Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Back in the middle of the last decade, the French seemed to have a purple patch of amazing and brutal original horror films.  Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension”, made in 2003, seemed to start the cycle and for the next five years we continually got a new film that seemed to out-do the one previous.  Other titles included in this batch were “Frontiere(s)”, “Them” (Ils) and my personal favourite, “Inside”.  However the film that seemed to end this successful run was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 effort “Martyrs”, which arguably was the bloodiest of the lot, but separated itself from the pack because of its political agenda and social commentary hidden within.  “Martyrs” split horror fans right down the line, as some thought it was outright brilliance, while others deemed it to be pretentious and without any merit.  Personally, while I didn’t think the film was perfect, I found myself on the pro-side of the discussion and as such I have been waiting to see what Laugier would produce as a follow-up.  Similar to the directors of “Inside”, Laugier initially was attached to do a remake for the Weinstein brothers, “Hellraiser”, but for reasons unknown he later left the project.  So four years after “Martyrs” finally his new film has arrived, “The Tall Man”.

When you walk into a film with the credits “Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier” attached to them, you are automatically going to expect a certain kind of film, and I must say that you need to clear your mind of them immediately – “The Tall Man” is not a horror film.  It is true that there are moments of great horror within the film, but it is more effectively described as a thriller, and similar to Laugier’s previous film, “The Tall Man” is filled with social commentary.  Once again I am writing a review for a film that works so much better the less you know about it going in, so a lot of this review I will be talking in vague terms so as not to give anything away.

The film is set in a small town called Cold Rock.  The place used to be a mining town, but since the closure of the mines the place has become a dead-end to its residents.  There is little employment, there is no chance of making something of yourself and there appears to be no chance of an escape.  Worse is the fact that the children of Cold Rock appear destined to repeat the mistakes of their parents before them, due to the fact there are no opportunities in the town, in fact for all intents and purposes Cold Rock is a dead town that only brings misery.  However something much worse is going on in the town as something or someone is regularly kidnapping children, where they disappear for good.  The local folk have gone about giving the creature a name, “The Tall Man”, and he terrifies the citizens of Cold Rock.  When the film begins, it has been two months since the last child abduction and the town is on edge knowing that it could happen again at anytime.  One person who appears to be going about like its normal is the local nurse, Julia Denning (Jessica Biel).  Julia herself is a mother of a young boy named David, and is unlike most of the residents of Cold Rock.  She is happy, has a good job, lives in a big house and refuses to only see the bad in people.  Due to the long hours she works, Julia needs the help of a nanny, Christine, who also lives at the Denning house.  One night when the house is asleep, Julia awakens to the sound of smashing glass.  Shocked, she runs downstairs to investigate where she finds Christine bloodied and tied up.  She quickly bolts to David’s room, only to find him missing.  As she goes back downstairs to untie Christine, she lays eyes on the terrifying figure of The Tall Man.  He disappears out the door and Julia takes after him in an attempt to get back her boy.

Sadly this is all I can tell you about the film but let me just say that it is full of twists and turns, and I promise you that you will not know where it is going, and once you think you have finally worked it all out, another twist occurs to keep you guessing some more.

The one thing you need to know about “The Tall Man” is that it is Jessica Biel’s show.  I have never been a huge fan of Biel’s work as an actress before this.  Of course I was not blind to her physical attributes, but I always thought of her as more of a “B” actress.  She certainly surprised me with her amazing range in her performance of Julia.  The amount of difficult emotions that she has to portray is crazy, but she is believable throughout, and there was not a moment where I thought missed a beat.  From caring nurse, to terrified mother, to her state of being by the finale, she does a stellar job and I hope she gets some recognition for her work here.  I’m not taking awards here, but at least the chance to be able to do more roles with some depth, which is something her character has here, depth and tons of layers.  The other actress that really stood out for me was Samantha Ferris who played Tracy, a mother of two who is in an abusive relationship.  She does a great job of portraying a very caring mother who knows that there is nothing left for herself in the world.  She has a particularly brilliant and heartbreaking moment at the end, when this tough-as-nails broad breaks down for a couple of seconds and gives into the pain that she has been bottling up for so long.

