Archive for August, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire will undoubtedly be one of the most powerful American films presented at TIFF 2009 and is well worthy of a gala presentation.

Set in Harlem 1987, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is struggling to exist in a hell that was not of her creation. She is 16 and pregnant for the second time by her own father. Her mother (Mo’Nique) is emotionally abusive and physically brutal. Her obesity is both a result of and shield against the horribleness that is her life and though she is already in grade nine, she cannot read or write.

If this story sounds heartbreaking, it is. Moreover, its presentation is raw and vibrant making it one of the most emotionally draining screenings I’ve ever attended. However, it is also inspiring and deeply hopeful as Precious is determined to overcome all the obstacles placed in her path and better her life by getting an education and doing well for her children.

The actors reach deep to deliver resounding performances that cover the spectrum from monstrous to saintly. Mo’Nique is terrifying and so full of hate, even when she speaks softly there is a menace lurking behind her words. Paula Patton plays Blu Rain, Precious’ saviour in the form of a teacher at an alternative school Precious attends after she’s expelled from her own school for being pregnant again. Patton radiates positive energy and the special interest she takes in Precious’ life is a warming light in a very dark tunnel. Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz have cameos as a social worker and nurse respectively; Carey’s transformation makes her nearly unrecognizable and Kravitz is naturally charming. But the standout performance belongs to newcomer Sidibe. She is often silent but it is always obvious how she feels, whether it’s happy, sad, determined or wary.

When Precious endures violent acts, she escapes to a fantasy life of glamour and acceptance. It’s bright, filled with love and she is always smiling. However, as a member of the audience, it feels more difficult to break away from the horrible force of the scenes to such a cheerful unreality; it does, on the other hand, encourage a quicker recovery from the initial devastation.

Director Lee Daniels does not set out to scar the audience, choosing to set most of the physical violence off-screen. Nonetheless, it is often the verbal and emotional revelations that have more of an impact. The camera is constantly moving, bringing to focus various reactions and small character gestures. The use of Precious’ narrative to guide the story keeps the insight and life of Sapphire’s language.

Precious is likely to bring tears, or at least anguish, to anyone’s eyes, but it also inspires joy and hope that becomes the reward at the end of the darkness.

Grace is a stunning return to gothic horror that relies on the sheer terror of the situation rather than going for the cheap scare at every turn.

Madeline (Jordan Ladd) is involved in a terrible car accident that destroys her family and kills her unborn child. However, in denial, she chooses to carry the fetus from 31 weeks to term and deliver it naturally without being induced. Only everyone but Madeline is shocked when the baby is born alive. Except there is something unnatural about little Grace, particularly her appeal to flies and her need for human blood. Madeline must then decide how far she is willing to go to preserve the life of her child.

Ladd is superb as the struggling mother. She maintains a level of denial despite her compliance to Grace’s cravings that is hard to believe yet convincing. In addition, her unwavering dedication to Grace despite its effects on her own health is felt beyond the narrative. It is Ladd’s ability to convey the extreme devotion she feels to the baby that is also her last connection to the life she lost in the accident that makes the film compelling.

The other standout performance is by Madeline’s mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), who is determined to gain custody of Grace and raise her naturally in every way. She is even more disturbed than Madeline and does not even know the half of what she’s trying to get herself into, nor does she care to listen.

A realistic approach was the only way to effectively tell this story and writer/director Paul Solet obviously recognized this as well. None of the scenes involving blood or gore are anymore horrific than they should be and most of the violence occurs almost naturally and out of necessity. That said, the special effects team do a great job making it all look real. In addition, the fake baby, nicknamed “baby Eraserhead,” is relatively lifelike though a couple of too close-ups ruins the illusion slightly.

Pregnancy and monstrous children have been the subject of many films of late, the most gruesome to come to mind being Inside, but Solet manages to present a representation that is not just ghastly but thoughtful and intriguing.

Fans waited two years for the release of Trick ‘R Treat and Toronto After Dark was able to bring them a big screen showing of the picture before its DVD release.

