Tuesday, February 18, 2014

All In The Family: Mending Texas Chainsaw 3D

I want to start off with a quote from the end of the film. In this piece of dialogue, and throughout the story, we are told the main theme.
“Farnsworth has instructed to give you a set of keys to the manor. The largest key opens the fortified door to the wine cellar. There, you will discover a metal door. Behind it lives your cousin: Jedediah Sawyer, your only remaining blood relative. He is family-bound, and will protect you. He simply requires your care in return. Edith, you are the last of my line of Sawyer. My blood runs through you. The decision to stay is yours. Just remember: you are a Sawyer… and this is home.”
Texas Chainsaw 3D wants you to believe that it’s a movie about family, and while I’m completely on board with that, it not only throws this wonderful idea out the window, it substitutes it for meaningless plot devices and uninspired characters that could have furthered the story’s integrity. This is not going to be a review but rather a breakdown of its problems and my attempt at fixing them. I will not include any criticism of the bland acting, the appalling CGI or its cliché-ridden script. 

Before I get into the bulk of this article, I must explain the idea of family throughout all the Texas Chainsaw incarcerations except for Next Generation because I refuse to watch it a second time. In the 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I always felt like the Sawyers (their surname was not introduced until the second film) were a bastardization of the humble Midwest family, and thus a grim, ugly satire of the American Dream. In the film’s final moments, we are introduced to the relatives in full. Like a distortion of the infamous ‘Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell, the Sawyers are seated together at the table, laughing, mocking and ready to kill our heroine. However, the element of family is present. Just like Rockwell’s vision of an ideal 1950’s household coming together for a grand feast, the Sawyers have gathered together to kill their last victim. It’s ugly, twisted and darkly comedic.  

In 1986, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II, we are introduced to Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright whose sole mission in the entirely of the film is to seek vengeance on the Sawyer family for killing his niece and nephew. Already, there is the concept of family rivalry and retribution. (Think of a Hatfield and McCoy type rivalry). In the last third of the film, when Lefty invades ‘Nam Land, the Sawyers are seated together at their table, echoing the final moments of the first film. I will even argue that the dynamic between Drayton Sawyer and his two sons, Chop Top and Leatherface, is much more expressed. Their squabbling banter and slapstick antics seem inspired by those dysfunctional family reunions that we all experience. Drayton also seems adamant with preserving the family name by winning the local chili contest, and mentions the family skill of knowing good meat. There, we are introduced to hereditary pride.

Finally, we have Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Here, we are introduced to a whole new family but if anything we get a more intimate understanding of how they function and interact peacefully despite their cannibalistic nature. Some of the best moments are when our heroine, Michelle, is tied in the kitchen where the family prepares to cook her friend. Tex, one of the older brothers, hangs Michelle’s friend upside down while his kid sister kills him with a hammer-swimming device that her other older brother made.  This entire sequence serves as a furthering of previously established themes from the first movie, albeit cartoony and ham-fisted. There is a beautiful moment, as pictured above, where Leatherface embraces his kid sister. Norman Rockwell would be rolling his grave. Even the chainsaw has The Saw Is Family engraved on it, furthering the notion that family is all the Sawyers have.  

As for the 2003 remake and the 2006 prequel, I will not touch on them too heavily. With that said, the family in these incarnations are extended to aunts, uncles and a nephew. Like the ’86 film, though not as loony, there are squabbles between Sheriff Hoyt, the patriarch, and Leatherface. In fact, it seems like we are treated to a whole community of Hewitts that live within walking distance of each other. If anything, this franchise is built on family relations, so it seems only natural for Texas Chainsaw 3D to take this notion and run with it. I was all for it, too. I wanted this film to explore the family dynamic further, but I suppose it was all wishful thinking.

