The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

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The Double Hour (La doppia ora)


The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

Kseniya Rappoport may be emerging behind murky glass but the picture is growing no clearer.

(2009) Thriller (Goldwyn) Kseniya Rappoport, Filippo Timi, Antonia Truppo, Gaetano Bruno, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michele Di Mauro, Lorenzo Gioielli, Lidia Vitale, Lucia Poli, Giorgio Colangeli, Chiara Nicola, Gilda Postiglione Turco. Directed by Giussepe Capotondi

Some movies can’t really be described in too much detail without giving away vital twists and turns. The Italian thriller The Double Hour is a lot like that. That’s why the plot description is going to be a bit bare and vague.

Guido (Timi) is an ex-cop whose wife passed away three years earlier (we never find out how) and has become a somewhat diffident aficionado of speed dating. He is somewhat attractive in a hangdog kind of way, and his attempts at speed dating often lead to one night stands with desperate women (Vitale) that leave him unfulfilled.

He meets Sonia (Rappoport) at one of these. She is a Slovenian who has immigrated to Turin and is working as a hotel chambermaid. Recently she was witness to a horrific occurrence there. She is lonely and bored and is urged by her friend Margherita (Truppo) to get out more. She goes to the same speed date and runs into Guido.

Something happens between the two. The beginnings of a relationship begin to form. He invites her to the country estate where he is currently working as a security guard, showing her some of the sound equipment he’s built from scratch. They go for a walk in the idyllic countryside grounds of the estate. That’s when things go decidedly and horribly wrong.

Capotondi has a background in music videos. He utilizes music nicely, such as The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” which shows up in a more sinister way than perhaps Robert Smith ever envisioned his song becoming. Capotondi has said in interviews that he is influenced by Italy’s giallo horror films of Dario Argento and his brethren. Sections of the movie show it quite clearly. He also seems to have a thing about Hitchcock, as portions of the movie also show. There are also some Brian de Palma moments as well. The movie is at various times a supernatural thriller, a heist picture, a romantic drama and an art film. You can decide what description is most apt on your own.

The acting is superb here. Rappoport has been getting a great deal of acclaim for her performance. She has moments where she seems as fragile as a waif, lost and lonely. There are other times where she is strong and assertive, particularly when she is dealing with Guido’s fellow policeman Dante (Di Mauro) who has some suspicions regarding events at the villa.

The movie is surreal in places and will leave you with your head spinning. You almost wish you had a rewind button in the theater, thinking to yourself, did I just see what I think I saw? In some ways it will be less effective on DVD/Blu-Ray because people will be using their rewind buttons and slow-mo features which might spoil some of the surprises.

Subtitles will turn some off, and so will the abrupt mood and style shifts. There is one shift in particular, between the second and third act that is jarring to the point where you almost wonder if the filmmakers decided they didn’t like the script, junked it and started a new one at that point. It may make purists a little perturbed.

Still, this is a movie worth hanging in there for. The twists and turns here are amazing, as good as any movie since perhaps The Sixth Sense or Memento. This is a movie that is as good as any theme park ride, and those who are willing to go along for the ride won’t be disappointed. Just beware: this is not a kiddy ride in any sense. This is a ride only for those who aren’t afraid of adult thrills. This is that roller coaster with so many inversions you don’t know which way is up when you get off the ride and the only thing you can think about is getting right back on for another shot. The Double Hour (which refers to the time on the digital clock when the hour readout is the same as the minute readout, such as 10:10 or 12:12 – or 23:23 for those European readers) is like that, and it’s the kind of movie that bears repeated viewings and will certainly inspire some discourse once you’ve seen it the first time.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful twists and turns. Haunting performance by Rappoport. This is the kind of movie that inspires spirited discussions.

REASONS TO STAY: One of the movie’s major twists is so abrupt that some might find it off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: Although not rated, there is some sexuality and nudity, a bit of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rappoport won the Volpi Cup as Best Actress at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are you will have trouble finding it at your local Bijou, but should work just as effectively on your home screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Rocker


The Rocker

Rainn Wilson forgot his earplugs.

(20th Century Fox) Rainn Wilson, Christina Appelgate, Josh Gad, Teddy Geiger, Jane Lynch, Emma Stone, Jason Sudeikis, Howard Hesseman, Jeff Garlin, Bradley Cooper, Will Arnett, Fred Armison. Directed by Peter Cattaneo

Dreams can carry us through our worst moments, but they can also be responsible for those worst moments, turning on us savagely and striking with the lethal efficiency of a cobra. That’s particularly true of rock and roll dreams.

