The ABCs of Death


You really don't want to know what F stands for.

You really don’t want to know what F stands for.

(2012) Horror Anthology (Magnet) Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (voice), Erik Aude, Kyra Zagorsky, Ivan Gonzalez, Dallas Malloy, Sarah Bonrepaux, Lee Hardcastle, Fraser Corbett, Peter Pedrero, Darenzia, Arisa Nakamura, Hiroko Yashiki, Lucy Clements, Match, Yuri Murata, Je$$ica, Harold Torres, Mattias Oviedo, Alejandra Urdlain, Takashi Nishina, Chems Dahmani, Vanja Lazin. Directed by a bunch of people.  

Horror movies are undergoing a quiet renaissance with an underground that is active and imaginative. While many of these movies aren’t getting theatrical releases, with the advent of YouTube, VOD and other means of putting movies out there, we’re seeing some really good stuff not just here in America but from all over the world.

Tim League, founder of Fantastic Fest, America’s premier genre film festival, wants these talents to see the light of day. Along with co-producer Ant Timpson (a Kiwi whose Incredibly Strange Film Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious) he came up with a concept – assign 26 of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming horror film directors a letter of the alphabet and have them make a short film relating a word starting with that letter to death and then with all 26 shown as a single film.

Like all anthologies, the quality varies and with this many shorts (most of which last less than 5 minutes) there is a wide variety of styles and content. Some are more comic than horrific, some taking on a combination of the two. Many are attempts to push the boundaries, not only of gore but of good taste. Some are intriguing, some are innovative, some are repulsive and some are mediocre. Most people will find at least one of the shorts to be outstanding.

There were some that were just plain horrific in an old-fashioned sense –  A is for Apocalypse is, for example, from Nacho Vigolando (of Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial) in which a savage murder is turned into an act of mercy. One of my favorites was T is for Toilet in which an overly skittish young man who has an irrational fear of toilets (a fear which turned out to be justified) done in Claymation – the director, Lee Hardcastle, actually won the 26th spot on the roster in a contest.

Xavier Gens, the French director who helmed The Divide has one of the more straightforward shorts in the bunch.  In X is for XXL, a tormented overweight French woman decides to take matters into her own hands and reinvent herself to be more in line with the aesthetic of beauty that French models ascribe to. Take from that what you will.

There is also much humor. J is for Jidai-Geki (Samurai Film) from Japanese director Yudai Yamaguchi has a samurai about to deliver the coup de grace for a samurai committing hara-kiri unable to keep a straight face because of the faces his charge is making. Q is for Quack has Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die) and Simon Barrett commiserating over the disrespect afforded them by being assigned the letter Q and at their billing  in the credits. They concoct a brilliant way to make their segment stand out – then screw it up about as badly as it can be.

There are some surreal segments such as O is for Orgasm and W is for WTF. There is the animated K is for Klutz and the Russ Meyers tribute S is for Speed. I could go on and on but I don’t think it necessary to go over all 26 entries. You get the drift.

There’s enough good stuff to outweigh the bad by a pretty decent margin, so I can recommend this for most horror fans and even those mainstream moviegoers who don’t mind having their boundaries pushed a bit. This isn’t for the faint of heart, the squeamish or the easily offended. Who it is for are those who are looking for something a bit out of the norm and have an open mind about movies. I recommend bringing along someone with a big booming belly laugh. There was a guy like that at my screening of the film and it helps immensely.

REASONS TO GO: Some big laughs and some big scares. Pushes some boundaries and offers examples of what’s going on in the horror underground around the world.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven – some of the segments are less successful than others. Too much toilet humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Crude humor, graphic nudity and gore, foul language, violence, disturbing images and themes, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ant Timpson and Tim Teague, producers of the film, are best known for running the Incredibly Strange Film Festival and Fantastic Fest respectively; Teague is also CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; critics really didn’t get on board for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: V/H/S

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: I Declare War

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3 Backyards


3 Backyards

Edie Falco clearly misses her days on “The Sopranos.”

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe, Rachel Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Danai Gurira, Ron Phillips, Dana Eskelson, Randi Kaplan, Louise Millman, Pam La Testa, Antonio Ortiz, Nicole Brending, Kathy Searle. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

 

The suburbs are quiet, peaceful places where we go to raise our children in an environment that is far from urban. Away from the noise and the hectic place, it is a place of lawn mowers, shopping malls and chain restaurants. Still, the peaceful facade can sometimes disguise the most painful of hearts.

Long Island is maybe the ultimate suburb. Being so close to New York City, it offers a respite from the concrete and asphalt, a bit of greenery and wildlife within shouting distance of skyscrapers and taxis. But for all the manicured lawns, the sweet songs of robins and blue jays, all is not perfect here.