Texas Chainsaw 3D picks up right after the events following the 1974 film, where the sheriff and a posse attempt to arrest and enact vigilante justice one the Sawyers. However, the posse ends up shooting everyone, and then burns the house down. One of the posse members finds a young Sawyer woman with a newborn, kills her, and steals the baby to raise it with his wife. Decades later, the baby is now our heroine, Heather. We come to our first problem. We are never given enough time to understand Heather’s character or motivation! All we know is this: she has a boyfriend, and two other friends. She works as a supermarket butcher, and her relationship with her ‘parents’ is cold. We never get to see her feel isolated, lonely or detached. She seems relatively happy, but maybe if we extended some shots or added a few scenes, we could see that it was all a put-on to conceal her loneliness. She never has that “I feel like I am missing something” discussion with her boyfriend, and we hardly get any insight into her relationship with her seemingly unsupportive parents. If we spent just a little more time understanding her interactions with them, it would accomplish A) Heather’s feeling that she doesn’t belong with this family, providing leeway into the adoption conversation, B) it would portray her parents as crucial plot elements to juxtapose with her relationship with Leatherface later in the film, as opposed to stock clichéd rednecks, and C) a more extensive argument in which her parents prohibit her endeavor to Texas would make us understand Heather’s plight and little more clearly. If the writers took their time in fleshing out their character, rather than giving her jet-black hair and eyeliner, then perhaps we would have felt some sympathy towards her. What we get instead is a broad, uninspired final-girl.

Let’s get into the two pointless sub-plots. Our first plot-device is presented as a handsome drifter who, after charming his way into our heroes’ adventure, proceeds to pillage the house that Heather’s real grandmother willed her. Of course, Heather and her friends are blissfully unaware as they are in town gathering food for a barbeque. The idea of a robber could have worked and here’s how: as our thief makes his way throughout the house, pocketing jewelry and stashing silverware in his duffle bags, we follow him with the point of view of Leatherface (the killer’s POV). This adds voyeuristic tension. Seeing a stranger steal the possessions of his departed Aunt angers him, thus he kills him before he could reach the basement. This accomplishes two things: 1) it uses the robber as a means to convey Leatherface’s motivation rather than a cheap ploy to reveal our villain and provide a first victim, and 2) it sets up, early on, the concept that Leatherface is the protector of the Sawyer family lineage, and thus a guardian for our main heroine. None of these concepts would be realized until the very end. Instead, we get a dull sequence of the burglar pocketing valuables only to get his head shattered when he opens the door to Leatherface’s basement den, rendering his entire character pointless. We sacrificed thrill and character for dull, by-the-numbers storytelling.

Our final sub-plot: Heather’s boyfriend Ryan is having an affair with her best friend Nikki. In the film, this plot-point leads nowhere; Heather never finds out about the affair. It’s added to the story as an excuse for nudity and implied sexual conduct. Since the writers killed off Nikki’s boyfriend early on, they needed to find a way to get her naked. Thus, we get detoured away from time that could have been spent furthering Heather’s character. Here is what could have happened if the writers needed this plot-point: Perhaps Leatherface knew all along that Heather was his lost relative (her grandmother, his aunt, told him). He would then feel the need to protect her. When he witnesses the affair, he understands that Ryan, through his dishonesty, is hurting Heather, which prompts him to attack the couple but only kills Nikki. Chronologically, it must happen before Heather discovers Leatherface for the first time. Then, the film plays out normally where Heather is brought down to his lair. In this gruesome but possibly touching moment, we discover that Leatherface actually cares for her. Maybe he shows her his masks. As per the film, Heather escapes and hides in the graveyard. Leatherface finds her, she meets up with Ryan, they attempt to escape, Ryan dies, Heather is chased through the carnival, etc. Once more, this useless plot-point could have furthered Leatherface’s intentions of protecting his only relative, and may have possibly yield a devastating final moment between Ryan, the adulterer, and Heather our victim.

