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Movie Tally 2012: The Tall Man (2012)

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Movie Tally 2012The Tall Man (2012)

Directed by Pascal Laugier

Viewed: 3/12/2012 (@ Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, TX) SXSW

Like many others I eagerly anticipated Pascal Laugier’s new film, The Tall Man, after the tough to watch but brilliantly made Martyrs.  His ability to pair striking visual imagery with thought provoking thematic material instantly put him on the  “to watch” list for any horror fan.  This time in English and with a well-known leading lady, Laugier toys with a pretty great premise and concept but ultimately The Tall Man is a couple drafts away from being a finished product.

Jessica Biel plays Julia Dennings, a nurse holed up in a rundown, sloppy town in the American Northwest.  While the town itself is under a consistent state of rainy doom and gloom tones, even more terrifying events are happening to the residents, specifically the children.  They are disappearing and often times without a trace, the residents have given into the recent urban legend of the titular Tall Man who steals the children leaving grieving and hopeless families behind.  When Julia’s own son is taken by a tall figure clad in black, she sets out to find the fabled kidnapper.

Pascal Laugier once again leaves his fingerprints all over every frame of the film.  He’s able to prove once again that he has a fantastic eye for directing disturbing subject matter in a way that is immensely watchable, but can he do it without the brutal violence depicted in his previous attempt?  The Tall Man is surprisingly tame in the violence area with little more than some blood and bruises.  The gut punch aesthetic and thematic composition of Martyrs is replaced with a lighter, easier to digest tone and unnecessarily complicated over explanations.  The result is a fairly slick looking film backed by a half-baked script with all the tension front-loaded.  I’m not saying the film needed the high level of violence in Martyrs; it’s actually perfectly combined with the purpose and revelations throughout the film. The problem being it’s just not exciting or interesting.

Despite The Tall Man being a dud for a majority of the runtime, Laugier does show he’s capable of directing some breathtaking sustained action sequences such as the long, drawn out chase scene in the middle of the film featuring a determined Biel running her heart out.  Its sections like this that make you feel like the film might actually pull itself out of the rut and become interesting.  Instead of beefing up the pace, the film almost grinds to a halt so that the rest of the runtime can be filled with twists and unnecessary exposition trying to explain why each revelation is important and how it fits into the entire overarching theme being presented.

I’m surprised to say Biel does an excellent job, I’d love to see her take more roles like this that completely go against everything she’s done previously.  She’s determined, strong and more importantly she gives the character of Julia a layer of moral complexity that I’m sure could have easily been lost amongst everything else.  There also some great character work in really small roles from Samantha Ferris, the mother of another missing child, and the always great Stephen McHattie killing it when he can as the local Lieutenant looking into the disappearances.

With a better script and some trimming, The Tall Man could have been another great piece of moral analysis from a director who is clearly capable of so much more than what is shown here.  The interesting concept is there and the attempt at a creative way of telling the story is admirable but unfortunately Laugier tries too hard to explain everything and ends up with a film that just isn’t enough.  I’m still eager to see what he can come up with in the future but The Tall Man is a boring film with peaks of promise and nothing more.

 

    2.0 out of 5

Movie Tally 2012: Beast (2012)

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Movie Tally 2012Beast (2012)

Directed by Christoffer Boe

Viewed: 3/11/2012 (@ Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, TX) SXSW

NOTE: The poster for the film is very NSFW.  If you want to see it you can find it here:  TwitchFilm Article

Being in love can be a bitch sometimes.  The consequences of the relationship not working out can be devastating.  Bruno and Maxine are in love and naturally like all couples eventually they buy a residence with the anticipation of making a family.  Cut to some time later, Maxine isn’t happy and Bruno has let his feral sexual proclivities take over both their lives threatening to consume Maxine.  Like many films of this kind, Maxine begins an affair with a mutual, and also married, friend named Valdemar.  As Maxine finds new love and struggles with leaving Bruno, Bruno suspects and confirms the adultery leading to a ferocious downward spiral into a furious, bestial transformation.  Is he literally transforming or is it metaphorical? Does the title refer to Maxine or Bruno? Or both?

