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Back to the old arguments here about boycotts, or appropriate forms of response to certain films, and genres of films.

I had to review "Vacancy," and this is what I came up with.

I want to hear some feedback.

Do you think this review, or this TYPE of review, sets back the "cause" of Christian criticism light years? I'm suggesting some form of public shaming for the company and people involved with making this dreary movie.

Is there ever a place for such a call?

Is there something positive or constructive that can be learned from movies in this genre?

Should we even bother reviewing these films?

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I want to hear some feedback.

OK, here is some: the VT reference was completely unacceptable. I realize you're not scapegoating, you were just trying to bring up something ironic. But the association of specific works of art with specific acts of violence is something that happens all the time in the mainstream media, and it cannot be more ridiculous. The US is a violent culture, represented by our violent history as much as by our violent entertainment. It's unfair to single out something specific as contributing to one of these tragedies when a) the human mind is not a computer that gives you the same output every time you give it the same input and B) more factors than we can possibly understand contribute to every decision we make.

It sounded like you were scapegoating at first, but I soon realized that you weren't. After I realized that, it didn't seem like there was any point to bringing up the VT incident. It's more coincidence than irony, and I don't see any reason that the makers of Vacancy need to be held accountable. (Or, perhaps you were referring to NBC's airing of their tapes, I couldn't tell. That would be slightly more valid for the record.)

Do you think this review, or this TYPE of review, sets back the "cause" of Christian criticism light years? I'm suggestion some form of public shaming for the company and people involved with making this dreary movie.
Aside from my comments above, no, I don't think this type of review is uncalled for, and I don't think it sets back the cause of Christian criticism. People have been declaring movies worthless for years, quite justly. I do think that the "let's get them to stop making these kinds of films" vibe is a little much, though. In capitalist, free-speech America, like it or not... things like these get decided on monetary reasons. Certainly there have been religious boycotts that have been very effective in the past... but it's probably fair to say that Christians aren't the intended audience for these things anyway.

I do think public shaming is in order for anyone that makes a terrible film. When I say terrible, I mean in terms of quality, not necessarily in terms of content or perceived effect on society. The problem with this is that all of those things are subjective, and when enough people think a film is terrible it goes through a sort of public shaming anyway.

Another note on setting back the cause of Christian criticism. As an outsider to that circle, I believe that the cause of Christian criticism is set back farthest by anyone lavishing praise on a bad movie simply because of its spiritual content. I have a lot of respect for all of you here because, despite disagreeing with many of you on the specific qualities of various films, it's apparent that you always take your responsibility seriously and stay away from that type of pandering.

Is there something positive or constructive that can be learned from movies in this genre?

I've believed for a while that in every movie, no matter how terrible, there is at least one shot that is superb and worth emulating. That said, most films aren't worth sitting through to find it. So yes... I'd suggest that there are positive things to be learned from every movie, but the benefits most likely do not outweigh the costs in most circumstances. I have no trouble believing that Vacancy, Saw, Hostel, etc all fall into this category.

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OK, here is some: the VT reference was completely unacceptable. I realize you're not scapegoating, you were just trying to bring up something ironic. But the association of specific works of art with specific acts of violence is something that happens all the time in the mainstream media, and it cannot be more ridiculous.

That is much too strong a statement. Clearly in this case there is a pretty ironclad argument that the movie and the real event in no way influenced one another: The movie was in the can long before the event occurred, yet the event occurred prior to the film's opening. No direct interaction between the two.

Yet the blanket dismissal and ridicule of any possible correlation between specific media presentations ("works of art" may be too glorified a description) and specific acts of violence is surely indefensible. Such a sweeping negative requires a very strong argument, and no such argument can be offered. A single counter-example disproves it.

The first instance that comes to mind, though it doesn't involve violence against others, is the young football players who really lay down on the median strips in the road after seeing this stunt in Friday Night Lights and really got killed. Clearly the real-world act was directly inspired by a specific media presentation. Can anyone really justify going out on a limb and saying the same thing never happens with direct violence?

