Monday, March 30, 2015

IT FOLLOWS Kindly Asks To Burrow Under Your Skin And Stay There

IT FOLLOWS (directed by David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

A pretty young woman, scantily clad but terrified beyond the point of titillation, storms from her house, running center framed towards the screen. The camera - and by extension, us - swirls a 360 degree pan around her as she desperately searches for a place to flee and neighbors ask if she needs help. As a combination of fear and hopelessness floods her face, she runs back in for the car keys and drives away. We move to her sitting in the dark night by a lake, no feeling of safety about her, as she calls her parents and bids one last weeping, "I love you." Hard cut to her corpse in the daytime, still at the lake, leg snapped open in the air.

Welcome to the world of "It Follows." You will not laugh with your friends after a jump-inducing scare. You will not feel that fun, goofy fear that comes with knowing it's only a movie. You will leave unsettled, disturbed, and wary of your surroundings.

Lets not be stingy with the praise, though. You will also experience the best American horror movie in ages.

Jay (Maika Monroe), college girl in a nondescript Detroit neighborhood where every house could use a remodeling, goes on a date with older boy Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems oddly twitchy and aloof. As horror tropes go, they still have sweaty, awkward sex in the back seat of his car, after which he informs her that in doing so, he's passed a curse along to her, a demonic spirit that can only be seen by those with the same curse.

If she wants to rid herself of it, she must pass it on by having sex with someone else, who then must have sex with someone else, and on down the line. Otherwise it will haunt you until it kills you. The spirit can take the form of any person, be it a stranger or someone you know. It seems more or less bound by physical laws, unable to disappear or walk through walls (while it seems forced to knock on doors, it holds no qualms about breaking windows - chalk that up to random rudeness). It does not hide in closets, nor does it wait to pounce. It never runs, but instead walks, always walking. You can try driving far away, but that will only buy you some time. It will chase you, and it will find you.

After only one previous feature, "The Myth Of The American Sleepover," writer/director David Robert Mitchell establishes himself with "It Follows" as an immensely clever journeyman, agile and capable of dominating whatever genre he chooses. One of his masterstrokes here is crafting a supernatural threat that feels highly specific but also universal, tapping into the fundamental nightmares that plague us from childhood to death. Running but not escaping, Trapped in a dark corner with no way out. Feeling safe nowhere, whether it's at home or out in the open daylight. We know just enough specificities of the curse to be terrified, while things are also vague enough to keep us even more terrified. 

Mitchell takes things one step further, though. Instead of simply presenting us the horror, creating an audience of voyeurs whose fear exists only in the theater, he invites us to be willing participants. Early in the movie, Jay and Hugh play a game. Study everyone in the crowd around you and pick a person you'd like to trade places with. Your friend gets two guesses as to who you chose and why. 

In context, this feels like a fun thing you can try in your own life. Later, when the full scope of the curse emerges, it carries an unmistakable dread. Imagine being out in a sea of people and not knowing who the spirit is, if it's even there at all. Now put yourself in the shoes of the characters doing the same thing. Most horror films flow on peaks and valleys - you can instinctively tell which scenes are set-up as scary setpieces and which will be peaceful. "It Follows" offers no such respites. As with Jay and her friends, every single scene reaches almost unbearable tension as we scan the frame, looking for hints of the spirit approaching.

Rocking the wide angle lens like nobody's business, allowing immense depth of field, Mitchell hones skills as a master widescreen craftsman. Characters are precisely framed to create negative space around them, triggering a jarring reaction when any figure happens to invade it. Deep focus forces us to study the foreground along with the background, where Mitchell sometimes drops the spirit with masterful, omnipresent subtlety. One sequence at a high school as Jay attempts to track down Hugh sports a fluid 360 degree swirl around her as she walks down a crowded hall. Everyone around her is suspect. Anyone could be the curse.

Ultimately, as said, what drives the terror of this movie is something innate and elementary and primal. A slasher jumping from behind a shower curtain inspires the popcorn to go flying, sure. But it's not universal. It's fear by way of brute force. When the curse of "It Follows" manifests itself on screen, it's often as something that would be commonplace otherwise, but chills us to the bone in context because of the unshakable fact that this person walking at this speed in this location is simply not right, especially with the John Carpenter-esque electronic score underneath, filling the theater's surround sound system. Mitchell invites us to keep that fear inside us. Enjoy your walk to the car after the movie ends. Have fun putting your garbage cans out late at night. That fear will be there. It won't leave you. It's in your head, in your bones.

Which raises the final question, what exactly is "It Follows" about? Mitchell wisely eschews obvious answers, although a parable about AIDS (or STDs in general) feels logical, if a bit too easy. Maybe an oddly conservative treatise against premarital sex? Or a "Cabin In The Woods"-style meta commentary on the trope of sex in horror movies? All possible, and certainly no one can say any of that is wrong. But ultimately it feels broader and more general. 

By the movie's end, our teenage heroes are granted a feeling of more or less happiness, along with the maturity that comes with knowing there's darkness around the corner that you can face. But happiness doesn't bring peace. Maturity doesn't bring peace. What's out there is out there, and even if you temporarily overcome it, brace yourself for those long, sleepless nights, lying in bed on your back, wondering if you can handle what still looms on the horizon.

