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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - The Pyramid

Directed by: Gregory Levasseur

Produced by: Alexandre Aja
Mark Canton
Chady Eli Mattar
Scott C. Miller

Screenplay by: Daniel Meersand
Nick Simon

Starring: Ashley Hinshaw
Denis O'Hare
James Buckley
Daniel Amerman

Music by: Nima Fakhara

Cinematography by: The Cast

Editing by: Scott C. Silver

Studio(s): Silvatar Media
Fox International Productions

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox

Release date(s): December 5, 2014 (United States and United Kingdom)

Running time: 89 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $11, 679, 393

Well, because I am a man who refuses to shed his irksome habits, even in light of current events (something about it being 'that time of year' again, or something or other...), whether or not you want it, you're going to get it! The Thin White Dude is still casting his critical gaze over the film world, and will be bringing his reviews to you during this period. Despite being a notorious grouch who develops a migraine at the slightest aural detection in the sound-waves of a hideously bad Christmas song, I went to see It's A Wonderful Life for the first time with my folks at the Queens Film Theatre this week, who have started to make it an annual treat for themselves. Incidentally, has it become Christmas become kitsch all of a sudden, because I saw a lot of hipsters in their skinny jeans with their faux-facial hair wearing ridiculous seasonal sweaters? Anywho, I enjoyed the film immensely, and I think that it is indicative of a film's power that even a grump like me can feel inspired by James Stewart's George Bailey running around Bedford Falls bellowing "Merry Christmas" at everyone, yes, even that crabid old man Potter. Following this review, I'll be doing one's on Birdman, one of the big players in the upcoming awards season, The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam's latest film, and Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer's critically-acclaimed art film fronted by Scarlett Johansson. There'll be many more in coming weeks/months as well, so, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is The Pyramid, a horror movie directed by Gregory Levasseur, regular collaborator in various guises (screenwriter, art director, second unit director, producer) of Alexandre Aja, who burst onto the international scene way back in 2004/2005 with his 2003 film (made in their home country of France) High Tension, released here in the United Kingdom as Switchblade Romance. Although not up to the high standards of Pascal Laugier's Martyrs, a masterful film which somehow successfully marries torture porn and the philosophical sensibilities of an Ingmar Bergman movie, Aja's Switchblade Romance is still a great film, and alongside Laugier's picture, 2007's Inside and Xavier Gens' Fronteir(s) are key texts of the New French Extremity film movement. Many of these filmmakers have since went on to make film's in America of a varying quality. Laugier has made one film since Martyrs, 2012's The Tall Man, which got a mixed reception at best, while Gens, after the notorious Hitman (a project from which he was infamously given the boot from 20th Century Fox during post-production due to them not liking his cut), has been labouring to get films made, only putting out one feature and a short on The ABC's Of Death project over the past seven years. Aja, on the other hand, has flourished since coming to america, who with filmmaking partner-in-crime Levasseur and Franck Khalfoun, have slowly, but surely, started up a successful franchise of low-budget horror movies. The partnership of the three produced last year's Maniac which, although neither financially or critically successful, I thought to be an audacious, rather daring film with imaginative cinematography and an excellent lead performance from Elijah Wood. In my opinion, it was last year's best horror movie. So, although I had heard that this film here, The Pyramid, had tanked at the US box-office and was an absolute stinker, I had hopes that I would be convinced otherwise, given my fondness for genre films. Plot goes in this found footage film that a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Miles Holden (Denis O'Hare) and his daughter Dr. Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw), are on the cusp of uncovering a great pyramid after years of work on a site under the Egyptian desert when they are forced to shut it down. Not wanting to go home without anything for the troubles, they send in a robot, who short-circuits inside, and making their way in to recover this expensive piece of equipment, the group get trapped inside, where all manner of nasty things may or may not happen to them. Capiche?

So, to start with the good about the film, of which, it must be said from the off, there isn't much to say about it in terms of positives, that although this isn't the movie to do it justice, this is a good central concept and the hook is enough to garner at least initial interest. The history of Ancient Egypt is a source which has an absolute breadth of material as a prospect for filmmakers to pilfer through. Almost as a default it also brings an interesting presence and mysterious atmosphere which has a lot of potential to bring to fruition a decent picture. Also, with Levasseur and Aja involved, genre specialists who have a proven track record of delivering solid b-movie schlock, they bring to a film largely bereft of ideas some moments which give a hint at the better work that this could have been. Much of the film seems built around a little bit of admittedly gnarly material, such as a nasty bit of impalement and a well-shot (the only well-shot) race against time in the vein of a trap involving a passageway filling up with sand. To my memory, both of these came along in the course of two or three minutes screen-time, delivering an effective wham-bam combination that stands out as the film's highlight. Finally, in the lead role, you've got Ashley Hinshaw, an attractive young model and actress you can tell from the off (with obligatory hint-hint baring of flesh near the beginning of the film), who although clearly out of place in her role as a shoddily-written archaeologist, is the film's designated scream-queen and is the film's stand-out. It's nothing special, being cast after all for what I presume is on the basis of her looks, and perhaps a better movie might have done her a service, but I think that she has potential as a performer and she at least engaged me on that base level.