It seems to me reasonable to suppose by publicizing Cho's manifesto and giving him the attention he clearly craved to have put his multimedia package together in the first place, the media may be complicit in encouraging other troubled individuals to follow the same path to publicity and attention. Why shouldn't there also be direct fallout from specific violent films?

And since as already mentioned the citation of VT is topical, not corollary, I don't see why it should be judged "completely unacceptable."

Do you think this review, or this TYPE of review, sets back the "cause" of Christian criticism light years? I'm suggestion some form of public shaming for the company and people involved with making this dreary movie.

That some movies are bad for the soul is, I believe, [a] true, something that needs to be said, and [c] something that Christian critics in particular have a collective (not individual) duty to say. I agree that film companies should somehow be accountable. I am even for public shame, although I'm not sure how that works in practice, other than particular reviews like yours shaming them. I haven't seen the film and can't comment on your application, but in principle I don't think you're embarrassing the "cause" in any conspicuous way. So take this as a note of support.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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That some movies are bad for the soul is, I believe, [a] true, something that needs to be said, and [c] something that Christian critics in particular have a collective (not individual) duty to say. I agree that film companies should somehow be accountable. I am even for public shame, although I'm not sure how that works in practice, other than particular reviews like yours shaming them. I haven't seen the film and can't comment on your application, but in principle I don't think you're embarrassing the "cause" in any conspicuous way. So take this as a note of support.

As usual, well said. And Christian, I'm glad that you reminded me that certain movies really are bad for the soul. It is very easy to plunge in with your freedom intact and forget this important point.

-s.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

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Well, I grew up loving horror films. Some of my early film memories involve Saturday afternoon creature features with my mom. Godzilla. Hammer films. The such. I grew older and learned to love many other genre of film, but horror always had a hold over me. Maybe because I grew up in the church and horror is the only genre that consistently takes the supernatural seriously.

But, with the recent wave of torture horror (or porn), I to have been disturbed. Watching the movies with and audience was soul destroying. The clapping and hooting during human suffering was disturbingly informative. I believe in the idea of countering one idea with another so the only response I could muster was to write something that contained elements of

Stealing! How could you? Haven't you learned anything from that guy who gives those sermons at church? Captain whats-his-name.

- Homer

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Yet the blanket dismissal and ridicule of any possible correlation between specific media presentations ("works of art" may be too glorified a description) and specific acts of violence is surely indefensible. Such a sweeping negative requires a very strong argument, and no such argument can be offered. A single counter-example disproves it.

People mix up causation and correlation. One is nearly impossible to prove, while the other is nearly impossible to ignore. I'm condemning the assertion of causation, you're responding with examples of correlation. This is all fine, but as you mentioned... both correlation and causation seem absent when trying to link the film in question with the tragedy in question. Christian was very clear that he wasn't suggesting causation, but if we're talking about correlation... the culture of violence in the United States is so deeply ingrained that there doesn't seem to be much point in singling out and calling for protest against one work. Just my opinion... Christian was very careful about how he phrased things, and deserves credit for that, but I still find the link objectionable.

I have a semi-personal history with this sort of thing. I had a friend/acquaintance who committed some acts of vandalism and theft involving parked cars over a series of weeks. When caught, he mentioned that he was inspired by the game Grand Theft Auto. So... instant (minor) media frenzy ensues... because it turns out that the public doesn't seem to distinguish between "inspired by" and "caused by". It's sobering to read suggestions across the internet that a person you knew deserves to be sodomized by his cellmate because he "blamed" a video game. He wasn't trying to blame the video game, he took full responsibility for his actions... he was just being honest about how he got the idea.

Careful steps deserve to be taken when linking media and actions. Christian was careful, as I mentioned, but after reading it all I didn't really see what VT had to do with Vacancy, or any reason the two should be linked other than the involvement of video tapes. Maybe my objection is too strong, that's a fair criticism. Now I've elaborated perhaps more than anyone cares, hopefully it's more understandable.