On the negative side of the acting fence, I must say that I was put off by Jodelle Ferland’s very self conscious and mannered performance as Jenny.  She was a character that never worked for me, she played the role too obviously, the strange outsider who refuses to talk.  Ironically, Jenny is the narrator of the film.  One of the problems I had with the character was that she always seemed to coincidentally be in the right place at the right time to see certain things.  This is obviously not a fault of Ferland’s performance, but one of Laugier’s writing.  In fact there was an entire sequence in the film that was filled with coincidences that just had me rolling my eyes.  It made a very effective and suspense-filled scene lose its sense of reality and took me out of the moment.  I’m not ruining anything by saying the scene in question was the one when Julia is chasing after her son.  From the single rock that saves her, to the tree branch on the road, the coincidences were many, and it took away from a great scene.  

Luckily, this is about all I can say negatively about what Pascal Laugier brings to “The Tall Man”.  It is great seeing a director actually want to do something more than just the norm, or what is expected and with this film he really does have a few political points he wants to make.  Granted, he may hammer some of these points home a little too heavily, but I like the fact that he has ambition with this project to say something and not just try to scare the audience (not that there is anything wrong with that).  The film looks great too with the town being particularly creepy with its dark mine tunnels and its creepy bordering forest, and the production design by Jean-Andre Carriere does a great job of bringing these elements to the foreground to contribute to the dread filled atmosphere.  The way Laugier also moves the camera is brilliant and adds so much to the tension of the film.  The camera is almost always moving, and some of the shots blew my mind, with their degree of difficulty.  One shot in particular has a character escorted into a car with the camera following them into the car, then turning so we see the mob behind the car and ending with a rock being smashed through the window.  It may not sound much on paper, but when you see the shot in the film you will wonder just how they did it.  Of course Kamal Derkaoui’s dark cinematographer ably assists in ratcheting up the tension as he fills the screen with dark impenetrable shadows.  

Now to talk about what the film is actually about without actually talking about it.  When all the secrets of “The Tall Man” (the movie, not the myth) are finally revealed, I must admit I was surprised but I really liked the idea, even if I didn’t agree with the politics behind it per se.  I am not sure that what our protagonists ultimately do is for the better of everyone involved, even though I believe that the characters themselves think that it is the only thing that can be done.  I have no doubt they believe in what they are doing and that it is right, even if it is highly against the law.  While Laugier rightfully blasts the idea of a world where the rich get richer while the poor continue to get poorer, I do not believe that the protagonists ideals are those of his own.  In fact he even has a character question the moral ethics of it all in the final line of the film. 

Overall, I really liked “The Tall Man” especially by how much it surprised me.  While I was initially expecting another gore-filled horror film, I was not disappointed by what I got in the slightest.  It is great to see a genre film strive to be something more than just entertainment, and I respect Pascal Laugier for once again filling his movie with a social commentary about today’s world.  The film has a fantastic lead performance by Jessica Biel, and it looks outstanding.  It is such a shame that “The Tall Man” appears to be only getting a limited release around the world (no doubt due to the fact that it is something different for once), but if you get the chance to view it, please do, I recommend it.

3.5 Stars.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Whenever Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon has a new movie out, it is something of an event.  While we have to wait until next year for his new feature, the action movie “The Last Stand” (which is his English language debut and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s come-back film), “Doomsday Book” is an omnibus feature that he has contributed towards.  The original plan for the film was that it was to be a three part film, all dealing with an “end of the world” theme, with directors Kim Ji-Woon, Yim Pil-Sung and Han Jae-Rim each directing a segment.  For whatever reason Han Jae-Rim was not able to hold his end of the deal up, so Kim Ji-Woon and Yim Pil-Sung collaborated together to direct the third installment.  So how does the finished film hold up?  

