Monday, December 9, 2019

Reviews from gulag: Everybody's gotta start somewhere

Sure: I have an affinity for the bigger side of filmmaking,  but it's nice sometimes to check in on the other side of the spectrum.  Or, you know, it's supposed to be.  Oh well: as The Simpsons once observed, it's their first day.  So let's take a look at three first films from 2019: Luz, Cosmos, and Paradise Hills.

LUZ (Tilman Singer)
I know I mention "running time" a lot in these reviews, and almost always in a negative way; I mean, there's a lot to complain about when it comes to the cinema of the 2010s, but to my mind there's not a single more terrible or more pervasive problem than the slow creep of runtimes that began in the 1990s and exploded into absurdity in the 2010s, as every blockbuster started extending itself past two hours, often for no good reason, and often far past two hours, with an eye toward three.  It's why it's such a joy when a movie like Crawl appears, clocking in at 89 minutes and hence obliging itself be mostly killer, not so much filler.  It also probably partially explains why I like cartoons so much, since they usually have some measure of restraint, due to their expense as well as their presumed audience of babies.

So, with nothing else to go on, Luz's 70 minute runtime seems like a selling point; it's easy to presume a movie that barely lasts an hour couldn't even have the time to be bad.  But that's not all we have to go on (I mean, I've seen it, so I have everything about it to go on, but bear with me here): let's assume further that we know that Luz is actually the 70 minute thesis project by German film studies graduate Tilman Singer.  This is where you observe, "Aren't student films usually short subjects?"  Yes.  Indeed they are.

Luz is the story, if you wanna call it that, of Luz herself (Luana Velis), a Chilean cab driver in Germany who gets into a bad crash and winds up in a police interrogation, undertaken not by the cop in charge (Nadja Stübiger), but a criminal psychologist and hypnotherapist named Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), with some assistance from a Spanish-to-German translator (Johannes Benecke).  What the cops don't know is that Rossini has already been intercepted by a woman from Luz's childhood, Nora (Julia Riedler), who herself had served as a vehicle for the demon that she'd transferred to Rossini earlier.  This particular demon had made Luz's acquaintance years ago, and has followed her across an ocean to finally seize what it had always desired.

Real Goddamn basic then, yet somehow even emptier than that makes it sound.  It very quickly becomes apparent that Luz was a short subject that got puffed up to feature-length.  According to Singer, this was due to the prompting of a professor (unidentified, and possibly non-existent).  The result is some of the most aggressive padding possible (consider a pre-credits sequence that spends three minutes watching its title character slowly come to terms with a vending machine in a "police station" lobby), but it is also the kind of padding that feasibly could be confused with artsy deliberation;  I suppose it's probably down to the fact that the Occam's Razor take on Luz—Singer had very little to say and few resources, creative or financial, with which to say it, but wanted to make a "real movie" anyway—isn't terribly interesting itself.  But, then, student films aren't really supposed to be.

Luz has wound up extraordinarily successful as a student film nonetheless, and if you squint real, real hard, you can see how it gained its cult status coming out of the Berlin Film Festival, which eventually rippled into a non-trivial amount of notice Stateside; beyond that, it's got a genre hook, and the press surrounding it namechecks all the right influences.  (Which is probably what Singer means when he says he wanted to make an audiovisually-driven film rather than the sub-indie substance-based dramedies of his classmates—that is, he wanted to make a movie that had even the remotest chances of getting noticed, and thus set out to do a horror.  Not that I begrudge the impulse to make a piece of art that had any hope of connecting with an audience.  Nor do I expect I'd prefer to see his classmates' undoubtedly shitty films.  It's only that there's a reason it caught my eye, after all, and it sure as hell wasn't "it's a German student film.")

It's also extremely weird, if unfortunately almost entirely in ways that test the patience and goodwill even of the receptive viewer (for example, me) who'd been sold on the prospect of a horror movie doing its best to establish mood and atmosphere by way of its score and its sound design and a 16mm film stock that, in fairness, captures LEDs blaring through a fog machine in cool ways.  It also has pretty much no screenplay whatsoever, not even in the way that the Italian horror films that it acknowledges as an influence (mainly Soavi, I think, along with Argento) weren't about their screenplays, but in the way that a 30 minute piece that's been stretched out to 70 with no appreciable increase in budget or in unique lines of dialogue will not seem to have a screenplay.  Hence most of the action in Luz revolving around a single location that's transparently cheaply-had office space, with a story structure that revolves around a hypnotherapy/flashback session that is remarkable mostly for using jarring editing to bring other characters into the film without actually having to leave that single location and thus accrue more expense.  This story is likewise delivered exclusively by actors who remind you that when somebody calls a performance "mannered" they usually mean "terrible," though it's worth noting that Luz does not really have a single character who's fully human anyway: it has two people possessed by a demon (and before the doctor is possessed by a demon, he's drunk); another person, Luz, who spends the whole film in a fugue state in which she is capable almost solely of repeating a childishly profane prayer over and over again; and a translator, who repeats what other people say in another language, and who appears to have been forgotten by the script for ten minutes at a time.  And so Singer doesn't even let you evaluate his performances on the merits, since you're never really aware of what those merits would be, which means what you wind up with is dull actors saying the same dull thing for the thirtieth time.