The first instance that comes to mind, though it doesn't involve violence against others, is the young football players who really lay down on the median strips in the road after seeing this stunt in Friday Night Lights and really got killed.

I believe the movie in question was The Program.

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This movie has awesome credits sequences.

This movie has a major cop-out of an ending.

This movie has some typical dumb plot elements (

when someone calls 911 and says "They're trying to kill me!" the dispatchers send a single cop without a partner... who, of course, is killed... and then, hours later, when someone calls 911 again, the dispatchers say, "We already sent someone there," apparently oblivious to the fact that the cop never checked in again afterwards

...).

And now, turning to Christian's review...

I think The Passion of the Christ has more in common with "torture porn" than Vacancy does. No one in Vacancy is actually "tortured" in any physical way. Yes, some people are killed, but the camera does not dwell on the violence, at least not in any sadistic way. And yes, there is certainly some disturbing stuff here on a psychological level (e.g. banging on the doors first, to spook the couple), but that's not quite the same thing as, say, a topless girl watching and begging for her life as her organs are removed, as in Turistas. (FWIW, I have never seen any of the Hostel movies, and I have seen only the first Saw.) Perhaps, with regard to Vacancy, the violence in the movies-within-the-movie borders on "torture", but since we only catch glimpses of it through the TV screen, it's hard to say.

I am reluctant to call this article a "review", since the first half of it pretty much never even mentions the film, except for a brief bit in the first few words of the first sentence.

And FWIW, when you do get to the film itself... after your plot synopsis, I think you go a bit over-the-top. I DON'T think most of the people involved in this film need to be "embarrassed" by it, let alone "ashamed".

Part of the critic's job is to encourage people to think about a movie and what it means, and to help them put it in some sort of context. And I don't think the Virginia Tech killings are a particularly helpful context. For one thing, the VT killer didn't videotape his killings, the way the villains in Vacancy videotape theirs. The VT killer sent his materials to the media to make himself a star, but the "stars" of the Vacancy movies-within-the-movie are essentially anonymous. So what happened in real life doesn't match what happens in the movie at all.

Also, your obsession (if you'll forgive the word) with the VT killings obliterates any chance to evaluate what the movie has to say about various themes, such as marriage and divorce. Maybe Vacancy is no deeper than Die Hard in this respect -- indeed, it may even be shallower, since the characters are splitting over the trauma of the presumably accidental death of their child (instead of consciously pursuing separate careers), and since the characters never have to let go of the thing that is driving them apart (the way that Bruce Willis, in order to send the bad guy falling to his doom, deliberately unfastens the watch that Bonnie Bedelia got as a bonus from her employers). But even if it IS shallower, it would be good to point that out.

I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said, about how he wanted people who like mystery stories to review mystery stories, because people who DON'T like mystery stories can't tell him which mystery stories are good and which mystery stories are bad. I wonder if your "review" puts you in the latter category. Are there any violent, scary, horror movies that you LIKE? If so, why are those ones good and this one bad? THAT'S the sort of context that would be helpful, rather than all that stuff about the VT massacre.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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People mix up causation and correlation.

Frequently, and I say this all the time. I'm not one of them. :)

I'm condemning the assertion of causation, you're responding with examples of correlation.

Not at all. On the contrary, you seem to be confusing causation with sole determination, e.g., by trying to distinguish between "inspired by" and "caused by" in the case of your friend/acquaintance. If X inspires Y, X may not be the sole determinant of Y, but it is still a causal factor leading to Y. There is causation, not just correlation, as in the case of two otherwise unrelated effects of a common cause.

Thus, granted that your friend/acquaintance was being both truthful and accurate in claiming GTA as an inspiration, there is a causal connection, not just correlation, between GTA and his crimes.

I believe the movie in question was The Program.

Yep, I realized after I posted that FNL wasn't correct, but I couldn't think of what the right movie was. Thanks!

