PAST INTENSE: The Final Girls and Labyrinth of Lies

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final girls
The Final Girls is one of those low budget independent films that comes out of nowhere and give low budget independent films that come out of nowhere a good name. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating since most low budget independent films that come out of nowhere are so bad these days, I’m not sure that anything could actually give them a good name, but you know what I mean.
At any rate, this new post modern parody of horror films that is also not just a parody but also a film in and of itself (like Scream in many ways, though Scream is more serious, but unlike the Scary Movie franchise which does nothing but make fun of its precursors), is a ton of fun.
The basic premise revolves around Max, whose mother Amanda made the low budget slasher film Camp Bloodbath that unexpectedly was a success and because of that, Amanda could never do anything else and her acting career languished.
Years later, Amanda dies in one of those car accidents that seems to be the de jour way to kill off people in movies today (does anyone die any other way but in car accidents anymore, and not just car accidents, but accidents where a vehicle is hit and goes bouncing around in multiple somersaults like it’s Olga Korbut, always…ALWAYS…ending up on its roof, like a turtle; I have no idea what that’s about) and Max hasn’t been able to get over her death.
She is talked into going to a late night showing of Camp Bloodbath and when there is a fire incident at the theater, she and her friends exit through the screen, ending up in the movie within a movie itself. And now they must figure out what is going on, how to get back and how to stay alive long enough in order to get back. While providing the audience with tons of chills, thrills and giggles.


The movie is very smart, cleverly written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller (writing partners and a first feature of both) with inside jokes galore, and directed with far more pizazz that one usually finds in an indie like this by Todd Strauss-Schulson (there are some marvelous and exciting uses of the camera here, especially in some breathtaking long shots).


It’s not a first film for Strauss-Schulson, though based on his credits it does seem a great leap forward and shows what a big difference a good screenplay can make for a director (Strauss Schulson also did A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas—enuf said).


The filmmakers seem to be having a hoot and a half here. One of the more interesting stylistic choices is that in the preview for the movie Camp Bloodbath, the acting is horrendously awful and the look of the film is flat and cheap, but when the characters enter into the movie itself, all the performances by the Bloodbath characters become so much better, even making some of the purposely lame writing shine, while the movie at times looks like something shot by Freddie Young for Lawrence Arabia.


final girls 2The actors also seem to be having a great time fully committing themselves to this bit of shrewdly absurd silliness. Perhaps the two outstanding performances here are Thomas Middleditch as Duncan in the Matthew Lillard role of the dork who knows what the rules are, and Adam Devine as Kurt, the hormone driven jock camp counselor and closet case, who plans to bed every female counselor he can. Both have solid comic timing (in the credits, there are a series of scenes where Devine riffs on a couple of lines, trying out different possibilities, that must be seen, so stick around).


Taissa Farmiga is touching as Max and does a very good job of holding the movie together. Malin Akerman plays Max’s mother (she was recently seen as Blythe Danner’s daughter in I’ll See You in My Dreams).


At the same time, one could make the argument that the filmmakers don’t quite get it all right. It starts with the premise that Amanda can’t get another job because of her appearance in this camp/cult classic (even though she had a supporting role and was killed off rather quickly). But in real life, actors like Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Johnny Depp, Paul Rudd, Naomi Watts, Charlize Theron and Jennifer Aniston (among others) all had successful careers after their teen horror flicks. In fact, these sorts of films were often the jumping off points for even bigger careers (though the kinds of points they might wish everyone would forget).


In addition, Camp Bloodbath, at least the way the characters talk about it, is obviously referencing Friday the 13th. But, as bad a movie as Friday… is, the killings were far more clever, savage and bloody there than they are in this version (here, the bad guy just kinda, sorta swishes a machete around without much imagination).


Perhaps the strangest irony is that in Camp Bloodbath there are two black characters (which you wouldn’t see in a film like this made in the 1970’s), yet none of the present day characters are played by a minority (can you imagine the real conflict that might come up if the entitled, spoiled, lily white characters of the Friday the 13th franchise suddenly had to interact with black people at a camp that probably wouldn’t have even allowed any of the children attending to be non-Caucasian—but I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to go there).


And it gets really muddled plot and rule wise toward the end, where the filmmakers start painting themselves into a corner. The basic premise is the premise of so many of these films, the virgin survives. And at one point, when Nancy is abducted by Max, she’s not killed like the others and the suggestion seems to be that this is because she is still pure (there doesn’t seem to be any other logical reason). But then later, she’s just as quickly disposed of even though she’s still virgo intacto.


But you do have to hand it to all involved. They did come up with probably the only satisfying ending one can have in a situation like this.


