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Director Saara Lamberg has created a film that resists easy categorization, so I'll go with psycho-sexual drama.
Tulli and Suvi (both played by the deliciously off-kilter Lamberg) grew up in Finland, and were subjected to contrary parenting whose legacy is now being visited on Tulli, who has relocated to Australia (as Lamberg herself did).
Like its uncertain genre, it's also uncertain here what is autobiographical and what is fiction –– ultimately, it matters not, but the drama possesses a strong scent of earthy authenticity. What the audience gets is a whirlwind odyssey to Toxic-Town as Tulli emotionally and physically rampages through the lives of everybody she meets and annihilates.
As it skilfully sets up its premise, it skilfully fulfills its promise also with a conclusion that intelligently wraps up its many open sores.
With its stark and perverse humour, tangy eroticism, and detours into surrealism blended with kitchen sink drama, INNUENDO is the orgasm Aussie cinema has been begging for.
The 25th Reich (2012)
Highly enjoyable sci-fi pulp
THE 25TH Reich, from Australian director/writer Stephen Amis, is styled as an affectionate tribute to pulp sci-fi of the 30's' ,40's, and 50's, and plays somewhat like an 'Amazing Stories' cover come to life in all its lurid and colorful glory. Based on the obscure J.J. Solomon novel "50,000 Years Until Tomorrow" (soon to be re-printed, I hear), it tells a fanciful tale of American soldiers sent way back in time to prevent the birth of the Reich and fight off enemies such as deadly Nazi spider robots who spit lines like "Heil, Hitler!". True to pulp form, these soldiers have their work cut out for them with their lives jeopardized at every turn. An unexpected bit of nasty (or is that Nazi?) business is the rape of one poor sap by a giant Nazi Robot Spider. Although not quite as visceral as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, the scene does leave an indelible impression on the viewer as well as the unfortunate victim of antiquity's first recorded instance of non-consensual robot arachnoid buggery. For a relatively low budget effort, the tech credits are very impressive with David Richardson's cinematography showcasing the rich Australian exteriors. Scenes of swastika-shaped spacecraft taking to the sky and various modes of flying saucer activity are totally convincing, contributing to a fun piece of sci-fi that is pure, entertaining nonsense. The soldiers, led by the tough-as-nails Jim Knobeloch (who recently appeared also in the thematically similar but quite different IRON SKY), deliver high-pitched turns as they combat the Nazi menace with varying results. Somehow, writers Amis, Richardson and Serge De Narto manage to drop Nazis, spider robots, time machines, hard-boiled dialog, and a world domination plot into a cinematic blender that has produced a pulp cocktail with plenty of head on it.
Plenty of Nuns, Not Enough Bite
"Nuns That Bite" is a Japanese nunsploitation film that, content-wise, feels like Teruo Ishii-lite. Ishii, for the uninitiated, directed such works as "Horrors of Malformed Men", "Orgies of Edo", and "Love and Crime". He also helmed a number of torture-themed flicks for the same studio, but it is with "Love and Crime", with its glorious catalog of freaks and visual atrocities, that this film shares common virtues.
The set-up is basic and a little protracted. A woman on the run is raped, rescued, then raped again. Escaping, she heads for the hills and finds safe haven at a convent. After becoming a postulant (trainee nun), she catches her fellow sisters engaging in lesbianism, fighting over nothing, hurling snakes at each other, and engaging in mild flesh eating. Compared to the rich convent life presented in Norifumi Suzuki's School of the Holy Beast, the convent in "Nuns That Bite" is a more modest affair. It's a series of rooms in which nuns sleep, make out, and act crazy. The Mother Superior is MILF material (I guess MSILF is more accurate) who oversees various punishments and enjoys the services of a strange boy-in-waiting (her son perhaps?) who appears to exert quite a bit of power over the sisters. This fellow proves himself quite the first-rate tattletale when he reports on our heroine's investigation into the convent non-religious activities. Not surprisingly, she pays a painful price for the little sh*t's loose lips.
The films sounds marginally better in synopsis than it actually is. At times, it's a little slow and pedestrian, and lacks the cinematic energy someone like Suzuki or Ishii would have brought to it. Various bloody atrocities are served up such as a headless body, a severed head, bones stripped of flesh, and various stabbings and piercings. The lesbian lovemaking is erotic enough without becoming repetitious, and there are some deformed, freakish characters who should have been given moire screen time and some story relevance. One sequence involving a crazy woman performing a religious ritual and acting like she's on LSD has the Ishii feel, and could have passed as a deleted scene from "Horrors of Malformed Men".
For director Makiguchi, this is fairly restrained material. Previously, he directed the brutal, visceral "Shogun's Sadism" (aka "Joys of Torture 2: Oxen Split Torturing") and the nasty "Bizarre Crimes of Post-War Japan". "Nuns That Bite" was his last theatrical feature.
At sixty-nine minutes, the film is very short, but it feels longer because there not much plot to speak of.
Still, great to see this little-seen treat in the daylight at last, and still recommended for adventurous fans.
