The Girl Who Played With Fire
The second installment in the filmic adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson's large-scale crime trilogy "Millennium" pales in comparison to "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." The compelling Noomi Rapace returns as the series' bisexual, goth girl, computer hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth has taken the money she appropriated at the end of the first story to see the world and purchase a chic apartment in Stockholm. Lisbeth's court-appointed guardian, who raped Lisbeth at great personal expense when Lisbeth took revenge in the first installment, turns up dead shortly after she pays him a visit. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive from the law after learning that she is the primary suspect.
Meanwhile, two romantically attached journalists working on a sex-trafficking story for Lisbeth's journalist/publisher pal Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), also turn up murdered. Once again, fingerprints at the scene of the crime point to Lisbeth as the shooter. Convinced of her innocence, Blomkvist initiates his own investigation into the upper echelons of Swedish society implicated in the sex trafficking cover-up. The trouble with the story is that the mystery isn't as compelling as that of the first installment, and the story is back-loaded to a fault. We wait impatiently for Lisbeth and Blomkvist to unite and work together as they did in the first film, but the moment never arrives. As with this year's "Red Riding Trilogy," the "Millennium" triad proves a problematic format for sustaining thematic energy and emotional truth.
Rated R. 128 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
OSS 117: Lost in Rio
Boosting its rejuvenation of the '60s French spy spoof franchise, this sequel to "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies" (2006) walks a fine line of politically incorrect comedy that grabs sporadic laughs before the gags hit the floor. Based on a plethora of Cold War spy novels by Jean Bruce, comedian Jean Dujardin returns as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (a.k.a. agent OSS 117), a borderline racist and misogynist with a permanent grin and a pistol that never needs reloading. With his slicked back hair and the unfortunate codename Noel Flantier, OSS 117 travels to Rio de Janeiro circa 1967 in order to extract a piece of microfilm with the names of World War II French collaborators from Von Zimmel, a former Nazi who has set up a secret fascist group in Brazil. Pursued by Chinese mafiosos wherever he goes, our nattily dressed spy is assigned a red-headed assistant from the Israeli secret service named Dolores (Louise Monot) who challenges his ideas of modern femininity. Drawing on stylistic influences from early James Bond films as well as movies such as "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "North By Northwest," "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" is visually appealing enough to carry the bumpy comedy across the film's frequent lulls. This type of parody is an acquired taste, but you can get hooked on it while you're watching it.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
It's perfectly plausible that you might never want to visit Belgium after seeing Felix van Groeningen's offensive '80s tale of familial dysfunction. The Strobbes are an impoverished family of beer-swilling, chain-smoking dumb-asses who barely look after their youngest member, a 13-year-old boy named Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden) who grows up to become a novelist. The band of profanity spewing brothers love Roy Orbison, naked bicycle races, and participating in near-lethal beer drinking competitions. Things get especially nasty when a subplot with an underage girl takes hold. Based on Dimitri Verhulst's semi-autobiographical novel, "The Misfortunates" is a movie that makes you wonder why Darwinism doesn't seem to apply to the extremely mean or ignorant. One thing's certain, you will be forced to wallow in grotesque misery if you choose to waste your money on this disgusting piece of cinematic irresponsibility.
Not Rated. 108 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Unrelentingly intense from start to finish, Jacques Audiard's bold examination of the modern-day French prison system hinges on its central character's transformation from an ignorant submissive criminal into an intelligent dominant force. For much of the story impressive newcomer Tahar Rahim plays petty Arab criminal Malik El Djebena with such thin-skinned transparency that it's agonizing to watch. Malik embarks on a six-year prison sentence for an unspecified crime in a penitentiary where its kill-or-be-killed philosophy is foisted upon him by Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the ruthless leader of the jail's Corsican mafia population. Cesar assigns Malik to murder a fellow prisoner named Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Once the terrible deed is done Malik is haunted by Reyeb's ghost, but enjoys the protection of Cesar's gang and becomes part of the group as Cesar's personal assistant. Malik enters into a twisted kind of apprenticeship with Cesar who viciously punishes him as a way of developing his character. On his own, Malik learns to read and to speak the languages of the multi-ethnic nationalities around him--a skill that eventually earns him the privilege of running day errands outside the jail for Cesar. As a French contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, "A Prophet" is a most worthy contender.
