Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In Which I Try To Get Some Reader Feedback and then OH GOD

Well, this review's a bit later in coming than I planned.

This is partially for a couple of reasons. Alongside some general reservations with the topic for this one, I've also been mulling over a couple of points regarding this blog in general.

So before we get into this review, I'd like to ask you guys to bear with me for a moment, especially since, to be honest, I'd kind of appreciate feedback on one of these talking points.  After that, we can get right into this one which is...Hell, I'm still trying to work this one out.

Anyway, I find myself weighing over a decision at this point - without going too much into details to belabor a point, earlier this year I was struck with an idea for a possible retrospective project, focusing on a particular director.

There's a bit of a snare with this particular director, however - while he's done some movie work, a good chunk of his efforts have been on television (and given several of the films tied in to works he did for TV, to just review the films themselves feels like it'd be an ultimately incomplete exercise.)

Now, I'd contemplated, in the interests of keeping this blog film-related, opening up a secondary blog for other related media writings. But at the same time, there's a part of me that feels like it'd be a bit extraneous.

So, I'm going to throw it to the mercy of the mob and ask you guys for feedback:
1) Open the perimeters of this blog to discuss media in general beyond just film, resulting in more content on a more varied basis
2) Keep with film, but still pursue other forms of media in another side-project.

Feel free to cast your votes via comments, or if you cross my path via other means, that will also be acceptable.

The other main point before I get to this review (and I promise this one isn't stalling, but rather a recent development that I feel merits some manner of comment.)

Two weeks back marked our first foray in a long while in dabbling in using video to supplement reviews...which also reminded me why I don't do it that often.  I.E., yesterday, I got slapped with a notice for copyright violation for the use of the clips from the movie Smiley (something which I don't regret...both because I have my own beefs with how freely modern copyright is abused by the entertainment industry, and, I will admit, because I do have some spite towards the movie.)

Now, I could go on a full rant about my above mentioned concerns with copyright, but that's a topic for another time and not what you came here for.

So, in another bid to get some feedback from you guys, let's turn this into another two-part question:
-Keep trying to work video into some of these, copyright be damned?
-If yes, any recommendations on reliable video services to host the clips on?  Cause Blogger tends to crap its pants whenever I tend to upload, and YouTube's zeal for seeking out and clamping down even the slightest hint of copyright violation (while missing copious violations otherwise) is just too ridiculous to leave me inclined to do much business with them.

That's right. I'm trying to passive-aggressively force some sign of interaction with you guys.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get back to the review, shall we?

Looking over this month, February seems to be the time of year where I'm now turning into a cinematic flagellist.  The films I've covered this month have either been downright terrible, or had merit while being downright unpleasant to watch.  The results have made for interesting writing at least, but I may need to do some serious cinematic pallet cleansing when this is all over.

This goes especially for this week's entry.

Given last entry marked our revisiting of a film we'd already discussed in brief in the past, Meir Zarchi's original I Spit on Your Grave, I felt I should try and do something else this time around to build on the review.  Initially, I had contemplated giving a similar revisit/fleshing out to the also inappropriate for Valentine's Day movie, Antichrist.  I may still do this again next year, but this time around, another option came to mind.  In that I was reminded that the movie was remade in 2010, with mixed reception, by director Steven R. Monroe (known for such cinematic gems as Wyvern, Ice Twisters, Mongolian Death Worm, and The 12 Disasters of Christmas.)

Now, this actually made an interesting challenge for me - given my often mixed reactions towards the idea of remakes, and in particular in the realm of horror, could I honestly give this movie its fair due?  I tried.  I REALLY tried.  I'd like to believe I maybe even succeeded, but that will be for you guys to decide.

Anyway, I'll start by saying this movie actually kind of caught me off guard.  Mostly in the sense that I was going in expecting to be disappointed.  I realize that's a pretty bad attitude to have in a review out of the gate, but given the general school of thought with horror remakes in the past decade have had, and the controversial nature of the original in this case, can I truly be blamed for having some SERIOUS reservations with this one?

This isn't to say the original is necessarily sacrosanct either.  It does have its problems, some of which survived into this movie as well, and admittedly, some of these points I didn't go into as much in the prior review.  I will do what I can to address them here as well, in particular since they do tend to lead into some of the areas this movie does have going for it.  But that's getting ahead of myself.

I'm not sure if it's by intent or not, but the fact even at the start she has this '...this is not going to go well, is it?' look on her face is somehow fitting.