The answer, or lack of, is sort of the point of the film I suppose and there in lies the main problem.  Director Christoffer Boe can’t decide between going with a more fantastical, body horror approach or a more realistic metaphorical route.  “You never give anything. You can’t. You’re a beast. I love you because you’re a beast.”  Bruno says this to Maxine early in the movie seemingly showing the director’s hand to the audience.  It’s clearly metaphorical right?  Well, wait just a minute.  As Bruno slowly uncovers the lies, he begins to play brutal mind games with his wife, her lover, and even himself.  He’s so in love with Maxine and devoted to not losing her that he’s falling apart; his insides are ripping him up.  He states multiple times that he wants nothing more than to have a part of Maxine inside him so that she can feel what he feels.  As this continues, Bruno starts becoming more animal-like, giving to strange sexual acts such as sucking his wife’s blood during sex and even growling.  Bruno hits a breaking point and it’s clear something is growing inside him.

Throughout there are short inserts featuring a vague blood-like substance mixing with a more clear, whitish substance slowly giving way to a cream and crimson concoction.  The assumption is that this is Maxine’s blood mixing with Bruno’s body, potentially causing the transformation?  This is the problem, with all of these fairly interesting ideas, none of them are paid off particularly well.  There’s no closure for any of the characters really.  There are sequences where more body horror elements are introduced where it’s clear that some sort of transformation is taking place with someone, but we never get any answers to anything.  By the end of the film you are left with a scene that asks even more questions than it answers.  I struggled to find the point of telling this story in this particular way.

Despite being narratively frustrating, the acting from Nicolas Bro and Marijana Jankovic is engaging and effective in showing both the physical and psychological transformations of both characters.  I feel for them despite the terrible decisions they make, which is pretty impressive.  Sophia Olsson’s beautiful cinematography nails the mindset of each character through the Norwegian winter locations.  It starts to get colder as Maxine descends further into her double life and her love slowly wanes for Bruno.  It’s absolutely beautiful and effective visual communication that unlike the plot is clear and easy to pick up on.

Beast is an underwhelming look at the nature of love and relationships and the extremes individuals are willing to go to maintain happiness.  With a clearer purpose and a stronger finale the film could’ve been either a successful Cronenbergish body horror or a more intimate and brutally real snapshot of how love can affect people.  Unfortunately that indecision leads to a film that ends with a confusing whimper instead of a thought provoking, hellish bang.

    2.0 out of 5

Movie Tally 2012: Hunky Dory (2012)

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Movie Tally 2012Hunky Dory (2012)

Directed by Marc Evans

Viewed: 3/11/2012 (@ Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, TX) SXSW

Festivals offer a chance to see films you wouldn’t normally see.  In the case of Hunky Dory, I had no intention whatsoever of seeing a film starring Minnie Driver as a music teacher putting on a rock opera version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a group of misfit high school students during the heat wave of the mid 70’s in Wales.  The concept just didn’t appeal me to at all, it sounded like a lame mash up of Dazed and Confused meets Glee with British accents.  Then I started hearing things, that the movie was surprisingly good and Minnie Driver, someone I’m not particularly interested in seeing normally, is fantastic.  I happened to arrive early for a screening later that evening and had a free few hours and decided why not, the line is short.  What I got was a sweet and charming film with fantastic musical sequences that is luckily nothing like Glee and more like Dazed and Confused…sort of.

Vivienne (Minnie Driver) is an idealistic and passionate high school music teacher trying to put on one last school music event before the end of the year.  She’s stuck with mostly stereotypical misfits who often don’t show up for rehearsal or just out right quit in a fit of fury over love or a lack of confidence, you know the usual angsty reasons.  On top of that she has to deal with an administration that doesn’t support the program and there are teachers who would do seemingly anything to sabotage the performance.  It’s all a pretty big stretch in terms of creating drama to keep the story moving and conflict for the characters.

The script relies a bit too heavily on clichés and as a result the film plays out exactly as you would think.  Characters that quit eventually come back, Vivienne continues to push through each roadblock presented to her.  The director, Marc Evans, clearly has some affection for American made end of the year high school revisit movies.  Often the movie provokes not only the multiple storyline nature of something like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused but also a similar wispy visual style.  Hunky Dory never quite figures out it’s own identity or style and it hurt’s the final product.

Fortunately the film is partly a musical and the performances are nothing short of spectacular.  Clearly the filmmaking team wants you to know they filmed and recorded everything live.  There are no visible or audible signs of tampering or lip-syncing. Everything you see is 100% genuine and straight from the kids themselves.  From the well done dramatic rehearsals to the inevitable final performance, the music is both creative and enjoyable.  The heart of the movie is in these musical sequences and I wish the movie concentrated more on that than the meandering strands of minor plotlines done to death and in better films.

