Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: AWAKEN (2015) [Paul's Take]

Awaken isn’t a horror film, despite what Netflix says.  Awaken isn’t really like anything else.  It’s a special, special snowflake. 

It isn’t the plot that’s special, though it is needlessly complex.  A young woman, Billie Kope, who was trained by her Russian judo master father in the ancient killing arts goes deep undercover to try to find her estranged sister.  She’s kidnapped, drugged, and deposited on a tropical island with Edward Furlong, Robert Davi and a bunch of other unlucky strangers.   When they are not weaving baskets, picking berries, or hoeing their makeshift fields, the islanders are pursued by men in camouflage fatigues and fishing net hats, brandishing weapons that look suspiciously like staple guns.  When kidnapped for the second time *sigh*, they then have their organs harvested for some black market medical organization.  Billie figures all of this out while falling in love and kicking a lot of dudes, eventually reuniting with her sister.

What makes Awaken something truly special is just how unintentionally awful it is from start to finish.  It has all of the feel of a Sci-Fi Channel made-for-camp Sharkmagedonado jeu d’esprit but without any of the wink-nudge self-awareness.  How horrible?  Let’s consider:

1.  The Plan.  The victims are kidnapped twice . . . by design!  The evil organ harvesters kidnap their victims, then let them go free on the island, and then have to kidnap them again.  It’s a bother for everyone involved.

2.  A Boring Thing, Three Times.  There’s a scene where Billie is being trained by her father and she has to do the splits while suspended from ropes.  It’s sort of awkward.  And her father coaches her to rise up out of the splits, which she sort of manages a little.  Then she has to do it again.  And then again.  I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be sexy (it isn’t), or if it’s just trying to show how strong she is, in which case, why not have her do it five or six times, or fifty!  Do a sexy pushup!  Ungghhh.  Good, do another!  Ungghhh.  Thaddagirl, now another!  Unghhhh.  It’s riveting.

3.  Really Fragile Characters.  Early in this cinema adventure, a girl pursued by guys with nets over their heads stumbles over a mild incline.   We’ve all seen it all before in horror movies: the imperiled girl is chased, trips over her nonexistent dick, and then has to get up disheveled and now in even more immediate danger.  But in Awaken the girl trips, falls, and then, in some horrific and marvelously improbable bout of unlucky physics, ends up breaking all of her bones at once.  It’s like if you stubbed your toe and your foot fell off. 

4.  The Physics, part 2.  There’s a Mexican standoff scene in which everyone has their pistols drawn and aimed at one another.  It’s tense.  Or it would be if we hadn’t given up on the film by this point.  And then something goes wrong—someone fires!  And then they all shoot!  And they, unbelievably, all miss!  

5.  The Life Aquatic. There’s this “raft” that the survivors build, complete with its own montage sequence. 

6.  The Death of a Fine Career.  Hey, there’s Daryl Hannah, dressed for a funeral, with a teddy bear!

7.  A Boring Thing, Three Times, A Second Time.  This tedious scene in which three characters sneak by an open window with a bad guy listening to a radio inside. 

How will they get past?

The bad guy is playing solitaire.  It's what you do when you don't have anything to do.  

First guy is going for it!  Creep softly little creeper.

Shot of bad guy inside: he didn't hear him!  What a relief.
 Second guy goes for it.

Whew, he didn’t hear him either!  Wow, how are they doing this?

Perhaps he doesn't hear them because the window they are sneaking past is clearly not the window he is sitting in front of.

But still, hang on to your island bananas people, we have one more to go.  This time it’s Billie’s turn, and we just know that she’s going to step on a twig or something.  Here she goes. 

She’s made it!  Whoa.  That was intense.  I’m glad that they didn’t, like, walk on the other side of the hut. 

8.  The Vanishing of a Checkered Career.  Hey, there’s Edward Furlong, who plays a creepball character who gets a bunch of lines and then, unceremoniously, mysteriously disappears from the film a half hour in.  He’s just not there anymore, and no one misses him.  He’s a metaphor for his own career! 

9. Not Quite Sterile Operating Conditions.  Look, the organ harvesting operation has like its own military, its own island, and high-end clients, but they need to invest in some basic hygiene awareness.  Like don't keep your beer with your organs.

That's opened Tecate, slightly peeled, in your organ refrigerator.  Who drinks old, opened, Tecate?!  You don't do it.  If instead of drinking it, you just spent the whole evening picking around the label, then just pour it out.  Because, pro tip:  Tecate won't get better no matter how long you let it sit, open, in your organ fridge.  When you open it the first time, that's the best it ever tastes.  Hard to believe, but true.  

10.  Their Surgical Equipment:

From left to right: needlenose pliers, a carabiner, an exacto knife, a beer bottle opener, wire cutters, something that looks like a can opener, a pry bar (that's the blue thing), and a monkey wrench.  A monkey wrench!  For those tough, hard to reach, gall bladders.
This list could go on and on.  But I’ve got to say something about Natalie Burn.  Natalie BURN! 
Natalie Burn is the lead actress.  She’s looks awfully serious most of the time.  But she does pretty well in the somewhat clunky martial arts scenes.  Why?  Because she is a product of the Bolshoi ballet!  Isn’t that something?

Who had the inspired idea to cast her in such a role?  Why, there she is again: “Casting Director, Natalie Burn.”  You know what this film needs?  Me!

But if you’re going to cast yourself as the lead in the film, you had better make sure that the script is tasty cakes, so that’s why it’s no surprise to see that one of the writers is none other than, wait for it, Natalie "Feel the" Burn.

You can see where this is headed, so it isn’t a big surprise to see that the producer is also Natalie Burn "this mother down."  I know what you're thinking, this deal is too good to be true: actress, casting director, writer, producer, all wrapped up in one ballet-dancer turned Hollywood movie guru.  But wait, there’s more . . .

That more is the original song, “Awaken,” that plays over the final credits.  How can I explain it?  It sucks, but it sucks in a particularly over-produced, trenchant, earnest, way.  It sounds like misplaced idealism with money to throw at its dreams.  It sounds like a real housewife recording her first big hit in a studio her husband built for her because “she sounds good singing in church.”  It sounds like overly serious karaoke.  And it perfectly captures the essence of film, that special, hopeful vacuity at the heart of a big, personal, labor-of-love.  Are you surprised that the song’s sweet warbling monotones are those of Natalie "Sick" Burn?

The artful awfulness that is Awaken can only happen when one single person has control over the whole project.  It probably will never gain the notoriety of the “so bad it’s unbelievable” of something like The Room, but it belongs in a similar category.  Awaken isn't quite as unhinged or wacky as The Room, and its story is sort of like the raft that the characters so majestically assemble, jenky but buoyant nevertheless.  Yet it goes beyond being simply ineffective.  It's gloriously painful, inestimably tedious, fantastically ridiculous, yet completely earnest.  What I’m trying to say here is that there is something about Awaken that you just can’t reproduce, some je ne sais quoi that isn’t quite kitsch and isn’t quite camp.  It’s a special special snowflake. 

Questions for Joe:
1.  How do I get people to see this movie without lying about it? 

JD: You shouldn't get people to see this movie, Paul. I tried to make my wife watch it, twice, and she became very upset. You see, my wife watches movies intently, the way other people play Tetris. She evaluates every piece, and where it fits into the narrative as a whole. But Awaken is nothing but the Z-shaped pieces. It hurt her brain.

So how'd I get her to watch it twice? I put it on while she was working out in the living room, so she had no choice. And that's generally how you get people to watch Awaken. Find a captive audience, put it on!

For instance, you could totally get your students to watch it. They come in to class, expecting to learn. And you put this on! They have to watch! It could be on the final, you know. While it plays, you should stand where they can see both you and the screen. Pretend to be enthralled, rub your chin, furrow your brow, and occasionally mutter things like "Yes, oh yes," "Like Kierkegaard, of course...", and "It's so clear. So clear." Then, burst out with laughter at any point! Look around, make eye contact with someone who didn't also laugh, flash a look of confused disappointment, and write something down. They'll watch the crap out of Awaken after that. They'll really pay attention. Man, I wish I were a professor.
2.  What was YOUR favorite moment of the film that we covered?  When the bad guy character jumps out of cover during the firefight to reload his gun?  When Daryl Hannah makes the stuffed monkey clap?  When Billie dresses her sister's gunshot wound and then blows on it as if it were an ouchey?

JD: Well, there's the scene where Quentin asks Billie how she wound up on the island, and she flashes back to an elaborately choreographed fist fight. And you think to yourself, "Holy cow, she's really going into detail here. How must she be relating this? She's probably all like 'I executed a head turn, RISING BLOCK, wrist grab to half-nelson, OFF HAND DOWN BLOCK, somersault, POSE, front kick to groin...'. But then the scene cuts to the present, and you realize she's just been sitting there silently the whole time. And then she says "Went out for a drink, wound up here." 

3.  What happened to Edward Furlong’s character?

JD: Meth. Oh, his character? Still meth.
4.  According to IMDB, this film has won a number of awards, taking the best feature prize at several film festivals.   Please explain.

JD: I love your 'Please explain'. Is there a certification something needs to be a film festival? Is Natalie Burn herself a film festival? Is Daryl Hannah a Chinese gangster? Surgical monkey wrench? Has our mistake, in trying to communicate about this movie, been a fundamental misunderstanding of meaning?

5.  What can’t Natalie Burn do?

JD: Well, everyone knows she can't drink a Tecate without obsessively peeling the label. And she's a HORRIBLE kidney surgeon, failing out of the Bolshoi's medical school. Good god, Natalie Burn WAS the surgeon Mao should have shot! Yes, oh yes. It's just like Kierkegaard. It's so clear. So clear. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!

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