Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

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Audrie & Daisy


Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Daisy Coleman, Amanda Le, Delaney Henderson, Darren White, Paige Parkhurst, Charlie Coleman, Melinda Coleman, Jim Fall, Audrie Pott. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

 

There is no doubt that women have a lot to be upset about when it comes to the way they are treated compared to men, especially in matters of sex and rape. Many people were outraged at the way Stanford swimming champion Brock Turner was given a pass after brutally raping a nearly unconscious woman after a party. It turns out that’s just typical.

Daisy Coleman and Audrie Pott have very similar stories to tell. Both were young girls in high school; Daisy a 14-year-old freshman in Maryville, Missouri and Audrie a 15-year-old sophomore in Saratoga, California. Both girls went to a party and had too much to drink. Both were with friends that they trusted. In Audrie’s case, she was stripped and had all sorts of things written on her body with indelible markers, things of a sexual nature. Pictures were taken and video also taken of her being violated by two of her so-called friends. The next day her schoolmates had seen the evidence of what happened and rather than feel sympathy towards her they isolated her and shamed her, calling her a slut and that she had “asked for it.”

For high school students, their world is both large and small; large as the entire Internet, small as the crowd they hang out with at school. Reputation is everything and when that reputation is sullied the effects can be devastating. You can try to explain to someone victimized in that fashion that it is something that will not stay with them forever, that they will eventually move on to other places who won’t know what happened to them but teenage life is very much in the here and now. Audrie felt that her life was over and that she would be labeled a slut forever. She was not the kind of girl who wore provocative clothes or came on to guys; she was in fact fairly conservative from a sexual standpoint. All of that was beside the point however and she knew it; the perception of her had changed in her immediate circle and it broke her. She hung herself eight days after the events of her assault.

Daisy, who at 14 was a cheerleader and a dancer,  and her friend Paige were already inebriated at home when a friend of her brother Charlie’s texted her and asked if she and Paige wanted to hang out with them and chill. Charlie was already in bed, having celebrated a wrestling tournament win. Daisy agreed to go and almost immediately upon their arrival, the two girls were separated and then raped by the boys who were there. They were then returned home and left in the snow where Daisy’s mother found them.

Daisy was barely conscious and it was only when her mom put her in a warm tub that she realized that there were bruises near her genitalia. She brought her daughter to the ER where a rape kit confirmed she had been sexually assaulted. Both Charlie and Daisy were ostracized and rendered pariahs; the three boys at the party who had assaulted Daisy and Paige were football heroes. The town was divided, but most of the sympathy went not to the girls who had been raped but to the boys who had raped them. The girls were accused of making up the incident, that the sex was consensual which is absolutely outrageous; first of all there was physical evidence of rape. Secondly, they were both well over the legal limit that constitutes inebriation. There was no way they could have given consent to anything.

The physical assaults may have ended that night but the assaults continued on social media, especially towards Daisy who wanted to see justice done to those who had violated her. The town sheriff to the astonishment of most victim advocacy groups dropped all charges, explaining how he didn’t want to ruin the lives of the boys involved, conveniently neglecting that the girls who they had assaulted already had their lives negatively impacted for the rest of their lives. Personally I think any sheriff who doesn’t understand the consequences of rape to the victim should be recalled.

See, my blood is boiling again; as a critic, I should be talking about the documentary, how it gets its point across and the quality of the filmmaking and I promise I’ll get to that. However, I think that the movie is a devastating illustration of the attitudes towards rape that our prevalent in our society; how justice for rape victims is a rare thing, how social media is used to further punish those who undergo traumatic events and how those who stand up against their attackers will be targeted for hate; in the case of the Coleman family, their house was burned to the ground by those who supported the boys who hurt their daughter.

There are some flaws with the film; as important as both of the stories of Audrie and Daisy are, the filmmakers don’t link them well. They alternate the telling of them in an almost arbitrary fashion and as a result the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it could which robs the stories of their impact to a small extent.

Still, I believe that every high school in the country should show this movie to their student body every year without exception. It stands as a chilling reminder to young girls that even friends can turn on them and rape them, and that if they choose to drink they need to make sure that they are with someone who will stay sober and watch over them. Women shouldn’t have to take precautions like that but until attitudes change, it’s the prudent thing to do.

Men should also learn how devastating sexual assault is to the one assaulted; they should learn to respect women and appreciate them rather than treat them as objects who are there for their pleasure. There is an important message here that needs to be seen. In fact, it isn’t only high school students who should be watching Audrie & Daisy; their parents should as well. The leaders of communities where there are high schools. Law enforcement members in those communities. Basically, everyone.

REASONS TO GO: The film examines rape culture with clear eyes. The stories of Audrie and Daisy are heartbreaking and all too common. The rift between how young boys and girls are treated is starkly illustrated.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of Audrie and Daisy are told alternately without any sort of narrative flow, robbing them of their effectiveness somewhat.
FAMILY VALUES: Very adult issues, vivid descriptions of sexual assaults, some sexuality and language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The directors are a husband-wife team whose previous film, The Island President, tackled climate change.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: UFO – It is Here

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove)


Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

(2015) Dramedy (Music Box) Rolf Lassgärd, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Ida Engvoll, Börje Lundberg, Chatarina Larsson, Holger Hastén, Ola Hedén, Stefan Gödicke, Sofie Gallerspáng, Filip Berg, Zozan Akgun, Viktor Baagøe, Simon Edenroth, Anna-Lena Bergelin, Poyan Karimi, Nelly Jamarani, Simeon Lindgren, Maja Rung, Jessica Olsson Directed by Hannes Holm

 

As we make our way through life, we are sometimes fortunate enough to find that perfect someone, someone who compliments us and completes us. That person makes our life so much more satisfying; we share all our highs and lows with that person. We can’t imagine life without them. When that person is taken from us too soon, we feel an emptiness that can never be filled, like a part of us is missing never to return. It is understandable that when that happens our thoughts turn to leaving this life.

Ove (Lassgärd) is 59 years old and six months a widower. A crotchety, grumpy sort, he lives in a quiet development in Sweden where the homeowners association – once headed by Ove himself – has forbidden driving on the streets of the development, and requires gates to be closed, dogs to be leashed and bikes to be properly stored. Ove makes daily rounds to make sure these rules are adhered to, although they rarely are it seems. He has worked for the train authority for 43 years, starting out by cleaning the trains when he’s 16 years old. Now, his job is being automated and he’s being put out to pasture.

He’s ready to end it all and join his wife Sonja (Engvoll) in the hereafter. However his attempts to take his own life are continuously interrupted, particularly by Parvaneh (Pars), the Iranian-born (and very pregnant) wife of Patrik (Almborg) who is Swedish. The couple has just moved in across the street with their adorable but noisy children which irritates Ove no end. To make matters worse, Patrik is hopeless around the house so Parvaneh turns to Ove to help, borrowing a ladder (which Patrik promptly falls off from, requiring a hospital trip that rescues Ove from yet another suicide attempt) and eventually asking him to help her get her driver’s license. The two begin to bond as friends in a kind of father-daughter way but still definitely friends. They enlist Ove to babysit and he begins to connect with the little ones.

We see Ove and his relationship with Sonja in a series of flashbacks that are cleverly disguised as his life passing before his eyes during his various suicide attempts. Eventually he begins to respond to those around him, adopting a cat he’d been trying to chase away – while we discover what it was that made him so bitter in the first place.

Part of why this works – a significant part – is the performance of Lassgärd which is quite special. The cranky old man is a global cinematic trope which extends back to the silent days, but Lassgärd imbues Ove with a dignity that makes him larger than life, but at the same time allows his humanity to show sometimes unexpectedly. It is the latter bit that makes Ove real and relatable; he has been through some real tribulation and through it all he had Sonja by his side to bring out the angels of his better nature, but with her gone he has fallen into despair and loneliness. He knows what other think of him and while he sloughs it off, deep down he hurts. Lassgärd brings that all out to the surface and makes Ove vulnerable and intimidating at once.

There’s a scene where Ove is dressed down by one of the dreaded “white shirts” – his code for bureaucratic bullies who have antagonized him all his life, going back to when he was a young man living in his late father’s home where he’d grown up and a council member who wanted the land his home stood on, condemned his house and allowed it to burn with all his possessions in it, ordering the fire brigade not to put it out. Had it have been me I’d have thrown the bastard into the house and say “I’ll bet he wants you to put it out now.”

The relationship between Ove and Parvaneh is also very natural and realistic. She’s sweet and caring and she doesn’t allow Ove to bully her. Of all the residents of the development, she seems to be the only one who sees past his gruff behavior and realizes that there’s a good man buried under all that. She hears him refer to nearly everyone else (particularly her husband) as “idiots,” which seems to be a fairly common epithet in Ove’s world. In my more curmudgeonly moments I can relate to the sentiment.

