The Perfection (2019)

The perfection

Feminist theory is difficult. It is not easy to construct something that criticizes society’s role for women while at the same time developing strong female characters. When a film successfully builds a story that both supports women and addresses cultural problems surrounding their treatment, that work should be lauded and recommended far and wide for the education of general audiences. This is not one of those films.

The movie’s plot is convoluted and confused, to a point that it forgets entire story-lines in favor of rushing to the end.  It begins with the introduction of Charlotte (portrayed by Allison Williams) and Lizzie (played by Logan Browning), two world-class cellists attending a scouting event for their Alma mater in Shanghai. The former has fallen from grace – she left the academy to care for her sick mother, leaving a spot for Lizzie to take the lead. Alton, as played by Steven Weber, runs the academy and is thrilled his two proteges have taken a liking to one another. Alton is a slimy, manipulative instructor whose motivations are in no way mysterious, much to the chagrin of director Richard Shepard, I’m sure. Charlotte and Lizzie fall head first into a romantic relationship with almost no development and decide to journey into rural China. At first, I thought this would lead into some sort of zombie-plague-horror movie where our protagonists attempt to survive. I was very wrong – the film takes a hard right turn into totally new, intriguing territory. Too bad the film never righted itself after that turn, careening off a cliff into a nonsensical abyss. It begins to introduce some ideas familiar to feminism (namely that women are forced to be perfect in the eyes of man, and are punished if they are not) but falls short of creating any real commentary or discussion on the matter.

perfect
Pictured: the start of an interesting movie. Lizzie (left) and Charlotte have been kicked off the bus in rural China because of Lizzie’s sickness. Too bad this mysterious and engaging plot is scrapped in favor of a cliche revenge adventure.

When attempting to make a film with a message behind it, the tone of the movie needs to be consistent or, failing that, the dialogue and action needs to be compelling. The Perfection certainly has no compelling dialogue and few interesting action sequences,  but is also has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be – is it an over-the-top horror-action flick with strong women that take back their agency, or is it a serious look at the ramifications of the pressures women face from men in Western society? In not deciding what it wants to be, the film becomes a tangled mess, so much so that it begins to bore the viewer. Any viewer can figure out how everything will play out 30 minutes before it actually does, making the ending tedious and meaningless.

To clarify, feminist theory – as used in literature and cinema – is used as a way to describe a work that explores the historic oppression of women and men’s role in it. This is a gross simplification, but then again, this film is a gross simplification of the problems women face. Feminist theory is most effective when the characters within the story have depth, when they can represent certain ideas without having to explicitly say them. Lizzie and Charlotte do not encapsulate any ideas. They are blank slates used to show how bad men are with no real-world connection. Their dialogue with one another reads like a young adult novel and carries no true weight. It’s filler.

The-Perfection-Trailer-700x291
This shot and the scene it belongs to are meant to intense and grotesque. If it had achieved its goal, I should have a visceral reaction to this image. Rather, I feel nothing.

I will say this about the film – it is very well-made. The cinematography is unique and interesting (sans the shot with the rotating camera) and I found myself admiring individual shots more than I ordinarily would. The music (that is, the classical music) also worked very well throughout the film to set the tone. Unfortunately, the strength of the music is all but nuked by the choice to include hip-hop and other more aggressive songs toward the end. I get the message the filmmakers wish to convey with this stylistic choice, but it is cliched and not-at-all subtle, something this film does not know the meaning of.

The acting is something else to praise in the film. I believe that Shepard does a fantastic job in helping his actors to emote pain or suffering, and Browning especially demonstrated real fear at the beginning. I argue she is the best part of this whole situation. Of course, her dialogue and the rather rigid performance given by Williams bring down any hope of her standing as a strong female character.

I wanted this movie to be good. I wanted it to capture the hearts and minds of horror fans and general audiences alike. I want it to stand with the likes of Black Swan (2010) and Annihilation (2018), but the fact is it just doesn’t. The writing is sloppy, the dialogue a joke, and the characters have about as much depth as a petri dish. The obvious “twists” at the end of the film make it tedious to watch and frankly boring. If you really want feminist horror films that hold up, check out Suspiria (1977/2018) or Rosemary’s Baby (1968), films that criticize society’s treatment of women in a thoughtful and intriguing manner, unlike the dull flick now on Netflix.

