Friday, March 24, 2017

Future Imperfect - AEON FLUX

I like movies that are puzzles.  Not just in Mysteries, but across all genres.  Movies that explicitly spell out every twist and development can come off as patronizing.  Part of the fun for me is trying to fill in the details and make the connections, right or wrong, myself.  Having to figure it out can make for a more challenging and engaging experience.  The 2005 Sci-fi acid trip AEON FLUX tests the limits of this argument. 

The Capsule:
After 99% of the planet’s population dies of a virus in 2011 (dodged a bullet there, I only had a sinus infection that year), the survivors are herded into a giant city called Bregna.  For the last 400 years, Bregna has been ruled by the Goodchild Dynasty, founded by the guy who cured the virus (because scientists always get all glory).  Things are pretty good in Bregna, except Gestapo-like police sometimes kidnap/kill people for no apparent reason. A rebel faction called the Monican are sick of this shit, so they send their top assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) to kill the current chairman, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas).  Before she can take him out, she is shocked to discover she shares a mysterious connection to the man somewhere in her forgotten past.  The jumble of memories and emotions leaves her, and the audience, confused.  To unravel the truth, she will have to team up with the man she was sent to kill.  Standing in the way of the answers are hundreds of machinegun toting goons, lethal plant based security systems, and her one time partner, Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), who has hands for feet.  Believe me, I haven’t even scratched the surface of how weird this movie really is. 

I pride myself at being able to piece together—or just completely fabricate—some semblance of logic to the most convoluted sci-fi head scratchers.  This movie is so bugnuts insane, though, even I can’t make heads or tails or hand/feet out of parts of it.  This is partially because director Karyn Kusama ambitiously sought to make a truly fantastic and unique future world.  Mostly, though, it´s because the studio fired  Kusama after she finished the movie and chopped it up to the point of utter incomprehension.  Kusama was brought back in to edit it once their version did not play well for test audiences, but she wasn’t allowed to return the film to her vision.  The result was a complete mess that appealed to no one.  Except me.

You know you are in trouble when the movie begins with a few screens of exposition, followed immediately by voiceover of more exposition.  I was thinking “Well, at least they didn’t throw in a flashback,” when I realized the first ten minutes was a flashback.  Even with all that explanation, much of the plot is still mystifying.  There is an intriguing, if ludicrous, sci-fi premise at its core, but it gets lost in all the muddled motivations, sudden betrayals, and allegiance switches. 

One of the biggest unsolved questions is why the government are such authoritarian assholes.  It’s a counterproductive stance to have.  The society of Bregna isn’t a grimy, worn out dystopia like in BLADE RUNNER.  Everything is clean and shiny.  The citizens seem to be free of class divisions, poverty, and crime.  In fact, the number one occupation in Bregna is apparently just milling about aimlessly.  The Goodchild regime and the police seem to be the only ones with an official function.  Why do you need to have a strangle hold on your population if everyone is so chill?  The only real strife in the city is completely manufactured by the government.  People just disappear sometimes, or get killed by the cops.  There is a secret reason behind it, but the ruling party doesn't even bother trying to cover things up.  No one in the city has a clue what exists outside of Bregna’s walls.  It wouldn’t be hard to explain why people are missing.  “Oh Ted?  Yeah, he moved to literally anywhere else on Earth.  He said he’d send you a postcard.”  Problem solved.

The price for the regime being so heavy handed comes in the form of a secret resistance movement.  They are called the Monicans, presumably after Monica Geller from Friends, judging by Charlize Theron’s haircut.  They have a complex covert operation involving spies, operatives, and assassins, all getting their orders from the Handler (Frances McDormand, looking unsure of what she is doing there).  But just like the government they fight against, the Monicans are very vaguely defined.  Their only goal seems to be to kill Trevor Goodchild, and then later Aeon because she goes rogue.  The government paints them as the major, and possibly only, threat against their rule, but we never see why.  It’s all very elliptical.  The government goes after the Monicans because they fight back, and the Monicans fight back because the government goes after them.

No matter how much of a mess the plot is, there are few things that tickle my crazy sci-fi heart.  One is the gusto with which the filmmakers embrace the absurd future technology.  This is not like ALIEN or even BLADE RUNNER, where the technology is basically identifiable.  Okay, that’s a scanner, that’s a flamethrower, that’s a flying car, got it.  AEON FLUX is like Alice in Futureland.  Things don’t have contemporary correlations.  Government buildings are protected by gardens with hanging papayas that shoot poison darts and blades of grass are actual blades.  The Monicans communicate by using something like a telepathy pill that links their minds together in a virtual meeting hall.  Sort of a mental Skype call.  