I can get why some may have difficulty with this movie; it is, after all, unashamedly manipulative. Some people really don’t like having their heartstrings tugged and I get that, but maybe I was just in the right place for it. I was truly moved by Ove and his life, and when the end of the movie came I was bawling like a cranky baby. Movies like this one used to be called “tear-jerkers” and they came by the epithet honestly.

Watching Ove’s life unspool over the course of the film is satisfying. Everything makes sense here and while some might feel that some of the tragedies are a little contrived, I thought that it was very much a highlight reel; we get a sense of the day to day but like most of us, the big events are what stick in the memory. There are some moments that are shocking and unexpected; life doesn’t always come at us from an angle we see clearly. Sometimes, we are taken by surprise.

This is definitely one of my favorite films so far this year. I know not everyone will agree with me but I found it cathartic and touching and real. When the tears came, they were come by honestly. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with Ove – it would be like hanging with a grouchy bear – but I really loved getting to know him and seeing his life. I don’t do this very often, but after seeing this on a press screener, I’ve made plans to go see it at the Enzian and bring more family along. It’s that good.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Lassgärd. A very poignant but sweet and sometimes stirring film. There are some unexpected incidents that make the film even more powerful. Very much a “slice of life.”
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that are disturbing as well as a few brief instances of mild profanity and a couple of instances of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the official Swedish submission to the next Academy Awards Foreign Language film competition in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies

Vampires


Vampires

Don't you just hate getting lipstick smeared all over your face when you kiss? Wait a minute that's not lipstick...

(2010) Mockumentary (IFC Midnight) Carlo Ferrante, Vera Van Dooren, Pierre Lognay, Fleur Lise Heuet, Paul Ahmarani, Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld, Julien Dore, Batiste Sornin, Thomas Coumans. Directed by Vincent Lannoo

If vampires are to survive in the world they must by necessity keep well-hidden. For one thing, people would panic if they knew there were superior predators living amongst us, indistinguishable from our neighbors. For another, the panic would lead to genocide as humans have a vast numerical superiority; no, vampires benefit from secrecy.

Which makes a documentary about their society all the more puzzling. After several aborted attempts (when camera crews got invited into vampire enclaves and ended up being the main course), a film crew finally got placed with a vampire family in Brussels.

Vampire families are a bit different than humans. For one thing, they can’t procreate sexually (although they have plenty of sex). Children are brought into a vampire family by turning young people into vampires. However, vampires don’t age once they are turned so turning children is frowned upon – instead it is usually teens and youngsters who are turned.

This particular family’s patriarch is Georges (Ferrante), an old school bloodsucker who is a bit spineless in a lot of ways. He adheres strictly to the code of conduct set for vampires going back centuries from the first vampires. His wife Bertha (Van Dooren) is a bit more bloodthirsty but she’s a bit of a hausfrau as well. She and Georges make a good match.

Their kids are a bit of a problem. Grace (Heuet) is tired of her immortality and wants to be a normal human, going so far as attempting to kill herself on a regular basis. Since vampires can’t be killed by ordinary beings, the attempts are pretty laughable but still she perseveres – you have to admire her tenacity. Samson (Lognay) is, like many men his age, the libido of a 16-year-old. Of course, he’s considerably older – he’s 55 but he looks like he’s in his mid-20s. That leads him to a transgression that threatens the family’s stability.

Of course, vampires don’t really exist but that doesn’t mean they don’t make for an entertaining mockumentary. Belgian cinema hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but good films in a similar vein have come from that country before – see Man Bites Dog – and this one works very nicely. There is a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor here that is occasionally unexpected, hitting you like a ton of bricks. For example, the vampires have human secretaries who take care of their daylight needs and occasionally serve as an alternate food source in case of an emergency – these are normally vampire fetishists who long to be immortal and hope to be rewarded eventually.

Their food supply are mostly immigrants and runaways – people who won’t be missed and who are kept in a pen out in the backyard. In all other respects however this is a normal suburban family with all the problems and issues that beset most modern families. Making that modern family vampiric adds an extra dimension and adds to the humor but it also allows the filmmakers to comment on those very issues without pointing the finger at society in general or suburbanites in particular.

I was rather surprised by this movie in that it I hadn’t heard virtually anything about it. So far as I know it got no US theatrical release and has mostly played the festival circuit in Europe. I caught it on the Sundance Channel here and so this might be rather hard to hunt down but it is definitely worth it, particularly those who love vampires and don’t mind poking gentle fun of themselves and vampires in general – and suburbanites. Definitely them.

WHY RENT THIS: Tongue-in-cheek funny. Nice idea and well-executed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some bad words and some depictions of bloodletting and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honestly? Couldn’t find any.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Animal Kingdom