REVIEW – Julia’s Eyes (2010)

THE ZONE has my review of Guillem Morales’ disappointing Los Ojos de Julia.

The difference between the critical reaction to Julia’s Eyes and the critical reaction to James Wan’s Insidious sheds some interesting light on the extent to which our reactions to things are determined by the ways in which they are marketed and packaged. Indeed, boasting a cinematic heritage including such films as Saw and Paranormal Activity, Insidious was dismissed by many critics as stupid, childish and derivative.  Or, as Nigel Floyd puts it in his review for Time Out:

From the co-creators of ‘Saw’ (James Wan and Leigh Whannell, here director and writer) and the director of ‘Paranormal Activity’ (Oren Peli, producing) comes a project featuring nothing that was original, distinctive or scary about either earlier film.

Floyd then concludes his piece with a flourish of scorn:

Not so much insidious as inexcusable.

Compare this level of dismissive hostility with many of the reviews of Julia’s Eyes and you find a very different reaction to what is, ultimately, a film operating in very much the same genre and with very much the same set of concerns and interests.  Consider, for example, Nigel Floyd’s review for Time Out:

Guillem Morales’s thriller aims for intricate, Hitchcockian suspense, embellished with ornate visual flourishes that recall Dario Argento’s early giallo movies.

In fairness to Floyd, he does go on to suggest that Morales doesn’t quite manage to achieve these aims but the difference between the two reviews is quite striking.  Neither film is a classic of the genre but because Julia’s Eyes reminds Floyd of Hitchcock and Argento while Insidious reminds Floyd of Saw and Paranormal Activity, Julia’s Eyes is judged with a good deal more charity.  However, as I argue in my review, Julia’s Eyes fails precisely because of its direction. Morales is not only less visually imaginative than Wan but also less technically able when it comes to creating the sort of tension required to sustain a horror film and when Wan reaches for humour he connects whereas when Morales reaches for sentiment he comes away only with a handful of slush:

The chief problem with Morales’ direction is that he allows his scenes to drag on for far too long without ever really developing beyond their initial conditions. Time and again, Morales makes effective use of sound-effects and lighting cues to create an unsettling atmosphere only for this atmosphere to dissipate as audiences are allowed to grow accustomed their cinematic surroundings.

The technical failings of Julia’s Eyes are so obvious to me that I find myself wondering whether the film’s positive critical reaction might not have been due more to the way in which the film was marketed than to its inherent qualities.  Indeed, while Insidious was marketed as a stupid Horror film, Julia’s Eyes was marketed as an art house thriller of precisely the sort produced by Hitchcock and Argento. While the fact that the film was in a foreign language may have hurt it at the box office, I think that its foreign language dialogue may have served to bolster its art house credentials and so helped to solicit a more positive reaction from critics.

The more I review and the more I attempt to deconstruct my own evaluative thought processes, the more it occurs to me that my reaction to films and books is determined as much by the context of discovery as by the works themselves.  If a work comes to me warmly recommended by a trusted source then I am more disposed to be charitable.  If a book has a cover adorned with dark imagery then I am likely to read it as Horror but if the same book comes with a cover with more neutral colours then I am more likely to see it as fantasy.  The conflict between precept (my reaction as dictated by non-textual factors) and concept (my reaction to the content of the work itself) also determines the strength of my reaction.  If I go into something expecting it to be awful only to discover that it is quite good then I am more likely to give it a really positive review.  Similarly, if I go into something expecting it to be one of the books of the year only to discover that it is merely okay then I am less likely to be charitable in my evaluation.

Humans are such complex beasts and I suspect all of this explains why so many ‘serious’ academic critics tend to steer clear of evaluation…

REVIEW – We Are What We Are (2010)

THE ZONE have my review of Jorge Michel Grau’s recent art house cannibal film We Are What We Are (a.k.a. Somos Lo Que Hay).

Though undeniably atmospheric and full of potential, the film never quite manages to get its ducks in a row.  Instead of developing a coherent line of thought, the film flirts with various ideas.  Cannibalism as a relationship with one’s family.  Cannibalism as living a GLBT lifestyle.  Cannibalism as living in a state with a corrupt police force.  All of these ideas drift through the script and the film’s imagery but none of them are ever fleshed out or pursued.

