Category: Foreign Thrillers


FunnyGames1

In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

FunnyGames2

Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

FunnyGames3

Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

FunnyGames4

Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

Advertisements

Oldboy1

(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie on Saturday with my dad. I knew their was an English-language remake coming out directed by Spike Lee but for some reason, I thought it was coming out next year, not today. So, this review’s timing is strictly coincidental.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s crowning magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, a high-ranking Allied officer during WWII consumes the fresh feces of a BDSM psychic (and possible German double agent), the rakish hero participates in a graphic orgy and is subsequently given fellatio by a minor, and a German rocket scientist may or may not be having violent sex with his long-lost daughter. 1998’s practically perfect minus one-subplot Todd Solondz feature, Happiness, turns a child molester into a sympathetic creature without shying away from the terrible things he does and one of its heroes jerks off while making angry phone calls to random women.

I bring up these works of transgressive fiction because, in a world where Gravity’s Rainbow or Happiness exist, it’s hard to shock me anymore or to truly get under my skin.  The only movie I’ve watched recently that truly unnerved me from a thematic standpoint was the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me because of the incestual rape content. So, perhaps it’s appropriate then that 2003’s cult classic Oldboy found its way into my viewing rotation as it is without question one of the most disturbing and unflinching films I’ve watched in recent memory.

Oldboy2

Oldboy has been heralded as one of the finest exports of Korea’s burgeoning film market and director Chan-wook Park is certainly one of its wunderkinds, but despite Oldboy‘s undeniable ability to get under my skin, it isn’t quite the masterpiece that many believe it to be. Similar to the more recent cult classic Drive, there’s a certain hollowness to the masterful style on display (and a muddled plot that operates on a fuzzy dream logic). And though the film has something to say about the emptiness of revenge, it goes to cartoonish lengths to make a point.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is nobody special. Though he’s a bit of a drunk and a ladies’ man, there’s little else to set this married man and father apart from the crowd. But, after a night of heavy drinking, Dae-su is kidnapped off the streets of Seoul to begin a hell that lasts 15 years. Dae-su’s unknown captors place him in a locked room with nothing but a TV and occasional meals to keep him company, and Dae-su is totally in the dark as to who’s doing this to him or why it’s happening. And, for 15 years, Dae-su stews in his own anger (and insanity) preparing himself to take revenge on those who’ve held him captive and have murdered his wife in the interim.

Oldboy3

But just as Dae-su is about to escape on his own, he’s released into the wilds of Seoul (through a giant briefcase on a high rise) with new clothes, a cellphone, cash, and no idea what he’s doing. And Dae-su vows to find the men who locked him up. However, not long after being released, Dae-su meets the beautiful and young Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), and the two share an instant (but severely disturbed) sexual connection. But there seems to be a link between Mi-do and the men who kept Dae-su locked away for so many years and the already frayed and bordering on insane Dae-su becomes even more torn as he has no idea who he can trust.

I won’t say any more about the plot of Oldboy because I imagine that going into this film for the first time knowing what’s going to happen would ruin much of the shock of the film’s climactic twist (which I predicted fairly early in the film because apparently I’m as fucked up in the head as this film’s screenwriters). So, let me simply say that if you find the first two acts of the film to be unbearably uncomfortable and brutal, just wait til you find out what’s really going on. I imagine any future viewings of this movie will take on an entirely new and even more unpleasant light.

Oldboy4

I really can’t stress enough that Oldboy is not for the faint of heart. For some reason, the only thing that I had absorbed about Oldboy before watching it for the first time was that it was a hyper-violent film (it is), and for some reason, that made me assume it was an action film (it most certainly isn’t). Oldboy is a mystery thriller that happens to also deal in gore at unfathomable levels. Clearly, Chan-wook Park is of the Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn school of film-making where stylistic beauty has to be matched by an equal amount of brutal carnage. Unfortunately, Park also lacks those premier stylists ability to make any thematic statements beyond the obvious surface.

Oldboy has much in common with another 2003 revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1 insofar as it is a cartoonish revenge fantasy though Oldboy happens to become a cartoonish deconstruction of the cartoonish revenge fantasy by film’s end. There are sequences in Oldboy that turn the old ultra-violence into something that would fit in on a PCP-infused episode of Looney Tunes. And while the film succeeds in making its point that revenge is ultimately a hollow pleasure, the movie doesn’t hammer its point home; it drops a ten-ton nuclear device and then firebombs the surrounding country side to make sure you got the message.