I am reluctant to call this article a "review", since the first half of it pretty much never even mentions the film, except for a brief bit in the first few words of the first sentence.

True.

And FWIW, when you do get to the film itself... after your plot synopsis, I think you go a bit over-the-top. I DON'T think most of the people involved in this film need to be "embarrassed" by it, let alone "ashamed".

That of course is a judgment call that, not having seen the film (or planning to), I can't address.

(the way that Bruce Willis, in order to send the bad guy falling to his doom, deliberately unfastens the watch that Bonnie Bedelia got as a bonus from her employers).

!!! I cannot believe I never noticed that!

I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said, about how he wanted people who like mystery stories to review mystery stories, because people who DON'T like mystery stories can't tell him which mystery stories are good and which mystery stories are bad. I wonder if your "review" puts you in the latter category. Are there any violent, scary, horror movies that you LIKE? If so, why are those ones good and this one bad? THAT'S the sort of context that would be helpful, rather than all that stuff about the VT massacre.

Good point, love that Lewis quote. (I quoted it in my 2005 year-end piece explaining why I didn't review the big political films of the year, Syriana, Good night and Good Luck, etc. -- because politics is virtually a closed book to me, and political films seem to me almost entirely opaque.) Here's an excerpt:

I don't like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look alike to me. If I wrote about them I should infallibly write drivel... Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults.

FWIW, I remember Christian having a similarly, er, violent reaction to Apocalypto, where I also felt the sadistic violence was over the top though I didn't hate the film the way he did.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Good points. I want to single out the credit sequence as praiseworthy as well.

FWIW, when I submitted the piece, I told my editor, "This is more rant than review," and she agreed, as did her boss. But they liked it enough to post it.

The question about whether or not I've ever liked any horror films has been addressed a number of times over the years in this forum, so I'm surprised you asked, Peter. It's true that the review itself didn't get into that, which is the more important point. But as to whether or not I've ever liked horror films, the answer is yes, I have.

I'm glad Steven remembered my strong reaction to "Apocalypto." That film made me much, much angrier than "Vacancy," probably because I anticipated more positive response to it from Christian critics, for reasons that had less to do with the film itself than with defending the guy who took a lot of shots over "The Passion of the Christ." But Kenneth Turan took out "Apocalypto" in a much more articulate, to-the-point fashion than I ever could muster.

Thanks for the honest criticism and discussion. Keep the comments coming, whether about my review specifically, or this genre of film more broadly.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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SDG wrote:

: !!! I cannot believe I never noticed that!

I first noticed it when one of my film-history textbooks mentioned it as an example of the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s. The funny thing is, in the text commentary on the two-disc "ultimate edition" of Die Hard, the screenwriter talks about how his son went to college and called him up one day to say that he'd just read in a textbook that Die Hard was anti-feminist -- which the screenwriter thought was absurd, if memory serves.

Christian wrote:

: The question about whether or not I've ever liked any horror films has been

: addressed a number of times over the years in this forum, so I'm surprised

: you asked, Peter. It's true that the review itself didn't get into that, which is

: the more important point. But as to whether or not I've ever liked horror

: films, the answer is yes, I have.

Sorry, I'm not a huge horror aficianado myself, so I may not have kept track of that. But I didn't merely ask if you like horror films -- I think I used the phrase "violent, scary, horror movies", kind of nudging in the direction of "torture porn" without actually going that far (since I don't think Vacancy is an example of such, though I can see how it exists on a continuum that does include "torture porn" at one extreme). The term "horror films" is pretty broad, and can cover everything from the subtle works of Val Lewton to the trite shlock of Friday the 13th.

: I'm glad Steven remembered my strong reaction to "Apocalypto."

Yeah, I'd say that film (like The Passion of the Christ) had more in common with "torture porn" than Vacancy does. (What was that I said about organ removal in Turistas? Something like that happens in Apocalypto, too, of course. And in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for that matter. But anyhoo. I don't believe there was any organ removal in Vacancy. Just good old-fashioned stabbing and maybe some punching, too, but all with an eye towards killing people rather quickly, and pretty much all of it shot at something of a remove from the viewer, either because we see the murders on a TV screen or because the actual stabbing takes place out-of-frame, etc.)

