Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Descent--Talia Lugacy (2007)

Maya (Rosario Dawson) is just a smart college student eager for new experiences in Descent (Talia Lugacy, 2007)
Rape-revenge is one of my least favorite subgenres in horror, mostly because in a rape culture, rape is an all too real horror, and not as often linked to the supernatural (although there are supernatural rapes too).  In recent years, more women have tackled this particular subject matter, often in rather unique ways, diverging from the exploitation pics of the 70s that really put the subgenre on the map (such as I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) or Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)).  The hardest thing for me is to watch the rape at all--even if there is a great deal of revenge afterwards.  I seem to shut down during that scene (or scenes).  I vividly remember going to see Martin Scorcese's remake of Cape Fear (1991) in theaters, and just being "done" after Robert De Niro broke Illeana Douglas's arm and bit her face during her rape...yep, DONE!  Since then, I've been really intrigued by how women might represent that scene differently (and yeah, there's usually only one scene rather than a few)

Talia Lugacy's Descent (2007) really stands out, not only because of its pointed critique of toxic masculinity, but its intersectional approach to both race and gender.  Rosario Dawson really shines as the smart, ambitious Maya, who is only a first or second year student (although she looks a bit older) at a local University.  Like any young student, she's invited to a party; she's not a heavy drinker, and she's wary of the phenomenal amount of douchebags lurking around every corner.

A wary Maya attempts to party
At this party she meets football-bro Jared (Chad Faust), a gangly white dude who tries some requisite pick up lines on Maya, and then realizing that she's not buying it, says some things that seem really heartfelt.  For all intents and purposes, they could be just "meeting cute," but since spectators know damn well what's going to happen, we all just sit in dread waiting for the inevitable.  Jared doesn't seem outwardly nasty, and there are no warning flags or sirens to give Maya pause.  In fact, even when she comes back to his place after their date at a fancy restaurant, it's not clear what will happen.  But it does.  Things turn ugly and Maya will never be the same again.

Jared (Chad Faust) seems like a sweet date...until he isn't
Maya's rape is framed almost entirely like the image above, not exploiting their naked bodies, and focusing very closely on Maya's face and her distress.  Like any of these scenes, it goes on too long, but is far more brief than most. As spectators, we are entirely focused on Maya's emotional landscape.  What follows Maya's ordeal is rather striking.  Initially, she becomes more withdrawn, not telling anyone her story, and retreating into a job in retail, where other dickish guys see her as "hot" but unbelievably "cold" for the disinterest she has toward them.  Meanwhile, she has a rather transformative summer, and ends up at a nightclub one night filled with people of color, dancing, grooving, getting it on.  The vibe is sensual and fun.  When she ends up drunk and passed out, the club's DJ, Adrian (Marcus Patrick) takes her under his wing, serving as a protector and a bit of enabler.  She slips into a world filled with sex and drugs, but the film never comes off as judgmental, even if we worry about her future after her horrible experience with Jared.  She's become jaded, but stronger as well.

Fall arrives, and Maya soldiers on, even becoming a TA for one of her classes (as an undergrad!), but things go pear shaped when she notices that Jared is one of the students, AND she catches him cheating when she's proctoring an exam that he's taking.  She calls him on it, and when he intimates that she misses him, she plays along, inviting him on a date where she calls the shots.  Audiences anticipate that the revenge aspect of the film has finally arrived, and the film really doesn't get there until nearly the end, focusing far more on Maya's emotional journey prior to the vengeance.

Jared enjoys submitting to Maya on their final date
In the "revenge" scenes in the "rape-revenge" thriller, women avenging their rape(s) tend to get rather stabby and castrating, playing into a male spectator's darkest fears.  Women also, unfortunately in my estimation, tend to become very hypersexual in order to seduce the male characters into a vulnerable state, playing into their narcissistic belief that ALL women want them, even after they've brutally raped them (WTF).  Jared fits right into this role, really reveling in Maya demanding that he strip, and then blindfolding him and tying him to the bed.  It's all in good fun, right?  Here, Lugacy does not hold back on the full frontal MALE nudity, and we are served up a whole lot of penis in this film.  The camera focuses on Jared's entire vulnerable body, and I'm still on the fence about the final scene, where Maya, with help from Adrian, rapes Jared right back.  This scene goes on for a really, really, really, really long time.  That two people of color are perpetrating this revenge on this obnoxious white dude is really refreshing, and also downright hard to watch--which seems to be exactly the point.  The film asks the question, how much does an "eye for an eye" really get you??

Descent takes rape revenge in exciting new directions
I recommend seeing the Original Theatrical Version which is rated a totally justifiable NC-17, and really sitting with some of the messages this film is trying to convey.  Rosario Dawson's performance is truly remarkable, and its great to see a woman's distinctive voice added to this subgenre's disturbing canon.  Coralie Fargeat's Revenge (2017), made a decade later, makes a good companion piece, and will be streaming on Shudder some time in 2018.  A review is forthcoming (I saw it in October at Sitges, and I need another screening to get my thoughts together), but definitely check out Descent when you can.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Winchester--Michael and Peter Spierig (2018)

To be perfectly clear, Winchester (2018) is not really about Sara Winchester, but actually about this guy (Jason Clarke)
I'm big fans of the Spierig brothers, Michael and Peter.  On a lark, I saw Undead (2003) in theaters, and I utterly adored it (even though Owen Gleiberman savaged it in EW--he didn't "get it").  I liked Daybreakers (2009) and I think Predestination (2014) is a work of genius--seriously, it's brain melting brilliant.  So, I was not prepared at all for the absolute s***show that is their latest film, Winchester (2018), although if I had known that they'd joined the Blumhouse family already with Jigsaw (2017), I would have hesitated.  The film has been getting press mostly regarding its "based on a true story" moniker, since supposedly Sarah Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune,  built the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose in order to appease the ghosts that had died from her family's rifles--something she could never quite do, so she kept building, and building, and building that damn house.  Some parts of that story are true--she was an heiress to the rifle fortune, she built a house in San Jose--but a lot of it is apocryphal, and the Spierigs take the bones of the story, and turn the silliness dial up to twelve, because eleven just isn't far enough.  The trailer makes the film seem like a great haunted house yarn centering on Sarah Winchester, played by the weirdly ageless Helen Mirren like a goth Miss Havisham, traipsing around in full grief regalia the whole damn time.

The awesome Helen Mirren as a goth Miss Havisham, er...I mean Sarah Winchester
This woman frequently comes across as intelligent and regal, no matter what kind of crappy role she's given, and trust me, this one is truly crappy.  She's no Jane Tennyson.  While you would think the film is about her, it's actually about Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) a washed-up laudanum junkie doctor who had a brush with death that made him lose his "once in a lifetime love" from which he's never quite recovered (ergo laudanum).  He's hired by the minority shareholders of the Winchester Rifle Co. to declare Sarah Winchester nuts so they can take over her controlling share of the company, and she will subsequently stop building her damn house.  He shows up at the construction site in San Jose, to find everyone expecting him and not excited about it. Not only is Sarah wise to his laudanum habit, but her niece (Sarah Snook) and her painfully annoying son, Henry, are not fans of his either.  Also, Henry has this habit of sleepwalking with a bag over his head in the oddest places, and talking in weird voices with glazed over white eyes.  See, still not really about Sarah here.  Ugh, I'm still mad that I paid for this film.

The Winchester House looks like a fake stage set, which is what the Spierigs shot on, in Australia
Dr. Price has a special connection to the Winchester House, since he was shot with a Winchester rifle, and died for 3 minutes, then came back to life--which makes him the only one who can stop an especially malevolent ghost played by Richard Horne from Twin Peaks: The Return (Eamon Farren), who absolutely defines the term "ugly pretty."  Turns out that only Sarah and Eric can see this ghost, although he possesses annoying nephew Henry any chance he gets.  The film goes on, and on, and on, with Eric thinking that Sarah's crazy, and then realizing that she's not and that everything she says is totally true, even when delivered in an over-the-top scenery chewing fashion by Mirren.  In fact, I almost nodded off at one point--in a movie theater, with some guy opening and crumpling every plastic covered snack food imaginable behind my head.  One would think that nodding off would be physically impossible since this film is almost entirely made of jump scares--really dumb, overly telegraphed jump scares.  I guess the insipid, stilted dialogue induced narcolepsy.

False advertising--this film is not about what's going on inside Sarah Winchester's head
Finally, Jason Clarke, Eric, whatever, figures his s*** out, gives Sarah a clean bill of health, and but for a few ornery nails (far more entertaining in a Quay Brothers film), all is well.  Except for the fact that the Spierig Brothers have squandered all my good will toward them. Now I think I understand why, before the film, the Brothers headline a very brief making-of doc and "thank us all" for going to see their film.  Yeah, you're not welcome guys.  Not welcome at all.  Let me put it this way:  both Havenhurst and The Abandoned were better films.  Not Visions, though.  That film was on par with this one.  Ugh, Winchester.