Oldboy5

Ultimately, Oldboy is a film for movie-lovers by movie-lovers where one has to be willing to subserve your need for a coherent or complex story to Chan-wook Park’s masterful direction and sense of visual flair. As gut-wrenchingly violent as it is, Oldboy is as well shot as the best Western films, and you can sense the giddy energy that went into the production of the film. So, if you appreciate the high-class “B” movies like Drive or Kill Bill, there’s no reason to skip Oldboy. Just know that you’re getting yourself involved in a brutal Korean take on Titus Andronicus and a certain Greek tragedy that I don’t want to name for fear of spoiling the film.

Final Score: B+

 

TheGirlWhoKickedTheHornetsNest1

After watching the somewhat disappointing second chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the film adaptations of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy a little less than two weeks ago, I found myself less than enthusiastic to take the time out of my schedule to sit down and watch the concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And that was a shame because after both the (inferior) Swedish version and the (superior) American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I considered myself a fan who wanted to know how this story played out. And though no one will really know how Stieg Larrson wanted the series to go (there were reportedly seven more books in the work before he died of a heart attack at 50), I can happily say that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a satisfying conclusion to the saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist even if this final entry featured too little Lisbeth.

One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so much (though I haven’t yet read the books; it’s on my to do list) is that Lisbeth Salander is easily one of the most interesting and well-drawn female heroines in the fictional market today. Take the bad-assery of Katniss Everdeen but then take away the shitty characterization (I love The Hunger Games series but Suzanne Collins is not a good writer) and you have a character half as cool as Lisbeth. Honestly, the only modern female characters I find as intriguing as Lisbeth are Peggy Olson from Mad Men and Buffy Summers from… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth’s contribution to the active resolution of the overall plot is nil at best, and it was somewhat disappointing to see such a fantastic character take a backseat for practically the entire film.

TheGirlWhoKickedTheHornetsNest2

This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of The Girl Who Played with Fire (I’ll try to keep the plot spoilers of this entry to a minimum) so if you haven’t seen that entry, you should probably stop reading now and come back later. After surviving being shot three times (once in the head) as part of an attempt to confront her father, ex-Soviet defector and criminal kingpin Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), hacker prodigy and general problem child Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is rescued from near death by left-wing journalist (and her former lover) Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). And although Lisbeth has been cleared of the murder of the two journalists that provided the tension in The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth finds herself in even hotter water as she is now accused with the attempted murder of her father after she nearly killed him with an axe (an act of self-defense).

Much like the last film, the conspiracy at the heart of the movie is propelled forward by a rogue faction of the Swedish government’s need to keep their ties with Alexander Zalachenko a secret. When Zalachenko defected, a corrupt faction of Sweden’s Security Services (which I imagine is functionally similar to the FBI or the CIA. But there was another government police organization in the film, the Constitutional Protection, so I don’t know what equivalency either organization has with American government), known as The Section, took him in, and they sucked off the largesse of his criminal activities for decades in repayment for his anti-Russian information. And as Lisbeth is being prosecuted by the government to keep the Section’s dirty little secrets quiet, it’s up to Mikael and the rest of the Millennium staff to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

ThegirlWhoKickedTheHornetsNest3

I’ve said this in my reviews of the two earlier entries in this franchise, but it should be said again that Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were both cast expertly in these roles. And though I slightly prefer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (she captures the vulnerable side of the character better than Rapace does), I pretty firmly believe that Michael Nyqvist commits to the role of Mikael Blomqvist better even than the excellent Daniel Craig. And that’s good because unlike the first two entries of the series (which are more Lisbeth heavy), most of the dramatic weight of this film falls on Nyqvist’s shoulders. And throughout the film, Blomqvist must decide if not only his safety is more important than uncovering the truth but also if the safety of his coworkers and lover is more important. And Michael Nyqvist again makes me wish I had seen more of his work in his native Sweden outside this franchise.

Lisbeth spends 75% of this film (if not more) either in a hospital, in prison, or on trial. The film centers around an investigation by Millennium magazine and eventually Constitutional Protection (which sounds like the ACLU but is apparently a police organization) to prove that Lisbeth is innocent of attempted murder and that there’s been a systematic attempt her entire life to keep her quiet and under control as well as to cover up the misdeeds of Alexander Zalachenko. But, sadly, with her life on the line, Lisbeth isn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way to her own defense. The only real plot contributions she makes in this film either occur at the very end of the movie and aren’t related to the main plot as well as something she did way back in the first film. It sucks to see such a bad-ass and resourceful heroine kept on the bench like that when the series clearly revolves around her.