The first segment of the film is entitled “A Brave New World” and is directed by Yim Pil-Sung (who was the director of “Hansel & Gretel) and deals with the impending apocalypse brought on by a zombie plague.  While I enjoyed this segment, it is probably the weakest of “Doomsday Book”, and it is mainly due to its tone, or I suppose, its changing tones.  The segment starts off in quite a silly manner as Yoon Seok-woo is forced to look after and clean his parent’s apartment while they jet-set themselves off on a nice vacation.  While disposing of some rotten food in a food disposal bin, he causes a chemical reaction that starts a chain of events that leads to a form of mad cow disease, which ultimately causes the zombie outbreak.  There isn’t a lot of depth to this segment, it is what it is, a zombie film.  However it isn’t really concerned with the horror aspects of it either, there is little gore, rather it looks at how quickly the contagion and madness spreads.  As I mentioned the tone initially is of a goofy nature, but when the zombie outbreak begins it tries to become more serious, but doesn’t quite pull it off.  It even attempts to throw in a little romance between the zombies, which I actually thought was cute and it gave the segment a nice ending.

Kim Ji-Woon (director of “I Saw The Devil”) is the director of the second segment which is titled “Heavenly Creature” and it is arguably the best segment of “Doomsday Book”.  This segment is set in the future where humans have an over-reliance on robots to help them through their daily lives.  In a Buddhist monastery, a robot technician is called in to examine a robot who has found enlightenment.  After the technician decides that there is nothing faulty with the robot the manufacturers of this artificial life-form panic and order this robot’s model for recall and destruction.  They fear that now that the robot has independent thought (let alone enlightenment, something so few humans achieve)  it has now become a threat towards human kind, but the technician who initially examined the robot starts to have second thoughts on whether it is the right and moral thing to do.  The tone of this section is of a very serious nature and it actually deals with a lot of interesting and intellectual ideas.  Personally I found it initially hard to settle into after coming off the jokey atmosphere of the previous segment, but once I did, “Heavenly Creature” was well worth viewing.  As usual, Kim Ji-Woon’s visual style is prominent and this segment has some great visual effects in the creation of the robot.  While the robot is perceived as a threat to all of humanity, this segment ends up differing from the others as it ultimately has less to do with the Armageddon, but rather comments on the human condition and what we take for granted.

The final segment which is titled “Happy Birthday” has Yim Pil-Sung credited as director, although Kim Ji-Woon does have a co-director’s credit also.  Personally I would love to see how these two directors shared the directorial duties because while Pil-Sung is credited as the main director, I thought it was quite obvious to recognize a lot of Ji-Woon’s framing of shots.  This segment is probably the silliest, as it is about a girl who accidentally orders a meteorite that will destroy the Earth, when she accesses an alien internet site.  The fact that the meteor is actually an enormous “8” ball from a pool set is even more ridiculous, but I felt that the tone was more consistent than the initial segment, making it a very enjoyable viewing.  The family dynamic established in this segment is what makes it standout and I particularly enjoyed the Earth’s final news broadcast which I thought was hilarious.  As much as I enjoyed this segment, I felt that it had the weakest ending which is a shame because this is also the ending of “Doomsday Book” as a whole, so it should have gone out with more of a bang.

So how does “Doomsday Book” fare as a whole?  Well, like the majority of omnibus features, it suffers from the inconsistencies between segments .  While I say above that “Heavenly Creature” is the strongest segment, it is also the odd one out, due to the fact that the story told in this segment is dealt in such a serious manner.  Personally I think that this causes a jarring effect, having a heavy drama between two comedic segments, which ultimately detracts from the entire feature.  However to contradict myself, “Heavenly Creature” is also the main reason to see this film.  Overall, the problem with omnibus features is that they always feel like a minor work, and while I did enjoy each individual segment on their own, I’m not sure that the sum of its parts makes “Doomsday Book” anything more than forgettable fluff.  That said, in the moment I enjoyed it and I recommend it, but I’m not sure that I will remember much from it in the coming years.