Humble gem from maverick director
Fairly rare Wakamatsu title that I've been after for years. A yakuza flees from his boss with a young waitress and is tricked into returning to the fold. For his efforts, he is tortured and beaten, and she is raped and discarded like trash. Five years later, a similar scenario presents itself -- only this time, the ex- yakuza has learnt from his mistake. The director employs a subtle, documentary style and switches between color and black and white. The women in this film are gorgeous, and there is a plethora of nudity. Structured much more conventionally than many Wakamatsu pictures, and feeling more like noir than pink. It's a humble little gem from a truly maverick director.
Srpski film (2010)
Several months ago, Srdjan Spasojevic's Serbian Movie started to circulate at festivals. Harry Knowles wrote a histrionic review that placed it on the must-see lists of hardcore horror fanatics. Other scribes discussed its extreme nature and went nuts hyping its taboo-breaking content. Some even questioned its reason for existing.
The usual clichéd response to films with inflammatory intent is Why do we need to see this? It's a stupid question because the answer is we don't. Then again, we don't NEED to see Disney movies, either, or TV shows about crab fishermen risking their lives. We NEED to eat, sleep, drink, and breathe. Everything else is secondary.
Hysterics aside, Serbian Movie was clearly made to shock and provoke because it doesn't offer too much else. 99.9% of humans will find it objectionable and offensive and will stay away. The rest, like me, will let their curiosity get the better of them.
The film is very technically polished. The compositions and lighting are on par with any American horror film in the Hostel budget range. The acting is decent, too. The film's lead (Sergej Trifunovic), who plays an ex-porno actor lured back into the business, bears a strange resemblance to Euro porn actor/director Christophe Clarke, and has a laconic, laid back manner that works well for his character. The film's villain (Srdjan Todorovic), a philosophy-spewing porno "artist", looks like a younger, better manicured Coffin Joe. The lead's wife, who is accepting of her husband's profession, is played with quiet authority by Katarina Zutic. Finally, the couple's son, who plays quite a special role in the film, is particularly impressive as an unfortunate young victim of demented minds.
Some of our favorite horror films are notable for extreme set pieces. Emmanuelle in America has a ripper, as do Salo, Cannibal Holocaust, and In A Glass Cage. Serbian Movie definitely deserves to be placed alongside these for its extremity and perversion. One set piece in particular, involving a newborn, is the film's most harrowing. Clearly, no real infant was harmed, but the single angle and sound effects create a very disturbing ninety seconds you won't soon forget. Other horrors include an eye socket being penetrated with an erect penis and two unidentified bodies being carnally assaulted.
Horror in its purest sense allows us to confront the unspeakable in the safe environment of the cinema or home. Serbian Movie definitely dishes up the unspeakable and does so with style and solid craftsmanship. Although you will find material such as this in the literary works of authors such as Edward Lee, Marquis De Sade, and JF Gonzalez, cinematic representations are, not surprisingly, not as common.
Unfortunately, the Serbian Movie script is a little undercooked, and its depiction of organized perversion amongst the elite is not entirely believable. The villain, who not only looks like Coffin Joe, spouts philosophy like him, too. In this case, it's porno philosophy. This nut bag sees 'newborn porn' as the future of the genre, and carries on up the Khyer about love, art, and blood ad nausea. Perhaps expressing the filmmaker's view, he says of Serbia: "...this is no country for real art." On porn, he offers: "(it exists) so those who can't get laid can come." Without a doubt, his most salient observation is: "'Victim sells." No horror fan can dispute that.
What separates Serbian Movie, however, from a true masterwork such as Augustin Villaronga's In A Glass Cage are several things, the primary one being substance. Although its montages of public porno culture suggest that sexualized commercialization is out of control, this thesis is not explored beyond a headline, and it's a stretch to link sexually provocative billboards to horrors such as baby rape and the raping of beheaded women. The gulf between the two is vast.
Ultimately for the viewer, the film is an exercise in waiting for the next shocking set piece that will up the perversion ante. The bits between these are not of zero interest, but they're not exactly vital, either, and there's some narrative confusion in the final quarter as the lead character lurches about in a drug-induced haze.
Even after the final shocking revelation, a closing slice of dialog takes the perversion even further, bluntly re-stating the film's ultimate intentions.
As my brain cooled hours later after the experience, I felt like I'd eaten very greasy, slightly poisonous junk food. This contrasted with my initial reaction to John McNaughton's Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, another flick notable for its shocking content, but appreciated for its solid scripting, amazing performances, and characterization. Henry left me with the feeling that I'd seen something very special. Serbian Movie didn't feel special, but it sure felt like raw and courageous cinema.
Director Srdjan Spasojevic's Life and Death of a Porno Gang, his first feature, is well worth checking out, too, and I will discuss it shortly.
Friday the 13th (2009)
Pretty entertaining rehash of the Sean Cunningham original. The set-up is a little different and Jason is a real person from the start. Director Marcus Nispel, who helmed the "Texas Chainsaw" remake, doesn't go for hyper-stylization, even though director of photography Daniel Pearl returns as his co-conspirator. A party of twenty-somethings assemble at a buddy's house for a weekend of dope smoking, drinking, and screwing. The problem is, Camp Crystal Lake is nearby, and Jason is having a bad day. When these marginal adults trespass on his property, he starts killing them in gory and brutal fashion. There is an entertaining topless water skiing scene and some well staged dismemberment. The film doesn't feel as graphic as its source because so much blood has flowed under the bridge since then. Biggest letdown is the scene in which Jason springs out of the lake to take down his last victim. If you don't want to do it properly (and better than the original), don't do it at all, Mr. Nispel.
Lovingly staged violence for the fans
There are many implausibilities in evidence here, but in order to get an action pic to crank, you have to throw reality out the window. Reality and long pieces of action just don't go together. The average shootout lasts a couple of seconds. The average car chase doesn't involve massive amounts of collateral damage. Pierre Morel's thriller traces the kidnapping of Liam Neeson's daughter. Neeson, who has a shady background in international espionage, has a trick or two up his sleeve when it comes to dealing with bad guys. Naturally, he uses all those tricks to maim, chop, break and burn the kidnappers. That's the movie. It works because Morel shoots the action clearly. There isn't much breathing room and the violence is lovingly staged. Some family-size contrivances ruin some of the enjoyment, but the experience is relatively entertaining. Neeson has a great time killing and torturing those who done him wrong.
The Uninvited (2009)
This remake of the Korean "Tale of Two Sisters" is utterly awful. I don't know why, but it's been getting some good buzz and positive reviews. It deserves nothing but condemnation. It's a big mess. The so-called "twist" is stolen from "The Sixth Sense", so why the raves about that? In all seriousness, I only enjoyed watching the film when the female leads were wearing short dresses. I stared at their shapely legs while combating cliché fatigue. The film is also a remake of "The Stepfather" a very good film, except the stepfather here is a stepmother. Australian actress Emily Browning is sexy and vulnerable, a little like Juliet Lewis once was; her performance even reminded me of Lewis's work in "Cape Fear" and "Natural Born Killers". David Strathairn, who is usually very good, plays a totally one-dimensional character here who is required by the script to act irrationally and unrealistically.
Seven Pounds (2008)
Characters stuck in a sea of dramatic sludge
The first half hour of this drama is intriguing. Will Smith, who appears to be working for the IRS, is visiting people who owe the government money and deciding whether he'll give them a break. Why is he doing this? We don't know yet. His brother is calling him all the time and he doesn't want to deal with him. Something odd is afoot. When Smith meets Rosario Dawson, a woman with a heart condition, he decides to anoint her with kindness -- and give her a tax break, of course. At the one hour mark, the film becomes sludge. Its promise fades and it starts birthing clichés and stock romantic situations. We learn why Smith is doing what he's doing, even though it was telegraphed long ago. It's no fun to watch something that had potential crumble. Director Gabriele Muccino shoots everything with long lenses and pulls in and out of focus at every opportunity. His style is plodding and obvious. Everything is so overlit and overproduced that it feels like the characters are operating in a sea of mud. There's no blue sky, not literally or figuratively. Smith is solid.
The Reader (2008)
Hetero love from a gay perspective is problematic
A teenage boy named Michael (David Kross) has a passionate love affair with Hanna (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor in Berlin. Years later, while studying to be a lawyer, he discovers that Hanna is on trial, and he finds himself in a position to alter the outcome. Does he act? You have to see the film to find out. The first half is devoted to the relationship between the teenage Michael and Hanna. Ralph Fiennes, who plays the adult Michael in his usual sooky way, reflects back on his decision, so the film is a series of flashbacks. The second half busies itself with the trial, the outcome, and Michael's effort to balance the scales of justice. I was involved up to a point with this movie. It didn't bowl me over. The sexual relationship between Michael and Hanna was meant to be erotic, but it was shot like incest. I suspect the director is gay because he brought no eroticism to the hetero encounters. Michael was filmed as a gay man would film him. Lots of frontals. I felt that there was no sexual interest behind the camera in Winslet. Is that an issue? Yes, it's an issue because we have to believe that Michael would be sexually into this older woman. I didn't believe it. Stephen Daldry didn't, either, or couldn't. To be fair, a hetero would shoot lots of female frontals if given the opportunity, so it's horses for courses. Daldry was simply a bad choice for this story. Because I couldn't get comfortable with the relationship, I couldn't empathize with the characters. Finnes really irritated me, too. His sullen, closed character was simply not an interesting subject for a film, no matter how convincingly he played him.
My Bloody Valentine (2009)
People with low standards and monkeys may enjoy this
The original "My Bloody Valentine" was never that great; a new special edition that re-instates cut gore has improved it. Still, it was dull and drab. This remake, which is gorier from the outset, attempts to polish its turd-like origins with 3-D. Some of the 3-D works, but it gave me a headache, nonetheless. Director Patrick Lussier is a hack, as are the writers (Todd Farmer and Zane Smith) of this illogical, sloppy slasher. The dialog is obvious and clichéd and the acting is weak; blame Lussier for that because he cast the thing and was supposed to be watching the performances. There are plenty of kills, but they're all variations on being gouged with a pickax. Blame Lussier also for the uninteresting, colorless look of this stinker. Cinematographer Brian Pearson was only serving Lussier's "vision". The best part of the film is watching Betsy Rue run around totally naked for ten minutes. It was a welcome distraction from the irritating predictability. Not much of the original premise is adhered to. It's still about a miner, but the supernatural aspect of the original has been jettisoned in favor of a lame psychological angle. Who cares?! I love good slashers, which is why I didn't like this.
