Thursday, January 9, 2020

Reviews from gulag: And 2019's still stinking up the place, part 1

Happy (belated) New Year!  Before we get started with 2020, there's still a lot of debris to clear out from 2019.  In this installment: In Fabric, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and 47 Meters Down: Uncaged.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland's second feature, was one of my ten favorite films of 2015.  Hell, it was one of my eight favorite films.  That's a lower bar than it would usually be—2015, as a cinematic year, has been exceeded in its lousy mediocrity only by the year that's just passed—but it's still a sign of some modest excellence to have cleared it, and I think it's a pretty great movie, an art-horror romance ribboned with surrealistic and absurdist touches that still has a real, genuinely emotional story of relationship dysfunction to tell beneath the opaque glaze of 70s-nostalgic Europastiche that represents its director's preferred, and only, mode of artistic expression.  In Fabric, Strickland's follow-up to The Duke of Burgundy, is rather more the follow-up you might've expected from Berberian Sound Studio, his first film.  That is, it's an ultimately-tiresome exercise in pursuing his various aesthetic interests which, in Strickland's conciliatory gesture toward his film being about something, or anything—and, in fairness, this does put it miles ahead of Sound Studio—winds up being about an absolute shitload of "somethings," which all add up to far less than the sum of their parts by the end.

That's a condemnation, of course, and I don't really like In Fabric.  It can also be taken as faint praise, though, given that many of In Fabric's elements are still pretty fascinating, in and of themselves.  Even so, it's a movie that, were it a blockbuster rather than art horror, would be called "overstuffed"; given its ideological priors, it's kind of like Sorry To Bother You crossed with The Double, albeit if neither film had a clear thesis or an obvious justification for existing. The most salient feature of In Fabric, however, is that it's only barely a single integral work: it's two stories sewn together into something akin to an anthology, though the critical practice of calling it an anthology is best understood as a way for its proponents to apologize for it.  Truthfully, it comes off a lot more like the movie just restarts itself a little more than halfway through, and then spends almost an hour grinding through more-or-less the same exact premise it just unsatisfactorily explored, only with less imagination, a less compelling central character, and with a vastly more pronounced tendency to get distracted by its own goofy marginalia.  Anyway, those two stories are (sorta) tied together by what amounts to In Fabric's villain, a certain red dress, a death dress, a dress that eats.

The story of the dress begins with Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a sad divorcee whose life has lately been defined by tip-toeing around her awkwardly underfoot adult son, artist Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), and his overbearing muse/fuckbuddy, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie, and In Fabric does have the distinction of permitting Christie to remind us she is also a normatively sexy model, which I reckon might be a relief for her after spending her thirties getting defeminized and being called ugly).  Lonely and preparing to re-enter the dating game, Sheila hits the after-Christmas sale at an upscale department store called Dentley & Soper's, which is where that dress comes in, purchased by Sheila at the insistence of an unbearably pretentious saleswoman (Fatma Mohammed, by far the film's most entertaining figure) who describes the article in comically mystical terms to her bemused mark.  The dress, as Sheila never quite figures out before her story's over, but which we are told almost immediately, is not just magic, but alive and full of malign hunger, a vessel for the evil of the witch coven that actually runs Dentley & Soper's.

And so far, so good: In Fabric does a creditable job of telling a spooky tale about the commodification of women's self-image, often by other women with vampiric intent (even if they in turn are being run by men, as Dentley & Soper's, in fact, is), and it embeds that into an offbeat but recognizably human story with Sheila as the compass through which we are invited to navigate a whole world that's equally commodified in every other respect, only not as overtly malefic.  It's much funnier than it is frightening—Sheila's quotidian job as a bank teller lends itself to Office Space-like comedy as filtered through Gilliam-style surrealism—but it's more gonzo stylish than it is anything, Strickland's exercise coming complete with bizarre television commercials for the after-Christmas sales that feel like the accompaniment to a YouTube creepypasta about a Satanic cult (in the best way!), as well as with 70s-throwback kinestatic montages of nightmarish shopping, not exactly reaching the horrifying significance of Soylent Green or The Parallax View, but unsettling enough for their more limited purposes anyway.  It's also in this first hour that we get our biggest glimpses of Sheila's secret antagonists, with a solid three minutes spent on the unlikely rituals of the coven, involving flying streamers of cum and menstrual blood drooling from an anatomically-accurate mannequin's vagina, in what is probably a metaphor.  It's tied together with a great and nerve-jangling score from Cavern of Anti-Matter that sounds like a mean-spirited Jobriath, rather akin to a slasher movie score as translated to harpsichord.

It doesn't last, and I'm not even sure why: the general consensus is that the second story's worse, but this was the cost of doing a first story that couldn't support a feature.  But, like, it could: there's no noticeable reason why Sheila's story could not have been expanded to fill a solid 80 to 90 minute horror-comedy.  Sheila's story doesn't even reach a natural, inevitable endpoint, so much as Strickland just cuts it off right when it was getting to the scary part, rudely truncating the plot in a gesture that's surprising (since I do not think you are an idiot, reader, I'll go ahead and say "it's a bit like Psycho") but which also leaves her story without any third act at all.  The dress is thereby passed on to its new owner, a washing machine repairman (Leo Bill), and the tale isn't "re-oriented" by this turn so much as it "decisively breaks."  The biggest problem is that the first half of In Fabric is the only half that has anything other than arch cartoons (besides Jean-Baptiste, Ayeh is the only actor allowed even the slightest shading, and he's still mostly just a parody of a comically ungrateful son.)  In its second movement, In Fabric is all arch cartoons, all the time, yet somehow also less arch, or maybe as arch, but arch in profoundly less interesting ways.  Here, we get a cross-dressing British stag night, which it turns out is utterly and disappointingly ordinary within its cultural context, and Strickland's film soldiers on with a truly, deliberately boring new protagonist living a truly, deliberately boring life, and In Fabric, having somehow grown bored with witches and vampire dresses despite spending rather little time with either, veers off into the esoteric, hyper-capitalist neverwhen it's created, wandering around its universe of coldly-whimsical washing machine repair cartels for what at least feels like much longer than it spent with Sheila's brittle middle-aged loneliness.  It's still funny, sometimes, but never once as compelling, and it's likely to leave one resentful of the way it ties off its deferred central conflict with an almost perfunctory randomness.  In short, this "anthology" ends weakly, as anthologies sometimes do; but the real sin of the thing is that it takes fifty full minutes to do it.

Score: 5/10

Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark is, I think, fairly close to being the most wrongheaded version of itself possible.  If In Fabric's foundational problem was committing to an unstated anthology format, Scary Stories' is that it runs shrieking and screaming away from it, quite deliberately, according to co-producer (and co-scenarist) Guillermo del Toro, because anthologies always have bad parts and, to hear it from del Toro, everyone focuses on the negative.  But Scary Stories, of course, is based on an anthology (three of 'em, technically), Alvin Schwartz's seminal collections of ghastly folklore for children.  These are nostalgic items for me—they're some of the first books I remember reading—but, obviously, if you read them too, then you know it wasn't Schwartz's transcriptions that seared the only-occasionally-scary stories he'd collected into my soul, but the nightmarish images that accompanied them.  Stephen Gammell's illustrations for Schwartz's anthologies are flat-out terrifying, grotesqueries in a simple black-and-white that undersold how gory and unsettling they could be, the typical figure of his pictures being a warped humanoid with black voids instead of eyes and misshapen in every possible proportion, and all of it wrought with a certain minimalism—so many of his illustrations have pieces "missing"—that emphasizes their hallucinatory quality.  And so the very instant you commit to a live-action adaptation of Scary Stories, rather than a work of animation that could capture the feeling of seeing those horrific visions for the first time, you've more-or-less missed the whole damn point, which the version of Scary Stories that del Toro handed off to Norwegian horror journeyman André Øvredal absolutely does.  That it still structures itself around scenes of creepy creatures which incorporate Gammell's aesthetic into their design is very, very close to the only thing about this Scary Stories that keeps it from being a pure exploitation of a famous brand name—and these creatures and the scare sequences to which they belong are, by a huge margin, the best things about it—though the absence of any anthology credibility does tend to seal the deal, leaving this Scary Stories just one more piece of okayish PG-13 horror in the pile.

In lieu of anthology, then, Scary Stories goes kid's adventure, rather blatantly stealing the premise of fellow kid's-lit mash-up Goosebumps, which made more sense there: besides having an identifiable single author instead of a stand-in that does disservice to Schwartz's anthropology, Goosebumps is a horror-comedy tilted almost entirely toward laughs, and a snarky, wacky version of In the Mouth of Madness was something I personally had a lot of fun with (its soulless sequel, vastly less so, but that's how it goes with shitty kid's movies).  Scary Stories, on the other hand, which has a sense of humor but is almost tediously po-faced when it comes to its premise, is just the ineffective echo of a masterpiece.  (Given that del Toro was involved, one will be not in the least surprised that the author of these deadly stories is a sympathetic ghost.)  Anyway, in this Scary Stories, a gang of nerdy or otherwise unwanted kids winds up stealing into the old Bellows house, where they find a secret room, occupied by the long-dead shut-in disfavored daughter of the clan, and the book of stories the girl wrote.  They take it, and find that new stories are appearing—stories that track with Schwartz's folktales—as the vengeful spirit writes their deaths, one by one, in real time.

