Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Ils (Them)

Ils (English: Them, 2006): French and Romanian, 74 min, written and directed by David Moreau & Xavier Palud, starring Olivia Bonamy, Michaël Cohen and Adriana Mocca.

System 1 rating: 100, or 01100100

Ils is a home invasion movie. I've never seen a home invasion movie before this one, but after seeing this I feel like I've seen most entries in the genre. I was never really excited to see The Strangers, but after Ils I feel like I can safely not bother. (I know that's not fair, and maybe I'll still see it eventually, but it's lower on my list than it was before, which is saying something.) It hits all the requisite notes in the right order without doing anything obviously wrong to make it feel like the protagonists' idyllic, peaceful country home is suddenly a scary death trap.

But it really doesn't (at least, not in my mind). At a fundamental level it didn't really do anything to make me give a shit about what's happening. It scares you at times, it lets tension build at others, but it never really feels like there's any motivation to keep watching. To me, it seems to be made for people who like horror more than people who like movies, offering the horror moments that are expected and doing a halfway decent job of it, but never really tying it together into something particularly meaningful or worth watching.

System 1 evaluation

1. Rewatch Value: No

Like I said before, the shocks were shocking and the tense moments we rather tense, but overall it didn't seem like it added up to anything. The shocks just won't be shocking the second time around, and even if they were I don't feel like there's anything else in the movie worth watching again.

2. Emotional Impact: Yes

Despite my not wanting to watch Ils again, I don't think it's because of anything that the movie did particularly wrong. I didn't care about the characters, or the story, but I don't think the filmmakers intended me to. I don't think they had any pretensions of having deep, complex characters or moving, meaningful plots. They intended to make a movie with scary moments and tense moments, and in that they succeeded, so I will give them this one. They wanted to scare me, and they did a few times.

3. Goals of Cinema: Yes

If the goal of cinema is to entertain, I think that, in some minimal sense, they achieved it. There were legitimately tense and scary moments, and when you sit down to watch a horror movie that's essentially what you're asking for as far as entertainment. Were they on the level of something like The Shining? No. Were there enough of them? Not really. But there were some moments that were really inspired. Sometimes movies can be successful based on a few standout scenes (I'm looking at you, Dark Knight). Maybe that's enough for a "yes."

4. Goals of Art: No

The only thing this movie explores is how many ways it can scare you into thinking about how fragile your house is. I suppose they might be trying to explore how thin the line is between society and decency on one hand and chaos and barbarism on the other, but it doesn't work. We don't care enough about the people, and they don't appear to make any sort of transition from good to bad – just calm to scared.

5. Artistic Intentions: No

It's a home invasion movie (fake shocked voice) but the culprits are kids! It was apparently based on real events, but unfortunately never feels like it. The characters are one-dimensional – how often are teachers in movies introduced by giving the last ten seconds of a totally pointless lecture that would never make sense in a real lecture? – and the geography frequently doesn't make sense. The dimly-lit attic populated with sheets of translucent plastic hanging from the ceiling certainly makes for some good scares, and a creepy setting, but unless they have a very different philosophy about home decoration in Hungary it doesn't make sense how such a room exists in someone's home. It looks more like a factory, or more likely like a cool location the filmmakers found and decided to shoehorn into their movie.

6. Artistic Execution: Yes

Despite the fact that a lot of things don't make sense or form any sort of coherent reality, a lot of them still work. The hanging sheets of clear plastic? I've never seen any in an attic, but if I did I'd be scared out of my mind, and the shot after minutes of buildup where behind her we see a shadow outlined against one of them (haha, get it?) is the Platonic ideal of suspense. The actors do a good job acting their non-characters, though most of the time they're acting scared so arguably they're just getting off easy.

7. Technical Intentions: No

One of my professors told me a piece of wisdom passed down from some appropriately deific person in the so-called industry: "Always cut your best scene." The idea is that, while it may be the best scene in the movie, it will invariably make everything before (and after) it look bad. The movie as a whole will work better because that one scene isn't distracting.

There are some really fantastic shots in this film, and a number of moments when the handheld cinematography pays off, but there are a larger number of moments, particularly early on, when the handheld just doesn't feel appropriate. I found myself wondering why the tranquility of their everyday lives was being filmed in such an unsettling way. If the intent was to add the illusion of realism, they would have done better by making their characters feel honest. Shaking the camera doesn't make your movie "real" or "honest," it makes it "grating." Sometimes this grating feeling works, and enhances the story. This is generally not one of those times.

8. Technical Execution: No

The lighting is bland, particularly at night, which never really manages to look like real nighttime and is only barely passable as "movie-night" (those bizarre hours when everything you're supposed to notice is lit just well enough), I frequently had a poor sense of where the characters were, particularly in the attic (which seemed like a room the size of a factory had just been laid down on top of their otherwise average-sized house), and – the worst crime of all, in the eyes of a film student – it looks grossly digital. I double-checked to make sure I wasn't just complaining about the quality of Netflix Instant, and yes, the movie was shot on "digital video" according to IMDB. I could make better (or at least less shot-on-digital-video) looking footage with my HD camcorder.

Conclusion

So I gave this movie a low rating, and I feel good about it. I was bored for most of the time, except for a few scary moments, and I think this rating reflects that. I don't feel I can really accurately weigh this rating against the others because it's in a totally different ballpark. That first question really makes or breaks the rating, and I feel that that's appropriate, but I need to review more movies with a "no" for that first question to really get a sense of the scale.

I'm beginning to think that the distinction between artistic and technical intentions/execution is pointless. I think I set it up that way because I couldn't come up with any better questions. I'll see if I can't make a new system that fixes this. I have some questions from a draft of System 2 (I realize now that giving it a number may have been premature) that I can probably repurpose; I intend to have a new system published shortly, at which point I will make an earnest attempt to reevaluate the three movies I've reviewed so far (most of the questions will end up being the same anyway) as well as the "standard set" of Coen movies.

Despite my weak rating of 100/255, this movie actually has 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. You can say, "Shows what they know," and blindly accept that my opinions are, of course, the be-all and end-all of film and, indeed, all forms of criticism, or you can go watch it and see for yourself. I believe this movie is on Netflix Instant Viewing for those of you who are too lazy to make an effort to watch it in decent quality (which, admittedly, it won't be in anyway, so see it how you like).

And if you do, write a comment! Rate it. Even if you don't, write a comment telling me what I should try to review next so that I'll get more of a response. I'll probably ignore you, but at least we'll have a mutual illusion that we're engaging in meaningful communication.

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