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Timbuktu (2014)
Underlying fable of Jihadi oppression, Director Sissako's clarion call for freedom can be heard, 21 March 2015
7/10

On April 1, 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Al Qaeda linked Ansar Dine, took over Timbuktu in the African country of Mali, and placed it under Sharia law. Director Abderrahmane Sissako was born in his mother's country of Mauritania, but spent most of his life in Mali, his father's place of birth. Sissako's main goal in "Timbuktu," is to expose both the harsh rule of the Jihadists along with their hypocrisy.

Sissako begins his story with images of Africa animist statutes being machine-gunned (off screen) by the newly minted oppressors of Timbuktu. Sissako's Jihadists are not simply one-dimensional villains. The leader of the lot, Abdelkrim, hails from Libya and must utilize an interpreter to communicate his harsh vision of Islam. Despite his puritanical orders, Abdelkrim is not averse to talking shop about soccer (which is banned in the city) as well as smoking cigarettes.

Abdelkrim soon realizes that his local conscripts aren't as enthusiastic about Jihad than he is. He attempts to coach one of his local soldiers to fashion a propaganda message before a video camera but the young man just doesn't seem to be able to say things like he means it.

While the Jihadists drive around in SUV's with machine guns slung over their shoulders, the administration of Sharia law proceeds at a snail's pace. This is probably due to the slow paced nature of life in that part of the world to begin with. I was expecting brutal large scale massacres along the lines of ISIS in Syria or Iraq, but most of the jihadists' violent actions are selective: a woman receives lashes for singing and a couple is stoned to death for committing adultery.

Sissako doesn't focus a great deal of time in fleshing out his victims, although a couple of his characters hit the mark: the odd but interesting Haitian female shaman who isn't afraid to thumb her nose as her oppressors as well as a local Iman who attempts to reason with the jihadists over one of their soldiers taking a young girl as his bride against her wishes.

Sissako's main character who constitutes the main part of the narrative, is Kidane, a local herder who lives out in the countryside with his wife and daughter. As A.O. Scott argues, "He is a symbol of decency and tolerance, of everything the extremists want to destroy, precisely because he is an intriguing, fully rendered individual." I'm not sure if I agree with Mr. Scott that Kidane is "full rendered," as Mr. Sissako goes out of his way to emphasize the character's saintliness a little too often (yes we do come to realize that Kidane's daughter does mean just about everything to him).

Kidane does have an Achilles heel and Sissako perhaps suggests that Kihane's thirst for revenge may be endemic in the culture. After a local fisherman kills one of his prize cows, Kihane goes to "talk" to him, carrying a gun (his wife warns him not to carry the gun, but he ignores her). Sure enough, the argument between the two turns into a killing—whether the shot that was fired occurred during the struggle or was intentional—is unclear. Kihane ends up before the Jihadi court but probably would have ended up in the same situation, no matter who was administering justice.

Some critics have suggested that Sissako's style is akin to Brecht. Certainly a good part of his strategy is to make his audience aware of social injustice and exploitation in a part of the world most westerners are not familiar with. If some of his characters seem a bit sketchy, that's because Sissako has fashioned more of a fable than docudrama. Under the veneer of Sissako's tragic landscape, the clarion call for freedom continues to resonate.

Masterful exposé of archaic attitude toward divorce in modern day Israeli society, 19 March 2015
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In Israel, if a woman wants a divorce, she must go before a religious court and obtain a "gett" from her husband—a document that permits the divorce only if the husband says so. You would think that a progressive society such as Israel would be up to date when it comes to divorce, but think again! "Gett: The Trial of Vivian Ansalem," is co-directed by brother and sister team, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz. Ronit plays the title character of Viviane who is pitted against her boorish husband, Elisha, who simply won't give into his wife's demand for a final separation.

"Gett" is mainly set in a small, claustrophobic room where three rabbis officiate—there's a head rabbi, Salmion, who does most of the talking. The action doesn't take place over a few months—it's actually years before the case is resolved. The passage of time is indicated by inter-titles, generously interspersed throughout the film. The trial is often delayed due to the Elisha's refusal to show up. When he does show up, he's defended by his brother who the court refers to as a rabbi but later is exposed by the defense attorney, to lack full accreditation for such an appellation.

For the first few minutes, the camera focuses on the judges and then Elisha, but plaintiff Viviane is not shown. It becomes obvious that the opening of the film is symbolic of Viviane's treatment by the Court and the male Jewish society in general—she's clearly a second-class citizen. The judges in particular don't feel she's doing enough to effect a reconciliation with Elisha. Early on, despite her great distaste, she returns home and attempts again to work things out with her husband. But as everyone agrees, including family and neighbors, these two are simply not compatible. The judges also feel she's not modest enough for their tastes—when she lets her hair down during one point during the proceedings, the head rabbi admonishes her severely.

What's so fine about the screenplay is that both Viviane and Elisha are treated sympathetically. Elisha doesn't come off as a monster by any means—all parties agree that he was never physically violent toward his wife. Nonetheless, he's much more religious than Viviane and is unable to show affection. When Viviane finally testifies, she makes it clear that he has been engaged in attempting to psychologically humiliate her for years. The judges, despite their biases, also come off as fleshed out human beings. They seem truly interested in hearing both of the warring sides' stories but ultimately are too set in their ways to throw off a backward tradition.

In addition to the principals, the defense attorney Carmel fights an uphill battle against the triumvirate of biased judges. There's a great scene where he does an excellent job of questioning the wife of Elisha and Viviane's neighbors—she at first pictures herself as a credible, "happily married" wife. But after withering cross-examination, the woman is exposed as someone who's probably just as unhappy as Viviane in her relationship with her husband—a man who's really a tyrant, whom she is afraid of!

Some may regard "Gett" as a bit long, but for the patient film-goer, it's a fascinating dissection of marital discord. Things really come to a head when Elisha goes back on his word to end the marriage. And when he finally does agree to the Gett, he shows his misogynistic true colors by extracting a promise of sex from his exhausted wife.

Hopefully this film will lead to changes in divorce law in Israel. The positive aspects of Judaism are being dragged down by a slavish devotion to an archaic view of marriage and relationships.

Fable of charming but sinister freelance video journalist, proves vastly entertaining, 15 March 2015
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Nightcrawler" is an amazing directorial debut for writer/director Dan Gilroy. The film could best be described as a "guilty pleasure," in that the film's protagonist, Lou Bloom, is far from what you would call a sympathetic paragon of virtue. Quite the contrary, Bloom is a sleaze-bag who you will still (to a certain extent), end up rooting for.

"Nightcrawler" is more of a fable than a docudrama. I say this because in reality a character such as Bloom could not succeed in the real world of television news. His beating the cops to the punch at a triple homicide crime scene seems most unlikely but even more implausible is that the TV news show would ever broadcast his footage (c'mon folks, have you EVER seen such graphic footage appear on television news?). Let's face it, the station would never subject itself to the liability of broadcasting such carnage anytime of the day, let alone the prime time evening news. Nonetheless, Mr. Gilroy is still making a great point: there's a voyeur in almost every one of us and the powers that be in the media will capitalize on this, for any kind of buck.

"Nightcrawler" succeeds as a rollicking entertainment due to its deftly plotted script. After Bloom finds his calling as a freelance video journalist specializing in accidents and crime scenes in affluent areas, we immediately see there's something a little different about this self-appointed entrepreneur: Bloom is much more aggressive than his rival Joe Loder, who has been shooting video footage for years.

In each scene where Bloom plies his trade, Gilroy keeps raising the stakes. As a neophyte, Bloom gets in a little closer than Loder does while shooting footage of a carjacking victim; and later, Bloom re-arranges the position of a car crash victim, in order to get a better shot. In his personal life, Bloom raises the stakes with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the morning news director: he'll give her exclusive footage only if she sleeps with him.

Bloom has a momentary setback when Loder beats him to the scene of a small plane crash but Bloom then takes Loder out of the game by sabotaging his van (resulting in serious injuries to Loder when the van crashes). The penultimate, heart-pounding event occurs when Bloom (along with Rick Carey, the down on his luck assistant, Bloom hires) come upon a home invasion, just as the assailants are leaving the area. Bloom gets footage of the criminals and also videotapes the victims inside the house, all dead from gunshot wounds.

Gilroy ups the stakes even higher when Bloom locates the criminals who were responsible for the murders during the home invasion. Instead of initially telling the police who they are, he follows them to a fast food store and then calls 911, intending to videotape the confrontation the police end up having with the bad guys at the store. When one of the bad guys escapes the shootout, Bloom and Carey follows him in a heart-pounding chase.

Bloom's sleaziness is seen in high relief when he orders Rick to videotape the remaining criminal, who appears badly injured after his SUV crashes. Bloom insists the man is dead but throws caution to the wind, still ordering Rick to get in close for some good shots. Sure enough the bad guy is still alive and shoots Rick in the chest. As he lays dying, Bloom has no guilt feelings about videotaping his fallen employee, who he knows will bring in more income when he offers the footage to Romina.

As it turns out, the footage that Bloom has garnered, is a big sexual turn-on for the now-impressed Romina. Bloom's desire to get ahead is in effect rewarded by society as he now purchases two new vans and hires a group of interns to assist him. While the police have no evidence to prove it, Bloom's unethical behavior is ignored by his patrons, who reward him for his brazenness.

"Nightcrawler" is a most impressive debut for Mr. Gilroy, whose fairy tale/fable succeeds in its depiction of a charming rogue, who will stop at nothing, to succeed in the television news business. "Nightcrawler" manages to not only entertain greatly but in its satirical overview, it castigates a society much more interested in rewarding those who wish to get ahead at the expense of ethical behavior.

"Jimi" without the "hits," is a deal breaker!, 4 March 2015
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

John Ridley's "Jimi: All Is by My Side," reminds me of the film, "Backbeat," the one about the Beatles' early days in Hamburg, Germany. In both cases, the screenwriters were unable to obtain the rights to the original artists' music. Instead, cover songs that Hendrix and the Beatles played in their early days were used instead. Without the original music, why bother even attempting a biopic, as was done here?

In the case of Hendrix, I would argue that his biography is hardly the kind of story worth telling. It's simply not that very dramatic. His charisma is linked solely to his greatest hits, songs such as "Purple Haze" or "Manic Depression"—cut those out of your soundtrack and "Jimi" is reduced to a story about a rather petulant fellow (as Ridley depicts him here), who had a turbulent, and sometimes unpleasant relationship with his girlfriend.

André Benjamin sure looks the part and does a decent enough impression of Hendrix, but it still doesn't feel like he's captured the pop artist's essence. Another problem is that he's too old for the part (Hendrix was 27 when he died; Benjamin was 40, when he took on the role).

For those into rock history, "Jimi" chronicles the year between May 1966 and 1967, right before Hendrix makes it big. For those unfamiliar with the basics, Hendrix was "discovered" by Linda Keith (wife of Rolling Stone Keith Richards) , while he was playing in small clubs in NYC. She brought him to London where ex-Animal Chase Chandler became his manager and hooked him up with his two band mates, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The bulk of Ridley's narrative concerns Hendrix's relationship with Kathy Etchingham, whom in real life denied that he ever got physical with her.

Jesse Hassenger, writing in the "A.V. Club," argues that Hendrix remains an underdeveloped character in Ridley's screenplay: "As Linda recedes from the movie and Kathy becomes more prominent, the point of view shifts around, but it rarely settles on the movie's purported main character. Benjamin, speaking in an airy hippie tone, does his best to lace laid-back charisma with ambition and flashes of anger. But if he tries to disappear into the role, the role disappears into the movie more easily. While All Is By My Side shows Hendrix indulging a violent streak, for example, it doesn't do or say much else about the issue (beyond the implied hypocrisy of his general hippie philosophy)."

Ty Burr ("Boston Globe) is troubled by the film's lack of verisimilitude: "Etchingham has told the British press that Hendrix never once touched her in anger; that the story comes from a 1974 biography by one of Hendrix's old band leaders, Curtis Knight, that was almost immediately discredited in court; that she offered her fact-checking services to the filmmakers and was repeatedly rebuffed." Burr cogently concludes that, "All biopics lie, obviously, and the standard defense is that they do so in order to tell more dramatic stories and maybe to access greater truths. "All Is By My Side" fashions a bewitching mosaic, but through omissions and inventions, intended and unintended, it crosses the line that separates speculation from untrustworthiness. What it offers in return — the touchdown of a brilliant naïf — isn't enough."

Stephanie Zacharek ("Village Voice") sees the film's power in Hendrix's embrace of the feminine: " It's there in his joyous, polychrome outfits, in the soft politeness of his speaking voice, in the swirling fluidity of his guitar lines, which could be as graceful as art nouveau nudes. Benjamin captures it here, too: Ridley shows him spinning out fanciful dream speeches about human beings just being, you know, cool together. Benjamin's Hendrix glows like a supernova, but circa 1967 he's just a baby supernova, his explosiveness in its infancy. He's still shy, still nervous about his acne-ridden skin and his singing voice. In so many ways, he's more fragile than the women in his life are."

Richard Roeper of the "Chicago Sun-Times" couldn't have said it better when he wraps up his review with these words: "But a film about the year before Jimi Hendrix became a star is a little like a movie that ends with Jackie Robinson on the top step of the dugout, or Elvis walking into Sun Records."

I wanted to like Mr. Ridley's "Jimi" a lot more. But it all comes back to Hendrix's music; and unfortunately all those memorable tunes are nowhere to be found!

4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Score points for bleak portrait of American heartland but urban legend narrative would have been better as a 30 minute short, 26 February 2015
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Maybe I'm a little critical, but I wonder what motivates a filmmaker to make a film such as "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter." Visually it's a very nice looking film, especially the scenes focusing on the bleak, American heartland. But story wise, I wonder, what's the point?

"Kumiko" is about a narcissistic, troubled Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with the film "Fargo," and comes to believe that a large amount of money that's buried by a character in the film (played by a young Steve Buscemi), actually exists. So Kumiko decides to quit her job in Tokyo and travel to Fargo to find the "buried treasure."

"Kumiko" is actually based on the true story of Takako Tonishi, a Tokyo office worker who traveled to the cities of Bismarck, Fargo and finally Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where she committed suicide after being depressed over the breakup with her former lover, an American businessman, who she had last seen in Detroit Lakes, on an earlier trip.

The story that Takako was seeking the buried treasure from the "Fargo" movie developed from an urban legend that sprung up following a miscommunication that Takako had with a police officer from Bismarck, North Dakota. The officer misunderstood what Takako was trying to tell him and came to believe she was searching for the buried treasure from "Fargo."

How then are we supposed to view "Kumiko?" Should she be viewed sympathetically as she must endure a demeaning boss, her nagging mother and scornful co-workers? Or is she simply a deluded simpleton who actually comes to believe "Fargo" is not a work of fiction? The climax perhaps gives us a hint as to where director David Zellner's sympathies lie: indeed, Kumiko does find the money from "Fargo," but the implication is that it's all a fantasy—that she tragically died in the snow, pursuing a futile obsession.

At best, "Kumiko" is the bullied child who chooses to live her life in a fantasy world. It's hard to have sympathy however, for such a sad sack, who cuts everyone off around her and risks death to obtain a pointless, materialistic goal.

Zellner wins points for conveying the bleak environment of his protagonist but her one-note obsession could have easily been made as a 30 minute short.

Gray's "Immigrant" is much closer to a 1925 Broadway melodrama than anything on today's silver screen, 23 February 2015
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Until I heard that James Gray based "The Immigrant" on recollections of his grandparents, I would have guessed this was an adaptation of an old melodramatic play that might have played on Broadway circa 1925. Gray's setting is New York City in 1921. His protagonist, Polish immigrant "Ewa," is just disembarking at Ellis Island when her sister, "Magda," is scooped up by immigration officials and placed in quarantine as she has tuberculosis. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is marked for deportation due to rumors that she was a woman of "loose morals," on her passage to America.

Her potential savior appears in the form of "Bruno" (Joaquin Phoenix), an owner of a burlesque house, who also pimps out his girls to men of means. Bruno appears to be in cahoots with corrupt officials on Ellis Island and when he meets Ewa who speaks decent English, he scoops her up and makes her a part of his act.

Add in the neat early NYC 20s production design and we're ready for some possible excitement in the second act. Unfortunately Gray's "Ewa" can do nothing more than constantly bemoan her fate as a kept woman, regretting that she's unable to save her quarantined sister. The introduction of a love triangle as a second act, between Bruno and his magician cousin, "Emil" (Jeremy Renner), harks back to the old melodramas of yesteryear, and when Bruno stabs Emil to death out of jealousy over his affections for Ewa, it's hardly something to get excited about.

David Denby of "The New Yorker," agrees that there's a lack of real passion in "The Immigrant's" second act: "In this movie, Phoenix turns himself inside out, but Cotillard's reserved performance doesn't move us. Bruno advances in his confused way, Ewa resists, and, despite Jeremy Renner's flickering presence, the movie becomes dour and repetitive. Looking at them, you finally think, Enough! Life must be elsewhere."

Claudia Puig, writing in USA Today, concurs that there's something very wishy-washy about Ewa: "Meanwhile, Ewa is heartsick about being separated from her sister. Mostly what she conveys, however, is a not very credible passivity. She dutifully follows Bruno and believes him when he says he's the only one who can get her sister out of the infirmary. In other ways, she seems savvy and strong-willed, so it's hard to believe she can be so gullible."

Puig also is troubled by Gray's inability to define Bruno's motivations: "Phoenix chews the scenery as Bruno, a man who alternates between smarmy courtesy and ruthless menace. But he never feels like a credible character. It's unclear whether director James Gray wants audiences to see him as tragic or merely sleazy. Renner remains a baffling cipher. Is Emil truly besotted with Ewa or just embroiled in a lifelong rivalry with his cousin?"

James Kyle of the NY Post, also argues that Ewa's passivity contributes to the film's overall ennui: "Ewa is a representative for all of the poor and immigrant women of the time: She's simply unable to create a path for herself, and the pudding-thick atmosphere and sickly gaslit haze conjured up by Gray enhance the sense of an existence that's closed and stuck. Unfortunately for the movie, its story line suffers from the same fate; she's such a passive figure that the movie is more frustrating than anything else."

Act III features the rather sentimental transformation of Bruno into a semi-mensch. He insists during his farewell conversation with Ewa that he planned to give all the money he had earned as a burlesque impresario to her, so that it could be used to bribe the Ellis Island officials and set Magda free. But since he's been relieved of his money by a coterie of nasty men in blue, it's not up to him to actually make Ewa happy. The deus ex machina of course is Ewa's aunt's philanthropy, somehow conveniently effected with little credible explanation (For the life of me, how is Ewa's aunt so easily able to come up with the money to give to Ewa, especially with her brute of a husband, watching over her?)

After all the staid machinations, Mr. Gray would like us to marvel at Bruno's transformation, despite his tawdry past. While he's about to go to the cops and confess to Emil's murder, at this point, do we really care? I think not.

Gray's film reminds one of a silent film from the 20s with added dialogue. It's a marvelous recreation of a bygone era replete with the heady atmosphere of those times. Nonetheless, Gray's decision to opt for a narrative that's as creaky as any forgotten potboiler from 1920s Broadway, it hardly bodes well for those of us who long for a little complexity when it comes to offerings on today's silver screen.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Saga of long term gay couple's temporary separation warms the heart, 21 February 2015
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In my opinion, one of writer/director Ira Sach's goals in bringing us his films, is to emphasize that most gay people are part of the mainstream—that a person's sexuality should have nothing to do with his worth as a human being. Indeed, Sach's protagonists, Ben and George, in his new touching feature, "Love Is Strange," are the epitome of pillars of the community. The middle-aged couple have been together for 39 years and now we see them at the beginning of the film, loved by a coterie of friends and family, at their wedding.

Ironically, it's the decision to get married, that leads to the complications of film's second act. George, a vocal teacher, was tolerated at the parochial school where he was employed for many years. But the public nature of the marriage did not sit well with the archdiocese who discreetly ordered his termination.

Without the second income, Ben and George are forced to sell their apartment. Since they only lived there for about five years, they had little equity to begin with. After a co-op "flip tax," taxes and other charges, the couple is left with about $17,000, hardly enough to afford purchasing a big enough apartment to live in. Now they're forced to split up while waiting to find a next to impossible low income apartment or get on a waiting list for elderly applicants.

Ben moves in with his nephew Eliot, his wife Kate and teenage son, Joey. George moves in downstairs with two younger gay police officers. George's story is not as compellingly drawn—his main problem is trying to tolerate the younger hosts' penchants for late night parties.

Ben's sojourn at the nephew's is much more interesting. He clashes with Kate, who has trouble with his desire to chat while she's attempting to finish her next novel. More dramatic is the clash with Joey, who becomes resentful when Ben begins using his best friend Vlad as a model for his next painting, up on the roof. Things come to a head when Joey accuses Ben of being "so gay." Ben, in his wisdom, doesn't take it personally—recognizing that it's the immature comment coming from a teenager placed in a stressful situation.

Andrew O'Hehir, writing in "Salon," cogently observes that Ben and George still have much to offer despite being interlopers: "I would argue that the true subject of "Love Is Strange" is the way Ben and George, even faced with an upsetting and unexpected life crisis, can still serve as mentors and role models to all the younger people around them, even when the younger people barely notice them, or find them irritating. It isn't always, or even usually, the big moments that change our lives, the ones we consciously pay attention to as they happen." When Ben asks Joey while lying in their respective bunk beds, whether he's ever loved anyone, he helps the confused teenager focus on what eventually will be a factor in his recovery from teenage rebellion and alienation.

O'Hehir notes a similar mentoring quality to George's interactions with younger people: "the entire film hinges on a scene when George listens to a young female student play a Chopin nocturne. She plays it once, he offers some critical feedback, and she plays it again. We can tell from George's response that he has been captured by the music and goes through his own private reflection, his own transports of joy or grief. We never know what he's feeling and thinking, but in the most important sense we don't need to – what Chopin's music, and Sachs' film, is making us feel and think is what matters."

Nathalie Atkinson, of "The Globe and Mail," finds Sachs' oeuvre to be "quietly observational – the film's emotional power coming from its rich but unshowy performances, like George…standing in the kitchen sipping soup while yet another party rages in his makeshift bedroom before traveling in a rainstorm to seek brief but necessary solace with Ben."

After the deep despair at the end of the second act where Ben and George see no end to their separation, the third act, where George meets a man who has a low income apartment available—this represents the road back to equilibrium.

Nonetheless, Sachs saves his most powerful moment for the denouement. Instead of building up to Ben's death, he shows the aftermath. We're past the tears and have arrived at acceptance, as George wistfully speaks of Ben to a now chastened Joey who we see last with his new girlfriend—the very person Ben counseled Joey to seek out earlier.

Sachs has now entered the mainstream with a film about a gay couple where the focus is hardly about their sexuality but rather an all encompassing humanity. Lithgow and Molina are perfect as the beleaguered couple who appear as multi-dimensional characters. "Love Is Strange" is low-key but pretty much a gem all the same.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Brilliant cinematography can't save empty vessel sci-fi art-house script, 20 February 2015
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Jonathan Glazer waited nine years before coming out with his next movie, "Under the Skin," and one wonders why he couldn't have spared us and waited another nine years. The project only shines in the visual department as there's some beautiful cinematography by Daniel Landin, particularly of the Scottish Highlands. Glazer based his script on the novel of the same name by Michael Faber.

The story is a thin one: Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed woman driving around Scotland in a van, picking up various men and bringing them to a house where they follow her naked into a black void. The men end up being killed with only their skins remaining. At first you wonder who is this woman but it soon becomes apparent that she's some kind of alien.

There are a few variations when it comes to guys Johansson picks up (some are played by non-actors who were initially filmed by hidden cameras). One of the men is a swimmer who tries to save a drowning couple. Johansson knocks out the exhausted swimmer and he ends up as another one of her victims, back at the house of horrors. A crying toddler is left to fend for himself on the beach by Johansson's alien.

More strange stuff: another one of the alien's victims is a sexually inexperienced man with a facial disfigurement. He escapes from the horror house, only to be recaptured by a man on a motorcycle, apparently an accomplice of the alien female.

The climax arrives when a man spots the alien in distress after she's reeling from eating a piece of cake at a restaurant. The man puts the alien up for the night, brings her to a ruined castle where they kiss and back at his home, they begin to have sex. The alien, however, freaks out and wanders into a forest. We don't know why but a logger tries to rape her and when he strips off her clothes, he discovers her body is not human. Then inexplicably, instead of running away in fear, he sets her on fire.

The "big payoff" turns out to be the revelation that the alien is wearing an exoskeleton and she looks more like a lizard with black, leathery skin. What exactly is Glazer's point? We never find out "why" the alien is bringing these men to the house with the weird black void and what it's attempting to gain by killing them. The attempt to convey some kind of atmosphere of dread or terror is lost by the unintentionally comical ending, where the alien is found to have no power and is dispensed with by a most unpleasant human rapist.

Glazer also doesn't realize what a burden it is having to listen to all the natives with their Scottish brogue—most of it is unintelligible. Subtitles should have certainly been in order.

"Under the Skin" once again proves to be a project that undoubtedly will not advance Scarlet Johansson's career. Relying on her good looks alone is not enough to sway a critical audience that expects more. Glazer's "folly" consists of some brilliant cinematography coupled with an empty vessel of a script that leads nowhere.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Interesting Japanese-English neo-noir with second act problems, 19 February 2015
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Man from Reno" is Indie Director's Dave Boyle's fifth feature, a neo-noir featuring two inter-connected stories, one in English and the other in Japanese. The story begins with small-town sheriff Paul Del Moral (expertly played by Pepe Serna), in fictional San Marco County, north of San Francisco. While driving one night in the fog, Del Moral runs into a man who turns out to be a Japanese national, later disappearing from the hospital, before the sheriff can interview him.

Along with his daughter (who's also an officer in the sheriff's department) Del Moral attempts to learn the identity of the man who has disappeared. Del Moral's investigations eventually leads him to Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani), a mystery writer who's famous in Japan for her Inspector Takabe series. Aki has checked herself into the Majestic Hotel in San Francisco but is intentionally no longer checking in with her publicist who reports to the press back in Japan that she's a missing person.

Meanwhile Aki falls for a handsome stranger staying at the hotel, Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura), who also ends up disappearing. There's a McGuffin involved here, a set of endangered turtles, whom a bunch of bad guys are trying to get their hands on.

Sheri Linden writing in "The Hollywood Reporter" notes problems with the "Man from Reno" second act: "Beyond awkward shifts in tone and emphasis, the movie goes lax for a stretch in the midsection, bogged down in scene after scene of crime-solving revelations in the form of explanatory conversations." There are just too many characters and events that oversaturate the narrative, violating the cardinal rule of screen writing: "show don't tell." Nonetheless, "Man From Reno" is the type of film that one should watch twice. Since the bulk of the film is in Japanese, it's difficult following who is who and exactly what's happening in terms of the plot. The cinematography is by veteran Richard Wong who makes this low budget project appear as if it's a high budget studio film.

The "Man From Reno" denouement strikes me having roots in neo-noir—particularly the 70s classic, "Chinatown." Both feature villains who "get away with it" but somehow "Reno's" ending is not as special or striking as "Chinatown." "Man From Reno" is a smart looking feature which features interesting characters and plot shifts, that perhaps needed a bit more thought, shaping and paring, particularly in the second act.

Epic four hour plus Filipino "Crime and Punishment" highlights an "inexhaustible humanism" despite tedious moments, 14 February 2015
7/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Anyone who has sat through the epic four hour plus "Norte, The End of History," deserves a medal. "Norte" is the product of Lav Diaz, the Filipino auteur who has already completed seven films that are even LONGER than this one! When he wishes to introduce each new scene, Diaz has a penchant for holding establishing shots for a minute or two, which can be infuriating. Be forewarned: there is some interesting material here but one has to be extremely patient to appreciate any of it!

Diaz's "Norte" is set in the Phillipines and revolves around three interconnected characters. The prime mover (and perhaps most interesting of the three) is the antagonist, Fabian, a law school dropout who seeks to punish anyone who transgresses his personal moral code. Fabian's idea is to eliminate the "bad elements" in Filipino society. While his friends agree that society must change, Fabian, the bitter psychopath and reactionary, berates all those who believe in "all talk and no action."

In contrast, husband and wife Eliza and Joaquin, come from a poor background and are dependent on a local moneylender, Magda, for their sustenance. When Eliza pawns a precious family ring, Joaquin tries to convince Magda to sell it back to him. When he can't pay her price, Joaquin impulsively chokes Magda and runs off after a housekeeper witnesses the event. Later, Fabian is passing by on the street and sees Magda turn Eliza away at her door, after requesting another loan. Magda's rough treatment of Eliza is enough justification for Fabian to later enter Magda's home and kill the moneylender along with her innocent teenage daughter.

Joaquin is later implicated in Magda's murder (due to the circumstantial evidence against him) and is forced to accept a plea bargain of life in prison. Eliza is forced to sell vegetables on the street for a living, in order to take care of her children, who are in the care of a family friend. Meanwhile, Joaquin must adjust to prison life and survives a brutal attack by a predatory inmate. Later that inmate falls sick and Joaquin, in true Christian fashion, ministers to him, in a great act of forgiveness.

Echoing Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Fabian is haunted by the memory of committing the two murders and eventually digs up money he had stolen and later buried from Magda's house and gives it to Eliza. Fabian, however, remains deeply troubled and on a visit to his sister, who owns a large farm, ends up raping her.

Now with a little money, Eliza is finally able to visit her beloved Joaquin. On the way back, she tragically dies in a plane crash. We see Joaquin (apparently now deceased) levitating, as if he's moving closer to God, attaining some kind of sainthood. Can we assume that Joaquin killed himself or died from grief, following the death of Eliza in the plane crash? Possibly but it's not entirely clear.

The randomness of the death of two good people, Eliza and Joaquin, is contrasted with Fabian, an evildoer, who very much continues to live. Perhaps Diaz is saying sometimes there is no justice in this world and perhaps no God. Diaz hints that perhaps there is still hope as one of the concluding shots focuses on the innocent children of Eliza and Joaquin, who survive, along with the farm animals, who also represent innocence.

Neil Young writing in the "Hollywood Reporter," finds Diaz's characters lacking in complexity: "Fabian's transition from preening bohemian chatterbox to bestial psychotic is seldom convincing, but at least his character gets to change a little over the course of the years. Joaquin and Eliza are little more than plaster saints from beginning to end in a film which simplistically equates poverty with spiritual purity and fortitude."

Peter Sobcynski of "RogerEbert.com," notes that there "are moments of staggering beauty and power on display here," but also notes there are numerous scenes which are quite lugubrious or gratuitous: "The trouble is that there are also extended sequences in which so little happens that the effect is more tedious than hypnotic…This is mostly due to a screenplay that grows less and less psychologically sound the further it drifts from its inspiration—there is a long sequence when Eliza contemplates killing herself and her children that feels like a cheap shot and some of the cruelties on display in the final hour feel like attempts to jolt viewers that may have inevitably drifted off during the slower parts. For these moments to fully work, a filmmaker has to have earned them, and there are times in which Diaz hasn't completely done that."

A.O. Scott, writing in the "New York Times,"holds that "Norte's" value is connected to Diaz's social critique: "Mr. Diaz, patiently surveying the social and physical landscape with his beautiful, asymmetrical wide-screen compositions, makes inequality seem like an aspect of the local climate. The cruelty of laws and economic arrangements is obvious and intolerable, and yet there is no real sense that anything can be done."

"Norte, The End of History," does indeed highlight the tragedy of poverty and its attendant sense of class inequalities. Again, if you're patient enough to ignore some of the more tedious moments in the film, you'll be rewarded by scenes of what A.O. Scott terms, the film's "inexhaustible humanism."


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