Detention of the Dead (2012) – Movie Review

Detention of the Dead is another zombie movie, but this time it’s also a comedy so that makes it different! The premise is Breakfast Club meets Dawn of the Dead where a group of high school stereotypes are trapped by flesh-eating zombies in their school. Going in I was expecting more of a spoof on the tired genre like Shaun of the Dead, but with the undead acting as a metaphor for high school; instead it ends up being just a high school comedy flick punctuated by unoriginal scenes of zombie horror. Unfortunately, Detention of the Dead makes neither a good horror film or comedy.

One of the movie’s biggest flaws is its predictability; horror flicks and high school comedies are two genres that are incredibly reliant on formula so Detention of the Dead needed to do something original in order to succeed. As a horror film, many of the death scenes should come as no surprise. Two of the characters, the nerd named Eddie (Jacob Zachar) and the goth chick Willow (Alexa Nikolas) are familiar with the tropes of the zombie-genre, thus opening the possibility of the movie taking a different turn, somewhere, or becoming a parody, but the movie drops any of that pretense early on in favor of focusing on typical teenage drama midst zombies.

The violence and gore is sometimes satisfying. Some might say the poor special effects (and they are very poor) might detract but they’re probably the funniest part of the movie (remember, this is supposed to be a comedy.) The bad effects might have worked even better if this movie was more of a spoof of bad horror films.

Another major problem comes with the characters and their arcs. I don’t know what compelled writer and director Alex Craig Mann (or maybe the blame should be laid at Rob Rinow whose play the movie is based-off of) to give such unnecessary attention to the cliched characterizations and conflict between the high-schoolers. The first thirty or so minutes were a decent start to a throwaway comedy-horror film, but then it begins to devolve when Eddie is romantically torn between Willow or the hot cheerleader Janet (Christa B. Allen). We get Breakfast Club scenes of the characters revealing the frustrations of having to conform to stereotypes, and later on Janet reveals that she doesn’t want to die a virgin so she goes after Eddie when her meathead boyfriend Brad (Jayson Blair) isn’t around and Willow is upset that Eddie would chose the cheerleader over her. This all culminates toward the end when Eddie tells Willow that he was “wrong,” and later on when Willow and Janet are together and Janet’s just been bitten.

The commentary on high school life is trite and the banal character dramas seem to only be there so that we can “care” about the characters before they are eaten. But no one wants to watch that fucking shit. Why couldn’t the movie had just mocked teenage dramas instead? And what better way to do this when showing how insignificant such things are in the face of the real conflict of flesh-eating zombies? The scene with Willow and Janet near the end could have worked if there were more to their characters.

There are scarcely a funny scene or moment in this movie. One scene that is almost funny is when their English teacher Mrs. Rumblethorp (Michele Messmer)  who they were serving detention under turns into a zombie and the consequences of such involving the stoner character Ash (Justin Chon). But there are some “jokes” that are painfully unfunny. After Janet gives Eddie a hug for saving her life he looks down at his crotch and sees a zombie hand squeezing tightly. And then Ash tries to help Eddie pull the arm off his junk. The way it’s framed it’s supposed to be an attempt at a sexual joke, but it comes out of nowhere and is pathetically weak. There are also some lines that are supposed to be “witty” or “clever” that come out of Willow’s mouth but just make you root for the zombies to tear her apart first.

Despite the number of flaws and missed opportunities, it’s at least watchable, most of the time. I wasn’t particularly bored by it yet wasn’t exactly filled with satisfaction neither. It’s just funny how a movie whose purpose, I think, was to poke fun at formula ended up being so middle-of-the-road and predictable.

At the Park

I.

They move away from the sky
to surround a certain park bench.
Everyday, at noon, a hand is there
with the bread.

II.

A crow with a treasure
in its beak, hops away from the rest,
to a nearby puddle. It stares
at the water before dipping
its bread, and swallowing.

III.

Noon again, the birds wander
around the grass, heads cocking
and making noise–their hand is gone.

IV.

A head emerges from a hole
in the bush, its eyes wary
of the world’s movement.
Its furry body appears
in the open.

V.

Rabbits wait underneath
the park benches.  The swings
have stopped moving.

VI.

Squirrels journey from their tree,
past the bike wrapped in rust.

VII.

A small dog walks alone across the grass
followed by a pink leash, into
the brown hawk’s vision.

VIII.

The birds have flown,
marking the sky with their formations
and the rabbits cross the empty road.

Antichrist (2009) – Movie Review

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist contains a simple story: in the aftermath of their child’s death, a therapist (Willem Dafoe) decides to help treat his depressed wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by spending some time in an isolated cabin where she is to confront her fear of the woods. However, not everything goes to plan as the wife slips further into insanity and drills a hole in William Dafoe’s leg. Despite the simplicity of the plot, the movie is rife with religious and spiritual symbolism, imagery as well as graphic nudity and sex. All of these elements would have been fine if they had been employed in service of storytelling, instead the audience is subject to a film that seems to try to confide in the audience its import yet is confused as to what it is actually trying to say, save that the director is a pretentious nut.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an intriguing film, but it’s also a mess. There were a number of opportunities that Lars Von Trier’s screenplay could have taken advantage of. The most interesting thing about the film isn’t the graphic sex nor the disturbing violence or the ideas it tries to pass-off as being deep, but the two central characters. Lars Von Trier could have written the characters and just let them muddle in their relationship and let the symbolism and moments pour out organically, and it seems that was what he was going for at first, but around halfway through the movie everything starts to go off the rails.

The film itself is divided into four chapters (chapter one-“Grief”, two-“Pain”, three-“Despair”, four-“The Three Beggars”) which are sandwiched between two black-and-white sequences. The intro sequence is beautifully composed in slow-motion and shows the couple having sex while their child frees himself from his crib and walks out the window to marvel at the snow. Scenes like this show-off one of the strengths of the film which lies in the cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle. There are a few other scenes and images that are excellently crafted, but they are unfortunately inter-cut with drawn-out periods of boredom.

Sometimes the symbolism is either over-wrought or near nonsensical, but there are some visuals that work. At the end of the first chapter, William Dafoe’s character witnesses a deer in the woods, but as the camera gets the closer we see a dead newborn hanging from it, then we look back and see the character’s face. This works for it not only acts as possible foreshadowing, but also reveals something about Dafoe’s character.

But then there are some attempts of symbolism that aren’t as successful, like in a ridiculous scene where Gainsbourg’s character, after Dafoe’s character refused to hit her while having sex, is running outside in the nude while its dark and then starts masturbating the bottom of a tree. She is suddenly slapped by her husband and then resume copulating underneath the tree, but as the camera pans up we see human limbs from bodies trapped underneath the roots of the tree. It’s an interesting image that sticks in the mind, but it’s both obvious and confusing given the rest of the film. It’s already bad enough that the area of woods is called “Eden” but then to have the couple have sex underneath the tree… but what’s worst is that, instead of reinforcing some sort of point about humanity or religion, it only muddies the movie up thematically. There’s other spiritual and religious symbolism in the film, but the problem is that they just seem thrown in there as a way to compensate for the script’s shallowness. It’s almost as if by juxtaposing graphic sex and obvious religious symbolism Lars Von Trier was hoping that some sort of meaning would coalescence  within the viewers’ mind.

The movie seems to be trying to be a critique on humanity using religious symbolism, but it’s sometimes difficult to say what the actual critique is other than that humanity plain sucks. It seems to be trying to convey something deep but ends up confused, nearly making the whole film pointless to watch. It probably would have been better, it seemed, if Lars Von Trier focused instead on the couple’s relationship and what they represent, mainly emotionalism versus rationalism and how each approaches grief.

After their child dies, the wife is hospitalized for a month after fainting. The husband, who’s a therapist, quickly takes control of the situation by suggesting that she should not take the prescribed dosage her doctor recommends, stating that the feeling of grief is natural. When they’re both back at their home he begins to treat her like one of his patients. But she calls him out on this and his pompousness. One can’t help agree with her while also realizing that her comments are also stemming from her own resentment toward her husband for both being distant in the past as well as being well-composed during this situation while she’s an emotional trainwreck. However, the viewer might also suspect, at least from the beginning, that the husband may be treating her as a way for him not to deal with his own emotions. She becomes suicidal and even more depressed as she bangs her head against the rim of the toilet and he finds her. When she tells him that her biggest fear is the woods of “Eden,” but instead of getting her to an institution, in his arrogance, he decides that the two of them should go there. This is a good set-up for an interesting character study and drama, and while Lars Von Trier lets the conflict of the movie grow from this, he does so unrealistically. This is evidenced by how, at the end, the wife becomes completely crazed while he a stereotypical, condescending psychologist spouting nonsense. Lars Von Trier is comfortable going to easy route and trying to disturb and compel the audience rather than presenting a believable story.

Apparently this movie ignited controversy when it came out, which I can believe. In the opening sequence we’re shown penetration and violent sex scenes. Either would have been okay if it were service to revealing some (no pun intended) about the characters. The violent sex scenes sort of do this, but toward the end of the movie it becomes gratuitous. But the main problem with the movie is its pretentiousness. While the movie sets-up some of the sex scenes as a way to show the ugly side of humanity it ends up being apparent that Lars Von Trier is just trying to shock the audience with violence and bizarre psycho-sexual bull and hoping that the movie would just coast on that as the audience isn’t thinking too hard if anything is coherent or not.

It’s a shame that this movie isn’t better. I’ve only seen one other Lars Von Trier movie, Melancholia, which I actually thought was pretty decent where all the symbols and information in the movie was all necessary. See, good symbolism is all about having a point and conveying that point or idea to the audience in an original way that’ll remain in the audience’s mind for a while. While some of the images found in Antichrist has some impact they still needed some idea to hang from in order to truly work.

While the script isn’t good for the reasons I’ve mentioned, the other aspects of the movie are actually pretty good. The best thing about Antichrist is the cinematography, but the sound editing and score also deserve some attention as they help heighten some of the disturbing things in the movie, making them more effective. The acting is also fine, especially by William Dafoe, but it’s a shame that they didn’t have better material. As great as some of the technical aspects are, everything ends up being dragged down by the lousy script. If it weren’t for the acting and cinematography this movie would have been terrible and near-unwatchable. Whatever, I guess it’s time to watch Nymphomaniac now.

Reeker (2005) – Movie Review

Hey, more schlock! This time I watched a movie called Reeker, another mediocre genre film that no one cares about. The movie is about five college students who become stranded in a seemingly deserted town where they experience a pungent odor, visions of dead people, disembowelments and Michael Ironside. The movie was directed by Dave Payne who went on to direct such memorable classics as No Man’s Land: The Rise of Reeker (the prequel to Reeker that I will never watch) and Fred.

If you couldn’t tell from my sardonic tone then let me say that I wasn’t too fond of this film. It’s basically as middle of the road as you can get with horror flicks. Its opening scene is of a group of people (here, a mother, father and son) that aren’t the main characters. The viewer already knows that they’re either going to die or something completely messed-up is about to happen to them, because all horror films need an opening sequence to establish the mood as well as hook the audience in as soon as possible before they start spending a lot of time establishing the main group of characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but in Reeker the formula is rather apparent; this could have been circumvented if the opening were stronger, but it’s rather standard stuff. The characters do a couple of stupid things in order to create suspense, there’s some CGI blood and gore and it ends on a disturbing image–cue the credits. While the opening does an okay job of making the audience interested it’s rather cheesy, going from slightly humorous (unintentionally) to somewhat disturbing back to a weak attempt at scaring the audience.

The main characters are standard stuff; they’re not off-the-rack Breakfast Club stereotypes, but they’re close. There’s the stoner, nicknamed Trip (Scott Whyte,) his more level-headed friend Nelson (Derek Richardson,) Nelson’s girlfriend Cookie (Arielle Kebbel,) a blind guy with a dry sense of humor Jack (Devon Gummersall) and the accented Gretchen (Tina Illman.) The dialogue between the characters is generally believable, with the exception of the cliches spouted by Jack, but they’re also rather flat and uninteresting. Maybe it’s okay considering that this is a horror movie and all that is needed is just enough for the audience to care for the characters somewhat, but other than Trip (who almost ends up being the hero towards the end) I wasn’t involved in the fates of the other characters. It’s clear that Payne wanted us to empathize with the characters, it’s just that the dialogue and interactions are just too average and the acting ranges from being good to bad, never enough the elevate the material to where it needs to be. Oh, and Michael Ironside is in it as a guy searching for his missing wife, but he doesn’t do much before he croaks (Spoiler!)