Some of the choices from the array of Schwartz's stories work better than others, though very few are the choices anybody who was making a "best of" anthology adaptation (rather than desperately looking for monsters to wedge into an extrinsic narrative) would have made.  "The Big Toe" has always been a deliberately dopey joke, an aperitif before more frightening tales; the arachnophobia of "The Red Spot" made more rational and at least somewhat more entomological sense in the original, and wasn't undone by a big spidery explosion of overworked CGI.  On the other hand, there's "The Dream," (that's the Pale Lady one), which is just pristine horror, largely unfettered by the overarching story, an editing-driven freakout inside a cherry red hell of a mental hospital that presents no escape from a freakish monster that, however slowly, is definitely going to eat your soul; "Harold," the abhorrent scarecrow that looks like a corpse stuffed with straw, is also quite well-realized.  But then there's "Me Tie Dough-ty Walker," and while I don't know how good a movie would have needed to have been to survive contact with a phrase that awkward and terrible, this movie was not.  It doesn't help that the "Dough-ty Walker"/Jangly Man bit really fucks up that extrinsic narrative I mentioned, which has built out an elaborate if somewhat go-nowhere message module to side of it about racism in America in the 1960s and, hence, today—the male lead being Latino, and tending to be punished for that in this shitty Pennsyltucky town we're in.  Presently, Scary Stories hopes you'll ignore any of the realistic implications of having the brown guy leaving a bunch of dead cops and dead white kids in his wake, with his only ready explanation being "a ghost did it."

That's the other thing about Scary Stories, then: it's a period piece with themes.  The period piece part works rather well: the stories themselves are pretty old, even older than the mid-century presented here, and they seem to fit a version of America that feels more "timeless"; meanwhile, it obviates the need to grapple with contemporary teens that are less likely to leave their homes and thereby disturb any angry old ghosts in the first place; and it lets cinematographer Roman Osin play around with a lot of color correction that aims to "age" the digital photography, and which lends a nicely autumnal (yet aggressively metallic) cast to these Halloween-related proceedings.  As for themes, they aren't so bad as far as they go, though it's somewhat underwhelming to have any confrontation with a murderous spirit come down to a stern talking-to, and whatever the hell this movie thinks it's doing making Vietnam such a big part of its story, I'm sure I don't know.  On the plus side, it's charmingly acted from its ensemble (that I didn't feel like listing them is more a function of there being five or six of them rather than their being bad), and, again, it has an all-time-great little horror bit with its Pale Lady.  I don't know if Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark could ever have truly worked within this lousy conceptual framework, but I'll admit, it's closer to working than it probably ought to be.

Score: 6/10

The Shallows is a great movie, in and of itself, but I don't think we recognize how great it was for the movies, generally.  As I wrote when I reviewed the lovely Crawl back in July, the former film was responsible for recreating a place in the theatrical ecosystem for low-key, unironic creature-features made with enough money that they look like legit movies but not so much money anybody has to take them more seriously than they need to be taken.  Enter 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, Johannes Roberts' spiritual and philosophical sequel to his own 2017 shark movie, 47 Meters Down, which I have not seen, but maybe should, since I certainly like his follow-up a lot, even if it has nothing to do with being 47 meters down, and is only about being "uncaged" in the trivial sense that there is indeed no cage in it.

Uncaged, anyway, is as straightforward a thing as is conceivable, though it is not unimaginative within the formulaic constraints of its little subgenre, and has a fairly novel setting in which to enact a tale that, otherwise, would at best hold only the pleasures of ritual.  The set-up is easy and nobody stressed it too much, which I tend to regard as a strength in this context: down in Mexico, a family of Americans has relocated in pursuit of the dad's (John Corbett's) work, this being the archaeological exploration of a flooded Mayan cave city that is expressly connected with Xibalba, the Mesoamerican underworld.  This has, I guess, not been good for his daughter, Mia (Sophie Nélisse), who's failed utterly to adjust to her new expatriate school, and whom we meet in a piece of cheeky foreshadowing as a bunch of quintessential mean girls literally push her, in school uniform, into the institution's swimming pool.  The awkwardness is compounded by the fact her stepsister Sasha (Corrine Foxx) has acclimated quite well, and made friends with Alexa, the slightly smarter and more serious one (Brianne Tju), and Nicole, the slightly less-inhibited one (Sistine Stallone).  As a part of their parents' efforts to equalize things, Mia and Sasha are invited to engage in some forced bonding aboard a boat excursion to go look at the feeding habits of great white sharks, which turns out to not be just cheeky foreshadowing, though it is also definitely cheeky foreshadowing.  Either way, Sasha has zero interest in this, and cajoles Mia into joining Alexa and Nicole on a trip to a lake on the other side of where their dad's working, where they can take a dive and look at some of this cool Mayan stuff themselves, which, if you know the premise of the movie, is obviously where their troubles are going to begin.