Advertisements

Await Further Instructions (2018)

poster

Let me start off by saying I was with this movie. I was totally down for the mystery and suspense that it built, how technology can manipulate people, and the dynamic between all the family members. This movie saw my enthusiasm, took it to a back alley, and beat it into submission. Johnny Kavorkian’s (not to be confused with Jack Kavorkian, the notorious “death doctor” that advocates for physician-assisted suicide) second movie is one of the most cliched works I have ever seen. The “message” is so tired, so archaic and boring that I thought I was missing something at the end.

The movie opens with a man (Nick, played by Sam Gittins) and his non-white girlfriend Annji (played by Neerja Naik) going to his family’s home for Christmas. It is made abundantly clear that he has not had contact with his family for several years and that they are not huge fans of any people of color. I should say that this is a British movie, so some of the social commentary may have been lost on me. But I doubt it was anything meaningful.

Await-Further-Instructions-Trailer-752x440
The very exciting and engaging characters. Even they look bored with the script.

The movie slowly develops the characters into shallow caricatures – the racist, abusive grandpa, the meek but sometimes strong mother, the overbearing father, the dumb and pregnant sister with an equally dumb but loving brother-in-law. Truthfully, I do not remember their names, but that hardly matters. Eventually, Nick and Annji decide the racism and judgement is too much to handle and try to leave, only to find that the entire house is sealed within some sort of metal cage. All the windows, doors, everything are blocked. At this point my interest was piqued – will this movie be an exploration of how people who secretly hate each other come to cooperate and love one another? Or end up murdering everyone? Woe is my wasted excitement.

After the cage comes down, the TV comes on and begins giving instructions such as “administer the vaccine that came down the chimney” or “isolate the infected” (they assume it is Annji, of course). The father decides to follow the TV instructions exactly, reasonably believing that there is some sort of attack happening and they are being quarantined. As the movie progresses however, the instructions get odder and more sinister, resulting in the death of most of the characters. The ending is so cliched, such a dated allegory that it ruins any semblance of decency the movie had. To save you a watch, the movie’s ultimate message is that television/media is evil and is corrupting society to such an extent that it will control every aspect of our lives, that it demands a form of worship. The TV literally says “worship me” to multiple characters. Need I remind the reader, this movie was made in 2018, not 1993.

lawl
This may look terrifying as a still, but is incredibly goofy in motion. It’s also showcased on the poster of the movie, effectively ruining the climax.

This is a bad movie. It has its moments of suspense, it has its jump scares, it tries. But the ending and “twist” completely ruin it. The allegory is so obvious and dumb that it will leave most viewers rolling their eyes and switching to just about anything else. The special effects do not help either, since the director clearly could not decide (or did not have the budget) to do either CGI or practical effects and thus did a mix of the two, resulting in a weird and silly looking final “monster.” Take a hard pass on this.

Tension in Horror: Why it Doesn’t Always Work

A blonde, cute protagonist enters a dark room. She anxiously scans the shadowy walls as the camera zooms in on her face. We see every line of fear in her. She slowly walks into the room, wringing her hands. The music intensifies. She turns the corner when BAM! She runs into a lamp. Oh thank God it wasn’t the villain or something interesting! That would have been horrifying!

With Halloween right around the corner, a good number of horror movies and shows have wormed their way into just about every streaming service and cable TV channel. The October over-saturation of  spooky stories comes with its fair share of potential classics and total dogs. But what makes the few stand out from the many? Why has Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House created such a buzz, while FX’s American Horror Story still struggles to maintain relevance? What differentiates good horror from abominations that leave you asking for your time back?

ugh
The promotional material for American Horror Story is often scarier than the show itself.

The answer lies in how the director and editor choose to establish and subsequently break tension. When making a movie, most filmmakers want to evoke some form of emotion from the audience, whether it be sadness, happiness, or fear. There are multiple ways to subtlety influence audiences to be in the right frame of mind or mood: color saturation, music, lighting, the list goes on. With regards to horror, low saturation, dramatic yet tense music in a minor key, dark or exaggerated lighting, and dramatic cuts are used to arouse fear. If this is so straightforward, then how come some works of horror leave you sleeping with the lights on, whereas others have you yawning at the climax?

meat hell fest
Pictured: me at Hell Fest (2018) (image courtesy of getty images)

All the previously mentioned tools act as ways to build tension, but not how to break it. It is that breaking point that creates the jolt of fear, that brief shot of adrenaline that horror fans so crave. What certain horror movies or series do that works against them is shatter the tension, thereby calming down the audience and having to work to re-engage them. The most common way movies or shows do this is through jump scares. These can be effective (see Halloween (1978), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Alien (1979)), but too much of it combined with choppy, inconsistent editing leads to a boring, not-at-all-scary experience (here’s looking at you, Hell Fest (2018)). In order to prevent the audience from getting bored, it’s important to bend the tension rather than destroy it. Hell Fest stands as an example in How to Bore Your Audience, since it breaks the tension it built up then goes right back to dialogue no one cares about, leaving the shattered remains of a decent horror flick for the actors to tread upon.