Plot-wise, the movie isn’t distinct. There are a few jump-scares, but fortunately they are scarce. Perhaps the most unique thing plot-wise is the subplot with Trip’s dealer, Radford (Eric Mabius) chasing after him after Trip steals some drugs. Also, from the movie’s blurb, it describes the film as being about a group of students being terrorized by a foul odor. I was going into the movie expecting the students threatened by a large gaseous entity, and in the film I think they mention that they’re going to Area 52, so I was expecting (hoping) that they would be contending with aliens. Payne might have been trying to subvert expectations by going a different route, but the end result is still the same, mainly a group of kids getting killed at night. All the cliches are here, a couple are having sex, there’s no cellphone reception, they can’t go anywhere because their gas line had been cut, they do things no sane person would do if they shared the same situation, etc. Are there any interesting deaths? Not really, but there’s one somewhat original kill where one of the characters is killed in an outhouse, but that scene goes on too long anyway and loses some of its impact. And like other films of this ilk, there is a twist ending that re-contextualizes everything. The ending tries to “blow your mind” and it does explain many of the things that happen, but it’s still a rather disappointing explanation; mainly because it’s a cop-out that’s been done numerous times before and when you see it you’ll go “Oh really, they did that! Give me a break!” Not exactly the intended reaction. Funny enough, it shares pretty much the same ending as Jack the Reaper, another movie I reviewed. I can’t tell which picture employed the twist better nor do I really want to give it much thought.

You might be wondering why I even bother watching such schlock. I mean, these movies are supposed to suck, right? You shouldn’t expect Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I was mildly entertained with the film, but I mainly watch these movies in the hopes that I come across a neglected gem, or in the very least, be pleasantly surprised. It’s disappointing that most of these movies (or most movies in general) are pretty much culled from the same mush. You can argue that it’s just a horror movie and that it doesn’t need to defy formula. This is true for Reeker could have worked, even with much of the same elements, if some of the other technical aspects were beefed up, like the acting and directing and cinematography. But I would also say that a better guarantee for success lies in a better script. I’m reminded about how most death metal bands sound pretty much the same, and the result is that a potentially distressing experience ends-up amounting to hollow noise for most death-metal bands follow the same basic template, thus lessening that particular template’s effectiveness. There are some attempts at uniqueness in Reeker, like the whole visible odor thing that emits from the monster (which by-the-way actually looks kind of cool). The movie also tries to subvert some cliches to mess with the viewer’s expectations as well as attempts at humor, but the subversions are mostly old-hat and the humor is stale.

Overall, I would give Reeker a mild recommendation if you like horror and its familiar tropes and want a simple diversion from the everyday. Maybe next time I’ll uncover that schlock masterpiece, buried underneath the landfill.

Pi (1998) – Movie Review (Contains Spoilers)

Pi, the 1998 film by Darren Aronofsky, is a pretty tense film. It’s about Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) a guy with a simple dream: to discover the answers to the universe. He tries predicting the outcomes of the stock market not because he’s interested in material wealth, but rather in testing his theories: that the correct calculations of pi could lead to the ultimate understanding of the universe.

It starts out with a voice-over by Max reading a personal note, “When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six I did.” We also learns that he believes that this is the reason for his intense headaches. We then sees that he lives in a small apartment and tries to avoid human interaction as much as possible including one of his neighbors, a young woman who flirts with him. The only person he confides in is a former professor, Sol Robeson, who calls Max out on his obsession with numerology, telling him that “life isn’t just mathematics.” Max also meets a Hasidic Jew named Lenny who tells Max that the Torah may be a numeric code sent by God, “the language of God.”

Later on, when doing calculations Max’s computer suddenly crashes after spitting out a print-out containing a string of 216 digits. Max, at first, regards this as an error but then realizes that some of the predictions he made for the stock market turned out to be accurate. When he informs Sol of the 216 digits Sol tells Max to abandon his pursuits. Here the audience gets a sense that there is an underlying subtext in what Sol tries to tell Max, that he might be onto something.

While much happens it’s still a short film and one could tell that it was shot on a low budget, but it uses what it has efficiently. The grainy, black and white look serve well for the purposes of the movie. Pi is also perhaps the antithesis of movies like Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow not in terms of quality but in how it approaches its subject. Pi use quick-cuts in order to reflect the supercharged mind of Max as well as numerous close-ups to emphasize a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer. The long takes in The Weeping Meadow allowed the audience to take-in what was happening and allowed contemplation, but there is no breathing-room in a movie like Pi; there is hardly an objective distance the audience takes, but instead we’re stuck within the atmosphere of an obsessed ego.

There are also some nice details included in the film such as a shot of Max sitting in his room from the perspective of the frame holding his computer’s processor; the computer frame almost looks like the golden ratio, a math concept Max briefly limns to Lenny earlier.

However, the best thing about the film, script-wise, is the ambiguity and unreliability of Max. In the first half we’re unsure of whether Max is just insane or that he’s onto something and there are people tracing him. The ending has been the source of some debate as to whether it’s a dream, reality, or if Max is truly dead. At the end, after reciting the 216 digits he seemingly transcends. But then he wakes-up and is back to reality. He then burns a printout with the numbers and then puts a power-drill to his head for he has the numbers memorized. The next shot is him at a park bench that he sat once earlier in the film. The background seems to be obscured by a white glow, perhaps hinting that Max is really dead. A little girl that lives in his apartment building who, like before, asks him to give the answer to a math problem she already knows the answer to on her calculator. But Max, this time, doesn’t seem to know the answer and is satisfied. People have claimed that Max is still alive, this might be reason for him wearing a hat which is covering the area where he drilled a hole in his head, meaning that he recovered. However, it’s quite clear, from where he placed the drill bit and how deep it went, that he wouldn’t have survived and the ending takes place in his personal heaven where he no longer needs to calculate. There is also the possibility that the end, or the part where he kills himself, is just a dream for he’s had numerous dreams of him destroying his brain (a brain.) But this possibility is also unlikely for his other dreams were more abstract. From how that scene is framed we’re supposed to take it that he actually drilled himself. It’s an interesting end that works, for the most part, for it’s ambiguous but not too ambiguous that it annoys/frustrates the viewer. Even if the ending isn’t “real” it serves its symbolic purpose nevertheless.

Thematically, the movie is obviously about obsession, but it also could be interpreted as a commentary on transcendence through the destruction of one’s self and the aversion to reality. While the fact that Max avoids interacting with his neighbors could be read as him simply not having the patience for others as he has more important matters to attend to, one can also see that Max is contemptuous of the muckity-muck of everyday life and would much rather break away from it. His obsession with understanding the universe entirely could stem from his want to transcend the baseness of reality. I imagine many artists and geniuses have pursued their work not simply for a greater understanding but also of the possible “escape” that their work can yield, some form of immortality or transcendence. I’m probably just talking out of my ass, but this is a side to the story that I don’t think has been commented on but might be there.

Despite this being a good debut film and an interesting movie overall I’m reluctant to call it the “cinematic masterpiece” its champions claim it is. For one thing, as I mentioned before, its ambiguity was makes the movie, but it becomes more and more clear that Lenny and the other Hasidic Jews are correct and Max really does hold the key to God. One might argue that him “transcending” may all just be in his head as well, but from the way it’s all set-up I think we’re supposed to take the ending, at least until the last very last scene, at face-value. This doesn’t mean that the movie suddenly falls apart toward the end but it makes it somewhat less interesting as we’re still watching Max go mad. Despite all this it’s an intriguing film with excellent acting, especially from Sean Gullette who carries the whole thing, and one that stays in the mind even days after watching it, which is saying something.