Though the fact this is the guy welcoming her may have something to do with that.

The story, largely, remains the same as it did in the original feature - writer Jennifer Hills (in this version played by Sarah Butler, in probably one of the better performances of this movie) rents a cabin in a small little town, this time moved from the original's Connecticut to Louisiana, to work on writing a novel.  After an awkward first meeting with the town's local mentally retarded man, she catches the attention of a group of local good ol' boys.  What follows is 40 minutes of the worst possible definition of 'local flavor' one could ask for, as she's viciously attacked and raped repeatedly.  This is where the remake decides to differ, however, on two fronts:
-First, alongside the local boys, Jennifer has the misfortune of finding out the local sheriff (played by Andrew Howard) is in on this as well, as he also takes part in the rapes.
-and second, rather than simply being left for dead in this version, she chooses to take her chances escaping into the river, leaving her fate unknown to her attackers.
Upon surviving this attack, Jennifer comes back with an ax to grind (...actually, there isn't any use of an ax in this version now that I think of it) and proceeds to hunt down and pick off her attackers one-by-one.

Those above two changes, honestly, are one of the things I will actually give this version of the movie some credit for.  From a writing perspective, this version does do an admittedly better job at fleshing out the backgrounds of its characters, particularly the attackers.  Likewise, including the sheriff in the group addresses a point that, in the original, could be taken as a plot hole.  I say 'taken as' because the question of why Jennifer goes straight to her own vengeance rather than the law in the original can be taken on a couple of different levels here.  To some, it's a flaw in the writing, to others, it's taking matters into her own hands.  Whichever way you choose to look at it, if nothing else, it is at least an interesting variation.  The escape into the river, meanwhile, presents some new elements of conflict amongst the group as they desperately try to cover up what they've done.

Of course, the advantages the writing provides here lose some of their steam thanks to the acting.  While the script does attempt to flesh out its characters a little bit more, the characters are still kept fairly limited by the acting in this regard.  For all the script tries to do for them, the fact is, they're still a group of assholish redneck rapists. The fact their introduction scene has them beating a fish with a bat while one of them films it doesn't really say we're gonna be looking at a much more human version of these guys...not that we actually needed one.  That said, one thing I will commend the film in this regard is that, while most of the cast can be summed up in the MST3k quote "Oh, no one is THAT southern", it actually does manage a better job with the retarded Matthew (played in this version by Chad Lindberg.)  His performance, alongside Butler's is one of the better of the film, and an all-around more accurate depiction of the mentally retarded compared to Richard Pace's performance in the original.  Unfortunately, the good of his performance is ultimately undermined by the performances of his costars, including Howard as the sheriff, who alternate between leering thugs and screaming at each other.

It's sort of like a less classy A Clockwork Orange with country music and cheap beer.

Now again, I won't say the original was a masterpiece of good characterization.  I mainly bring up this fault thanks to the fact that it winds up undoing one of the elements of characterization that this version actually has going for it.  Even the scene where we see the the sheriff's family, a variation on the classic 'even monsters have loved ones' theme, falls somewhat flat here.  I think at least part of this is also thanks to how it's handled - in the original, this scene is part of a moment as Jennifer studies her attackers to plan her revenge - it presents an interesting brief challenge to her vengeance, but one that doesn't really sway her hand.  By comparison, here it seems to be more for the audience's benefit than any characterization on Jennifer's part.

Just your friendly local law enforceme--wait a minute...

OK, with the matter of characters and performance now out of the way, I can get into the heart of one of the real areas where I had reservation with this movie going in.  In an age where horror seems largely defined by how graphic and shocking it can be, I was braced for this film's version of the rape to be...well...OK, it's supposed to be horrifying anyway, but at the same time, not in the way I was initially envisioning it would be.  In fact, in an age where each new remake seems determined to one-up its predecessor on every level possible, it was surprising to see this film still managed to keep its version of the infamous rape scene fairly grounded.  Granted, if asked to pick between the two versions (THERE's a horrifying prospect) I think I'd still argue the original to be more effective here.  The lower budget and production values give the whole scene a more disturbing sense of being there (as my proofreader puts it best, the feeling that leaves you wondering if you might be being shown a snuff film.)  The effect is visceral and genuinely uncomfortable to sit through.  While this one was also disturbing to watch, its slicker production values also seemed to make it hard to ignore that sense of a fourth wall.  It was still disturbing to watch, but that removed some of the sting.  They try to make up for this in some regards by upping the ante in other ways (such as a protracted scene of heaped humiliation before the actual rape.)  It's a game attempt to try and make up for the shock of what's lost, but unfortunately, the effect comes across as feeling less uncomfortably raw, and more just determined to assault the senses.  This is, unfortunately, something of a product of the times and changing film quality, I will acknowledge (though the fact that they had a character recording the whole thing would have at least made for a decent way around this, still maintaining that sense of shocking immediacy by showing it to us through the camera, a la Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,) but the fact remains the film is somewhat hurt by this.

