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Zoe's Day (2007)
A morning excursion yields devastating results
I first had the pleasure of watching Zoe's Day some time ago thanks to The Internet Movie Database's extensive ready-to-watch short film catalogue. This was, by all means, a random watch. I did not know anything about the film before viewing it. I did not even bother to look around for a plot summary. I just went along for the ride. Zoe's Day may clock in at only ten short minutes, but it packs enough of an emotional punch for the viewing to resonate long afterwards. I suppose that's why I've chosen to review it right now. I was sitting here and the urge randomly struck me.
With that urge came a memory: I reviewed the film shortly after I first watched it (this was almost three years ago) and found a private message from none other than director Rebecca Gwynne in my inbox a few days later. I wish I'd saved myself a copy. In the message, she thanked me for taking the time to review her film and inquired what struck me to watch it in the first place. I told her that, being particularly inquisitive by nature, I pretty much found the film by accident. The catalogue I perused to watch the film in the first place is enormous and just one feature of a site that boasts over 50,000,000 visitors a month. She replied that she was pleased and asked me to recommend it to others if I so wished. I have, but I figure a nice, proper review will reach a far more expansive audience. I grew up in a family where I was the only one with such a wide appreciation for the cinematic art form and I, sadly, did not know too many people who would be interested in viewing a lot of the material I tend to gravitate to, let alone a short film with little to no budget whatsoever and no wide distribution to speak of.
That's what makes short films so interesting: They're compact pieces of art that have a great burden on their shoulders: They have to find a way to stand out among the gigantic crowd of films out there, and they have to be able to command attention and say something significant in the time the average feature length film would still be working on its exposition. Zoe's Day succeeds at maintaining our interest throughout because it takes great care to not just present its story through the eyes of it's title character--a precocious young girl--in a refreshingly honest manner, but also makes a stark statement on the harsh reality that is clinical depression and the devastating effects it can have on the family unit.
We see in the beginning of the film that Zoe and her father and getting ready for an outing at a nearby park. Zoe's mother looks a bit dead behind the eyes (unnervingly so) but that she is clearly in ill health is, we can assume, not given the proper attention that it should by her spouse. Zoe's mother makes breakfast as if on autopilot and stiffens up when her husband tries to embrace her. He gives her a wistful look and slips out of frame and only sees his wife lighten up for the first time after being presented with her daughter's latest drawing. She pins it to the refrigerator proudly, yet cannot seem to properly articulate just how much she appreciates this sweet gesture. To an adult ignorant of her illness, or merely in denial, her actions may seem like an annoyance. To this young child, it's merely a sign of a loving parent at a loss for words. Like many young children, she is very easy to please and she takes her mother's smile with the greatest gratitude.
Then father and daughter return home from their excursion to the park to find that dear mother is dead. The father begins to break down, the daughter seems disappointed that she hasn't been able to show her mother her 'fairy blossoms.' She is taken into her father's embrace and the film ends there. We see the father's grief stricken face, and we can't even begin to comprehend what he must be thinking. But what we do know is that his child, regardless of all the stress he's currently under, must come first. We know that the truth, for his daughter, has not sunk in yet and he must figure out a way to let her know gently. We see this child's confusion and it hurts us, but we can also admire her grace and sheer innocence as she is taken into her father's arms, for the moment protected from the cold, cruel world. It is the one ray of light in a home where the surroundings are little more than sterile. The outside world demonstrates that it is not just a source of wonderment for this wide-eyed and imaginative child, but also a clear refuge from the cracks that finally gave way for this river of sorrow.
The situation depicted in Zoe's Day would be a nightmare for any parent. But as we've all come to accept, life must continue to go on. This may be a harsh truth for a child to understand, but Zoe's learning has to start somewhere, better now than later and better now than never. This film may be emotionally draining, but it does place a focus on the hope that still exists for this father and his child. He still has his daughter and as much pain as he may be in right now, his glass is far from empty.
A landmark in my childhood education
For years, I've considered The Secret of the Seal to be one of the best lost gems in animation. The film did not even have an IMDb page until very recently. Now that somebody's posted it, more and more people are going to discover it and I figure I should seize the chance to talk about it now before someone else beats me to it.
