Wednesday, 2 July 2014

THE RETURNED and What the Zom-pocalypse Could Really Look Like

Rethink Everything You Thought You Knew About Zombies

There is something to be said about a film that sets out to deliver a familiar story told in a whole new way. The Returned not only succeeds at this, but it makes you stop and think, and even RE-think.

Zombies are a major part of popular culture right now, largely taking from the Romero films circa 68-85. Today, they're everywhere we turn - Film, TV, Comic Books, Merch. We have a cross-media phenomenon that no one seems to be tiring of yet. Even so, it always feels as though you've seen it all before, which for the record does not mean you can't enjoy it.

For me, the most thrilling zombie tales tend to be the unexpected ones, ones that gnaw at our own brains by making us question the concepts of life and death. My first experience with this was with a short story by Poppy Z. Brite, "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves". As a first person narration, it allows (what was for me at the time) the unique experience of understanding the zom-pocalypse as a natural disaster - as devastating and horrible on a new level. 

I then read Handling the Undead by John Lindqvist (author of Let The Right One In). It changed the meaning of zombies for me. Here we had people who were witnessing the "return" of their loved ones, and although as zombies they would be ravenous and dangerous, these people were completely torn-up by the idea that they could potentially have back what they had believed to be gone forever. A difficult read, emotionally, but it provided some much needed context to the grand-zombie-narrative which was beginning to grow a little stale. And this idea of getting inside the issue is perhaps the secret to the success of The Walking Dead, which becomes less about the zombies and more about the concept of survival as time goes on.

In The Returned we have Lindqvist's concept taken to yet another (fascinating) level. In a time when there is Zombie treatment, returning becomes a privilege that many can look forward to. However, as the supply runs low, the society is faced with many difficult questions. Whose life is worth saving? Who can afford to have their life saved? How can diseased individuals be trusted? Etc.

Obviously, the story blatantly delves into statements about prejudices, and classism, but there are even connotations about religion (namely, are the doctors playing "God"?). 

Like all good Canadian films, we are left with an ambiguous ending after a long complicated ride about the complex nature of humanity, but that only makes the film stronger. It's one I believe could be watched ten times by ten different people who would all walk away with different sentiments about what was being said. There are so many issues raised in this one that re-watching can only be beneficial. I won't call it cynical per se, but it definitely will make you wonder if right/wrong, good/bad, black/white are ever clearly defined. A+, without a doubt (despite the lack of gore).

While on the topic, I would like to note that the film was directed by the Spanish filmmaker Manuel Carballo, and written by another Spaniard, Hatem Khraiche. Funded by the Canadian government and filmed on location in Ontario, the film is a Spanish-Canadian co-production - evidently this is the dynamic duo of Zombie flicks. 

The Spanish industry brought us the Rec trilogy (see my review here) to which I am forever grateful for for its ability to prove the "found-footage" film CAN be done well. 

Canada has also been known for making curious zombie-flicks, and although this is the first to fully land, it's not the first time the industry has dabbled in the concept of life-after-zombies in a fresh manner. Take Fido for instance which had a very interesting context despite falling flat on its delivery (see my review here). Also, the zom-com A Little Bit Zombie attempts to make light of the zombie-turning process in an unexpected manner (see my review here).

Thursday, 29 May 2014

FIDO: Zombies, Ownership, and Other Philosophical Questions

This dark zom-com has a very interesting premise. The film uses concepts of slavery and ownership through the use of zombies. Set in the a futuristic (or alternate) 1950s-style atmosphere, Fido follows a young boy as he tries to make sense of the strange world around him. In a post-zombie-war environment, (the town is named Willard, a Night of the Living Dead reference) a large cooperation Zomcon has made billions by capitalizing on all the horrors. After a nuclear spill left humans vulnerable to re-animation after death, and after a war to subdue the overwhelming number of zombies, Zomcon created a system to enslave those who turn. Now, in a happy post-war era, you can own as many zombies as you can afford and use them as butlers, nannies, even sex slaves.

Obviously, this is problematic. What young Timmy struggles with is whether or not zombies are really dead. This line of thought clearly opens much more complex doors such as who (or what) is entitled to human rights and freedoms. That being said, I should note that while the story seems very explicitly founded on such questions, they are never properly addressed - perhaps this film's largest failing. As the viewer, you should see the connotations from a mile away, and it's very unfortunate that the film opts not to dive in. Instead, it remains always from the perspective of Timmy and his mother, Helen (portrayed by Carrie-Anne Moss), both of whom are on the verge of asking important questions about their world... They just never quite get there.

Instead, owning a zombie for the first time begins to plant seeds of change in their attitudes and understandings. As their minds open, so to does Helen's heart. Her husband's cold distance and disinterest leads her down a complicated road as she begins to see Fido in a new, welcoming, light. This almost romantic storyline serves to introduce the idea that Fido is something more than a dead guy - but it is also rather uncomfortable since it is nearly impossible to gauge how aware the zombies are about their condition. Fido proves to be special when his bond with Timmy proves to be stronger than that of an owner/owned relationship. But it remains unclear whether this is indicative of the zombie race as a whole. And if not, what makes Fido special is a question for which we are given no answer.

While I am not convinced this movie is worthy of much praise, I have to admit the storyline is very compelling. I was dissatisfied at the end, but I also really wanted more, which is actually a bit of a paradox. Perhaps it was trying to do too much in too little time. I think this story would make for a great graphic novel series, which would give it time to develop fully these significant philosophical questions about life, death, ownership, human rights, war... The possibilities are unlimited.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

TOP FIVES: Award Winning Canadian Films - The Mortal Instruments, Enemy, and More

Canada has had its own award ceremonies to honour domestic films for over 60 years. For the past 3 decades, until 2012, these were called the Genies, but as of 2013 they were merged with the Geminis (TV) to create the Canadian Screen Awards (CSA).

Whatever we call it, the point is these ceremonies are some of the best ways to keep up with our film industry, and although there a lot of great Canadian films that don't make it to the CSAs, there are oh so many that do.

This post is just a compilation of the top winners over the last five years. Enjoy!

2nd Annual CSA (2014) Hosted by Martin Short

The big winner this year was Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, taking home 5 awards. Villeneuve won for Best Direction, and Sarah Gadon won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The film also won in the categories of Original Score, Editing, and Cinematography. It had 10 nominations in all.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who decides to seek out his doppelganger after spotting him in a movie. Watch Trailer Here.

Next in line was the Canada/USA co-production, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. This teen-fantasy film took home 3 awards; Achievement in Make-Up, Achievement in Overall Sound, and Achievement in Sound Editing. It was also awarded the Golden Reel for highest box office gross.

The film is a blockbuster that was long anticipated by many young adult readers who had been following the book series since it first hit stands in 2007. It follows a young girl who sets out to find answers when her mother goes missing during what appears to be a violent attack, only to discover she belongs to an underground world of magic and demons. Watch Trailer Here.

The Best Picture award went to Gabrielle. It is directed by Louis Archambault, and follows the story of a young woman, Gabrielle (if you couldn't guess) with Wiliams Syndromw. Her musical gift leads her to a choir at the rec centre where she meets Martin. The two instantly connect but as they prepare for an upcoming show they are met with prejudices and family-fears about their relationship. Watch Trailer Here.

1st Annual CSA (2013) Hosted by Martin Short, Also

Kim Nguyen's film War Witch (Rebelle) took home an astonishing 10 awards. It won Best Picture and Best Director. Rachel Mwanza received the Best Acrtess in a Leading Role award, and Serge Kandyinda got Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was also given, Best Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Overall Sound, and Sound Editing.

The story Komona, a 14 year old girl in Sub-Saharan Africa as she tells her unborn child the story of her life - beginning with her abduction by a rebel army two years back. Watch Trailer Here.

Meanwhile, the Achievement in Visual Effects went to the Canada/USA co=production Resident Evil: Retribution, which also took home the Golden Reel. The sci-fi action horror is the 5th in its series (with the 6th set for release in 2015) and this time it follows Alice as she fights alongside a resistance battle. Watch Trailer Here.

32nd Genie Awards (2012) Hosted by George Stromboulopoulos

The most awards this year went to Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Phillipe Falardeau. It took home six awards, Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing; plus Best Supporting Actress went to Sophie Nelisse, and Best Actor to Mohammed Fellag. 

