The Green Inferno (2015)

Guess who just got back from seeing Eli Roth’s latest. Yep, that’d be me. This isn’t a complete review, as I’m still processing the film, but I wanted to write down some of my initial impressions.

First off, I did some research into the film’s somewhat complicated production history to determine that yes, all of the actors were fairly compensated for their work. One of the points that have been touted around about The Green Inferno was Roth’s use of native Peruvian villagers as actors, many of who had never seen a movie before. From what I’ve been able to dig up, everyone was compensated by union standards, the whole process was democratic and entirely voluntary, and all of the actors understood what they were getting into in the first place. It also appears that some of these actors have moved on to other pictures, including Antonieta Pari, who had an incredible screen presence for a first-time actress. I’m in the process of looking up her other film, and hope to see more of her if she decides to continue in the industry.

Coming out of The Green Inferno, I can see why a lot of people disliked it. A film like this just isn’t easy to sit through. Some art is pleasant to look at, and some pieces hit you repeatedly in the face with their ideas. For better or worse, The Green Inferno fits the latter bill. Two people walked out of the screening I attended. Eli Roth’s style is a mix of in your face brutality and cutting social commentary that sometimes get lost under the weight of all the gore. A lot of audiences just don’t have the stomach to sit through one of his films. And make no mistake, The Green Inferno is one of his most brutal. There are scenes of dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, and wanton mayhem, among other things. Eli Roth said that a lot of the actors wanted to be covered in fake blood during the shooting, and it’s very clear that they went through a ton of the stuff in the process. The Green Inferno is bloody, hard to watch, and at times just flat out disgusting. Not everyone, even regular horror fans, is going to be able to sit through it. That’s just the long and short of it.

And yes, this film is art. I will fight you on this.

It also relies heavily on the assumption that the view knows enough about current events, grindhouse horror, and the controversy surrounding its clear inspiration, Cannibal Holocaust to keep up with all the ideas the story is juggling. Above all, The Green Inferno is a horror film made for horror fans. I might go even further and say that The Green Inferno was made for horror scholars, though I’ll admit that most horror experts wouldn’t consider themselves scholars in the traditional sense. The casual viewer risks missing a lot of the nuance without doing some research beforehand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – lots of genre films tell stories specifically for their longtime fans. However, it does lead to instances where audiences critique the story as senseless and disgusting while ignoring the very real ideas the film is trying to work through. That’s a risk that Eli Roth took going in with a project like this, and the controversy surrounding the film had to be expected.

To his credit, Eli Roth has been incredibly nuanced and respectful in his responses to the arguments that have cropped up since he first announced the project. It’s worth looking at some of the interviews he’s given concerning The Green Inferno. These two are interesting.

I guess now would be the time to give my opinion. While I’m still in the process of figuring out a longer answer to that, I’ll say that I liked it from an analytical standpoint. I’ve been a fan of Roth’s for a long time, and I’d say that this is one of his most thought-out projects yet. It’s also one that poses a lot of questions and leaves them for the audience to ponder, rather than trying to force a perfect solution in at the end in the style of your usual, Hollywood blockbuster. However, I am aware of the complications of a white, American director telling a story about Peruvian villagers terrorizing (mostly white), rich American teenagers – and my own perspective on this, as a white, American, middle class audience member. We all come into films with an agenda, and we always leave with an opinion on the one portrayed on-screen. I appreciate that Roth didn’t try to squeeze in an answer for all of the questions he posed, something that I admire about his work as a whole. In his films, it’s enough just to ask and wonder. The world is too big and strange to solve with a single answer. But isn’t it cool that we get to have the discussion in the first place?

On a technical level, the film was well shot and the scenes of the jungle were absolutely beautiful. Still, I’d argue that the scenes done in the marketplace were the best of the film, with the careful color balance and juxtapositions of modern and seemingly “traditional” objects. I also liked the hand-held shots that popped up in moments of fear and confusion, which gave the film a cluttered, disjointed feeling to match what the characters were feeling. The Green Inferno is a visually complicated films, with a tendency to cram a lot of “stuff” into the frame and leaving the viewer to decide on their own what to look at. This is a stylistic choice I’m not usually fond of, especially in horror films, but it worked strangely well here.

