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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Cabining (2013)

Director: Steve Kopera
Stars: Mike Kopera, Bo Keister, Angela Relucio, Melissa Mars, Luce Rains, Richard Riehle, Mark Rademacher and Chuck Saale

I can't help but admire the cojones of Mike Kopera, both for what he tried to do with this film and for what he actually did. What he did was write, with a writing partner, a horror picture in which he stars as a writer, who writes, with a writing partner, a horror picture which is clearly awful. It's torn apart by their community college screenwriting group, who reflect its title, Bloody Hell, in their reaction to the script. 'I think I wrote this screenplay in eighth grade,' one suggests. It's 'total derivative trash,' adds another. 'We've seen this a million times,' one says and he may not be exaggerating. It's not hard to believe them because we're given a brief imagining of what it might look like, while Todd and Bruce write a scene for class. 'Bethany and her friends,' they begin, 'are in a cabin in the woods playing strip poker...' You can see how awful it'll be, whether they leave in a gratuitous boob shot or not. 'It would never sell unless your uncle produces it,' one student states, which is precisely what they're aiming at.

Todd, Kopera's character, and Bruce, played by Bo Keister, who had a brief role in House of Good and Evil, aren't particularly promising. They're both unemployed, for a start, with nothing to cover the long overdue rent. All they have is dedication. Well, Todd has dedication; he's someone who wants to write, dearly, while the laid back Bruce is someone who wants to have written. He's having far too much fun not worrying about anything to actually do something. Somehow he persuades Todd that they should use what little cash they have left to book some time at an artist colony called Shangri-La, where they can polish off a script good enough for Todd's uncle to finance. Sarge, played by Richard Riehle, last seen in Lonely Boy and FDR: American Badass, wants to finance his picture but another nephew wants to record an album. Their script has to be better than Bloody Hell, he tells them, and so off they waltz to Shangri-La to 'surround themselves with beauty'. It gets even worse than you're expecting.
There's a lot here about the process of writing, enough so that we can't help but watch it with Kopera as much in mind as the character he's playing. As we watch Todd find a way to turn out pages, we also watch Kopera turn out Todd and the pages from which he develops. At least we're as involved in the process as Bruce, who's mind translates 'artist colony' into 'party' the moment he arrives. 'I wrote ten pages today,' he announces at one point. 'Well, Todd wrote them but I was in the room.' The catch to all this is that we're never quite sure exactly what Kopera was trying to write. While he clearly wrote a film about writing a film, that isn't all he did. The movie in the movie is a horror movie and reality at Shangri-La starts to mimic that, which only helps the creative juices to flow all the more. However, the events that unfold are phrased less like a horror movie would phrase them and more like a whodunit would, but without much suspense. Yet the whole thing, not just Bruce, is obviously a comedy.

It's as a comedy that it succeeds best. Todd is uptight and nervous, while Bruce is so constantly laid back that he's practically lying down; the strong contrast between these writing partners is played up early and often. Bruce also gets the majority of the memorable lines, while long suffering Todd plays straight man. While there's some drama to their actions, the comedic writing and the delivery of the actors easily trumps it. The other artists at Shangri-La serve mostly as props for them to bounce off. The retreat is run by Monroe, a lounge Shatner with an Adam West voice, and his personal assistant, Lacey. Lacey is roughly what you'd expect but Monroe is a real treat of a character for an actor with surprisingly few credits to his name; Mark Rademacher is a suave joy in the part, playing it as if he's perpetually two glasses into many. He's an engaging and infectious host and he deserved a bigger part to play in proceedings.

There are four other guests. Bruce immediately hones in on Celeste, a multimedia artist from France currently working in clay, but she's more interested in Larson, a singer/songwriter who never gets a musical number. Todd doesn't try to schmooze, but Mindy hones in on him. She's a serious humorist working on a collection of short stories; their collaboration soon become the focus of the story as the non-productive Bruce moves further and further into comic relief territory. Rounding out the four is a wild bearded dude called Jasper, all dressed in cat burglar black. He's a great deal older than any of his fellow guests and he doesn't associate with anyone, just flits around and appears out of nowhere whenever it's least expected. Monroe describes him as a 'genius in found art,' but he's clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic and we just know that bad things are going to start happening the first moment we see him. He's like an older version of Dick Miller's character in A Bucket of Blood.
And, of course, it's no surprise to find that bad things absolutely start happening. In the morning, it's Lacey who has vanished. They eventually find her down on the beach, impaled on a tree stump, dead as a doornail. What's important here is that this tragedy comes with a surprising byproduct. It's Bruce who sees it as opportunity, helping with the realism that their teacher suggested they find, but Todd is the one who starts churning out pages, possibly good ones at that. At this point, we're becoming more than a little confused as to what we're actually watching, but we are engaged and smiling while we're doing it. Mike Kopera and David Silverman couldn't seem to make up their mind about whether they wanted to make a slasher or a whodunit, a drama or a comedy, so they take a little from each of the above to throw into a blender and come up with something we can't help but attempt to deconstruct. Is this all a dream? A lesson? A metaphor? A gag? How about a trick like April Fool's Day?

To find out, you'll need to watch The Cabining yourself, but the one thing that Kopera's brother Steve, who directed the picture, couldn't get into their genre bending movie was suspense. I enjoyed all the banter and was genuinely interested in what they were trying to do, but I didn't once get caught up in the gradual progression of chaos that descends upon Shangri-La to prompt the artists in residence to react vaguely and spur Todd into writing a decent script. It often felt rather like an episode of Scooby-Doo, merely with better jokes and less sandwiches, one written by Stephen King during another bout of writer's block, where he ends up turning out a story about turning out a story with a mild veneer of horror to make it viable to stay on the regular shelf in the bookstore. All of this is my verbose way of suggesting that it's the sort of film that's fun to watch while you're more focused on figuring out why it's fun to watch and less about what's actually going to happen.

What stands out in hindsight is the script, but I'm still trying to figure out whether it's a good one or not and I don't believe I'll get there until I can fathom exactly what the Koperas aimed to accomplish with what looks like their first feature. Certainly I loved the dialogue, which is often comedy gold. I'm fond of their characters too, which are easy for the actors to have fun with, easy for us to delineate and perfect to throw into a closed environment with an escalating set of murders. Watching is rather like sitting back at a murder mystery dinner and enjoying the show. I liked the way that it was half a script and half the way a script comes together. What I'm less sure about is the lack of enough focus on one tone to make it dominant. I'd suggest it's a comedy above all but not enough so to stop us watching it as other genres as we go. Maybe we should get tipsy like Monroe and enjoy the ambience, or maybe we should see what Kopera's screenwriting group has to say about the finished product.

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