Most stuff made sense in function, if not form.  Aeon leaves around a bunch of explosive ball bearings that come rushing to her like trained mice when she whistles.  She can peel off bits of her skin and use them like Band-Aids to close other people’s wounds.  Data is stored in liquid.  Some shit I have no clue about.  She finds this, um, wearable robotic squid in Trevor’s study that either teleported her to a lab or changed the study into a lab, or used a dimensional overlay to… I have no idea.  It made the fight scene more dynamic, so I’ll just go along with it.

Oh, and there’s a part where the Handler gives Aeon a map transferred through pollen coming out of a flower she produces from her mouth.  Because what else is she going to do, give her a piece of paper?  This is the future, damn it.

I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t go all out with it.  There are still basic things you can recognize, like tables and stairs and umbrellas.  Give me chairs growing out of the backs of large turtles, or thermostats that you control by licking.  

The movie does highlight the future of fashion, though.  Aeon is introduced in stylish Business Dominatrix chic, complete with a sheer head stocking.

She also has a negligee made from strings of beads, which seems like it would be difficult to sleep in.   

The best outfit goes to Pete Postlethwaite, who plays a ghost dressed like a cannoli with arms.  He lives in a giant jellyfish blimp. 

The design team put a lot of work into this movie.  Or a lot of drugs.

Compared to all the crazy shit constantly parading across the screen, the actual actors can seem a bit lost.  Theron puts forth a solid effort.  Aeon is no Furiosa by any stretch, but Theron gives her a similarly steely determination and supreme confidence.  Her combination of elegance and physicality makes her a believable super assassin.  The fights are what you would expect for the mid 2000’s, lots of quick cuts and close ups.  The emphasis is more on acrobatics, much like in the original MTV cartoon the movie is based on.  Aeon is constantly diving, swinging, or flipping over somethingShe never just walks into a room when she can do a flying leap into one.  

Kusama creates a very female focused world without being overt about it.  Bregna has outgrown sexism the way it outgrew many of the old social ills (except fascism).  No one underestimates or patronizes Aeon because she is a woman.  While the majority of the government council is male, including Trevor’s brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller, who we immediately identify as the real villain because he says nefarious things like “we can’t give them the luxury of hope”), the movie is filled with women in positions of power.  Most of the Monicans are women, as is Trevor’s formidable head of security, Freya (Caroline Chikezie).  The longest, most elaborate fight sequences are Aeon against Freya and then Sithandra.  The faceless male troopers can't last more than a few seconds against her.  Don't even start with the aristocratic fops on the council.  Women are the more formidable force in this town.

I would love to see Kusama’s original cut.  I have the feeling it would make much more sense while retaining the crazy bits.  I’d even like to see the studio’s version to see how they stuffed all this into 70 minutes (the theatrical version felt rushed at 93).  As it stands, the current cut is a fascinating vision of unbound ambition hamstrung by studio interference.  Unsurprisingly, the compromised product did not do well at the box office, and we did not get an AEON FLUX 2.  That didn't stop Kusama, who continues to direct diverse and intriguing work, such as the exquisite THE INVITATION, and an incredibly creepy segment of the all female directed horror anthology, XX.   As for AEON FLUX, it can be appreciated for its wild concepts and gorgeous visuals.  No matter what you think of the movie, it has a woman with hands for feet.  Where else are you going to get that?

C Chaka

Friday, March 17, 2017

Pillow Fights and Power Tools - THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

People have a natural tendency to think in generalities, to take a few well known examples of something and apply it across the board.  We all do it sometimes, especially Republicans (joke).  So I always roll my eyes when people who are clearly not horror fans go on about the tropes and stereotypes that they claim happen in every single horror movie.  The classic example is that in slasher movies, sex = death.  It’s the idea that SCREAM turned into movie gold.  But, guess what?  Being in a slasher movie = death.  That is the theme.  People die after having sex, people die while pursuing sex, people die while having nothing to do with sex.  People just die, the sex is a bonus.  I challenge you to find a slasher where only the sexy people die.  I'm talking about a real slasher, not one of those porn knock offs like HALLOWWEINER or A NIGHTMARE ON COCK STREET.