Though if anything really hurts this movie, it's the second half.  It feels weird for me to say that the weakest part of a rape-revenge film would be the revenge aspect, but here you have it.  This is largely thanks to the fact this scene reflects on a problem that's been prevalent in horror a lot in the past decade or so.  With the success of the Saw franchise, horror has been in a period of, for lack of a better term, overcreativeness.  Again, that feels weird to say given it tends to run counter to many of the grievances with the genre, but allow me to explain - when I say overcreativeness, I'm not criticizing the nature of the stories themselves, but rather the nature by which characters die within them.  Thanks to Jigsaw, we've seen a run of films where it's not enough to simply stab or strangle someone, but you have to arrange an entire apparatus just to kill one person.  This winds up being the logic that inspires much of Jennifer's revenge in the second half.  Where in the original, the kills were fairly straight forward, each here requires a rather elaborate set-up for the sake of such displays as submerging someone in a bathtub full of lye as he's positioned over it on wooden boards in a psychotic variant on planking, or leaving a man with his eyelids held open by fishhooks as crows eat his eyes.  It ultimately undermines much of the good (...if you can call it that) that the first half accomplishes in trying to take the rape itself somewhat seriously by replacing the revenge with elaborate sequences that cancel out any semblance of realism from the first half.  Further, the depiction of Jennifer between the two versions feels somewhat more sinister here - music cues and some of the first shots she's in give us the impression of her as less a wronged woman seeking vengeance and more a bloodthirsty, superhuman serial killer.

Seriously.  This set-up feels like it started from the scriptwriter deciding they really hated the whole planking trend and, rather than wait for it to die shortly thereafter, decided to put this kill in to work out their anger.

Even as I finish this review, I find my feelings towards it somewhat mixed.  I want to be able to just completely unload on it as a crass remake that exploited a cult film for shock value - but at the same time, it does honestly feel like, at least for the first half, they did try and capture what made the original endure as a cult film and has allowed it to maintain some foothold of legitimacy in some circles of cinema.  The second half, however, ultimately throws that feeling away in favor of a more traditional straight-up horror approach.  The kills in the second half so revel in their own inventiveness and carnage that it even seems to leak back into the first half, at points making that gratuitousness feel less accidental and more intentional.  The resulting film, as horror remakes go, feels less like a shameless cash-in, and more like a case of misplaced ambition.  It does bring some interesting ideas to the table, but in the end fumbles around as many as it gets right.  I'm not sure I can, in good conscience, say it is any better than the original, but at the same time, I wouldn't say it's completely without its merits.  I'm not sure I could honestly say I'd recommend it unless you were already curious to begin with.  If you're already contented with the original, this isn't going to enhance the experience much more for you.

Also, I would like to state in closing, despite scoring even lower with critics, this film still has managed to achieve some degree of cult following for itself.  Which, in true modern film making fashion, has resulted in the announcement that I Spit on Your Grave 2 is in the works.

I don't know what to make of it either, guys.

Even Jennifer appears to be strangely unsold on the project so far.

Well, with this, February is finally almost over.  It's been an interesting, disturbing month here at the Third Row, and I promise next month we'll be trying to vary things up again (regardless of which direction you guys vote to take the blog in.)

In the meantime, till next month!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Very Uncomfortable Third Row Valentine's

Welcome back for another delightfully awkward edition of The Third Row's Valentine's Episode.

I have to admit, this year threw me for a bit of a loop.  I mean, after last year's wonderfully uncomfortable installment of Love, Fundamentalist Style, where could I take this year?

In thinking, I started going through the archives.  This made me realize this was a prime opportunity to make good on something I'd promised the better part of a year and a half ago now (I realize most of you weren't bothering to keep score, neither was I, but hey...)  So this Valentine's, we're gonna celebrate by revisiting not one, but two wonderfully inappropriate films, one of which I'd already promised for a while now.

With that, this preamble should have given enough time for anyone who felt so inclined to skim through the archives to get back up to speed, and now find themselves going "...oh dear God, no."  That's right, folks.  We're kicking off this year's commemoration of a massacred saint with that most Hallmark of horror films, Meir Zarchi's revenge tale I Spit On Your Grave.

[NOTE - While not AS bad as last year's review of Salò, this one may be light on screencaps from the film.  I mean, it's a pretty tough film to get really relevant screencaps from that are still work-safe.  Plus, as Brad Jones once said it best, "How do you riff a 40 minute rape scene?"]

That said, I suppose we should start this by recapping what was already known from the last time we discussed this.  The movie, also known as Day of the Woman, is a 1978 revenge horror film by writer-director Meir Zarchi.  Coming to the country for some quite time to write a novel, Jennifer Hills (played by Zarchi's wife, Camille Keaton, who's a MAJOR trooper for what she goes through in this from) gets a...less than warm reception by the locals.  Which is about the most polite way I can say she's attacked by a group of local men, repeatedly raped, and then left for dead.  Despite being run through this vicious wringer, Jennifer is actually still alive...and justifiably mad as Hell.  Over the course of the second half of the movie, she wreaks vengeance upon the men who attacked her, taking them down one by one.

This shot from Frisky Dingo is a pretty good representation of what the first half of this movie feels like to watch.

I just want to start by saying, the first half of this movie is still one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've had in film to date.  Yes, even more than Salò, and I'd even say moreso than Eraserhead (and thanks to the conditions I watched THAT in, it's got a rather personal place in my nightmares.)  In some ways, this is actually something to the film's credit, actually.  I mean, just based on the name, you'd expect this to be, for lack of a better term, a trashy, exploitative picture.  Now, granted, some DO still see it that way-the movie is pretty divisive by its nature.  But the thing that really surprises me about the first half is the fact that the movie really doesn't pull any punches with how it handles the assault.  It's harsh, it's vicious, and it's downright visceral.  There isn't anything in this long, painful sequence that looks as though it's designed to excite or tittilate.  It's a straight-up horrifying scene to watch (as it should be, really.)  The credit for this really comes down to both the way the scenes are shot and the acting.  Most notable in the latter regard is Keaton as Jennifer, whose reactions are part of what really makes this so uncomfortable to watch.  It doesn't feel overly dramatized and we genuinely feel bad watching her responses.  Even when the group tries to get their mentally challenged friend Matthew Lucas (Richard Pace) in on the action, the scene doesn't really lose any of its sense of horror.  Further adding to this is Nouri Haviv's cinematography.  Where many other films would opt to cut away, this film, unless you opt to fast forward (and I can't rightly say I'd blame you) keeps you there for the entire time.

...OK, so I was able to say more about the first half than I expected.  But really, it all comes down to two main points:
-they set out to make a horrifying sequence of assault, rape, and attempted murder, and to their credit, they succeeded with flying colors
-as a result of this, the scene is INCREDIBLY hard to watch.  As of this review, I've still only watched this part twice...and that second time I had to do a lot of mental preparation to get through.  It's that kind of a movie.

Of course, the second half is where the movie rewards you for the sights you've been subjected to in the first.  This is, of course, where the revenge part of the movie kicks in.  This part's also where the film really kicks in in general.  I mean, outside of the assault before, the first half has a couple of small bits of developing its characters that are decently handled.  Though on a rewatch, I have to say the lighting in the scene where Jennifer's attackers first start planning their deeds is darker than I remembered, sometimes problematically so.  In the first half, we only really have loose sketches of all the players involved to work with before the film throws us screaming with concrete floaties into the deep end of the pool.  Once the dust settles we really start seeing more of the characters - between Jennifer's new push for revenge (and her refusal to let things like seeing one of her attackers have a family stop her) and the mix of guilt and confusion that arises among the men as they realize she's not dead.  While the latter group remain largely remorseless, there's still one moment in the aftermath as they each debate what they've done with varying degrees of concern over whether or not they'll be caught.  It doesn't wash what they've done by any stretch, but it is interesting to see the fact that some of them are at least having second thoughts, even if they come far too late.

For anyone who hasn't seen this before, try and guess what order these guys get bumped off.  Then watch the film and compare.  Comment and tell us how well you did!
(...yeah, still getting the hang of the user participation here.)

