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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

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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

Movie Tally 2012: God Bless America (2012)

March 26, 2012 1 comment

Movie Tally 2012God Bless America (2012)

Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

Viewed: 3/10/2012 (@ Alamo Drafthouse – Slaughter Lane in Austin, TX) SXSW REVIEW

Bobcat Goldthwait is pissed off at a lot of people.  So many people in fact that his stand-in, a sad and hopeless Frank (played by Joel Murray), continually reminds the audience throughout God Bless America just how many different kinds of people “grind his gears”.  From the opening scene, you will be able to tell if you are on board with Goldthwait’s comedic sensibilities.  It’s actually an incredible smart move, because if you don’t find the dark, troubling actions of the first 5 minutes oddly enjoyable despite the bloody mess then check out because God Bless America isn’t for you.

Frank is a sad, lonely middle-aged man with a daughter who hates him, neighbors that have no respect for anyone else and a general distaste for the hatred spewing and mean spirited country that America has become.  Along with like-minded 16 year old Roxie (played rather brilliantly by Tara Lynne Barr), they go on a cross country crime spree with the end goal being to eliminate all the people that don’t deserve to live by reasons that they deem inexcusable.  It’s a dark, violent, and incredibly hilarious tale of two individuals who have had enough and decide to take matters into their own hands.

This film clearly comes from a dark and deeply frustrated place in the director’s mind.  He doesn’t aim to be politically correct, evenhanded or bipartisan.  This is an incredibly personal indictment of America, a declaration of war not just on a specific group of people but damn near everyone.  The rage is evenly spilled forth by meaningful (often quite touching) monologues and bloodshed.  Many of the victims are clear caricatures of real life personalities, TV show stars and religious nut jobs.  The violence is mostly cartoonish and over the top. I could see some people being troubled by it, but no more troubling than the shit you see on TV, leading to another possible subversive piece of commentary the film provides.  It’s self –aware but still manages to maintain the core point of the film, which is that the country has gone to shit and someone needs to fix it.

The performances from Murray and Barr are quite good and often lend an air of creditability to an otherwise madcap insane film.  These characters know what they are talking about, they can articulate why they don’t like something or someone.  Although Frank is more or less emotionally dead, there’s a fire and passion deep within his gut and we can feel it with every stoic stare and speech he gives. His monologues in particular are nothing short of brilliant, particularly the one to a coworker at the beginning and the final climatic speech seemingly given directly to the audience.  Roxie on the other hand is looking for an outlet, someone to allow her to be herself without patronizing her.  She’s as much a thrill seeker as a ardent supporter of death to those that deserve it.

As funny and enjoyable as the film is, I can’t help but wonder if it’s simply preaching to the converted.  Much like Bill Maher’s Religulous, The film seems aimed squarely at the people who will agree with it the most.  As a result how big of an impact will the messages actually have other than maybe getting some attention from the fear mongering TV hosts it’s lampooning? Although the message is loud and clear, it’s often repeated every 20 minutes or so throughout the entire run time. There isn’t anything said in the climax or final act that wasn’t already explicitly stated in Act 1. I have to admire the courage in showing a blatantly violent call to action if for nothing else in that it’s a complete disregard for anything “normal” or “usual” coming out of Hollywood.  As enjoyable as it is to watch I wonder if God Bless America could have used a little bit more restraint and thought in order to really figure out how to balance the lunacy with real, punctuated ethical discourse.

However, that’s not the goal of the film.  God Bless America aims to entertain the converted, chastise the ignorant, and fillet the willful hate mongers that are destroying society.  It’s a wake up call, a call to arms. And it’s so fucking right.

 

    4.0 out of 5

 

Movie Tally 2012: Martyrs (2008)

March 20, 2012 1 comment

Movie Tally 2012Martyrs (2008)

Directed by Pascal Laguier

Viewed: 3/8/2012 (On DVD)

Once in a while, a movie so shockingly intense, graphic and divisive will be released and instantly become a topic of conversation. When released in 2008, Martyrs instantly became masterpiece art-horror while at the same time being derided as thin, misogynistic torture porn.  Fast forward a few years and I’m finally seeing the film, although admittedly it’s mainly due to recently having the chance to see Pascal Laugier’s new film The Tall Man more than any passing interest in Martyrs itself.  I normally resist seeing ultra violent horror flicks, specifically because often times there’s no real purpose for the violence itself.  Through research I found that this might be one of the few nasty ones that not only had an impact and purpose but it was made extremely well.  The film is so unconventional in the way it tells a story, so uncompromisingly over the top at times that it’s no surprise that some people can’t stand the film.  Although I may have not liked the film for it’s pure ugliness and brutality, I certainly respect the hell out of it.