So, I cringe when I find a slasher that really is steeped in stereotypes.  Even then, though, things might not be as cut and dry as they seem.  Take the 1982 classic THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, a movie whose own title is working against it.  Look past the assumptions and the surface level cliches and you will find a surprisingly subversive take on the genre.

The Capsule:
While her parents are off on vacation, 18 year old Trish (Michelle Michaels) invites her girlfriends, Diane (Gina Smika Hunter), Jackie (Andree Honore), and Kim (Debra De Liso) over for a wild slumber party filled with booze, drugs, and sports talk.  Also invited is the new girl, Valarie (Robin Stille), but she is too insecure about being tall, beautiful, and athletic, so she stays next door and look after her bratty, Playgirl loving little sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers).  It’s just as well, because Russ Thorn, recently escaped mental patient and power tool enthusiast, has fixated on Trish’s friends.  The girls aren’t going to find any help from the police, their two wimpy party crashers, the creepy neighbor, or the pizza delivery boy, so they will have to deal with Thorn and his suggestive giant drill all by themselves.  

At a glance, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE seems like the movie that spawned all those Scream-esque stereotypes.  Yes, there is a moment when someone runs away from the killer into the basement instead of out of the front door, WHICH IS RIGHT THERE! But look closer and you find that this film came from Roger Corman’s finely tuned exploitation factory, New World Pictures.  There are key points that have to be hit to make a successful Corman film, often as bluntly as possible.  SLUMBER PARTY has three undressing scenes plus an extended shower scene ridiculously shoehorned in (seriously, who changes clothes in the living room?).  Not that I'm complaining.

The bigger reason for the well used tropes, I think, is that the screenplay was originally intended to be a parody of slasher movies.  Instead, director Amy Holden Jones decided to play it straight.  The film has a healthy sense of humor (especially related to the poor pizza delivery guy), but for the most part, it’s a pretty brutal tale.  The parody from the script that slipped through seems so much stranger when played straight. It is ridiculous for Courtney to hide under the couch rather than sprint out of the house when the killer is coming, but it leads to a very tense and memorable scene rather than a cheap laugh.

The biggest offender is the jump scare.  There are at least five horror movie’s worth of jump scares and fake outs packed into this film's scant 70 minute runtime.  We have the menacing POV lurking behind a person that is really just someone they know, the person pretending to be dead as a joke, and the gold standard of jump scares, the cat jumping out of a closet.  If they had figured out how to fit in window shutters slamming open from the wind, they could have had a jump scare straight flush.

The escaped mental patient setup is cliché enough, but they really pound it home with the constant advertising.  The movie opens with a close up of a newspaper headline providing all the exposition we need in one tidy shot.  It then blows that bit of subtlety with numerous urgent radio announcements that give the same information.  Of course, who is looking for subtlety in a movie with Massacre in the title? 

The greatest thing about this is that even Although, the escape of this incredibly dangerous madman is widely publicized absolutely no one gives a shit.  The girls always switch off the radio before the announcement finishes, no one talks about the escape or wonders where this nutcase could be, and no one is the least bit concerned.  Trish has a general unease about being alone in her house, and she is worried when the garage door is left unlocked, but it is never related to the mass murderer currently on the loose.  Trish even sees him lurking out in her yard through the window at one point and she still doesn’t seem too alarmed.  He is absolutely the last thought on anyone’s mind, until he shows up.  Even then, I don’t know if anyone makes the connection.  I wonder if the survivors see the newspaper afterwards and go “Well, that explains it!”

It’s not just the girls, it’s everyone.  There is not a single cop anywhere in the movie.  No one is searching for this guy.  I would be pissed if I were Russ Thorn.  Michael Myers had a whole police force after him, and he had only killed his sister at that point.  Thorn was already a mass murderer.  Where’s his Loomis?  

It’s not entirely Thorn’s fault.  These are the most nonchalant characters ever to be in a horror movie. No one seems to be aware that bad things happen in the world.  A perfect example is this guy, the improbably named Mr. Contant (Rigg Kennedy).  He is Trish’s next door neighbor, and the person that her parents ask to keep an eye on their daughter while they are away, despite the fact that he is clearly a sex offender.  Seriously, he steals Trish’s doll from the trash when she’s not looking.  What do you think he's going to do with that doll?  Not donate it to an orphanage, that's for sure.  She should be totally creeped out by this weirdo, but she's not.  When she is surprised by his sudden unannounced appearance inside her house, she acts relieved, rather than the more natural reaction of screaming “what the fuck are you doing in my house?”  She even makes him coffee before the other girls arrive.  I’m shocked he didn’t ask if she wanted a massage while they waited.  Look at him.  I bet he uses the phrase “I have a wide selection of exotic lotions,” at least once a week.