Take John (Koteas). His marriage is far from perfect; he and his wife (Erbe) are always fighting and finances aren’t so good. He is going on a business trip but his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he checks into a hotel provided by the airline. Instead of staying put, he goes back home and stalks his own family and home. When he calls his wife, he pretends he’s on the plane instead of watching her from the shrubbery. What is he looking for? What does he expect to see? He retires to a diner where he overhears a young woman (Gurira) applying for a waitress position. He follows her out of the restaurant and becomes witness to tragedy.

A little girl (Resheff) impulsively steals some of her mom’s jewelry. Her inexplicable action causes her to miss her school bus. Scared of her crime being discovered (which it surely will if she is late for school), she determines to walk the distance via a shortcut she knows. She comes upon an intimidating young man (Broulik) masturbating in a shed. She also frees a stray dog tied to a tree. Both of these events will have consequences later.

Peggy (Falco) lives a life of quiet unfulfillment. She yearns for recognition, glamour, acknowledgement but instead must settle for a suburban existence of gossip and shopping. She paints as a means of expressing herself, but when a well-known actress (Davidtz) moves into the neighborhood, her imagination is excited. Then when the actress needs a lift to the ferry, Peggy volunteers to drive her, leading to a conversation that is much more revealing of Peggy than it is of the actress.

These three tales are not so much interconnected so much as parallels within the same environment. Mendelsohn’s first film, Judy Berlin, was made very much within the same kind of suburban purgatory as this, his second which follows ten years after the first. Notably, Falco stars in both films and is really the chief reason for seeing both.

All of the characters are for the most part drifting through their own landscapes, powered by their yearnings and melancholy. That pervasive aimlessness colors the movie and prevents it from really taking hold in the imagination, or at least mine – the movie has been well-reviewed and obviously it is connecting with critics other than myself, so take my own lack of connection with a grain of salt.

Falco, who most will remember from her television roles in “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” is one of the best actresses working today. That she isn’t doing more movie work is most likely due to her heavy television schedule, but she always puts on a marvelous performance and this is no exception. Her story arc is the most compelling of the three and she and Davidtz work well off of each other and even though much of her storyline puts her in a car having a conversation, it nevertheless has the most dramatic tension.

Koteas, a longtime character actor who has had moments of brilliance throughout his career, turns in another fine performance as John. While it is at times difficult to understand what is going on inside his head (which to be truthful is true of most of us in real life), we get a sense of his frustrations thanks to Koteas. John’s not getting what he needs in his marriage and career so he plays hooky one day, probably not understanding why he’s doing it himself.

There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in the movie, if I may do a little armchair psychoanalyzing and that’s okay although it gets a little bit tiresome here. The dialogue sometimes doesn’t ring as true as it might – I get a sense of a writer trying to be clever rather than real people talking.

I also get a sense that there is a good movie here and I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day to absorb it properly, or for whatever reason I just couldn’t find a place to latch myself onto. That happens sometimes. I can’t really recommend the movie – I can only go by how I react to it and as you can probably guess, my reaction is fairly negative but those who like Edie Falco should see it and if any of this sounds appealing to you (particularly if you are looking for a suburban-set slice of life) do feel free to disregard my un-enthusiasm and give it a whirl.

WHY RENT THIS: Superior performances from Falco, Davidtz and Koteas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit too much. Dialogue  a bit stilted in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene that has some sexuality involved but most of the rest of the film carries some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mendelsohn is the only director to have won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice; for this film and also for Judy Berlin in 1999.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43,073 on an unreported production budget; might have broken even but it probably didn’t.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mission: Impossible 2

Hope Springs


 

Hope Springs

Meryl Streep may be the greatest actress of her generation but at least Tommy Lee Jones has a Yale education.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Columbia/MGM) Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Brett Rice, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh, Charles Techman, Daniel J. Flaherty, Damian Young, Mimi Rogers, Ann Harada, Jack Haley. Directed by David Frankel

 

Marriages are rarely simple relationships. The longer you are in one, the more depth it creates, the more layers are produced. This is usually a good thing but sometimes habit can become routine which can become stifling. It isn’t long before a good marriage on the surface can turn into quite something else on the inside.

Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years. They live a comfortable existence in Omaha; he works for an insurance company, she works part time in a boutique. They have a grown daughter Molly (Ireland) who is married to Mark (Darragh). They also have a grown son Brad (Rappaport) who is single. When they gather for their parents anniversary, they are unsurprised to learn that their anniversary gift to each other is a new cable package.

The thrill is most definitely gone and while Kay longs for intimacy, Arnold seems far more interested in golf magazines. He’s terse, rigid and really doesn’t listen to his wife at all. Kay is miserable and she has reached her breaking point.

Then she discovers Dr. Feld (Carell), who specializes in couples counseling. She signs up the two of them using her own money for an intensive couples therapy session for a week in Great Hope Springs, Maine. At first, Arnold is aghast at the idea. When Kay (for once) stands up and lets him know she’s going with or without him, he finally relents and shows up on the plane at the last minute.

Once at counseling, Arnold proves to be not much better. He growls and grouses, finding no value in what is being offered, sure that this is some kind of scam meant to take a perfectly healthy relationship (which he believes his relationship with Kay to be) and somehow turn it on itself, creating problems where there were none in order to prolong the agony (and the payments).

Kay grows frustrated an walks away from the EconoLodge they are staying in  (in separate beds – they haven’t slept in the same room let alone the same bed for years) and finds a sympathetic bartender (Shue). Eventually she is convinced to return back to therapy.

Arnold does try a little bit harder but there seems to be an insurmountable gulf between them. Dr. Feld gives them intimacy exercises but after some early success they seem to end in abject failure. Dr. Feld counsels Arnold that some couples come to him to save their relationship; others come to end it. Which one will Arnold and Kay opt for?

Points to Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for taking a long, adult look at what goes on inside a real marriage. Usually when Hollywood does so there’s some sort of infidelity involved. That’s not the case here. This is a relationship with real problems (not that cheating isn’t a real problem – it’s just the kind of sexy problem that Hollywood tends to beat with a stick until it’s hamburger, mainly because studio chiefs think forbidden fruit tends to sell a lot of tickets which it does). There are warts here, and to the credit of both Frankel and Taylor along with Streep and Jones there are no attempts to hide the warts with make-up.

Streep is, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe the best actress of her generation. This is a bit of a courageous role for her; she has to play a shy, girlish and somewhat hen-pecked wife who is coming to terms with a force of sexuality she’s never had to really face. There are several scenes in which she displays sexual arousal to a rather strong degree and it’s quite…stimulating. But this isn’t really her movie.

The movie belongs in every way to Tommy Lee Jones. This is a bit outside his comfort zone thus far in his career; he tends to play testy, irritable people and he does so here; but Arnold is a testy, irritable person with problems he hasn’t yet confronted about himself and during the course of the movie, he does just that. Jones has never seemed comfortable with a lot of self-analysis in his films but he gives an adept performance that carries the film which Streep mostly is content for him to do.

Carell has emerged as one of the biggest comedic actors today but he is curiously subdued, almost a straight man. This isn’t one of his more memorable roles, but he is well-suited for the part and underplays it nicely.

The problems of sex in a long marriage are not really discussed in polite society; we just assume that married couples approaching their sixties don’t have much sex and are perfectly content to do so. In fact, we assume that anyone who doesn’t look like they’re in their 30s at most don’t have sex because…well, ewwww.

That’s not terribly realistic. The sex drive may diminish but it doesn’t go away completely for all of us and there are some couples in their 80s who have surprisingly healthy sex lives. People don’t have to look like Brad and Angelina to have sex although Hollywood tends to reinforce the idea that people who are obese, less attractive or socially awkward are less sexually desirable.

That’s hogwash. There’s somebody for everybody but you have to be willing to take a chance. This movie is really about a couple who haven’t been doing that for awhile; they’ve wrapped themselves up in routines and familiarity so tightly that they’ve forgotten what attracted them to one another in the first place – and that part is still there. So there that it can’t be hidden but it can be overlooked.

REASONS TO GO: Quite funny in places. Great chemistry between Jones and Streep. Carell is also quite droll.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are adult and generally fairly sexual; there is also a scene of masturbation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was another romantic comedy named Hope Springs set in New England (in this case Vermont) from 2003 and starring Colin Firth, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver. Other than the title, the two films are unrelated.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated

NEW ENGLAND GETAWAY LOVERS: While the charms of a New England village getaway are extolled here, some of the scenes were filmed in New York as well as Connecticut.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Campaign

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen)


Turn Me On, Dammit

Just because a teen girl is in bed doesn't mean she's thinking about sleep.

(2011) Teen Sex Comedy (New Yorker) Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjorhovde, Henriette Steenstrup, Beate Stofring, Matias Myren, Lars Nordtveit Listau, Jon Bleiklie Devik, Julia Bache-Wiig, Julia Elise Schacht, Arthur Berning, Hilde-Gunn Ommedal. Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen

 

Hollywood has explored teen sexuality with a bit of a vengeance. Teens losing their virginity, teens frustrated by their raging hormones and teens just generally looking to get laid are all common themes – but always from the male perspective. Sex for teen girls has always been relegated to either a search for Mr. Right or as objects for teen boys.