TheGirlWhoKickedTheHornetsNest4

Thankfully then, the rest of the film was an enjoyable (if somewhat far-fetched) conspiracy thriller and the same type of journalism procedural that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (even if it doesn’t work on the same great level as other journalism procedurals like Zodiac). Stieg Larrson was a left-wing journalist in his native Sweden before becoming a writer, and he uses these books/movies as a mouthpiece for his views on the exploitation of women and the corruption of government. And as a fellow left-wing socialist, I respect Larrson’s dedication to his politics (even if I have quibbles here and there with his abilities as a storyteller). Having seen the entire series now, I’m once again excited to see this story make its way back to Hollywood and the capable hands of David Fincher. This ending left me satisfied.

Final Score: B

TheGirlWhoPlayedWithFire1

After much delay, I finally sat down to watch the second film in the Swedish cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I have not read the books though I have seen both the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the American adaptation directed by David Fincher. They both have their strengths though I thought David Fincher’s interpretation was clearly the best and Rooney Mara’s frighteningly intense turn as hacker prodigy/deeply troubled young adult Lisbeth Salander still ranks among the best female performances of this current decade. But, for reasons that I am unable to fully articulate I put off watching the first of the two sequels (apparently there were plans for six books but the author died before he could write the last three), and now, honestly, I can say I wish I had waited until the movie had shown up naturally on this list so I didn’t go out of my way to watch it.

That’s not to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire was a bad film. Far from it in fact. The aspects of the franchise that I find compelling remained intact. Lisbeth Salander is still an endlessly fascinating creation of feminist fury. Mikael Blomqvist is also the type of great journalistic character that hearkens back to All the President’s Men. And, as far as tales of shocking luridness go, the Millennium trilogy is hard to top. Add on the fact that this particular entry is much better directed than the original and The Girl Who Played with Fire should be even better than the first film. It isn’t. If both versions of the first book suffered from a rather cut-and-dry procedural crime investigation at their core, The Girl Who Played with Fire makes the look into the Vanger family seem like Sherlock Holmes. Full of gaping plot holes and inconsistent pacing, I am now pray that maybe Fincher and co. can wrest a great film out of this material.

TheGirlWhoPlayedWithFire2

After absconding with the bank account of the man that framed left-wing journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) at the beginning of the first film, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to her native Sweden when she discovers that the state psychiatrist that had raped her in the first film plans on removing the damning tattoo Lisbeth forced upon him as revenge for his act of sadism and brutality. At the same time, Mikael begins to assist a young journalist who has a story that implicates many high-ranking Swedish government officials in a sex-trafficking ring. And when that journalist and his girlfriend (who is doing doctoral work on sex trafficking) are murdered with a gun owned by the psychiatrist Lisbeth came back to threaten and then he also winds up dead, it’s not long before the police begin to suspect Lisbeth in the murders and it’s up to her and Mikael to clear her name.

As a procedural crime mystery, I obviously don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling anything that happens. But, I hope it’s not a spoiler if I say that the whole arc comes off as criminally disappointing in the end and I don’t mean that simply because the movie just sort of ends as it’s finally beginning to pick up the pace. The writing in this particular entry (and I almost suspect it’s partly the subtitles/translation because there’s no way the dialogue was this awkward in the original Swedish) comes off as lazy and half-there, and by the end of the film, particular pieces of evidence are collected and then there’s one moment that I’m fairly sure was meant to be a flashback but it appears to be a flashback to a moment that never actually happened in the film in the first place, but I may be wrong there. The movie wore me out and I decided to take a quick nap halfway through and start back where I left off so I could have just forgotten that moment.

TheGirlWhoPlayedWithFire3

Thankfully, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are as great as ever. Though, one of the defining and most enjoyable aspects of the original film (in both its iterations) was the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael, and the two (SPOILER ALERT) don’t share the screen together until literally the final minutes of the film. Also, Noomi doesn’t have to carry out any scenes as tough as the multiple times she was raped in the first film though a particularly brutal moment towards the end of the film comes close. And Michael Nyqvist similarly doesn’t have nearly as much to work with. It’s good then that these two are pros and just their presence alone is enough to salvage less than spectacular writing. I’m hoping that by the time I get around to watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, these two will have more time on screen together.

I’ll draw this review to a close. This review comes off as particularly negative but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Girl Who Played with Fire. I did. I find the universe of the Millennium trilogy fascinating and unsettling and overflowing with frightening characters. Just, after the David Fincher version of the first book, I know that there is greatness possible in a cinematic version of this world, and once again, the native Swedish adaptations of the Swedish novel fails to deliver as well as one could hope. Mostly, I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire with a sense of “what could have been” and you never want to leave a movie that way.

