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Sucker Punch (2011)
Incredible visuals; imagery that will stay etched in your mind for a long time
23 March 2011
"Sucker Punch," the latest barrage on the senses from writer-director Zack Snyder ("300", "Watchmen") is his first film that's based on his own source material. And it proves to be quite stunning definition of pop filmmaking. In a triumphant marriage of style and tone, Snyder has created his own "Kill Bill" by going deep down into the rabbit hole. A glorious pastiche of colour, CGI and kinesis, "Sucker Punch" even through its obvious flaws, has set a new bar for graphic storytelling that attempts to transplant the purity of imagination onto the cinema screen.

Essentially cohering around a simple premise -- hot chicks kicking ass and taking names, the film's bravura opening charts Baby Doll's (Emily Browning) institutionalisation by a wicked stepfather after her mother's death and her introduction to the asylum where damaged young women are sent to be kept away from society. She meets the people-in-charge, Blue (Oscar Isaac) and Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) as well as the other girls in the institute: Rocket (Jena Malone) and her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens).

The story that follows Baby Doll reveals a larger canvas of a clever narrative conceit that coincides three realities together ("Inception" comparisons, tread lightly); the first being the asylum, the second is a burlesque brothel run by Blue and trained by Gorski and the final and most resplendent one is Baby Doll's hyper reverie focused on destroying the forces of evil -- be it shogun titans, zombie Nazis or killer androids. The darker the reality preceding it, the deeper and more risky the wormhole of fantasies go. There is a real sense, despite its tremendous parade of visual set-pieces that Snyder wanted a narrative strong enough to endure the weight of spectacle, and in many respects he has. He uses the age-old device of character quests to propel the plot, peppering it with familiar consequences until he doesn't. The flow culminates in an intriguing final act that sets it a mark higher than anyone would have expected, or even needed from a film that already proudly wears its stripes as pure escapist entertainment.

Snyder goes the way of Tarantino in appropriating and amalgamating artistic and stylistic influences from the most conspicuous of genres and mediums. Within the real world or whatever the relative equivalent of what exists in this film's dark and twisty tone, the film uses templates in the vein of sexploitation female prison grind-house features from the 60s and 70s like "Love Camp 7", "99 Women", "Caged Heat" and the grandmother of them all, 1950's "Caged". As the film progresses into its action-oriented enterprises, it quickly recalls the dizzying array of cut-scenes from video-games and punk anime-style design in how it encompasses the digital environment. Snyder's thematic goal is to situate the idea of imagination as a coping mechanism for terror, a concept seen recently in "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Tideland". The landscape of the mind is uniquely realised here by Snyder, who etches a remarkable amount of detail into each CGI frame, an hyperbolised celebration of artifice and invention that is at once magnificent and exhilarating as it is compelling and spellbinding.

Werner Herzog once posited that the dearth of new and unique imagery that do not reflect the times we live in will be the death of civilisation. If anything, "Sucker Punch" truly defines the generation of filmmaking we exist in -- a sophisticated and passionate emblem that delivers an overload of sugar high through the ideals of creating and maintaining a creative medley of pop-culture influences, bridged together with keen commercial sensibilities. Suddenly, Snyder holding on to the helms of the next Superman film makes more sense than it ever did.
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Life as a moebius strip.
20 January 2011
In the 2010 Palme d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has elevated himself into a true visionary of the medium. His oeuvre culminating here in what must be called his magnum opus. Twining politics and intellectualism together by holding his native land close to his heart, he explores history, memories and cinema itself.

Weerasethakul's follow-up to 2006's "Syndromes and a Century" follows the final days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an ailing old bee farmer, who returns to his countryside abode in the north-eastern jungles with his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and a male caretaker, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). Weerasethakul attributes Boonmee's ailment -- kidney failure -- with an autobiographical nod to details of his father's own passing. The narrative structure stands at its most absurd but also at its sturdiest when Boonmee's state of mind and body brings forth the ghosts of his demised family members: his lost son Boonsong, who is now part of the monkey spirits residing in the jungle and has transformed into a striking hirsute crimson-eyed ape-man; and his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), who appears at the dinner table in a remarkable scene where the veil between the living and the dead come down in the gentlest way possible.

The main scope is limited to these characters, as we observe them in moments of gilded reticence as they navigate through this time of great personal revolutions, food and final thoughts are divulged, until the deep wisdom of the film and filmmaker bubbles up to the fore. Deeply meditative and gentle, it brings us on a journey without tugging us along to show us one point after another; its mien remains as organic and serene to the nature of the filmmaker and its characters' own journey.

Ostensibly a film about transition, transmigration and the ontology of our evolution -- who we once were, who we are now and who or what we will become -- Weerasethakul pulls together ancient mysticism and visual cues to form an amorphous narrative that speaks about existence of the living earth and its relationship within and of itself; and how environments shape its denizens as individuals. The film contemplates our cosmic existence and attempts as serenely as possible to reassure us that everything is in order, that it all makes sense and that we are where we were meant to be. Reconciling his belief in the spirituality infused into nature and its relationship with the human experience, his belief in the idea of animism captivates Weerasethakul who regards the reincarnation of the soul and spirit into different forms; life never ends and death feeds into the next plane -- the renascence of energy and spirit and a transcendence beyond an established, ephemeral identity.

The song ends but the melody continues to linger -- the easy friction between the film's human and spiritual realms, proffered by the use of magic-realism, is at once supremely stirring as it is assuredly calming. In an excursion by Boonmee into one of his past lives, a particularly resplendent vignette of an aging princess yearning to be young once again who offers up her physical self to a talking catfish who promises her the beauty she once possessed. Entrenched with the otherworldliness of a ghostly folk tale from Weerasethakul's own youth and fanciful and erotically charged as Weerasethakul's own recent films, it points towards the filmmaker's syncretism of his own fractures memories and refined aesthetics.

There is a sense that Weerasethakul set out to make a film about his home and the vanishing spaces that his mind once occupied but along the way, stumbled upon the synthetic truth of cinema -- the film transforming into an earnest ode to the forgotten national cinema of his youth. He has described it as a way of preserving the memory -- the fabric of that point in the nation's cultural landscape -- through a hazy melange of related myths, idealised imagery and the shared experiences. He uses traditional techniques to create something new and revolutionary, eliciting a wonderful sense of exploring and pushing the boundaries of the medium by exploring the metaphysical through cinema and artistic fervour. By invoking the power of the screen and its abilities to meld its spatial and temporal realities with our reality beyond the projection, Weerasethakul observes the medium's propensity to not just reflect but alter history and the revision of certain truths.

Photographs play a large part of Weerasethakul's ode to permanence and the sense of past lives lived but never forgotten. Time is evoked as a Moebius strip where the past, present and future are in concurrent unity when members of his lost family turn up to relive the past or when Boonmee comments on the state of how things were before describing a future existence that begins to look remarkably like a present-day portrait of oppression in the volatile political maladies plaguing Thailand. Weerasethakul slyly alludes to political components inherent in his work -- a monk who finds ataraxic comfort in modernity rather than in the austerity of his robes or monkey spirits being led to torture by armed soldiers.

Touching on the dark history of the Nabua region it is set in and Boonmee recollecting his own role in the mutual slaughter of the Communists to Jen by invoking karma in considering his current illness, that he somehow deserves his fate. Jen responds that she was proud for having her father for serving the nation, yet resisted the violence by going into the jungle and hunting animals as well as communicating with them. This symbiosis of regret and avoidance signifying the suppression of violence as a natural impulse of humanity serves great purpose in looking through Weerasethakul's perspective of our natural internal states.
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Predators (2010)
Not a radical departure from expectations but a solid sci-fi actioner
6 July 2010
It is important to note that despite it's perspicuous title, Nimrod Antal's "Predators" is no reboot of its establishing material. It's a honest-to-goodness sequel to the first two Predators films; a long awaited one at that after a couple of detours into the realm of crossovers into the "Alien" universe. It does however represent a stylistic update and intriguing expansion of the franchise's filmic mythology that also spans Dark Horse Comics' graphic novels and its video games.

However, if there ever were to be a more convincing statement of intent in relaunching this franchise, it would have been putting its marquee producer Robert Rodriguez to work in a film so suited to his aesthetics and stylistic idiosyncrasies. But Rodriquez's pick to helm this film almost proves to be reason enough to watch this given that Nimrod Antal is one of the most exciting directors around these days. Antal's direction has always coincided with his a strong sense of atmosphere and character development. With his fascinating debut, "Kontroll" and his cleverly constructed meta-slasher, "Vacancy" as well as with last year's taut action spectacle "Armored", Antal has shown himself to be an effective genre director in that he's both comfortable in affirming a particular genre as he is deconstructing it. And in "Predators", he infuses it with not just a showcase of tried and tested sci-fi ideals but also a discernible impression of a robust horror film.

Antal keeps things moving along at an exhilarating pace by introducing a rag-tag team of mercenaries and criminals getting air-dropped into a highly tropical and vegetative alien planet tailored by the ruthless and single-minded Predator race as a game reserve for the insufficiently armed humans and other prey. Its mise-en-scene immediately hearkens back to the jungle warfare of the first "Predator". As the movie gods demand, the herd gets thinned as the race of alien hunters reveal themselves to be superior in both their technology and understanding of game theory. Kept alive by de facto leader, the preternaturally perspicacious Royce (Adrien Brody), the band of humans begin to formulate their plan of survival against the truly fearsome Predators and their formidable weaponry.

Brody's presence seems almost folly at first – a gruff vocal inflection worthy of Christian Bale's in "The Dark Knight" underscores a predictably rote tough guy but to his credit, a good actor always manages to sell his act despite himself. Like his character, who sees no virtue in human connection but instead adopts a ranger-like approach to survival, Brody doesn't seem to create much chemistry with his cast mates in his relatively new role as action hero. The rest of its main supporting cast are split of into archetypes – Alice Braga is Isabelle, an Israeli soldier and its burgeoning conscience, Topher Grace plays Dr. Edwin, the geeky comic relief and notably, the talented Walter Goggins of TV's "The Shield" and "Justified" is the smarmy knife-wielding death-row convict, Stans. Also, rounding of the surviving humans is the reticent Yakuza gangster, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and the relatively noble Chechnyan soldier, Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov).

Antal manages this character list well enough. As the chase progresses, you get a distinct feel of each human before they start to fall victim to their raison d'être. Besides a late flurry of actual and conspicuous violence, "Predators" actually fares better in its early scenes where the humans explore their predicament and the film plays the suspense card remarkably well. There's an actual interest in finding out the psyches of these mysterious humans who are hunters and monsters on Earth but scurrying mice on the Predator's turf.

If anything else, the script provides little genuine surprises in it storytelling. Given its inherent similarities, the film bares a stunning amount of resemblance to last year's terrific "Pandorum" – where a space crew wakes up with no memory onboard a vessel designed as a Noah's Ark of sorts to vicious creatures hunting them. There's a scene with Laurence Fishburne as the planet's loony veteran survivor that cribs more than just mood but actual dialogue from the superior film.

"Predators" doesn't change the game too much but as far as delivering a solid and experience to its fanbase, it releases itself from the shackles of relying on crossovers and re-establishes the Predator as one of Hollywood's most fertile sources of sci-fi villains.
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A Serious Man (2009)
"A Serious Man" is the quintessential Coen Brothers film
24 February 2010
If "No Country for Old Men" was their most pitch-perfect counterpoint of their idiosyncratic cinematic form, then "A Serious Man" is their most personal and exploratory to date. In many ways and especially in its inquiring spirit, "A Serious Man" is the quintessential Coen Brothers film. It resonates with the inherent absurdity of life, the harsh dualities of creation and the great cosmic prank of being. In the film's seemingly disjointed prologue set in Poland and spoken in Yiddish with accompanying subtitles, a man returning home brings home a visitor who might or might not be a dybbuk (a lost soul) to a suspecting wife, which sets the tone for the film's concerns over the danger of unexamined faith.

With their latest film, they look at serious issues faced by serious people. It regards the disintegration of a late 60s Midwestern Jewish family through the experiences of soon-to-be-tenured physics professor Larry Gopnik (exquisitely played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a representation of the Biblical Job. He's a good man by all accounts. Honourable and serious in his convictions, he faces personal tribulations of a cheating wife (Sari Lennick), a traitorous friend (Fred Melamed), a kooky brother (Richard Kind) and two children who steal from him (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus). Add to that the temptations of a Korean exchange student (David Kang) attempting to bribe him for better grades and a promiscuous pot-smoking neighbour (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude. This convergence of sufferings in a short span of time lead him to analyse his perceptions on his Jewish-American faith and to reconcile the idea that man and God might not be on the same path, or whether there ever was a path to begin with.

Evoking the tenor of an Anton Chekhov comic tragedy, the very notion of a tested faith against the backdrop of suburban rituals with the era's onset of American consumerist values on the warpath, is a daunting reminder of our place in the universe. The fatalistic tinge is made even more palpable in the film when considered along with the nihilistic streak set in the Coens' shared consciousness. They weave together fundamental philosophical inquiries of identity, existentialism and morality through a perfect conflation of characters. Larry primarily searches for clarity and answers through three rabbis, who attempt to comfort him with platitudes of God's will, placate him by convincing him of greater plans through droll anecdotes or just plain refuse to see him. The film asks questions through Larry that are not answerable and at its most Coen-ness, the film pleads with us to just "accept the mystery". What is our place? Where do I go from here? Is God guiding me? At one point Larry asks, "Should I be nicer to people?" The rabbi replies: "It couldn't hurt." Bookended by its fascinating prologue and a bravura finale, the Coens have once again made a film that is not just a showcase of a technical mastery of their profession, but a film that discusses and digests key humanistic ideals. At its core, "A Serious Man" resembles the primal scream silently emanating from the heart of every man and woman who, in their daily communion of navigating the finer points of compromise in their lives, come face to face with the overwhelming odds that their existence is akin to a piece of rock hurtling through space – random, unknown and searching.
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Poetically revitalising and sincerely entrancing film
13 February 2009
Tomas Alfredson's cult sensation "Let the Right One In" fundamentally boils down to an adolescent love story amidst a torrent of violence, blood and the moody topos of the vampire mythology. It opens on a repressive, wintry suburb in 1980s Sweden and relents, with patient observations, the film's key motif of alienation. As if frozen in time, the shots – as it pulsates to the erratic rhythms of a dream – turn into a piercing look into the lives of the occupants in an apartment complex guarding secrets and hidden desires but it shifts into focus when a bullied boy with a mop of yellow hair and pale skin who yearns for retribution finds a protector through the avenging affection of an undead pubescent girl.

Instant attraction belies the idiosyncrasies apparent between the 12 year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and the scrawny young Eli (an irresistibly eerie Lina Leandersson) who notices him at the playground as he continuously thrusts a knife into a tree, reenacting his quest for revenge against the school tyrant. She's drawn to his blistered emotionality – perhaps his wounded humanity – and he is drawn to the novelty of her awareness of him. They eventually find solace in each other's loneliness. We understand this societal disconnect because Oskar is a product of a broken environment, void of attention and concern while Eli is essentially a predator of instinct and devastation as the director Alfredson feeds this forced isolation into the film's abiding theme of disaffection with a remarkably assured visual mastery of grey and grit that captures the stony and unyielding mood of bleak frustration within each occupant of the apartment complex. But he still manages to punctuate these moments of deep silence and menacing creepiness with an assertive show of force – intense images of terror and shock that rivals the best genre films in their indelibility.

Writer John Ajvide Lindqvist condenses his novel into a strictly brutal and raw affair, with a removed sense of amusement attached to a serrated edge – consider how matter-of-factly Eli's "meals" are delivered to her or the droll tête-à-têtes between Eli and Oskar. But the real power of the film doesn't derive from the film's traditional horror tropes but of the poignancy wrenched out of the awful depictions of puberty and adolescence. It is, above all else, a gutting interpretation of the coming-of-age that contends with the feelings of bloodlust it augurs in young, artless scapegoats like Oskar and countless of other youths.

Eli becomes Oskar's salvation – not just through the promise of protection but one that justifies his existence and inherent self-worth. It begins as a despairing tale of fear and resentment and ends on a note of hope and renewal. And it is in its ending that "Let the Right One In" rapidly instigates a quality of genius, as it validates the film's powerful emotional core. It is at once enriching and thematically functional.

"Let the Right One In," demands not so much an open mind but an open heart. It is a poetically revitalising and sincerely entrancing film that transcends its genre trappings and simply becomes a terrific film capable of profound currents of compassion in its world of frigid callousness.
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Defiance (I) (2008)
Stupendously manipulative
3 February 2009
Edward Zwick continues giving backhanded Hollywood compliments to oppressed minorities in the "Defiance", headlined by the newly minted A-list presence in Daniel Craig as a blond-haired, blue-eyed saviour to hunted Jews in 1941 Belarus. Just as in "Glory", "The Last Samurai" and most egregiously in "Blood Diamond," Zwick finds little but potent ways of insulting his through a veil of good intentions and it doesn't show signs of stopping here. But surprisingly, Zwick manages to create a grim world here based on true events and characters – making it more than a little affecting – set in the claustrophobic forests, brought down to earth with swirling ideas about the price of survival in a time hardly worth living in.

For all its over-the-top pitches, it is stupendously manipulative in how much effective pathos it wrings out of its leading men. It revolves around a dynamic of quiet anger and deep convictions to what four brothers believe should be the best way to lead their people into the brighter light that they know has to shine one of these days. The eldest, Tuvia Bielski (Craig) advocates an agrarian society that depends on a more defensive approach of elusive subsistence of growing, stealing and rationing food. His two youngest siblings, Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) and Aron Bielski (George MacKay) join this form of resistance. However, Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) – by far the most appealing character – chooses to fight back with the help of the scheming remnant Soviet Army, at times even letting his desire for continued vengeance obscure the idea of his identity in a period when that's all that is needed to be exterminated.

At its most melancholic, "Defiance" asks questions of the deep paradoxes in being Jewish. It questions, quite relevantly, the necessity of killing in order to survive – a raid on Nazis is juxtaposed with a joyous wedding of young Jews – and the expendability of present humanity to preserve future generations. But for its entire story's intrinsic worth, Zwick does bring a sledgehammer approach to most of the proceedings. When Nazis or Jews aren't getting gunned down, the silence is filled with rousing speeches on valour in the face of adversity, romantic gazes and religious iconography (courtesy of an old rabbi) of Moses/Tuvia leading his people towards the Promised Land. It does draw away the idea of victimisation and fatality of a Nazi period film but doesn't do very much to create a lasting intent of realism, just the pursuit of idealism.
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Overly familiar romantic comedy that trades on European sensibilities for a distinctively American atmosphere
21 November 2008
In writer-director-star Til Schweiger's second directorial outing, "Rabbit Without Ears" (following a semi-refreshing "Barefoot"), he plays yet another hedonistic Teutonic cad spun round by an unlikely, socially awkward girl. It's an overly familiar romantic comedy that trades on European sensibilities for a distinctively American atmosphere.

Just as in "Barefoot" (a love story of a self-involved cad and a depressively sweet escapee from a psych hospital with an aversion to footwear), Schweiger uses the same sort of emotional modulation – with a touch of transparent manipulation and a fair amount of feel-good montages – to present its apparent mainstream appeal of the adorable differences between men and women. You could transplant everything here from a Frankfurt to New York setting while a Matthew McConaughey could easily play Schweiger's dapper hunk and a Sandra Bullock could slot in as his female co-star Nora Tschirner – the latter being a dead ringer for the Hollywood star.

So what's a rabbit without ears but just another flaw to be overcome? Schweiger plays Ludo, a paparazzi reporter who sees his work and women as one venture. Till, he messes up and gets 300 hours of community service at a local day-care facility run by an ex-classmate, the frumpily attractive Anna (played by Tschirner) who still harbours an improbable resentment of Ludo and his teasing over 20 years ago.

But what's even more dubious is how easily these set-ups and facades drop to accommodate the inevitability of its central pairing. Ludo finds his redemption being surrounded by enamoured toddlers while Anna falls deeply into a void of self-esteem, which is to say into the arms of the obliviously receptive Ludo. It could just as readily be named "Men Are Dogs and the Women Who Love Them".

Schweiger lazily allows the strings to be seen. There are scenes so ludicrously over the top and undeveloped that questions about the writing and editing have to be raised. Characters cease to act like they were written and anachronistic scenes mar emotional pay-offs that could have been promising given the film's punchy performances and frequently wry dialogue.

Sex is fundamental to these upwardly mobile Germans, but the utter puerility of sex-faces and loud restaurant reveals aside, the understated view on sexual politics is particularly lurid. The strongly defined angular features of Schweiger augments an ability to convey quick nods of sympathetic posturing – an incredibly useful tool that belies Ludo's selfish actions and blurs the perception beyond acceptable behaviour and the resulting consequences of its main pairing. Schweiger needs to rediscover the sweet emotionality of his previous film and disregard the rank superficiality of this film.
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Cheap stunts and dumbed down politics
28 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
When Albert Brooks tried to reconfigure a massive cultural chasm into chuckles in the meta-comic "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World", he admitted markedly failure in finding common ground – Americans weren't ready to laugh, but more importantly, Muslims weren't ready. This was way back in 2005 when the War on Terror still had that new car smell. Now, Morgan Spurlock of "Super Size Me" fame follows Brooks' muddled footsteps into oblivion as he looks for cheap stunts in the Muslim world. Not for any sort of truth or insight, but vulgar shtick. To call this a documentary or even a docu-comedy would seem fallacious to the standings of both genres.

Spurlock just isn't as interesting or humorous a personality as he assumes himself to be, which only serves to antagonise the idea of its premise being an odyssey into the treacherous abyss to find the world's most wanted man with only Spurlock as tour guide. He frames this sudden epiphany of a "dangerous post-9/11 world" with his wife getting pregnant. It's a faux-earnest set-up – interspersed with ridiculous allusions to his impending fatherhood and his superfluous wife's presence in the film when it cuts away back home – that becomes increasingly embarrassing as the film wears on, especially when it starts to become an excuse for Spurlock's failures and insecurities over his ill-conceived mission.

Approaching this staged existential quandary from a place of blissful ignorance towards the Muslim world, Spurlock feigns mock surprise at how different the Muslim population is compared to America's perception of it was – they aren't all violent terrorists! Cut to Spurlock's histrionic astonishment over that nugget of information. And just as how easily he made his mock-realisation that a constant stream of fast food led to a death wish seem almost a quaint discovery, Spurlock leads the audience to think that he's doing some bold investigative work here by superficially interviewing the hoi polloi of the Gaza Strip and so-called relatives of Osama Bin Laden in Egypt. He makes his unexpected ejection from an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Israel become his glib counterpoint to the idea that Muslims aren't bad eggs, but that Middle Eastern religiosity is just plain screwy and insular.

Spurlock frequently pollutes his geographical opportunity into pure performance. He makes a dog and pony show about the sociopolitical strife in the region when he obviously knows better. His rehearsed, pandered surprise at the world outside of Manhattan shows a man who doesn't think squat of his audience's own comprehensions on the Middle East since 9/11 and his film ends up becoming just as shallow as his phony-baloney egoist brand of "documentaries".

And only Spurlock seems equipped to turn his cultural ignorance into cultural arrogance – completing his transformation into a boorish man-with-a-camera into a Michael Moore-ish buffoon oblivious to his own chicanery. He insincerely coheres his film into a single, predictably trivial idea that these Middle-Easterners are just like us – from their love of family to their ultimate pursuit of peace on their land. Except Spurlock doesn't really believe that. To him, they are like us but they aren't really. His entire self-centred view of the Middle East engenders the film as a wholly facetious work of manipulation and even more egregiously, is ultimately condescending to the very subjects Spurlock explicitly extols at the end of his film.

Perhaps we get the real glimpse of Spurlock as a person when he deigns to ask a jocular Egyptian man whether he was about to blow up his car or when he dons distinctively Arabic garb and starts randomly assaulting Saudi Arabian women in the mall about Bin Laden's whereabouts. It is a particularly contemptible redneck hustle that only reveals Morgan Spurlock as the sort of Ugly American that his Middle Eastern interviewees denounce as the true cause of their cultural discordance. Who can blame them?
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Mamma Mia! (2008)
Irrepressible camp, purely entertaining – flaws and all
17 September 2008
Stage director Phyllida Lloyd's film debut knows exactly what it is and what it means to a clamouring fanbase worldwide. Already one of the biggest ever musicals ever put to stage – consistently selling out Broadway and the West End, its translation to the screen is now poised to be the biggest film musical of all time through its knack of reaching across generations (a theme that runs through the film) through a timeless soundtrack and the rare ability to garner repeat business. The film's force of showmanship is distinctive all right, and to be sure, "Mamma Mia!" utilises the preternaturally addictive ABBA catalogue to clever use by never veering far from its showcase tunes of instantly recognisable anthems. But there's a much more crucial factor to its commercial success than its inherently gratifying, time-tested Europop extravaganza, and that would seem to be how the viewing experience energises audiences into a frenzy before, during and after the film.

Each of them – and you know who you are – on a certain level view "Mamma Mia!" as a sort of audience participation, seen in the likes of originals like "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", "Cabaret", "Grease", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", "Hairspray" (circa 1988) and of course, its spiritual predecessor, "Xanadu". These films trade heavily on their camp sensibilities and tacky production numbers that go above a natural tolerance for kitsch and the hysterical. You'd be hard-pressed to not find shoes tapping, fingers strumming invisible chords and sotto voce singing at a screening room. This collective spirit of celebration, the utter gaiety of being apart of a harmonious thread is apparent everywhere in the film, particularly when a Greek chorus becomes suddenly apparent as its impressive array of acting talent attempt to sing their way out of paper bags.

What you hear is what you get. Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard and its young lead, Amanda Seyfried are shoehorned into singing roles. The uninspired, contrived, threadbare story that strings most of ABBA's Top 20 hits together revolves around a soon-to-be-wed Sophie's (Seyfried) attempts to bring three men (Brosnan, Firth, Skarsgard) to the small, idyllic Greek island of Kalokairi for the very purpose of rooting out which of them is her biological father by bringing them face to face with her feisty single mother Donna played by an indomitable Streep. Never you mind its absolute farce of a premise, just admire its sheer audacity of even attempting it.

Steeped in mediocrity, the film is a dissonant fuse of feckless film-making and unqualified brio. Lloyd underdirects every aspect of the film by playing it safe, giving way to an overly effusive and overly acted emoting by its usually terrific cast, proving that even the best of them stumble over tricky song-and-dance material. Brosnan gives a muscular performance even through throaty recitals, but Streep surprises with an impassioned salvo. But the musical performances have a delightfully novel quality of a night at a karaoke bar with awkward uncles and drunken mothers. They are rough around the edges, but remain charming, proving that not everything equates to the sum of its parts. "Mamma Mia!" wants to be an experience to be relished, with an intrinsic need to convert the unconverted by its purely stupendous force of ardent spectacle and delirious pizazz.
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Zvyagintsev creates a stark, grave allegory of marital and familial disintegration
28 August 2008
Andrey Zvyagintsev's "The Banishment" is a stark, grave allegory of marital and familial disintegration. The father, Alexander (Best Actor at Cannes 2007, Konstantin Lavronenko)—a slight, lithe, laconic character—faces an unconscionable choice midway through the film. His wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), is a quietly tired mother masking a great deal of uncertainty behind pained eyes and faded beauty. Their young children, Kir and Eva, sense that a storm is brewing. This is Zvyagintsev's despairing poetry on the toxic disconnect between loved ones, surveying the limbo between the way things are and the way it should be.

"I'm pregnant, but it's not yours," Vera says unhurriedly, looking at her husband imploringly, eyes beseeching, as they lounge on the patio of Alexander's hilltop childhood home in the countryside, far away from the bleak greys of the industrial city where they reside. In that moment, Alexander realises the shift from mental to physical infidelity, less mindful to the betrayal he refuses to talk about than he is to his pride taking a dent. For the first time, the angular complexity of Lavronenko's face twists into a wordless rage that reveals his only response to the malaise rising within this marriage.

Alexander meets surreptitiously with his shady brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev), a criminal sort that needed stitching up and a bullet removed from his arm in the dead of the night just days before. Mark informs Alexander of a gun he left up in a dresser at their father's home. The moral landscape opens up here with two paths—to forgive or to kill. Both choices demand a hefty price, but remain acceptable as long as one is able to reconcile one's self with it.

Zvyagintsev creates a dreary mood piece, sustained with tension and a deeply burdening excavation of secrets and silence. There's an exploration of miscommunication here, not lies. The unspoken becomes just as virulent as falsities; the emotional estrangement between people becomes a source of dehumanising decay. The story of family is timeless in its essence, but intermittent, it's intrinsic morality however, is everything. Once again, the past has a way of rearing itself into the future. Just as Zvyagintsev saw profundity in the role of the Father in his mesmerising debut, "The Return", he sees the same here in the dynamics between parents and of spouses. The themes remain similar, but the religiosity of his enterprise is clunkier and more obtrusive.

While the acknowledged influence is Andrei Tarkovsky—nature and pastoral simplicity as it relates to the inner self and the interplay of religious iconography—the resonance of the camera is plainly Zvyagintsev's. The director, once again working with the cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, seems incapable of framing an ugly image: the open spaces of the golden countryside becomes stupefying and the creaky house itself hinges on a chasm, a solitary wooden bridge is the sole connection to a world outside the confines of family. As the narrative bends and folds, so does Zvyagintsev's virtuosity with visual chicanery—images and shots blend into one another, revealing the webs of space and time.

For all its technical poise, Zvyagintsev's story lacks the emotional veracity of his debut. From each shot, right down to its script, everything is so precisely composed that the film becomes antiseptic beneath the tragedy by justifying its theoretical banality with intense symbolism and inorganic actions. Characters have weight but no reality—they seem becalmed, even unaffected—they are ideas acted upon, props for a rambling parable and dangerously on the verge of evoking ennui. But in spite of its inherently languorous sermon, Zvyagintsev tackles the film with the cinematic prose of epic literature by enveloping the film with an aura of solemnity and disquiet.
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Loses perspective at the end
21 August 2008
When former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic—allegedly responsible for as a quarter of a million deaths during the Bosnian War and one of the most wanted men in the world for more than a decade—was caught in Belgrade last month, it wasn't just the suddenness of his capture that caught the media's attention but rather the circumstances surrounding his evasion. Karadzic donned owl-eyed glasses, grew a sweeping white beard that covered half his face and deigned to call himself Dr. Dragan David Dabic, a New Age practitioner of alternative medicine. And even incognito, he willfully put himself in the public eye by giving speeches on holistic practices and sexual therapy, as well as writing various articles in the fitness magazines on the importance of healthy living and spirituality.

But his remarkable ability to avoid the United Nations and international authorities wasn't all down to his guile and cunning of never having to reach for a razor blade ever again. There were close calls during cloak-and-dagger operations that suddenly went dead just as they caught whiff of Karadzic, among the numerous other gild-edged political opportunities during the later part of the 1990s to have apprehended the former President of Republika Srpska. That is, if you were to believe his still vocal Serbian ultranationalists, some staunchly believing that their idol's political leverage reached across the continent just in time to have brokered a deal as the war had started to wind down.

Conspiracy theorists seem to agree—but not on any certain terms, or even in any sort of specifics—that a number of Washington politicos and officials from the UN, had a hand (indirect or otherwise) in offering Karadzic a arrangement while striking the accords that ended the region's three-and-a-half year long armed conflict. Sightings of the man were reported in this new decade, but a low-key diplomatic presence and an anemic political imperative to carry out a manhunt had given an undue sense of transition without closure to the majority of Serbs, like an untreated wound left to be merely covered.

It's that very idea that war criminals, dangerous fugitives and wanted men could conceivably be left to their own devious devices in the age when any schlep with Google has the ability to just about zoom into your sidewalk that starts to give one pause. All while governments put on a tough enough face on our morning news, juxtaposed with grieving civilians and scrolling counters of increasing death counts as countless pundits debate incessantly on political ambiguities tinged with just the right condescension of dispassionate moralism. Presciently enough, writer and director Richard Shepard sees this disconnect between the past and present, these remnants of the past shrouded by certain secrecy.

Where could these men—faces forever etched in the minds of survivors—be hiding in a world increasingly smaller? Jumping off from an article by Scott Anderson in the Esquire from 2000 about a cadre of war journalists that went on the search for Karadzic, got confused for CIA operatives and found themselves in a whole heap of trouble. This target seems primed for maximum satirical prospects but Shepard takes his latest film, "The Hunting Party", nowhere in particular. Taking on the media and its tendency for ADD-style reporting, the American military, international politics, post-war Bosnia and the West's own ability to tune out injustices that aren't necessarily relatable to them, Shepard touches on just about enough intentions to ensure relevant but mediocre war commentary. Somewhere along the way to satire, it all just drops off into glib exploitation of war crimes.

Coming off as misguidedly preening, Shepard just never seems ready or even capable of deriving a black comedy from atrocities by always talking and skirting around the issue. Just as in his breakthrough feature, "The Matador", he uses the same comedic buddy movie formula to give two midlifers one last jaunt through danger. Simon Hunt (Richard Gere) is a wreck, but no hack. He's the cliché of a movie journalist—dogged, misanthropic, unsuccessful and usually right when nobody else seems to think so. Boozing around active war zones around the world and selling them on the cheap to any news agencies around the world, Hunt has been subsisting ever since an on-air meltdown in Bosnia in the mid-90s that got him thrown off his network. His former cameraman, Duck (an interminably wasted Terrence Howard as narrator) is now a network hotshot, with a cushy studio job. On a superficial assignment in Bosnia to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the end of the war, he runs into Hunt, seemingly on a personal vendetta to bring in The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), a mastermind behind the Balkan genocide that claimed Hunt's would-be soulmate and Radovan Karadzic archetype. Thrown into the mix is the network vice-president's eager beaver son (Jesse Eisenberg), tagging along for that real world experience because according to Hunt, you just can't "believe all you learn in journalism school".

Post-war Bosnia is quite obviously inherently dark, unfriendly place for them. Even more unfriendly when the questions they ask and the information they seek stirs up memories and resentment among the folks living in the outskirts of the region where The Fox is allegedly being protected. Shepard, to his credit, crafts scenes that work on a purely comedic level, devoid of social context but with character interactions, mostly from the good work done by Gere who underplays his movie-star good looks with grizzled jadedness to the world and his profession. But Shepard takes things too far by tacking on Bosnians as nothing more than carnival sideshows and angry militants out for more blood, until a frantically tone-deaf build-up to suspense and action. It's just much too self-satisfied in how absurd it all is.
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One of the best adaptations of Clive Barker's stories
14 August 2008
Clive Barker's more sanguinary inclinations are paid tribute here through a hulking golem, a malevolent meat merchant in his dapper best, named Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) who smashes, eviscerates and cleaves through unsuspecting commuters on the last train home. Adapted from Barker's seminal anthology, "Books of Blood", the similarly named "The Midnight Meat Train" is more than just an opportunity for some sophomoric snickering over its title but one of Barker's most revered short stories about a supernatural serial killer that ekes out fascination, fear and obsession from a lone photographer, Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) stumbling upon the butcher's late night deliveries.

Director Ryuhei Kitamura (of "Versus" and "Azumi" fame) offers up one of the year's most brutally alluring gore fests in his American debut. With the gritty and detailed hard-edge of early 70s horror films (why, hello there Lucio Fulci!), his flair for CGI augmented visuals and the intense seduction of experimental camera-work in a cinematic environment so increasingly sanitised of actual visceral terror, Kitamura refreshes the genre's ability to unsettle and provoke audiences and jolt jaded horror enthusiasts out of their PG-13 apathy.

Kitamura works with a modest but shrewd sense of space in the decaying subway, the claustrophobic train and the creeping gloom of the city. There's a certain simpatico between Barker's distinctive tone and Kitamura's balls-to-the-wall film-making that compliments each other to the benefit of the film's atmospheric resilience. The unvarnished horrors cooked down deep in the gallows of the tunnels, plunged into darkness form the basis of Kaufman's terrible fixation on the disappearing passengers and that indescribably malicious man who stalks the shadows. Mahogany is the film's myth, the legend of The Butcher. Prepossessing the exactitude of traits essential to the character, Jones has the nasty glint in the eye, the mysterious swagger of indestructibility and the imperative of consuming evil, as well as having the benefit of looking like the quiet guy in the corner of the bar who could take out an entire gang of hoodlums without spilling his drink.

Kitamura's modulation of the material's emotional stakes and his slow-burn style of ratcheting up tension gives the story further layers to plunge into, not withstanding Cooper's unlikely presence as the film's corruptible protagonist. Jeff Buhler's screenplay from Barker's 25-year-old story is uneven at times but keeps an atmospheric dread of hopelessness. Supporting characters include Kaufman's wife (Leslie Bibb), a counterpoint to the man's wavering sanity and a threadbare characterisation of his good-humoured pal Jurgis (Roger Bart) who stands to represent Kaufman's humanity. But even if these emotional contrasts don't work, the film itself is a tidy and effective meta-slasher that resonates beyond corporeal carnage. Kitamura's subtextual ingenuity is shown through macabre imagery of animal carcasses hanging off meat hooks as Mahogany tenderises, disembowels and stores his victims just like the morsels of flesh they are.

Clive Barker's fantastical and mad blend of visceral shocks and profoundly unsettling explorations of worlds coexisting and buried deep within the one we think we understand has become an important component of our contemporary literary and filmic universes. While "The Midnight Meat Train" never hits the spasms of metaphysical despairs in "Hellraiser" or the diabolical mind-warps of "Candyman", this is forthright horror – simple, powerful and unadulterated.
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Help Me, Eros (2007)
Bold and intriguing in its own right.
10 July 2008
Lee Kang-Sheng's measured somnambulism arrives as a sexual novelty sapped of eroticism, settles in like a lingering fever dream of aggressive imagery and departs as an affecting malaise, deepening with its pervasive languor. Writer-director Lee's second film under the apprenticeship of his mentor and producer, Tsai Ming-liang, is one of similar phases and concepts – city isolation, sexual disengagement, spiritual disenchantment, deprivation and drollness. They are also decorated with similar technical approaches typified by a slow-burning static camera, recurring motifs and intense flourishes of non-verbal actions that shock, awe and delight.

But where Tsai's films revel in their metaphoric absences, Lee dwells on superficial excesses in "Help Me Eros". Through a methodical deconstruction of role-playing, desire, delusion and despair, Lee finds absurdity in its most raw and indecent. Taipei's neon-lit streets feel alive yet infected with rot, jangling with vociferousness and temptations with the city's glaring financial risks find salience in the hawking of promises rooted in sexual satisfactions and instant reverie. The mutual nihilism of the city and its decay is seen through an uprooted yuppie, Ah Jie (Lee), once a successful stock trader fell by a bad exchange and now living precariously by pawning his things while crossing and using his repossessed apartment and car.

Ah Jie lives the remainder of his previous life indulging in sexual fantasy and wanton marijuana use that he grows in his closet. Having fallen out of society, desperately in need of validation, calls a suicide hotline and becomes infatuated by the woman who talks to him. The woman, an overweight and depressed Chyi (Jane Liao), forms the film's sadder, parallel story of a deaden society's need to feel something – anything – to prove that it is still alive. This is where genuine humanity can be sensed behind the lens and through the film's pro forma gratuitously explicit scenes. Ah Jie pursues this joyless tract through acrobatic encounters with scantily clad, drug chasing betelnut salesgirls. The difference lies in the former's need for physical intimacy and the latter's pursuit of ritualistic depersonalisation.

With "Help Me Eros", Lee trades on Tsai's (serving as the set designer) art-house stock here for an appreciate core audience, but the film is bold and intriguing in its own right. The approach remains Tsai's but its glorious conflagration of striking aesthetics and insistent contemplations feel almost quaint and altogether poignant.
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No surprises herein, and no real connection to any of its characters
6 June 2008
The characters in Jeremy Brock's "Driving Lessons" never seem to realise a better way out of their predicaments unless it comes on the backend of humiliation. They feel trapped in their own inadequacies while groping for pat answers for their insecurities on growing up, growing old and growing apart. The generational gap closes through absurdly derivative ideas on moving on and moving out. Revolving around the misadventures of a carrot-topped amateur poet Ben (Rupert Grint), a sad sack vicar's (Nicholas Farrell) desperately unhappy teenage son beset by a domineering mum (Laura Linney) and a batty old ex-actress employer (Julie Walters in a reunion of sorts with Grint, both filming in between their roles as mother and son in the Harry Potter films), the film lazily repurposes trite life lessons and trivialises them by punching them up into clichés and easy gags.

Evie Walton (the former actress) staggers about her garden, cursing at her plants and very likely drunk out of her mind. On other days, she's on the ground of a dank living room or hurling into the sink, once again being quite intoxicated. She puts up an ad in the local church bulletin (because you can't very well trust just anybody to not take advantage of a single woman) for help running errands. Forced into a summer job by his unyieldingly stern mother, Ben picks up after Evie, follows her to the shops, and much to the chagrin of his mother, illegally chauffeurs her to Edinburgh for a literary festival – all while the film delights in forcibly pointing to the role reversals of responsibility between the defiantly indulgent old woman and the shy, insecure and unnaturally solemn teenager. Evie is the sort of bossily droll character that Walters has made a late career from; it's a composite of what you'd find in "Billy Elliot", "Calendar Girls", "Mickybo and Me", and the Harry Potter franchise.

Quite interestingly, the film does posit an undeniably villainous figure in his mother, within the context of a boy turning into a man. Laura Linney's prim British accent is impeccable, and her presence and disquieting menace rings similar to her role in "The Nanny Diaries". The film intriguingly gives her a sort of dislikable hypocrisy in her motivations when she's beating down Ben's confidence as a man as he tries to release himself from her tentacles. Religious for the sake of being a model Christian while indiscreetly making come-hither eyes at a handsome parishioner, the film's not exactly kind to the church in its description of Ben's home life, what with Ben's father being as feeble at the dinner table as he is on the pulpits.

Jeremy Brockman makes his directorial debut here, but has been a successful screenplay writer (he penned "The Last King of Scotland" and the marvellous "Charlotte Gray"). This script claims, by its production notes, to be inspired by the director's own formative experiences working one summer for a mercurial actress, one Dame Peggy Ashcroft. But its general genesis ends up anything but personal, or in any case, even original in the least. The story involving a young, disillusioned person who finds hope and comfort in the presence of weary, standoffish seniors is an unendingly popular premise. The different iterations of this basic idea find its own inherent humour and friction in this mentor/student dynamic. Clumsily plotted and overbearingly quirky to the point of fracture, Brockman callously disembarks from the intimate travails of manhood for the outlandishly minstrel.
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Black Book (2006)
Easily Paul Verhoeven's most enjoyable and breezily entertaining films in years
13 May 2008
Only Paul Verhoeven could make another WWII film seem so fresh, audacious and altogether exhilarating by throwing in a strong religious subtext, simmering vulgarity, high-wire espionage and an unsparingly transgressive moral compass in which the Nazis weren't the only arseholes left in the war. But it's even more remarkable that Verhoeven, without missing a beat, vigorously fits in his brand of bold meta-satire and subversive political thought (by way of his "Starship Troopers" allegory being retooled) into a tightly written and highly toned script. The director's tenacious motif is his hilariously hyper-extended, overplayed melodramatics and luminously lit men and women – hungering with sexual evocation – filtered through the complexities of a ethical grey area visualised through nebulous clouds of cigarette smoke. The film adheres towards several key components, but coheres around one theme: Verhoeven has Old Hollywood in his sights.

The relative, tenuous calm of Israel in 1956 is captured as a tour bus pulls up to witness the quaintness of a kibbutz but gives way to a surprising reunion between wartime chums. A flashback beckons as a distressed Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) proceeds to sit by a body of water and remember her life as a chanteuse called Ellis de Vries back in Holland, 1944-1945. With a family butchered in cold blood by a SS swine, Rachel joins the Resistance against the Nazis. Her natural good looks, the talent for both song and deceit inform the decision to send her deep into enemy regime, seducing a handsome and sensitive Gestapo up-and-comer (Sebastian Koch) and retrieve secrets vital to the reclamation of the homeland. This could be easily retitled "Lust, Caution", if it weren't for the film's voluptuously photographed and energetic direction of being a sobering thrill-a-minute, briskly paced actioner, more focused on its dramatic reversals of fortunes than it is about the genre's predilection for the elevation of its us-versus-them narratives and its inherent gravitas.

Like Verhoeven's greatest films, the female soma, inclusive of its complicated psyche and prevailing impulses, form the centrepiece of his film. And in "Black Book", van Houten as Rachel glows incandescent like a genuine Hollywood heroine, a classically beautiful movie starlet – an arresting Jean Harlow impersonate – playing her assigned role as Aryan siren to sleek perfection with the profound sadness of an identity implicitly becoming lost. But Rachel/Ellis is a creature of intense fortitude. Her instincts are sure and steadfast, traversing distances with dauntless reach, a woman of innate elegance and of the vicissitudes that come with suppressed desire. These fierce motivations and fully cognisant volition are incited by the inner rebellions formed as a Jewish femme in wartime Holland, caught in the middle of Nazi oppression and the Christian puritans ("if only the Jews had just listened to Jesus") she takes shelter with as she's forced to hold a Bible for meals or the matter-of-fact abuses she takes on the chin when the leader of the Resistance remarks, "When is a Jew's life worth more than a good Dutchman?" An intuitive provocateur, Verhoeven charts the morass though prurient sexual encounters and base survival instincts while gleefully chafing the absurdly graphic with the warm humanism buried in his more outrageous oeuvre. The modulation between a tasteful recreation of the period and a modernist take on genre conventions by feeding off its own historical context provides the centrifugal force of the film's queries into the roles of liberators, oppressors and other postwar manifestos.
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Funny Games (2007)
A rather irrelevant critique on our pop culture fetishes
13 April 2008
Ever the confrontational cinematic essayist, Michael Haneke follows up his immensely tantalising masterwork "Caché" in 2005 with a shot-by-shot replica of his 1997 "Funny Games", now technically called "Funny Games U.S.", by way of churlish didacticism. If the German-language original's finger wag wasn't already satisfied aiming its insults at an audience's base urges of bloodlust, then the remake adds an extra soupcon of condescension by basing it in English as its raison d'être - just because Haneke felt that the most uncouth purveyors of movie violence that needed to see his treatise on the audience-filmmaker symbiosis would not respond to European sensibilities. But Haneke's English-language debut is an admittedly intriguing failure, an inconsequential reading on our scavenging voyeurism and isn't so much a lazy remake as it is a rather irrelevant critique on our pop culture fetishes.

In what would be a terrific genre film if it continued to play straight, Haneke presents to us an unsettling premise of a family seized upon by fresh-faced psychopaths in their gated community lakeside vacation home. Like young upstart Ivy League social predators that reflect its Austrian director's own siege on bourgeois precepts, Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt) descend on the unassuming household in tennis whites and ominous white gloves, insinuating themselves into their activities and giddily refusing to leave. The gloved men then hold the family - Anne (a tremendous Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and the young Georgie (Devon Gearhart) - hostage and commence a physical and mental torture game throughout the night that begins Haneke's film thesis on victims and perpetrators and our perceived expectations.

Haneke's breaches an interesting topic of discussion in violence films' latent dissimulation of guilt and sympathy, where we identify with the on screen viciousness instead of being appalled by it and how it's simply labelled as "entertainment. However high-minded this endeavour to deconstruct these filmic conventions ends up, the film's sole debilitation is Haneke's own love-hate relationship with the idea of sadism. He is as much a product of his own sanguinary environment as he thinks his audience is or will be, but never admits it or turns the finger pointing towards the filmmaker. And because of this, nothing truly gets deconstructed here. We get glimpses of what he's getting at but never anything approaching a penetrative statement and those moments of furtiveness elides the opportunity for authentic discourse.

The points of interest in the film are its visual triggers. They are littered in different scenes throughout the film in key areas that serve to solidify its classification as a meta-thriller. The fourth wall gets broken intermittently, a narrative conundrum out of left field, the conscious redaction of certain images and a subtle paradigm shift are just some of the film's emerging features that alienates the audiences it skewers and subsequently admonishes. It's Haneke's version of the ultimate tease - it wants to deny us the pleasure of expectations while showing us the right amounts of leg to keep drawing us into its perverse grandstanding. Is this Haneke's actual funny game? Because curiously enough, the only one who seems to get any sort of onanistic thrill out of this mocking jive is Haneke himself.
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Hollow exercise in ardent romanticism
6 April 2008
Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" arouses the intentions of an intellectual mind rather than the consummate capitulations to the cataract of passion, and other sensual stimuli. Arriving with a brag sheet that includes five 2007 Cesar Awards, including ones for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Photography, the Ferran's overreaching adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "John Thomas And Lady Jane", clearly has pedigree and an elegantly realised French sensibility. But there has to be something said for its lack of transgressions, an unwelcoming throwback to the days of muddled visions of carnal congress that was better served by the imagination in bodice-ripping erotic literature. Even by the nature of its anti-revisionist material and its ideas of sexual awakening as a process that by extension has to entail bridled fervour, the film's divisions are so neatly devised that there's nothing left for us to react to in its hollow exercise in ardent romanticism.
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Red Road (2006)
Locks its characters within a labyrinth
6 April 2008
Echoes of "The Lives of Others" pervade this well-made debut from writer-director Andrea Arnold, an otherwise indulgent psychological thriller propped up by a compelling central performance by Kate Dickie as Jackie, a surveillance-room operator in Glasgow's inner sanctums. The veritable witness to life, purveyor of misanthropy and observing through isolation, Jackie is the centre of Arnold's slow-burn whispers for need and control, fantasy and madness. Envisioned as the first film in a new incarnation of Dogme 95-style cinema-realism protocols, it does become reminiscent of ambiguously serpentine art-house chic; the more it crawls up its own hole, the more aseptic it becomes. When it turns itself inside out with a dispassionate affair that cries wolf while pulling the rug from under, its subtle seduction becomes clear, locking its characters within a labyrinth of remorse, obsession and disfigured memory.
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A quietly powerful story of female reverence
6 April 2008
Wang Quanan's fascinating film "Tuya's Marriage" is a quietly powerful story of female reverence, shot on location against the arresting landscapes of deepest Mongolia, with its immensely graceful protagonist being the prepossessing shepherdess Tuya (Nan Yu), caught between a marital loophole and the tightening grip of subsistence when she's forced to look for a new husband willing to take care of her young children and an invalid ex-husband. Austere and gorgeous, Wang's observations on the encroaching capitalism in a rural land so entrenched in tradition and its collective, scuttles from background to foreground when Tuya explores her options and their economic viability. Wisely eschewing a formal romanticism of the arena, Wang takes us deeper into the all-encompassing humanism of the film, when he chooses a cogitative docu-drama approach to the film, a striking reminder that a film's aesthetics are part of its ethos and message. Triumphing at the 2007 Berlinale with the festival's top prize, Wang delivers a film so complex and rich that it finds its tracts in the human capacity for compassion and sorrow.
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There's an endless fascination about where the film wants to take us
6 April 2008
The large bell in a bar intermittently rings for last orders and the inevitable rush to queue forms at the counter – do we want what we need only when it's too late? Or is the irony of the opening scene's wailing Cassandra a more resonant reflection of our perceptions on individual existence? There's an endless fascination about where writer-director Roy Andersson wants to take us in his fourth feature, "You, The Living". With fifty or so semi-related vignettes strung together by a penchant for tragicomic hyper-reality, its wistful interpretations and symbolic instances of life that bind us all in this great big cosmic Sisyphean struggle. The sheer simplicity of these vignettes act to dramatise the tenuity and immense preciousness of being apart of the symbiotic relationships we have with one another. Andersson might whittle down the complexity of the human condition through harsh and fast cynicism more than he should, but he also reminds us of the inherent, reassuring glory of waking up each morning to a new tomorrow when we're all aware of our own distinct forms of arrested development.
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Sumptuous reservoirs of rapturous passion
6 April 2008
An elderly couple (Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale) commences the film amidst idle chatter and bloodied fowls, proudly earning their stripes as 19th century versions of Gladys and Abner Kravitz with the newly engaged libertine Ryno de Marigny's (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) torrid 10-year long amour with Italian-Spanish coquette Lady Vellini (Asia Argento) as their scandal du jour. The hot-blooded Vellini finds out soon enough that her overweening extra-pallid dandy is soon out to marry his way into higher circles through the fragile heart of virginal Hermangarde (Breillat devotee Roxane Mesquida) and through the sprightly imaginations of her household's feisty matriarch (Claude Sarraute). And hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Especially when the woman in question is directed by agent provocateur Catherine Breillat, she of "Anatomy of Hell", "Romance X" and "Fat Girl" infamy. But here, Breillat tones down the transgressions of venereal shock for the (comparatively) sumptuous reservoirs of rapturous passion and fervent sexual anxieties – a refined take on the stock battle-of-the-sexes formula with art-house cinephiles' wet dream Argento as Breillat's latest codpiece in her intense dissection of Parisian high society's cannibalism and its mordant gender politics. Argento's Velli is no less than a force of nature as she ascends into a conduit for Breillat's declarations and shouts it from the rafters; her sexual aggressiveness play tricks on masculine insecurities and her vociferousness, an affront to feminine coyness. At the peak of her captivating sensuality and at the height of her enigmatic inscrutability, Argento's magnificence here is one of furious defiance.
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Irina Palm (2007)
Disingenuous crowd-pleaser
4 April 2008
Silly crowd-pleaser that finds widowed grandma Maggie (Marianne Faithful) giving handjobs to strangers through a hole in the wall at a seedy Soho club – its premise is meticulously handled for maximum satirical result, while paid sexual release is drained of lewdness in place of quaintness. The best hands in the biz, says smitten pimp-with-a-conscience Miki (Miki Manojlovic) and dubs her: Irina Palm. Endless sad-happy tropes of "The Full Monty" follow courtesy of its backstory that involves requiring some quick funds for grandson Ollie's (Corey Burke) urgent life-saving procedure in Australia. Director Sam Garbarski's idea of injecting social commentary involves doors shutting in Maggie's face hours before she brings new meaning to "working with one's hands" or the "daily grind". For all of Faithful's magnificent performance and her chemistry with best pal Jane (Jenny Agutter), "Irina Palm" is just too self-satisfied in its outlandish one-joke set-up and much too disingenuous in presenting its dingy low-end sex trade as lucrative and worst yet, as the reason for Maggie's self-empowerment after years of marriage and child-rearing.
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Like a Gothic fever dream
4 April 2008
Canadian cult filmmaker Guy Maddin's ecstatically perverse jaunt into childhood's protracted gestation period is a hypnotic murk-fest filled to the brim with Sturm und Drang neo-psychedelia. Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs) returns to his childhood homestead, a lighthouse to restore it with two coats of paint for an ailing mother. Outsized delirium takes over: ghoulish rituals, surreptitious experiments, demented ghosts, social vampires and other phantasms of psychosis of an overextended memory is underpinned by distinctly Freudian impulses turned into artistic statements. The miscegenation of silent-era aesthetics, a mosaic of encoded visual cues and Maddin's continued fascination with high theatricality punctuated with trippy pop iconography delivers a Gothic fever dream that remains etched in your mind, whether you like it or not.
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Sensitive, patient, compassionate and inherently funny
4 April 2008
Famously disqualified as Israel's foreign-language entry to the 2008 Academy Awards for containing a surplus of English dialogue, "The Band's Visit" could have been a worthy winner. But the reason for its exclusion is as ironically fitting a reminder of any when the crux of the film exists in the void of communication and the yearning for common ground. This charming and utterly profound take on the Arab-Israeli divide is sensitive, patient, compassionate and inherently funny. Two pillars of immense performances hold up this remarkable film: stoic conductor Commander Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) leads his eight-man Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to the opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Israel where they get stranded in a desolate town with the mysterious Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the owner of a small café who boards them for the night. Minor events turn into life-changing ones. Every frame in writer-director Eran Kolirin's soulful feature debut has a double entendre – an embedded moral code with social and romantic significance. Even with a residual feeling of suppressed conflict, everyone connects with each other on a human level, translating the quiet awkwardness into silent understanding to modestly point out our universal commonalities.
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Welcome Back, Mr Suo
4 April 2008
Japan's foreign-film entry to the 2008 Academy Awards is a doozy and arrives from one of the country's preeminent filmmakers, Masayuki Suo. In his first film since 1996's "Shall We Dansu?", he brings the same discriminating eye back to Japan's cultural and social norms and in "I Just Didn't Do It", zeros in on its oppressively rigid judicial system. Observed on a level that can only be described as stark realism, a true departure from Suo's august social comedies and a distinct legal procedural going by its narrative trajectory of showing the inciting incident, investigation and to the courtroom in its various stages of due process – Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase) is accused of molesting a schoolgirl on his way to a job interview, subsequently coerced by weary detectives to accept the charge and pay the fine instead of pursuing vindication – a system that Suo notes as the reason for Japan's almost perfect conviction rate and institutionalised prejudice against the accused.
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