The Secret of the Seal is the story of Antonio, a young German student who finds himself relocating to the island of Sardinia with his father and younger sister Francesca after his mother dies. We find out very early on in the film that Antonio's father chooses to relocate not just because he misses his very large and loving family, but also because he feels far more comfortable raising his two children in an environment so far removed from the pollution the city's factories produced that contributed to his deceased wife's ill health. The film presents the city as dim, even dank; the two children, having witnessed their mother's death in a cramped hospital room, understand that their surroundings are oppressive. In contrast, Sardinia is awash with life: trees line up every which way on the rolling hills and plants and wildlife make their homes all the way down to the sea, which is dotted with enormous limestone cliffs. It is while on a tour into one of the many underground caves that Antonio (or Tottoi, as he is rechristened) has an encounter with a Mediterranean monk seal, which has been believed to be extinct for many years, a victim of pollution and over-fishing. Determined to prove that the seal was not just a figment of his imagination, Tottoi ventures back into the cave, but in doing so, opens up an even larger can of worms...
It is here where one can find the meat of the film's story. We know that Tottoi's big mouth will get him in trouble and lo and behold, it does, when his story spreads like wildfire and attracts the attention of an American businessman, who attempts to bribe him for the location of the seals (a mother and her baby) with an asking price of--get this!--one hundred American dollars. Our young hero isn't that easy however and refuses, but this prompts the businessman and his cohorts to take far more drastic, far more illegal measures in ensuring the seals land in their greedy hands. Being a rather short feature (it clocks in at a little over eighty minutes), The Secret of the Seal cannot say everything it may want to. It condemns human selfishness and corporate greed and takes a very obvious stance in favour of conservatism. It is the sort of film that is a perfect introductory teaching tool in which to educate young children on the very real problems that plague our environment, such as pollution (air and marine in particular), over- fishing and even over overhunting and deforestation. It is a film that wears it's sensibilities on it's sleeves, but that's a good thing, as it's able to condense such large issues in ways that a young child can understand and that can inspire young minds to seek more knowledge. It's a very positive film with a very obvious message (the music, for instance, is considerably upbeat, yet it's tone does not fail to darken when the issues presented in this film become far more serious).
The film can't help but be charming in it's scope. It's a film that inspired me to read up more on the very issues it brings attention to. Being an avid reader to begin with, I was more than glad to embrace the film's stress on the values of a good education. Science courses suddenly became more interesting. When we had to write up reports on the problems that plague our world's rainforests, guess who was more than glad to write them? When we had to read a few pages on the price we pay for the landfills we let stack up like scores of Leaning Towers of Pisas and then have presentations on them, guess who who was more than happy to read these pages (and more) and eager to present first? I can feel the effects of this film to this day and I am thankful for it. It remains, to this day, an important film from my childhood.
On the more artistic side of things, this film was a nice introduction into the films of Studio Ghibli. I ate all of those films up. I couldn't help but admire the animation style and the imagination that went into these productions; until then, I had been more accustomed to contemporary American animation of the time and so, I welcomed this new product into my life with open arms. I considered it simply another aspect of a worldly artistic education that would contribute into making me a well rounded adult. I am happy to say that my education still continues to this day. This is just one of the many wonderful things that helped shape it. We all need that first stepping stone!
The beginnings of something special
Much like Gerard Lough's The Stolen Wings, my biggest complaint about Deviant would have to be that it is far too short. This doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't succeed at what it sets out to do: It most certainly does. As a refreshingly straightforward depiction of a quirky prowler's latest home invasion, it manages to place you smack in the middle of a state of unease. We can't help but watch this short with some degree of nervousness because this man (frequent Lough collaborator Michael Parle) may as well be in our house--it's a testament to the very deliberate pacing.
Lough allows the events in Deviant to unfold very slowly, much in that same, meticulous way you'd expect a skilled prowler to think. There's the matter of sneaking in undetected, spying any window that may be open, any door that may be unlocked. There's the matter of actually slinking around without making much noise, ever conscious of the sounds of our footsteps on the floor. Then there's the matter of leaving your mark--if you're smart about it, leaving your mark means being able to leave the premises later on with the knowledge that you've been in there while the inhabitants were asleep, you've had a look at their precious belongings (even defiled a few), you've possibly had the gall to use their toothbrush, but you'll be damned if they ever figure it out! You may as well be an apparition. You may as well not have done it. You may as well have yourself a drink, because another day's gone by, the papers haven't been alerted and no one knows your name.
