Friday, January 22, 2016

Worth Mentioning - The Uncertain Vagaries of Life

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

This week, a bear gets hungry and Americans try to remake French horror.


Writer/director Adam MacDonald's feature debut Backcountry is essentially an entry in the "nature run amok" sub-genre of horror and thrillers that finds characters fighting for their lives from some sort of animal that hungers for human flesh, but what it is even more than that is a movie about stupidity and overconfidence run amok.

Missy Peregrym, who I know from her co-starring role on the very fun and sadly short-lived horror/comedy TV show Reaper, and Jeff Roop star as Jenn and Alex, a young couple who leave their place in the city to head out into a national park for a late season camping trip. Horrible things ensue, and it's because of the choices the characters make.

Alex used to come out to this park when he was a kid, so he's convinced that he knows the place like the back of his hand. So much that he even refuses a map offered by a park ranger, even though it's been years since he went out there. As he mocks Jenn for the precautions she's taking, he quickly proves himself to be rather inept - one of the first things he does once they're in the park is hurt his foot.

Their first night in the park, a stranger stumbles upon their camp, a guy played by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake's Eric Balfour with an Irish accent, and Jenn invites him to join them for supper. He provides fish, along with a great deal of tension. He has a sleazy, menacing air about him, and since he and Alex take an instant disliking to each other and he has such a creepy reaction to finding a pair of Jenn's panties, I would have been expecting him to become the primary threat in the film if this hadn't been marketed as a killer bear movie.

The bear starts to make its presence known as Alex leads Jenn down his favorite trail from his youth, despite the fact that this particular trail is closed. Brushing aside every warning sign, Alex takes his city slicker girlfriend deeper and deeper into the wilderness. And then they realize that Alex has gotten them lost. They're not on his favorite trail after all. They're in bear country.

While watching Backcountry, you may become frustrated and annoyed by Alex and Jenn's decisions, but Roop and Peregrym do a fine job bringing their dimwitted characters to life, and they have some interesting, dramatic interactions. Anyone who watches horror movies and thrillers on a regular basis will be accustomed to seeing dumb characters, so try not to judge these dumb ones too harshly. Just enjoy the thrills of their predicament.

This movie isn't going to be replacing Grizzly on any "favorite killer bear movie" lists, but it's 91 minutes of solid entertainment.

The following review originally appeared on

MARTYRS (2015)

A few great films came out of what is apparently being called the "New French Extremity movement", but the one that seems to be the most enduringly popular, the one that gets brought up most often, is Pascal Laugier's 2008 film Martyrs. Although that film has a devoted fan base, it's not one I'm especially fond of. I have issues with the logic of it, and that final half hour or so of relentless brutality is not something I'm in a hurry to sit through again. I can respect it, but I don't need to watch it.

The fact that there is now a remake of Martyrs is no surprise, Laugier sold the remake rights as soon as his film got international release. The surprise is that, after several years of development hell, Blumhouse Productions, The Safran Company, and directors Kevin and Michael Goetz (Scenic Route) managed to shoot the low budget remake in total secrecy. We didn't know about it until it was already in the can. This weekend, it will be released into the world to answer the question, "How can you possibly remake Martyrs?"

The Goetz brothers and screenwriter Mark L. Smith (Vacancy, The Hole, The Revenant) remade Martyrs by being reasonably faithful to the original film, up to a point. The story remains the same: a young girl named Lucie escapes from a torturous imprisonment in an abandoned building and forges a deep, lifelong friendship with a girl named Anna at the orphanage she ends up in. Years later - fifteen in original, ten here - Lucie finds the people who tortured her all those years ago, walks into their average suburban home, and blows away their nuclear family with a shotgun. Having committed a quadruple homicide, Lucie calls on Anna for help.

What the girls do in the murder house was the point at which the original film first lost me - they spend hours in there, ostensibly to "clean up" the crime scene by disposing of the bodies in the most obvious place possible, meanwhile leaving further traces of their presence all over the house. It made absolutely no sense. The remake tries to fix that lapse in logic. Lucie explains that the only way that the "monster" that has been haunting her since childhood, a ghoulish figure that attacks her and inflicts serious phyical damage on her (actually a hallucination that drives her to self harm), will only leave her alone if they clean up the place so it's like this evil family never existed.

It's a game of give and take, though. You get an explanation for why the girls waste their time on the futile effort of trying to clean the house, and it makes much more sense that it would be done to appease Lucie's psychosis rather than to try to throw off the police, but also lose explanations. The original was much more clear about how Lucie tracked down her abductors in the first place, and that the violent figure she imagined was a fellow captor she was unable to help. The remake doesn't tell you what Lucie's monster is. If only the two could be melded together.

The American versions of Lucie and Anna are portrayed by Troian Bellisario and Bailey Noble, respectively, and the actresses do a fine job with the material they've been handed, but never reach the intense heights of emotion that their French predecessors went to. The situation they're in is certainly upsetting to them, but they're much more chill than Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui were in Laugier's film.

For the first 50 minutes, Martyrs 2015 is following the exact same track as Martyrs 2008. When it finally starts to diverge and take its own path, it's to the film's detriment. As it goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that the story has undergone a very stereotypical Americanization process, a whitewashing to make it more palatable to a wider audience.

The brutality has been severely toned down. This is first evident in the new captive that Anna discovers in an underground torture chamber. In the original, this victim was a terribly disfigured woman who had clearly been put through absolute hell. Here we have a little girl in a nearly pristine white dress. The film continues in this way, with the extended torture sequence being much less violent and difficult to watch. The torture was devastating in the original, here the person on the receiving end of it looks, for the most part, like she simply ran into Lita Ford on a Saturday night.

While the film is wimping out on the violence, it's also descending into pure cinema fantasy land, expanding the scope of things too far and trying to deliver rousing, crowd-pleasing scenes of heroism and gunplay. Bleak nihilism is replaced by Hollywood hopefulness and it feels absurd. If you're a die hard fan of the '08 movie, you may be appalled at how things go down here, but even if this is your first exposure to the story you're likely to feel like the movie has gone completely off the rails.

Martyrs 2015 is not a particularly good film, but it is a decently made one, although it has an oddly incongruous warm look to much of the cinematography which makes its low budget more apparent and at times makes it look like a basic cable TV movie.

Viewers who are fans of the actresses involved are likely to be the ones who get the most out of watching the Martyrs remake. Otherwise, if you want to be told this story, let Pascal Laugier's 2008 version be the one that tells it to you.

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