Finally, we have two moments near the end that could have been hauntingly symbolic. As I said before, if we provided a little more hostile interactions between Heather and her parents, it would juxtapose the scene where Leatherface finds her tied up by the town deputy. In that evocative and eerie moment, he lowers his chainsaw (possibly symbolic of a hostile life now passed) we see the love and affection he has for her, and conversely we see Heather feel as though she’s “at home.” When he cuts her down from the ropes, it serves as an allegory for Leatherface releasing her from her wrongful inherited bonds. It’s a shame because this scene comes so close to fruition but is tarnished by the deus ex machina birthmark element. Leatherface, just seconds before sawing Heather in half, sees her birthmark in the shape of the Sawyer family crest. Was this concept ever mentioned or alluded to in the film? If so, it was much more subtle then it needed to be.

The scene just before the final montage in which Heather’s grandmother posthumously narrates her letter, we find Heather and Leatherface together in the kitchen. This scene is played out as one final setup to a cheap jump-scare when it should have been the heart of the entire story. Heather, a little scared and slowly overcoming her shock, should embrace Leatherface as he is the only remaining relative of her true family. Also, this is supposed to be same Leatherface from the original 1974 film. He was already somewhat childish in his actions, despite wielding a chainsaw and a skin mask, and to see him embrace Heather as if she was his mother would have been an eerily touching moment. It would be bold but memorable. Leatherface, now in his fifties or sixties, should be tired and showing signs of age, making him much more sympathetic. He is no longer his youthful self anymore. Maybe, much like Heather, he too feels lonely and detached. That would mean that their unity is even greater as they fill each other’s voids. The film would have ended on an ambitiously high note.

Family is the main theme in the entire Texas Chainsaw oeuvre. It may be portrayed subtly or blatantly, but it’s always there. I wanted Texas Chainsaw 3D to set new grounds and turn our beloved horror movie icon into an anti-hero. I wanted it to take that bold new step in a completely wild direction. Sadly, what is given to us is a bland, inferior sequel to an iconic masterpiece. Texas Chainsaw 3D did not need to live up to its predecessor’s reputation, but it should have taken the franchise to its inevitable destination. When you have characters spout off lines like, “family is family,” or “no one loves you like your family,” it serves as a grim reminder of what could have been. The entire story was one enormous block of marble waiting to be sculpted into a striking figure. All it needed was careful molding, precise engraving, and delicate smoothing. Instead, the writers and producers fired up their chainsaws and reduced it to a haphazard abominable mess. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Standards of Living (2014)

I love watching independent films, especially those that lie within the horror genre because it seems they are more ambitious, risky and creative as opposed to their big-budget counterparts (zombie flicks being my favorite). It seems fitting that my first review in three years is an indie flick called Standards of Living by Aaron Mento, who I have the pleasure of talking to every now and then on Twitter. The movie is a mixed bag, not exclusively yielding to one genre. It has elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and thriller. I can’t help but speculate that Mento is trying to appeal to the fans of all the genres he admires, and I would say that he succeeds in doing so. For a first film (shot on iPad 2, of all things!), it’s a damn fine production. At the very least, to you naysayers, he made a feature film. So, what’s the movie about? Well, before I lay out the details, I must admit that this is where the film gets a little convoluted, which may be the biggest setback it has. Not to say that it’s glaring or jarring but if you were to sit down and ponder it, it does make you scratch your head (perhaps that’s what it’s suppose to do).

NOTE: I may or may to be coming up with “fan theories,” here. Also, slight spoilers.