Rated R. 149 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
The White Ribbon
Winner of the Palme d'Or, director Michael Haneke's masterful drama about the origins of fascism unfolds in a rural German village in 1914 and leads up to World War I. A local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) comes to believe that a rash of accidents, some deadly, may be the work of one or more of his eerily withdrawn pupils. Over the story, the teacher gradually hones in on the source of the violence that disrupts the town's placid Protestant surface. Shot in austere black-and-white and featuring a sprawling cast of characters reminiscent of a 19th century novel, "The White Ribbon" marks Haneke's most ambitious and unsettling investigation yet into the evils transmitted from parents to children. The ribbon of the title is a Lutheran symbol of innocence and purity the pastor makes his two oldest children wear as a constant reminder of their moral obligations. Haneke packs the film with suspense but methodically transfers the onus of responsibility for its thematic source to the audience, as he does with all of his films. Michael Haneke is one of modern cinema's most effective provocateurs. Alongside filmmakers like Lars von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Haneke displaces narrative conventions to awaken the unconscious. There are no answers in Haneke's cinema, only questions--very big questions.
Rated R. 144 mins. (A-) (Four Stars)
Pedro Almodovar does an end-run around his own checkered career with an oddly constructed but nevertheless stylish genre blender colored with self-referential narrative splashes that fail to create a sufficiently clear vision. Famous for finding his stories and developing them as he works, Almodovar only half-articulates this film's idea's about passion, fidelity, jealousy, and the filmmaking process. Lluis Homar plays director-turned-screenwriter Harry Caine--formerly "Mateo Blanco," before a car crash that has robbed him of his vision while dating an actress (Penelope Cruz) behind her director-boyfriend's back. Almodovar takes liberties by setting Cruz's character Lena in "Chicks and Suitcases," a film-within-the-film loosely drawn from his 1988 "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." During these over-prioritized scenes of situation comedy the audience is left to ponder the ineffectiveness of the film's thematic emphasis on the significance of editing. There might very well have been a good movie lurking between Almodovar's final cut and the cutting-room floor, but what we see here is a flawed sampler of comedy, noir, melodrama, and luscious compositions.
Rated R. 128 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)
Death in the Garden (Classic Film Pick)
Luis Bunuel's rarely seen "Death in the Garden" (1955) is a survivalist suspense film with a subtle dose of political and religious commentary. Arriving two years on the heels of Henri-Georges Clouzot's similarly themed "Wages of Fear," Bunuel even recasts Charles Vanel in a role not far removed from the doomed character he played in Clouzot's masterpiece. The story announces its leftist stance when a group of diamond miners in an unnamed South American country have their operation shut down by the local military, acting in concert with corporate and religious machinations. Vanel plays Castin, an aging miner whose presence during a bloody battle with soldiers puts a $5000 price on his head. Castin's situation is all the more dire because he needs to care for his mute daughter Maria (Michele Girardon). With the help of Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli) and Djin (Simone Signoret), an opportunist prostitute, Castin and Maria escape onto a boat in the middle of the night, only to be joined by a dastardly roustabout named Shark (Georges Marchal) who also has a reward attached to his body. With their would-be captors in hot pursuit, the group go ashore into a thick jungle where their personal agendas clash with Mother nature. It's clear that a rushed shooting schedule cost the film some crucial scenes that would have spelled out a key character's collapse into insanity. Still, Bunuel manages to squeeze in an especially apt surreal metaphor involving a snake, and goes one better with the broken phallic symbol of a crashed airplane as a symbol of capitalism's corrupt value system.
Chilean director and co-writer Sebastian Silva creates an elegant observation of class distinctions between a repressed maid named Raquel (wonderfully played by Catalina Saavedra) and the upper class Valdez Chilean family for whom she works. The film begins with the Valdez family celebrating Raquel's 41st birthday around the dinner table at their home where Raquel occupies a small room. Rachel suffers from fainting spells that cause the family to hire an additional maid. The hiring process does implodes with Rachel going out of her way to scare off what she sees as competition for her job. But when spry free-thinker Lucy (Mariana Loyola) takes up the position, she treats Raquel with a respect that enables Raquel to transform into a happier person. Here is a profound story of a woman who breaks out of a social cage that she maintained as much as her perceived masters.
Not Rated. 96 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)
Rated R. 130 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
The Headless Woman
If you've ever watched a foreign film where you fought off sleep, waiting for the story to kick in, only to discover at the end that the filmmaker didn't bother to put that part in, then you've got a pretty good idea of the kind of boredom you're in for with "The Headless Woman." Writer/director Lucrecia Martel ("The Holy Girl") follows around Argentinean matriarch Vero (played lifelessly by Maria Onetto) who runs over something that may be a dog or a person, with her car, before leaving the scene of the crime without bothering to get out and assist the unseen animal or person she thoughtlessly murdered. Vero wonders around the story in a daze, committing adultery and changing the color of her hair in the midst of telling her protective husband and lover about her "accident." Vero's sense of guilt should be felt much stronger by Lucrecia Martel for making an unconvincing soft soap drama that is less entertaining than watching paint dry. "The Headless Woman" might have gained unworthy praise at film festivals, but it isn't worthy of market approval.
Not Rated. 87 mins. (D)
The adultery that 67-year-old Inge (Ursula Werner) commits against her loyal husband Werner (Horst Rehlberg) of 30 years proves physically satisfying but emotionally devastating in Andreas Dresen's incomplete minimalist drama that features soft-core geriatric sex as its main selling point. Wrapped up in Dresen's muted theme of late-blooming narcissism from a female perspective is Inge's unexplained decision to trash her marriage to an intelligent and caring man with whom she shares an active sex life. As a work-at-home seamstress, Inge meets 76-year-old Karl (Horst Westphal) when she fixes his trousers, and chooses to hand deliver them in the interest of seducing him. Inge battles with guilt and self doubt but chooses to pursue the affair with a man who seems to offer little other than sexual pleasure to a woman suffering from a kind of late life crisis. Unrelated to its misleading title of imaginary bliss is an overriding theme about old age offering no surefire recipe for wisdom, or even for much common sense. How's that for depressing?
Not Rated. 98 mins. (D+) (One Star)
Unlike Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Three Monkeys"), who evokes an existential element in his fascinating approach to cinema, fellow Turkish filmmaker Abdullah Oguz takes a hackneyed approach to his subject in a film based on Zulfu Livaneli's 2002 novel. In a remote Anatolian village, a young woman named Meryem (Ozgu Namal) has brought dishonor upon her family by being raped. Meryem's own mother supplies her with a rope with which to kill herself. However, in her darkest hour, Meryem rebels against committing suicide as local custom dictates, and is sent off by her uncle Ali Riza (Mustafa Avkiran) to be killed by his son Cemal (Murat Han), who has recently returned from the army. Unable to carry out his murderous assignment, Cemal takes Meryem to work in a small fishery before meeting up with Irfan (Talat Bulut), a kind-hearted, white haired, retired professor in need of help with his humble but well appointed yacht. Irfan's worldly knowledge clashes with Cemal's ignorant provincial views that harbor contempt for modern Turkish society. Violence brews as the story vainly attempts to reconcile an untenable relationship between Meryem and her misogynistic cousin. Unrelated to its misleading title, "Bliss" is anything but.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
Salo (Classic Film Pick)
Pier Palo Pasolini's last film was the most ambitious of his career, and the most misunderstood. Still banned in several countries, "Salo" (1975) is a haunting journey into the depths of hell on earth, loosely stewarded by the literary underpinnings of the Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom." Pasolini also incorporates the three descending levels of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" as a structural device. Shockingly graphic, and yet formally composed, "Salo" is a fascinating film that employs the full arsenal of Pasolini's polemic and satiric tools, used toward a poetic commentary on fascism (disguised as consumerist capitalism). The story's crimes-against-humanity are enforced by a complicit group of wealthy bourgeoisie dignitaries.
It is a film that expands in meaning over the passing years since its creation to encompass every degree of political and military corruption that history has acutely fulfilled--most recently, at the time of this writing, in the atrocious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Pasolini set the story in his Italian hometown of Salo, where his brother was killed during WWII, and where Pasolini himself was once arrested by Nazi soldiers. Four Mussolini fascist libertines prepare for their certain demise before the end of the war by kidnapping nine boys and nine girls, for the purpose of living out their most outlandish sexual fantasies within the confines of a private villa. The men employ the assistance of four experienced courtesans to fire their debauched imaginations with ribald parlor stories that inform the humiliating and brutal sex acts that they execute upon their naked nubile prisoners. Dramatically feral and artistically fertile, "Salo" is a rigorous movie that dares to use the metaphor of torture as a device of utter physical and psychological annihilation for both the victim and the torturer. It is significant that such an intellectual filmmaker could so dynamically condense thick layers of social commentary into an artistically skeletal form that is so perfectly transparent upon reflection. There is nothing exploitative about "Salo." It is a film that demands to be studied with the same degree of scrutiny that corporate, religious, and governmental industries should be subjected to for enslaving the planet. This is work, and not play.
