Room 237

August 9, 2012

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining carried a tagline: The Wave of Terror That Swept Across America. Interrogating just what that wave of terror might be, Room 237 consists of a series of off-camera interviews offering a number of focused readings of Kubrick’s film. Unfortunately, Room 237 is unkind to its contributors in its clumsy assemblage and presentation of their ideas.

The disembodied voices whose observations are told are never seen, leaving the viewer with no association for the words that spring forth. But worse than that, there is no presentation – not even a quick title onscreen – as to who these voices belong to at all. No names or credentials are ever given which further undermines and betrays their readings by asking the viewer to take a huge leap of faith and trust the opinions given, irregardless of their origins.

There is also little innovation in the visual style with many of the clips from The Shining, and indeed other Kubrick films, shown ad nauseum when one clear example from the text ought to suffice in illustrating the point. Coupled with the fact that the quality of the footage itself is visually poor, makes it difficult to become immersed in the analysis. Interesting and provocative readings aside, Room 237 is like a first year film student attempting to give a third year lecture. Messy.

Room 237 screens as a part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival with further sessions on Friday August 17th at 9pm and on Sunday August 19th at 11am. 

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Killer Joe

August 8, 2012

Killer Joe Cooper suffers psychopathy. He is a manipulative, egocentric, unempathetic, guiltless symbol for the patriarch and the Name of the Law – penal, and later, familial. His character commands control and receives submission from both on-screen characters and viewers alike. Therein is the problematic in “enjoying” Killer Joe.

There are five central characters; after Joe there is Ansel, the endearing but incompetent patriarch before Joe enters and assumes the throne in their domestic domain, and Chris, Ansel’s rogue, harebrained son who comes up with central plot device of killing his own mother to collect on the life insurance. Whilst Ansel and Chris are depicted as unintelligent, foolish and are often the subject of some particularly base jokes, they are kept just barely on the right side of audience alignment by the film’s further and more persecuting jokes aimed at the female characters. Of whom there is Adele – the absent mother mostly referred to as a bitch and only shown once where we see her dead – or at least near-dead – body during the patriarch’s removal of her impotent reign. Then there is Sharla, the deceitful, scheming, unfaithful woman who represents whore. Joining these two already glowing representations of women is Dottie, the virginal, naive, slightly affected and potentially mentally challenged daughter and ultimately little more than the retainer following a contract transaction between aforementioned patriarchal figures Joe, Ansel and Chris. After the film removes the impotent, it condemns the whore and finally rapes and damages its virgin. Dottie is almost the film’s innocent charmer until the final scene where she too forgoes any previous sense of morality, ethics, empathy, compassion – heck, humanity, and callously kills the only people she supposedly loves and cares for. The final sting being that all the concern for the weak and seemingly innocent version of the feminine was still a waste of male time and energy as she, like all women, was only to turn on the males in the end.

But what’s most concerning about Killer Joe is the guise that it is a “Black Comedy”. The entire Smith family are depicted as pathetic and parasitic to society. Although the focus is never on Joe as an officer of the law, we are always aware that he represents the penal code, societal structure and of course the Name of the Law. Here, with a family that are willing and eager to turn upon themselves, leaving one another out to dry, Joe is the only character with whom the audience are even close to aligned. Are we to take then that psychopathy is preferable to those who are depicted here as the economic dregs of society?

Certainly it is possible to take controversial, uncomfortable subject matter and satirise it in a way that is bleak and comedic; depictions of depravity that leave the viewer with feelings of uncomfortable self reflection on their ability to find such material amusing or films that expose their protagonists as weak, unstable – Happiness is a great example of such an achievement; but Killer Joe does none of these things. It may well be true that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is brilliant and even that the character of Joe captures onscreen the displays of psychopathy to perfection, but enabling that character control over the audience and their responses is a curious and pivotal choice for the film’s ultimate success. The result, unfortunately, is a room full of laughter – not at the suggestion of a misogynist act – but at the humiliation of the act carried out.

There are further issues in the film and certainly this is a gloss in terms of examples but what’s problematic about Killer Joe isn’t that its lead character suffers psychopathy, nor that it employs humour in a tale of such subject matter, but that it uses the psychopathy as a tool for seduction through which it repeatedly revels in the successful delivering of dangerous ideology.

Splice Giveaway

December 7, 2010

Thanks to the wonderfully good people at Madman Entertainment I’ve got a pre-Christmas giveaway for readers of Liminal Vision. As regular visitors to this site will know, my interest in film is centred mainly around its ability to communicate theoretical, philosophical, psychoanalytical and/or ethical contemplations through visual content. And in a film about splicing together human and animal DNA, I’d say there’s more than just a little ethical questioning taking place, not to mention the one or two decidedly Freudian going-ons, and, of course, I do also happen to have something of a soft spot for wonderfully entertaining B-grade horror-schlock when it’s done just right. SO, to celebrate the December 15 DVD & Blu-ray release of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009) I’ll be giving four lucky readers a Christmas gift of gloriously gory proportions!

Below is an excerpt from my MIFF review of Splice (you can access the full review here.)

“Two young, top of their game, and very much in love scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), ignore the forbidding from their superiors and the “moral implications” of it all, and go ahead and splice together human and animal DNA. But motivated by more than just the science of the thing, the resultant spawn, Dren (Delphine Chaneac) becomes more like a deformed daughter to them than the subject of a scientific experiment, culminating in a whole lot more than they bargained for during her “coming of age” style awakening…. At its best a form of flattery for the likes of Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg in its comic gross-out moments … Splice (2009) is a successfully commercial, fun horror-schlock flick.”

To win one of 2 DVDs and 2 Blu-rays of this film please send an email naming your favourite David Cronenberg film to midnightmovies@live.co.uk with your full name and postal address and the word ‘Splice’ in the subject header – don’t forget to please also indicate whether you would prefer DVD or Blu-ray. Winners will be picked at random, at the author of this blog’s discretion and all decisions are final.

DVD Special features include; “The Making of Splice”, “The Director’s Playground” and an interview with acclaimed director Vincenzo Natali.

Splice will be available 15 December 2010 (on DVD $29.95RRP and Blu-ray $39.95RRP) through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Last Exorcism

November 25, 2010

When a film’s title suggests it is the “last” of anything it is fairly obvious that it will be self-reflexive within the confines of its own generic classification. Whilst clearly it is has no intention of being the “last” of its kind (there was in 1982 The Last Horror Film and in 2003 The Last Horror Movie, neither of which have come remotely close to being “last” and both of which were in fact rather poorly received), what it is hoping to do is definitively invert certain generic tropes altering, or at least playing with, audience expectancy and a prescribed economics of predictability.  The Last Exorcism (2010) then is far more comparable to something like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) which is also a mockumentary horror/comedy that plays very much as The Last Exorcism does with audience investment and the effects of suspending and re-introducing standard generic modes of disbelief. Furthermore, with the credits reading “Produced by Eli Roth” it would remiss of anyone aware of even contemporary horror film history to think that the film wasn’t at least a little bit interested in testing its audience.

The Last Exorcism opens with protagonist and exorcist Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) shaving and talking to camera (which is already self-consciously visible from the bathroom mirror reflection) to establish a “documentary aesthetic”. The first section of the film continues in this stylistic manner as it reveals a little about our fraudulent hero. The majority of the Cotton talking to camera sequences operate to establish both him and Him as imposters, often to great comic effect. Cotton tells us, “If you believe in God you have to believe in the devil. Jesus Himself was an exorcist.” And, on contemplating this one last “exorcism” he is about to perform – his way out of what he calls a crisis of faith, “I’m gonna miss this. Maybe I’ll sell real estate.”

Then the film shifts up a gear (much like the aforementioned Behind the Mask) and crosses over from its comedic mockumentary style and becomes an actual horror film for the remainder of its duration. The shift is timely and welcome as, irregardless of how amusing the mockumentary elements are (and they really are, especially the sequence where we are shown the process behind many standard effects used in horror), there is only so long such a technique can sustain itself and its audience’s attention. That said, there are still plenty of laughs to come even within the “horror” scenes themselves.

The performed exorcisms and the possession sequences that follow are suspiciously like the ones seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) (particularly the barn sequence) although the results and the level of tension pitched in this film are much less severe or serious. The final scene in the film (a tonally fitting end for a horror/comedy) is where The Last Exorcism confirms that it was interested primarily in adjusting the levels of tone and pace with the hope at altering well-established, predictable and arguably tired paradigms of audience expectancy. Whilst far from “scary” and not exactly definitive in execution, The Last Exorcism is a lot of fun and comes with an appreciable knowledge and respect for horror-literate audiences.

The Last Exorcism is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 25 through Hopscotch Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Loved Ones

November 2, 2010

After having its release date pushed back several times and subsequently being withdrawn from this year’s AFI Award Screenings, The Loved Ones (2009), which premiered at MIFF in 2009, is finally getting its release in Australian cinemas. Assuredly worth the wait, The Loved Ones is simultaneously a relief and a pleasure as an Australian film that can honestly boast both an original script and a unique directorial vision. Taking my hat off to writer/director Sean Byrne, for whom this is a feature film debut, I’d like to talk a little about the role of performativity within the film and how it is so wonderfully amplified by an inspirational kitsch-horror aesthetic.

The film opens with Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel), a seemingly happy teen, driving along a highway with his father. At this point Brent fits the stereotype of a young, carefree, plaid-shirt wearing, country boy-next-door. But when an ill omen appears in front of them in the form of a blood-drenched young man, causing Brent to swerve suddenly and crash into a nearby tree, killing his father, there is a clear break with this idyllic presentation of reality and Brent undergoes a deeply Freudian experience of trauma. Blaming himself for his father’s death, and becoming increasingly distant from his own “loved ones”; a grief-stricken mother and a concerned girlfriend; some six month later Brent is displaying early signs of “emo” behaviour and from here we are introduced to a group of teenagers who each perform hyper-real stereotypes of misplaced teen angst and overzealous sexual desires.

In addition to “emo” protagonist Brent there is; goth Mia (Jessica McNamee), stoner Jamie (Richard Wilson), pretty, popular girl Holly (Victoria Thaine) and invisible wilting wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy). Each teen carefully performs both their stereotype and their gender in order to establish their individual “role” and “function” in an environment where identification and semiotics are everything: high school. In order to judge, categorise and somewhat misguidedly “understand” one another it is acceptable for teens to almost over-perform these roles in order to establish a clear, unspoken order, and from that order derive a set of acceptable and unacceptable social codes. Once established, we see these codes at play in almost every scene as gender and type conversely allow and forbid the various social and sexual encounters that take place in the narrative film world.

Stoner Jamie is emo Brent’s best mate, acceptable within the established social code because 1) they are both gendered male and 2) they are both in roles that operate as counter to popular or mainstream teen stereotypes. Each of our male protagonists then performs his straight heteronormative sexuality by taking up with a performed female counterpart. Jamie, nervous and introverted (qualities becoming of our typical stoner friend) asks gorgeous goth Mia to the school dance. She accepts with little enthusiasm with confirms her goth stereotype through 1) nonchalance and indifference and 2) by taking up with a stoner who is an acceptable date for a goth as they, again, both occupy positions counter to the popular majority.

Due however to Brent’s transition from a happy-go-lucky boy-next-door type to outsider emo, we see two very different female gendered performances present themselves to him and, in lieu of their rivalry, a truly fascinating break down of these established social codes ensues. Brent already has a girlfriend: an attractive, fun-loving girl-next-door type. She is compassionate and caring and even though Brent’s recent emo behaviour has put a strain on their relationship it still functions because 1) she operates as a nurturer, intent on “saving” her wistful, broken partner and 2) because their relationship presumably pre-dates Brent’s performative change it can supposedly withstand it. But, unbeknownst to Holly, Lola has read Brent’s present emo performance as a coded opportunity to ask him to be her date for the school dance. Of course he declines, in a kind but dismissive way which one would ordinarily assume, from Lola’s performed wallflower exterior, would sadden and probably even humiliate her. But what no one could have predicted is that it would anger and provoke her own change in performativity. And when Lola’s shy violet facade fades, it reveals a terrifyingly promiscuous pink psycho-killer in its wake.

Abducting Brent and inflicting her pent-up psychotic desires upon him, Lola performs the stereotype she would rather embody: a perfectly pink prom queen. Outside of the coded grounds of high school, Lola is a “Princess” who gets whatever she wants; the spoilt, brattish embodiment of “Daddy’s little girl”. Dressing Brent in a tux she tries to force him to perform the available role of prom king to her queen, and failing thus his resistance is met with bloody violence.

The violence that then takes place, though I am sure many will crudely call it torture-porn, actually operates as a manifestation of misplaced and misrepresented teen angst and sexual desire as well as a subtle indicator for the breakdown of cohesive, functional familial structure – Lola’s relationship with her father, known disturbingly only as “Daddy”, being decidedly less than kosher. Not wanting to give too much away, the most interesting violent act Lola exacts is the attempt to home-labotomise her victim using a power drill. The required removal of Brent’s agency is demonstrative of the intense break-down of Lola’s performed fantasies and her failed need for an implicit co-performer.

With the pinkest of pinks you could possibly imagine (and probably pinker), Lola is a vision in satin, glitter and lip-gloss, which, set against the cruel and unforgiving mise-en-scene of rural depravity offers up a kitsch backdrop for the tremendous splashes of blood that homage a plethora of horror films from the ’70s and ’80s. In lieu of this, and as the only central teen character not shown to be sexually active, Lola’s excess in blood-spill make her an exemplary model for Barbara Creed’s “monstrous feminine” or Laura Mulvey’s “bearer of the bleeding wound”. A modern-day Carrie if you will, Lola abjectly performs and embodies the inverted object of the male gaze, she who  “can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” (Laura Mulvey)

Intercutting between our stoner and goth couple getting it on whilst Princess tortures her victim, there is also an interesting juxtaposition of Freudian life and death drives whereby alternating actions intended towards creation and calm represent a terrifically twisted view of teen survival. Fantastically shot against devastating and pathetic surroundings of; a tackily decorated school gym, the unromantic, unmemorable car park setting for a sexual encounter and the disturbingly child-like bedroom of our femme fatal, right up to the final moments where the highway plays cyclical host to the horror at its very heart; The Loved Ones offers a fantastically kitsch aesthetic and is nothing but pure unadulterated entertainment from beginning to bloody end.

The Loved Ones is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 4 2010 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Homecoming

July 28, 2010

This year’s tribute festival strand, Dante’s Inferno, is a series of retrospective screenings of the cinematic works of subversive Hollywood insider, Joe Dante. Working within the confines of the system, Dante’s films are just about B-grade enough for both them and him to achieve cult status. Familiar with a few of his features already (I am proud to admit that my geekery knows no bounds and I enjoy viewing Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2 (1990) as part of my annual Christmas triple feature; along with Die Hard (1988), of course), I thought it was about time I gave his shorter works a wee look-in. Although I’m usually happy to subscribe to the mantra that good things come in threes (skeptics can refer back to my aforementioned Christmas viewing program), when it came to Tuesday night’s screening, it was more the case that “two out of three ain’t bad”.

Homecoming (2005, 58 mins)

This is the most relentlessly self-conscious and blatantly subversive zombie schlock flick I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Featuring sensationally drawn republican sycophants up against a bunch of military soldier “zombie dissidents” whose motivation to return undead has absolutely nothing to do with the desire to eat people or even to “infect” them, but comes rather from the great compulsion to exercise their democratic right to vote against the very administration that needlessly sent them to their deaths in the search for a bunch of made up WMDs. With a script so incredibly sassy that you’ll barely have time to finish laughing at one line of dialogue before you starting cracking up at the next, Homecoming is a film where one cheap shot constantly and hilariously supercedes the last.

It ‘s a Good Life (1983, 26 mins)

This might in fact be the very best thing I’ve seen at the festival so far. When the film started up I began to experience a pang of nostalgia and some kinda creepy deja vu. Then I realised that here was a film I have seen somewhere around twenty or thirty times (at least) in my childhood and that used to absolutely scare the crap out of me. The opportunity to see it on film, and on a big screen, well, that sure was something. The story is a simple one; Helen Foley is a school teacher whose life is ruled by “sameness” and who endlessly waits “for something different to happen”. Following an “accident” outside a highway diner, Helen drives the young boy involved home, stopping in to meet his “family” for just a moment… But Anthony is no ordinary boy and his “special powers” stretch the limits of reality in this imaginative and terrifying installment of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series.

Lightning (1995, 31 mins)

This was, unfortunately, the weakest film in the program. Not all together terrible but certainly paling in comparison to the two films that came before, Lightning is an old-fashioned tale about greed and comeuppance. Very straight forward, narrative and moral, Lightning ought to be daytime tele fodder programmed alongside the likes of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982).

Homecoming, It’s a Good Life and Lightning are screening as part of the Joe Dante retrospective program of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again on Saturday July 31 2010, 4.45pm in ACMI 2.