3.5 Stars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Way back in 2007, French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury exploded onto the horror scene with their home invasion gorefest “Inside” (A l’interieur).  In my eyes the film was an absolute horror masterpiece, it was lean, mean and bloody as all heck, but it also had an amazing sense of atmosphere and suspense that was held throughout the entire running time.  “Inside” was so good that I consider it one of, if not THE greatest horror film of the past decade.  Since that film I have been dying to see what this directing duo would come up with next, and after two failed attempts (the French language film “Snow”, and a sequel to Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake), Bustillo and Maury announced that their sophomore effort would be “Livid” (Livide), described in the initial press release as an adult fairytale.  Again, this sounded like my kind of film and I eagerly anticipated its arrival, but it has taken three whole years since the film’s announcement for me to finally see the finished product.  Did it live up to the expectations I had put on the film over those three years?

The film begins with Lucie being picked up by Mrs. Wilson as she embarks on her first day as a trainee in-house caregiver.  She will be assisting Mrs. Wilson with all of her patients and during the day she meets the people she will be looking after.  Immediately it is obvious that Lucie has a caring nature and that Mrs. Wilson treats the patients with little respect and serious disdain.  Towards the end of the day, the two go to visit Mrs. Jessel, a very old woman who lives in her house stuck in a coma, waiting for the day she finally dies.  She regularly needs blood transfusions even though she has no chance of ever awakening from her coma.  Mrs. Wilson explains that because she is very rich, and the rich seem to get what they want, her last wish was that she wanted to die in her own home rather than in a hospital.  Mrs. Jessel used to be a world famous ballet teacher, and students would visit from all over the globe just to be taught her mastery of the craft.  Sadly she only had one daughter of her own, who was born deaf and is long since dead.  With no family or life of her own, Mrs. Jessel is basically just waiting to die.  However, Mrs. Wilson also explains that there is a rumor that her entire fortune is hidden somewhere within the spooky mansion she lives in.  She also admits that she has searched for it herself and has yet to find anything.

Following her days work, Lucie reiterates the story Mrs. Wilson told her to her deadbeat boyfriend William.  Immediately seeing a way out of his worthless and dead-end life, William convinces Lucie and his best friend Ben to break into Mrs. Jessel’s house and to steal her fortune.  However as soon as they enter the dark and scary house, it becomes very obvious that Mrs. Jessel and her occupancy are not all they seem, and the three friends find themselves in terrible danger of losing their lives.

For the first hour of “Livid” the film moves at a very deliberate pace, creating a dark and scary atmosphere, and never rushing to get to the horror of the film.  Suspense is continually built and increased upon, and to me this is when the film is at its most successful.  Too often these days, horror films go straight for the jugular without developing the characters properly or fleshing out the main story, so the slow opening and set-up of “Livid” was a welcome sight.  This turns out to be a double-edged sword though as unfortunately the characters we are introduced to are highly unlikable, especially William who comes across as a right asshole, so being witness to the actions of these people isn’t the most fun you will have at a cinema.  I’m not sure if he was directed in this way, but the performance from Felix Moati as William just grated on my nerves right from the get-go.  The character was so just so selfish and aggressively so too.  If you didn’t do what he wanted, he would get agro until you backed down.  He was an utterly unappealing character.  Lucie, on the other hand, is a delight and without her, “Livid” would have been a chore to sit through.  She understands what she is doing is wrong and initially wants nothing to do with it, and is disgusted by the idea, unfortunately her will bends due to the pressure put on her by her peers.  The first time I saw Lucie on screen, I thought that Bustillo and Maury obviously had a type of woman they liked because the actress playing her, Chloe Coulloud, looked like a younger version of Beatrice Dalle (who played the antagonist of “Inside”).  It turns out that the resemblance was intentional because Dalle shows up briefly as Lucie’s deceased mother. 