The movie opens on a small girl, bruised and bleeding running from what looks to be an industrial complex.  The girl, Lucie, is placed in an orphanage where she becomes friends with another girl, Anna.  Lucie is convinced that she is terrorized by a mysterious monster-like figure.  Fast forward sometime later and Lucie breaks into a quiet, seemingly peaceful home of a family and murders everyone.  She claims it’s the revenge she’s been seeking since she was a child.  Anna isn’t sure whether this is indeed the family or if Lucie has simply gone insane.

That description alone would fill a 90-minute film, the interesting part is that the film takes so many twists and turns that you’ll never be able to anticipate what’s happening next until by the end you realize the film is deceptively straight forward.  The progression and escalation of events not only feels natural but everything done to these women is actually given a twisted purpose.  And that’s where the film gets very interesting.  As nasty as Martyrs is for a majority of its runtime, I couldn’t help but feel utterly captivated by what I was seeing.   The third act in particular will hit you like a ton of bricks not only because of the raw violent, brutality but also because of the ballsiness of what you are seeing thematically. Obviously I’m being deliberately vague on plot points, as you should see the movie as fresh as possible.

This isn’t your average slash and hack, torture and kill horror film.  Pascal Laugier gives you more to think about and by the end of the film he’s brought up some very insane yet undeniably interesting topics to consider.  Not only is the script fantastic, his direction is surprisingly great with a wild and chaotic style that matches the uncertain beginning transitioning to a more steady, contemplative second half that’s far more appropriate for the subject matter.  Also helping are the great performances from Morjana Alaoui as Anna and more specifically Mylene Jampanoi as Lucie.  Jampanoi infuses Lucie with an air of believability, although it’s pretty clear what’s going on with her, she’s convincing while being a bloodthirsty, tortured soul looking for revenge.

Martyrs isn’t a flick I’d be quick to suggest as a must-watch.  It’s brutal, hardcore and incredibly difficult to watch at times.  Laugier even stated on the introduction to the DVD I watched, “People aren’t going to like me”.  He’s not making a film for people to enjoy, he’s making Martyrs to explore some incredibly interesting ideas whether people like it or not.  Filmmakers and horror nuts will get the most out of it I would imagine.  It’s the ultimate result of a filmmaker doing exactly what he wants to do and saying exactly what he wants to say with virtually no filters.  It doesn’t matter what we think, it doesn’t matter if people think it’s unnecessarily violent or grossly misogynistic, Laugier is only interested in realizing his vision.  That is unique enough to, at the very least, respect the filmmaking going on in Martyrs even if the movie is so relentlessly unenjoyable to watch.

    3.0 out of 5

Movie Tally 2012: The Exploding Girl (2009)

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Movie Tally 2012The Exploding Girl (2009)

Directed by Bradley Rust Gray

Viewed: 03/01/2012 (Netflix Instant Watch)

I first caught The Exploding Girl at Tribeca 2009.  At the time I thought it was a refreshingly real look at modern relationships and the hardships that come from college romance.  Upon revisiting, the flaws of the film become more apparent than before.  The movie moves way too slow for the first 45 minutes.  We are thrown into this situation where Ivy comes home to New York City for a break from college.  She does her best to continue a relationship she started at school while on break.  From the first phone call, we get that something isn’t working.  And here lies the problem.  The film takes too long to get to what we already know is the inevitable outcome of this relationship.  I didn’t mind this the first time, however upon knowing what happens, you just want the film to get to the good stuff.

Luckily once the film gets past the slow portions, it really picks up thematically.  We see Ivy not only struggle emotionally but physically as well.  It’s hard to watch but Zoe Kazan is so good that you become invested in what she’s going through even if it’s apparent from the first frame where the story is going.  I think if the first half was as good as the second, The Exploding Girl could have utilized a chance to really distinguish itself from the rest of the low budget mumblecore being released.

    3.0 out of 5