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Les amants criminels (1999)
an unforgettable thriller
This is one of the most harrowing thrillers I have ever seen. It essentially is a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel legend, where the waifs are two French students fleeing the police after their brutal impulse slaying of an Arab student, and the wicked witch is a woodsman with cannibalistic and pederastic leanings. I am always surprised when movies like this get made, first, because of the outré nature of the plot, and secondly, because the directorial talent involved, coming, apparently, out of nowhere, seems too good to be true. The final scene, in which wide-eyed Disneyesque forest creatures preside over the coupling of the young lovers, left me giggling in appreciation. The movie is infused with this same inerrant sense of irony. Not a movie for the faint-hearted, though.
House of Sand and Fog (2003)
The movie that stays
(SPOILERS!!!!!) Maybe one of the most important criteria to
qualify a film for greatness is: does it stay with you? I have been
thinking about this film every day since I saw it a week ago. Even
while viewing it, I was aware of some of the film's problems: the
excessive use of arty establishing shots of the California location,
the underrealized performance of the romantically obsessed
policeman, the uneven characterization of the wife of Ben Kingsley
(not the fault of the superb actress) and the predictability of the
slaughter of the innocent. (When we first saw the beautiful young
son, I turned to my companion and whispered, "That kid is going to
go!") Nevertheless, the film is a minor masterpiece. The conflict of
cultures was superbly and imaginatively delineated, and Ben
Kingsley's tirade about Americans and their obsession with the
trivial and their lack of steadfastness and principle ("with their
small eyes they seek every distraction") made shudders go up and
down my spine. Jennifer Connelly was simply extraordinary,
parading around in cutoffs and bare feet, vague and unfocused,counting on her childlike winsomeness to extricate her
from every mess. She exemplified the California surfer mentality.
Plato said that the worst evil is committed through ignorance, and
the actress convincingly embodied that truth as her character
trashed the lives of all those into whom she came in contact. A
film to value for those who value values.
a grisly failure
Those who doubt the ability of cinema to delineate the inhuman will have their minds changed by this catastrophe of a film. Kenneth Branagh, doing a dogged but effective imitation of the film's director, Woody Allen, plays a self-obsessed would-be novelist circulating in the demimonde of Manhattan artistic chic. He is plagued with a pointless case of satyriasis; his incessantly propelling lust seems to have neither a emotional nor, weirdly enough, even a physical dimension. I thought of the shades circulating and moaning in the eight circle of Dante's hell. Humorless, solipsistic (a literary critic in the film uses that wonderful word to describe the character's writing), fretful, unfetching, he brings to mind the classic lament of the unrealized dweeb: `I'm not much, but I'm all I ever think about.' I found the film both sad and frightening, although it was intended to be neither. I also was reminded of the famous play of Sartre, although here the Huis Clos is all of Manhattan, rather than one room. I will mention only a single humiliating scene, that in which a hooker, teaching Judy Davis to administer oral sex, chokes on the banana serving as the instructional tool and has to be administered the Heimlich maneuver.
I'm sorry that it took 9/11 to overshadow this artistic train wreck, and to convince us that that city has both love and soul, and is populated not with Dantean shades sniggering as they lavish their emptiness on each other, but rather with real people and their attendant hopes and agonies. By contrast, all the characters in this film were nothing more than colliding oil slicks. Woody has enlisted the talents of some of the world's great actors, but to what end? Branagh is a consummate technician, and there is not a single false note in his American accent nor, indeed, in the speech of any other non-American native in the film, including Judy Davis. One should carefully compare Branagh's performance in this film, though, with that in the masterful 2001 tv film `The Conspiracy.' The subject there is the Wansee conference wherein the details of the final solution were hammered out. Branagh plays Oberstgruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and Security Service, the architect of the master plan to rid Europe of its Jews. Powerful, charismatic, twinkling with irony, deeply frightening, Branagh's portrait of this ubermonster is flawless, and the contrast with the present performance suggests, disturbingly enough, that evil, at least artistically, may sometimes be more moral than vapidity.
La virgen de los sicarios (2000)
from a respite from dull films, see this
A middle-aged Colombian writer, disgusted with life and contemptuous of religion, becomes involved sexually and romantically with teen-aged Medellin boys who kill effortlessly and with little provocation. At first appalled, he eventually grows addicted to the deaths the boys bring about, their magical ability to resolve the annoyances of everyday life, such as noisy neighbors and aggressive cab subway riders. The plot has some really astonishing surprises, and the taut nearly flawless script (in Spanish) is a treasure. The film , obviously the product of a philosophically inclined mind (Schroeder studied philosophy at the Sorbonne), is a thinking filmgoer's feast and works on many different levels. The main character's ambivalence about religion (the film's title, and the fact that the writer keeps finding himself in cathedrals) furnishes much matter for reflection. This film is not for everyone--- it is, even for these times, shocking. Those more comfortable with the blowsy and predictable product issuing from Hollywood committees should probably avoid it. But those who treasure the ability of film to explore provocative and original ideas will love it.
Men with Guns (1997)
a masterpiece without an audience
A retired Professor of medicine in Mexico begins a journey to reaffirm his legacy, that is, to find and reacquaint himself with the students who studied under him. His search takes him to southern Mexico along the Guatemala border, where an internecine war is in progress between guerilla soldiers and government troops. The war has left the country and its native inhabitants devastated. He find, tragically, his former students have all been killed: if they treated guerilla soldiers, they were executed by the army. If they treated soldiers they were assassinated by guerillas. He ends up with some companions on the journey: an embittered ex-soldier, a priest ravaged by guilt from the commission of an unpardonable sin, a woman who has been gang raped by soldiers, a boy who is old before his time. It is very interesting, and a tribute to a carefully wrought script, that none of these characters can be who they are: the doctor is no longer a doctor, the soldier has deserted, the boy can no longer be a boy, the woman a woman, the priest a priest. Their very violent and moving journey takes them to a mountain top and to the magical possibility of redemption. Mandy Patinkin appears briefly several times in the film as an American tourist, exploring the offbeat paths of rural Mexico. But he, symbolically, is much more than that. His role is one of the most intriguingly conceived elements of the film. Is he a guide? A celestial companion? The film is mostly in Spanish, although long sections of it are in native languages, such as Mayan and Huatl. They are beautiful languages, very musical in nature, and offer one more reason to see this vibrant, provocative masterpiece. This is one of the greatest of American films. Many critics said so and it received universal accolades from everyone except the public. They stayed away in groves, and I, living in Philadelphia, had to plan carefully in order to see it twice. Those who are critical of American film, believing it can never equal the philosophical attainments of European film, should see this film. Few films have dealt with eschatological issues as assuredly as this one: The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cold Fever, Forbidden Games, are some that have, and this magnificent film is very much their equal.
This is one of the five most skillfully crafted mysteries I have ever seen.
Through the years, I have sought out uncommonly interesting mysteries, those is which it is not only uncertain WHO did it, but WHAT was done. This mystery is one of the very best of the species, I defy anyone to sort out what happened until, at the end, everything falls into place like an exquisitely crafted puzzle. My congrats to the writer. I wonder why more mysteries can't be this skillfully plotted.
Desperate Hours (1990)
avoid this mess
This movie is an embarrassment. It should never have been released. It should have been consigned to the stuporous netherworld of HBO reruns. Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins are redoubtable talents, but they require a firm directorial hand to deliver satisfying performances. That hand is absent here. Hopkin's accent varies all over the place, and his theatrical bellowing is in weird contrast to the serpentine hissing of Rourke. The relation between him and his brother is never fleshed out; this was the most emotionally satisfying aspect of the Humphrey Bogart- Dewey Martin relationship in the classic movie. Lindsay Crouse, as a dippy Southern accented FBI agent, conjures up outlandish ad hoc schemes which cannot be understood by the viewer and perhaps were not understood even by the scriptwriter. The struggles, the theatrics, the emotion-tinged outbursts seem improvised. The sole actor to escape unscathed is Philadelphia's own David Morse, although an unintended moment of high comedy is provided when, after disposing out of a body and drenched with his own and the other's blood, he stumbles out of a creek to encounter two nubile lasses loading merchandise into a pickup. "What college do you go to?" he asks brightly.