It has the benefit of being alienating and strange if that's what you're into—the precisely-controlled camera moves, the odd editing, the overwhelming sound design, the conceit of being "hypnotized" yourself, and the eventual intrusion of the low-budget supernatural (flickering flourescent lights, eerie naked chicks, fog machine)—all that does help.  But Luz is so numbingly repetitive and devoid of strong ideas that it tends to burn off one's inherent interest in its "atmosphere" or "mood" a long time before it ever gets to any of its good parts.  (Nor is it in Luz's favor that movies like Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow exist, playing in the same grainy, hazy, 80s horror aesthetic sandbox, only in both cases more successfully.  With them, even the possibility of Luz succeeding as a nostalgic novelty fades.)  Meanwhile, even the "good parts" don't turn out to be all that appreciably good, anyway.

Score: 2/10

COSMOS (Elliot and Zander Weaver)
Sibling filmmakers Elliot and Zander Weaver's first feature, Cosmos, is not a student film.  It was not made under the auspices of a film department.  It was not made in fulfillment of any requirements for a degree.  It is, nevertheless, still totally a student film, just made by what I guess you'd call self-directed learners: it cost eight grand and it looks exactly like a movie made by people who wanted to create a demo reel for every single film technique they believed they'd mastered.

And whereas Luz generated a certain anxiety on my part by being 70 minutes, as a short subject that got pushed and pushed until it could hypothetically gain traction as a theatrical (or, more realistically, VOD) presentation, Cosmos has the opposite problem, running 128 minutes.  And that's a runtime that generates a reaction of "Who the hell do you think you are, Steven Spielberg?"  The answer is, "Yes"—if, perhaps, Zemeckis doing a Spielberg, as Cosmos can be reductively but not at all inaccurately described as that scene in Contact where Ellie Arroway receives her first transmission from Vega, expanded into its whole miniature (but not miniature-enough) movie.  Still, of the three films we're looking at here, I do think I respect Cosmos the most—Cosmos might be the only one I respect at all—in part because it's such an extremely earnest attempt to do a heady sci-fi story on a nothing budget.  The Weavers also get points for not just doing time travel, which has been so much the traditional first resort of the sci-fi filmmaker with no money that I doubt I'd have bothered if they had, especially since even if they did write, produce, edit, sound design, etc. their movie all by themselves (the only major aspect of production overseen by someone else was Chris Davey's technically-impressive score), the Weavers still ain't exactly Shane Carruth.

Instead, the Weavers' scenario revolves around a trio of men—two scientists and one engineer, a distinction this movie makes nauseatingly plain in its most unnecessary conversation scene, but more on those later—who go out one night to look at the stars in pursuit of their work.  There's Harry (Josh Ford), an astronomer; Roy (Arjun Singh Panam), a satellite engineer and semi-pro stargazer; and Tom (Mike Webster), who has the most well-etched profession, being an app developer specializing in building algorithms for the rapid rendering of radio telescope images, something he explains to his fellows as if they didn't know what "radio astronomy" is, mainly because the Weavers aren't sure their audience knows what radio astronomy is.  (Which is funny thing not to be sure of, given they paid money to watch a movie about astonomers called Cosmos.  I'd think it would be one thing they could have absolutely assumed.)

Anyway, for the most part, the Weavers' screenplay parcels all this exposition out naturally, maybe even too naturally, which goes a long way towards explaining their movie's 128 minute runtime, and it's actually an open question whether they ought to have opted for a less elegant but more efficient solution, given that the first 45 minutes or more of Cosmos winds up looking like it might in fact secretly be a study of masculine friendships under strain, one driven by Roy's perception that Harry has essentially replaced him with his new bud Tom, and by resentments exacerbated by the various professional setbacks they've each faced.  Maybe needless to say, it isn't that.  Oddly, however, Cosmos isn't not that, and it might be at its most fascinating in this mode (there's enough buried hurt feelings that I briefly pondered whether Roy was Harry's ex), and it feels like pretty much nothing I've ever seen before, with its three nerds trapped in a cramped car with each other overnight while their interpersonal problems keep bubbling up against a backdrop of low-key sensawunda.  It's honestly pretty damn neat up until it very, very rapidly resolves those interpersonal problems in favor of what the movie's actually about, which in turn means that none of its interpersonal stuff actually mattered, except perhaps in the minds of its authors, who had learned that movies are about "relatable characters" with "feelings" and "motivations."