Part of what makes the revenge part of this film interesting is the escalation factor involved.  Both in terms of the roles of the attackers and the severity with which vengeance is visited on them, starting from the somewhat unwilling Matthew Lucas, whose death, while harsh is actually kind of on the tamer side compared to what's to come, to the movie's gratifyingly brutal double-kill on the lake, there's a greater and greater sense of each member of the group getting what they have coming to them.  Of course, in the middle of all of these comes one of the biggest moments of internal conflict any male moviegoer is bound to encounter - without giving too much away, there's one scene in the film where, as a man, you can't help but squirm in pain, but at the same time...the guy DID have it coming.

"Look, lady, I'll tell you what.  Between you and me, I'm just gonna look the other way on this one.  So just...just go to town."

Speaking of that gender divide, we come to another one of those attempts to integrate some video into this site (which may or may not be more frequent in the future, as need calls for it and depending whether or not copyright breaks my knees.)
With a film like this, gender perspective is going to be a factor.  Like it or not, it WILL come up.  So, in the interests of getting a balanced view on some of the film's controversial subject matter, I've asked for a guest speaker, my proofreader and girlfriend, Liz.  Take it away:

Yeah, it was a bit free-form, but still, that extra perspective really did help here, I hope.

All in all, on a second watch, I still find myself kind of ambivalent on this movie.  I can honestly say I don't hate it.  At the same time, it's not one I'd watch that often because...yeah.  Still, it's a movie I can certainly see some merit behind - the acting, while not award-winning, is decent.  The script doesn't really make or break this one, but the fact that it isn't riddled with plot holes or that much bad dialogue (outside of the occasional choice nugget or two) is at least worth something.  Alongside the acting, the cinematography is the other area where this movie gains an edge.  It's close, it's visceral, and it doesn't really give you a chance to step back too much from what you're watching unfold.  Given the subject matter of this movie, I'd call that a strength, but from an entertainment perspective...yeah, that can be a punch in the gut.  On a quick aside here, one other thing I will give the cinematography for a lighter note - the nature scenes, when they aren't focused on brutal sexual assault, are actually quite nice.  The film makes good use of its location filming in Kent, Connecticut in that regard.  Of course, in a film like this, that's kind of a minor note to really go into.  Anyway, back to the main point - this is definitely not a movie for everyone.  To say it was, while sickly entertaining from a schadenfreude perspective, would be grossly irresponsible.  Still, if you have any interest in the film as a revenge feature or as a controversial little bit of film history, it's worth the 100 minutes of time it asks of you.

Huh...that didn't turn out so bad.

Of course, next comes another wonderfully uncomfortable film for the follow-up on this.  Where this film is burying Valentine's Day this year, the next film will be by to dance on its grave.

So look forward to it soon!

Also, I'd just like to say as a closing note - oh, how I would have LOVED to be a fly on the wall when Zarchi was working on this and explaining some of the things his wife was going to be doing in this movie.  They would either be some of the most memorable disputes I've ever seen or proof that Keaton has some INSANE guts.

Alas, such a chance to see these discussions can probably never be.

Ah well...

Anyway, till next time!

 I passed up making the I'm On a Boat joke about the finale last time.  Not again!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

YouTube Comments: The Movie

"God, I hate YouTube..."
Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning, Hellboy II: The Golden Army




Now then-where to begin on this one?

Well, I should probably start by just ripping off the Band-Aid here.

Smiley is quite possibly the worst movie I have seen in a long time, and certainly the worst reviewed in The Third Row to date.

Wow...it felt strangely liberating to get that out there off the bat.

Now, before I continue, I just want to now say an apology to the cast and crew of A Christmas Story 2, whom I had previously bestowed the honor of the worst movie of 2012.  It's still an incredibly bland and lifeless affair, but to call it the worst now feels disingenuous after watching this mess.  So you guys are forgiven for now and free to fall back into the nothingness that your masters have prepared for you.

As for you, Smiley...oh boy...

I went into this film expecting bad.  I mean, that was kind of the idea.  After gritting my teeth and making that entire Battlefield Earth spiel, I needed a bad film that I could guiltlessly bludgeon to vent all that backlogged venom.  Based on the low reviews, I was expecting "bad."

What I got was a LOT worse than I expected.

I mean, I'm not kidding when I say this is honestly the worst movie I've reviewed so far.  Prior to this I think I'd have given that honor to I Don't Want to Be Born, and even that would be a pretty close race on a number of levels, but even in that I at least managed to find something nice to say without it being appended by a "But..." or coming across as a backhanded compliment.  In this film, the first immediate good thing I can say it had going for it was the fact it's 94 minute run time didn't really feel like 94 minutes...but, again, that's still rather backhanded given the feeling is born of the fact so much of the movie is forgettable in its setup and direction.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.  For anyone who's currently wondering "What the Hell is Smiley?"  I should probably explain.  But first give me a moment to envy you before I take that happiness from you.



