Family Life (Vida de Familia)


Look what dragged in the cat.

(2017) Dramedy (Monument) Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Bianca Lewin, Cristián Carvajal, Lucas Miranda, Adara Casassus. Directed by Alicia Scherson and Christián Jiménez

Most cultures in humanity revere the family. For the most part, we all love our families and would do anything for them. Those without families by circumstance or by choice are often objects of pity, sometimes of scorn but generally we don’t trust people who turn their backs on family. Of course there are those who yearn for a family of their own. We always want what we don’t have.

Bruno (Carvajal) is an academic – a professor of Chilean poetry at the University in Santiago. He has been invited to spend a semester teaching the subject in Paris and is taking his young family – wife Consuelo (Lewin) and daughter Sofi (Casassus) with him. He needs a housesitter for their posh apartment and at the funeral of his cousin he meets Martin (Becker), his relative’s son. Martin in addition to mourning his father is unemployed and has just broken up with his girlfriend who he continues to pine away for. Sympathetic, Bruno offers the job of watching his house and caring for his cat Mississippi while he’s gone.

Bruno is kind of diffident and melancholy. He strikes the family in different ways; Bruno characterizes him as “a little weird” while Consuelo is a little bit more compassionate. When Martin makes an awkward attempt to kiss her the night before they leave, she rebuffs him but is nonetheless oddly moved by the man. He is handsome and has a thing about black leather, but he is also unemployed, single and nearly 40. Not exactly a catch.

Once the family is gone, Martin seems content to just hang out around the house. He is lonely but yet is unmotivated to go out and do things. A housekeeper is hired to assist but he doesn’t really feel right letting her clean once a month but he pays her the money that Bruno left for her anyway. He tries on Bruno’s clothes and goes though the family’s things like a criminal investigator.

One day the cat is missing and Martin puts up flyers. He is annoyed later to find flyers for a lost dog pasted over his own. Irritated, he calls the number on the lost dog flyers and gives the person an earful. Eventually the dog owner, Pachi (Arancibia) or Paz as she’s called in the iMDB credits, and Martin meet. She’s a single mom, strong and forthright but she is attracted to Martin. At first it’s a sexual thing but as Martin begins to bond with her son Seba (Miranda) their relationship begins to change.

Martin convinces Pachi that he is the owner of the house; he had taken down the pictures that featured Bruno, leaving only pictures of Consuelo and Sofi. He explains that those are pictures of his ex-wife and daughter; the divorce was acrimonious and she had taken his daughter and was refusing to let him see her. At first Pachi is suspicious – he must have done something to deserve such treatment – but her heart overrides her good sense and she falls very hard for him.

Even with the impending return of the real owners of the home, Martin maintains the fiction and seems for the first time to be truly content. Still, cracks begin to form in the facade as plans are made to introduce him to Pachi’s family. How far will he take the charade and what will happen when Pachi discovers the truth?

Scherson and Jiménez have directed three other movies each, although this is their first project as a unit. This is a much more quiet film than some of Scherson’s previous efforts. It is based on Alejandro Zamba’s book (Zamba did the initial adaptation which was then refined by the directors who are also given co-writing credit) and with nearly all of the action taking place in a single apartment, there’s a bit of a stage-y feel to it.

There is a definite sense of humor here although it is not broad or filled with pratfalls. It is more of a subtle sense of humor, the way old friends sit back and reflect on the absurdities of life. That is very much within the Latin temperament although those not familiar with Latin culture might be surprised, given that the comedies that come out of Latin countries are very often overly broad and slapstick.

But this isn’t strictly speaking a comedy; there are some moments of genuine pathos such as a climactic encounter between two of the characters in which in a moment it is clear that both understand exactly what’s going on. The irony of the movie is that the perfect family life that Martin initially yearns for is not what’s happening for Bruno and Consuelo. They have reached a kind of uneasy understanding between the two of them, but the tension is clearly there; even Sofi notices it as she displays on a somewhat shocking note she leaves on her wall.

The performances here are uniformly strong, with Becker being the most notable. While the motivations of Martin are opaque at best and he is something of an enigma, Becker keeps the character grounded and while we often are scratching our head about Martin, because of Becker the character never feels unbelievable or far-fetched. His motivations may be suspect and at the end of the day he isn’t a very likable character despite all his charm, but you won’t soon forget him and that’s thanks to Becker primarily. He reminds me a little bit of a young Thomas Kretschmann which is nothing but praise.