Because Cosmos has no idea how to tie its character work into its procedure, and it's a procedural at heart.  This becomes quite plain once Tom gets a response to a larky message of friendship he beamed out into space, and the movie perceptibly shifts into the tale of how one guy convinced his two skeptic friends that we're not alone in this universe, and thereafter into a somewhat-silly but very-straight-faced thriller regarding the logistics of collecting data on what looks increasingly like an alien signal, including several tense moments and culminating in a frenetic race against a literal onscreen ticking clock.

And I like this part of Cosmos.  I liked the part of Cosmos where it was just three frustrated dudes sitting in a car, too.  But they are mixed so poorly together, despite the Weavers' apparent belief they bolster one another: at some point during this passion project's five years of development, they really needed to decide which movie they were making.  (And by that, I obviously mean "they should have focused on the first contact procedural and cut bait on the interpersonal crap," insofar as there's no way they ever had much intention of focusing squarely on the latter.)  In any event, the welds between the two things are staggeringly clumsy—probably never worse than in a copyright-free singalong to some unrecognizable version of "Frog Went a-Courtin'," but also including some terrifically bad Profound Monologuing About Science, complete with several misguidedly awe-filled camera moves (low-angle slow zooms in a shot-reverse shot scheme) which all but come out and scream, "This is our first movie!  We're making a movie!"

A lot of Cosmos screams like this, unfortunately, and sometimes almost as embarrassingly, like a bit of editing around a set of keys (it looks like the car commercial version of something they saw in a bad B-level action movie) or the hyper-aggressive ways they play up tension (literal oncreen ticking clock, I mentioned, but also a clutch pedal in an automatic Volvo).  Much of Comsos comes off as the work of skilled amateurs with just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  The Weavers' day job is the production of TV documentaries about historical space exploration, and that may well explain their badly miscalibrated meter for what's usefully cool; it's why large stretches of their movie appear to be inspired by the quick-cut montages from Hot Fuzz without any realization that Hot Fuzz was a comedy.  Indeed, I imagine the easiest explanation for why Cosmos is like this so much is that the Weavers were terrified, absolutely petrified, of their talky little procedural getting boring.

Ironically enough, it's the quieter imagery here that actually recommends its makers as talented: it's not at all easy to shoot and edit a movie made up of shots of three guys discussing megahertz in a station wagon and make that cinematic, but they do.  Miraculously, they even do it effortlessly, at least when they aren't perversely committed to showing you their effort, with their actors' faces consistently carved out of the darkness outside with moody, evocative colored lighting, and the 'Scope aspect ratio counter-intuitively turning out to be an exceptionally good choice for this story, permitting numerous deep compositions of their three principals as they hold natural conversations across the foreground, midground, and background, each in their respective "stations" inside their cramped, technologically-crowded automobile.  Which is insane, since its actiony crap is all backloaded and the "boring" stuff would've tuned out anybody not on its wavelength long before.

It's almost surprising that Cosmos is not somebody's film school thesis project, because so much about it feels like striving filmmakers showing off every possible thing they knew how to do, regardless of whether it actually worked.  It's the kind of thing that would get a B+ from a fair-minded instructor, for its demonstration of the brute ability to execute technique, but with full marks withheld because it demonstrates no awareness of how an audience might react when technique is wielded so carelessly.  Myself, I landed somewhere between getting angry at being manipulated and laughing derisively at how ineffectively overwrought this movie could still get.  Yet overall my feelings about Cosmos are much more mixed than that makes it sound; there's a really good first movie in here, if only they'd been able to find it, and, perhaps, made an effort to unlearn the tricks that had served them well on what I expect are some nice but also rather hackish documentaries about astronauts.  And even the movie that exists, whatever its faults, isn't actually cynical—it just kind of looks that way, despite being what I gauge as one of the sincerest efforts of the year.