Pixote (Classic Film Pick)
Long before Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund made "City of God" in 2002, about Rio de Janeiro's youth-centric atmosphere of organized crime, director Hector Babenco set the bar for such explosive cinema with his brilliant 1981 film "Pixote." The film's full title , "Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco" translates as "Pixote: The Law of the Weakest," and was based on José Louzeiro's book "A infância dos mortos" ("The Childhood of the Dead Ones") in a screenplay adaptation by Babenco and his script collaborator Jorge Duran, about a young boy named Pixote (pronounced Pee-jo-che). Fernando Ramos Da Silva was the expressive young non-actor chosen to play his life as a ghetto child for Babenco's evocative subjective camera. The boy is sent to a cruel juvenile reformatory where he sniffs glue and learns the ways of prison survival that inform his life after he and two of his friends escape the jail. Pixote desperately seeks the attention a mother figure even as he falls deeper into an inevitable vortex of crime and violence. "Pixote" is Hector Babenco's masterwork. The film is a distressed and powerful cry for social change in a Brazilian society that feeds on its on children. It is a deeply affecting and haunting film that penetrates the skin of its viewer through the personal commitment to its subject that comes through in every frame. That Fernandos Ramos Da Silva was eventually murdered at 19 by police in Sao Paulo only emphasizes the sad fate of so many more Brazilian children just like him. "Pixote" is an amazing cinematic social document made with fury and passion by an uncompromising director. There has never been another film that approaches its depiction of Brazil's condemned youth, not even "City of God."
The Stoning of Soraya M.
In fulfilling its blatantly exploitative title, director Cyrus Nowrasteh crafts a prosaic telling of the brutal 1986 murder of an Iranian family woman, as orchestrated by her own husband in the interest of avoiding divorce payments and running off with a teenaged girl. Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Zahra, the caring aunt to Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a wife and mother to four children. Zahra catches the attention of Sahebjam (well played by Jim Caviezel), a French-Iranian journalist passing through her dusty village on the day after the public stoning of Soraya by nearly every friend, neighbor, and family member. Zahra retells the events into Sahebjam's tape recorder as the film switches to flashbacks leading up to, and including, the promised sequence wherein Soraya is buried up to her waist and stoned to death like a bad animal. Based on Freidoune Sahebjam's best-selling book, "The Stoning of Soraya M." overreaches with maudlin slow-motion shots to dramatize the gruesome violence of the terrible event to ostensibly bring global attention to the primitive practice of honor killings in the Middle East. But there is something condescending and shoddy in the filmmaker's subtext that seems to exonerate Western culture as somehow less complicit in the atrocious murders that it commits against innocent and guilty citizens alike. With American police beating, tasing, and shooting women, children, and men to death every week, the film could have been made with a more honest approach, as a more inclusive indictment of any form of capital punishment and authority-endorsed violence. The disjointed shift from a flat soap opera approach to a slo-mo ballet of violence announces the film's unjustifiable grab for shock value and backfires as a fetishized celebration of the violent act that the title predicts. Here is an example of on-the-nose exploitation filmmaking at its most unsophisticated level. Anyone with a BS detector will know it when you see it. It's one thing to illustrate social injustice, and quite a different thing to reward it.
Rated R. 116 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)
The Girl From Monaco
A clever genre-blender from Anne Fontaine, "The Girl From Monaco" is a romantic satire that achieves a delicate balance of motivation and risk reward or punishment on the social stage of its French Riviera town. Fabrice Luchini is Bertrand Beauvois, a nearly over-the-hill French attorney soaking up Monaco's local atmosphere while defending Edith Lasalle (played by Stephane Audran), a wealthy murderess in a high profile trial. Bertrand is surprised to find that his client's son has hired bodyguard Christophe (played by Roschdy Zem), to protect him from any outside interference during the trial. But it's when a sexy local television weather girl named Audrey (played by Louise Bourgoin) insinuates herself into Bertrand's otherwise well-ordered world that clouds of jealousy and pending doom creep across the sunny Monaco skies. Bertrand finds out the hard way about Christophe and Audrey, two lower class Monaco residents attempting to fast-track their way into the town's impossibly rich milieu. This is a shrewd film that maintains a subtle layer of suspense before releasing its narrative trap.
Rated R. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne craft an evocative story about Lorna, a young Albanian woman (played flawlessly in the 2008 Cannes festival’s most impressive break-out performance by Kosovo-born Arta Dobroshi) in cahoots with Fabio, a Belgian mobster, to make money so she can open a snack bar with her boyfriend. Lorna suffers through a fraud marriage to Claudy (well played by Jeremie Renier), a loser junkie that Fabio plans to kill in order to put Lorna in another sham marriage, this time to a rich Russian. If the plot sounds convoluted, it doesn’t impede an inevitable flood of surprising physical and emotional responses from the poker-faced Lorna. This is one powerful film that stays with you.
Rated R. 95 mins. (A-) (Four Stars)
Winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Picture, "Departures" is director Yojiro Takita's emotionally rich story about Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki), a world-class cellist who moves with his wife to his northern Japanese hometown when the symphony he plays for goes bankrupt. Intent on finding quick employment Daigo takes an unconventional job in "departures," in which he assists with a regional mourning practice called "encoffinments," wherein a body is discreetly cleaned, groomed, and casketed for cremation in a stylized ceremony before the family of the deceased. Daigo keeps his new occupation a secret from his wife for as long as possible, until the inevitable revelation threatens to undo the couple's marriage. "Departures" is a brilliantly written and performed story that transcends its themes of ritualized catharsis to bring the audience to a fresh understanding of man's need to make peace with the deceased.
(Regent Releasing) Rated PG-13. 131 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
Odd Horten (well played by Bard Owe) is a retiring 67-year-old Oslo train conductor whose consciousness expands over a couple of days in Brent Hamer's ("Factotum") fascinating seriocomic character study. Pragmatic and self-effacing, Horton is a lonely bachelor whose high regard for the ritual and regimentation of his job has made him respected among his peers, but has also prevented him from exploring the world he has viewed only from inside his speeding train. With his leather jacket and ever-present pipe, Odd is a kind old soul finally finding his emotional footing. A visit to his decrepit mother reminds him that he still has some youthfulness inside him, and informs his personal journey. "O'Horten" is a potent and unpretentious movie full of simple joy.
Rated PG-13. 89 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
Three Monkeys ("Uc Maymun")
On first sight a strong contender for the Palme d’Or, Turkish director/co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ("Les Climats") film is about a father, mother, and son caught in a web of corruption, betrayal, and murder makes thoughtful use of its see no, hear no, speak no evil, metaphor. Troubles begin when Servet (Ercan Kesal) an ambitious politician kills a pedestrian at night with his car and bribes his regular driver Eyup (played by popular Turkish folk singer Yavuz Bingol) to take responsibility and serve the nine-month jail sentence that comes with it. Eyup’s lazy teenage son Ismael (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) talks his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) into requesting an advance on the bribe from Servet, and the family spirals down a self-perpetrating path of depravity. This sparsely-told story speaks volumes with a cinematic poetry that you would expect to find in Cannes. Not Rated. 109 mins. (A)
On first sight a strong contender for the Palme d’Or, Turkish director/co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ("Les Climats") film is about a father, mother, and son caught in a web of corruption, betrayal, and murder makes thoughtful use of its see no, hear no, speak no evil, metaphor. Troubles begin when Servet (Ercan Kesal) an ambitious politician kills a pedestrian at night with his car and bribes his regular driver Eyup (played by popular Turkish folk singer Yavuz Bingol) to take responsibility and serve the nine-month jail sentence that comes with it. Eyup’s lazy teenage son Ismael (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) talks his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) into requesting an advance on the bribe from Servet, and the family spirals down a self-perpetrating path of depravity. This sparsely-told story speaks volumes with a cinematic poetry that you would expect to find in Cannes.
Not Rated. 109 mins. (A)
Il Divo (2008 Cannes Film Festival)
Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008, Il Divo is writer/director Paolo Sorrentino's highly stylized satire of Italy's culture of political corruption that takes an insidious form beneath the stoic poker face of Italy's seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (played by Toni Servillo). At once hyperbolic and incredibly restrained, the narrative follows closely the day-to-day habits of a wicked politician who glides through the marbled corridors of power as if he were a ghost whose diabolical deeds are at all times invisible. Sorrentino's ever-moving camera captures the story's politically-charged violence and murders, overseen at a distance by Andreotti, with an air of cinematic verve that is electrifying. As a primer to modern Italian politics, "Il Divo" is like touring the subject in a candy-apple-red Ferrari. You might not learn much, but you will remember the experience.
Not Rated. 110 Mins. (B) (Three Stars)