There is an awful lot of sex in the movie and those who are offended by such things should be forewarned. The pacing is a little slower than American audiences typically like, although European audiences should have no trouble with it. There is a slice of life aspect to the film that I found attractive; the life may be a bourgeois one but it’s a valid life notwithstanding.

Overall this is a solid movie. It debuted at this year’s Sundance and at the recent Miami International Film Festival won the Knight Grand Jury Prize, a very prestigious award. It’s beginning a slow theatrical roll-out in cities around the country; keep an eye out for it if it plays near here you live. If you’re looking for something that is going to make you think a little bit about the place of family in your life and what the ideal family looks like – and how it almost never is the family you get – this should be right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are naturalistic particularly by Becker. There is a sly almost gentle sense of humor that is more reflective than uproarious.
REASONS TO STAY: Martin as a character is a bit on the murky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity, sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Scherson’s own apartment.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Amnesia

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Meat (Vlees)


This is not your ordinary meat market.

This is not your ordinary meat market.

(2010) Thriller (Artsploitation) Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, Elvira Out, Kitty Courbois, Gurkan Kucuksenturk, Wilma Bakker, Jasper van Beusekom, Ali Sultan, Frans Bakker, Eric van Wijk, Taco Schenkhuizen, Guido Paulsen, David Jan Bronsgeest, Nadine Roodenburg, Philippe de Voogdt, Florian Visser, Maarten Wijsmuller, Cindy Robinson, Sander Schreuders, Piet Leendertse. Directed by Victor Nieuwenhujis and Maartje Seyferth

 

We are a carnal species, creatures of the flesh. Most of us are meat-eaters and all of us indulge in a healthy interest in sex and, occasionally, unhealthy. As civilized as we like to think ourselves to be, we are at heart animals with animal needs and animal desires.

In a small Dutch seaside town lives a Butcher (Muizelaar) who runs a small but tidy butcher shop. He’s a lonely guy looking for someone to love and who’ll love him back, but he’s not an exceptionally handsome, in good shape kind of guy and I suppose people just inherently don’t trust people who work with a lot of knives. He has a prostitute friend named Teena (W. Bakker) whom he has romantic illusions of but she turns out to be all business.

The butcher’s apprentice is Roxy (Benner), a comely student who has a boyfriend named Mo (Kucuksenturk) who is, ironically enough, an animal activist. Roxy has a handy-cam that she turns on whatever turns her fancy, whether it is the Butcher disconsolately shagging Teena in the freezer, or a tray of freshly butchered offal. When the butcher begins what can only be termed sexually harassing Roxy, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. In fact, the two begin shagging themselves, particularly after Teena starts flaunting her sexuality, having sex with clients and her pimp (who happens to be the butcher’s boss) in the freezer which seems to spur on Roxy, who is much younger than Teena, to initiate a sexual affair with her boss.

Parallel to that is Inspector Mann who has a startling resemblance to the Butcher – mainly because he’s played by the same guy. Inspector Mann seems to be floating along through life on whatever current might take him. His marriage to Sonia (Out) is disintegrating, largely because of Mann’s own disinterest. The only things that apparently interest him are watering his desultory office plant, and eating. Sex with his wife seems to frighten him. Even tragedy doesn’t move him much; he just seems to shrug his shoulders and move on.

The butcher’s tale (which sounds like it should have been written by Chaucer but in this case more like by way of Lars von Trier) intersects with that of Inspector Mann in an unexpected and somewhat horrific way. Once that happens, the lethargic Mann is moved to take action, but where does the connection truly lie?

This isn’t a horror film precisely. It’s more of a psychological thriller but on LSD. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a psychedelic thriller; some of the images resemble an acid trip and truly they speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot of dialogue here (a previous film by Seyferth had none at all) and indeed Roxy doesn’t speak until nearly halfway through the film. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on though.

There is an awful lot of naked flesh here, both of the human and slaughterhouse varieties. We see the butcher plying his trade which may make some sensitive vegetarian/vegan sorts more than a little nauseous. We see a lot of very graphic sex, almost to the point of pornography which may make some sensitive prudes more than a little squeamish. If you fall into either category, it would be a wise thing for you  to stop reading now and move on to something else because there’s no point in you seeing this movie at all.