The plot in its most basic sense is this: Peter (Scott Yarborough) is a stand-up comedian who isn’t all that funny. Nobody seems to like him. Then, one night, he receives a phone call by a man known as Mr. Randall (played stupendously by Bill Ferris), who offers him a unique opportunity including double his pay. Peter takes the offer, arrives at his home and discovers that Mr. Randall has the ability to make objects disappear, than reappear with improvement. Example: he makes Peter’s scruffy silver peanut disappear only for it to reappear as a gold peanut. Well, Mr. Randall wants to send Peter to the place where the objects disappear to so that he could retrieve his daughter. Some time ago, a mysterious man with black teeth arrives to bestow this magical gift onto Mr. Randall but he also seems to have enchanted his wife and unborn daughter. That same night, she kills herself (it’s implied that the stranger warped her mind, somehow) and Mr. Randall attempts to use his gift to save his unborn daughter. Sadly, he ultimately makes her disappear entirely from the womb. Peter crosses over into the alternative dimension and finds his now-grown-up daughter living with Alternative Mr. Randall and his alternative servant Stu (played by Derek Houck). They believe he is an angel from God sent to deliver salvation. However, Peter soon discovers that the man with black teeth isn’t who he appears to be, and that Mr. Randall my have… dare I say it… alternative motives.

Now, to go back to my one complaint: I don’t think everything was completely fleshed out, which is why it was a little hard to keep up with the story. Let’s start off with the stranger with black teeth. Some may ask: who is he or where did he come from? That’s irrelevant. My question is, what’s his motive? Why is he doing this? We don’t need him to explicitly state why, but maybe the answer lies somewhere within the reality of the alternative dimension. This dimension is inverted from ours: non-Christians are firm-believers, and the Union seems to be the Confederacy, as there are still slaves. However, our black-toothed stranger claims that Mr. Randall’s daughter is the second savior and that he brought her there to save them. That’s some understanding into his motives but why does that dimension need saving? If we understood the alternative dimension a little more, we will understand why it needs saving, and thus the motives of the stranger. Fan theory alert and SPOILERS: I gather that this stranger is some inter-dimensional being, perhaps a police officer of sorts that regulates different dimensions. It would explain why he is so invested in everything. I understand why he gives Mr. Randall the ability (so that he could ultimately use it to benefit the other dimension) but why doesn’t he take it away right after?  What would be the benefit of leaving him with that ability? I wish we knew a little more about the character or perhaps about the alternative dimension. Mento gave us pinch of sugar when, maybe, we needed a teaspoon.

Onto the main characters! I loved all of them. First lets talk about Peter. Living in Chicago and going to an art school, I know tons of people who yearn to be successful stand-up comedians. It’s a tough gig to get into and if you’re not funny, you’ll fall hard. Immediately I understand Peter and his plight. He is our ‘fish-out-of-water’ character who is an everyday guy caught in a supernatural situation. When he’s confused, we’re confused. When we need some clarification, he asks for clarification. I enjoyed him quite a lot. He’s funny too! The audience just sucks. Now, lets get to Stu, my favorite character. He’s like Dave Thomas in Rat Race: monotone, not very expressive, devoid of personality on the outside but inside… he’s exploding. He gets impatient but he’s passive about it. He has a constant frown or grimace that adds just a little more depth to his character, and he genuinely cares for his employer (and possibly only friend). The striped Polo shirts and suspenders are fantastic touch, and he has some of the best lines. “It’s about a stormy interracial romance in an intolerable small town,” he says after defending his boss’ work. The context is lost, I know, but it’s presented completely straightforward. The genius of it is that it foreshadows what’s to come. As for Mr. Randall, he is a character who is shockingly complex. He is a loving husband and father. He makes an honest living, and he seems levelheaded. Underneath this mask he is an extremely determined man who will stop and nothing to save his daughter, however, when conflicts arise, he seems to question the morality of what he’s doing. It’s not explicit but you gather it based on his body language. I don’t want to discuss any other characters because it may reveal major plot details and spoilers.

Also, Bill Ferris looks an awful like a young Stephen McHattie.

