This past month, Kino Lorber issued a curious variety of films to DVD and/or Blu-ray, and I was provided with a curious variety of five of those to screen and then tell you about. I'm going to do that now, going in order from worst to best.
H8RZ (d. Derrick Borte) - Why, you might reasonably ask, would I, or anyone, request a screener for a film called H8RZ? Well, and this will sound stupid, but I thought it was a foreign film (which are never, ever bad). And I thought that title was just some lazy "translation." Please do not question my logic. Admittedly, I might have taken note of the fact that this cross between The Breakfast Club and (very huge spoiler though you might well see it coming) The Usual Suspects features noted non-foreign actors Cary Elwes, Jeremy Sisto, and Abigail Spencer, but I didn't. I've decided to chalk my blindness up to the excited frenzy I was in due to another title I was requesting, about which more later.
So like I'm saying, H8RZ is garbage. Shocking garbage. God knows the fact that it was made very cheaply is forgivable; that it was made as stupidly as it was is not. A group of five mismatched teens (including two troublemakers, the class president and his girlfriend, and a misfit outcast) conspire to cheat on a big test and are caught. They're given a zero on said test, which will fuck up all their averages, and college prospects, but good, so they conspire to goofily heist their way into the school computers and change their test grades to As. That no teacher or principal or anyone else might notice that their punishment for this huge five-person cheating scandal is somehow not be reflected in their final grades seems not to have occurred to them, or to director/co-writer Derrick Borte. Anyway, it all goes tits up and via technology a supposedly dead student begins harassing and blackmailing them. Also, the audience already knows most of them are dead, save the misfit, because this is told through flashback. The misfit is telling their story to an investigator. And who is the tough-talking investigator trying to get to the bottom of this terrible mystery following an explosion in the school that killed four students and a teacher? Not a cop, no -- the cops have decided the only witness is free to go since the kid's in foster care or something like that. No, the tough-talking investigator is a member of the school board.
So it's all nonsense, and it rips off The Usual Suspect so recklessly that I think a layer of The Usual Suspect's skin came off. The idea being, I suspect, that the target audience of H8RZ (not me, clearly) will not have seen or even heard of the famous 1995 thriller, and through ignorance will not care. And now here I am, demanding that a Bryan Singer film not be sullied in this way. What have I -- what have we? -- become?
13 Cameras (d. Victor Zarcoff) - This film is a more standard thriller, in the sense that it's not ripping off anything in particular. A young woman named Claire (Brianne Moncrief) is eight months pregnant and married to a guy named Ryan (P.J. McCabe) who is pretty much a total chunk of ratshit. The couple has recently rented a house from unnerving landlord Gerald (Neville Archambault) (and frankly Claire's inability to keep her distaste of Gerald to herself until Gerald's out of the room suggests she herself is no prize, but since he turns out to be a murderer and rapist I guess you'd have to call her prescient at worst) so anyhow they get the place, Ryan fucks around, Claire walks around all pregnant and whatnot, and Ryan's sympathetic mistress (Sarah Baldwin) is kidnapped and imprisoned by Gerald (who's got cameras all over the joint) in the secret basement of the very house in which so on and so forth live or whatever.
This is not a terrible film, but it almost is. The fact that Ryan turns out to be so hateful goes some way towards saving McCabe's performance, in a weird way, and that the film ultimately treats him as a human being is a welcome respite from the morally lazy idea that if you have done a bad thing, anything bad that happens to you should be celebrated, which is the fuel for so many horror films.
But 13 Cameras is pretty bad, or at least, it sure isn't interesting. Even though when the shit starts going down Zarcoff goes further than I would have expected, he really doesn't go that far (the twist rules all). And the ending is a joke though the film was not building towards anything like that. It's as though Zarcoff had a Yahtzee cup full of certain horror/thriller tropes, and he had to use them. Some worked, some didn't but anyway we made a whole movie, you guys.
Tricked (d. Paul Verhoeven) - I should perhaps begin by saying that I'm a Paul Verhoeven skeptic. I think Starship Troopers is stupid enough to congratulate its audience for understanding its high school-level satire, I think none his Hollywood sleaze thrillers like Basic Instinct and Hollow Man have carried with them either the jolt or the craft to make them linger, and I think his eventual retreat to The Netherlands, 2006's World War II potboiler Black Book proved that even with his best-made film in decades, Verhoeven's moral twists are still thoughtless and adolescent. I think Total Recall is okay, though, and I really like Robocop (which you have to say to keep nerds from threatening to assault you).
Recently, a new Verhoeven thriller called Elle made its way to Cannes, but prior to that, this curiosity, Tricked, was, sort of, made in 2012. Why it's curious I'll attempt to speed through in a moment, but the Kino disc presents the 55-minute feature with a preceding 30-minute documentary about the making of it, during which Verhoeven says that before Basic Instinct he'd never made a thriller. Which makes me wonder how he'd define The 4th Man.
The gist being, I think Verhoeven is kind of a dope, and I don't think Tricked as a film nor Tricked as an idea for a thing to do refutes that. For whatever reason, Verhoeven decided to make a social media film, by which I mean he hired a writer (Kim van Kooten) to write four minutes of a film. After which point, the Dutch Population would supply the rest of the plot and dialogue and whatever. The resulting film is...you know...fine. It's certainly European, which the goofy philandering and apparently uncontrollable morals want to stress, but the filmmaking, and more to the point the story, given the backstory of this thing, could have been accomplished by any number of studio hacks. In the making-of documentary, Verhoeven makes a big deal about how hard it was to deal with and whittle down and shape the crazy number of scripts they received from the public. And quite frankly, the way he tells it, it sounds like it was an absolute motherfucker of a job. But seeing the film that came of it all, it's hard not to ask why anybody bothered.