Watching the film I was reminded of the post-’68 vendetta waged by the Cahiers du Cinema against Costa-Gavras’ film Z (1969).  In her flawed but punchy history of the Cahiers, A Short History of Cahiers du Cinema(2010), Emilie Bickerton characterises the Cahiers reaction to the Serie-Z as :

With Z you had a film-maker who was addressing politics on the surface, but simultaneously banalizing it.  Costa-Gavras was thus perfectly attuned to the changes in public demand: he offered a film that was shot with panache, a lively score, a hint of experimentation (…) it was intelligent and committed but never revolutionary, in either narrative content or aesthetic form. — pp. 65

I think a similar failing can be identified in We Are What We Are.  It is a film that relies quite heavily upon an audience’s familiarity with genre tropes.  To make sense of the film, you have to be aware of serial killer narratives, zombie narratives and crime narratives.  It presents itself as a film that has taken on the ideas and imagery of genre only to project them forward into a more ‘grown up’ cinematic milieu and so it appeals to people who, though familiar with genre tropes, are wanting more from their cinematic experiences than explosions and special effects.  However, despite promising a deeper level of intellectual engagement than your average genre piece, We Are What We Are is empty and insubstantial.

This is a growing problem.

REVIEW – Raging Sun, Raging Sky (2009)

Videovista have my review of Julian Hernandez’s beautifully shot but frankly quite demented three hour-long Rabioso Sol, Rabioso Ciel0.

While I think that Raging Sun, Raging Sky is a problematic film, I am struck by the way in which it has been treated (no cinema release, shoved out by a gay indie distribution company) and the way that other equally problematic films in the same vein have been treated.  Indeed, when Luca Guadagnino’s equally beautifully shot and equally non-prolix I Am Love (2009) –an admittedly much better film — was released earlier this year, the acclaim it received was almost universal.  Even those critics who did not enjoy the film treated it as a serious work of cinematic art.  However, Raging Sun, Raging Sky has received hardly any critical attention and what critical attention it has had has been decidedly mixed.  This begs the question: Is it because it is about a bunch of poofs?

REVIEW – King of the Hill (2007)

VideoVista has my review of King of The Hill (El Rey De La Montana).  Not the long-running animated comedy but rather a taught and atmospheric Spanish thriller directed by Gonzalo-Lopez Gallago.

King of the Hill, along with a number of other films I have reviewed in the last year, suggest that Europe is going through something of a genre boom at the moment.  Britain and France are churning out genre films like nobody’s business and places like Spain and Norway are following suit.  Sadly, while a lot of these films are very well directed indeed, not that many of them are well written and King of the Hill is further evidence of that observation’s validity.

En la Ciudad de Sylvia (2007) – Distant Glimpses of Humanity

In “Big Red Son”, his essay on the porn equivalent of the Oscars, David Foster Wallace writes about a morally up-standing police detective who is drawn to pornography’s capacity for capturing moments of pure humanity.  This is an intriguing idea and it is certainly one that I agree with.  Most performances are based upon a degree of artifice : Someone pretending to be someone they or not or behaving in a way that they would not normally behave.  The people who appear in adult films usually buy into this notion of performance.  The men adopt a worldly misogyny while the women appear to revel in their transgressions of good taste and traditional gender roles.  What Foster Wallace refers to as the “Fuck me, I’m a nasty girl” persona.  However, because pornography is quite cheaply made and ultimately reliant upon the inviolability of certain basic biological rhythms, the performers sometimes forget the persona they are supposed to be inhabiting.  Sometimes these slippages reveal genuine attraction and sexual excitement, but other times there are flashes of irritation, disgust, boredom, amusement or fear.  These outpourings of human emotion are made al the more real by the grotesque theatricality of pornography and all the more pleasurable because of their illicit nature.  They are supposed to be having passionate sex, we are supposed to be getting off on watching them, and yet we see the actress’s irritation at her male colleague.  Score.

I remember when, after a number of years of failing eye-sight, I first got glasses and a world of detailed facial expression suddenly opened up to me.  I remember standing in Liverpool Street station and marvelling at the way in which emotions played across people’s faces.  How a friendly smile would die on someone’s lips the second the other person looked away or how a momentary flash of irritation would prompt a hard glare at a fried, a glare that would instantly disappear the second the friend turned to ask a question or make a remark.  Humans are creatures with rich emotional lives.  Lives they try to keep hidden from those around them, and yet those lives are betrayed broadcast to al who care to look by the infinite expressiveness of the human face.

José Luis Guerín’s In The City of Sylvia (2007) is a film that is all about those fleeting moments of humanity.  It even invites us to place these little moments in a wider context, but by doing so it raises the difficulties inherent in trying to work out what other people are thinking.

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