Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.11 (24 July): Urban Explorer and Wake in Fright

Believe it or not, this two-movie day was a Sunday! I'd seen much of what was playing during the afternoon - Battle Royale, Endhiran, and Detective Dee - and the other presentation was "La Mythologie Hammer + Frankenstein Created Woman", and though I would have totally dug seeing the movie on the big screen, it would come after an hour of panel discussion, which looked to be in French, and since my skill with the language is pretty much at the "catch a few words, read something meant to be understood by children" level, it would have been an awkward start.

Well, there was also Pop Skull, and I missed that the old-fashioned way - paying attention to the MLB Gameday window and not getting there in time. I'm not hugely disappointed by this - I was in the "like, not love" camp for Adam Wingard's entry at BUFF this year (A Horrible Way to Die), missed this one at BUFF four years ago, and just generally found that the Wingard retrospective was stuff I could afford to miss. And it game me time for dinner at m:brgr, one of a half-dozen great burger places you can find around Concordia.

Then, it was time for movies with directors in attendance:

Urban Explorers producer Oliver Thau, co-star Catherine de Léan, and director Andy Fetscher. Nice folks all; it's a shame that their movie had really severe problems, because I admire their ambition and willingness to do crazy things to make a horror movie. Unfortunately, that doesn't always translate to great results. I dissect why a big scene in this movie flops in my review, and it's worth noting that I wasn't the only one laughing during that scene, which was supposed to be thrilling.

Wake in Fright director Ted Kotcheff, who is just a wonderful gentleman. As you can see, he had a lengthy written introduction for the film, and even more to say without so many notes afterward. It was one of the more interesting discussions I've heard at Fantasia (or any festival), because they frequently tend to draw younger filmmakers rather than the men with the wealth of experience Kotcheff has. He's an intelligent man who doesn't have to connect with other fans via pure enthusiasm, which was a refreshing change of pace.

And now, reviews:

Urban Explorer

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

Sort my reviews alphabetically, and this one will wind up next to Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness, a 2006 documentary made on a similar shoestring which also shot plenty of footage in places the filmmakers really shouldn't have been. The subjects of that doc will probably resent this horror movie something fierce - it's one thing to be seen as daring to the point of recklessness, another just to be stupid.

Four tourists have converged on Berlin to do a bit of urban exploring (sneaking into abandoned structures and infrastructure even if it's off-limits). Because of the illegal nature of the activity, they connected online and meet under aliases. "Mickey" (Nick Eversman) is American and excited, while his Venezuelan girlfriend "Mallory" (Nathalie Kelley) is not nearly so enthused. Brash "Haiku" (Brenda Koo) hails from Korea (though her accent when speaking English is quite North American), while camera-toting "Olympia" (Catherine de Léan) is from France. Their local guide, "Dante" (Max Riemelt), has offered to show them the "fahrerbunker", a recently discovered World War II bunker for Nazi party drivers that was quickly resealed to prevent modern hate groups from making a shrine of it. They still encounter some neonazis along the way, but an accidental fall proves a more immediate danger, sending two of the party to find help while the others stay with the injured member. Help does arrive, but in the form of disheveled hermit Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier).

The viewer may wonder, when watching Urban Explorer, whether its characters are meant to actually be any good at urban exploration. Nobody ever says that it's their first time, but none but Dante seem to have any particular skills. Heck, of the girls, only Olympia dresses like someone expecting to be in an environment featuring rusted metal, standing water, and biting animals - although to make up for her sensible clothing, it's her tendency to wander off and flash her camera that leads to many of the group's troubles. Dante is leading this apparent group of novices to a place he's never been before, and he's got an unusually casual attitude toward causing damage along the way. If this is deliberate, it's a bad idea - instead of believing the characters are maybe just a bit over their heads and having the rug pulled out, they seem doomed from the start - and if we're supposed to believe they're capable, well, that's just a huge misfire.

"Huge misfire" seems most likely, though, as the movie soon descends into an ugly morass of clichés and bad execution, including what may be the stupidest sequence I've ever seen in a horror movie. It starts with the "someone awakening handcuffed to a bed" chestnut (albeit only by one hand, making escape possible), has this person watch a friend be tortured and nearly murdered three times before running off (making a lot of noise) to search for a weapon much less effective than the heavy-but-grippable piece of steel bed frame still on the other end of the cuff... And that's without serious spoilers; things get a lot more nonsensical with detail. Sure, there are a lot of thrillers that fall apart in hindsight, but this is laugh-inducingly dumb in the moment, the sort of thing that might perhaps work as satire if there were any sign that this movie had any self-awareness or sense of humor. Instead, it's one of several mind-bogglingly silly action/"suspense" sequences that should have even relatively undemanding audiences asking why even a panicking person would react to a situation like that.

This, obviously, leaves the cast pretty much high and dry. None of the five actors playing the explorers are done a particularly spectacular injustice, at least - they're likable, good-looking kids who sell the material as well as they can and should all land on their feet. The show is inevitably stolen by Stiglmeier's Armin, who is genuinely individual and eccentric in a way that the rest of the cast really can't be, owning every scene he's in. He's the one that the audience can go in any direction at any time because Stiglmeier wrings every last drop of weird out of what he's given.

The whole cast does go above and beyond the usual call of duty, shooting a great deal of the movie on location with minimal doubling. There's a genuine sense of authenticity to these scenes, and for all the many problems the filmmakers have with the story, they sure do shoot the heck out of it, making the surprises found in the dark tunnels and the resulting mayhem look good (in appropriately inky, disgusting ways).

But, ugh, is there a bunch of unforgivable idiocy going on in those dark tunnels! Horror fans will put up with a lot, but there's a much better "urban explorers find trouble" movie to be made than this.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

Wake in Fright (aka Outback)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

Wake in Fright is one of the most lauded films to come out of Australia, but went practically unseen for years (decades!) due to a poor commercial showing and the lack of quality prints. A ten-year search for the original negative and careful restoration has it back in circulation, looking good, and still frequently overpowering.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is an elementary school teacher in the Australian outback, and he hates it there. Christmas is coming, though, and with it summer break, which he intends to spend with his girlfriend in Sydney. Getting there means a stop in Bundanyabba, where he emerges from a night drinking with sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) without the money for his plane ticket or even for another night in the hotel. A man at the bar, Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), invites him to spend the night at his place, but the attention Grant pays his wife Janette (Sylvia Kay) doesn't go over so well, although "Doc" Tydon (Donald Pleasence) winds up being agreeable company to the stranded Grant.

"I'm an alcoholic", Tydon informs Grant, "but out here it's scarcely noticeable." And brother, is that ever the case. There may be movies where characters drink more, but likely few in which it is such a constant, desperate activity. The men of Wake in Fright drink like characters in old movies smoke, constantly and with the implication that nobody would conceivably not be doing so, because what would you be doing with yourself otherwise; when Grant briefly opts to do something else, the rest are thoroughly confused. The first half of the movie gives the impression of starting a bender - starting out in control, but with fun/relief not coming; instead, the reasons for drinking seem to come into sharper relief, with the attempts to banish them with more drink only making things worse.

Then the second half becomes a fever dream. By this point, the almost complete lack of any female presence is making the men crazy, fights are being started just to let aggression out, and while director Ted Kotcheff and company don't change the look of the film so much, things get more and more frenzied, with the high (or low) point being a kangaroo hunt that just seems like madness. Kotcheff filmed the actual activity rather than using animatronics or any sort of special effects, so it's not just realistic, but real (though no roos were killed specifically for the film; this was going on anyway), and there's a frightening inhumanity to it. As this part of the movie goes on the audience feels how the combination of heat, isolation, and lack of a positive emotional outlet creates this all-consuming madness.

The cast does so, too. Gary Bond is extremely impressive, hitting every step in Grant's descent from smug superiority to mania squarely, giving us early hints that the possibility of this exists in him from the start, though "The Yabba" is going to bring it out. Rafferty and Thomas play two faces of the place's enforced jocularity, friendly but intolerant and insistent. It leaves Pleasence as the most stable of the bunch, and he knows that he's an utter mess.

It's also an expertly-constructed film visually. Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West do a really marvelous job of capturing both the grand beauty of the outback when viewed as a panorama and the hot, punishing, fly-infested reality up close. Many little details are perfect, like how the train station clock in the opening shot has no hands. It's all directed to showing just what sort of madness this world can induce.

An amazing film; the idea that it might have been lost forever is genuinely horrifying, but that's thankfully not the case.

Full review at EFC (dead link).

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