In the defence of The Pyramid, while it is a movie full of genre movie conventions and is absolute twaddle, it makes no bones to be anything more than it is. I think for a movie to be truly disastrous, there has be a certain degree of passion involved to make it particularly hideous, or efforts to make it seem something that it is not. On this level at least, it delivers, but that still doesn't change the fact that this is one of the worst films of 2014. As a whole, everything about the film's production suggests an abundance of laziness. I went to see this with my buddy over and Danland Movies speculated over how long Fox must have been holding this movie over. They missed the Halloween market this year, which was admittedly full with pictures such as Ouija, Conjuring-spinoff Annabelle and the biggest success story of recent horror cinema, The Babadook, but they also didn't push it out beforehand in the summer when other genre-fare such as The Purge: Anarchy came out. Something tells me that the movie was done and dusted a good while ago, and that they just had this picture on their hands which they knew was rubbish which they'd pumped an $11 million budget into an thought "well, we've gotta do something with this." Aside from the Ancient Egypt concept, the other big 'idea' used in this is the found-footage concept, which has been tried and tested and done to death in recent years, to effectiveness with Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield, Trollhunter and Chronicle, and ad nausea in Project X and The Devil Inside, the latter being one of the worst horror films of recent years. While this isn't quite as bad as that particular nadir, it brings absolutely nothing new to the table. As I mentioned, the film seems written around some nasty death scenes, and that material is of the most lacklustre, patched-together material that could have been stitched together by even the least acquainted of filmgoers. All of this stuff, which provoked at most a reaction amounting to a disdainful scoff or guffaw of disbelief, is the kind of thing that they were making fun of in the sharply ironic wit of Kevin Williamson's script for Wes Craven's Scream. Let us not forget that although Scream was playing around with genre conventions of 1970s/1980s horror cinema, Scream itself is pushing twenty years old, and it really is not enough for today's savvy filmgoers to still be subjected to the same redundant scenarios which lead to stagey dialogue such as "I'll be right back." Lines like this were like red flags decades ago, and it is inexcusable for us to be conversing with the picture saying "behind you" like Jamie Kennedy's Randy in 2014. The ending is also one of those cheap 'ending that isn't an endings' which do nothing to tie up the picture, instead giving only a cheap shock which is as inconclusive as the rest of the film is redundant. Also, I understand that the film is set inside a claustrophobic, deep, dark pyramid, but didn't someone realise that the poor lighting which makes much of the action damn near invisible to the viewer does not equate to atmosphere? I'm always one for defending potentially troublesome aesthetic decisions. A lot of people groaned about not being able to hear dialogue in Interstellar, but there was a purpose, done appropriately, for that choice of sound design/mixing. Here, the only reason the film seems to be lit this way is to hide the fact that there is nothing of interest happening onscreen, and more interestingly, is that for a film which is so visually opaque, it's transparently clear to see that they can't even succeed in hiding this fact! While I earlier gave some degree of praise to Ashley Hinshaw (though praising someone on the basis of their looks probably says as much about me as the film itself), the rest of the cast are deplorable. Admittedly, they're working with less than capable material (father archaeologist complains about nasty "mosquito" bite on neck after fungal gas is released from pyramid near start of film; gee, I wonder does that become a plot point later on?), but by golly do they reek it up. Cameraman Fitzie, probably intended to be the proverbial 'loveable stumblebum,' played by James Buckely, ends up being an annoying little prat whose guilt at his perpetual stupidity does nothing to increase our sympathies, especially when he gets his much-expected 'hero' moment of redemption. I have to feel for the actors, I mean, there is a character whose entire backstory we find out through horrendous pieces of expository dialogue such as "I've done rock climbing all my life" and that she is a documentary filmmaker about halfway through the film. Finally, my last bit of negative criticism has to be directed at Levasseur and Aja. This is a partnership which, even in some of their lesser projects, has at least produced some mildly interesting works, and at it's peak some of the better horror/genre films of recent years. To me, while it is perhaps excusable for filmmakers to have the odd misstep, there's no good reason why people who can come up with fine work such as Switchblade Romance and Maniac are putting out rubbish like this.

Like I said at the beginning of the last paragraph, The Pyramid cannot be considered as something truly disastrous, for there is not enough passion from anyone involved to elevate it above and beyond what it is or bring it down to the depths of a project like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trying to be something it's not. Even still, it still remains that this is one of the worst films of 2014. There is so much potential with the breath of Ancient Egyptian history in this concept, a couple of the traps/deaths are well-executed, and I do think that Ashley Hinshaw probably has a better movie in her. It reminds of how I saw Alexandra Daddario last year in the poor Texas Chainsaw reboot, and how she has since went on to star in True Detective and is in the upcoming San Andreas blockbuster alongside Dwayne Johnson. Hopefully the same happens for Hinshaw, because it would be a shame for anyone to have this as the most notable thing on their CV. I stand by everything I have said in the above paragraph about the film, because the prevailing attitude to most of the crew seems to be an abundance of laziness. They all knew that they had a real stinker on their hands, and thought "well, we've got to do something with it." Personally, I would have preferred that they had either done nothing with it and left it unreleased, or went completely off the wall with it during post-production. If I was looking at this movie as an editor in post, I would've just went "fuck it" and tried to do something along the lines of Luis Bunuel, and just made an indecipherable puzzle-box. Forget what it actually has to say, provoke people into an argument. Hide the fact that it's such a terrible film. I was pontificating on opacity and transparency earlier, Levasseur and Aja can't even manage that. I'd be shocked if they or an audience member could make a strong debate as to why and how they enjoyed this film.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 2.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Miffed (work are being 'super-super awesome!')

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