MV5BMjIyMjU2MzIxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzI2NTUyMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1431,1000_AL_
This single image is more tense than the entirety of some horror films. Taken from Alien (1979).

A certain amount of creativity is needed to bend tension rather than just break it. The Haunting of Hill House does this wonderfully by not drawing too much attention to the scare. The camera pans to the ghost rather than cutting to it, which builds tension in of itself. Since a violent cut does not occur, the audience takes a half second to react, therefore reducing the impact but still ensuring the audience stays with the tone of the film. It Follows (2014) does this as well, adding another element by having some of the more terrifying scenes occur in broad daylight.

In short, what really makes a horror movie or show work is how it breaks the tension it builds. If it slowly bends it, the audience gets an additional dose of anticipation and keeps that built-up tension for the remaining scares. Should the film shatter it, the fear and adrenaline last only for a moment.

Jigsaw (2017)

I’m a pretty big fan of horror. Anything from “pop” horror like It (2017) to Junji Ito’s wonderfully terrifying mangas. But the Saw franchise has never managed to hold my attention. I did not see the first one until over a decade after its initial release, and have seen bits and pieces of the other 7 or 8 films. I know what they are – fun thrill rides with a dash of torture porn and grotesque deaths. Honestly, I see the appeal; it’s fun to watch these characters (who are often so underdeveloped they act more as mannequins than people) go through creative traps. There’s tension, it’s sometimes goofy in a macabre way, I get it. But Jigsaw (2017) – the “reboot” of the series – has none of these things.

MV5BMTk2MzE4NzU3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg0NDk5MjE@._V1_SX1492_CR0,0,1492,999_AL_
RIP creepy and creative traps. From Saw (2004)

Before getting into my many, many issues with this movie, it’s worth noting that the directors (Peter and Michael Spierig)and writers of this had not previously worked on a Saw movie. All of them have horror credits to their name (the Spierig brothers directed the so-so vampire film Daybreakers), but not one has worked on a franchise of this calibre. And it shows.

Jigsaw opens up with an intense car chase in the middle of the day through a city – quite different from the traps and dark rooms we are used to seeing. I appreciate the attempt at breaking from the norm here, but it is so forgettable that I had to google “Jigsaw opening scene” because it serves almost no purpose to the rest of the film. Nothing gross or creepy happens, so it doesn’t stand out in your mind. The rest of the film follows the same formula as the previous Saw iterations: opening trap, different characters need to confess their sins, they either do or don’t, we get our blood and gore.

jigsaw
Such violence! The film lacks in blood and gore, one of many issues it has.

Of course there’s a twist at the end, but the story is so convoluted and steeped in the lore of the Saw series that it meant nothing to me. There was a weak attempt to introduce the audience to the potential players and/or orchestraters of the trap set-up, but I just didn’t care. I assumed these characters were from previously installments and I had missed out, but a quick look at IMDb tells me that this is everyone’s first Saw experience (sans Tobin Bell, who reprises his role as John Kramer/Jigsaw).

who are you
WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE

Discovering that these characters are new to the franchise is troublesome, because they are treated as thought they are established. I am speaking exclusively about the forensics team that is investigating the death of the man in the opening sequence, because the people caught in the trap(s) do not matter at all. I can’t recall a single name, and can only vaguely remember what they were each guilty of. It’s totally irrelevant. Only one character actually matters, which the film graciously provides flashbacks to remind us who the hell he is.

All of the script problems and plot structure issues could be forgiven if the movie leaned into its silliness and gave the audience what they wanted: cool, creative traps that people get shredded in. But that doesn’t happen. Yes, there are traps. No, they are not particularly creative or interesting.

MV5BMTkxNzA5ODQyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTczNjg2MzI@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_
Remember when we had cool traps? The movie attempts to pay homage to past creativity.

But the biggest problem – the thing that totally ruins this movie – is its editing. I don’t know how they managed it, but the editing is so inconsistent that it does not help to create any sort of mood. In this scene, (all credit to the filmmakers) there is no creativity with the camera, and very little tension built up. The shots take too long to start with, and are too quick at the end for the audience to react. The directors shied away from creating what could have been the highlight of the film.

It’s best to take a hard pass on this. The poor writing, mediocre acting, and horrible editing make it a painful experience, and not in a good way. 1/10