Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hunting Grounds

Last night's screener was going to be Flick, but neither the HD DVD player nor Blu-ray player would touch it, and no way was I going to hook one more item up to the already-terrifying jumble around my TV to see if some other device would read the disc (the DVR was already misbehaving, and that was enough). Getting Hunting Grounds to play cemented the HD DVD player as my primary DVD player for the time being - though letterboxed, the disc is non-anamorphic, so the Blu-ray player stretched and distorted it.

As much as Hunting Grounds isn't really a good movie, I wish I had gotten to see it at the festival. The filmmakers were local, so they would have been there, and I have little doubt that it would have been enhanced by a sold-out crowd screaming en fran├žais. I really wanted to see Midnight Meat Train with Kitamura in attendance, so that took priority (though I would have run across the street if I'd been shut out of that, as nearly happened).

I'm less excited by the idea floated in the Fantasia program that this is the first of a series - I'd like to see filmmaker Eric Bilodeau do more, but this isn't quite good enough for me to want more of this.

Hunting Grounds

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2009 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screener DVD)

Every once in a while, I'll get an email from a fan or filmmaker angry that I've given a tiny independent film a bad grade, saying that these movies shouldn't be judged by the same criteria as studio films. I say that of course they should - they're getting the same ticket price and the same hour and a half of my time. Still, even if I can't say that Eric Bilodeau and company have made a good movie by any objective standard, I like the effort they're making.

Hunting Grounds takes place a generation or so from now, when to help rebuild the environment, human habitation is confined to walled cities. Much human interaction is confined to a virtual reality system called the "Alternet", and while that's fine for some, Quebec City's Paul Austin (Patrice LeBlanc) yearns to hunt actual game from his family's cabin. He and girlfriend Lexa Monroe (Marie-Eve Lemire) have only met each other online, but friend Sebastien Mathieu (Luc Rivard) knows how to sneak out. Also in the party are tracker Simon Roy (Patrick Baby), who wants out even more than Paul, and Francine Hudon (Valerie Tremblay), who suddenly finds herself feeling acutely agoraphobic when confronted with the real world. Of course, what they don't know is that near Paul's cabin is a secret military installation, where Lt. Aria Palmer (Emilie Gilbert-Gagnon) is involved in one of those experiments for healing injured tissue that winds up reanimating the dead.

I admire Bilodeau's ambition. Many, many people have made zombie movies in their backyard, and that's hard enough. Eric Bilodeau, on the other hand, is going to take his twenty thousand Canadian dollars and not only is he going to do gore effects, but he's going to do some digital backlot shooting and a fair amount of digital effects. It's rough at times - very rough indeed - and sometimes I found myself thinking about the tradeoffs a lot: For instance, when someone shoots a pistol, the CGI muzzle flash and sparks look kind of fake compared to traditional blanks and squibs, but there can be little doubt that they are far safer and reduce the need for (expensive) stuntpeople and other experts on the set. That can be huge for a production this size. And even if some of the effects look like they were only rendered at standard video definition, the concepts are good: The floating holographic computer interfaces are well-realized, and the last act does give us a zombie running around with large bits missing that is only upright because it's wearing an exoskeleton. That's good stuff; there are films that expend a lot more resources executing lesser ideas less impressively.

It can be a real chore getting to the good stuff, though. Some of it seems to be concessions to what needs to be done to try and make any money off it: Many people will discount a film that is shorter than ninety minutes, so this one stretches to break the hour-and-a-half mark. It takes the hunting party thirty of the film's minutes to get out of the city; many scenes run in conversational circles, pile on extraneous exposition, and are otherwise redundant, but they fill time. I also strongly suspect that the cast and crew aren't doing themselves many favors by having the vast majority of the dialogue be in English, but I gather that's the reality of making independent films in Quebec: French doesn't export nearly as well as English, not even to the rest of Canada or to other Francophone countries, so unless you're sure you can break even at home, you shoot in English. It's pretty clear from the accents and stilted delivery that this is not the native language of most of the cast (especially compared to the scenes when the characters speak French), and it makes everyone look like worse actors than they likely are.

Commercial considerations aren't entirely to blame; Eric Bilodeau is credited with at least nine jobs on the film, and he's not great at every one of them. In particular, he could use the assistance of a good editor; Hunting Grounds doesn't build up much of a head of steam until late in the game, and then rushes the big confrontations without giving us the opportunity to get excited for them. Audio could also use some work; we'll occasionally get a gory visual without any corresponding disgusting sound. The way some excess characters are eliminated is pretty disappointing, and, hey, don't have zombies chase our heroes through a machine shop just loaded with power tools - including a conspicuously placed chainsaw - without a little more mayhem.

Still, as cheapo horror movies go, Hunting Grounds is just below-average, not terrible: Terrible movies don't get me shouting advice to the screen, after all. Bilodeau has done more with less than a lot of would-be filmmakers, and even if I'm not likely to re-watch this movie again, I find myself hoping that he gets a chance to step up to the next level.

Also at HBS.

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