The whole film plays out like an X-Files episode. The plot is essentially a missing persons report with a supernatural twist. From a horror perspective, I see influences of Raimi (visually exclusive), body disfigurement reminiscent of early Cronenberg or Gordon, and biblical themes as previously explored by Bergman or King. I may be far-fetched in those comparisons but it’s what I see. I believe there is something to be said about shooting on an iPad. The independent scene is rapidly adapting to the consumer market. Now, anybody can pick up their iPone or Galaxy Touches and make a movie. You’ll have hollow audio (thankfully all the dialogue in this movie is recorded separately and synched later) but you’ll have a movie. The future for the micro-budget filmmaker lies within these devices. They may not be widely accepted, now, but soon we’ll be seeing movies at Sundance or Cannes that were shot on phones or tablets. It’s the future folks! Standards of Living is a great kick-starter to this new style of filmmaking. Needless to say, I look forward to what Mento has in store for us. 

If you are curious, you can catch the movie here

Friday, February 7, 2014

For All Mankind: A Look At Apollo 18

 Let me first start off by saying that I was initially turned off by the trailers for Apollo 18. While they were spectacular, they suggested that the film would be just another run-of-the-mill found footage experience. Perhaps, on the surface, they were right. Critics panned the film, comparing it to Paranormal Activity, and complained that it was tedious and devoid of any charisma. Naturally, when it came to Netflix, I had to see it. This, of course, was following my extensive examination of the entire Criterion library. What I discovered was that I enjoyed Apollo 18 for all the reasons the critics hated it for. Then came the comparison between it and For All Mankind.  Now, comparing the two seems almost disrespectful to Al Reinert. However, the two films share tone, presentation and theme, with the obvious similarity in filmmaking style. It is for this reason that I should suspect that Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego was, in some way, inspired by Reinert’s documentary.

Before diving into this, I should explain why I found the film to be enjoyable. It’s not perfect by any means, it did not exceed my expectations (they were very low), and it’s not a film that has a large replay value. With that said, save for a few weird instances, Apollo 18 nearly knocks the found footage genre out of the park. With tiring movies like V/H/S, Devil Inside, Frankenstein Theory, and the most closely related Europa Report, it’s nice to finally see a film that feels like a found footage documentary. It’s presented in 4:3 and not 16:9 (this is crucial because a lot of VHS-based films are all in widescreen and clearly shot on digital cameras), the film has grain, there are moments where the film is over-exposed, and, above all, there is actually a reason for why they are documenting everything. The characters aren’t moronic teenagers or hack filmmakers, rather intelligent young men having fun on such a captivating odyssey through space. I never hated any of the astronauts, and they all seem to evoke a sense of playful awe similar to their real-life counterparts as presented by For All Mankind. I’ll dive into detail as I continue.

 Now, for what I didn’t like. I may be scrutinizing this film a little too in depth but I digress. The fictional story behind Apollo 18 is that somebody obtained classified footage of the mission, cut it into a documentary and released it to the public. There are sound effects that are clearly non-diegetic but as I understand it, it’s as if the documentarian is putting us into the world of the film. Fine. For All Mankind does the same. Then, we come across the instance when we first see a dead Russian cosmonaut. As one of our characters ventures into a crater, he uses the flicker of his camera to illuminate his path. When the body flashes on screen, we hear a sudden spike in the soundtrack (a jump-scare) as if we were watching a regular horror movie. On a documentary aspect, this doesn’t make sense, as it seems to trivialize the death of the cosmonaut. It would have been scarier and far more effective if there were no sound, or perhaps just the non-diegetic sound of the camera bulb flickering. Next, there are one or two scenes where the film deliberately points out weird movement in the background as if we couldn’t see it before. I hated this. Background disturbances should not be zoomed in on or isolated via a video filter. Then again, I suppose it does make sense. The last instance is the strangest. One of the astronauts becomes infected by an alien life form. He pulls a cliché by taking the camera to record our main character sleeping, and then turns the camera to himself. What follows is… out of place. He begins violently shaking his head back and forth, which is clearly edited, while the film splices in frames with a negative filter over them. Aside from the scene being a glaring cliché, why would our documentarian do this? It serves no purpose. I think if they took out the filters, sound effects and kept it raw, it would have been a lot creepier. These are all nitpicks but they do take me out of story.