The film is comprised of four interwoven tales that take place on Halloween in a small American town. The stories feature a tradition-loving little monster, undead children, a serial killing principal and a flesh-hungry beast seeking its next victim. Unlike most horror anthologies, the stories intersect each other as characters cross paths before meeting their fate.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty admits the film is a series of short stories strung together, which is true of most horror collections; however, the others tend to work better because they are shown in sequence rather than weaved between each other for the span of the film. The individual tales are interesting, but their impact is lost in the transitions.

The atmosphere created is ideal, as it’s dark but does not appear to be too out of the ordinary. Also, the repeated use of the light of jack-o’-lanterns to light the scenes adds to the Halloween mood while creating eerie shadows and dark spots. The special monster effects are quite good with the dead children and there’s a really good werewolf transformation sequence.

The opening comic book-style sequence is reminiscent of some of the classic horror anthologies that vacate rental shelves annually, such as Creepshow, which was very appealing. The timeline is somewhat confused as it goes to “earlier” and then “earlier” again – a distinction of “even earlier” or just a seamless continuation of the backtrack would have worked better.

The most compelling story is definitely the one featuring Sam, the adorable but vicious pumpkin-headed child. He’s quite a riveting character with his supernatural abilities and easily amused demeanour. Also, the best line of the entire film is delivered when his victim thinks the fight is over only to discover Sam is not so easily defeated; saying what anybody in his position would, the still possible victim sighs, “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

Trick ‘R Treat may not make it to the ranks of classic horror anthologies, but it will definitely become a Halloween staple for many. Dougherty expressed a desire to see more original horror films and at that he has at least succeeded in creating his own. In his own words, “It’s not five 25 year olds playing 17 year olds going into the woods and getting killed” and “it’s not a remake.”

Rough Cut is a Korean martial arts action drama that holds no punches and has a pretty interesting plot to fill in the time between fights.

Soo-ta (Kang Ji-Hwan) is a spoiled actor that has finally pushed his co-stars too far. After really connecting with his opponents in what was supposed to be a fake on-camera fight and seriously injuring one of them, everyone refuses to work with Soo-ta anymore. He must then turn to a real-life gangster named Gang-pae (So Ji-Seob), who is a fan and expressed an interest in acting during a brief encounter in which Soo-ta denied him an autograph. But Gang-pae has one condition: they have to fight for real.

It is that last point that becomes the driving force of the film, as Gang-pae declares, “I can’t fake things.” Their fights are vicious, drawing real blood and creating great on-screen action. The movie within the movie’s director Bong (Ko Chang-Seok) is more than intrigued by the realism it will bring to his film and very impressed by the results, though production often has to pause to allow for medical aid and healing. The physical battles between these two men are mind-blowing as they take a no-holds barred approach to their scenes.

The two young lead actors are incredible and have already taken home best newcomer awards at the Korean equivalent of the Oscars. Ji-Seob is particularly inspired as the gangster that prefers to watch martial arts films and is only going through the motions of being a gangster. He really comes alive when he is in front of the camera. Ji-Hwan hides behind his ego, using his persona to intimidate people even though in the end he is much less effective in getting things done in his personal affairs.

The film’s conclusion is another powerful blow, but this time it’s directed at the audience. There are also some obvious metaphors scattered throughout the film, which adds substance to an already meaningful film experience. Rough Cut was written and produced by Kim Ki-Duk, whose films have seen international acclaim though they were reviled in Korea. Fortunately, this picture is seeing better and well-deserved fortune even at home.

The only thing torture porn has really been missing is a healthy dose of romantic comedy – or at least that’s the approach of Must Love Death.

Norman (Sami Loris) is dumped by his girlfriend and during his sulking decides it would be best to end it all; only he doesn’t have the courage to do it himself, so he agrees to be a part of a death pact/snuff film. However, between then and the big day, Norman meets Jennifer (Manon Kahle), a hopeless romantic that makes him feel like living again – until a misunderstanding has him racing to the soon-to-be bloody cabin in the woods. But poor Norman didn’t realize he struck his deal with a couple of psychotic rednecks (Peter Farkas and Jeff Burrell) that have different plans for his death and Jennifer is running out of time to save him.