But what if you, the great home invading expert, forgot something? Forgot one minor detail that you know, to the inhabitants of the house, will stick out more obscenely than snow in July? That's the narrative crux of Deviant. Michael Parle turns in some excellent work, creating a very distinct character with whose dilemma we can dare to identify. Watching him slowly make his way through this house allows us to observe him at his most intimate. We find ourselves feeling for him and even thinking as he does: How is he going to get out of this one?
This is the third film of Lough's I've reviewed and the second I'm pleased to review at his very own personal request. I think he has exceptional talent and I think that with the proper project, he could become a name to remember in the horror genre. He guides Deviant with the same confidence as his other two projects, always with the end in mind, always acutely aware of the little details that give birth to such an intriguing atmosphere. His use of the same blue-purple filter he utilised in The Stolen Wings shrouds his film in a dank, ugly light (and it is a compliment when I say that he is not afraid to let his films get ugly, nor should he; just look at the material he's working with!). And once again, he uses Cian Furlong's musical score with the sensitivity required to establish a mood worth remembering. Deviant certainly is.
But what of a full length feature film? Wouldn't it be far more awesome if we got to see this man work his magic with a bigger budget to his credit? As long as he imbues a feature length version of Deviant with the same disregard for unnecessary dramatics, that same willingness to allow the material to build and build and build to a discomforting finish, then he'll have me for a fan. We need more of that in horror films, for one. And for another, I know I'd be the first to jump in line and watch it.
The Boogeyman (2010)
An excellent short story gets a decent adaptation
At the request of director Gerard Lough, I have gone ahead and reviewed his short film The Boogeyman, based on (interestingly enough) my favourite short story from the mind of Stephen King. The e-mail from Lough came from out of the blue; he expressed his pleasure over my review of The Stolen Wings, one of his earlier shorts and then lo and behold, the opportunity presented itself. Feeling rather exalted, I accepted and here I am now: Not only am I pleased to see an adaptation of this story out in the public fold (I have yet to see 1982's version by Jeff Schiro), I am pleased to see the work of a filmmaker who is not only visually competent, but also clearly at home in his own style.
Much like The Stolen Wings, The Boogeyman unfolds in dreamlike fashion; we first meet our protagonist, the clearly disturbed Andrew Billings, in the office of Dr. Harper, a man who Andrew makes clear he does not necessarily trust, but with whom he feels compelled to share his story with. You see, Andrew is the father of three deceased children, all of whom perished under what the police believe to be accidental circumstances. Andrew, however, is convinced that there's a force far more sinister at work here and the scenes in the drab looking office are juxtaposed against his memories of a life that only he believed had nowhere to go but up. It is Andrew's voice-over that grounds the film-- though we may not know where in the world he may be going with this (we can only presume that the conclusion will be even more tragic than what he's already let on) we can only go along for the ride, never mind whether he's insane or not.
The Boogeyman is saturated in the same purple hues that gave The Stolen Wings such a mystical appearance. This stylistic choice works even more successfully here when one considers the much darker subject matter at hand. The original score by Cian Furlong is eerily arresting, imbuing the film with an appropriately melancholy atmosphere. This atmosphere in turn serves as the perfect platform for a series of both beautiful and startling imagery. The boogeyman himself, commonly regarded as the keeper of dreams and here presented with all of the misery that follows the average child murderer, creeps his way through each frame even when not actually on screen. His presence alone is felt and we, like Mr. Billings, find ourselves at the mercy of his eyes, which watch our every little move.
The film, in spite of the low production values that encumber many a short film, manages to lift itself up with a rather gorgeous confidence that snatches our attention the moment it gets going. This says a lot for a film that is heavy on dialogue and very low on action. The therapy session itself then assumes its proper role as the entire catalyst for the narrative rather than merely an extension of events that otherwise have already happened. Where one actor would simply approach the role of Mr. Billings with a rather droll air, Simon Fogarty excels at presenting our narrator as not only a deeply frightened man, but also as one hell of a god storyteller. It helps that Lough's screenplay gives Fogarty a lot of meat to sink his teeth into: We end up truly believing that he has gone through all the trials and tribulations that come with not only losing your children, but your marriage and quite possibly, your sanity.
Moreover, I highly appreciated this film because it perfectly embodied all of the fears that King explored in the original story in the first place. It is a tale not only about the creatures that go bump in the night, but also a tribute to the fears our once childish minds still grasp onto--at times with the strength of your average vicegrip--even when adulthood has long established that it's here to stay and you are well aware that these fears themselves are irrational. It is also a story about the fears of parenting and the love for one's children and the creeping terror, in the back of our minds, of our own failure in our duty to love, teach and most importantly, protect.
Mr. Billings is everything we don't want to be.
The Stolen Wings (2009)
True justice would be if it were a full length feature
A good short film manages to be compelling in a very limited amount of time. A true talent does not need the standard ninety minute time slot to tell a great story. Thankfully, Irish filmmaker Gerard Lough crafts an interesting yarn in The Stolen Wings, his short and sweet fairy tale. The Stolen Wings manages to pique the viewer's interest in less than four minutes, but is sadly a victim of the short running time the story and its particular medium champions.
The story here is typical of many famous predecessors in the swords and sorcery genre. Retold by a young babysitter to her young charge, the stolen wings of the film's title belong to a fairy who fell victim to an evil sorcerer who wished to possess the last magic in her wings. The crux of this story lies in just how much of the story told by this young babysitter happens to be true. You know of course how this film ends. You see it coming a mile away. But like all good things, the success of The Stolen Wings lies in its execution.
Certainly this film is helped by the performance of lead actress Natasha O'Brien, who lends the story of the stolen fairy's wings just the right amount of magic, mystery and weight thanks in large part to her lovely voice. She relays this story with a very arresting command of its tone, just the right ingredient to keep audiences watching. The film's score is also beautiful and is effective in luring the viewer into a world of magic and wonderment.
Due to the restrictions of its low budget, The Stolen Wings cannot exactly go elsewhere--to ask it to expand more on its already intriguing story would be asking much of a film that given its short running time, took nearly a year to make. This leaves the viewer with a rather troubling conundrum; the stories Lough's short film pays refreshing homage to are, in part, fascinating because of the epic nature of their narratives. These stories are, oftentimes, the much longer and more time consuming of the books you find in the library. And if they don't exactly have length on their side, they make up for this with all the twists and turns of a novel's worth of plot. A brand new world demands detail and Lough's film is in great need of a big budget re-imagining to give that fairy--and his audience--some justice.
A polarising film for sure, yet not without moments of striking beauty
It was in the middle of the Christmas festivities when a mutual friend of ours suggested that I review Martyrs. Now if that's not a holiday downer, then I don't know what is. Not that I don't like Martyrs, mind you. Come to think of it, I'm really not one to talk, especially when you consider my choice to review the late Bob Clark's Black Christmas on Christmas Day. And Martyrs really can be considered (for the sole purpose of light comparison) a companion piece to the aforementioned film, for it is just as joyless, just as humourless and as pitch black in tone as anything you could ever hope to see. In short, it's right up my alley.
Right from the start, the film is saturated in gloom and doom. It is the story of Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), who at a young age, was kidnapped by a mysterious ring of criminals that subjected to repeated torture over the course of a year. Fast forward to about a decade later and Lucie has escaped, is in the care of the loving Anna (Morjana Alaoui), but is still every bit as damaged as she was the night she made her great escape. Only cold revenge exists in her heart and she makes it her business to seek out those responsible for her captivity. She does early on and the film kicks off into a seemingly nonstop menagerie of gory mayhem; the content is violent and uncompromising and those with weak stomachs should not ever consider watching. As if this orgy of violence isn't enough, things don't go as planned. For starters, Anna was not informed of Lucie's intent to kill, and when she arrives she must help dispose of the bodies, which quickly escalates into a difficult enough task for reasons too complicated to get into. To make matters worse, Lucie taking revenge and killing her supposed kidnappers appears not to have helped matters much...
That's as far as I'll go in regards to explaining the plot of this film; suffice it to say that Martyrs is nothing short of what can be most aptly described as an 'intense' experience. It is, by all means, a rather divisive film, but one that still manages to pack quite a punch. Perhaps this punch wouldn't have been the subject of so much controversy if director Pascal Laugier hadn't chosen to hammer in his point in such a graphic manner and believe me, the second half of Martyrs is graphic and uncomfortably so. It manages to make the first half look like child's play, which is saying a lot. But these halves differ in their cinematic intent. The first half is far more chaotic than the second, a loud cacophony of shrieks, bangs, clatters and dripping blood all over the gorgeous tile floors of the home where much of the action takes place. This unnerving first half is rife with pain and suffering in massive quantities. It does, in essence, mirror--and provide a window-- into Lucie's traumatised state and is the simplest way for the audience to understand her inner rage; she has been living with it for so long, after all. The second half is interested in giving its audience a more emotional jolt and the film ends in a manner that I can only describe as rather moving, in both a spiritual and emotional sense. It is filmed in a far more clinical manner. The atrocities depicted on screen just are; they do not require a reason to exist and to attempt to find any conceivable logic in the mess that unfolds would only cause our protagonist--and quite possibly the audience--to dissolve into a state as devoid of happiness as that of our dear Lucie.