I’m also curious about the inclusion of the two lesbian characters, who did eventually die, but seemed to have one of the only healthy relationships in the story. There was also the implication that one of the women, Amy, was mentally ill, though this wasn’t fully explored within the story. It’s something that’s popped up before in Roth’s work, both the surprisingly (given the genre’s reputation) positive treatment of queer women in his narratives, and the inclusion of a female character with mental illness. I haven’t come to any conclusions about this just yet, but the inclusion of these characters is interesting to me. I shall give this more thought.

There’s still a lot to say about The Green Inferno. I hope to continue on with the discussion. It’s not a film for everyone, but if you can sit through it, then come talk about it with me.

Barracuda (1978)

 

Your average animals attack story, with a coastal town under siege by a giant barracuda, and the sheriff and marine biologist who team up to take down the fish and the chemical company that created it. Think of it as the younger, more annoying cousin of Jaws. It’s on obvious attempt to make the ocean look scary again and cash in on the summer blockbuster phenomena after the massive success that Jaws enjoyed.

Sadly, Barracuda lacks the tight script and masterful filmmaking that made Jaws so compelling. This film had some of the worst sound design I’ve ever come across, the props weren’t realistic, and none of the story had the dark undertones or hell, any undertones at all. The anti-pollution message was layered on pretty heavy at the top, but the discussion failed to touch on anything new or interesting. Even in 1978, the debate would have seemed dated.

The characters are as flat as their acting, the story rambles on without establishing any real tension or memorable conflict, and the monster looked awful on screen. I was surprised at the level of gore included in a film from this time period, but that didn’t add anything to the story. Plus, it was pretty easy to tell which “pieces” where plastic and which were cow bones.

Skip this one. Go watch Jaws.

The Barrens (2012)

In your traditional but well-loved story about a vacation gone very wrong, a man takes his family camping in the New Jersey Barrens and becomes convinced that they’re being stalked by the legendary Jersey Devil, a local legend made terrifyingly real in this film. A series of strange and violent events seem to support this. After all, eviscerated animals don’t usually drop straight out of the sky. But Richard also has a high fever from an unexplained injury, his temper seems to be getting worse and worse with every perceived slight, and the strangeness of the events surrounding him seem connected to his nightmares of a monstrous event in his childhood. Coincidence? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

The Barrens does its best work when it just turns the camera on its cast and lets them bicker amongst each other, letting the drama unfold naturally without trying to explain everything in clear terms. This leads to some brilliant foreshadowing in the beginning (what happened to the family dog, for instance, is critical) from an event that initially looked like set dressing. However, it also leads to a few instances where pieces of the characters’ backstories aren’t revealed, and muddles the situation a bit too much. We know Richard and his daughter are from London, but his new wife and youngest son are not. We also know that Richard spent most of his childhood in New Jersey, and that something traumatic happened to him in the woods there. This trauma reveals itself at the worst possible moments, but is never fully explained or even examined. I’ll agree that some pieces of the backstory don’t need to be revealed – this is story about who these people are right now, not who they were in the past – but a few moments could have done with some clarification. For instance, whatever happened to Richard that he still (subconsciously) believes into adulthood that a monster was responsible? We don’t know.

Still, I like how The Barrens chose to disclose some information and keep the rest under wraps. It led to moments of poignant confession when various characters finally admitted things they’d been keeping secret, which makes for powerful filmmaking – especially with a horror film. Most of the horror here comes from the fact that there are circumstances that will make generally decent people do unspeakable, horrible things without changing their fundamental character. That, more than anything else, is what makes The Barrens so scary.

 

SPOILERS BELOW.

Whether or not the Jersey Devil exists or influenced any of the events in the film is left ambiguous at the ending, a move I’m not fond of. I feel that it undercuts the real unease that the story works in, about how decent people can – seemingly inexplicably – turn on the people they love without changing their fundamental character. Sometimes, good people do terrible things. A great deal of The Barrens is about secrets and hidden shame, and the resentment that grows out of keeping things from your loved ones. It places a lot of importance on the nature of confession and coming clean, though surprisingly doesn’t bring religion into the discussion. The Barrens just suggests that keeping shameful things hidden and lying to spare your loved ones feelings might not be the best course of action – and can lead to tragedy further down the line. Especially if the underlying cause of your childhood trauma is feeding into your hallucinations about the local boogeyman. Supernatural or not, the moral is about being truthful to your loved ones. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the message, but it’s buried beneath everything that the film does.