Final Score: B-

TheProfessional1

(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

TheProfessional2

The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

TheProfessional3

Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

TheProfessional4

When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

TheProfessional5

If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

DontLookNow1

Rarely do “horror” or “thriller” film seriously deal with complex and abstract emotional states of mind. Even most psychological thrillers tend to pay lip service only to the emotions of paranoia or fear. That’s about as emotionally deep a well as they are willing to dig. So, perhaps it’s the film’s devastating look into grief and a crumbling marriage, but 1973’s Don’t Look Now is a supernatural thriller unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen (even if Rosemary’s Baby is the immediate and obvious comparison). Director Nicolas Roeg’s manic film is a proto-Lynchean thriller as that serves as an exercise in impressionistic and surrealistic horror.

Though it’s a leisurely paced film (or so you might think at first glance), Don’t Look Now expertly wraps the viewer in an almost endless wave of dread and anxiety. With hyper-kinetic editing that owed a great deal to the French New Wave, the film jostles the audience along in a foreign land and with inexplicable phenomena so that one may never truly gain his bearing. And thanks to the film’s masterful pay-off, you don’t feel as if you’re just being jerked along. Don’t Look Now requires a sizable investment of patience and observation. One can not half-watch the film, but as this traumatic tale concludes, you realize you’ve been rewarded with a truly stellar ghost story.

DontLookNow2

When a burgeois couple, American  John Baxter (The Hunger Games‘s Donald Sutherland) and his British wife Laura (Julie Christie), lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident, they move to Venice so they can escape any reminders of their horrific loss (and so that John can help renovate a Venetian church). However, at a restaurant, Laura meets two elderly British sisters, one of which is blind. The blind sister claims to be a psychic medium and that she can see the Baxters’ dead daughter. It isn’t a happy vision because the psychic gives an ominour warning that the Baxters must leave Venice because John’s life is now in danger.

It probably doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but it’s hard to reveal too much of the complex and tangled webs of the plot of Don’t Look Now without ruining the magic of discovering just what is happening beneath all of the premonitions and psychic claims. I spent the vast majority of the film (even up until its final moments) wondering just what in the hell was happening in this supernatural mystery, but when the light bulb finally clicked in my head, I was nearly bowled over by how well director Nicolas Roeg fused past, present, and future with fantasy, delusion, and just a hint of prophetic truth.

DontLookNow3

I really can’t overstate how important the direction and editing of Don’t Look Now was on the overall quality of the film. This movie had to have been a considerable influence on the later works of David Lynch (particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.), and it’s embedded religious and sexual symbols and almost nausea-inducing flow dip the audience headfirst into a world where the difference between the sacred and the profane is almost non-existent. And, in the editing department, an excellent use of cross-cutting gives Don’t Look Now a very classy but also surprisingly explicit love scene that may very well be one of the sexiest love scenes in the history of cinema.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are both formidable in their roles. Though I haven’t found it hard to understand the dialogue of the film (the movie often felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation that I wasn’t allowed to hear every word of), when the camera was focused squarely on the suffering spouses, I couldn’t tear myself away. Sutherland and Christie both tap into the wrenching grief and anger that any parent would feel after losing a child, and in a locale where the city itself is slowly sinking (an important symbol of the film), Sutherland and Christie perfectly capture the last gasps of a marriage on the rocks.

DontLookNow4

This may sound heretical, but I honestly think Don’t Look Now is a superior film to the more lauded and well-remembered Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, if there were a Polanski film that I could make the most positive comparisons to (even though they have little in common plot-wise), it’s Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion. I don’t think that Don’t Look Now will be for everyone. Some will likely find it unbearably dull (though if you do, you don’t have much of an imagination), but for those with the willingness to devote the mental energy to this film that it deserves, you will be rewarded with a truly unique horror experience that paved the way for some of the great modern thrillers of our age.