 On to the basis of all this nonsense! Let’s talk about tone, which will inevitably bleed into presentation. For All Mankind starts off introducing some of our colorful soon-to-be astronauts in training and mission preparation. It focuses a lot on their expectations, who they are, and the journey from training to actual flying. While Apollo 18 skips the journey aspect, it manages to present our cast in the same fashion: as all-American men with happy families, high expectations and an eagerness to embark on their assignment. What I love about For All Mankind is that it presents the lead-in to the moon landings as an eerie, inspiring, albeit desolate odyssey into the unknown. The whole mission of Apollo 18 is too different. However, we get to see our casts (both in Apollo 18 and For All Mankind) as playful, often fiddling around with gravity-defying tricks, playing pre-recorded memories on tape, and engaging in manly behavior. In both films, Houston is represented as a warm, friendly, reassuring voice that comforts them as they make their perilous journey. But, this is only a brief few minutes for Apollo 18. The real similarities occur when we finally land on the moon.   

Here is where we really get into things. When Apollo 18 lands on the moon, it’s business as usual. Our characters play around, they set up their equipment and collect rock samples, which will soon prove to be their greatest mistake. The same happens in For All Mankind, naturally. But how is the moon represented both aesthetically and character wise? For starters, in each film, the moon is shown as a bleak, uninhabited landscape with an eerie black backdrop to the infinite space that surrounds it. The hills and crater edges are monumental. The ground seems sun washed, and we get a real sense of total isolation for both our characters and our real astronauts. The character of the moon is… characterless. Our sense of wonderment isn’t so much as the moon itself but rather that we are truly on an alien landscape far away from our blue home. Both films capture this. Only difference: one is the real thing and the other is in a studio. Or for some of you, the latter may serve both cases.

In terms of actual documentary style, there is a lot to be said. Aside from some bizarre instances (as aforementioned), layered beneath Apollo 18 and For All Mankind there is an unsettling ambient score. While For All Mankind may actually have a theme and a real composition, Apollo 18 has a low-resonating ambient track that seems to suggest that a jump-scare is in the near future but, in fact, only adds to the film’s creepy atmosphere. This is what I was shocked about when I first set eyes on the film: it’s a slow burn movie, sure, but I was not expecting a mood-piece. The jump-scares are minimal and it focuses on character relations and tone rather than just the typical monster-movie formulas. And, for a movie that has aliens, it’s really tame in it’s presentation of the material. Similarly, For All Mankind is not so much about the wonderment, inspiration and thrill of the moon landings (ala Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff) but more about the strange, tranquil beauty of it (ala Moon). This brings me to the core story of Apollo 18, which may be been influenced by a specific piece of dialogue in From All Mankind.

I had one dream was very vivid. In my dream we were driving a rover up to the north. It was untouched. The serenity of it had a pristine purity about it. We crossed a hill. I felt ‘gosh we’ve been here before.’ And there was a set of tracks out in front of us. So we asked Houston if we could follow the tracks, and they said yes. And we turned and followed the tracks. Within an hour or so we found this vehicle. It looked just like the rover. Two people in it– they looked like me and John—had been there for thousands of years. 
– Charles Duke.

I suspect that Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego must have been watching For All Mankind, came across this scene and it’s imagery, and thought it would be terrifying if the description was real. In Apollo 18, our heroes come across a set of additional footprints that lead to a discarded Russian module. The instance is uncanny to Duke’s description. Perhaps this was the basis for the whole plot. The astronauts find a dead cosmonaut. They discover that something otherworldly killed him. Enter aliens. It only seems natural. The closer we examine the two scenes, the more we uncover the heart and theme that each film shares. From my perspective, Apollo 18 and For All Mankind is about man’s inquiry into the abyss of the unknown and the consequences that may arouse or disturb our senses.