Still, The Barrens did give a surprisingly simple reason for all the weirdness that goes on in the film. Remember that injury that Richard had on his arm?

Turns out it’s a dog bite. And he has rabies.

Some information on the disease can be found here and here. For the most part, The Barrens gets most of its science right. The timeline of exactly when Richard got infected is a bit fuzzy, but the rest of the storyline makes sense to me. However, I am not a medical professional, so you can take that with a grain of salt.

Speaking of diseases, the film didn’t spell one of the more tragic aspects of rabies as it relates to the story. One of the reasons that Richard wants to go on the camping trip, aside from trying to connect with his children and increasingly frustrated wife, is to spread the ashes of his father. In a twisted bit of irony, he manages to do neither. Furthermore, rabies is almost always fatal once the neurological symptoms start to present. No matter how you take the events of the ending, Richard was already dying. So he went and alienated his family on the trip that was supposed to unite them, and would have inevitably died on the journey he was taking trying to put his father to rest. It’s one of film’s more tragic notes, though not spelled out. I didn’t put two and two together until I did some research on the disease. I’m undecided on whether or not this was a good move.

SPOILERS DONE

Visually, The Barrens is a lovely movie. The subdued imagery of the New Jersey forests were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently. However, some of the gore effects didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the background – it’s clear in a few instances that the dead animals are props, which broke the momentum of the scene – and some of the blood just didn’t look “right” compared to the realism of everything else in the film. The monster, however, looked goddamn amazing. It’s a feat to make something as outlandish as the Jersey Devil look persuasive and – dare I say it? – realistic on film, but The Barrens managed it. I give my since applause to the art department on that one.

The film was also well acted, with especially strong performances from Stephen Moyer as Richard and Peter DaCunha as the young Danny. However, the relationship that evolved between Sadie and her stepmother was my favorite by far, revealing a nuanced understanding of female relationships that I rarely see anywhere, let alone in horror. The Barrens isn’t afraid to portray its characters are people – well intentioned, but ultimately flawed, and sometimes cruel. Their flaws aren’t meant to demonize them, but simply to show how people let the best and worst of themselves out in moments of extreme stress – and occasionally just for the hell of it.

I enjoyed The Barrens a lot more than I expected to, despite its occasionally stumbling. Go see it. There aren’t many horror films that come out this nuanced these days.

Extinction (2015)

Extinction has a lot of ideas packed into what should have been a very small story. At times it wanted to be a zombie flick, then an “after the end” type story about an unconventional family, then it slipped into a monster flick, and then into a more traditional coming of age story. Unfortunately it tries hard to be all of these things at once and as such, fails to give each aspect its proper due. The family storylines never come to their logical head, and the eventual resolution of the plot rings hollow after so much setup for so little payoff.

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A lot of the character development didn’t make sense or wasn’t explored fully enough. For instance, one of the characters might be going mad from isolation and alcoholism, despite living in close proximity to other people, and suddenly seems to just…get over it one night. The young girl felt much older than what she was portrayed as, and her voice never quite found a solid tone to settle on. Her coming of age subplot didn’t have much of a conclusion. Sure, she gives up one of her dolls (symbol of childhood) in order to defeat a monster, but what happens after that? Extinction has a few lines about what it means to be human – mainly, not hiding in a house for your whole life – but doesn’t give its characters a clear direction to go in. The increasingly fractured family dynamics makes you root for them, but once those threads are resolved, there isn’t much to keep the audience invested.

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The monsters look decent, despite some moments of truly conspicuous CGI, but Extinction never explained how the shift from traditional zombies to the final product happened. The genre rules established in the film’s opening scenes suddenly don’t apply later on. While this makes for some interesting tension as the audience watches the characters scramble to adapt to the change, it comes a bit too late to be effective.

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I got the feeling that with its many ideas and mostly internal character development, Extinction would have been better served in novel format than a feature film. This one has too many ideas crammed into its two hours, and doesn’t manage to bring any of its questions to satisfactory answers. There are good moments, but the project as a whole is disjointed and confusing.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E3: The Dog

 The dog in question dies, if you were interested.