...OK, envy is done.  Time to make your world a little bleaker.

Smiley is the horror brainchild of Michael J. Gallagher and Glasgow Phillips, with Gallagher directing.  The premise, and here's where it gets kind of sad, is exploring the idea of an internet horror film.  Now, this could be an interesting idea done right.  In fact, a LOT of things about this film have potential to be actually pretty interesting in different hands...keywords are in different hands.  The movie's title refers to a mysterious killer who, like Bloody Mary (a connection they acknowledge within the film) will appear to a person if, via a noncopyrighted Chatroulette clone, they relay to someone "I did it for the lulz" three times, after which, Smiley is said to appear and kill them.


No, you did not misread that.  The summoning phrase is "I did it for the lulz."  Get used to that now, because this film uses and abuses internet slang with the frequency and carelessness a blood diamond operation usually employs on its work force.  Alongside "for the lulz" the film rolls out such time honored internet chestnuts as trolling, lolcats, and a hilariously awful misuse of pedobear that you can see featured below in a compilation of some of the worst line reads from this film.  I had to make this simply because there is no way text can properly sum up just how painful it is to hear some of these line reads.  I mean, I can just type the phrases, but that lacks the sting that comes from realizing the filmmakers believe people would actually say these things to one another in real life with straight faces.  In fact, while it was ticking through old internet trends, I would just like to say I was genuinely floored this film didn't feature music by Rick Astley anywhere.

In fact, to help you get used to the "for the lulz" element, and because I've been looking to get more practice in with video editing, I've put together this handy little reel of every spoken utterance of "lulz" within this movie.  If I'd included written, we'd have breached 30 easily, which should tell you something.  Enjoy:

This clumsy view of the internet is particularly surprising to me given director Gallagher, alongside several short films of mixed reception, has had his most successful hits through two TV series on YouTube.  One would think a man whose biggest success is owed to the internet culture would show a bit more of a deft hand at translating the culture of the web to film.

This goes also for his cast, many of whom are also YouTube celebrities, most notably Shane Dawson as internet hacker Binder.  The fact that these lines were in the script was bad enough in its own right, but the way many of these lines are read by the cast are atrocious. About the best analogy I can describe for how these people try to come across as web-savvy is that it plays in the ear like an older conservative white man trying to gangsta rap. 

Of course, this isn't the only problem the cast have.  The fact is, most of them are honestly rather bland. Caitlin Gerard (who, ironically, got her start in The Social Network, one of the rare good movies about the internet) makes a decent go with her role as the psychologically unstable Ashley who spends much of the movie questioning her sanity...but really, beyond establishing her troubled past and a few jokes about her social awkwardness, she never really feels like she has much of a personality.  Which, I suppose, is at least more than can be said for Melanie Pappalia as her roommate, Proxy, whose embracing of the internet slang is arguably the most obnoxious among the cast.  Much of the rest of the team are forgettable with the only two I can actually say much otherwise for being Roger Bart as an ethics professor who lays the seeds for an interesting but ultimately underutilized plot strand and Keith David in a, if you watched the trailers, deceptively brief role as a detective whose roughly 5 minutes of screentime leads you to wonder who he owed a favor to to get stuck in this movie.

That short run time MIGHT be why he's smiling, actually...

Also, before I go on, there is one other thing I would like to call casting out on with this movie - for a film that's supposed to take place at a college, its college-age cast look...pretty old.  Now, if there was at least some acknowledgement that these people were on the older side in college (cause this DOES happen), that would be something.

Outside of the rather clumsy depiction of the internet culture, the script has other problems as well.  This is the point where I'm going to say if you want to avoid spoilers, you're gonna want to bail now, because to properly get into the flaws in this script, we're gonna have to blow the ending wide open.  I'll give you 5 seconds startiiiiing...now

...OK, now that they're gone, I said it before, and I'll say it again.  One of the saddest things about this movie's story is, as bad as it is, it didn't actually have to be.  At the movie's core, there are some genuinely interesting ideas, but the execution of them is ultimately flawed and hurts them.  The core concept of Smiley himself, for one.  Now, the idea of the internet as a tool in horror is on its own not a bad idea at all.  In fact, the web has done fairly well at creating several such horrors for itself via the concept of creepypasta, the most memorable being the mysterious Slender Man (who has been featured in the web movie/series Marble Hornets.) 