The story unfolds when an Algerian immigrant is hired to replace a public school teacher who recently committed suicide. The dramedy follows his attempts to help the children through their grief, while he deals with his own loss. Watch Trailer Here.

Following so close behind with 5 awards was David Cronenberg's Drama, A Dangerous Method, starring Kiera Knightly, Viggo Mortenson, and Michael Fassbender. Viggo won for Best Actor, and it was also given Best Art Direction, Overall Sound, Sound Editing, and the Achievement in Music for its Original Score. 

The beautifully constructed film is something of a bio-pic of Carl Jung and his ever-deteriorating relationship with Sigmund Freud as the two find themselves drawn to a particularly fascinating patient, Sabina Speilrein. Watch Trailer Here.

Lastly, the Golden Reel went to Starbuck. The film follows David ("Starbuck"), a fortysomething year old who faces a class-action lawsuit when the 142 children he fathered through artificial insemination file against him. Meanwhile, his own girlfriend reveals her pregnancy - good timing. Watch Trailer Here.

31st Annual Genie Awards (2011), Hosted by William Shatner

Incendies was the big winner of 2011, garnering 8 awards. It brought in Best Picture, Best Director (Denis Villeneuve), Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing and Overall Sound. As well as Best Actress for Lubna Azabal.

The film follows a set of twins who make a journey back to their birthplace in the middle-East, in an attempt to unravel the mystery of their mother's life.

Barney's Version followed close behind with 7 awards. It won for Art Direction, Costume Design, Achievement in Music, and in Makeup. The cast also did very well, with Paul Giamatti winning Best Actor, Dustin Hoffman winning Best Supporting Actor, and Minnie Driver getting Best Supporting Actress.

The film follows a foul-mouthed hard-drinking 65 year old man who, nearing the end of his life takes time to reflect on his many successes and failures. Watch Trailer Here.

The Golden Reel went to the Canada/USA co-production (again) Resident Evil: Afterlife. Watch Trailer Here.

30th Annual Genie Awards (2010)

Scooping up 9 awards was the drama Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve (he's kind of a big deal if you can't tell yet). It took home, Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, Original Screenplay, Overall Sound, and Sound Editing. Also, it won Best Supporting Actor (Maxime Gaudette) and Best Actress (Karine Vanasse).

The film is based on the true story of the 1989 school shooting in Montreal which resulted in the deaths of several female engineer students at the hand of a crazed misogynist. Watch Trailer Here.

The runner up for most awards goes to Fifty Dead Men Walking, but it only took home 2! It won for Art Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay.

This one is also based on a true story. It tells the story of Martin MacGartland, an Irishman (played by Jim Sturgess) who in the 1980s was recruited by the British Police to go undercover in the deadly Irish terrorist group known as the IRA. As he works his way up the ranks of the IRA, things become increasingly complicated until his whole life feels like a grey area. Watch Trailer Here.

The Golden Reel went to the comedy Father and Guns (De Pere en Flic). Directed by Emile Gaudreault, it follows the strained relationship of a father and son. Both policemen, they are shocked to find they have been paired up on an undercover assignment, at a father-son therapy camp no less. Watch Trailer Here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

THE DIRTIES: An Award Winning Debut-Feature With a Meagre $10 000 Dollar Budget

An Uncomfortably Dark Comedy About High School Bullying

Why did Kevin Smith decide to sponsor this little indie-Canadian film, a debut for director Matt Johnson? Apart from his open-relationship with the Canadian Film Industry (and Degrassi), he genuinely believes that it is "the most important movie you will see all year". And many agree.

The film was first released at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2013 where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative, among numerous others. It has also screened at San-Diego Comic-Con, and the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre.

So what makes this ridiculously low-budget film so special? The topic of bullying is always rampant, especially in the last few years with the recognition of cyber-bullying and its connection to teen-suicide/homicide, but part of what makes this film so fresh is its back to basics approach. The bullying is shown to be all in-school, perpetrated by one group (nicknamed The Dirties), in an 80s movies fashion. So despite the constant publicizing of cyber-bullying, this film reminds us of the harsh reality of the HS hallways, when you don't fit in.

The plot follows two best friends, Matt and Owen, who start off by trying to raise awareness about The Dirties by making an action-packed revenge film which they plan to screen for class (it may be a project assignment, but its conception is a little vague). Matt is shown to be the main figure in the filmmaking process, and his enthusiasm just makes you smile. But more importantly, his desire to create positive change from his work is very compelling. But unfortunately, the film doesn't go over the way he had planned - the blow is unbearable. As he becomes more and more frustrated with his film having no impact on his fellow classmates, Matt suggests the problem is that they did not actually kill The Dirties... like, for real. What starts as a joke quickly becomes a reality as Matt becomes more and more set on exacting a revenge that will be more meaningful, he also begins to lose his connection with Owen who finds the entire plan a little too real.

In a Revenge of the Nerds meets Elephant approach, the film uses a mock-umentary style to ground itself in the real issue. The film is properly contextualized, with references such as Columbine and The Catcher in the Rye, but these are used passingly which somehow gives them more depth. In this way, the film comments on how eerily normal such violences are in our everyday lives. The film's charm comes form earnest moments like these, oh, and the meta-film approach as the two main characters are portrayed as having quite the movie obsession.

After seeing the film at Slamdance, Kevin Smith offered to promote the film on his podcast, but his support did not end there. Eventually Smith told the young director that he would like to release the film through his company. When Johnson was asked why he believes his film is generating a wider release in the U.S. than in its domestic market, he said:

"People are more interested in the perspective of it there than they are in Canada because it’s so in the consciousness of the public...The reception to the film -- in terms of the positivity -- has been equal with Canadian and American audiences, but certainly there seems to be a much deeper fascination with it stateside." (Wide Screen)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Hollywood Messes Up a Canadian Classic

Early slasher cinema will be forever indebted to Bob Clark's Black Christmas, a low-budget Canadian film starring Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder. And yet - Hollywood went ahead and screwed it up in a reckless attempt to remake and modernize the story, clumsily relying on the foundation of Psycho.

(Beware of Spoilers)

Sadly, Glenn Morgan’s 2006 remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas is not a terribly coherent film. In a messy effort to do too much, the film does too little - it loses the essence of the first one which was all about the actual terror of suspense. Here, Billy’s extensive backstory crosscuts throughout the plot, exposing a set of reasons why he is incapable of functioning ‘normally’ in society. Moreover, the theme of sexual harassment, overly present in the original is played down by having the calls no longer be perverted, and yet Billy as a voyeur becomes a major theme. Meanwhile, the film seems to try to use the themes of voyeurism and the breakdown of the family to create an intertextual relationship to Psycho

Subequently, the film is no longer explicitly about the vulnerability of women as there is no sexual harassment (save for the one scene in which Billy secretly watches Lauren shower as an obvious and out of place homage to Psycho). Instead, it becomes more traditional in its exploitation of the bad mother/good mother myth through its use of the virgin/whore dichotomy, albeit updated to embroider the good mother/virgin (Kelli) with feminist characteristics such as rationality, and authority and vigor when necessary. By the end however such characteristics are subdued when she is taken home by her mother in a traumatized state. Somehow, she becomes just another victim.

The recurrent victimization of women in slashers has been discussed by many, including William Schoell who asserts that this tactic is connected to the fact that the idea of women needing protection is simply “ingrained in the public consciousness”, and is therefore unlikely to ever go away. Ultimately though, Billy’s violence becomes a consequence of his life and psychosis rather than being explicitly about women as it was in Clark’s version. Instead, violence is all he knows. This is another example of the way the film may be thought of as borrowing from Psycho

Speaking about Hitchcock’s film as a pre-cursor to the slasher, Clover notes the significant conventions as follows: “the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually attractive woman; the location is not home, a terrible place...”. Unfortunately, Black Christmas certainly lacks both the cinematic and narrative sophistication of Hitchcock’s film. Instead, major themes such as voyeurism, consumption, and the virgin/whore dichotomy, seem to be simply thrown together in a blender with little to no use of critical thought. 

Despite the story being founded on Clark’s original ideas about the character Billy, the film is seriously lacking anything that resembles finesse. It’s all about the spectacle of the wet death (a phrase by which Isabelle Christina Pinedo describes all post-modern horror), denying the viewer any reason to care about anyone or anything that’s going on. 

In a word, it’s a MESS.

Click Here for my look at the original and why it is such an important film in slasher history