Fear The Walking Dead’s third episode is not giving me much hope for the rest of the season. The quality of episodes has been going steadily down since the pilot instead of improving as I’d hoped. Episode Three features some of the most inconsistent pacing and narrative that I’ve ever seen in a TV show, especially one with Fear’s budget. The story limps from one point to another without maintaining consistent tension, and several characters have already displayed attitudes that contradict their actions in previous episodes. I’m still hoping that these are early-episode stumbles and that Fear will eventually straighten itself up. The alternative is dealing with two full seasons of…this. It’s disappointing.

Still, Fear did have its moments this episode. We got to learn a bit more about the Salazar family, who introduced some interesting new character dynamics as well as establishing who’s most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse in one piece. (Spoiler: it’s the dude with the gun that is actually willing to use it). The clear generational divide in the Salazar family, as well as the tension between the American-born Ofelia and her refugee parents, added some realistic tension to a story that clearly needs a dose of it. Reality, that is.

See, another problem that Fear has had is that it’s trying to build a world that doesn’t know about zombies – a world that has no notion of even the fictional version. No myths of corpses rising from the grave to stalk the living, no 80s grindhouse films to laugh at over popcorn. Thus, what the characters face is completely alien to them. They have no way of comprehending or compartmentalizing what is happening to them, because it has no basis in their reality – or even their fiction.

The problem is, the audience already knows all the rules of the zombie genre. Watching characters play catch-up is annoying, and Fear has unfortunately been doing that for three episodes straight. Furthermore, it doesn’t establish what this world has in place of zombie stories – what myths do these people have about death? It’s clearly not the same as our world. Do they have ghosts and killer diseases inside their science fiction? How will that help the characters come to terms with the events going on around them?

So far, the world of Fear hasn’t proven itself to be especially well thought-out. Perceptions of police brutality spark a protest, but the resulting riot seems to be included for the sake of filming chaotic crowd scenes – without really considering that it was started by desperate people trapped with zombies in a situation that was both started by the police and made incredibly worse by the actions they took. If Fear is going to depict these sorts of events, then the writers need to really understand what they’re saying and how. You know who starts riots for funsies? White people. You know who starts riots because they’re legitimately angry, frustrated, and have been rebuffed by the system that’s supposed to protect them? Activists. That’s a very important distinction that Fear seems to have overlooked.

At this point, I can’t honestly recommend continuing with this show to anyone else. On an artistic level, the storytelling just isn’t up to par. It’s lazy, contradicts itself, and doesn’t maintain a consistent level of tension. The visuals are great, but it’s not enough to stick with a show just because it’s pretty. I’m liking the acting so far, but the script is making me groan.

Personally, I’m going to be sticking with Fear at least until the end of the first season because it’s talking about things I find interesting, even if I don’t agree with the show’s perspective on them. But I’m not going to make anyone else do it if they’re not sold already. Maybe things will get better. Most shows establish themselves in the first three episodes. Some nail it in the pilot. And some take a little bit longer. (The 100, for example). Fear is touching on some important and very relevant issues, including racism, class divisions, activism, and the consequences of relying on what’s becoming a police state in-story. I’ll be watching to see what Fear has to say.

Whitechapel (2009—2013)

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So, let’s talk about Whitechapel. I discovered it, as I tend to discover a lot of things, by picking up the first season randomly at the library. It concerns a group of detectives working in Whitechapel, London, and the various crimes they encounter. The first season is focused on a Jack the Ripper copycat, and the other three divide their time between various other cases – some with historical basis, and some that are just plain weird. The show goes a whole lot darker than what you’d expect from a police procedural, and earns its place in the horror genre. Sure, Whitechapel has its fair share of errors in addition to its great strengths, but I’m not giving a review today.

Well, not exactly. I want to talk about a single aspect of the show, one that I found interesting.

See, the first three seasons of Whitechapel are pretty much what you’d expect from a cop show, even one dipping its toes into the horror side of things. Horrible things are done, and horrible people are – eventually – brought to justice for them. Par for the course. But the fourth season jumps in with a completely different question. As the various crimes and misdeeds keep piling up, each of them somehow worse than the last, the characters start to ask themselves why all these things are happening in Whitechapel. Why do they have so many violent crimes and serial killers? And who is this woman who seems to be showing up in the periphery of every crime they’re investigating?

Pretty standard stuff for a crime show, right?

Now look at the trailer for the fourth season.

Folks, what we have here is a TV show trying a genre shift from your standard serial killer horror to supernatural horror. Even stranger, we have a TV show that actually pulls off a genre shift mid-story, without violating any of the history, rules, or logic it had previously established.

Now, TV shows have been playing around with genre for years. Remember the musical episode of Buffy? But there’s a small difference here. In the case of Buffy, the musical only lasted for a single episode and was explicitly caused by things already existing in the diagetic universe. Thus, it didn’t really change the nature of the show. It was played as a weird event in-universe, and – more importantly – not a recurring theme that would actually rearrange all of the rules and established history of the show that the audience had already accepted. The equivalent of the Buffy musical episode in a feature film might be a strange event that took about ten minutes of screen time and was eventually explained as being caused by drugs or something similar.

This is not what Whitechapel is doing with its fourth season. No, Whitechapel is threading in the possibility that supernatural forces and events are at work within the already dark world that the characters inhabit. Whitechapel goes a step further than that and also implies that the supernatural elements were present the entire time – the characters just didn’t know what clues to pick up on.

Strangely enough, this actually works. The fear and paranoia that the characters experience is matched by some strange camera effects that have always been at play in Whitechapel – but in the fourth season, suddenly seem very appropriate. Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements are weaved into the storyline so expertly that the audience got to experience the same thing the characters did: struggling to understand a world where the rules suddenly and inexplicably change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show do something like this, adding in – or just revealing – elements of a completely different genre than the one presented in the initial storyline.

Even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Whitechapel didn’t change genres, per say: it switched subgenres of horror. Just think about that for a moment. This is a TV show that understood its own tropes so well that it could shift between to seemingly incompatible worlds of fiction (fantasy vs. realistic) in a way that didn’t throw the audience off.

That being said, there were fans of the show that didn’t like the direction that the fourth season took. The term jumping the shark was used. It’s also worth saying that Whitechapel was not renewed for a fifth season.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what the series attempted and – in my opinion – expertly pulled off. There is no exact equivalent to this sort of shift in film, for the simple reason that TV and movies just don’t work in quite the same way. I don’t think a film could pull off a shift like this so late in the story, so to speak. TV shows work on their own timeline, with each season working as an overarching story with individual chapters within it. Thus, there are chances for different seasons to go in radically different directions than the ones that came before or after. Another example of this would be Helix, though that show worked on a slightly different scale, timeline-wise, and I’d argue it wasn’t nearly as well executed.

This isn’t a review of Whitechapel as a whole, and I’m not going into the details of the storyline beyond this one feature. I enjoyed the show, thought it was well shot, and had some of the most sympathetic and interesting portrayals of a character with significant OCD in recent memory. It also took three seasons to add a woman to the main cast and never got around to casting any people of color in reoccurring roles. Whitechapel had its issues, sure. It also had some great cinematic and storytelling moments.

It also had this shift in tone and (sub)genre at the very end that I thought should be highlighted. I thought people should know about it.

Lost After Dark (2015)

 A 1970s period piece with your average slasher plot: a group of hooligans and one A+ student decide to steal a school bus at a dance, and promptly get stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a psycho killer. Hilarity ensues.

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There’s not all that much to say about Lost After Dark, to be honest. It’s decently acted, has some surprisingly human moments in unexpected places, and walks to the beat of a well-established drum. This is a movie that knows its roots. It’s a horror film about a certain breed of horror films and looks exactly like the old-school slashers fans of the genre have come to know and love. But looks are about as far as it gets. Lost After Dark features some decent moments, to be sure, but the film itself just isn’t remarkable. There’s no analysis or refection on old horror tropes, or even the culture of the 70s: everything is presented as is, all surface level. Individual characters have conversations that reveal some more humanizing complications, but these aren’t reflected in the film as a whole.

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Another problem I had was that the majority of the film was shot at night, and in such poor lighting that I had trouble telling what was happening for most of the scenes. There is an art to shooting film in the dark, but this movie has sadly not mastered it.

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Lost After Dark has its moments, but the lump sum just doesn’t hit the mark. Skip it.

Unfriended (2014)

I saw this one back when it was in theaters and recently decided to check it out again. First impression? It plays much better on a big screen. I had trouble reading some of the text on the screen with the smaller version, though to be fair, that might have been because the DVD I had was scratched. Sadly that’s the risk of buying movies second-hand. I looked at some of the reviews on Amazon.com and no one else seems to be having this problem, so I’m inclined to say it’s my version. Oh well.

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Unfriended is a pretty simple ghost story. A student named Laura Barnes commits suicide after a humiliating video of her is posted online. A year later, a group of her surviving classmates are having a nighttime Skype call when they find themselves besieged by someone – or something – using Laura’s Skype account to reveal their darkest secrets. Things go from petty meanness to outright murder in due time, and the longer Laura waits to find out who posted the video that led to her suicide, the more bodies she’ll drop. Almost the entire film takes place on a computer screen, which is its most notable feature.

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I’ve seen a couple horror films that take place entirely on computer screens, including The Den (2013) and a few of the V/H/S shorts, but have yet to find one that doesn’t wear out its welcome before the end – or at least not one that extends to feature length. This particular brand of found footage seems to work best when done as a short, under thirty minutes. It tends to wear thin around the last third in features, something that both Unfriended and The Den – clearly the superior of the two – suffered from. This isn’t to say that the format doesn’t do interesting things, visually speaking, but that all the examples that I’ve seen appeared to run out of ideas before the end. Maybe someone will come up with a version that doesn’t fade out during the final third, but I haven’t seen it yet.

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Still, I’m not discounting this format entirely, even for feature films. Unfriended does have some fun tricks up its sleeves, especially in the beginning. Just look at the popup adds that subtly foreshadow the mayhem to come, and the difference between what the characters are saying in the group chat versus what they’re texting to each other privately. Additionally, the main POV character, Blaire, has a habit of rewriting her texts before she sends them, giving the audience an insight into her thought process. For a film with an extremely static and sparse setting, Unfriended does a fair job of keeping the image dynamic and interesting – which is a feat, considering all we see are Skype videos and Internet searches.

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All that being said, Unfriended starts to stumble when the bodies hit the floor. For whatever reason, the Skype format just does not allow for dramatic death scenes. All of the deaths, to a one, felt comical and over-played, which ruined the tone that the film was clearly going for. The last third also saw the cast devolve into screaming caricatures of themselves, which just isn’t interesting to look at. All of the creative film work and camera tricks were done early on. It felt like Unfriended just ran out of steam at the end, which is a damn shame. The beginning was solid and not obvious about its creepiness – the tension built slowly as secrets were revealed, and it was interesting to try and see how the group worked together to try and deal with the situation, versus when they inevitably turned on each other.

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Which leads me to the bigger problem with Unfriended. It’s said multiple times by multiple characters that while Laura’s death was unfortunate, she was also a bully and a horrible person, disliked by everyone. The problem is, we don’t see any proof of this – all we have are the testimonies of people who the film proves several times over are pretty horrible themselves, with crimes ranging from starting rumors to raping a fellow student. These things aren’t implied: they’re stated directly. It’s one thing to have a film with unsympathetic protagonists, but Unfriended expects the audience to go along with the group’s assertion that Laura – or Laura’s ghost – is a horrible monster with disproportionate ideas about revenge. From what Unfriended shows us, Laura – however brutal her retribution may be – actually does have a point. Was she a bad person when she was alive? Maybe, but the audience has no way of knowing that. All I saw was a wronged spirit taking revenge on a group of teenagers who did horrible, awful things while maintaining their squeaky clean reputations. This could have been a debate about the culture of teenagers in the age of camera phones and Facebook, where mistakes and acts of seemingly petty cruelty have the potential to become something much worse, but Unfriended doesn’t delve deep enough to really have a conversation about any of the events it depicts. It begins with an interesting premise and ends with slasher stereotypes twenty years out of date. It tries, but it doesn’t quite get there. Unfriended could have used a few more drafts of the script to really flesh out its ideas, and try to articulate exactly why Laura’s revenge might not be justified – after all, she’s going after a group of cruel hypocrites, one of whom is an actual rapist, but whose ultimate crime in the film seems to be (consensual) sex with his best friend’s girlfriend.

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What the fuck. I’m really not in the mood to spell out what’s wrong with that for everyone, but what the fuck. This is why horror films get a bad rap. As filmmakers, we’re damn well capable of doing better than that, and the audience is justified in demanding more. Do not pass go, Unfriended, do not collect twenty dollars. You fucked up.