Circle (d. Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione) - Now get a load of this thing. Boasting a cast of fifty (I didn't bother counting) and set almost exclusively in an almost featureless room -- all that's there are red circles on which each of these fifty-or-so people stand, and rows of white arrows patterned in circles around half of a black orb positioned in the exact center of the circular room and around which the fifty people stand, in rows that are circular -- the film, which is only about 85 minutes long, throws its audience, and its characters, into the middle of a premise that can't possibly proceed with the kind of logic or structure Hann and Miscione, who also wrote the script, try to impose on it, but they choose to not let this stop them. And the premise is, that orb in the middle of the room is going to shoot some sort of electrical laser that will kill one person every five minutes or so. None of these people know how they got there, they just woke up there, standing in place on one of those red circles. If you step off that red circle, you die instantly. Since they don't know that until it starts happening, how is it that forty of them don't step of the circle and die within the first 30 seconds after awakening? They just don't, that's all! Eventually it's discovered that a majority vote can pick the next person to be killed by the laser by positioning their hands and locking in their votes with their fists and directing the lights in the floor-arrows to...well, anyway, I don't believe one person would be able to figure out this complicated voting-and-aiming system (especially the aiming part, since the rows of people are three or four deep, and if you're in the back and there's still forty people left, and you're trying to aim at the guy in the front on the other side of the orb from you, you're going to be aiming at someone else's back), but enough people seem to get the hang of it for the plot to work. Because if they don't vote for someone, the orb will randomly kill someone, the rapidly dwindling number of survivors decide they'd better vote, and figure out who to vote for, and lobby for supporters, and choose sides, and eventually try to make the moral choice of, if only one person can leave this room alive, who should it be? The little girl, the pregnant woman, or perhaps the rich jerk or perhaps one of the bigots?
Circle is utterly, relentlessly dumb, but that doesn't mean I haven't watched it twice (this is the one I requested in an excited frenzy). It belongs to a group (I hesitate to say "genre") that includes Battle Royale, Cube, Exam, and so on, there are a ton of them, and none of the ones I've seen (including Battle Royale) do I consider especially good. But they're catnip to me. You almost can't fuck it up. Well, I mean, you can, but often that just makes the whole thing that much more delightful. In any case, Circle in runs on a particularly fast engine because the death rate is fairly intense, if not especially emotionally involving. Then again, within its own boundaries of stupidity, the film ends rather well. Well-ish. I didn't predict the climax, anyhow, though perhaps I should have. But even if I should have, I didn't.
Mountains May Depart (d. Jia Zhangke) - I came late to Jia Zhangke, having until now only seen his previous film, A Touch of Sin, about which ambivalent, leaning towards positive. Or vice versa. But it was an intriguing picture, telling four stories that revolve in some way around an act, or acts, of violence (each based on a true incident), and tying together various themes having to do with Chinese class issues, and things of this nature. This new film, Mountains May Depart, is similarly structured with some important differences. Though broken into three distinct parts, it follows the same group of characters over the course of twenty-six years. Beginning in 1999, Jia depicts a love triangle among a group of friends: two men, the aggressive, ambitious, and successful Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and the meeker (for a time), friendly Liangzi (Liang Jidong), and the woman they both love, the happy, endlessly sunny Tao (Zhao Tao). The two men, as these things go, realize that they both love their friend, and per Jinsheng that means the friendship is over. Romantically, Tao finds herself leaning towards Jinsheng, but the stress of the disintegrating friendships causes her unbearable stress. Skipping ahead to 2015, we find find where these three characters have ended up after sixteen years, but there's no point in telling you where that is, and it would be worse still to tell you what's up in 2025, where some characters find themselves still in China, others in Australia, which apparently in the next 10 years or so will experience an influx of Chinese émigrés.
Many of Jia's concerns from A Touch of Sin have carried over to Mountains May Depart (even violence, thought Mountains May Depart is a markedly gentler film; still, from a certain point until the end, there's at minimum a threat handing over the proceedings), and if anything seem more cleanly sketched into the story being told than in that earlier film. The first two chunks of Mountains May Depart, 1999 and 2015, are very strong, with little moments and small details being looked at closely enough that the three principle actors, all of whom are wonderful, can find themselves within them. Look particularly to a vital but quiet scene in the store where Tao works in 1999, when the bus that will crush her happy friendships is about to run her down. Unfortunately, the 2025 section works much less well, as thinly imagined as the wilder chunks of A Touch of Sin. In addition, much of the 2025 section is written in English, and Jia's touch with English dialogue is not light -- it's very much movie dialogue. This combines with the occasionally silly bits of futurism, and the plot of this section, which focuses on two new characters, a middle aged teacher and her young student, who fall in love, to leave the last third of Mountains May Depart almost in ruins. Which is a terrible shame, because it's a very strong movie up until this last forty minutes. Jia Zhangke strikes me as a filmmaker who wants to push his imagination into wild and fanciful directions, but whose genuine talents lie in quiet, elegant naturalism.