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High expectations yield mixed results in ‘V/H/S,’ ‘A Separation’

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Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 7:30 am

It’s September, so as far as I’m concerned we are now in the midst of the holiday season. (Yes, I start celebrating a tad earlier than most, and I’m having to resist the urge to bust out the Christmas music before November.) For me, the first leg of this four-month celebration involves the viewing of as many horror movies as humanly possible — a valid goal year-round, to be sure, but particularly pertinent as we approach Halloween.

I thought I was going to have a humdinger of a recommendation for fellow horror hounds with “V/H/S,” the emerging cult favorite that caused quite a hullabaloo on the festival circuit and quickly built a reputation as a must-see for genre fans. I’d been looking forward to it for months and finally got the chance to see it for myself since it became available on cable (it’s also set to roll out into theaters in limited release closer to Halloween). Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I was so disappointed with a movie that I was so sure was going to be a winner.

But I don’t like to fixate on the negative, so we’ll also look at a recent DVD release that would have made my 2011 top 10 list had I caught its theatrical run. Next week we begrudgingly return to the multiplex, possibly with catch-up reviews of “ParaNorman” and/or “Lawless,” followed by God knows what (going’s gonna be rough for the next few weeks as we head into the fall movie season).

“V/H/S”

I’m usually pretty good at judging a book by its cover — a skill that has served me particularly well as a horror buff, considering the mind-boggling number of completely worthless fright flicks that flood the market every year. And I was dead-certain that “V/H/S,” a found-footage horror anthology assembled by some of the biggest names in independent horror (including Ti West and Adam Wingard), would be the genre gem of the year. With reports of walk-outs and faintings coming from the festival circuit, it was hard not too get revved up for this indie phenom that got everybody talking and apparently left fans grinning ear to ear.

But instead of a deliciously disturbing horror flick, I received a most unwelcome lesson in the dangers of heightened expectations. See, “V/H/S” isn’t merely disappointing — that I could deal with. No, this is as aggressively bad a horror film as you’re likely to see: poorly constructed, atrociously acted, badly written, often incoherent and almost always boring. It’s not even bad in the “good,” cheesy sense — this is a flat-out snoozer, so incompetent in every way that I can’t imagine how even the most undiscriminating horror fan could find worth in it.

The anthology is constructed around a frame story involving a group of trouble-making thugs who spend their time videotaping themselves harassing people and generally being morons (apparently this stuff is big money on the Internet?). They are hired by an unidentified party to travel to an abandoned house and retrieve a video cassette, but when they arrive they are started to find a dead body surrounded by hundreds of VHS tapes. Not knowing which one they’re supposed to nab, they start watching random tapes — troublingly ambiguous recordings documenting all manner of paranormal weirdness. The first and best of the found-footage tales involves a trio of frat boys who pick up “the wrong girl” at bar and discover they’re not the only ones with ravenous sexual appetites. Other stories involve a couple’s ill-fated road trip, a woods-dwelling demonic entity, and a group of Halloween party-crashers who stumble upon an exorcism. Another is presented as a series of Skype conversations between a college student and her boyfriend, but the payoff doesn’t live up to the set-up.

I will concede that “V/H/S” is bold in its willingness to leave major questions unanswered, leaving it up to the viewer to hypothesize about the strange goings-on depicted in the tapes, and how they were collected. The various writers and directors also include nods to relatively obscure paranormal/folklore tropes, and as much as such details are appreciated, details matter little when your work displays no meaningful storytelling talent.

“A Separation”

When I drafted my top 10 list at the end of last year, the Iranian film “A Separation” topped my ranking of the most promising movies that I missed when they were in theaters. It enjoyed near-unanimous international acclaim, with Roger Ebert putting it at the top of his year-end list and many noted critics predicting that the film will still be celebrated and studied 50 years from now. The kudos smacked of hyperbole, but definitely got my attention.

Turns out the film actually is as good as all that. This is not so much a review as it is a simple recommendation, because the intricacies of such a film are far too vast to delve into in the space allotted here. Suffice it to say that the story involves a husband and wife (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami, both in award-worthy performances) who are separating due to her insistence on getting herself and her daughter out of the increasingly oppressive country, and his unwillingness to abandon his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father.

She decides to leave alone, which means that somebody must be hired to care for the old man while the husband is at work. He settles on a subservient, deeply devout woman (Sareh Bayat, in another award-worthy turn) whose devotion to her faith immediately proves to be a hindrance to her daily duties. One fateful day, the husband comes home to find his father locked in the bedroom, his hands tied to the bed, and the caretaker gone. She eventually returns, claiming she went on an emergency errand, and a confrontation ensues.

To say anything more about the plot would be a disservice, as it unfolds with the narrative flow and attention to detail usually only found in a great novel. The film explores issues of faith, guilt, judicial prudence and familial obligation with care and precision, and writer/director Asghar Farhadi weaves these daunting thematic strands together to form an endlessly compelling, cohesive examination of the difficulties of modern life. It’s the kind of film that leaves you feeling humbled, and deeply appreciative of a filmmaker who can say so much so simply.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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