And when all is said and done, it’s still a marvelously entertaining movie


labyrinth of liesLabyrinth of Lies is about an ambitious German prosecutor in 1958 looking to make a name for himself who decides to go after criminals no one claims exists—ex-Nazis who worked in the concentration camps (here the emphasis is on Auschwitz) and went out of their way to help with the final solution, and who now serve the country as bakers, schoolteachers and bureaucrats.


As is wont to happen in films like this, along the way, this cause becomes more than just a job. It becomes one of those moral crusades reflected in probably what is the best exchange in the movie (and I paraphrase): “So what do you want? Do you want every child to ask their father if they were a murderer?” “Yes, that is exactly what I want”.


It’s a stirring scene and there is much of this German entry in the foreign language film Oscar race that is moving. The story, based on something that really happened, is important and still relevant and a subject that is worth talking about. From a technical standpoint, it’s also an extremely well done movie with period detail that is very detailed and effective.


At the same time, I also think it is a very bad film. Or at least a film that doesn’t work at all on the level it wants to.


Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli and written by committee (Ricciarelli, Elizabeth Bartel, and Amelie Syberberg), the filmmakers first have given themselves a difficult task. How to make a believable film about a group of people so ignorant, willfully and not, when today, years and years later, everything has been exposed and no one can claim ignorance (unless willfully)? How do you successfully put a modern day audience into the mindset of people living at that time?


It can be done, but if it’s not done right, the whole thing edges a bit too close to farce.


And for me, the filmmakers didn’t just edge there, they went over a few times as I found myself trying to stifle a few giggles here and anon. The constant incredulity on everybody’s faces as they learn of the horrors in the camps almost never seemed convincing; rather it all came across as rather…incredulous, and I found it harder and harder to take seriously.


Though the story is based on something that really happened, the filmmakers, of course, have done that thing where they take liberties with events in order to create an entertaining drama.


In real life, from what I can tell, the central character and the one who really drove everything is Fritz Bauer, a Jewish socialist/communist sympathizer who was arrested, but after a couple of years in a camp in the early ‘30’s, managed to be released. He made his way to Switzerland and thereby avoided the Shoah. Upon returning, he worked himself up to District Attorney where he was instrumental in getting a class action suit in the Auschwitz trials and helped the Mossad track down Eichmann.


labyrinth of lies 2In the movie he’s played by Gert Voss, who gives perhaps the finest performance in the film, deeply empathetic with haunted eyes and a face that has seen hell and knows how the world works.


But here, Labyrinth of Lies becomes very American in style and approach because Bauer is relegated to a small part and, as far as I can remember, no mention is made that he is Jewish.


Instead, the central character is one Johann Radmann, that ambitious prosecutor, as blond and blue eyed as any Aryan could hope to be (I suppose for irony’s sake) in one of these composite thingy’s that is usually used for supporting characters, not central ones.


He’s one of the more annoying central characters I’ve seen in some time. Self-righteous and not particularly bright (he’s so incredibly dumbfounded by how deep the corruption in the government goes, it’s hard to feel sympathy for him or be on his side), he feels he can do this job because his father never joined the Nazi party and died in battle on the Russian front.


What’s really annoying is that the more he learns, the more the world and the way it works is revealed to him, the more naïve, nay, the stupider he seems to become rather than wiser (guess what happens when it comes to that thing about his father). Instead of being on his side, you want to slap him silly and tell him to get a grip on reality, except that since people are constantly doing that in the movie and it doesn’t work, you know it would be futile to do it yourself.


This is especially true when he gets so focused on trying to arrest Joseph Mengele, who sometimes returns to Germany for a family visit. He becomes so obsessed on this that he puts all his other prosecutions in danger. True, part of why this doesn’t work is due to knowing what we know today (Mengele was never arrested and died in South America). So we already know how idiotic his goal is. But I don’t think the filmmakers come close to finding a way to compensate for that.


In fact, what they do to this fictionalized character of Radmann is give him a traditional hero’s journey. Some will call that a solid way of writing the film. I call it one cliché after another. So clichéd that there are times I would have been clutching my hair in frustration if I had any.


The nadir of the screenplay has to be a through line with one of Radmann’s jackets. His fiancé is a fashion designer trying to forge a career. They have a falling out. He tears his jacket. He wants to get back together again. He brings the jacket by and asks if it can be mended. She says the tear is too great to be mended, that there is nothing to be done. He throws the jacket away. She finds it and mends it and brings it too him saying that it was difficult, but she was able to mend it.


God, it’s the kind of metaphor that gives subtext a terrible name and English teachers heartburn.


Radmann is played by Alexander Fehling, an up and coming actor making a name for himself here and abroad (he was in Inglourious Basterds, Young Goethe in Love, and Homeland). Here he’s about as dull and bland as his looks.


As is the movie.



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