Speaking of, compared to this, ol' Slender is a pretty strong case for the philosophy of 'Less is more'

Which is why the actual premise behind Smiley himself is such a disappointment - in an age and medium where horror has become quite good at playing on the slow burn and the mysterious, to see this film's idea of horror be, essentially, just an updated version of a story kids have been using to scare each other for decades now just feels uninspired at best, lazy at worst.  While I'm calling this writers on uninspired elements, I would just like to go on record as saying I only partially hold the actors accountable for their ultimately bland and uninteresting characters.  The fact is, the script is just not populated by particularly interesting people.  Now, I'll grant that a good cast could have made an effort to try and save this, or at least reduce the damage.  But the fact is, even the cast only received just so much to work with in a cast whose personalities are largely nonexistent beyond lead Ashley, whose personality isn't so much a personality as a string of traumas that explain why she's the protagonist of the story.  To add insult to injury, those developments are themselves so nebulously handled that it severely handicaps our ability to really feel for her plight.  To further add to the disappointment, in the middle of this odd blend of slasher tale and potential gaslight, the film starts to play around with an interesting concept of how the internet and mass communication may have a hand in the next step in human evolution.  It's the kind of idea that, with a more attentive and ambitious writer, could make for a genuinely fascinating and potentially novel story all on its own without the slasher element this film imbues in it.  As it is in this, however, the idea is sadly underutilized, and ultimately forgotten any time Bart's professor isn't on screen, with the exception of a few half-hearted allusions to it by Dawson.  The result feels like he's the only person in the film really pushing for the idea and everyone else just humors him for those scenes until the very end where it's supposed to add to the film's twist ending.

Which brings us to that.  Here be the big spoilers.  The most egregious of things this film's script has going against it is the movie's finale.  After spending most of the film playing with the idea that Smiley may not exist, however less than successfully it does so, the film completely flies off the rails in the last 10 minutes or so with a one-two twist ending.  The first, and arguably more, to use a bit of web vernacular myself, pants-on-head retarded of these being when we discover that much of this movie is all a ruse.  What Ashley has been seeing for most of the movie has been a giant and needlessly complicated stunt by the various Anonymii she has met over the course of the movie, all with the intent of pushing a mentally unstable girl over the edge in their project to create the world's first viral serial killer.
...yeah.  There's a LOT of holes in this twist already.  So many that it makes the second twist -  wherein it's suggested that Bart's Professor Clayton's talks actually had a point and this entire experiment has, rather than making a viral killer, instead actually brought the entity Smiley to life - actually the more probable development.
The first twist, meanwhile, fails on a number of levels - for one, the amount of effort that goes into the project is ridiculous.  I mean, this is all being done to freak out and kill a mentally unbalanced girl.  This is a project that calls for no fewer than five people, considerable hacking skill, and a fair amount of technical wizardry.  This is the kind of focus you would use for taking out a crime boss, or a corporate head, someone who actually merits this level of effort and attention.  That this much is brought out to take out a single girl with a history of mental illness is akin to firebombing a yard to take care of an anthill.  It's just ludicrous overkill.  Additionally, the film takes some serious leaps in what it suggests this team is capable of, especially with regards to the fact that it somehow suggests they were able to rig a chat program that is designed to operate randomly.  Now, some of you out there are going to say "Well, they could have hacked the program" which is a fair point...except the film never even infers this.  As a result, it instead becomes a gaping plot hole all on its own into which the film's ending falls to a pit of punji spikes below.  This isn't to say the rest of the plan is particularly airtight either, and only so many parts of it can be handwaved away as "They hacked the computers" when the film doesn't even seem fully on board with that notion.  It's one of those twists I'm sure looked good on paper, but as it's played in the film, it doesn't take much thinking over to see how badly it requires savage violation of suspension of disbelief to really work.

All that's just from poking holes in the logistics of the plan.  The motive...well...it's rather amusing that Gallagher and Glasgow are of the mind that people from 4chan would go this far to create something viral, both for the ignorance this shows towards 4chan and the internet in general.  The fact is, things aren't MADE viral.  They go that way by a mix of right place, right time, right mentality.  It's all pure zeitgeist, and you can't force something to go viral.  This is why when you mention Tommy Wiseau, everyone remembers The Room rather than The House That Dripped Blood on Alex.  The pop culture landscape is practically riddled with things that sought to make themselves into cult or viral hits that failed because there was a conscious effort to do so (remember back when Repo: The Genetic Opera was trying its damnedest to be the next Rocky Horror?  Only to have that title instead go to the wonderfully disturbed Mr. Wiseau and his bizarre drama-turned-comedy.)  If it was truly THAT easy to make something cult or viral, everyone would be able to do it.  I could hammer this point further, but you get the idea - the point is, it's a force beyond our current capabilities to control.  It just is.  Further, 4chan is no exception to this rule, and what this movie's characters try to do is the kind of thing that is usually looked down on as a forced meme and summarily disregarded at best, outright shunned at worst.

While I'm busting this film's chops regarding its view of 4chan, I should probably clarify a rather interesting
point about how the movie handles that.  Now, most of the areas where this film invokes websites, it's careful not to invoke real names, likely to get out of having to pay for the usage. Examples include the above-mentioned Chatroulette clone is the fictitious Hide&GoChat, and a scene of a site that's clearly YouTube has the YT logo omitted.  In the midst of this careful avoidance of brand names, the film then makes direct callouts to the website 4chan...and not particularly favorable ones at that.  Now, personally, I will admit.  I've lurked the boards somewhat (and I could go into that further, but given the unofficial Rule #1, that's all I'll say for my own experiences,) and the site is definitely not for everyone.  My own opinions of the site aside, I only bring up my involvement there in the interests of my perspective with regards to this part of the film.  Between his decision to call the site out by name, and the way the so-named Anonymous of 4chan are depicted (Gallagher, in one of his few wise moments, makes it a point to differentiate them from the more publically known 'hacktivist' group in order to reduce the flak the film would get otherwise) one can't help but feel Gallagher was deliberately attacking the site with this movie.  It's with that element of the film in mind that I can't say it was entirely surprising to learn that, when it leaked on the web and the site got to seeing the movie, they weren't happy.  This wasn't just because a movie dared to risk making them mainstream or anything quite as petty as that, but rather the fact that it directly paints the users of the site as openly sociopathic and proudly representing 4chan (something which, again, most people familiar with the site avoid doing.)  It didn't necessarily leave me surprised to learn he apparently got threats from the site over the movie . Maybe that is a bit much for a reaction...but really, you can't be that surprised when you make a film that makes smearing a group by name a central part of it.

All the rewrites and this STILL turns into a rambling treatise.  In a way, that should say something right there for how badly I thought of this film.  This was rewritten after several more profane and considerably more rambling versions in an attempt to try and reel in the focus.  In fact, I almost feel bad I've given the film this much of my time, but if it has potentially steered some of you guys away from it, then I suppose that will be worth it.  I normally don't say that, but I also haven't found a film that I found this irredeemable since the films of Uwe Boll.  It's blandly directed and acted, relying largely on jump scares (which, in horror, are like fish in a barrel to get) and takes what had the potential to be an actually fairly novel idea and handles it in the most disappointingly lazy way imaginable.  There's a part of me that wants to take it easy on them in the sense that this is the team's first feature-length movie...but then at the same time, I look at the number of other horror films made by people with low connections and budget.  In fact, several of the greatest horror films made to date were by amateur filmmakers on low budgets (for some examples - The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead) who, despite their limitations, still made strong movies that still hold up now and all have their own strong style and voice.  Smiley, while it's not a massive budget, apparently still had enough pull to get Keith David (who, let's face it, is a relatively known actor...which then makes it odd that he's the one they relegated to as little screentime as he has) and even outside of its budget, lacks any real strong sense of voice or personality.  Beyond its comically inaccurate views of the internet culture, it has nothing really worth speaking of to its name.  As such, the most I can really say for the film's amateur roots is that I hope that Gallagher can take this as a learning experience and improve from here.  As the movie is now, however, it's an embarassing exercise by a group of young filmmakers making a film on a subject that, with their background, they should know far better.

and now, since I can show you these without any more recrimations of spoilers, the above mentioned choice line reads from this movie.
...I'm not gonna lie, having to force myself to rewatch parts of this is a good part of WHY this review took so long to get posted.

Whew...there...I managed to curb my profanity a lot more this time around, which took a lot...but man...I haven't come across a film that was this much of a wreck in a LONG time.

So yeah...Hell of a way to kick off the new month here.  I promise the next film stands to be a lot better than this.  Hey, even if it's bad, the odds are I can still at least find SOMETHING good to say for it.

Till then...