Friday, October 26, 2012

The Cinema File #5: "Julia X" Review

I'm...kind of all over the place with this one.

Chances are you probably haven't heard of Julia X. It's the kind of straight to DVD horror/thriller movie that comes and goes every year, often getting lost in the morass of similar, or at least similar seeming fare, most of which is irredeemably bad and casts a pall over the whole lot. I'm not saying that this movie is somehow the diamond in the rough, or even as surprising in its quality as, say, Dungeons and Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness. In many ways it is as bad as you might expect a movie like this to be, and in others, refreshingly entertaining. I went back and forth many times during the proceedings on whether the good was outweighing the bad, and coming out the other side, I'm still not exactly sure.

The thing that attracted me to this movie, in fact the only reason I decided to sit down and watch it, was the curiosity of the casting, specifically that it starred Kevin Sorbo as a charismatic, Bundy-esque serial killer. Yes, Kull the Conqueror (and yes, that is my go-to Sorbo reference) is using dating sites to lure women to their deaths, branding letters into their flesh before dumping them in the waters of what appears to be the Louisiana bayou, though it's never made clear. The first third of the movie follows him on one of his "dates" as he kidnaps a seemingly hapless woman named Julia, only to have her escape and lead him on an extended chase through various locations, until the tables are turned, and the hunter becomes the hunted, but not in the traditional way you tend to see it go down in this kind of story.

I don't want to give too much away, because this is a movie that really lives or dies by the twist, but the set up as I've described it is my first issue with the film. It seems to want to play around with the genre cliches of serial killer horror movies, but until the end (which I will get to later, I assure you), you never really get a clear idea of what tone they're going for. They're playing it straighter than you would think for an out and out parody, but so much of it is so outlandish and unbelievable that you think they can't be taking this seriously. Looking back on it, it kind of reminds me of an interview I read with Norm MacDonald about his failed sitcom, A Minute With Stan Hooper. He had this cheery family sitcom that was so earnest, without any of the cynicism he was known for, and apparently they had this plan to have his wife murdered half way through the season and turn it into a dark parody of Andy Griffith style cornball, but the show was cancelled before they could pull it off, so it just exists as this lame shitty show. I have a feeling that many will turn this movie off half way through and consign it to the same fate.

A lot of the movie is built around reversals where the killer and Julia trade off the upper hand to each other, but it happens so often, and so often because the other person shifted from being unrealistically resourceful to unrealistically stupid, that I have to think they must be doing this on purpose. And yet, because there is otherwise very little indication of satire at first, I struggle to give the filmmakers that much credit or benefit of the doubt, so for long stretches of the movie I just think they're not telling the story well. The reveal that Julia is not what she appears to be and has more in common with her pursuer than he realizes helps with some of that, at least in terms of explaining how this seemingly innocent and helpless girl keeps holding her own as if she expected all of this to happen, but once we get there, we run into a completely different set of problems.

The second third of the movie reveals more of Julia's past and motivations through a series of flashbacks. This is something that always bothers me in movies like this, not because they use flashbacks as a technique, but because they introduce them half way through. If they had them throughout the movie, that would be one thing, but like narration in movies, you can't just throw that sort of thing in when you don't have a better way to tell the story, and then forget about it when it suits you. This section also introduces Julia's sister, who joins in on their date, and stays around for the rest of the film. Her character and her role in the movie is not bad per se, but I think it takes the story in a less interesting direction than it could have gone if it were just a meeting of two minds, rather than a threesome. The strange, loving, competitive relationship between the two sisters grew on me, even as it made them each make increasingly stupid decisions, but overall, I think it distracts from the main concepts and makes it something different and far less novel than it could have been.

It sounds like I'm really bagging on this movie, but I'm not. While I can't highly recommend it, I also can't deny that I enjoyed myself watching it and don't regret spending the time with it one bit. I think this movie had the opposite problem that I saw with my first review, Branded. Instead of having a lot of ideas and not knowing how to put them together, Julia X has pretty much one really clever and fun idea that probably doesn't justify a whole movie, so they pad it out with a lot of slow build up, some of which is very well done, and some of which is just gratuitous or listless. At the same time, there's very little explanation as to why these characters do what they do, but in the end I don't think it's really all that important, because their roles are all very well established in terms of conventions of the genre that it's fine to leave it to the viewer to fill in the blanks. I actually think any more exposition than what is given would probably have hurt the film. Also, it seems like they are trying to lay in several motifs that don't really pan out. For example, Sorbo's character is constantly listening to The Carpenter's "Close To You," replacing his ear buds whenever they drop almost obsessive compulsively, but this never comes to anything, nor do the creepy mannequins placed in tableaus all over the house that close ups seem to be telling me are important.

One thing I really enjoyed is that in the dialogue, it seemed like a very deliberate attempt not to make the characters overly witty. It's not to say that they are dumb or boring, just that they don't make them sound unrealistically whip smart or talk like people only talk in movies. Sorbo's killer is a brutish misogynist, not an erudite Hannibal Lecter-esque genius, and Julia and her sister are clearly two very troubled people, not feminist caricatures out of a Joss Whedon TV show. However, this trend does not sustain itself, as the climactic fight is replete with the characters rattling off a series of dating site cliches that aren't as funny as the writer of this movie thinks they are. I'm guessing this one conversation was the main thrust of the story from the producer's standpoint, but when it comes, it feels out of place, and reminds me of the old screenwriter's adage, that if a script isn't working, start by cutting out the part you love most. And while much of the action is verbally understated, the violence these people heap upon each other is ridiculous. It's a staple of the genre, the serial killer as unkillable superhero, but here it's taken to such an absurd extreme that, once again, I am unsure whether they meant it to be silly, or just don't understand why this shouldn't be in a serious movie.

That is to say, I was unsure of this, until the last five minutes, whereupon all of my doubt as to whether the humor of this movie was brilliant or unintentional instantly slipped away. I definitely do not want to spoil it, but the coda to this movie, completely unnecessary in terms of the narrative, had me laughing out loud through the entire credits. All I'll say is that it involves one of the weirdest celebrity cameos I've ever seen, and takes place in a bathroom. Again, it's nothing explicit, like they come right out and say this was all a joke and it's okay to laugh, but when you see it, there is no way to think these guys didn't know exactly what they were doing when they were making this. And then, if you still have any doubt, a mid-credit sequence brings out one of the most tried and true horror cliches in such a way as to confirm what kind of movie it was you just watched. I have to say that that is probably the film's main flaw, that the pacing and tone leave you unsure of just what they are trying to accomplish, but now that I know, I'm happy with the result. I've heard Killer Joe has a similarly sudden and shockingly hilarious ending, and I do plan on seeing that movie and reviewing it here at some point (if only for the Chicken scene), but as of now, it's got a high bar to meet with Julia X. Admittedly it's a really long way to go for five minutes of insanity, and considering how much doesn't work, or rather only works in hindsight, I still don't know if I can say it is worth the ride. I'm tentatively inclined to recommend giving it a chance.

Or at the very least, wait for someone to Youtube the shit out of that ending.
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