His second jump scare is even more amazing.  Diane is alone in the dark, gathering firewood from a pile by the driveway when Mr. Contant creeps up behind her with a cleaver.  He swoops in and hacks up a snail that startled her.  Diane has absolutely no reaction to him, other than to complement him on his snail removal technique.  It's like they just met in line at Starbucks.  That’s how this crazy jump scare town works.  Snails are terrifying, but sexual predators holding cleavers aren’t given a second thought.  At least Russ Thorn has the decency to put a drill through his throat before the sicko could do something really unpleasant.

In many ways, though, Russ Thorn makes an even more effective villain that Mr. Contant.  For instance, he actually kills people.  His identity as the killer is never in doubt, and the director shows his face from the start.  Not hiding behind a scary mask puts more of the heavy lifting on the actor.  Michael Villella does a great job of making a fairly average looking guy seem menacing and unhinged purely with his mannerisms and expressions.  He doesn't speak until nearly the end, and what he says just makes everything worse.  It’s not a nuanced performance, but he is super creepy.  

It’s his signature weapon that really makes him stand out.  His two handed industrial (and magically cordless) drill is a showstopper.  It is second only to the chainsaw as something people instinctively do not want to be on the other end of.  He gets a lot of mileage out of the unwieldy thing, using it to slash and bash, in addition to a lot of straightforward impaling.  He even decapitates someone with it (off screen).  Not sure how he managed that.  Maybe there is a special attachment. 

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is a straight ahead slasher, but Jones manages to subvert a few of the gender stereotypes.  For one thing, the girls are all part of the basketball team, not the cheerleading squad.  Their number one topic of discussion is sports, and they are considerably more confident and formidable than the uncomfortable dudes who awkwardly crash their party.  It’s those dudes who get the most protracted deaths, and they are the ones expressing the kind of fear and vulnerability usually reserved for the female characters.  It was a nice switch, especially for the un-self aware early '80s.  Also unusual is the body count, which is evenly split, six female to six male (if you count the killer's death [spoiler]).

Jones also plays with the stereotypical sex crazed mean girl character, Diane.  She’s the snobby one who doesn’t want the shy new girl, Valarie, invited to the party because she's jealous of her basketball skills .  She’s also the one with the football player boyfriend, and is planning on sneaking away for a little fun with him.  But her snobbishness melts away once she gets to the party, and she actually comes off as the most mature one there.  As for the interest in sex, her behavior with her boyfriend is less slutty than it is sweetly innocent.  It’s just a pity she picked the dark garage to fool around in.

Most of the girls do wind up as victims, and there is a lot of screaming and panicking, but none of them just cower.  They grab kitchen knives as soon as they realize what is happening, and they actively fight to protect themselves.  There is a nice scene were Valarie is in the basement evaluating what household tools would make the best weapon, much like Bruce Willis’ Butch did in PULP FICTION years later.  She settles on a circular saw, but she runs out of cord before we can get an awesome saw vs. drill duel.
Speaking of the drill, there is absolutely nothing subtle about that bit of phallic imagery.  Several shots are staged low behind Thorn, with the long drill bit whirling suggestively from between his legs.  There is nothing particularly lascivious about the killings themselves, we’re not talking about Lucio Fulci, after all, but we get Jones’ message about the typical sexual undertones of horror loud and clear.  This leads to the most satisfying scene of the movie, when one of the girls snaps off Thorn’s drill bit with a machete.  Thorn mournfully cradles his weapon as if to say “you broke off my mighty tool!”

While few would consider THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE to be a feminist masterpiece, Amy Jones provides enough twists and tweaks to the formula to make it stand out.  Interestingly, the following two sequels would also be directed by women, each with their own unique style (a batshit crazy style, if you are talking about SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II).  Like a lot of genre movies, they are more than the sum of their parts, or their tropes.  

So if there is one message to take from the movie, let it be this:  Never let Mr. Contant anywhere near your daughter.

C Chaka