Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
It’s rare when a movie can make you laugh hard, and often, but also make you very afraid it’s going to scar you with an image that’s truly disturbing. Such is the game that Babak Anvari throws audiences into with his horror-comedy “Wounds,” his follow-up to 2016 Sundance favorite, “Under the Shadow.” Working with Hollywood actors, a larger budget and a more in-your-face sense of humor, Anvari’s film is an exciting answer to jump scare supernatural teen movies, toying with filmmaking and narrative expectations while offering a whole lot of nasty, midnight-ready fun in the process.
A bunch of dumb Millennials have awoken some evil spirits, and now they’re doomed. But Armie Hammer’s hilariously cranky bartender Will wouldn’t even know about this, if he hadn’t taken home one of their phones after they left in his bar one night. It’s a big mistake, because there is some extremely disturbing imagery on that phone (severed heads and EEK!) and those teenagers might be a part of some strange cult shenanigans. They might be coming after him, he might be seeing cockroaches crawling up his arm as he drives, etc.
But then “Wounds” starts to focus more on one factor that’s clear about Will, and has nothing to do with the scary stuff: he’s a reckless jerk who has an open fixation on a woman named Alicia (Zazie Beetz) and he’s about to destroy his relationship with his girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson). A metaphor comes to fruition within the Lovecraftian origins, and while the emotional aspects do not entirely connect to the weirder features, the overtly non-horror developments send the movie in a direction of unexpected bleakness, and it gets all the more nasty.
Anvari embraces the inner troll of a jump scare to keep things particularly uneasy. As you’re afraid of what gnarly thing you might see next, while laughing about the absurdity of it all, sometimes Anvari will ruthlessly throw in a loud bang or an abrasive gross image to keep you attentive. In one of its stranger moments that worked well with my midnight audience, he slowly zooms in on a character’s horrifying face wound before cutting hard and briefly to a close-up of a very loud air conditioner, the audience affected as if it were some supernatural force.
“Wounds” basks in that very playful nature, subverting expectations from one uneasy sequence to the next. One of my favorite choices: instead of accompanying unsettling conversations with a score it uses the sound design of what sounds like wind blowing in a tunnel to hell. Most of all, when you think you might learn more about just what the hell is going on with Will, those damn Millennials, and their freaky phone, “Wounds” treats those aspects like they’re just on the peripherals of the main horror story that’s especially disturbing in Anvari’s hands: a guy, his ego, and the stupid stuff he does.
It’s no coincidence that “Greener Grass” is one of the silliest and most polarizing films that played Sundance this year. Inspired by 2015 short film of the same name, its wacky Adult Swim-ready, David Lynch-inflected ridiculousness is like a litmus test for different tastes. This one is for those who like their comedies extra wacky, and random, as if for no purpose than for seeing actors commit to a bit that does not exist with logic.
At a soccer game, two women (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, co-writers and co-directors) are sitting down. One of them decides that they like the other’s baby. So, the baby is handed over and permanently owned, just like that. It’s a delightfully bizarre beginning, and comes with other vivid details. But over time, the suburbs and its off-kilter inhabitants aren't built so much as randomly implemented, even though there's a killer on the loose and some legitimately surprising twists in the story that it doesn't look back from (like a character transformation that goes unexplained).
As someone who had this movie recommended to me on two separate occasions, I’m somewhere in the middle on it. “Greener Grass” made me laugh hardest in the moments in which it was goofing on the pain within the relationships and how unhappy these people are—it’s a factor that provides truth and motivation to what amount to be many out-there sequences. But “Greener Grass” lost me in the moments in which it felt random for the pure sake of random, removed from the comedy of its characters. While it has solid character jokes and goofiness, the movie becomes inert by its end, starting off strongly and unintentionally proving that the suburbs can sometimes be too easy of a target.
Leave it to Sundance's Midnight slate to show me a film that isn’t the most challenging for its graphic sexual content and cringing treatment of women in the workplace, but for the tone in which all of it is told. “Mope” was one of the rare Midnight pics in the year’s selection where its taboo came from its focus on the world of sex, while telling the story of two porn wiz kids who want to become superstars of the biz, Steve Driver and Tom Dong. It’s a true story, and if you know what happens, you might be better prepped for “Mope” than I was. Even then, the movie plays out like it has a salacious true story that it can do whatever it wants with it, and which comes with shocking violence at the end to satisfy a Midnight crowd’s bloodlust.
Heyne normalizes the grody nature of the porn world with a gripping opening sequence, in which Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarett), Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) and countless other men do one particular sex act with one woman, all accompanied by a synthesizer version of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” And soon the movie hits its stride, as a type of “Boogie Nights” by way of the Broken Lizard guys, where major sequences have a free-flowing nature to their raunchiness, cluing us into the industry with straight emotions. One of the more repeated jokes is that while they’re true film porn nerds, they’re still clueless about being sexy on camera, etc.
Only days after watching “Mope,” did I realize that this is essentially “Pain & Gain” of the porn industry, in a bad way (“Pain & Gain” is a great condemnation that uses absurdity in its commentary, whereas “Mope” does not). But Heyne does not have the sharpness of Michael Bay’s satire, instead bending this story for whatever purpose. When it wants these characters to be entertaining, it makes us adore them like a buddy comedy. But when it wants to cop to commentary on it, it does so with an abrasive cut to horrific news footage, and “Mister Superstar” on full blast by Marilyn Manson, telling us that this was actually a nightmare. The actual scenes where there could be commentary on the business, and how these men are progressively removed from reality in a scary way, are presented as more matter-of-fact.
Though I did laugh in the moments in which “Mope” was like a grimy workplace comedy filled with scrotum-kicking and goofy characters, and I felt for the giddy friendship of the two dreamers played by the intriguing Stewart-Jarett and Sry, the script did not share my appreciation. Heyne’s script, co-written by Zack Newkirk, starts to slow the story down when it becomes about Driver’s instability, but even then, the shocking end to the story doesn’t seem characteristic. I was most disturbed by how this movie encouraged me to have empathy for these characters, while not having any of its own.
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A tribute to Doris Day.