherent whole. Luckily, it begins to make more sense as the film goes on, but not by much. Obviously, it’s ultra-conventional. Death Race in a videogame, like I mentioned earlier. Nothing much interesting is done with it – there’s an attempt at…some kind of social satire, but it’s both too fleeting and too easy. The directors take great joy in showing us close-ups of sweaty, naked fat people. I do not share their enthusiasm, and as it didn’t really come out to anything, I have resolved to track them down, punch them both in the face, and get my money back.
Still, such a thing ties in to the weird mentality these two seem to have about their films – juvenile “shock” after “shock”. Which isn’t to say that we can’t take pleasure or worth from the shocking, in films, but there’s got to be some value behind what you’re trying to shock us with – if you’ve got something genuinely shocking and subversive to tell us, your audience, then by all means, go for it. And these guys, they talk constantly about how they’re so surprised they were “able to get away with it all,” in their films but, there’s none of that here – it’s the same constant barrage of frivolity and “oh, can we really say that? I think we just did!” mentality that was found in Crank 2; only here, they keep telling us that it should have some kind of importance, some kind of real impact. Not by giving it that impact, but by constantly trying to insist to us that it does.
So – fat people. Alright. Some guy named Rick Rape – quite so, I s’pose. When is my monocle supposed to fall into my champagne glass, already?
Oh – and certainly, Michael C. Hall steals the film in the same way that Joan Allen stole Death Race, last year. And, boy – can he dance.
You know, now that I think about it, what would be more interesting than any of their films so far – I’d love to see an Overnight-esque documentary about these two maroons.