Robert “Fish” Fishman (Wilson) had the ultimate rock and roll dream in his fingertips. His band, Vesuvius, was about to be signed by Matchbox Records midway through the ‘80s heyday of heavy metal, with all the AquaNet, headbands and spandex that implies. There was an unfortunate caveat to the deal, however – the nephew of a record company executive was to be inserted in the drum kit and Fish was left high and dry.

He never really recovered from it. Unable to maintain a relationship, barely able to retain a job for very long, he is reduced to living in his sister Lisa’s (Lynch) attic. Let us just say Lisa isn’t terribly sympathetic to her brother’s plight.

Her son Matt (Gad) is, however; he has a garage band with high school friends Curtis (Geiger) and Amelia (Stone) and they need a drummer for their gig at the high school prom. Fish is recruited and being a bit of a nitwit, resumes his role as a hard-drinking, rebellious rock and roller, arriving at the prom gig minutes before they’re to go onstage (“Headliners go on at 11,” he explains while Amelia replies laconically “It’s a prom; it’s over by 11”).

Fish is his own worst enemy, bringing the prom to a screeching halt with an ill-advised drum solo. He vows to make it up to his bandmates by getting them a real club gig which he does, in Indiana (the band lives in Cleveland) but neglects to ask his sister if he can borrow her van, ending up getting pulled over by the cops before they reach the state line.

A video of Fish practicing naked, however, surfaces on the Internet, leading to a buzz about “the Naked Drummer” which in turn gets the garage band (who is charmingly known as A.D.D.) noticed by none other than Matchbox Records, the same label as Vesuvius. A.D.D goes on the road, which after Fish gets them arrested for trashing a hotel room, includes Curtis’ mom Kim (Applegate) as chaperone. Is there a romance budding within the band? Will they finally get the rock stardom Fish has been waiting for two decades for? Will they blow Fish’s old band Vesuvius off the stage?

Cattaneo (The Full Monty) doesn’t seem to know whether he’s making a broad satire or a gentle sitcom-like comedy. At times, the humor is out there (as when an enraged Fish chases down his old bandmates in a moving van) and at times it’s somewhat pedantic. Even Wilson, who is best known for his work in “The Office,” doesn’t seem to know at all times who his character is.

It’s a shame because there certainly was a good movie to be had here. The music is surprisingly good, and Geiger, a real-life pop star who previously had some exposure on the short-lived NBC series “Love Monkey,” is an engaging presence who is given some pretty good material to sing. Stone, who recently gained some positive attention for her work in Easy A is sweet and acid at the same time in her role of Amelia, making her a cross between a schoolgirl and a confident rocker. Gad channels Jonah Hill somewhat, albeit on a lower key, is solid as a socially challenged overweight keyboardist.

The supporting cast is surprisingly strong, with Garlin as Fish’s hero-worshipping brother-in-law, Cooper, Armison and Arnette as his ex-bandmates in Vesuvius, Hesseman as a drug-addled bus driver and Sudeikis as a slimy record label exec. There are also cameos from Demitri Martin, Aziz Ansari and Jane Krakowski. In other words, there was plenty of talent in front of the camera.

Unfortunately the movie never really lives up to its potential, with the jokes being of the hit-or-miss variety. What The Rocker ends up being is an odd cross between This is Spinal Tap and School of Rock minus the biting satire and Jack Black (who in my estimation would have been a better choice of leads than Wilson). It is essentially harmless entertainment, which would seem to be the antithesis of what rock and roll is supposed to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Truthfully there is some heart here. The music and Teddy Geiger’s singing is faultless.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers were a bit schizophrenic in what kind of movie they wanted to make. Much of the humor falls flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some male rear end nudity (not for the squeamish), a little bit of language and a few drug and sexual references, mostly pretty mild. In other words, probably safe for most teens and mature tweens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Beatle Pete Best, who’s story this is loosely based on, makes a cameo early on in the movie reading a Rolling Stone with Vesuvius on the cover; true to form, most of his work ended up on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a movie that did poorly at the box office, there are plenty of extras on the Born to Rock special editions of both the DVD and Blu-Ray variety. There is a VH-1 Behind the Music-style documentary on Vesuvius, a music video for “I’m Not Bitter,” two separate gag reels, a featurette on the cast and crew members talking about their favorite concerts, and a kind of a one-joke clip in which most of the cast members ask if they can be in “The Office.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.8M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness begins with Let Me In