Through it all, there comes that question we all ask ourselves at one point or another: What is humanity and what role do we have in it? The film does not so much as ask these questions as much as it provides an answer that some of us may or may not like, but that we can hopefully understand. The overall theme of the film is that violence, morality, humanity, faith and above all, reason are very complicated things, perhaps more complicated than most of us are willing to admit and that sometimes, it's better not to look for an answer, but rather to understand why people do the things they do, or at least try to. Our protagonist is subjected to what is not exactly torture, but trials, trials that test her willingness to die, the exact opposite of what we would expect from someone in this sort of position. This is not a film that embraces the survival instinct so much as it does, in essence, admire those, who can retain a healthy spirit in the face of suffering and possible death.
Martyrs is a very brave film in this respect, for most of the time, we would not be expected to find much sympathy in the face of what most people would write off as simply the face of pure human evil. Martyrs is the type of film that you either love or hate and I could not necessarily recommend it to anyone. However, as a testament to the limits of transgressve cinema and to how far one can willingly go before they find their own morality tested, this is a good stepping stone. The film is intelligent, beautiful and not entirely as devoid of hope as its detractors may want the average viewer to believe. You will be surprised by who ultimately has a major epiphany at the climax of the film. This is what makes Martyrs as much of a trial for the audience as it is for its two protagonists; it can be, for many people, a chore to sit through, but I'd rather watch something that challenges me rather than something that lies to me.
Martyrs is truth.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Advertisement campaigns be damned!
This is a film I've waited for...well, for ages. The Cabin in the Woods was filmed in 2009 and it's only now that it's received the release that it deserves. That it's been co-written by Joss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Whedon only fueled the hype (and interestingly enough, I am unfamiliar with the majority of Whedon's work and had only my high hopes to go by, so that allowed me to go into the film expecting less than other people did). Thankfully, good word of mouth is allowing it to achieve a certain cult status as one of the ever popular subgenre of meta-horror films (for the best examples, look no further than Scream and its subsequent sequels).
One of the biggest complaints I've seen about this film is directed towards it's advertisement campaign. I can't blame the people who've found fault with it: The Cabin in the Woods was marketed as a dead serious addition to the horror genre but it is actually more of a satire, an all out deconstruction of said genre as well as a love letter to the fans who've allowed it to still be a viable moneymaker. The film may be self aware, but it is even more self aware about being self aware and that is what makes it the jolly good time that it is. It succeeds not only in the Here's a few chills and thrills! department, but also manages to be a lot of fun to boot. The result is a very satisfying theatrical experience, but if you're looking to be all out disturbed or creeped out by the proceedings on screen, then you're watching the wrong film. The scares serve to, quite literally, enhance the plot.
What I meant by that last statement there is that our main characters, which include a handsome football player (Chris Hemsworth), his horny girlfriend (Anna Hutchison), the sweet as can be nerd (Jesse Williams), the stoner with a little bit more going on upstairs than you think (Franz Kranz) and the quintessential virgin (Kristen Connolly), appear to be pawns in a game of death orchestrated by corporate bigwigs with the power to manipulate the proceedings. The dramatic irony here is that only the audience (those actually in the film and the ones who are actually watching) knows about it. The characters are left to fend for themselves and are, in essence, reduced to the very same character archetypes the film made a point to disregard from the start. There is no choice here; they are, much like characters that are designed to conform to slasher film stereotypes, doomed to be slaughtered.
I can't say any more than that. What I can say though is that director Drew Goddard certainly knows his material. He knows exactly where his story is going from frame one and takes his sweet time luring the audience in. We don't know if this is Under the Dome or Slashers, but that's the beauty of it: We won't be absolutely sure of anything until the credits roll and even if you do know what's about to go down, you're going to be on a ride with more twists and turns than the marketing campaign would have you believe.