Once the initial hour is over and the horror kicks in, the film changes dramatically.  It increasingly makes less and less sense as the fantastical elements are brought into the film, and I’m sad to say, I think this section needed a lot more work because dramatically the narrative becomes confused here.  It becomes obvious here that the film is influenced by the fantasy films of Dario Argento (“Suspiria” in particular), however unlike those films, “Livid” doesn’t flow as well.  Even during the weirdest moments of those Argento films, they seem to exist within the film’s internal logic, but with this film I found that scenes just happen because the idea may have seemed cool on paper, but they just felt wrong on screen.  Before I go into this further let me say that the images created in this section are just amazing and very dynamic, and from a visual standpoint I thought they were something special, but from a narrative point of view they just didn’t work (as well as they could or should have).  The prime example is when Ben disappears into the mirror, it is a good WTF moment for sure, but when this big prism object above him starts spinning and more weird stuff begins, it just felt wrong, as if it didn’t exist in the universe already set up within the film.  Again, the following attack is beautifully visual, but it didn’t feel right.  (I know I am not explaining this properly, but I do not know how to explain it better). 

As stated above, even a blind man could see how visually gifted Bustillo and Maury are and some of the images they come up with are simply outstanding.  There is nothing like the sight of a blood soaked ballerina, it is a strangely beautiful image (check out the poster above).  The directors have collaborated with the key staff from their previous film again and Marc Thiebault’s production design is the definite highlight of the film.  His work on the creepy mansion, both inside and out, helps amazingly in the overall atmosphere of the film.  This is not a place you would want to get trapped inside.  I loved Anna’s (Mrs. Jessel’s daughter) room, full of the weird taxidermy figures set up as if they were having a tea party, it is absolutely chilling and disturbing (considering this is a child’s room).   What I love about Bustillo and Maury is that they are not afraid of the dark, and what I mean by this is if the scene is meant to be dark, that is what it is, there is no blue light bathed over the scene so we, the viewer can see everything.  This is a very dark film, and the master of darkness appears to be cinematographer Laurent Bares, who performed the same duties on the equally dark film “The Divide” for fellow countrymen Xavier Gens.  The film is full of deep and dark shadows and you are never really sure what you can see which again works wonders for the dread filled atmosphere.

The directing duo’s previous film “Inside” was an absolute bloodbath, so for the gorehounds going into “Livid” expecting more of the same, they are going to be sorely disappointed.  Personally I knew this going in, so I was not expecting a retread of “Inside” but it is the quality of the effects that are a little disappointing here.  Some of the make-up effects are outstanding (including the film’s goriest moment at the finale), but there are some that almost appear amateurish.  One culprit is the make-up on the deceased ballerina, it basically looked like blobs of clay had just been stuck onto her face, and I was very disappointed its look, especially in close-up.  However the thing that bugged me the most was the scissors (what is it with these guys and scissors?) that became prominent near the end of the film, never once did they appear to look real, they always looked very flimsy and fake.

Overall, I guess it saddens me to say that “Livid” turned out to be a disappointment.  While the initial hour of the film is amazing, it is let down by its uneven final half an hour, and a seriously poor and confused ending.  Ironically, the final half an hour has some of the greatest horror images in it that I have seen for a long time, but within the film as a cohesive whole, they just did not work.  What I do love about Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury is that it is obvious that both of them are fans of the horror genre, and there are some neat little homages to past films within from “Halloween III: Season Of The Witch” to the heavily influential “Suspiria” (check which ballet school Mrs. Jessel graduated from).  While it is a shame that “Livid” is not as successful as I hoped it would be, I respect Bustillo and Maury for at least trying to do something different rather than replicate their initial film “Inside”, and even though I didn’t love the film I look forward to revisiting it in the future and hopefully find some love for it too.  Despite this misstep, I think that Bustillo and Maury are going to play a huge role in the future of horror and I cannot wait for what they come up with next.

3 Stars.

Monday, July 23, 2012


It appears that my cinematic nation of choice at the moment is Russia, and my latest review once again deals with a film from that country, the very well received “Silent Souls” by director Aleksei Fedorchenko.  However, unlike the previous two films by Andrei Zvyagintsev (“The Return” and “Elena”), “Silent Souls” did not blow me away.  Do not get me wrong, it is a well made film, but it just didn’t capture me as well as the other two.