Alma (Bergsholm) is different, at least as far as Hollywood perceptions of teen girls go. Sure, she’s sweet on a specific guy – hunky Arthur (Myren) – but she has urges and I mean all the time. She puts teen boys to shame. She is constantly getting herself off (forcing her mother (Steenstrup) to don earplugs at night so she doesn’t hear her daughter’s moans), looks at porn magazines and spends well over six thousand kroner (about $1,000 US) on phone sex. In fact, the phone sex operator she usually chats with has gotten to know her well enough that he knows about her fascination with Arthur and about the tiny little town in Norway that she lives in.

Skoddeheimen is bucolic, nestled in the mountains and fjords of Norway but far from any semblance of anything that would keep a teen from getting bored. Alma hangs out with her friends Sara (Bjorhovde) and Ingrid (Stofring). The former smokes like a chimney and dreams of moving to Texas where she would become an anti-death penalty activist (good luck with that one) while the latter is a bit on the empty-headed bitchy side and is constantly applying layer after layer of lip gloss, making Snooki look positively hippie-like.

The girls take the bus to and from school, talk about boys, get adult men to buy beer for them and smoke disconsolately in a bus stop shelter on the edge of town which is kind of a clubhouse for them. They go to school and party – that’s life in Skoddeheimen. At a party at the Youth Center one night, Alma steps outside to sneak a beer. Arthur joins her there and suddenly without any apparent reason, whips out his member and rubs it against her leg.

Alma is suitably surprised and runs inside to tell all her friends. Ingrid, who has a big crush on Arthur, refuses to believe it happened and when confronted Arthur denies it as well. Alma soon finds herself completely ostracized, shunned like she has a scarlet letter embroidered on her chest. Ingrid spews venom at her every chance she gets and even Sara finds it impossible to be seen with her at school. The kids start calling her “Dick-Alma” and the nickname follows her everywhere except to her home where her mother is completely oblivious to the hell her daughter is going through.

And hell is exactly what it is; shunned, no longer invited to parties, the guy she has had a crush on for a long time refuses to speak to her. Alma gets a job at the co-op market working for the genial Sebjorn (Devik) who happens to be Sara and Ingrid’s dad (did I mention they’re sisters) but when he discovers Alma’s out of control sexuality and Alma discovers the reason for Arthur’s distance and denial, she gets fed up and runs away to Oslo to visit Maria (Bache-Wiig), the older sister of Sara and Ingrid who is attending university there. Desperately lonely, Alma opens up to Maria and her roommates and for the first time in quite awhile finds acceptance.

Eventually her break in the city must end and she must return home to Skoddeheimen. Can she get past the small village’s perceptions of her or even change them, or is she doomed to be an outcast for the rest of her life (or at least until she graduates).

This is a heartwarming movie with a wry sense of humor. The teens here act like teens (flipping the bird to the road sign with the town’s name on it every time they pass it) and don’t have all the answers. They can be petty and vindictive but also enormously loyal and caring as well.

The fact that almost none of these actors had any professional experience before this movie is amazing. Bergsholm in particular had a role that can’t have been easy; it calls for some displays of sexuality that would make adult actresses uneasy and she is in nearly every scene in the movie. She’s quite beautiful with a shy but charming smile and an attitude that shows the kind of strength a lot of adults don’t possess. Sure Alma is a horndog, but she’s admirable just the same. She doesn’t always deal with her sexuality well, but what teenager does? I don’t think she is a role model precisely but she isn’t far from one.

Steenstrup is one of the few adults in the movie and she gives the single mom in the movie (Alma’s dad is never in the picture) the kind of frustration and confusion that every parent of a teen daughter can relate to (and it’s not by accident that the mother is never given a name). The mom doesn’t always handle her daughter’s situation gracefully and she is sometimes caught up in her own problems to really take enough notice of her daughter’s and her reactions tend to be on the knee-jerk side. Like every parent she has no manual to consult and so she just wings it, sometimes doing or saying the perfect thing, other times stumbling into disaster. As parenting goes, that’s pretty much universal.

As I said at the top of the review this is an unusual film for its female perspective. Some will find the opening scene with Alma lying on the kitchen floor with her hand down her panties masturbating while listening to her favorite phone sex operator describe what he’s doing to her shocking; others will have their feathers ruffled at the nudity displayed here. If you tend to be on the prudish side, this might not be your cup of Aquavit. However, while teen sexuality is at the center of the movie, it isn’t about teen sex but more about our attitudes towards female sexuality. Why aren’t girls allowed to enjoy sex or want it? When boys/men are horny, we snigger and shrug it off as “boys will be boys” but when girls/women do it, they’re sluts. I guess I just don’t understand why we have to look at both cases differently.

