Hot Docs 2016 Review: Beware The Slenderman

Slenderman

If you have not heard of the Slenderman at this point, trust me that your kids have. He is a tall think man in a suit usually seen looming in the background of locations where children play or blending into a sparse forest of tall trees, that came about from unconscious desires of the internet to create its own digital folklore.

The opening minutes of Beware The Slenderman promise an experience along the lines of The Blair Witch Project meets Seven. It begs the question on whether HBO contractually mandates swanky opening titles on the various properties they develop for broadcast. The former mock-doc was made famous through savvy use of the internet in building its own mythology, and the latter was a cold thriller featuring sensationally violent murders as the mission statement of warped ideology of a mysterious John Doe.

The actual content of the documentary is far more interesting than what the credit sequence (or poster) pledges. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky goes deep into the specific case of two Wisconsin preteen girls who brutally stabbed one of their friends, nearly 20 times, and left her in the woods to die of her injuries. The victim, Peyton, (somehow) survived, and the perpetrators were were caught in short order. It is one of those stories you might have heard on the news in a couple years ago, registered the shock of it, that they did this due to belief in an internet meme, and then went on about your life. Documentaries like this one serve the place of an increasingly neutered long-form print journalism in that they allow a focused look at the context and consequences, well beyond national headlines.

Featuring extensive courtroom footage, candid interviews with the family members of the accused girls, and the online origins of the crowdsourced boogieman, Beware The Slenderman, plays like bizzaro world version of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, the superb West Memphis Three doc released by HBO in the 1990s (followed by two sequels). In that film, three teenage boys were convicted of committing gristly murders in Arkansas, and convicted mainly on the grounds that they listened to Metallica and read books by Aleister Crowley (coupled with unreasonable coercion by the police to confess.) The questionable idea that heavy metal music and satanic books could induce impressionable teens to murder was taken seriously to the point of putting blinders on due process.

Here in 2014, via videotaped interrogations which provide the through-line for the film, Morgan and Anissa, separated, both freely admit that their belief of an internet meme made them do it. One of the key, but unspoken messages of Beware The Slenderman is that even in a case where pop culture actually did made the girls do it, the legal system is still utterly broken when it comes to youth. Deeply disturbing to a bleeding-heart-Canadian such as myself, was fact that neither of the accused 12 year olds could have any body contact with their parents during the trial period (now in its second year) and were tried by adults by a tough-on-crime Wisconsin court. No hugs. Morgan’s mother has theories, but no answers because she has been prevented from speaking to daughter since the arrest. The girls were not given phone calls. Both fathers spend much of their on-screen interviews in tears. One gives an impassioned, but pragmatic, monologue on technology, parenting, and the punishing stress of trying to move forward with any sense of normalcy.

We have no idea what kinds of lives our children live inside their heads, and increasingly, the internet allows to magnify and participate the collective imagination, in ways that the brothers Grimm (or Metallica) could never have comprehended. Morgan’s mother thinks back to the time where her daughter had no empathic reaction to the mother die while watching Bambi. It is a powerful anecdote, but one wonders if this experiment were conducted formally on hundreds of children, if Morgan’s reaction is more common than we intuit. Perhaps from a lack of media comprehension or simply the universal built-in-narcissism of those who are so very young.

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Critical Mess: Spoilers and Censure

Spoilers

The first rule of Tickled is you don’t talk about Tickled.

The second rule of Tickled …. YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT Tickled.

Such was my experience, and that of conceivably every other media outlet, in regards to this years Sundance and Hot Docs sensation. An outstanding documentary about the seedy underbelly of competitive endurance tickling, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary is a superb investigative thriller.

But I can’t tell you why.

Let me start off by saying that this film truly is, without reproach, outstanding. It will leave you incredulous, baffled, and have you on the edge of your seat. It is insightful, intelligently constructed, and eye opening. The questions it answers seem to leave more questions bubbling below the surface – the sign of a successful documentary.

While some publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, have opted to break down the film, plot point by plot point, publicists involved in its distribution have been diligently trying to put perhaps excessive boundaries on what gets written. I have been asked to write carefully, and to explicitly avoid talking about certain reveals. Meanwhile, suggestions were made that I reconsider my interview questions, the answers of which may reveal too much.

What this all comes down to is a major issue now plaguing media critics, columnists and other surveyors of cultural documents – **THE SPOILER**.

These publicists are doing incredible work trying to protect their product. If a review gets out revealing too much about the film, people may be less interested in seeing it. As with films like The Sixth Sense, for example, people were angry if the final plot twist was spoiled for them. Oft times, they then saw no point in even going to the theatre to see the film.

While something like this won’t do too much damage to a major Hollywood film, it could be a crippling blow for a small documentary out of New Zealand.

An article was published on May 5th by Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture titled, Spoiler Alert: This Post Is About Spoiler Etiquette. Seitz raises several astute questions about the nature of spoiler culture: Why television shows and movies are somehow more delicate than, say, a sporting event, where the responsibility to avoid news of the game’s outcome, or a spectacular play, falls solely on the shoulders of the person consuming the media. In film and television, however, the responsibility falls on those who produce the criticism, the interviews, and the think-pieces. In other words: It is our fault, as critics, for doing our jobs.

Are there bits of information we should leave out of a piece in order to avoid spoiling rather large bits of the story? Absolutely. There always are. And, often times, that is very easy to do. However, it is becoming progressively more and more difficult to filter out what information is going to piss someone off. Our hands are tied, and it makes it incredibly difficult to do our jobs.

In the case of Tickled, there is so little I can talk about that I felt it more important to use the film as an opportunity to open a dialogue about spoiler culture.

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Friday One Sheet: The Neon Demon

The aesthetics of Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent run of films have lead to interesting and ‘out of vogue’ colour palettes. And yet, his ‘glossy and difficult’ cinema always feels fresh and gives the impression that it will back in vogue. Here, for Cannes festival poster for The Neon Demon, we get a spectacular collision of sparkly golds, reds and purples. And a neon skull in the typeface. It is also worth mentioning how effortless Elle Fanning pulls off a very low cut dress with intrigue and attitude.

Blood Meridian negotiations announced… and collapsed.

bloodmeridian

In what might be one of the stranger things I’ve seen recently, The Hollywood Reporter published an article detailing a deal with James Franco to direct an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with Russell Crowe, Tye Sheridan, and Vincent D’Onofrio all in talks to join the cast.

By the time I made it home from work though, the story had changed significantly. According to Deadline:

The mooted Russell Crowe-James Franco collaboration on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien has been shelved mere moments after details of it first became public after it emerged that the filmmakers had not yet secured the rights to the novel. … [I]n a situation that highlights the precariousness of conducting film business in a instantaneous online media climate, the breaking news reports about the project appear to have derailed the fragile discussions taking place with the rights owners and the cast. This is a deeply regrettable situation. No one ever wants a story to get in the way of deals being done.

Literature buffs are either letting out a collective groan… or a sigh of relief. Some call Blood Meridian simply unfilmable and considering Franco’s lack of success on two other adaptations of “unfilmable” novels–William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and McCarthy’s Child of God–his name being attached likely didn’t inspire much confidence from fans of McCarthy’s work, even if the idea of D’Onofrio as the Judge would be pretty damn exciting.

As for Blood Meridian, it’s had an interesting history. As far back as 2008, we wrote about the film being adapted by Ridley Scott and then later Todd Fields (and interestingly, I speculated in another article that Scott might try to bring on board Crowe). And another director bites the dust.

What say you, internet?

See also: Mike Rot’s 2008 Cormac McCarthy Mix-Tape and my review of 2011’s McCarthy adaptation The Sunset Limited.

Civil War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.



Okay, MCU, I quit*

The shark has been jumped, and in this case I may be the shark and Kevin Feige and his team of TV directors are the Fonz. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the logical conclusion to – but unfortunately just the next phase of – this series of bloated, meaningless storytelling.

Following a series of disasters in both real American metropolises and fictional foreign nations, the less interesting Avengers (Thor and Hulk are elsewhere, as are the expensive big name love interests from previous films) find themselves subject to reckoning from the international community, demanding oversight to their actions, leading to a schism between those who idealistically see the negative implications and will not compromise, and those who see the path of least resistance and would like to keep a hand on the wheel.

After an hour or so of “good for basic cable but it ain’t HBO” style of drama which has earned Daredevil many fans (but man has that show also grown drab and tedious) we get the film’s centerpiece, a defining and damning moment – the big showcase battle royal – and in pro wrestling terms it is an indie spotfest that has all the weight of an arcade fighting game. For those uninitiated to the Sport of Kings, that means generic grapplers doing a lot of creative flipping with no selling (nothing hurts), no storytelling (are you working down a body part? do you have a strategy?), and no heat. And the “smart” indie fans lap it up in spite of knowing what actually makes a match any good.

Civil War has no heat. This is the movie that has divided up earth’s greatest heroes, telling us that a conflict has arisen where there is now no choice but to butt heads. And yet the process reveals no. goddamn. new. side. of. anyone. While Iron Man and Cap have their logical sides, and others have their loyalties, several others are there for no good reason at all, adding nothing to the shallow discussion, and damage their own characters in the process. Tom Holland makes a wonderful Peter Parker but a Spider-Man more eager to please new friends than do what’s right. Likewise Paul Rudd initially brings life with his fresh Ant-Man character but is quickly reduced to a bumbling fool showing none of the subtlety required in leading his own film. The time comes for battle, and there they go, and I buy their reasoning even less than Batman v Superman.

David Ehrlich summarizes the centerpiece better than I could have ever imagined when he writes:

“Watching “Civil War,” it’s easy to understand why the MCU is so hung up on the fight in New York — it’s the franchise’s only great action sequence. Joss Whedon’s visceral understanding of cinematic geometry and his symphonic flair for choreographing movement allowed that marquee set-piece to galvanize the separate threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a unified whole. On the contrary, every action beat in “Civil War” is such a discrete hodgepodge of close-ups and medium shots that they might as well exist in a vacuum — at times, this feels like the first movie ever made entirely out of gifs.”

And it’s not just the action in this scene that is so clumsily shot, choreographed, and considered. What the Russo’s are interested in this big moment… is quips! This big moment, planned for years over the course of several films, is upended by a pair of red and blue underoos. This scene is the big coming out party, and more thought seems to have been invested in putting butts in seats for Homecoming than paying anything off. And the quip-slinger is the other side of the mediocre coin. His material is good for an open mic, but ain’t no HBO Special. After a series of groan-worthy one-liners where Holland and Rudd ask for autographs from their friends and adversaries, they are sent off on his merry way and proven irrelevant.

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After the Hype #138 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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May the 4th be with you! We’re joined by special guests Amberlee and Jeff to talk about the STAR WARS film we’ve all been waiting for, or not. Our reactions are pretty mixed. We make our special guests break down the film to hilarious results.

 

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: How To Build A Time Machine

Niosi

The famous Serenity Prayer of american theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is as follows: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Jay Cheel’s beautifully rendered How To Build A Time Machine tells the stories of two men who are on the verge of that wisdom, and in the act of telling, examines line between our boundless imagination and the rigorous nuts and bolts of acquiring the knowledge required to achieve some measure of it.

Shot over five years, the film follows former Pee Wee’s Playhouse animator Rob Niosi who has been building a replica prop of the time machine from George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. What started as a fun 3 month project has, through is own peculiar, yet charming, Sisyphean nature, has blown out to nearly a decade. This is a peak into the psyche of a stop-motion animator whose entire working day might yield only seconds of usable film. Rob’s father took him (and his brother) to see The Time Machine when he was a little boy, where they both became fascinated with the central machine. His father was instrumental in encouraging his son toward a career in animation, providing tools and encouragement and advice along the way. Implicit in Niosi’s recreation of the time machine is to recapture the pure impression he had of that perfect day at the cinema with his family.

The film juxtaposes magnificent montages of Niosi meticulously crafting each brass or mahogany part for the prop replicate together with the academics of Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist at the University of Connecticut whose scientific career has been a pursuit of the hard science of time travel.

Significant is the muse that drives these men, completely different relationships with their respective fathers, which gives the movie a surprising emotional resonance. If father-son stuff affects you as much as it does me, you might want to pack some tissue. Mallett lost his father to a heart attack when he was about the same age that Niosi was in rapture watching Morlocks fighting the Eloi at the movies. The core motivation of decades of complex theory and practical experimentation is the dream of the possibility to go back and warn his father of his weak heart, and the young boy, who idolized him, that would be left fatherless at such a young age. And yes, Mallett also idolized a comic book version of H.G. Well’s science fiction story which he believes put him on the circuitous path to a doctorate degree.

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