Film Maudit 2.0: "Nina of the Woods," "Rotten Ears," and "Night of the Rumpus"

A relationship drama is sandwiched between a horror film whose ambitions miraculously work and another that fails on every step. 

Nina Noon (Megan Hensley) is an aspiring actress who joins the crew of a supernatural documentary show. Her audition reminds that of Mia's from La La Land, but writer-director Charlie Griak confirms he had penned the scene years before Chazelle's romantic musical. Nina is hired at just the right moment. She is about to give up on acting. Her dreams surrounded in gloom had extended to her darkly lit bedroom. She is literally saved by a call. 

The documentary team consisting of Jeremy (Daniel Bielinski), Rochelle (Rachael Davies), and Eric (Ricardo Vázquez) sell lies on their show. They do not capture ghosts but make artificial sounds or fabricate gibberish about symbols they come across while shooting. In the woods, when asked if she had heard anything, Jeremy tells Nina to come up with a story instead of replying with "nothing." Similar to a pervy director asking a model to strip in order to "spice things up," Jeremy insists on fake thrills from Nina also to, well, spice things up. It's then not so surprising that Jeremy behaves like an asshole. He is the annoying character we wish to see die first in a horror film. Nina of the Woods explains his douchey behavior in a way that does not lead us to sympathize with him but gives us a sense of understanding. Rochelle and Eric are not so interesting. She acts as the leader while he shoots the area. These two are normal in every way possible. 

Enter an inscrutable guide (Shawn Boyd) to aid in their hunt in the wilderness. He "secures" an area for the group to shoot footage. Horror movies depend on that one stupid decision to turn the trip into a nightmare. It happens here when the crew asks to film outside the "secure region." The guide warns them to stay put until he locates another spot, but when have the horror movie characters taken admonition seriously? Again, not so shocking that Jeremy calls the shots to break the rule. Stupid Jeremy. But soon, none of it will matter. The Blair Witch aesthetic transposes to Tarkovsky's territory (everybody agrees on Stalker). Events are replayed in a spiral, and the group roams around in circles, or do they? With its constant shifts in the narrative, Nina of the Woods is an ambitious film from Griak, one that could have easily spiraled down the hellhole. To know that it is his second film proves that Griak has confidence in him to take risks. It's one thing to take a chance and another to deliver on it successfully. Griak mostly falls in the latter category. For instance, he wields the power of editing over CGI. In one scene, the positions of two characters are interchanged by focussing on the shot of a hand. There is an unneeded black and white footage inserted of men practicing deforestation. The justification given for it is not so strong either. In the end, it is a minuscule mithering because Nina of the Woods is a charmer, and Charlie Griak is a talent I wish to see more of in the future.     

Turns out Griak is not the only director in this festival who is going for multiple tones at once. Piotr Dylewski's Rotten Ears (written by Dylewski along with Magdalena Celmer) aims for the same twists and turns, albeit on a smaller scale for a brief time. 

A young married couple, Janek (Mikolaj Chroboczek) and Marzena (Magdalena Celmer), show up at a secluded house in the country to fix their marriage. The therapist of their choice is odd, to say the least. He is Henryk (Michal Majnicz). As he draws up contracts, you feel this therapy will not go smoothly. He takes out a magic box and asks the couple to submit their cell phones in it. In one of his unconventional sessions, Janek and Marzena are asked to address their problems by boxing. The mental pain is allowed to release physically, giving rise to a breathtakingly tense moment shot with an intense close-up that grips us tight and holds the viewer's breath. 

The therapy is leveled up when another couple is brought in to help with the process - they are Filip (Piotr Choma) and Salome (Paulina Komenda). Within no time, Henryk sets the stage and uses the couples as his actors. At one time, Filip is asked to be a bartender, and Salome is allowed to flirt with Janek, who plays himself. Marzena is told to observe. After the play, Henryk asks all of them to share their observations. Everybody finds Janek to be guilty as he didn't stop Salome from flirting with him. In his defense, it was kindness towards a stranger. If taken in the context of films, one wonders if our actors are enlightened about themselves when they look back at their performances. The scene where Marzena's childhood is reconstructed can easily be traced back to the filmmakers who use the medium to find closure with their past. 

Rotten Ears puts on a thriller vibe when Filip starts to refer to Marzena as her wife. It is stupefying, but the veil is as transparent as air. There is no sweat in guessing the reason behind the sudden change in manners, and Rotten Ears tiptoes on your speculation. One can defend the film by marking it as relationship drama, but that further renders the thriller aspect kaput. I don't want to be too hard on the film, given its admirable efforts in translating a broken marriage into a literal horror (wait till everyone dresses up as a cult), which it definitely is. But you also cannot shake off the feeling that it all remains on the surface. Rotten Ears is another entry in the pile of fighting-couple films, concluding that communication is the key to a successful life. Been there, seen before. However, the question we keep asking ourselves — sooner or later — is: Why should I care for their marriage? There is no solid background, merely vague characteristics. Providing a failed childhood to the girl and attaching music to the boy (he plays guitar) is at best a cliché. It's not just the couple who have a distance between them; it's also the audience who feels distant from them. Only one out of the two gets to fill the void. Your guess is as good as mine.                

The town of Athens, Georgia, gears up for its annual Halloween celebration. There has been a series of unsolved murders, and one of its victims happens to be Alice's friend. Alice is in grief. She is still recovering from her friend's death. The town pins the crime on Scary Jay as he was present near the body at the time of death. He says he hasn't done it. No one believes him. Then there is Willy, who picks up a creature from a nearby creek and starts treating it like a baby. This creature eventually grows up into a fleshy abomination, puts on a bunny suit, and starts killing people. Why is he killing? Who is this creature? What are his motives? Asking such questions is futile because director Jorge Torres-Torres is concerned with mood, not coherence. 

This wouldn't have been an issue, but the mood he selects is so tiresome, so sleepy, so dreary that I struggled to keep an open eye. Torres goes for a low budget look, so we get disarranged voice explanations. The exposure goes too high during the daylight scenes; the violence is cut with extreme closeups. Actors give a stoned performance. The slow-motion walks test your patience. Captions on T-shirts - I love consensual sex - are meant to be funny, but they don't crack you up. There is a lot of staring in Night of The Rumpus. People stare towards nothing in particular. They stare among themselves. The camera stares at the people. We stare at the hollow abyss. Night of the Rumpus just didn't work for me. The only person who seems to enjoy it is Torres himself. I hope he had a good time making it. These types of movies generally end up with a cult following. The fate of Night of the Rumpus depends on its reach and viewership.

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from Movie Reviews https://moviesinmydna.blogspot.com/2021/01/film-maudit-20-nina-of-woods-rotten.html
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