The kids do a fine job even though I couldn’t tell you any of their names by the end of the film.  They are more of a collection of stereotypical and clichéd characters than true relatable human beings.  Unlike the kids, Minnie Driver fills Vivienne with a fervor and passion that is at once both relatable and inspiring.  It’s one of her better performances and she carries most of the movie emotionally.  By the time the unearned character futures sequence is played, I realized that I really was only interested in what happens to Vivienne.  Cut some of the minor characters and add some focus to those that matter and it could have been effective.

Despite my complaints, I’m glad I saw Hunky Dory.  It’s a good “on a whim” flick with great musical numbers and a powerhouse lead performance from a recently absent actress.  With more focus and a tighter script, Hunky Dory could’ve been more fun, interesting and unique.  It may not make you nostalgic for a particular time period but it most certainly will make you nostalgic for your favorite films of this ilk.

    3.5 out of 5

Movie Tally 2012: The Aggression Scale (2012)

April 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Movie Tally 2012The Aggression Scale (2012)

Directed by Steven C. Miller

Viewed: 3/11/2012 (@ Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, TX) SXSW

A home invasion movie where a kid fights back Kevin McAllister style only with fatal and brutal booby traps to maim and kill the intruders.  From that explanation you would think The Aggression Scale is a fun blend of absurd and thrilling.  Unfortunately you would be wrong.  The film wastes a decent setup and hook with bland protagonists, some painfully dull set pieces, and a half-baked script.  Luckily there’s some inspired direction and an interesting score to keep your interest for a while.

The film starts with a series of seemingly random killings over a pulsating score and flashy neon opening credit sequence.  Robert Wise plays a mob boss (for all of 2 minutes) recently released from prison for something that we never really find out about.  Former colleagues and associates benefited from the boss’s imprisonment so he’s looking for revenge one double crosser at a time.  He sends a group of thugs headed by actor Dana Ashbrook to go retrieve some cash and inflict some punishment on the final person, an accountant/lawyer type with a newly integrated family featuring a mute kid, a rebellious teen stepdaughter and a new wife who’s arm is in a sling for no particular reason.

There’s an attempt at some semblance of a setup for the carnage that follows with a lengthy slow burn introduction to each of the characters with small looks at their particular quirks.  Dad has a secret, the stepdaughter skirts authority by smoking pot outside, the wife…actually I have no idea what her deal is, and finally a creepy kid who doesn’t talk and does weird shit at night.  I admire the attempt but ultimately there’s nothing about any of these characters that make me root for them to survive the impending bloodshed.  Owen, the mute kid, apparently scored the highest possible value on “an aggression scale” which is a psychological measurement that indicates the violent capacity of a human being.  Why is Owen this way?  Was he bullied?  Did someone train him?  How does he know how to create these intricate traps?  Unfortunately none of these questions are answered or even hinted at.  He’s just a crazy kid who has a strong willingness to dish out violence and chooses not to talk for some reason.

My main problem with The Aggression Scale actually has more to do with the tone of the film.  It takes everything so seriously that the ridiculousness of what’s happening on screen comes across much like the main character, stoic and muted.  No one is having any fun here, Dana Ashbrook can’t even decide whether he wants to chew a scene up or play it straight serious with his main antagonist character.  It surprised me when the minor thugs played by the likes of Derek Mears, Jacob Reynolds and Joesph McKelheer were the most enjoyable and fun aspects of the film.  Mears in particular makes the most of each scene he’s in whether it be a ferocious, violent outburst or a quick comedic quip.  The Aggression Scale is at it’s best when it treads the line of being ridiculous while threatening to go full blown over the top.  If they had just decided to go full out and embrace the crazy concept, the film and the audience would’ve gotten the bloody, insane fun that the hook teases.

Although he has a tough time with nailing the tone, the director Steven C. Miller shows some talent constructing a scene visually.  For the most part the camera is steady and smooth clearly setting up the geography of the scene for the audience to clearly follow what’s happening.  Even when he occasionally dips into semi-handheld territory it’s for good reason in tense close up moments that elicit some genuine terror and suspense.  The score composed by Kevin Riepl fits in perfectly adding some tension and energy to a fairly cold film.

The pieces are here.  There’s a bloody home invasion crowd pleaser in here somewhere.  It’s a shame that the final product couldn’t live up to such an insanely goofy premise.  Some great onscreen violence can’t makeup for a lamely written main character who should have by all rights been a complete badass.  Steven C. Miller has the chops and I’ll certainly give whatever he makes a watch in the future but The Aggression Scale is a violent mess that could have been so much better.

    2.0 out of 5