Benner is a fresh faced beauty and certainly seeing her naked (as she is for a good percentage of the film) is no great hardship; Muizelaar is a fine actor and has two similar but disparate roles to work on here, although he is less pleasing naked. However, both Inspector Mann and the butcher have body image issues so the flab both of them display naked is somewhat necessary.

The movie doesn’t always make narrative sense and the ending is something of a bad trip. This isn’t a film for everybody – let’s be very clear about that now. It requires a bit of work to get into but I thought it well worth the effort. Not everybody will. This Meat is rather highly seasoned and spicy, but for those of that particular palate, this is a dish best consumed quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Benner and Muizelaar give sterling performances. The film keeps you off-balance in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it too “artsy fartsy.” A little bit on the disjointed side.
FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic nudity and sex, some disturbing butchery images, an attempted rape and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film is just getting released in the states, it debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival way back in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wetlands
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nick Cave: Once More with Feeling

Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II

The Key (2015)


Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

(2012) Romance (Self-Released) David Arquette, Bai Ling, Nathan Keyes, Nathalie Love, Brian Wasiak. Directed by Jefery Levy

What happens within a marriage can be a delicate thing. We assume that the private life is a mirror of the lives they project to the public, but behind the bedroom doors of any couple can be any one of a million things – joy, kinkiness, exquisite sorrow, tragedy and yes, even love but love expressed in ways that you and I can’t even begin to fathom.

The Nobel laureate Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki brought that onto the printed page with his 1955 novel The Key in which the husband deliberately leaves the key to the desk drawer where he keeps his diary within sight, almost daring his wife to turn the key and read the contents of his diary, which he has decided to make all about the sex life of the couple which has become rote and to him, insufferable. The couple has essentially ceased communicating with each other and this is the only way the husband knows to get his wife’s attention.

The husband, Jack, here is played by David Arquette, the wife Ida by Bai Ling and their home transplanted from Japan to Southern California. The structure of the film is that the two main characters read the contents of their journals while onscreen a series of images – some germane to the dialogue, some not – flash on the screen, generally oversaturated and scratched in order to approximate old movies which as it eventually turns out, they are somewhat like. One of the things I like about the movie is upon retrospect you realize that you are unstuck in time as you’re watching this; all of the events have already happened and you’re merely watching them unfold as in an old movie. I could be overthinking this, of course.

This is not a movie that is safe viewing. For one thing, sex is really a major part of the movie, or rather the obsession of sex. Ida is naked a lot of the time and she and Jack are often engaged in sex, not all of it consensual strictly speaking. Also in the cast is Kim (Keyes) whom Jack is trying to push into an affair with his wife, and Mia (Love), the couple’s adult daughter.

I’m all for movies that push the edge, but this one does so in a way that seems almost juvenile to my sensibilities. The readings of the journals is done in the breathless manner of 13-year-olds reading their father’s Letters to Penthouse out loud. In that sense, I suppose Levy might be doing that deliberately to give us a sense that the marriage between Jack and Ida has lost all its passion, but it goes on and on. The. Whole. Freaking. Movie.

A note about Bai Ling. She’s an actress who has always shown flashes of amazing potential but has never gotten a role that really allows her to achieve it. I keep hoping that each movie she’s in will be the one that really showcases her talents but she always seems destined to get roles that allow her to show that genius but never let it fly free. Here she is quite often touching in her various facets – Ida’s venality, her repressed sexuality, her regret – but the moments of genuine connection are abruptly severed by some absurd business that turns the movie into an hour and nineteen minutes of non-stop non-sequiturs.

Arquette is operating way outside the usual parameters that he is cast in and for that I tip my hat. He’s come a long way since the Scream franchise. This is definitely a more mature work for him, although again there’s that feeling that we should be titillated but instead we are tittering.

I haven’t read the book in 30 years so I’m a little bit rusty on the prose but to my ears it sounds like very little of it is Tanizaki. Perhaps the filmmakers are working off a different translation than the one I read, but this doesn’t sound like the way human beings write in their diaries about their sex lives. Perhaps I need to be reading more private journals but the prose is flowery here, and sometimes seems to use words for their own sake rather than to contribute to the viewers understanding of the story. There are some passages though that are dazzling, which is what I remember the book’s language to be, more simple but elegant.

The images are almost headache inducing, not unlike what you’d see projected on the walls of a nightclub circa 1995 and no, that’s not a good thing. After a short time it becomes almost annoying and I found myself looking down at my phone and reading e-mail while listening to the narration. That was something of a defense mechanism because my head was beginning to pound. Yes, some of the images here are beautiful and some out there but most of it is the visual equivalent of white noise, to be filtered out and ignored and is that really what you want in a visual medium?