Cú và chim se se (2007)
Moving drama handicapped by jerky photography
"The Owl and the Sparrow", the first feature from Stephane Gauger, who also wrote the screenplay and shot it, is an effective drama about a young orphan girl, Thuy (Pham Thi Han), who escapes from her uncle's factory and lives on the streets of Saigon. There, she befriends a kind zookeeper and a flight attendant. Various dramas flare as young Thuy becomes involved in matchmaking, fleeing from the police, and helping an elephant survive. The film's strengths are in its writing and performances. The young lead actress is extremely good, delivering a mature, layered, inspired performance. What lets the film down, especially during its first half hour, is the camera-work. It is unnecessarily jerky and often out of sync with the momentum of the emotions. When we're being drawn into the film's heart, we're also having to deal with motion sickness. Jerkiness does not equal edginess. The material here is strong, so strong, in fact, that it does not need shots of photographic adrenalin. Thankfully, the camera calms down and the rest of the movie is highly watchable and allowed to proceed without interruption. Hopefully, Gauger will trust the material and the performances next time. Still, this is a fine achievement.
Bride Wars (2009)
Just when you thought dumb couldn't get any dumber...
Director Gary Winick ought to be ashamed of himself for creating such utter garbage as this and spitting on cinema's potential. The film is legitimate "anti-cinema", sort of a big screen TV pilot that doesn't even come close to the quality of contemporary TV. It exists in a curious time warp of brainless, vapid twaddle that would boggle any intelligent mind. Clearly, "Bride Wars" isn't aimed at intelligent minds. At the session I attended with my partner, several unfortunate looking, slightly overweight women constantly texted and glanced upwards occasionally at the screen. It has become infuriating to watch movies at the cinema with these little glowing squares popping up all around you in the dark as you're trying to concentrate. I told two of these women to stop texting and was met with moronic, vacant stares. These people are the audience for "Bride Wars", although they're not the only ones texting; that's a cancer that has infected cinema going worldwide. As you would expect, the dreadful and vile Kate Hudson toplines this hideous wreck. She opted to smear her entire career with cinematic manure years ago, so her appearance in this was inevitable. Not so Ann Hathaway, who recently starred in and was quite good in the highly overrated "Rachel Getting Married". At least that had a semi-decent script and was directed by a filmmaker, not a fraud and betrayer of Real Men. Is Hathaway being groomed to replace Hudson? Or maybe Jennifer Anniston? I sincerely hope not. The story is simple and predictable. Hudson and Hathaway have been friends since childhood. They once visited a famous New York hotel and witnessed a wedding. From that moment, these vacuous, boring women have been obsessed with getting married at the same hotel on the same day. Zoom forward two decades. Hudson is now a horrible lawyer and an utter bitch. Hathaway is a slightly more tolerable, doormat-type girl who has just been proposed to. Hudson is angry about that. She is so angry, in fact, that she marches into the office of her pussy-whipped fiancé and demands he propose to her, which he does. If you're looking for strong, independent men who wouldn't put up with a minute of this woman's crap, you're in the wrong movie. These movies are all about men (most men, actually) who've been brainwashed into thinking that their job in life is to make women's dreams come true. Screw their own ambitions. These guys have no balls at all. Anyway, once these two dreadful dames are engaged, they visit wedding planner Candace Bergen, who informs them that it won't be possible for them to get married on the same day because the hotel is fully booked. That's when the film starts earning its "Bride Wars" title. Although they've been buddies for years, these so-called friends plot and scheme to ruin each other's "Big Day". This really is frightening film-making. Starting with the premise that a woman's wedding is "The Biggest Day Of Her Life" (how depressing!), it goes from bad to much worse as director (?) Winick rapes every cliché in the book in his attempt to milk laughs from the retarded script. Not only does everything end "happily" (if you can call getting married to Kate Hudson happy), the writers contradict their own logic in order to contrive a resolution. Although everybody has been told that there is no room at the hotel for two weddings (which is the basic dramatic set-up), the climax takes place at the hotel as the two weddings take place in two difference areas. Huh?! Sloppy? You bet. Hathaway is probably too young to realize that making this would do nothing for her career. Then again, she probably made a killing financially, so who cares, right? I do, but that's silly of me. Not surprisingly, the film opened with healthy grosses, guaranteeing that more of its stinking, rancid ilk will be rolling down the assembly line very soon. The fat, homely "princesses" out there should be ecstatic.
Mort un dimanche de pluie (1986)
Schizophrenic second half sabotages a potential French classic
This reasonably obscure French thriller, made in '86, is an enormous missed opportunity. Its first half is pregnant with suspense and dread. Its second half falls apart completely and is virtually a different movie. The tone changes. The plot becomes implausible. The characters behave as if prodded off-screen by the writers. Was director/writer Joel Santoni forced to rewrite his movie during production? It looks like it. An architect (Jean Pierre Bacri), his wife (Nicole Garcia) and their daughter (Cerise Leclerc) live in a strange glass house in the countryside. Into their home and lives come an armless man with a hook (Jean Pierre Bisson), his wife (Dominique Levant) and their seemingly mute daughter. Bisson lost his arm on a construction site and feels that Bacri owes him some kind of compensation for the accident. So, as a form of amends to Bisson, the couple are employed by Bacri to maintain the grounds of the house and babysit LeClerc, their very pretty daughter. It becomes apparent to us (the viewers) very early on that Mr. Armless and his Mrs. are a pair of psycho nutjobs, but it's not so obvious to Bacri and Garcia. The woman physically and verbally abuses Leclerc, while appearing to treat her own traumatized daughter with self-conscious kindness. Bacri goes off the deep end on several occasions when he assaults some visitors to the house and breaks down in Levant's arms, whimpering like the whack job he is. Director Santoni employs a subtle style to convey the increasing tension and jeopardy that has come to this once peaceful house in the country. Then he ruins everything. After Bacri arrives home to find his pre-teen daughter roped naked to a toilet downstairs, Levant lounging around in his wife's lingerie, and evidence that Levant was drugging his daughter, he appears upset, but not too upset. When his wife returns home and he informs her of the day's atrocities, she seems upset, too, but not upset enough to not head upstairs with her husband and casually make love. Before too long, the crazy couple return and begin killing. The film turns into a bad slasher movie with everybody behaving irrationally. When Garcia is confronted by Mr. Armless and grabs a meat cleaver to protect herself, she hits him with it and runs, throwing the cleaver (her only weapon) away. She also slips into a red dress before she gets chased through the woods after the scriptwriters come up with a lame reason why she should wear it. Obviously, the dress looks good on Garcia as she runs through the rain, but what happened to the realism established in the film's first half? Vladimir Cosma, who scored the memorable "La Gloire de mon père", provides a moody score for the film's first half, but resorts to obvious slasher stings when the murders begin. Interestingly, some of this film's more creepy, abstract cues ended up in "La Gloire de mon père", a far more consistent movie (though not a thriller). A special mention must go to Cerise Leclerc who is superb as the target of Levant's psychosis. We feel for her terrible ordeal and are grateful that her fate is not as tragic as others close to her. For those who are keeping stats -- the film features brief frontal nudity when the girl is found roped to a toilet and Garcia's breasts are seen briefly in a disrobing scene. Certainly a film worth a viewing, but one that could have been a classic along the lines of "Wait Until Dark" if it had been true to the tone it established early on.
It's got my vote
Gus Van Sant's "Milk" has such a resounding ring of truth to it that I don't feel like I'm exaggerating when I say that not a great deal has changed in America since Harvey Milk was assassinated. Just recently, Californians voted to prevent gays from marrying. Now, I'm not gay or a minority, but is it anybody's business what two people in love do with their lives? It's another subject, I know, but this brilliant film got me all riled up in the best possible way. It also pains me to say that had Milk and his allies not fought tooth and nail for gay rights, there wouldn't be any. The system's default is to oppress minorities, demonize gays, and push religious doctrine down every throat they can force open.
Thanks to Sean Penn, who sinks his all into the character of Harvey Milk, we ride the man's shoulder right up to his tragic demise. When I heard that Penn would be playing Milk, my expectations were high. Penn and Gus Van Sant met them.
After achieving what no other gay man ever did in American politics, Milk reluctantly locked horns with Dan White (Josh Brolin), a bigoted, conservative family man who saw Milk as an affront to his front and a threat to a wider constituency. Milk fought to prevent employers from being able to fire a worker based solely on their sexual proclivity. White wouldn't give Milk his vote. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay doesn't suggest it explicitly, but I sensed that White was fighting demons that his relationship with Milk shone a blinding light on. It was a fight no mediation could repair. So he shot the guy.
This is rousing, angry cinema that doesn't become so hysterical and dogmatic that it stampedes over its own message.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Like an autopsy of a relationship's corpse
Superb drama. Solid performances from Kate Winslett, Leonardo De Caprio, and the amazing Michael Shannon (one of filmdom's brightest hopes). Finally we have an American movie that dares to be honest about our lives (hopes, realities, and disappointments). "Revolutionary Road" (named after the street on which the characters live) is about the consequences of the choices we make. It's like an autopsy of a relationship's corpse -- only the corpse may still be breathing. Winslett and De Caprio are a couple who have succumbed to the so-called Amereican Dream of a house in the suburbs, kids, a job in the city, the usual bull. Winslett, smelling the rot beneath the floorboards, suggests they pack up and move to Paris. At first, De Caprio is all for a change. Then, ever so gradually, he's pulled back into the maelstrom of conformity and material promise. Directed by Sam Mendes and written by Justin Haythe, this raw collision of emotion remains consistent and true to its thesis. It offers no easy answers and isn't afraid to suggest that looking for answers is, in itself, problematic. Michael Shannon (so great in "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead") plays a mentally unpredictable man who sees the truth in what's going on between Winslett and De Caprio. The scenes where he single-handedly exposes the domestic fairytale for the crock it is are riveting and darkly funny. The end result is breathlessness. Mendes, who directed "American Beauty", has a talent for getting under the fascia of modern relationships. Here, he gets in there and manipulates the tissue until it bleeds. I loved every awkward moment.
Ultra-realistic portrait of poverty and abandonment
If Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, the seven-year-old lead of this harrowing Hungarian drama from '76, was competing for an Oscar this year against Mickey Rourke for his mighty performance in "The Wrestler", Miss Czinkoczi would romp it in. Her performance in "Nobody's Daughter" is beyond comprehension. I was moved to tears by this extraordinary girl's portrayal of an orphan in 1940's Hungary. Back then, the Hungarian government paid families a stipend to take unwanted children into their home. Of course, there was no vetting process to weed out couples totally unsuited to parenting, let alone adoption. We meet Csore (Czinkoczi), the doomed waif of the story, in a field of corn where she is trying to get a cow to return to its enclosure. When she follows the beast into the corn, she is picked up by a stranger and raped. Directors Laszlo Ranódy and Gyula Mészáros then cut to Csore returning home after the rape where, feeling disoriented, she takes a beating for being late and has her hand deliberately burned with hot coals by her cold, adopted father. As the weeks creep on, Csore is depicted as an abused child with an almost unbelievable resilience to tragedy. Because she spends the first half of the movie fully naked in dirty, cold, hostile surroundings, the line between the actress and the character appears non-existent. Such is the magic of truly great film-making. Eventually, Csore is abandoned by her adoptive parents and taken to an orphanage where she comes within a hair of being adopted by a caring, loving couple. A complication prevents this fortuitous transaction and Csore is sold once again to another abusive, impoverished, unhappy couple who already have other children. Once again, she is subjected to abuse and given inferior status within the house. When all seems hopeless, the sun shines for the first time on Csore when she befriends a kind, bearded old man who takes her under his wing and treats her with respect and dignity. The brief scenes of their happy times together are heart-wrenching for the stark contrast they represent. Unfortunately, the old man passes away, and Csore is alone once again. Climaxing with fury and tragedy, this ultra-realistic look at poverty and abandonment (by the state and the individual) is easily one of the most moving and grotesque portraits of inhumanity to man that I have ever seen. Only the coldest of hearts could not go out to poor Csore, a child whose plight and death felt so real to me and affected me for days. The message this left me with is that bringing children into the world should not be a right, it should be a privilege that one must prove they are worthy of. Unfortunately, reproduction is the easy part.
The Wrestler (2008)
An emotional body slam
The gorgeous Marisa Tomei gets her gear off yet again in "The Wrestler", an emotional body slam that amply displays both her acting and sexual charms. Her breasts, by crikey, are a monument to the gods. Even though she was hotter in "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead", she's still on the boil in this beauty, Mickey Rourke's very impressive comeback film. He was in "Sin City", of course, but he wasn't the lead in that one (not for the length of a feature, anyway). Here, he leads and we follow. The film could be about anything. It's mostly about a guy who's looking for self-redemption. He'd like to do a little emotional surgery on the frayed relationship with his estranged daughter, too, but that proves a very tricky grind. As does making things work with Tomei's wounded, heart-battered stripper. Rourke physically expresses his character with a body that resembles a torpedoed battle ship. His history oozes from his pores. Wrestling is painted as excruciatingly painful theater. Still a sport. But a sport mixed with bloody theatrics that can kill a man. The film's predictability is a minus, but the central performance is a massive, swaggering plus. Tomei is, as usual, a force of nature.
A faulty structure reduces this from a great movie to a very good one
In "Forrest Gump" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (both screenplays by Eric Roth), things HAPPEN to the protagonists; they don't so much make things happen. Gump was a fascinating simpleton whose presence often brought out the best in people. Button is a fascinating guy, too, whose presence mostly confuses and disarms people. What makes him fascinating is that he's aging in reverse . He's born old and wrinkled, although he's small enough to slip through a vaginal canal. This part of the premise is a cheat. In the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Button was born big. His poor mother would have had a few interesting stories to tell, but that's another movie in itself. Actually, this "cheat" isn't a bad thing; it makes things a little more realistic and streamlined (relatively speaking). The first hour of the film is beautiful and filled with wonder. Director David Fincher ("Zodiac", "Fight Club", "Seven") and his team of special effects artists make us believe that Button exists. Watching him interact with other characters is amazing to behold. He has Brad Pitt's face, sure, and he sounds like Brad Pitt, but it couldn't possibly be Brad Pitt because Brad Pitt isn't three feet tall, no matter how low he squats. This fact doesn't matter. The special effects erase our doubt. The movie magic never detracts from our enjoyment of watching Button as he heads out into the world and bewilders everybody he meets. Like Gump, he forms some great friendships and has two key relationships. The one he has with Tilda Swinton is the most interesting one, and it is responsible for great growth in the character . Kate Blanchett (Daisy) is his first love, the love that scars him deepest and gives him the richest taste of reality. Button's relationship with Daisy is also the vehicle through which the movie drives home just how painful it would be to get younger while your loved ones are making a bee-line for the grave. This theme is not explored nearly as thoroughly elsewhere in the narrative.
I wanted to love this movie. The trailer raised my expectations and the glimpses of Brad Pitt's Little Man That Could seized me by by the heart. It is certainly a very good movie, an entertaining movie, and it didn't feel too long when it was focused on the Button story. But the bridging structure -- Button's memoirs are read to an old woman on her deathbed -- seriously damage the film's emotional possibilities (at least for me). In "Forrest Gump", writer Roth had Gump sitting on a park bench telling the story of his life to passers-by and folks resting their backsides on the seat beside him. It worked. It worked because Gump himself was telling the story from his own mouth. In "Button", the story is read from a diary. When we learn the precise identity of the woman reading the diary, it is no surprise. Unfortunately, these reading scenes are more than just reading. The old woman is in a New Orleans hospital. Hurricane Katrina is bearing down. Will the storm destroy the hospital? If the filmmakers thought this gimmick would give the film more urgency, they're wrong. This stupid gimmick simply interrupts what is already a great story. Did someone think that a tale about a guy who ages backwards isn't interesting enough? Come on. Have some faith in your subject matter, people! Your little gimmick robs the film of its emotional pay-offs. We constantly cut away from the core story, at pivotal moments, to return to the old woman again. Who cares about her and the approaching storm!? I certainly didn't. The film is almost three hours long. It's not like it needed padding. Or even narration, for that matter. If the bridging sequences had been cut, the film would have clocked in at just north of two hours. The loss of one thing would have been the gain of the other.
Brad Pitt is just fine as Benjamin Button and Kate Blanchett is equally fine as Daisy, Benjamin's first and last love. Tilda Swinton, though, brings a weight to the story that lifts it to another level. It doesn't stay at the level, but a very moving epilogue to her tale (in news story form) is a welcome gift.
What is most curious about "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is that its filmmakers permitted its heavy-handed structure to rob it of its core emotions. We get to know Button, and we get to understand Button, but we don't get to feel what he feels because his internal journey is constantly interrupted. Gump didn't have that problem because Gump always told his own story his own way. Benjamin Button was robbed of that luxury.
Marley & Me (2008)
Something to make your brain puke
Am I the audience for this? Certainly not the intended audience. The intended audience is women who harbor deluded fantasies of how life should be. Their fathers told them they were princesses deserving of kingdoms, and only a White Knight (Rich, White Guy), approved by Dad, could give them their "entitlements". In this ultra-cynical nonsense, the traditional White Bread Couple (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston) decide to adopt a dog, Marley. The dog turns out to be a nightmare. In the real world where most of us live, the dog would be incredibly irritating. If you didn't end up shooting it, you'd end up depositing it on a farm somewhere where it could spend the rest of its days tearing up the fields and chasing livestock. In the world of this Hollywood product, Owen and Jennifer take a mostly laid back attitude to this psycho dog and behave totally selfishly when it's around others. For example, when Owen goes to visit an open house, he lets the dog run inside without a leash and plunge into the backyard pool -- even though he knows the dog is a big problem, he doesn't care that his dog may upset other people. That's the kind of guy he is. Unfortunately, such arrogant pigs -- who come with a smug smile -- are commonplace these days. Watching one on screen would be fun if he was being chased by people with knives! This thing is predictable and puerile. It knows its audience and it gives them the brainless pap they expect -- cute dog, cute kids, and a cute subplot about a guy (Wilson) who gets everything he wants, but still remains a self-centered whiner. "Marley and Me" is based on a true story (and novel) by John Grogan (played by Wilson) and is another nail in real cinema's coffin. It's product. Nothing more. Enjoy it, ladies.
Engrossing cinema from a great Hollywood professional
Say what you want about Ron Howard, but he does manage to create engaging dramas within the confines of the Hollywood system. His strike rate for quality is solid. Even his box office flop, "The Missing", is one of recent memory's most underrated gems. With "Frost/Nixon", he takes a potentially boring subject for cinematic reconstruction (a stage play about David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon) and builds a dramatic powerhouse. How does he do it? He starts with a great script by Peter Morgan (the man who wrote the terrific "The Queen", another subject that could have turned over and died) and he casts the same people who were in the stage play, Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (David Frost). He adds a bunch of none-too-shabby supporting players such as Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon, and he blends everything with a professionalism that doesn't feel forced or look too polished. Howard's no-style style always works in favor of his material because it allows the material to lead. Frost was just a journalistic lightweight when he approached Nixon for an interview. Nixon knew it. That's exactly why Nixon agreed to be interviewed. He was confident that he'd be able to walk all over Frost in front of millions of Americans and convince them that he wasn't the bad guy they all thought he was. With the interviews taking place over several days, Nixon gets the upper hand early on and looks destined to achieve his goals. What he didn't count on was Frost getting better and smarter. By the time the last interview was scheduled, Frost, working with his cohorts, had gathered so much obscure intel on the ex-Prez that he only had to throw Dicky the right length of rope. As history recorded, the man took it and hung himself (figuratively speaking). As you would expect, the performances are superb and the film's pacing is swift. Howard gives us fascinating details and fascinating character moments that amount to something much bigger and much better than a filmed stage play. This is engrossing cinema.
Remarkable exploration of a culture through a child's eyes
Klaus Haro's "Elina -- As If I Wasn't There" can proudly stand alongside classics about childhood such as France's "Forbidden Games", The Czech Republic's "The Elementary School", and Japan's "Muddy River". Set in Northern Sweden, this remarkable movie focuses on the inner agony of Elina (Natalie Minnivek), a smart young girl who has recently lost her father, a Finn, and is recovering from tuberculosis. When she starts a new school, the stubborn child, who is a sharp chip off her father's block, clashes with Tora Holm (Bibi Andersson), the school's most senior teacher. Not only is the clash of these two females a clash of wills, it is a clash of cultures. The rigid Holm forbids Elina and other students from speaking Finnish and enforces a Swedish-only language rule. Elina rebels against her teacher and takes emotional refuge in the bog outside the town where she believes her father still resides. The bog is a mysterious, wild, and beautiful place, retaining memories of the times Elina spent with her beloved father. The film's simple story is an effective frame on which to hang a number of cleverly explored issues such as the majority's treatment of minorities, poverty, tolerance, and Swedish identity (the Old and the New). First-time director Haro's grasp of the material is impressive and naturalistic. Not a shot is wasted. Not a single emotion is false. The photography of the rural exteriors and interiors is breathtaking and transporting; this is pure cinema with something to say and an original way to say it. Tuomas Kantelinen's musical score enhances and enriches the physical beauty and the delicate inner world of characters we come to know and understand. When I watch films like this, I fall in love with cinema all over again.
Gran Torino (2008)
Eastwood furthers his legend
Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" arrives in cinemas just two months after "Changeling" and it's another winner. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a widowed, grumpy, bigoted, no-nonsense war vet who takes a young Asian boy (Bee Vang) under his wing after he catches him trying to steal his Gran Torino, a car the Ford Motor Company cranked out in the 70's. Vang has been targeted by a gang of thugs who want him to join their directionless cause; Walt sees some potential in the boy, so determines to cultivate it. A short summary can't do justice to the complexities the film addresses. Eastwood's Walt is one of the screen's great characters, a flawed Everyman who's been left high and dry by his wife's death and the changing social environment around him. The character spouts a torrent of racial slurs and seem steadfast in his refusal to accept another culture and its inherent rituals. The first half of the film mixes violence and bitter comedy as Walt clashes with the thugs and gradually warms to the ways of his Asian neighbors. The film's second half explores Walt's rebirth as he schools his charge in the basics of responsibility and the finer points of social intercourse (a couple of hilarious sequences here). He also clashes with a well-meaning priest who promised Walt's late wife that he'd extract a confession from the atheistic old bastard. Eastwood works his magic to deliver a very compelling, totally involving drama that ends on a solemn, powerful note. This considerable accomplishment furthers his legend.
Grim, disturbing, and my favorite horror film of the year
Another serial killer movie? Yes. A great serial killer movie? Absolutely. It's a rare thing for me (obviously I've seen too much!), but this Korean flick got me all tensed up with its freaky narrative and disturbing depictions of violence. A scene with a hammer got me squirming for some reason (yes, a jaded f**k like me!); I guess director Hong-jin Na's refusal to stage most of the violence conventionally really paid off. The film is long but fascinating. It plays like a crime thriller, but it qualifies as horror because it's so damn bloody and vicious. If you're looking for redemption, steer well clear of this -- it makes no concessions to the mainstream, except for the fact that its production values are top notch. A pimp, who used to be a cop, is starting to worry about his girls because they go out on jobs and never come back. Convinced that a particular client is selling them into slavery, he begins a clumsy, one-man investigation into their whereabouts. What he finds is not exactly what he was expecting. Because I deal with idiots and incompetents on a daily basis, I had no trouble believing the actions of the police in this movie. That they fail to cotton on to what's really happening -- until it's all too late -- just felt like business as usual for me. "Edge of your seat" is a well worn cliché, but I'm happy to apply it to "The Chaser", easily the best horror film I've seen this year that was made this year.
Disturbing, unrelenting portrait of a serial killer
Twenty-five years ago (three years before John McNaughton made "Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer"), Gerald Kargl made "Angst", a very different and unique portrait of a deeply disturbed man whose childhood traumas have decimated his thinking and fueled his destructive, sexually perverted fantasies. Released from jail, he sets out immediately to relieve the pressure inside his head by committing murder, necrophilia, and sundry sadistic acts. Breaking into a mansion, he waits for its inhabitants to return home and begins a frantic rampage. The lead performance by the now well-established character actor Erwin Leder is an exceptional one. His ability to take us with him on his damaged journey to happiness -- psychologically and physically -- reminded me of Klaus Kinski's best work. Leder possesses the same manic energy, the same unpredictability that made Kinski such a dangerous, unnerving screen presence. Wisely, Kargl does not insist on balancing the film with an opposite of Leder. Instead, the entire movie is told from the psychopath's fragmented, paranoid point of view and narrated by the killer himself. Worth pointing out is how effective the killer's thoughtful voice-over is when played during key moments of violence. The technique successfully conveys the lack of empathy the killer felt towards his victims (who were simply players in his fantasy). This singular perspective (of the killer) is further accomplished with bravura camera movement that seems to mirror Leder's thought processes. No moving shot feels extraneous or unnecessary. On the contrary, I couldn't imagine the film without it. German electronic genius Klaus Schulze (one of my favorite composer/musicians) provides a throbbing, nightmarish, minimalist score that is as unrelenting in its purpose as the killer himself. The pacing is measured but unstoppable and the violence is more realistic than sensationalistic. As serial killer films go, this is truly original and disturbing. My only problem with the film is that it ended too abruptly. Like the killer, I wanted more.