This is a movie with a gentle sense of humor that has a certain amount of sex, but I never found it raunchy like a Porky’s type of movie or even like an American Pie sort of thing. Rather, it looks at teen female sexuality with level head and open eyes. That seems to me to be a more sensible way of promoting understanding.

REASONS TO GO: An unusual look at teen sexuality from the female perspective. Well-acted and funny from a realism standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lot of emphasis on female masturbation and fantasizing which might put conservative folks out of sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and nudity, as well as several scenes of female masturbation. There are rude words and gestures and plenty of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers tried to make most of the cast local to the Sogn og Fjordane district where the film was set so that the dialects would be accurate. 450 teenagers were seen which isn’t a large amount for this kind of film but is a significant percentage of the overall population of 10,000 for the district.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100. Early reviews are highly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The First Time

FJORD LOVERS: The area the movie was filmed in has its share of fjords and they are beautifully captured here.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Bully

Turning Green


Turning Green

When you reach the edge of the world there's nothing left to do but fall off.

(2005) Crime Drama (New Films International) Timothy Hutton, Alessandro Nivola, Colm Meaney, Donal Gallery, Killian Morgan, Jill Harding, Brid Ni Chionaola, Deirdre Monaghan, Frank Kelly, Myles Purcell, Billie Traynor, Katherine Kendall, Gavin O’Connor. Directed by Michael Aimette and John G. Hoffman

 

Wherever you go, as a wise man once said, there you are. Sometimes where we are isn’t necessarily where we want to be. Sometimes we need to get a little creative to get where we want to be.

James Powers (Gallery) is in Ireland but he sure doesn’t want to be there. He and his little brother Pete (Morgan) were shipped there to his overbearing aunts when their mother passed away; now James can only think about finding a way back to America.

He at first tries to raise some cash by performing drinking tricks at the local bar (which cause him to throw up after all the patrons have left) and then he starts running numbers for Bill the Bookie (Nivola). Bill takes a liking to the industrious James while his right hand enforcer Bill the Beater (Hutton) is a little bit more suspicious.

James, being 16 years old, is also discovering the joys of masturbation. He is constantly in the bathroom, so much so that his aunts are under the mistaken impression he’s suffering from severe constipation. The aunties dote on the local priest and have no idea how to handle a young man who is awakening sexually.

While on a visit to London, James is introduced to the wonderful world of dirty magazines. He realizes that they’re illegal in Ireland and that if he could figure out a way to smuggle them in, he’d make a fortune and make enough to get him and Pete back home in no time. So he does just that, not realizing that he is attracting the wrong kind of attention, the kind of attention that will get friends like the drunken fisherman (Meaney) who is the closest thing he has to a father figure in deep trouble.

This is a fairly low-key affair that wants to steep itself in rural Irish charm but doesn’t quite get enough of a soaking. Part of it is that we spend a lot more time dealing with James’ tallywhacking than anyone should have to sit through. Gallery is a pretty decent actor, but he doesn’t really have the roguish charm that Irish actors like Colin Ferrell and Liam Neeson possess and in any case, few actors who can easily pass for 16 have that ability anyway but Gallery gives it a good solid effort and is likable enough.

Hutton is a very strong and able actor who has an Oscar under his belt but playing Irish muscle is a bit out of his comfort zone and he also gives it a good try but is ultimately unconvincing in the role. The actor who fared best IMHO is Nivola, who made the charismatic Bill the Bookie come to life. His is the character I remember most vividly from the movie.

This is a very masculine movie – most of the female roles are either sex objects or comedy relief and there is very little in between. It is also quite schizophrenic; the first two thirds seems to be more of a coming of age film but then it makes an abrupt left turn into a crime drama. There is a good deal of wit through both portions which kind of ties the film together but I would have preferred that the movie stuck to one set of guns. Goodfellas this ain’t.

Nonetheless I can give it a mild recommendation. It certainly has a different point of view and has a different feel than most of the films out there. If you’re looking for something that is a little bit off the grid, this might not be a bad choice.

WHY RENT THIS: Good cast performs solidly. Doesn’t have much of a female point of view.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of masturbation as a thematic issue. Can’t decide if it wants to be a crime drama or a coming-of-age film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and nudity, teenage drinking, a wee bit of violence and a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was a runner-up on HBO’s first season of “Project Greenlight.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: John Carter

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood