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VIFF 2019 Review: In The Tall Grass

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In The Tall Grass is a thriller of people lost in a field of tall grass and come across something of the paranormal that’s terrifying to their existence.

With the VIFF comes the return of films in the Altered States category: of thrillers, horror and even the paranormal. My first chance came with the film In The Tall Grass. It was worth it.

The film starts with a pregnant Becky DeMuth and her brother Cal traveling to San Diego to find a way to give up her baby. They pass an old bowling alley and stop by a church. Just as they stop by, they hear the voice of a young boy crying for help. The voice is coming from a field of tall grass they’ve parked beside. They also hear the mother of the boy begging anyone to not come in. Becky and Cal are naturally curious and walk in top help the boy. It’s only a matter of time they find themselves lost and even risk getting stuck by the wet sticky mud. Even as they’re distant, they hear each other’s voices which is not really theirs, but mystically transmitted. They decide to leave, but they can’t and are stuck for the night.

During the night, Cal encounters Tobin, the lost boy, who is scared, bruised and holding a dead crow. Becky meets up with a man named Ross, who is very friendly and offers to lead her. Tobin reveals to cal that the field the grass does not move dead things and Becky will not make it out of the field alive. Tobin leads Cal to the centre of the field which consists of cut grass bordering a big mystical rock with hieroglyphics which Tobin tells Cal to touch. Before he does, Becky arrives, but is taken away by an unseen figure.

Travis, the father of Becky’s child, arrives in the same area of Becky and Cal. He notices the car parked by the church. He also notices the field of tall grass. He hears Tobin’s voice and is led into the field. Tobin leads Travis to Becky’s corpse. Travis breaks down, but loses sight of Tobin. At the same time, we see Tobin with his father Ross and mother Natalie at the church along with their dog Freddie. Possibly a reference of what happened earlier. Freddie runs into the field of tall grass and the three chase after him. It’s there where Travis hears Tobin’s voice and the three of the family are scattered around the field. Ross comes to the centre with the rock and touches it as night falls. Tobin is discovered by Becky and cal all all are confused by the timelines.

As the three are one group, Becky and Cal decide to leave and use Tobin to navigate a path back to the road on top of Cal’s shoulders. Becky receives an unknown phone call saying that Cal should quit hunting Travis.The grass soon appears to be entering Becky’s uterus and she becomes unconscious. Cal and Tobin come across Ross, who reunites with Tobin. Ross brings them to the rock but are startled when they see Natalie and she says she saw Becky’s corpse earlier. As they try to make their escape, Ross is chasing them all down and gives them the impression there’s no escape and they’re all under Ross’ control. Ross tells them all the rock shows them of what’s happening.

Becky, Cal, Travis and Tobin succeed in escaping the field into the abandoned bowling alley. As Cal and Travis make their way to the top, they discover the dog Freddie escaped via a hole. However a spat between Travis and Cal brew as Travis brings up he senses incestuous feelings between Cal and Becky. Cal throws Travis off the roof. That succeeds in alerting Ross to their location. Tobin, knowing how this alerted Ross to their whereabouts, runs back into the field. Becky and Cal try to escape together, but Becky won’t leave Travis alone in the field. After she runs off to find Travis, Cal is strangled by Ross. It’s evident anyone in the grass field is affected by a time loop. If anyone dies, there will be another of them alive. If anyone touches the rock, they get a sense of control and invincibility.

During the return to the grass, Becky admits she was going to give the baby up for adoption. Becky is soon captured by Ross who tries to sexually assault her, but she escapes. Grass creatures however emerge and grab a hold of her and carry her to the rock. There, the rock develops imagery that detail the baby will die and Becky will be tortured. Becky passes out in reaction. As she awakens, she is tricked by Ross who poses his voice as Cal. Travis meanwhile stumbles across Becky’s unconscious body. Ross then kills Travis and captures Tobin to get him to touch the rock. Becky stops him, but dies. Travis decides to touch the rock to get a better understanding of the grass.

The film ends with one last scene involving Becky, Cal, Tobin and Travis. It gives the impression that all know what is happening and the film ends with what should be.

This film is a film that is based off of a short story written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. We’ve had Stephen King adaptations before and often adapting a Stephen King story to the big screen is hit-or-miss. This is a very complex story. This involves six people who go into a field of grass with paranormal powers. It threatens their lives and creates another life for them. Then there’s the rock that gives whoever it touches a sense of invincibility and control and threatens others.

Overall this film is a maze and a puzzle. Trying to piece this puzzle together is a tricky thing. Trying to create this maze of confusion is also a tricky thing. Watching it, it’s easy to get thrilled by the paranormal and nervous for what will happen next. However in looking back, I felt there were some areas that didn’t make too much sense. Even when it becomes clear that Ross starts as the controlling one and then it becomes Travis, that seemed odd. Even how Ross was the controlling conniving one, that even seemed cheesy at times.

The film does however keep one intrigued in the paranormal elements. Depite its flaws in the script and storyline, it does succeed in grabbing a hold of your attention and keeping you intrigued in the story. The paranormal elements don’t come across as cheeseball as it adds to the thriller aspect of the film. Overall despite its flaws as a film, I feel this is a good story for fans of paranormal fiction. I just feel it could have been done better as a movie.

This story is a mixed bag for Vincenzo Natali. Yes, it’s confusing, but the paranormal will keep one intrigued from start to finish and it will keep one hoping for the best for the main characters. Laysla de Oliveira was very good as Becky. Isn’t it something how the first two VIFF films I saw starred Laysla? She captured the role well in both it’s comedic elements and it’s dramatic elements.

Avery Whitted was also good as Cal. Will Buie Jr. also did an excellent job as Tobin: the frightened boy in the middle of it all. His role was the best at keeping the horror/thriller aspect of the film and was the most no-nonsense performance of all. Patrick Wilson was hard to make sense of as Ross. He came across as a conniver, but I feel he lacked the sinister element. Harrison Gilbertson was good as Travis, but he appeared he could have done more.

In The Tall Grass is a Netflix thriller that works well to be shown on the big screen, if imperfectly. It may not make the most sense, but it does keep people thrilled and intrigued about what will happen next and how it will end.

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VIFF 2019 Review: Guest Of Honour

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David Thewlis plays a health inspector whose inspections eventually become a lot more than simple inspecting in Guest Of Honour.

The Vancouver International Film Festival usually begins with an Opening Gala of speeches and an airing of a Canadian Feature Film: usually from TeleFilm Canada. This year it is Guest Of Honour: the latest film from Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It was a good film to open with, but not a great one.

The film begins with a priest, Father Greg, consulting with a daughter who lost her father, named Jim. Greg asks her how to best remember him, but she can’t say because she doesn’t remember him that well. She can speak for what he does remember of him.

Jim was a health inspector for restaurants most of his life. He started as a restaurateur, but failed. He had since become a health inspector. He was very strict in his job, especially to ethnic restaurants. As a family man, he married a Portuguese woman and fathered a daughter named Veronica. Veronica possessed a lot of music talent. That all changed one day when Jim introduced Veronica to a new music school. He met the instructor and she met Walter. Walter would become her partner in her glass harmonica instruction and performances, and later her boyfriend. The instructor would eventually become Jim’s mistress. Veronica knew that as she saw Jim sitting between the instructor and her mother, who was dying of cancer, and saw Jim hold the instructor’s hand.

Moving on into the future, the last time Veronica met with her father was while she was in jail for a crime she wants to take responsibility for, even though she may not have committed it. Jim is willing to do whatever it takes to get her out of jail, but she is insistent in serving her time.

Jim has to go to past videotapes and past references in order to get her justice. Sometimes he even confides to her pet rabbit about his problems and issues. As we flash back to the past, we learn more. We learn something bothered both Veronica and Walter inside. It bothered Walter so much, he committed suicide. Veronica would grow up to become a music teacher for a private school. However she has taken aback with the drummer of the school band named Clive. Clive looks so much like Walter. It even appears that she is more intimate with Clive, including to the bus driver Mike who is in love with her.

Mike is upset that Veronica won’t develop a relationship with her so one day, he sends a lewd text to Clive’s phone through Veronica’s phone during one of their performances. Clive and Veronica notice this. They want to do something, but fear they might be caught and accused of something they don’t want to be accused of. However it all falls apart at the hotel as Veronica is reminded of Walter’s suicide. Whatever problem happened at the hotel, it led to Veronica being sentenced to jail time and stripped of all teaching duties.

Jim tries to think of a way to free Veronica. He gets an idea after he sees a video of a rat inside a restaurant he inspected. The owner claimed someone with hard feelings to the restaurant put the rat in there to fix him. Another time, he comes across an Armenian restaurant with dead rabbits. He is about to close the place down, but they insist it’s for a delicacy of rabbit ears to be served at a private party. They plead with him to have mercy on them, and he decided to go to their special party.

Before the party, it’s evident Jim is up to something. He takes rabbit droppings from Veronica’s rabbit and puts them in a tube. He then goes to a German restaurant appearing to order dinner, but then goes to the bathroom to drop the droppings around, and then alert the manager. While talking with the manager, the real reason Jim is here comes out. He wasn’t to speak to his grandson, who appears in conversation to be Jim’s own son. The grandson is Clive. Clive knows why Jim is here, and is not happy. The situation between him and Veronica is just as humiliating.

Then over at the party at the Armenian restaurant, he arrives and is impressed with what he sees. The owners even treat him as a ‘guest of honor,’ despite what almost happened days ago. They ask him to give a speech. Jim tries to give a nice speech despite being intoxicated. However Jim’s feelings of his intended vengeance towards Mike come out during his speech. The speech lands him in trouble with law authorities. After he finds Veronica’s rabbit dead, he decided on one last act, and this involving the Armenian restaurant to assist with it. It is through all Veronica has told that Father Greg is able to give his requiem to Jim at his funeral. The film ends with one last flashback.

Atom Egoyan is a source of pride for Canadian filmmakers. He is one of only ten Canadian directors ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. Atom has been known for his unique style of filmmaking. At the gala, he flashed back to when he did his first student-film at a school in Victoria. He received a C- and a lot of complaints and ‘advise.’ Some even described it as ‘too artsy.’ Whatever the situation, it would pave the way for his style to have its heyday in the 1990’s and his Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay coming for The Sweet Hereafter.

Times have noticeably changed. His films have been consistently done well and good at telling a story in his own style, but they’re not as well-hailed. Some of the meaner critics could say he is yet another director that had a directing flare and it flared out. This film does feature a lot of mystique in terms of the story. The film mixes the story with a variety of themes like restaurant inspections, music and feeling, family secrets, technology, and rabbits. The film does so in a colorful way, but it’s imperfect. There are some things that don’t make a lot of sense. Sure, Veronica’s music talent would propel her to her career as a musician and teacher, but through glass harmonica? The theme of rabbits also appears to be done in a way that doesn’t make sense. Veronica has a pet rabbit she adores, but also a lucky-rabbit’s-foot keychain. The rabbit becomes a source for Jim to confide in, use his droppings to frame a restaurant for facts, and have the dead rabbit’s feet cut off? Even how his restaurant inspections go from simple inspections to him using them as a way to get justice for his daughter, but pave the way for his downfall? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s not just the confusing elements of those themes, but also the storyline itself. There are a lot of moments in the story that leave many questions unanswered. How did he die? What secret made Walter commit suicide? Did Jim’s affair with his mother have something to do with it? What exactly did Veronica get arrested or convicted for? Is Clive really Jim’s son, or did Jim just say that to the grandfather? What was the significance or Jim’s personal reason of having the rabbit’s feet cut off? Now don’t get me wrong. I know the film is a puzzle and it’s about getting the pieces to fit together. I also know filmmakers leave out certain things to get the audience thinking or even trying to draw their own conclusions or write their own stories. However most of the elements or scenes don’t make a lot of sense. I felt there were a lot of critical things that were missing and it worked against the film rather than for it. Atom does a good job of creating and directing a good story, but I feel he missed in a lot of areas.

Despite the film’s flaws, the acting was one area that did come through well. David Thewlis did a good job of working with his complex role as the inspector/father. He gives his character of Jim dimension and helps it to make the role work for the story. Laysla de Oliveira makes it look like she stole the show. She makes it look like the film is more about Veronica that it is about Jim. She too is able have her role of Veronica make sense and even justify scenes that appear confusing to us. The supporting acting was also good with Rossif Sutherland playing Mike with his hidden inner anger, as well as Luke Wilson as Father Greg and the actors playing the Armenian restaurant owners. The music of Mychael Danna also adds to the feel of the film.

Guest Of Honour is not the best work of Atom Egoyan and has some noticeable flaws, but it does have a lot of qualities too. Especially the acting.