Septien


Brothers in farms.

Brothers in farms.

(2011) Southern Gothic (Sundance Selects) Michael Tully, Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzur, Robert Longstreet, John Maringouin, Onur Tukel, Jim Willingham, Mark Darby Robinson, Jeffrey T. Williams. Directed by Michael Tully

Sometimes, when sitting down to write a review such as this one,  the hardest thing is to write the very first sentence. The reviewer knows what they want to say, has a general idea of how they want the review to go – but they just can’t get that first sentence out. The empty screen mocks us in a way that would leave Don Rickles crying.

Cornelius Rawlings (Tully) was an extraordinary athlete in high school but that didn’t prevent him from disappearing without a trace after graduation. 18 years later, he turns up at his family farm without any explanation as to where he’s been or what he’s done. He turns up in coiffure evidently inspired by Ted Kaczynski, with a beard that would do a mullah proud.

Surprisingly, he fits right in with hi oddball brothers. Amos (Tukel) scrawls graphic drawings in the barn that are vaguely pornographic, definitely Satanic and absolutely disturbing. Ezra (Longstreet) compulsively cleans the farmhouse and often wears a dress. Both brothers are nonplussed to have their brother disturb their routine, particularly as he’s unforthcoming with an explanation. Paid by the government not to farm, they live a comfortable life. Cornelius adds a little extra income by hustling the locals in various sports-related competitions which he blows them all away in.

Also entering into the mix is a pretty girl, Savannah (Korine) who is a plumber’s aide. This throws the brother’s carefully ordered lifestyle into further disarray. However the appearance of a mysterious man in a leather suit (Maringouin) who believes that the brothers and their farmhouse are possessed may either set things back in order – or blast them apart permanently.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see in a certain frame of mind and I just wasn’t there. The movie is full of quirkiness and a kind of performance art mindset – in fact I consider this more performance art than movie – and requires a certain amount of patience as well as the right kind of sense of humor to tolerate.

The mostly unknown cast acquits itself reasonably well but the characters here are more types than real people. The director has stated that he wanted to mesh a number of different genres together which included Southern Gothic, 1980s late night TV movie, sports movie  and dark comedy among them. I do admire the creativity and the ambition but I don’t think he quite pulls it off.

Septien lacks cohesion but that may well be deliberate; I get the sense that the director wants his audience to be a little bit off-balance when watching this and I have issues enough with balance as it is so I might not necessarily be the ideal viewer of this film.  Those who like their movies to be a bit on the daring and unconventional sides may well find this more to their liking.

WHY RENT THIS: Creative concept and plot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might use up all your quirky quotient in a single film. Somewhat unfocused.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of swearing, a little bit of male tush on display and some graphic artwork.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by the Sundance Selects arm of IFC Films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an outtake reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shotgun Stories

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

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Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Imposter


The Imposter

An enigma in a grey hoodie.

(2012) Documentary (Indomina) Frederic Boudin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson, Bruce Perry, Phillip French, Codey Gibson, Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Cathy Dresbach, Alan Teichman, Maria Jesus Hoyos, Ken Appledorn. Directed by Bart Layton

 

The darkness inside our souls is often simply incomprehensible to the rest of the world. “Why on earth would they do that?” is a question we find ourselves asking more often than not. Sometimes there really isn’t an answer to that question.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace on his way home from playing basketball in the park. At first, the police in San Antonio (where he and his family lived) were not too excited – after all, Nicholas often ran away and had in fact had a row with his mom that morning. But he always came home the next day.

That didn’t happen this time and hours stretched into days into weeks into months and then into years. The cops had made an attempt to find him but after awhile gave up the search until only his mother Beverly Dollarhide and sister Carey Gibson and her husband Bryan were the only people really looking for him and even they were beginning to lose hope that they’d find him alive.

Then three years and four months after his disappearance the family gets an incredible call. Nicholas had been found in Linares, Spain. He’d been through an incredible ordeal of torture, sexual abuse and brain washing, suffering extreme punishment for speaking in his native English to the point that he now spoke with a French accent. His blue eyes had been dyed brown with acid. So traumatized is the young boy that he can scarcely remember any of his life before the kidnapping, which he attributed to rogue elements in the military.

He is welcomed home with open arms nonetheless. His sister flies to Spain to fetch him and upon hugging him, she recognizes his nose and other features. Gone is the outgoing, almost cocky young boy and in his place is a paranoid, terrified young man who while seeming nice enough is still showing signs of an enormous trauma. After an interview with the FBI, agent Nancy Fisher is determined to locate the people responsible for his ordeal and bring them to justice.

But not everyone is convinced. Private detective Charlie Fisher, hired by the television tabloid “Hard Copy” to gain an interview with the boy, becomes suspicious and compares the ears of this young man with the ears from a picture of Nicholas Barclay just before he was kidnapped. They don’t match. Also forensic psychologist Bruce Perry after examining Nicholas realizes that this isn’t the same boy.

In fact, he’s not even a boy – he’s 23 years old and he’s not American, he’s a Frenchman of Algerian descent. His name is Frederic Boudin and he is wanted by Interpol for impersonating younger teenagers in exchange for lodging and board in youth homes all over Europe. He has dreamed of being accepted into a loving family and living in America all his life and he soon realized that Nicholas Barclay was his ticket to his dreams. Which leads to several questions; why did the family accept someone who was so obviously not their son as Nicholas? Why would Boudin do something so heinous and foolish – he had to know he would be found out eventually, right? And if this wasn’t Nicholas, what happened to him?

All good questions and there aren’t any easy answers for any of them. Layton uses interviews (primarily with Boudin and Carey Gibson) to look into what happened. He also uses actors to re-create certain scenes that are crucial to the story. The results are taut and prone to causing shivers in even the strongest of viewers.

Boudin is a charming sort who is utterly amoral and borderline psychotic. He lies as easily as he smiles and trust me, he smiles a lot so much of what he says must be taken with a grain of salt. He only shows real emotion when talking about his upbringing with a grandfather who, disgusted with his black Algerian father, abuses the boy whom he thinks is unworthy of his name.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t end with all the answers right in front of you. If anything, you wind up with more questions than when you started. I kind of regret that the filmmakers entitled the film  the way they did – I think that Boudin’s deception might have had more impact if it was held back longer in the film. However, I understand why they did it – the movie, after all, isn’t strictly about Boudin and his caper but about Dollarhide and her family as well – and about young Nicholas Barclay. Who the imposter truly is in this film is left up to the audience to decide – and a tough decision it is, too.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy and sometimes downright scary. Boudin is compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Can make audiences awfully uncomfortable.  Sometimes a little too slick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a lot of f-bombs among other bad words. There is implied child abuse, sexual abuse and violence. The theme is definitely adult.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Layton has written and directed several documentary features for television. This is his first feature to be released theatrically.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are very, very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Changeling

AMATEUR PSYCHOLOGY LOVERS: There is so much going on here you’ll spend hours discussing the psychology of the various participants with other audience members.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White Irish Drinkers

Cold Weather


Cold Weather(2010) Mystery (IFC) Chris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raul Castillo, Robyn Rikoon, Jeb Pearson, Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler, Katy Rothert, Paul Rothert, Jerry Moyer, Virgil L. Howell, Barry Seltzer, Orianna Herrmann, Elliott Glick, Joshua Locy. Directed by Aaron Katz

In Portland (the one in Oregon) it rains a lot. The weather is often a misty rain-soaked grey that carries a chilly hint of the northwest.  A lot of hipsters live in Portland; a lot of young people who work menial or arts-oriented jobs trying to get a handle on who they are as they transition from being teens to being adults. There’s a lot of energy there when the rain and the grey don’t weigh it down and waterlog it.

Doug (Lankenau) has just moved to Portland from Chicago. He is living there with his sister Gail (Dunn) in a small apartment. He works at an ice plant moving bags of ice all day with his friend Carlos (Castillo). Doug is a Sherlock Holmes fan, so much so that he has taken to smoking a pipe and had plans to be a detective at one time, going to college to study Forensics but eventually dropping out for reasons undisclosed.

Doug’s former girlfriend Rachel (Rikoon) comes to town and spends time with Doug, Carlos and Gail. Carlos becomes sweet on her. Asks her out on a date. Gets stood up. Looks for Rachel to get an explanation. Rachel is nowhere to be found. Carlos freaks out. Asks Doug, the forensics expert of the group, to investigate.

And that’s it in a nutshell. Katz is using kind of a mumblecore style here; the movie is not so much about the investigation into Rachel’s disappearance but more about how it affects the lives of the three left behind. The first third of the movie is more of a slacker diary, looking at the lives of these four people who have very little inertia in them. The dialogue is realistic for the people and place but at the end of the day they really do or say little of interest during that time.

When Rachel disappears the film picks up a little and not a moment too soon because quite frankly I was beginning to nod off. I’m all for slice of life films but those slices need to have some sort of meaning, some kind of insight for me. Something more than young people stuck in the current of life and not particularly interested or motivated to get out of the stream.

The performers are all unknowns and quite frankly don’t take the material and run with it. While I will grant you that the movie looks beautiful (particularly the scene at the waterfall, depicted above) and that the images of Portland rainfall are clever and artistic, I needed a bit more from the movie. Of course, I did see it late at night and I might have been too tired to really appreciate it so take all of this with a grain of salt – but I didn’t connect with the characters and I wasn’t captured by the story. Those are troubling results for a movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Hits the right notes on realism. Beautiful cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The performances are uninspiring. So low-key and dry that boredom could set in.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Katz’ first film as a director was Dance Party USA.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141,358 on an unreported production budget; while it’s possible that it was profitable, it’s more likely that it broke even at best or lost money at worst..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brick

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Memento

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire