Daily Archives: May 15, 2010

Stoic (2009)

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to associate Uwe Boll with the idea of social activist. This is the same man who has caused people so much pain and with his movies, ranging from bad to ridiculously bad to “You cannot unsee what you have seen” bad. The German director who has caused so many film and video game fans suffering seemed an unlikely candidate to seriously explore the suffering of others. And yet Boll’s heart grew three sizes and he directed a slate of movies with a social conscience. His movie about the genocide in Darfur is still circling around, awaiting a release date, but let me stop to remind you that Uwe Freaking Boll directed a movie about a topical humanitarian crisis. This is akin to… Eli Roth directing an Edith Wharton adaptation (“From the director of Cabin Fever comes … Ethan Frome!”). It just doesn’t seem like an organic pairing. Boll is used to blood and boobs (both of the mammary kind and of the idiot variety), not social relevancy. You don’t expect an exploitation filmmaker to shine a light on exploitation. While we await his Darfur movie, in the meantime is Stoic, a quick and cheap movie about three prison inmates (Edward Furlong, Sam Levinson, Steffen Mennekes) brutalizing their cellmate, Mitch (Shaun Sipos) when a bet goes wrong. It’s based on a true story from a German juvenile detention center, or so we’re told.

So what kind of movie is Stoic, actually? Well, for starters it’s an uncomfortable one. The movie aims to show the capability of human cruelty and how easy it is to become compliant within a group, to go along with the flow despite some murky moral hazards. The three cellmates end up kick starting a cycle of violence, each trying to top the last so as not to appear weak or to damage ego. Can this cycle of cruelty be stopped? The dehumanization leads to some rather brutal and disgusting acts of violence and degradation including forcing Mitch to eat his own vomit, dumping urine on the guy’s face, raping him, and sodomizing him with a broom handle (“Just curiosity, I guess,” explains one of his attackers). Despite all this, there are actual moments of restraint on Boll’s part, particularly during the rape sequence. The audio drops out, the edits become jump cuts stuttering ahead through time, and I thought perhaps Boll was maturing. Needless to say this thought was torpedoed a tad when Boll later showcased the inmates rubbing the bloody broom handle over Mitch’s unconscious mouth. Stoic is essentially a torture movie; it’s 80 minutes of literal torture with some extra psychological justification tagged along for safe measure.

Where Stoic comes into issue is whether or not it possesses any merits to justify watching 80-some minutes or torture. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insights or rich characters. Watching people become increasingly hurtful is not the same as exploring the habits that make such escalating acts of barbarity occur. Boll and the actors pound us with the message that we’re in prison and prison has its own operating system and everybody jockeys for position; Peter (Levinson) repeatedly tells us that he feels sorry but felt he had to participate or else they’d turn on him. It’s all about having somebody weaker to take the fall. I’ll give Boll credit that the amplification of events seems plausible given the circumstances, to the point that the three guys have come to the conclusion that there will be serious consequences for their actions unless they convince Mitch to go along with a fake suicide. The movie maintains believability even as things get more and more out of hand, which is commendable. But what isn’t commendable is that there seems little reason for Stoic to exist. Narratively the movie is simple: three guys pick on another guy. The characters are all slight variations of one another based upon the level to process guilt and deception. During the interviews, we’re given fleeting glimpses at denial and coping mechanisms, mainly lying (“I would’ve remembered something like that.”) to self-rationalization (“I kept saying to myself, ‘As long as it’s not me.’”). There aren’t many insights to be gleaned from the brief interviews, which serve as commentary.

Boll decided to make Stoic his Mike Leigh film, meaning that he had the basic outline of a story and told his actors to run with it while he filmed them. There was no script and all the dialogue was completely improvised. This does allow Stoic to maintain a naturalistic feel, however, it also means that the actors are beholden to tough guy clichés. The dialogue, particularly during the interrogation scenes, keeps falling back to a “you don’t know what’s it’s like, man!” mantra. Here are some examples of bland dialogue that the actors came up with:

“What choice did I have?”

“You’re either with them or against them.”

“What don’t you understand? If I didn’t seem like I was apart of it, they’d kill me.”

“I had no choice. They forced me.”

“I want to lie because I don’t want to be that person.”

“I felt like there was no way out.”

And because you knew it had to happen:

“I’m just as bad as the two of them because I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

You’ll note that most of these dialogue examples belong to the Peter, the chattiest and most remorseful interviewee. Improvisation has its virtues but it can also lead to actors falling back on stuff they’ve seen in countless other genre examples, which means that the banal, cliché dialogue all gets stirred together one more time.

In defense of Stoic, it may prove to be Boll’s finest directorial effort yet. The handheld camera, sharp edits, and close angles copy the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) style of visuals, and yet the docu-drama copy works. The visual aesthetic improves the quality of the film and allows Boll many opportunities for interesting compositions and smart stylistic decisions with the economical space of the set. The interviews are shot as one static camera shot to contrast with the shaky, reactionary movement from within the cell. It may not be an original style, but then again Boll seems to adopt (some might say rip-off) a new style with every film. For Stoic, Boll’s direction makes you feel in the middle of these awful incidents, and the pain feels even more real.

But is there any reason to really watch Stoic? The acting is mostly good, and maybe fans of Edward Furlong would like to see what he’s been up to since 1998’s Pecker and American History X. Perhaps the declaration of “Boll’s best directorial effort” will appeal to maybe six or seven curious, and questionably masochistic, film fans. Due to Boll’s German background, I can’t help but wonder if his country’s history influenced him to try a narrative experiment hat explores how easy it is to go along with something awful, how difficult it is to make a moral stand against the grain, and how easily circumstances can find momentum and get out of control. I wonder if Stoic is Boll’s personal act of penance, of trying to understand a nation’s actions (and inaction) and working through a lingering shroud of shame. Then again, I may be reading way more into this movie than was ever intended. It could have just been a lark for a quick buck/deutschmark. Stoic is a mildly interesting little filmic experiment from Boll. Due to its narrative simplicity and limited characterization, it can’t offer much more than another voyeuristic slideshow of human degradation.

Nate’s Grade: C

Precious (2009)

I can’t tell whether or not I liked this movie or if it simply beat me into submission. The heavy-handed tale of extreme suffering comes across like watching somebody get beaten for two hours. WAM! Your father rapes you. WAM! Your mother doesn’t intervene, in fact, she molests you too. WAM! You’re pregnant with your second kid from dear old dad. WAM! You have AIDS. The material is so unrelentingly dark that the constrained happy ending leaves you with feeling wholly naïve. Precious (Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sidibe) goes from having a hellish existence to having a 10% less hellish existence. It’s hard to find any light of hope within. Thank God that the movie is so well-acted all around, from Mo’Nique’s ferocious Oscar-winning turn as Precious’ monstrous mother, to Sidibe’s heart-wrenching portrayal of an abused and ignored soul, to even a makeup-free Mariah Carrey as a no-nonsense social worker (lack of makeup being the universal sign an actress wants to be taken seriously). Director Lee Daniels lays out the melodrama with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. You feel beaten down by the conclusion. I can’t decide if the fantasy sequences Precious flashes to as a coping mechanism are insightful or just embarrassing. I found Precious’ stoicism worth rooting for, but the movie seems to stop short of finding a way to make me care about her as a character rather than a victim. Her role is mostly impassive but she manages to find her character’s dignity, which is what the film asks us to ultimately fight for. By the end, I felt like I was watching an urban equivalent of A Serious Man, only it wasn’t intended for me to laugh at the misery.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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