The movie plays out much like a stage play – the framing is not really adventurous and the locations are generally stationary. On the other hand, it does jump back and forth between present and past, which was a little jarring without any indication of the time change the first couple of times. It does, nonetheless, work in forcing the story forward and creating some tension.

A major issue is the holes in logic and basic continuity throughout the film. They’re often not just noticeable, but distracting. Alternatively, writer/director Andreas Schaap makes a point to ensure audiences know the major hindrances for the characters, which is appreciated; for example, a close-up of keys sliding under a piece of furniture is sure to have consequences later.

Luckily, the bloodthirsty rednecks have more personality than anyone else in the film and tend to keep the scenes moving. Burrell is particularly amusing as he stages his game show, “Torture or No Torture.” He consistently breaks the rule about the fourth wall, talking or looking directly at the audience whether through a camcorder or not – these result in or precursor some of the better moments in the film.

Last year’s After Dark selection Tokyo Gore Police was an unabated gore fest propelled by special effects monsters. This year, director Yoshihiro Nishimura teams with Naoyuki Tomomatsu for Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, which means the movie is actually driven by a story and made entertaining by bloody effects.

When Mizushima (Takumi Saito) is given a Valentine’s Day chocolate by a new girl at school named Monami (Yukie Kawamura), he has no idea she’s filled it with her vampire blood. Now his body is changing and his girlfriend Keiko (Eri Otoguro) is really upset that he accepted someone else’s token of affection. Monami wants Mizushima to live with her forever, but Keiko has other plans. The two girls have a battle to the death and beyond to see who is his real true love and Mizushima has no say in the matter. To make matters more complicated, the vice-principal is a mad scientist conducting re-animation experiments in the basement.

The trend of inappropriateness continues from Tokyo Gore Police with two school social clubs: the ganguro girls and the wrist-cutting club. The former is a sarcastic jab at a fashion trend in Japan that has young women trying to impersonate black people through their dress. Nishimura sent his own introduction to be read prior to the screening, explaining it’s not meant to be racist but to mock the absurdity of the fad. The wrist-cutting club is made even more ridiculous by the national competition for which the girls are training.

The story is not incredibly complex – a love triangle made deadly by the supernatural nature of those involved. But it is made all the more interesting by the extreme special effects: blood-letting creates massive, sword-like weapons; limbs are replaced by geysers of blood; and pieced together girls stagger strange attacks. The vampire girl also has her own Igor that cares for her and cleans up her messes, as well as a Singing in the Rain sequence with a twist.

The film is composed of violence and blood furthest on the spectrum from realism, which simply makes it a gruesome romp with a couple of Japanese icons and teenage monsters.

In the words of writer/director Tom Shankland, The Children is “for those who’ve spent Christmas with other people’s psychotic kids when you have a hangover.”

Two related families have decided to spend the holidays together and they’ve decided to do it at a secluded house bordered by nothing but trees, uniting their small broods without disturbance. Unfortunately, one of the kids is not feeling well and soon enough all the kids are coughing and acting a little strange. It’s not long before the children are plotting the deaths of their parents and the only voice of reason is a teenager that is ready is to take matters into her own hands.

There have been some classic horror movies featuring murderous children so the concept is not new but the approach is slightly different. It is the illness passing between the kids that create a pack-like mentality and they often work together to dispatch the adults. Of course, most of the adults remain blind to what their children are orchestrating, instead trying to rescue them from a mistaken threat.

The creep factor is mostly inherent to the hunting kids, as they exchange a single glance before attacking. Also, the sheer brutality of their attacks is more than off-putting. On the other hand, it is not often you are able to cheer the killing of a child onscreen and only feel a small, brief pang of guilt before fully indulging.

All of the actors, regardless of his or her age, are quite capable. The opening act is simply a bonding session between the adults and they look appropriately uncomfortable at the right moments, and even more so as the children become odder. Similarly, the younger children’s total lack of expression for most of the film is impressive. The teenage girl must also take on a lot and, even through most of her hysterical moments, she manages to do fairly well.

Overall, The Children are not likely to rise to the ranks of Children of the Corn but it definitely delivers on the scary kids front.