Sunday, May 18, 2008

GRIZZLY PARK (2008) d. Tom Skull

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The concept of Man vs. Nature has long been a fathomless source for novels, films and art and despite the inexorable expansion of technology, the image of humankind battling the forces of the wilderness continues to be potent. Perhaps, as the grasp of science becomes tighter upon man and his dependence on gadgetry becomes greater, our ability to deal with animals in the wild, one on one, becomes that much more pathetic. Since man has little natural weaponry at his disposal when you take away his toys and put him out in the forest, it is likely that the idea of defending oneself against lions and tigers and bears, Oh My, continues to be such a deep well from which to draw. There has been a resurgence of “maneater” type films over the last few years, most of them aping the horror sub-genre that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s and most not really being up to the task. GRIZZLY PARK works hard to be a quality addition to that long and illustrious line of films and has a degree of success in the process.

GRIZZLY PARK is the story of eight youthful miscreants who receive public service assignments for their misdemeanor crimes. Sent out to a remote California park in mid-autumn, they are to pick up trash, camp, hike, and soul search for a week under the guidance of the Department of Corrections and the Park Service. Unrepentant attitudes, disrespectful actions and personal disaffection steadily grow in the youngsters even as they struggle against the resistless tide of challenges that nature begins to throw at them. Before long, mischievous malefactors are running for their lives as the minions of Mother Earth teach them a lesson in reverence.

Like most independent film efforts, there is usually a lack of funds that dictates the levels of achievement a movie can attain when it comes to the story, the camera work, the acting, the music and the final outcome. Like its much older predecessor, THE FOREST (1981), GRIZZLY PARK may not have started with much cash, but some good choices help to make this an effective if not outstanding film. One of the best elements of GRIZZLY PARK is the outdoor photography, which could have been used in any National Geographic or Animal Planet feature. Filmed on location in Tennessee and Virginia state parks, the autumnally tinted hues of the wistfully rugged landscape, shot with care and an overarching respect for nature, are simply incredible. Even if you don’t like horror films, an overpowering pull to walk the scarlet-carpeted glades of the Appalachians in October will overwhelm any viewer after a few vistas slide across the screen. There is no shakey-cam stupidity at any time in this film and the few scenes that are set at night are well lit and easy to comprehend. In today’s world of miserable music video-inspired film drek, the directors of photography and the camera men of GRIZZLY PARK must be lauded profusely. It was a pleasure to sit down and watch a movie that really looked good.

The story of GRIZZLY PARK is not as strong as the photography and it does have its problems, but it does have its strengths too. The general premise of taking a group of self-absorbed, spoiled, uncaring, 18-24 year old pricks out in the forest on work-detail and letting them see and deal with something bigger, better, older and wiser than themselves is always and will always be marvelous. It reminded me strongly of the moment in ROOTS when Maya Angelou’s character castigates Levar Burton by saying, “Do you know that you do not KNOW everything, can not DO everything and that Allah is still greater than yourself?” These human turds get their own variety of that speech delivered by skunks, wolves, bears and camp fires as each part in the drama unfolds. Taking a page from THE BREAKFAST CLUB, as the journey deeper into the forest continues, we reach inside the kids and see why they are there and whether they are learning anything from their challenge. Unfortunately, this is where the story has its faults. The entire point of THE BREAKFAST CLUB was to explore the inner workings of the teens and to get them to interact. In GRIZZLY PARK, the stories of the troublemakers must split time with the story of the twin terrors of a slasher on the loose and the killer grizzly stalking the trails. Add to that already overloaded plate, the reality of trying to tell the story of eight pains-in-the-asses and a forest service ranger who really has the starring role and you’ve got a landscape painting with a few too many trees and not enough water and sky. In one of the interview segments in the extras menu, one of the cast members refers to the characters as being deep. If only that were really the case, GRIZZLY PARK might have been an even better film. Sadly, in a 90 minute film with so many different tales to tell, none of the characters were deep enough, nor was their interplay complex enough to really develop conflict as intense as it needed to be during the dramatic points of the story.

What does work in this story, and I’m not sure how this turned out so, is that the first third of the film depends on a mix of the slasher elements and blends it with the introduction to the scoundrels. As the trek gets underway, gentle undertones of humor are woven in even as the pace of the story remains patient and only selected dollops of action are interspersed with the beautiful landscape imagery. Over the last third of the film, the pace of the film intensifies very rapidly even as the focus shifts to more of a gory horror comedy with a character twist. Somehow, this works, for I was not bored by the gentle pace of the first two-thirds of the film and I got some really good laughs out of the demise of the jerks in the end. One of the unanticipated traits of the screenplay was that some of the death scenes were surprisingly restrained, while others were intensely graphic, and this was randomly mixed in the last acts. The twists at the end, while not terribly well hidden were enjoyable none-the-less and since they were well tied to foreshadowing in the first third of the film, they created a degree of symmetry. One quality of human nature that never seems to alter is our need for order in our lives and our tales.

Much like THE FOREST (1981), GRIZZLY PARK is also dependent on a mix of mostly very inexperienced and untried actors for its success. As with any independent film where the cast is primarily rookies, there is some woodenness at times and some overacting too, but the efforts are sincere and some of the gaffs and resultant groans from the audience may be as much the fault of an inexperienced director. Despite the fact that I still don’t like vile characters being created for the sole purpose of knocking them down like ducks in a shooting gallery, in this case it was somewhat successful. Possibly, this is was because Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower) and Bebe (Emily Foxler) weren’t unlikable pustules. Their pleasantly simple but sweet characters are like life preservers that one can hold onto as the waves of unpleasantness wash over the viewers from all the other misery-machines. Mr. Morshower is the one veteran in a starring role and he plays the part of the board stiff and ruler straight park ranger to perfection. Rance Howard makes a very brief appearance, but it is nice to see a familiar face there as well. Emily Foxler steals the show with her impressive performance as the bubble-headed and beautifully busty Bebe. Between her earnestness, her doe eyes and innocent giggles, and her alluring figure decked out in all manner of attention-grabbing garments, Miss Foxler teams with Glenn Morshower to give the best performances of the film. Shedrack Anderson (Ty) and Jelynn Rodriguez (KiKi) also put in unexpectedly good efforts as thoroughly distasteful characters, and had the story just focused on them, Bebe and possibly one other youngster, perhaps the end product wouldn’t have felt so diluted.

GRIZZLY PARK has a surprising extras menu that includes three short interview/behind the scenes segments, “What is Grizzly Park”, “Filming a Real Bear” and “You Reap What You Sow”. The first featurette looks at the film premise, the second examines the use of real animals in the filming and the third analyzes the underlying theme. While each of these featurettes is under three minutes, any interviews with the cast and crew are always a satisfying excursion. In all three, you get to hear their thoughts, feelings and experiences and see moments on the set and during the filming. There is a very short behind the scenes clip called “Brody Stand In”, where one of the few scenes with a man in a bear suit in provided. Most of the rest of the grizzly scenes were shot with Brody, a live, 1300 pound ursine handled by Jeff Watson, who also played “Butch”. There is an audio commentary with director/writer Tom Skull and producer Belle Avery. Finally there is the film trailer and a set of Allumination Filmworks preview trailers. Like Allumination’s offering, THE OTHER SIDE, that I previously reviewed, part of my good will towards GRIZZLY PARK is seeing the effort put forth to include a few worthwhile extras. It is never a bad idea and always engenders a little warmth.

GRIZZLY PARK is not a laugh ride, neither is it a thrill-a-minute, nor is it a blood tide that washes everything away in torrents of crimson. It is a film that tries very hard to succeed with some excellent photography, a story that has the right idea and a mostly young cast of “up and comers” who give it the “old college try”. It would be interesting to see what a few more years of experience, a little more money just as wisely spent and some stronger screenwriting efforts could kindle. When I can say that I don’t hate a film and can find some praiseworthy components, that is almost remarkable. Just as the scalawags in GRIZZLY PARK get their “just desserts”, I hope that the film makers of this enjoyable little flick get the chance to do something like this again and take it to another level of quality.

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