: That film made me much, much angrier than "Vacancy," probably because I

: anticipated more positive response to it from Christian critics, for reasons

: that had less to do with the film itself than with defending the guy who took

: a lot of shots over "The Passion of the Christ."

Interesting. A part of me reacted to Apocalypto by thinking, "So THIS is what all those churches funded." (They bought out entire theatres for weeks on end, the vast bulk of that money went straight to Mel Gibson, and Gibson used that money to... make Apocalypto.) But another part of me is oddly fascinated by the competing impulses in Mel's psychological make-up, at least as it is reflected in his films, and I can sympathize to a degree with those who defended Apocalypto because of what the film itself had to say about family, gender roles, the environment, etc. (In other words, I can sympathize to a degree with those who defended the film for reasons OTHER than the fact that it was made by the guy who took a lot of shots over The Passion of the Christ.)

For whatever that's worth.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Violence all around us, and we're numb

By Steven Winn

[L]ike so much else in popular culture right now, whether it's the guns being drawn and fired on "CSI: Miami" or "24," a fiery NASCAR crash or another episode of "The Sopranos," "Grindhouse" induces a distinct queasiness and deep-seated unease. Last week's carnage at Virginia Tech, followed by the surreal broadcast of the killer's postmortem video footage, cast an eerie and inescapable blue glow. It's impossible to think about those events, just as it was with Columbine eight Aprils ago, and not wonder about the culture's routine and thoroughgoing saturation in violence. The audience at the screening of "Grindhouse" I caught was notably subdued. So was I.

I don't believe that Seung-Hui Cho was driven to kill by the things he may have seen on screens or read in books. He was a deeply troubled and isolated man, seemingly launched on a course of self-destruction early on. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about the context in which he lived, with its endlessly streaming mayhem and ready supply of guns. It doesn't mean we shouldn't think about the content and style of violent movies, television and video games.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Violence all around us, and we're numb

By Steven Winn

I don't believe that Seung-Hui Cho was driven to kill by the things he may have seen on screens or read in books. He was a deeply troubled and isolated man, seemingly launched on a course of self-destruction early on. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about the context in which he lived, with its endlessly streaming mayhem and ready supply of guns. It doesn't mean we shouldn't think about the content and style of violent movies, television and video games.

I'm just going to change the emphasis here, and not to politicize this too much (as has happened in other threads), but perhaps by highlighting a different portion of the text I might ask a question. We in Canada watch much of the same content that Americans do. But we don't seem to have the problem with shootings to the degree that you do down south. It makes me wonder what the difference is, if in fact our viewing patterns are the same (and it would be interesting if Peter found out the stats as to whether violent films do better in Canada even?), but we don't have the "ready supply of guns." Just a thought.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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It makes me wonder what the difference is, if in fact our viewing patterns are the same (and it would be interesting if Peter found out the stats as to whether violent films do better in Canada even?), but we don't have the "ready supply of guns." Just a thought.

Good question, but wasn't one of the main points in Bowling for Columbine that Canadians did have more guns, per capita, than Americans, and yet there was less crime? It's been a couple of years since I watched the movie. Moore chalked up our higher incidence of gun-related crime to fear of black people.

So "ready supply" here probably means more like "near-instant availability," I'm thinking. In other words, you're suggesting that Americans might act more impulsively than Canadians, and use quickly obtained firearms for retribution, retaliation, etc., right?

I don't have an answer, even if I understand your question correctly. But I wanted to be sure that I DID understand what you were getting at.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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With the recent relauch on Crosswalk, readers can now rate each article.

Right now, my "Vacancy" review has a 1-star rating. ::blush::

Ouch.

But I stand by every word of it! :)

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Anne Thompson:

Post Virgina Tech, Is There a Zeitgeist Shift for Movie Violence?

The marketplace may have shifted for ultra-violent horror. What has changed? The overall culture after the Virginia Tech murder spree. This past weekend, the boxoffice dipped precipitously, as movies like Vacancy, Next and The Invisible failed to perform. I've been wondering how long this particularly grisly horror cycle could last.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Rod Dreher mentions the VA Tech shootings and "Vacancy" in a recent column:

What does it say about our culture that there is a hot genre of mainstream films called "torture porn," the point of which is to show human beings being eviscerated? The latest entry, Vacancy, opened days after the Virginia Tech savagery. It's about a couple who are unwittingly set up to star in a snuff film

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Of course, Dreher liked Apocalypto, which went considerably further than Vacancy could ever dream of going as far as "torture porn" is concerned. I wonder if Dreher would classify this film as "torture porn" if he had actually SEEN it.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Good question, but wasn't one of the main points in Bowling for Columbine that Canadians did have more guns, per capita, than Americans, and yet there was less crime? It's been a couple of years since I watched the movie. Moore chalked up our higher incidence of gun-related crime to fear of black people.

This is old and I'm replying to it late, but I believe Moore's point was that a "culture of fear" was more to blame than specific fear of black people. He drew heavily on the (pro-gun control) book The Culture of Fear, even interviewing the author on-screen in BFC. (I believe he's the man showing Moore around Hollywood). Moore's film didn't end up as explicitly pro-gun control as the book... and if he intended it to he may have failed a bit... but he did explore the "culture of fear" fairly well. Still Bowling for Columbine was such a mishmash of points Moore wanted to make that it's almost ludicrous to try to pick out a central theme... but that's what my impression of it was.

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  • 3 months later...
This DVD reviewer says:

Finally, one aspect that Vacancy does right by me is providing a suspenseful plot without the gratuitous violence or gore of low-grade horror films. In making sure that viewers don't always see how someone dies, it leaves it all to imagination, creating a more intense and terrifying atmosphere. Attention is paid more to the attempts at survival than at the attempts of murder, and for that I found myself really enjoying the film.

But then, under 'BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING', he notes:

Proving that voyeurism lives on beyond the movie, "Mason's Video Picks: Extended Snuff Films" (8:49) shows more of the snuff films shot for the movie. Alternating between clear picture and white noise, along with various distortions and frame jumps, this is really gory stuff to watch. After the first minute, I couldn't bring myself to watch the rest, so sue me if I don't feel up to snuff in providing a more detailed description.

Make of that what you will.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 years later...

Nimród Antal, director, from the DVD extras:

What I liked about the film originally was the opportunity to do something, I think elegant, that was different than the norm... And it didn't concentrate on the violence so much, but more of a suspense film. More of a build.

If there were a Nimród Antal thread for Kontroll I would link to it; I clearly remember it as one of my favorite experiences of CIFF 2003 (was it 2003?), in fact it made my Top 10 I posted at Matthews House that year. (The page is now lost in junkspace I guess.) Apparently I wasn't the only one that year to fall in love with Kontroll -- it did receive Hungary's Oscar nomination for foreign language film.

I caught Vacancy a week or two ago and wanted to digest it somewhat before commenting, simply because there've been some harsh criticisms thrown at it, some I think unfairly. I spent a good two months this year catching up on horror -- I guess I just feel like it's a good time in my life for this genre -- and frankly, some of the gore in these films has been harsh. But given the subject matter, and that I knew the subject matter going into it, I don't consider Vacancy to be of the harsh variety.

I didn't expect to watch it and defend it, but much to my own surprise I'm gonna give it a go.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Kontroll and Vacancy are quite similar in that each sets their protagonists in these stifling, trapped settings and then runs them through the ringer as to whether they can not only escape their trapped surroundings, but live in the process. Kontroll's painfually elaborate claustrophobic settings in the Budapest subway system were used to much comedic effect, somewhat reminiscent of Jeunet's Delicatessen, although lighter in its approach with a LOL feel.

Vacancy uses cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Resevoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) to capture a darker kind of stuffiness, where the hotel walls are always closing in with killers, and every video camera and video screen is a constant reminder of imminent death. Sekula is absolutely masterful in Vacancy, the film is worth it for his skills alone (but I think there's even more to offer here). He captures the bleak, noiresque world of the motel the husband and wife find themselves ready to be murdered in. At first the cinematography is quieter, like with a tripod but still stern and intense, but as the film picks up the pace, the camera movement becomes another character in the story -- little jarring movements, hardly noticeable at first (nothing like The Blair Witch Project. Softer, but still uncomfortable.) and then later, quick, frenzied moments, not seen on a first viewing, but manipulating the psychology of suspense in this serial-killer story.

The narrative arc, the characters and the actors who play them, and the camera that aptly catches them in the act all build together to a giant crescendo -- and then several moments of surrendered hush pull the whole event back down into a safety net. This sounds like a million other stories, I know, but the whole event has this Hitchcockian feel to it that just steps it up to another level.

Some of those Hitchcockian elements are in the opening and closing credits and music. I can't place it, but I know that's exactly the feel they were going for. And it is perfect.

Other elements are in the great acting between the husband and wife, David and Amy Fox, who are at their wits end after the loss of their child. They are so full of grief and do not know how to channel these emotions -- their relationship is falling apart, seemingly from no fault of their own, and as they are (HOROR FILM! HORROR FILM!) broken down on the side of a woodsy road in the mountains, we can see that after this final trip to visit some family, they are finally going to pronounce this marriage dead. Not to over-emphasize this or anything, but Sekula and the editor create some brilliant shots here. The way the Foxes are captured separated in the car by different framing, showing the physical space between them as even greater than it is. Later, outside the car we again see them both, but this time in separate rearview mirrors. There was some great work that went into relaying how separated they actually felt from each other, that a tragedy had turned their companionship into a shell.

So many times in contemporary horror one finds themself wondering, "OK, who is going to die first," or even worse, "I can't wait for this character to get it." Not so here. As the unfolding tragedy takes place in the motel, as David and Amy fight for their lives, we realize that tragedy might be the thing that tore them apart -- but it might also be something that can bring them back together. And it is to be rooted for and applauded if achieved. Reconciliation can be the golden nugget that comes out the other side.

There are a few other things Vacancy does that are to be applauded. There is a stunt toward the end of the film in which two bad guys are run over by a car in hideous fashion. There is no CGI involved. You can tell by the look and feel of the scene. Remember when movies used to be movies and not video games? This stunt was nothing short of awesome.

One of the bad guys is to be applauded -- the actor is Frank Whaley. His character is at first quirky to the point where you've got to wonder whether the filmmakers aren't just trying to throw us off. This guy can't be the bad guy?! But when he later evolves into a full-blown psychopath, the transition is as well-done as any bad guy in this genre. His pacing was perfect. Well done, indeed.

The abuse of power, the abuse of trust, the abuse of cameras (snuff films being made from hidden cameras in the motel room) reminded me that the camera is neither good nor bad, but can be used for either one. Do we choose it as a tool to uplift and edify mankind, or do we use it as a tool of depravity that can leave a wake of wreckage in its path.

The enjoyment of these concepts is obviously going to be somewhat limited. I mean, let's face it. What kind of movie is this? It's a guts and gore slasher flick. But I think what saves it, or at the very least sets it apart from the rest, is that the guts and gore are "elegantly" downplayed -- more implied than actually seen -- and that the suspense steals the show from the horror in the end. It's a slow boil that drives its way into a huge crescendo, and then hangs a lingering, hopeful conclusion in front of our eyes. It actually reminded me a bit of "Why aren't you watching the children?" for those of you who want to go way back.

It was a horror/suspense film I didn't feel dirty for watching. In fact I still think fondly of the Foxes, and hope they can love each other again.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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