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In short, we have unlikable, unsympathetic rich white and presumably straight teenagers getting their comeuppance from an angry ghost, and no real reason to sympathize with the supposed victims. Still, despite its missteps, I do like what Unfriended was attempting to do, and the creepy setup at the beginning. Give it a watch, but be aware of its flaws. There are many.

Infini (2015)

Infini is hands down one of the best scifi-horror films I’ve ever seen. It also took me a while to figure out exactly how it was working. To put it bluntly, this isn’t Star Trek. It doesn’t look like the traditional scifi, nor does the plot go in the expected directions. I can understand why it wasn’t picked up by Hollywood, since it’s a film that doesn’t believe in hand-holding and applies a sink or swim policy as to understanding the plot – the audience will either pay attention, or they’ll miss things. Infini is working entirely on its own rules and doesn’t bother easing the audience into any of it. The film starts with a bang and goes out with a sigh, and has many explosive moments in-between.

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I’m conflicted over how much to reveal in this review, since I feel that Infini does its best work with an audience that goes in cold. The basic story follows a soldier named Whit Carmichael who accidentally gets teleported to an interstellar mining post, where a contagion of some sort has been released, and the search and rescue team that is sent in after him. All of the characters are using implant technology that allows them to travel extreme distances across the galaxy in a matter of seconds, but said technology has an unfortunate tendency to malfunction and cause mental instability in the people who use it. Thus, how the way the story deals with time and how the characters interact with their past and present is…interesting. Without spoiling anything, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film go in this direction before.

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Still, it took me about forty minutes to really understand the visual codes that Infini was working with. This is not a Hollywood picture; don’t go in expecting to know the rules it’s operating on. Infini isn’t afraid to make its audience work to really get at the story and the subtext hiding underneath. It’s not the sort of thing that you can sit down and watch for the hell of it – this is a film that requires some thinking to go along with it.

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Technically speaking, Infini is an amazing achievement. I’m not a huge fan of time travel movies in general, but this one is making me reconsider my stance. This is a movie about confusion and fear, and the jolting pace does a great job in reinforcing the feelings of paranoia that the characters are dealing with. The main conflict in the story is how the characters deal with their instinctual need to survive, and the very real danger of returning home to spread the infection they’ve come across. It’s rare that I see a story, film or otherwise, that so convince displays characters that have been knocked down to their most basic instincts. These people want to live. And Infini wants the audience to realize exactly what that will cost them.

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It’s not pretty. Infini is brutal, mean, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the moments of fear and selfishness that the characters experience throughout the story. Infini puts turns the camera on characters at their very worst, and then adds salt to the wound by giving us tantalizing hits of who these people are at their best. There are no real villains. There are just people trapped in impossible situations. The subtext of economic desperation sprinkled throughout the film make it even more interesting, implying that these people might not be as well trained as they ought to be – but have taken on a dangerous job because they see no other way to support their families. And that sort of mentality is the exact kind that encourages people to turn on each other. Not the sort of thing you want for a rescue operation, but a very real situation for the characters in this story. They have no reason to trust each other when things get bad, because everyone is – quite literally – in it for the money.

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All that being said, Infini did stumble in a few places. The costume design just wasn’t good enough, repeating the generic black scifi uniforms we’ve seen a hundred times before, and I nearly laughed at the prop weapons they picked. The props just don’t look believable, which makes it that much harder for the actors to sell the story. Oh, and speaking of props – that could pretty much describe the roles of the female characters who appear on screen, there to move the plot ahead and with the least amount of character development of the entire cast. Which isn’t to say that what I did see was bad – the women all seemed quite competent at their jobs – but that Infini is focused on telling male stories.

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Still, it does take the time to develop its men of color, so it’s not just the white dudes who get their character arcs. That’s something worth noting.

Whit Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson) in a scene from INFINI, directed by Shane Abbess.

I’ll be singing the praises of this one for a long time yet. Go see it.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E2: So Close Yet So Far

So, looks like I’m reviewing the second episode too.

We kick off right where we left off in the pilot, in the aftermath of our second on-screen walker and first zombie kill, as society starts to crumble at an accelerated rate. The plot felt a bit disjointed in this episode, with strong character moments but no clear overarching thread to weave everything together.

The second episode gives more characterization to Travis’ ex-wife and son, and introduces the Salazar family, giving the cast some economic diversity. We don’t know much about the Salazar family so far, since they were introduced towards the end of the episode, but according to TV Tropes, they are immigrants from El Salvador. I’m curious to see how these characters will develop later on in the series.

Fear has, unfortunately, continued its trend of almost exclusively killing off characters of color. The show runners have responded to the criticism, saying to continue watching in order to see how the story will eventually play out. On one hand, I agree with this. It’s hard to critique a show this early in the season. But on the other, Fear has stepped into a racist and all too common storytelling trope. The best course of action would be to acknowledge it and try to avoid it in the first place, instead of making excuses after the fact.

I think my favorite part of the episode was when it focused on Christopher’s character, and his participation in a rally against what he thinks is police brutality. His sense of justice and need to document what is happening will be interesting to explore later on. Furthermore, the need of various characters in zombie films to “document” the events they experience has been a common thread between a lot of stories, but rarely explored in any meaningful sense. I’m hoping that Christopher’s character arc will give him – and the audience – some sense of how the ability to document and record the zombie apocalypse will impact the story. Last episode showed us a powerful scene of video interpretation, and I’m hopefully that Fear will continue to utilize social media in its storytelling.

It bears repeating that Fear The Walking Dead is trying to do something different than its sister show. Thus, it isn’t structured in the same way. Fear isn’t throwing us full tilt into the zombie apocalypse, but letting it unfold in paranoid, disjointed strokes. There are some advantages to that. The creeping shots of the characters watching and being watched as their world implodes on itself are very well done, as are the subtle nods towards their sister show. I’m curious about the choice to skip the scenes where the characters explain and accept the situation – Madison, Travis, and Nick clearly understand what’s going on – and whether that will be a stylistic note that continues through the rest of the season. It feels like a move more suited to a feature film than a TV series, though.

Personally, I liked that choice. However, I can understand why a lot of viewers felt like it missed the mark. Which is indicative of some underlying problems with the whole show, really. Fear is running into some issues with having its characters play catch-up with what the audience already knows. A lot of the people I’ve been talking to have expressed frustration at the lack of zombie action – half the reason they tuned in. In my view, the problem with Fear is that it hasn’t moved far enough away from its sister show to establish its own visual style. We’ve seen that TV shows in shared universes can be done, and with very different stylistic tones – just look at Arrow and The Flash. However, Fear seems to have run into a wall with establishing itself. It feels like a few more steps should have been taken to mark Fear as its own unique show, visually and stylistically. Yes, it takes place in the same world of The Walking Dead, but Fear is not telling the same story, or in the same way.

For a show that’s already been renewed for a second season, Fear seems to be stumbling a lot in getting off the ground. Other reviews have gone into detail with their issues with the plot and characterization, so I won’t rehash them here. The biggest issue overall that I’ve seen people talking about has been the divide between the characters who know (sort of) what’s going on, and the characters who – for various and understandable reasons – do not. Narratively, it’s frustrating to watch the cast play catch up, and Fear doesn’t go into the reasons why it might be difficult or even traumatic for the characters who do know to explain what has happened to them. Alicia’s frustration with her mother’s behavior, for instance, is an excellent mirror to what a lot of the audience is feeling. One party knows the score and the other – while willing to listen – does not.

Another narrative choice that’s had its share of discussion was how a group of characters, including Christopher, interpreted what Fear indicates was a zombie killing as an act of police brutality. It’s worth noting that the audience approaches the scene on the same level of the characters – there’s nothing to indicate that the killing wasn’t police brutality – and while Christopher’s actions are seen as sympathetic, the protest turns into a riot in under ten minutes. And in that moment, any nuance or thoughtful commentary Fear might have been trying to provide was wiped away.

If you’re going to talk about police brutality and protests against that, you need to do it carefully. And for a show that has displayed the majority of the zombie victims as either people of color or visually coded as poor, that’s something that the show-runners need to be extremely careful of. If there’s commentary to be made about the vulnerability of poor communities of color to disasters, even fantastical ones like the zombie apocalypse, then it needs to be made explicit. At the moment, I’m looking at some very unfortunate racial and economic stereotypes.

Right now, I’m hopeful that Fear will take time to address them. I’m giving the show another episode to decide whether or not I’ll be sticking with it to the end of the season.