Uncaged takes its aesthetic straight out of The Shallows' playbook, with a lot of bright sports video cinematography to start things out, and, for a little while, lets you soak in the genuinely pleasant experience of the four girls enjoying a nice day out together with Mia loosening up and realizing not every single person on Earth is a monster bitch from hell.  But it gradually darkens, the shots get more portentous, and then it veers off toward a different horror classic entirely, and becomes The Underwater Descent With Sharks, for as the foursome explore the spooky underwater ruins, they meet several inhabitants of this mysterious cave, first a transparent fish that screams at them (in what is, hands down, the dumbest and worst and most inexplicable part of a movie that is overall quite enjoyable), and then the things that eat those fish: blind albino great white sharks.  If the biological plausbility of this bothers you, you are watching movies the wrong way.  (If the rendering and compositing of the CGI sharks bothers you, well, then you simply have normal human visual processing, but let's give a poor low-budget movie a break, shall we?)

And that's the deal, four girls (plus dad plus his assistants, because body count) vs. several sharks, and it's altogether a fine meal of precious warm porridge, in no small part because David Bryan's cave sets and Mark Silk's underwater photography look splendid: Uncaged, much like The Descent, extracts so much anxious visual joy out of swathes of light moving through the unknown darkness.  Practically the whole middle section of the film can be described as a series of cascading sheets of color and black that are routinely scary, but, often enough, tip all the way into hypnotic abstraction, which, in Uncaged's case, is emphasized even further by the trippy sense of weightlessness already conjured by the submarine setting.  There is an amazing little piece of cinema here involving a blinking red alarm light sinking alongside our heroines within the darkness, a "jump scare" tactic that translates into unbearable suspense while you're watching it, because we know damn well that in one of those flashes, that "jump scare" is bound to come, we just don't know which one.  Of course, this is only the most wonderful expression of the film's structure as a work of horror: Uncaged, unlike The Descent (in fact, unlike The Shallows, oddly), is inevitably somewhat hamstrung by its PG-13 rating, which means minimal gore and therefore some pretty hard limits on how good it could be.  Miraculously, it still manages a lot of fun even within that rating's unfair restraints.  As with its best scene, it tends to play with your notions of the "when" rather than the "how"; the dad eats it in such an unexpected way that I found myself laughing at the screen with a not-inconsiderable joy and another character drowns in a sequence that's affecting in the precise opposite way.  Uncaged contains multitudes, I suppose.  (Uncaged certainly never plays up the "whether": it's extremely obvious who will live and who will die, but one should't hold that against a slasher-with-sharks, at least any more than one does any other iteration of that genre.)

Ultimately, it does start to run out of ideas about what to actually do with its setting and its monsters; The Descent comparisons run aground fairly quickly given that The Descent is more of an action movie than anything else, and Mia and Sasha aren't, like, going to war against these beasts.  Around the time that Uncaged brings its heroines to a terribly realized CGI whirlpool, you realize that it's starting to run on fumes, though it has the good sense to reorient things entirely for its finale, which is presented in a moment of dawning "oh, fuck you" terror that uses the photographic language it established earlier for some pretty devious ends, returning us to the "safe" surf video-style cinematography despite nothing whatsoever about this sequence being the least bit actually safe.  It's easily this movie's second-best scene, even if it is also easy to think of approximately two whole dozen ways that this finale could have been significantly better if Uncaged had the R rating and slightly higher budget it deserved.  Still, it's awfully hard to argue with solid horror craftsmanship married to such arresting visuals, or with a shark-slasher that has largely interchangeable victims but still rather likeable ones, or, in the final analysis, with any movie that gamely acknowledges that it has just enough material for an 89 minute runtime and not one minute more.  47 Meters Down: Uncaged is a gem: I knew it was made for me when it arrived at a scene of gorgeous underwater welding set against the diegetic music of Roxette on the soundtrack; the only way I knew it wasn't made by me in this moment was that it wasn't "Riders In the Sky."

Score: 7/10

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