The story of “Silent Souls” is a simple one, as it is about a man whose young wife has just passed away, and along with a fellow workmate they take the journey to cremate her body and dispose of it in a body of water.  This is in line with the ancient rituals from the town that they come from that had once been discovered by the Finns, and while on the journey, the husband participates in other customs created for the recently deceased and the grieving family.  While helping out his boss, Miron, the workmate Aist remembers the time he performed the same rituals for his mother (who died in childbirth) and his stillborn sister back when he was a child.

Right from the first scene of the film it is made obvious that it is going to be about looking back at the past and reflecting on it.  This is shown from a shot that shows what Aist has just left behind as he is riding his bike, rather than showing what he is riding towards, we are witness to what he has just left.  The entire function of the ritual seems to be a chance to reflect on the loved one who has just passed before life continues without them.  It also gives the mourner a sense of closure and a chance to move on.  What is special about “Silent Souls” is the fact that the ritual is played out in meticulous detail and we appear to be witness of every second of it.  This is the part of the film that I found mesmerizing because it was from a culture so unlike my own.  The body is prepared in the same way it would be if it was being ready to be married, so the body is washed, and then the most peculiar aspect, when different coloured threads are tied into the young lady’s pubic hair.  At this moment we get a flashback of this ritual being performed when Tanya is being readied to wed.  After the couple is wed, the threads are removed and tied together and then tied to a special tree where they stay.  Like I said, it is very strange, but interesting none the less.  Once the body has been washed, it is put into the car and the journey begins in earnest, where Miron then proceeds with something that is called “smoking”.  This part of the ritual is where the deceased’s loved one tells stories about them as a couple that are quite sexual in nature.  These are the stories that would never be mentioned to anyone when the person is alive, and are the most personal between the couple, but it is accepted to tell these stories after the person has passed and before the body is cremated.  So for the entire car-ride Aist listens to these stories from Miron, who tells them in a very matter-of-fact manner, and Aist listens like it is normal every day conversation.  Occasionally Aist’s mind does drift as he remembers his own mother’s ritual, and these moments are very beautiful as well.

Like the title suggest, this is more a film of actions rather than dialogue, and the majority of the film is dialogue free.  This means that our actors must rely much more on their emotions in their performances and both Yuriy Tsurilo as Miron and Igor Sergeev as Aist do wonderfully well.  However due to the theme of death and the feeling of melancholia that permeates the entire film, it is never a very fun experience to watch.  Interesting, yes and even mesmerizing in parts, but it is never fun.  However the film does have a lyrical beauty to it, and this is helped enormously by Mikhail Krichman’s brilliant work as cinematographer, whose familiarity with working with Andrei Zvyagintsev on his features would no doubt have helped with the incredibly long and difficult takes that are within “Silent Souls”.  While his work is beautiful here, the shots are not as dynamic as the ones he has created previously for Zvyaginstev, but then again this is not that kind of film, the visuals do not draw attention to themselves despite how well done they are.  Because the film relies heavily on the visuals to tell the story, the music that plays over these images are equally important and while I have mentioned many times I know little about music, I must admit that I was not really a fan of Andrei Karasyov’s score, in fact it kind of grated on me, which is unfortunate.

Overall, while I liked “Silent Souls” to a degree, and certainly respect the level of filmmaking required to make the film, it didn’t stand out to me.  Performances are all good, and the meticulous nature towards the tiny details in the film are all positives, but the entire atmosphere of death and melancholy suck the enjoyment out of the film.  The other problem I had with the film was that some plot points weren’t fully explained (I couldn’t work out if Aist and Tanya had an affair, or if Tanya just had an affair with some stranger).  Still it is worth looking at, as it is an interesting look at love and the increasing loss of a culture, and the ending is incredibly haunting.

3 Stars.