Sometimes you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above. Because it will follow you.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

What Does GET HARD Find Ickier - Gay Sex Or Funny Jokes?

GET HARD (directed by Etan Cohen, 2015)

What did you do when you woke up this morning? Stretched for a moment, likely made breakfast or at least a cup of coffee? Read the day's newspaper if that's still your thing? Then - don't tell me - desperately wondered why comedies about prison don't include oodles more gay rape jokes?

Wait. You're telling me no one does that? Too bad the news didn't reach "Get Hard," a movie on a mission if I ever did see one. If only that mission were worthy.

It's not that the movie is offensive, though it is. It's not that it's immature, though it is. We're talking a much worse cardinal sin in comedies: It's lazy. It's punishingly, mind-numbingly lazy. According to the calendar, it's the year 2015, and "Get Hard" is not only obsessed with the notion that two men of the same gender might have sex with each other, it thinks that in and of itself is a knee-slapper.

Switch a few gears around, and it might as well be a 1950s sci-fi parable entitled "Gay Panic!" about pod people taking men over and forcing them to do foul things together in bathroom stalls.

Such a shame that the basic framework of "Get Hard" is not without potential. Will Ferrell, embodying white privilege, plays a hedge fund manager wrongfully arrested for fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin after a judge wants to make an example of white collar crime. Terrified of life behind bars, he naturally assumes his car washer (Kevin Hart) has done hard time due to his skin color being black, and employs him to offer tips for prison survival before the sentence begins in 30 days.

Not the worst concept. One can easily picture Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor nailing a similar plot. As with any movie, though, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do it wrong. There are ways to work in jabs at America's white upper class and the institutional racism and homophobia within. There are ways to satirize our prison system and how stereotypes do or don't clash with reality. 

In other words, there are ways to be smart. There are ways to be funny. And the dictionary of "Get Hard" knows no such adjectives. Once Hart agrees to pretend to be Ferrell's street smart coach, the movie sets some kind of land speed record for gay jokes, hitting them fast and furious. Ferrell will be have shower sex in prison. Ferrell will suck dick in prison. Ferrell will undoubtably become somebody's bitch in prison.

There are literally stretches in "Get Hard" lasting for 5, 15, even 20 minutes that are nothing but gay jokes, gay jokes, gay jokes, like they're being given away at a very weird yard sale. Take a sequence at a restaurant where gay men go for brunch and to meet other guys. In order to overcome his heterosexual inclinations that he'll have to forget in prison, Hart sends Ferrell there pick up the first man he sees (played by Matt Walsh) and offer him oral sex in the bathroom. It's an agonizingly prolonged scene, built around a torturous close-up of Ferrell on his knees, schlong dangling in his face, loudly sobbing as he attempts to wrap his lips around it.

Quick - comedy workshop time! Lets simply accept that this scene is in the movie and there's nothing we can do about it. You've got Ferrell, straight middle aged man, likely never been within five miles of a naked penis in his life, let alone five inches. What do we call this in terms of joke structure? The set-up, right? And from there flows the punchline. From there you build and add the funny.

"Get Hard" never builds. "Get Hard" never expands. "Get Hard" simply lies content that its initial childish concepts are funny enough to stand alone. It's a mountain climber who stands at base camp and believes he's reached the summit.

It's an old comedy axiom that you punch up, never down. You hit the targets in power, never the downtrodden. "Blazing Saddles" works because its wildly incendiary language tackles the racist tropes within westerns. "Tropic Thunder" (cowritten by "Get Hard" director Etan Cohen) features a white man in black face for practically the entire movie, as explosive an image as you could ask for, and yet because its target is clearly pompous actors taking the Method too far, it scores some brilliant jabs. That's how smart comedy works. Using the same offensive tools of your targets to hit them where it hurts.

Making "Get Hard" work, then, basically requires a complete overhaul, first and foremost ditching the conceit that Farrell is a wrongfully accused good guy. Not only does it bog down the movie's back half as he and Hart attempt to prove his innocence, it drastically muddies the waters and renders the targets unclear. Make Hart the unquestioned good guy and Ferrell the unquestioned bad guy who definitely committed his crimes and will definitely go to prison. No doubt this would be a tougher pill to swallow for audiences who expect to root for Ferrell, but it would effectively redirect the movie's rampant racism and homophobia at him and lend a genuine arc through his interactions with Hart.

Secondly, don't pout, "Get Hard." You can keep your gay jokes. No one's taking away your juice box. Just add one simple, magical word, "Why?" These people find the mere existence of gay sex disgusting, but why? Ferrell can't understand a world beyond his own straight, lily white mansion, but why? Push the premise. Roll the stone down the hill and see what moss it gathers. Instead you're just the boys giggling during sex ed. 

It should be said that given what they're given, Ferrell and Hart are nothing if not pro salesmen; it's practically impossible for these two guys to not at least seem funny. And the movie sprinkles little nuggets throughout suggesting what might have been, like a very funny sequence where Ferrell attempts to trash talk and instead reveals some deep-rooted emotional issues of his own.

Just because "Get Hard" lives in a world where gay sex is a thing, though, doesn't mean it has to like it.