Score: 5.01/10

PARADISE HILLS (Alice Waddington)
And now we arrive at a feature debut that is actually something you might reasonably describe as a "real movie," costing (I estimate) somewhere in the mid seven figures, featuring any actors you might've heard of (hell, it features several actors you might've heard of), and encompassing more than one major shooting location as well as (get this) special effects, albeit bad ones executed with no vision.  Yes, sadly, Paradise Hills also sucks.  It sucks less than Luz because it is a real movie, with a script that occupies more-or-less the right amount of time and everything.  (95 minutes, for the record.)  It sucks more than Cosmos because it's more chronically bad and sometimes even more acutely bad, and without any of the compensations that Cosmos offered in lieu of being good.  That includes sincerity, which Paradise Hills only has in the thoughtless, self-satisfied way that a fashion-photographer-turned-film-director might well have about various causes; which is perhaps why her movie gets itself tied into knots in its third act as it's realized it's gotten itself wedged into an ideological corner it has no idea how to get out of.  Yet Spanish director Alice Waddington (née Irene Lago Clavero) is possibly less to blame than her screenwriters, Brian DeLeeuw and one Nacho Vigalondo, the latter of whom, of course, is well-known to us here.  Waddington came up with the story, so it's entirely plausible that it is her fault and DeLeeuw and Vigalondo did everything in their power to save a really shitty story; but one doubts it, and the screenplay they returned is exactly what you'd expect from Vigalondo, particularly if he weren't writing it for himself.  In other words, it bears the flaws of every movie he has ever written for himself, except he cared less about it and it's worse in every respect.  As for DeLeeuw, it's arguable that his single biggest credit besides Paradise Hills is a fan film about the Joker.  So there's that.

In any event, Paradise Hills starts off by spinning its wheels for a really long time, till, finally, it winds up leaping out of its track entirely in a storm of obscurely-shot nonsense, roughly about twenty minutes before the end.  Before that, what we have is a YA adaptation that just happens not to have a precursor YA novel.  So: in an extremely vaguely-sketched alternate universe and/or future dystopia where society has been bifurcated into an aristocracy of Uppers and a peasantry of Lowers (these being the actual verbatim terms they use), there exists an Emma Roberts character, Uma (Emma Roberts).  Uma's proven troublesome to her striving family and her betrothed husband-to-be, and she has therefore been shipped off to Paradise Hills, this being a reeducation camp done up in a cutesy normatively-feminine style, and apparently devoted to using clumsy self-help language to restore its patients/prisoners to their ideal normatively-feminine selves.  We actually enter this story at the end, upon Uma's release from the pink gulag; thus we can guess that, somehow, Paradise Hills' techniques actually worked, or, alternatively, there's some kinda tweest.  (Spoiler: it's a twist.  I guarantee you that even though you would accurately predict a lot of it, you would not see all of it coming.)

In the meantime, however, it is very difficult to see how this is all going to come to fruition, and therein lies Paradise Hills' foundational problem.  Once ensconced at the Hills, Uma makes the acquaintance of her newfound friends, Armana the turbulent pop star (Eiza González), Yu the spiked-headphones-wearing punk rebel (Nora "Awkafina" Lum, who, if she's going to make a career out of acting—and she should!—has a dire need to drop her dumbassed rapper name), and Chloe the plump Southern belle, whose parents confused this for fat camp (Danielle Macdonald).  Together, they prove utterly resilient to whatever extremely mild brainwashing techniques Paradise Hills and its administrator, The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), have to offer, which are nominally present but almost explicitly amount to jack and shit.  It's kind of like One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest if McMurphy's therapy were limited to pleasant chats about his life choices.

Effectively, then, though it provides enough incident that it does have a plot, the screenplay still has next to nothing to actually do before it gets to its twist, contented with its barely-felt stakes that are never insisted upon by Jovovich's villain, and with its four unspecific heroines who spend an hour or so just kind of hanging out and getting to know one another in extremely facile, undramatic ways.  In the absence of a compelling story, Waddington does what she can and what her career as a fashion photographer has prepared her for, which is going all-in on Alberto Valcárcel's iPrincess-style costume design, Laia Colet's production design, and Sol Saban's set decoration, all of which is generally pretty rad in a tea party porno sort of way, but isn't really rad enough, or varied enough, or (unfortunately) well-photographed enough within Josu Inchaustegui's bland, televisual cinematography to make a visual meal that could genuinely take the place of a narrative drive.

And then there's the actual end, where most of the things you expect to happen happen, and new characters are introduced who change their motivations on a whim, and then something completely insane happens, which could only possibly make sense in the context of a screenplay co-written by a dipshit who made a fan-film about a member of Batman's rogues gallery.  Up till now, Paradise Hills had been dull, arbitrary, and almost entirely inadequate as science fiction (the only thing that even pretends to be science fictional about their "reconditioning" is one of the goofiest visuals of 2019, a carousel horse with no carousel and a pole that lifts its rider about fifty feet up in the air to be accosted by holograms); but as Paradise Hills closes out, it falls into an abyss that underscores just how many shits its makers gave about it, i.e., none whatsoever.

Score: 3/10

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