Well, the first night of Fantasia has come and gone like a spirited midnight quickie, half remembered and leaving mysterious bruises and strained backs on all involved. Like most Fantasia openings, it was a rousing affair of speeches, cheers, overenthusiastic meows and a party afterward that was probably fun, but I wouldn’t know because screw socializing, I’m here for the cinema.
As has been the case so often, the main attraction for the evening was the new film by Takashi Miike, Fantasia darling and nominee for the most hard-working, utterly bashit insane director of the year award.
His new film, Shield of Straw, seems like dyed in the wool action/crime thriller, kind of a Japanese 3:10 to Yuma. After assaulting and murdering a 7-year old girl, an introverted psychopath has a bounty placed on his head by the girl’s billionaire grandfather, leading him to turn himself in. Of course, he has to be transported to Tokyo for trial, which means a small team of (naturally) emotionally unstable cops has to haul the bastard across the country, with everyone and their dog after them to try and kill the guy and collect the reward, including cops, a fact that quickly leads to mistrust and discord among the main cast.
Takashi Miike is one of those directors whose built up such a rep for throwing insane curveballs and going places you wouldn’t expect that the film already has a kind of tension from the get-go, as anyone who knows Miike’s work knows that all bets are off. In one scene when a crazed would be assassin holds a little girl at knife-point, the tension in the audience was palpable. In any other film, you know that kid’s gonna be ok. But this is Miike, we don’t know he wouldn’t have that kid get stabbed in the throat and bleed out right in front of us. It could totally happen. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Miike wasn’t deliberately playing with those expectations. It might as well have been him holding that knife to the kid, screaming “What am I gonna do?! You don’t know!! I own you!!”.
Expectations aside, what we’ve still got is a whip-smart thriller. The tension and suspense of who’s a traitor and whether or not the honest to the point of naivete hero cop will finally snap and put a bullet down the little shit’s ear canal are all played pretty high, and the film relies upon this far more than shooty action and thrills, are though there some pretty damn fun gun fights and this bit with a truck full of nitroglycerin.
Finally, on a totally nerdy technical note, the sound design is fantastic. Gunshots are actually appropriately loud and properly reverberate given the environment, and incidental sound effects like punches and squealing tires have more fidelity and punch (heh) than you see in most flicks.
Moving on to another high-profile debut, the second half of the evening was taken up by The Conjuring, the new horror film by Saw and Insidious director James Wan.
I’ve never been a fan of Wan’s work, which is a nice way of saying I found every time I’ve seen one of his movies I’ve wanted to grab him by the throat and throttle him yelling “You’re killing a genre you bastard!”. My hope was that since this time around it’s all based on a true story he’ll reign in things and go for subtlety through and through, and not have it end with Nite Owl being chased around by Darth Maul after he stole Freddy Krueger’s glove and got a bad haircut. Maybe this time things won’t just become a fireworks display of over the top effects and noise by the end.
By the time I got to the metro afterwards and started muttering angrily to myself about modern horror movies being crap, I realized that really wasn’t the case.
On the surface, it’s your fairly standard “idyllic family moves into new house, scary shit happens” plot. The Perrons, a nauseatingly happy family in the mid-70s, move into a new house, and before long find themselves being attacked by a demonic entity. Enter the Warrens, a husband and wife demonoligist team who set out to save the Perrons and spout exposition.
The film first shoot itself in the foot when, after it reminds us desperately that all of this is apparently true, it goes about depicting everything with this weird, almost cartoonish awkward exaggeration. Part of this is the acting, which ranges from passable to dismal. Almost nobody talks like an actual human being, they almost invariably sound like an actor reciting lines, which makes it a tad hard to believe or invest in the events. Wan’s direction similarly comes across as very deliberate and overt. There’s all these self-consiously precise camera movements, like Wan has some kind of bizarre fetish for dollys and pans, and after a while it’s like “Can you just stop playing with the angles for a minute and let the story play out?”.
The absolute apex of the film’s endeavor to have the audience not take it seriously is Officer Brad, a doofy comic relief cop who shows up in the second half to cut the tension and wander around looking like he did porno before he joined the force.
My hopes that for once a modern horror movie could show some goddamn restraint in the finale were dashed, when the last 20 minutes turns out to be a cavalcade of shrieking and noise and people being flung about on wires and “Oooh look at the scary witch, isn’t the frightening blaaagh blaagh!!!” and for fuck’s sake people, why is it that horror movies these days ALWAYS do this? It was bad enough in Mama where they showed the goddamn monster, well lit, and perfectly visible, but the ending of Conjuring just feels like the film gets tired of slow-burn tension and decides to just yell at us for 20 minutes, and that’s not scary, it’s annoying or downright silly, if not both.
And all this wouldn’t be as annoying if The Conjuring didn’t have some decent scenes and atmosphere, bits where you don’t actually SEE anything and it’s all conveyed through acting and sound and the implication of something scary rather than having shit thrown in our faces. If the movie had stuck with that it probably would have wound up being good, but it didn’t and now I’m just angry.
Stop making me angry James Wan.