Experimental cinema can be exhilarating, provocative or both. It can also be frustrating, pretentious or both. This is I suppose what passes for avant garde but either this is not the effect the filmmakers are going for or it’s way too avant for my garde.

Incidentally, the movie is on the festival circuit currently. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for it there. No word on a streaming release just yet but it’s likely to turn up in that format as well.

REASONS TO GO: Mind-blowing ending. Some fascinating images.
REASONS TO STAY: Holy pretentiousness Batman! Intrusive score. Takes too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of nudity and sex. Adult themes as well as some smoking and a fair amount of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy received a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Deathgasm

The Wicker Tree


Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

Brittania Nicol is one hot chick.

(2011) Horror (Anchor Bay) Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Henry Garrett, Brittania Nicol, Honeysuckle Weeks, Christopher Lee, Clive Russell, Prue Clarke, Lesley Mackie, David Plimmer, Astrid Azurdia, James Mapes, Allidh Mackay, John Paul McGilvray, Bill Murdoch, Keith Warsick, Iain Stuart Robertson, Kristin Murray, Keira McMillan. Directed by Robin Hardy

Some may well remember a movie by the name of The Wicker Man that came out back in 1973. It has become something of a cult classic, well regarded both by film buffs and horror fans alike (a rare occasion indeed) and certainly one of the finest examples of atmospheric horror ever. Then along came 2006 and the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man does its level best to wipe out any good will the original film engendered. So the director of the original decides to make a sequel of sorts based on his own novel Cowboys for Christ. Does it regain that good will?

Born-again Christian pop star Beth Boothby (Nicol) and her boyfriend Steve (Garrett) have been on a mission to Scotland to bring those heathen Scots back to the fold of God. She is performing well-attended concerts, he’s been rockin’ his cowboy hat and sideburns. Ayup.

They arrive in the small town of Tressock, invited by Sir Lachlan Morrison (McTavish) and his wife Lady Della (Leonard). The town has a festival coming up shortly and Beth expects to be performing, although she would never guess how she’s intended to perform.

This is a failure on so many levels. although it at least has more restrained acting performances. Like the 2006 Wicker Man there is a plot that meanders from place to place, stopping to view different scenes which end up being apropos to nothing. They even trot out poor old Christopher Lee for a cameo with some of the most horrible green screen you will ever see on a professional production. I mean c’mon, the guy’s old not daft.

Weeks plays Lolly, a very sexy lady who sleeps with all sorts of people including the frustrated Steve who is tired of waiting for the virtuous Beth to commit to a physical and emotional relationship as well as the spiritual one. Beth, whose history had some sordid sexy music videos (by her standards) though is in no hurry to change things up, particularly while she’s on this mission. Weeks, much more than the somewhat stiff Nicol, is something of a force of nature here and makes the deepest impression of any actor in the movie.

One of the things that made the original Wicker Man so outstanding was the atmosphere that it created that looked bucolic on the surface but from the get go you just felt something wasn’t quite right. You can tell that Hardy went for that feeling again but perhaps it was lightning in a bottle the first time because instead of that just off feeling, you get a sense of a village inhabited by nuts and oddballs being visited by a couple of wing nuts. What makes this especially heinous is that they had the perfect opportunity to make some sort of insight into the religious obsession of Americans but instead boiled it down to caricatures and recycled stereotypes. Absolutely there is plenty of target space on the religious right but I would have expected at least a little bit of a different perspective, particularly from someone whose most famous work examines the difference between Christianity and paganism. Although it might well be said that his view of paganism was a lot more violent and spooky than it actually is. Then again, that would have made for a more boring film.

Self-arguments aside, this is a disappointing work that never comes close to achieving what the original Wicker Man did. What Hardy intended remains unclear, whether to remake his most famous work or update it or merely reference it here but at the end of the day this comes off as a wicker mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Weeks is appropriately sexy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A hot mess. Incoherent script. Lacks atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee was originally supposed to play the pivotal role of Sir Lachlan Morrison but was injured while filming The Resident. McTavish, who was originally supposed to play Beame, was then switched to the role of Sir Lachlan and Joan Collins, who was originally playing Lady Morrison was replaced by Leonard whose age was closer to the much younger McTavish than Collins.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Baby Mama

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration