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Disturbing the Senses
There's a tragic tale unfurling in Contracted amidst the disgusting-ness, which tells the story of a troubled girl caught between addiction, love and rebirth.
In waiting for her lover, who happens to be a girl, Samantha goes to a party where alcohol clears the path for a straight sexual encounter, of the unprotected sort. As she tries to glue her life back together, a strange affliction seems to bear down on her as unexplained symptoms appear for which nobody has an answer to. And as the symptoms become more apparent, so does her struggle to keep everything together.
While there might be a rather clumsy beginning to Contracted, the film settles quite rapidly into its tune of psychological gross-out horror, upping the ante until it seemingly runs out of good ideas. It seems like there's a razor thin line of reason which dictates the protagonists' behavior, an issue that grows harder to ignore as the film goes on and seems to lose focus. But whatever you might say about its shortcomings, Contracted is good-looking in all its bad looks and harrowing in its portrayal of decay, pushing the right buttons which ensure it will not be easily forgotten.
So while there might have been more in it, the experience is worth the ride.
Pozitia copilului (2013)
People at its Heart
I happened to catch a screening of the film attended by the director and some of the actors, followed by a short Q&A. This sort of effort is part of a greater plan to bring appraised Romanian films closer to the Romanian audience, while also creating an association with the people responsible for their success, more often than not "against the odds".
What sets Netzer's film apart from some of the other recent Romanian works of cinema is its sardonic humor which works best when it's aimed at the characters and not at some of the pervasive practices of society. I've personally always felt that personal stories, meaning character stories, always came in second to some grand piece of social commentary, usually on the communist background of the country, in most of the acclaimed Romanian cinema of the 21st century. Not to say that such commentary lacks relevance, but there's just more to modern life than its dark red heritage.
Of course, "Pozitia Copilului" is deeply rooted in antics which one could call symptomatic of Romania and as a means of characterization, the backdrop is justifiable. Occasionally though, when certain aspects come across a bit too hard pressed, they do a disservice to the otherwise excellent balance of a difficult story. This does in no way undermine the beautifully detailed portrait of the film's main character, a highly controlling, bossy, arrogant, mean-spirited mother whose faults go quite a way to being redeemed by the passionate dedication with which she tries to protect her son, who had killed a child in a car accident. The ambivalence is so finely portrayed by Luminita Gheorghiu that both the moments of involuntary humor and the moments of pure drama work just as well.
It's ironic that Mrs. Gheorghiu also played in "Moartea Domnului Lazarescu", a film I found to be close at heart with "Pozitia Copilului", in that it relies heavily on a complex central character and its critique is subtle, yet scathing. I'd go so far as to say that these kind of films, while still dominated by a type of post-modernist bleakness, can lead a shift of focus to the greater importance of characters as individuals in Romanian movies, not only as symbol stand-ins.
A Careful Mistake
Sometimes, if you just follow an actor/actress around in a cinematic sense, you are bound to come across some rough road. The reason why Norman is such a patch of film is because its focus is too intense and it cannot justify the feel-good compromises it adheres to.
The narrative goes about the life of a suffering high-schooler, who has just lost his mother in a car accident and whose father is dying of cancer. Within the midst of all this, he meets the gorgeous Emily, a new arrival in his high-school, who for no apparent reason other than his Monty Python savvyness and a terribly depressing speech about suicide clings on to him in a very happy-go-lucky kind of way. Unfortunately, she amounts to little more than a caricature for the rest of the film, as is the case with all the other supporting characters.
Norman's pain is portrayed in a convincing manner by Dan Byrd and Richard Jenkins complements him very well in the role of his father, a duo of suffering and misanthropy. Additionally, Emily Van Camp's "Emily" shows quite a bit of promise in the first couple of scenes, but then just fades into the murky background. Unfortunately, I found the premise of the movie to be hard to accept and its consequent predictability and need for an optimistic conclusion harmed what could have been a strong if extremely bleak story.
It brought "World's Greatest Dad" to mind as far as the social comments on perception are concerned, but it lacked the conviction to explore this matter thoroughly. As such, Norman doesn't really say much and never finds a much needed balance to bring it "home".
The Hunger Games (2012)
Evasive but engaging adaptation
I suddenly found myself reading The Hunger Games trilogy in preparation for the movie, mainly due to the allure of Jennifer Lawrence. Thankfully, it was a pretty fun read, even though the books are fairly derivative, at least in regard to their dystopian theme. It's the ambivalence of Katniss that drives the story forward and keeps it interesting, so to my mind this was one of the most important things to get right in the movie.
The universe of Panem, a land set in the future comprised of twelve districts and run by an authoritarian capitol, may seem a bit implausible in its literary portrayal, but the movie gets the tone and scope of the place just right. District Twelve is the home of our main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, a teenager charged with the responsibility of taking care of her mother and sister after the passing of her father in a mining accident. As if life weren't difficult enough on a day to day basis, every year the Capitol organizes "The Hunger Games", a duel to the death in which two tributes, a boy and a girl, are enlisted from each district to battle for survival. The event is supposed to serve as a reminder and punishment of the failed rebellion against the capital which took place 74 years prior. In an unfortunate turn of the odds, Katniss is forced to volunteer for her younger sister once she is selected for participation in the games, and together with Peeta Mellark, the male tribute of District Twelve, she heads off into the unknown and, most likely, towards her demise.
The key to understanding the event itself is that it represents a piece of entertainment, similar to the gladiator fights of Ancient Rome. As the participants are groomed for a televised show, the macabre concept behind the games may be easy to lose out of sight, and it is at this point that the direction of the film becomes a bit skewed and decides to evade/underplay one of the central plot lines in the book. In the transition from Katniss' literary narrative to the cinematic transposition, her struggle with herself and those around her, in particular Peeta, loses out. As the two tributes, under the guidance of their mentor, decide to play out a love story in order to endear themselves to the public, the film's focus shifts to the more easily translatable tension resulting from the potential love triangle between Peeta, Katniss and her childhood friend Gale (who remained in District Twelve), rather than focusing on the constant ambivalence in Katniss' soul. This is particularly interesting once it becomes evident that Peeta has truly been in love with her for many years, while the question of her own feelings towards him are shrouded behind the importance of self-preservation.
Therefore, it is a shame that the film's choice is to portray the situation as a love triangle, set to develop further in the upcoming sequels, rather than to investigate the implication of how Katniss feels at odds with her situation and the role she has to play, knowing that in the end there is only one survivor to The Hunger Games. It is understandable that due to the scope of the movie franchise this would be a bit harder to sell, but it undermines one of the most fascinating themes of the book, the journey of Katniss' self-discovery.
Implicitly, we get a fairly limited understanding of most characters and how they relate to one another. Despite this hindrance, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, who play Katniss and Peeta, manage to infuse a lot of what their characters are supposed to be into the final print of the movie, thereby conveying at least part of what is unwritten in the script and transpires from the books. Hopefully, the undertones of their relationship will be further expanded upon in the second movie, without focusing too much on the romantic dilemma, which serves as a backdrop in the books, rather than a driving force.
Also, what the movie managed to do quite well is create a fine rapport between President Snow, played with delightful and menacing restraint by Donald Sutherland, and the game-maker Seneca Crane. Their scenes shed some insight into the workings of the games which otherwise could have needed a rather tiresome narrative, while still defining two characters of interesting depth.
I can imagine some of the shortcomings mentioned are less evident to viewers who have not read the whole story, which leaves them with a pretty well rounded film about a cruel world that begs for many answers - but lacks a fair bit of heart. Seeing how difficult it is to rise up to the expectations of so many interested parties when producing a film like The Hunger Games, it is fair to say that the end result is a reasonably faithful and sensible adaptation of an engaging story. The politics behind Panem, which should feature more extensively in the second movie, will be a different challenge altogether, but the set-up for the sequel is solid and should offer a large enough scope to fulfill the vision of Suzanne Collins and her rather uncompromising characters.
Middle Men (2009)
Two Thoughts on the Dime
I didn't really know what I was getting into when I decided to watch Middle Men. It turned out it was a bittersweet experience of a story that could've really been better, with a leading man that portrays a mesmerizing central figure and holds this loose tale together.
This crime/drama/comedy deals with the beginnings of the internet porn business, a subject of some interest as are most things innovative. Basically, two wild cards have this great idea and they need a man to run it for them in a mix with Russian flavor, crooked lawyers and national sympathy. Luke Wilson portrays the honorable "middle man" Jack Harris, whose inner conflict is really the main attraction here. It may not be something fundamentally new, this rift between morality and anything morally debatable like porn, nor the character type, but in a world that has lost all balance, Jack Harris is the sober rock that it revolves around. Yet, the glamor is not being denied, the things that drive you one way or the other, and thanks to Luke Wilson's performance it gives you something to hold on to.
Unfortunately, the film is mostly flimsy otherwise, despite the considerable (and generally underused) talents of Giovanni Ribisi being added to familiar faces such as James Caan, Kevin Pollack, Terry Crews and Rade Serbedzija. A quite genuine example of typecasting, now that I think of it. I'm sure a more experienced director (not only age-wise) would've lent a much firmer, grittier feeling to the movie, which is too explanatory when it need not be and too safe when it should go all out. Somehow it reminded me of Herzog's remake of The Bad Lieutenant, in the sense that that film went overboard in ludicrous ways, but knowing its condition helped it attain a consistent degree of entertainment.
So I come to conclude that Middle Men does not quite know what it wants to be and that's a drawback. However, there are still some good moments in the film that complement Luke Wilson's performance, even beyond the subject at hand. Overall, it's just enjoyable enough for me to recommend it, for whatever that's worth.
Lukewarm at best
I'll admit from the off that I was skeptical regarding this documentary ever since I first heard it was in production. Having read the book, I felt that what made it enjoyable could not really be transposed onto film. Economics, being such a science of numbers, even in its freakonomic form, does not really lend itself to being narrated to death.
Going beyond this limitation, I reckon the film could have still been better, had it found a unity of tone. Unfortunately, as several different teams were involved with making each of the four chapters, the final experience is heavily fragmented and unlike the book, which kept its pacing throughout, the film is all over the place.
The first part basically looks at whether there is some sort of correlation between a person's first name and the path one goes through life. A potentially amusing segment, it proves to be in search of a comic sense it never arrives at and the examples taken from the book appear wholly unrealistic and not fully integrated.
The second part is quite dark and brings forth a sort of investigation into the Sumo world and allegations of match-rigging. Contextualized in the sacrosanct culture that defines the sport, this exploration of truth, justice and fair-play toys around with big words and complex issues, its reach ultimately exceeding its grasp.
The third part references dear old Romania and our beloved dictator's policy of ruling abortions illegal - a subject matter dealt with artistically in the well-known "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days". I'm not quite sure the parallel proves a point, because it tries to show how the opposite policy, legalizing abortion in the US following Roe v Wade, caused a sudden, steep reduction in crime in the early nineties. Ironically enough, the generation Ceausescu (the dictator referenced above) forcibly gave birth to, so to say, caused his downfall. Yet, I think this segment points out an interesting observation, even if one could get distracted by the overly dramatic narration.
The last part is an on-film experiment about trying to find an incentive to make kids get better grades in high-school by offering financial rewards. Unfortunately, the set-up lacks any authentic feel and implicitly does not help support the case that the authors tried to convey.
So overall it would seem that almost all segments have at least one fundamental issue that they don't tackle very well. At times the film livens due to the interesting nature of the facts being presented, but on the whole it's still shy of a successful venture. Even while reading the book I felt that the novelty seeped out of it before I had reached its end and this feeling was only exacerbated in the documentary.
I don't think this is the place to debate the correctness of the research Levitt and Dubner have done or their conclusions, because the film certainly does not offer a strong basis to work on. The book has a scientific feel to it, conferring at least a sense of objectivity and, more importantly, finding the levity to show that it does not assume to offer absolute answers. The documentary, on the other hand, loses sight of this and never manages to find its proper balance.
Normally I tend to avoid writing reviews where all that needed to be said has already been said, unless it's a film I feel very attached to. But TiMER is one of those little surprising experiences that really deserve a few words of praise. It's difficult enough bringing forth something original and well written even when it isn't a rom-com.
With an interesting premise - that people can get timers telling them when they will meet their soul mate - the story follows Oona and her sister Steph, who are both nearing their thirties and have yet to find their other halves. Oona, who is to all extents and purposes the main character, goes through a series of lackluster attempts at finding someone who suits her, but the emphasis really is on how her mentality and approach are affected by the awareness that there is a path that needs to be found. When she becomes involved with a young guy, for the sake of it more than anything else, the whole debate around predestination gets a fair questioning in a balanced manner.
It's great to see nicely rounded characters who form a believable and not overly sugarcoated unit and the writing aids the actors tremendously in bringing forth this tale of love, family and family love. The film may have some weaker points, but I reckon its conviction, so to say, pays off in the end. Credit is due to the whole cast and crew for managing a fine idea into something that finds its balance early on and is capable of holding on to it until the end. The satisfaction is only greater when it comes as unexpectedly as this little obscure picture.
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
Possibly the best in the series
I haven't really changed my mind about this film franchise since I reviewed the last one of the bunch (or the ones before, really), but I've probably reached a point where I don't care that much any more and just hope for some good entertainment. Just to summarize where I'm at: big fan of the games, hugely disappointed by the lack of Resident Evil in the actual films.
Frankly speaking, I had a good feeling ever since I saw the trailer. There were quite a few familiar scenes, so I hoped for something tangible from the RE universe to keep me going. Ironically, it's not really the RE characters that make this film feel a bit more related to the games, it's a couple of friendly faces of the "evil" undead. Excuse me, infected.
The story (?) moves on from where it left off and while I couldn't really remember where that was, it seems it had something to do with Alice and her clones and finding the oh-so-clichéd "safe haven" in an apocalypse scenario. And really, not much else happens, except a bit of ping-pong between havens, while encountering the odd character that we had seen before in the previous films and some others who are mostly only meat to eat.
What surprised me in a positive way was that, had the producers taken a little more time to tie the action together, confer a tiny little bit more depth to the guys and gals on screen, Resident Evil: Afterlife could've counted for a very respectable flick. The way it came out, it just has this feeling of unfulfillment about it that I couldn't shake off.
Even so, it gets a passing grade. As mentioned above, the saving grace is two prolonged scenes - Axeman and Wesker fight. While I did keep wondering where one would get an Axeman strolling around Los Angeles, I loved how similar it felt to the game. Also, the shotgun with coins was a nice touch. It was such a fun scene that even the excessive slow motion (and there is a lot of that throughout the film) didn't ruin it. And then, the Wesker scene, where Shawn Roberts took all the effort to make Wesker move and act so like the character in the games that it made my heart skip a beat. Both, very well executed set pieces- as was the intro, actually.
To balance that, we had the underwhelming inclusion of Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller) and the ignorable presence of Claire (Ali Larter). Even some of the side characters had more of an impact than these two. But you can't always get what you want, I guess.
The positive surprise was complete in that the 3D didn't irritate me the way it usually does. Actually, having seen both versions of the film, it had a more authentic feel than the 2D version. I can't actually complain about how Anderson shot the film, it's just that his way of making things come together is rather superficial. In the end, these films will never really be what the Resident Evil games are, so we have to remember rule #32 and enjoy the little things.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
A Matter of Experience
I reckon this has to be a polarizing film, seeing how Wright chooses to make sure there is very little middle ground to tread on. But, hey, I love polarizing films as long as I'm on the right side of polarization.
Rarely have I enjoyed a film experience so much as I enjoyed this one, thanks mainly to the excellent blend of fantasy, adventure and...realism. It covers the essential basis of tangency and then takes you through a fantastic journey of self-discovery and bemused romance. Particularly if you're transitioning from teenage-hood to adulthood, when the "real world" starts catching up with you really fast, this is something that allows you to take your mind off things, to find refuge in a faithfully familiar place.
The story of Scott Pilgrim, our oh-so-subtly named protagonist (like so many other characters, actually), describes a fairly restless and isolated guy, who happens to fall in love with the girl of his dreams. Literally, as she turns out to be very much alive and kicking. Yet, everything about her is dreamlike, from the snow melting under her roller blades to her eccentric way of being and becoming. As with every fantasy world, there are a few obstacles involved in conquering the fair lady, in this case manifested through the presence of seven evil exes that need to be defeated. So Scott has to get through this series of challenges in arcade style match-ups, as if it were that simple to get what you've always dreamed of. Can't say though that the thought never crossed my mind.
The film's comic sense is sometimes ridiculous, but it always seemed fulfilling. Regarding the actors, Michael Cera is enjoyable, even though I'd say Kieran Culkin was the more delightful actor to watch - or Ellen Wong, who portrayed her character in a virtuous Japanese anime style. Clearly however, a dreamlike central figure like Mary Elizabeth Winstead was essential to the well-being of Scott Pilgrim and I reckon she was an excellent choice, even without needing to do too much to affirm herself.
Ultimately the film captures the spirit it is trying to convey so very well, that spirit of a naive and noisy youth, filled with cultural and pseudo-cultural pillars of reference. If you can resonate with this (as I assume anyone who still has some vague memory of teenage years can), with all that is implied by the bizarre and childish world it creates, then this has to be an experience worth trying out.
Fun tales of chickenhood
I wouldn't have expected such a strong, consistent and enticing show from a chicken documentary, just like most people here. Watching the tender tales of chicken love was a fun and, to some degree, beautiful experience. The connections that can be made between human beings and animal usually have this loving and innocent quality to them that eludes most relationships in life. To find these chicken stories and portray them in such a skillful way is surely a feat worth praising.
Yet, while it is consistent with the world-view of this film, I resent the fact that industrially bred chicken - and their owners - are deemed to be inferior in passion and devotion. While the comments (or lack thereof) in presenting the larger chicken business do not go into blatantly manipulative affirmations against chicken products, they still spell out a very negative view of what is outlined to be exploitative behavior. I'm sure you can find interesting tales of care from farmers who happen to own large chicken housing establishments, because it's not easy at all to look after tens of thousands of chickens and ensure they live a healthy life. And while there is certainly a level of detachment involved in "the industrial chicken", it's necessity for basic and essential food products cannot be denied and should not be denigrated. To my mind, restricting the film to what it does best - establish the beauty of life - would've done it more good and would've conferred it a higher consistency and integrity, in a purely structural sense.
Beyond this though, which is truly only a slight part of this documentary, I think it's worth a recommendation for its ability to encapsulate the specialness in this absolutely unique relationship people have with animals.