Final Score: A-

 

We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of this blog (and I’ll have a major Best of Year One list that covers all of the media I’ve worked on for this blog during that time. Should be fun), and it’s given me some interesting perspective on the many paths my movie-watching has taken me over these last 365 days. The first two French films I watched for this blog (if you don’t count Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which was French-produced but essentially a Chinese film) were turgid and slow affairs that either didn’t live up to their own thematic potential (Belle de Jour) or nearly incomprehensible for possible cultural reasons (La Ceremonie). I haven’t actually seen many French films for this blog, but the next two I watched proceeded to either completely wow me or at least be very good if not great. Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films I’ve reviewed thus far, and Monsieur Ibrahim was a quiet and sentimental film that turned out to be quite a tear-jerker. Well, god bless Luc Besson for keeping up the streak of high quality French films (and foreign films in general) that I’ve been on with his marvelous study of violence, loyalty, love, and penance, the remarkable 1990 original version of La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita is the tale of a young, drug-addicted French woman (whose real name may or may not be Nikita played by the marvelous Anne Parillaud) who murders a cop when the robbery of a pharmacy with her junkie friends ends in a shoot-out with the police. Sentenced to life in prison with virtually no possibility of parole, Nikita is forcibly entered into a secret government agency to be trained as a top-level assassin for the French government. Her death in her old prison is faked and all ties with her old world are cut off. Nikita was chosen because of her almost psychotic fieriness and natural toughness and she’s a natural fit for the violent world of espionage and assassinations. Though she initially rebels against the life she’s forced into, she eventually complies and over the course of the film carries out several missions that take increasing tolls on her sanity and happiness. When she is sent on a mission to a remote part of France and falls in love with a local clerk, her newfound love and bliss is instantly put at risk by the dangerous other life she inhabits.

Anne Parrillaud was such a natural and instantly riveting talent that I have trouble believing that she wasn’t the primary influence of all of the other action heroines to come over the last two decades. Before Lisbeth Salander was investigating Nazis and torturing rapists, before the Bride was slicing and dicing her way through hordes of Yakuza, and before Sidney Bristow walked the tight-rope of being a CIA double agent, you had Nikita. Her transformation over the course of this film simply has to be seen to be believed. When we first meet Nikita, she’s a drugged-out junkie without even a hint of femininity or grace. By the time she leaves her assassin training program, she’s a knock-out beauty that knows how to use her wiles to get what she needs. On that same note, Parrillaud is able to flip between an almost feral aggression and anger (that I’ve only ever seen matched by Rooney Mara) to a wrenching vulnerability. This was a complex and dynamic role and Parrillaud stepped up to bat and hit a home run.

What separates La Femme Nikita from other hyper-violent action films (this may seem tame by today’s standards, but when it was released, it was shockingly violent) is the emphasis it places on story and character development. This isn’t a series of action sequences supported by a bare-bones excuse plot and forgettable characters. Rather the action serves to complement and enhance the running narrative which is Nikita’s journey from complete destitution to something akin to an empowered female force (although with plenty of commentaries on how her power is still being manipulated by the state). It is a tragic film and the violence is never glorified but rather shown in some gritty and harsh light. Feeling emotionally connected to characters in an action film is always an impressive feat, and La Femme Nikita is able to achieve that not just with Nikita but also with her fiancee and other smaller characters. Any complaints some people might have that the film runs a tad too long seem to not get how much emphasis this film places on putting the audience squarely in this world and achieving complete empathy with its heroes and villains (and it’s hard to tell who’s who).

This is the thinking man’s action film (along with Besson’s later film The Professional). For every intellectual out there who wants an action movie you can enjoy without feeling guilty, it’s right here. And even for those who don’t feel guilty about their action viewing pleasures, well, I still recommend La Femme Nikita because it’s simply better than 99% of the action films out there. I’ve loved both Besson films I’ve seen now, and I’m really curious to see what the rest of his library of movies feels like because he’s really solidified himself to me as one of the top-tier action directors out there. As long as you can enjoy films with subtitles, La Femme Nikita is must see.

Final Score: A-

So, the last time I watched a Swedish film for this blog was way back on February 10th, a mere three days after my blog was formed. The film was the cult classic, Let the Right One In, a movie I still consider to be the greatest horror film since The Exorcist. While I have watched a fairly vast amount of foreign cinema since then, it’s still taken me ten months to get back to a movie from the homeland of film legend Ingmar Bergman. The particular film I just watched, 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, isn’t actually on my master list for this blog. Instead, it’s a movie I chose to watch because much like the Twilight franchise, Swedish author Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy (finished right before his death) has developed a considerable cult following over the last several years, and one of my favorite directors of the last 20 years, David Fincher, is set to adapt a live-action English version of the novels starring current James Bond, Daniel Craig. Because I’m one of those pretentious assholes who has to see the original foreign version of any American film I watch, I found myself surfing the content of Netflix’s watch instantly service, saw this movie, and thought “What the hell? It’s time I watched this.”Since most of my friends who have read these are college students and/or high schoolers, I was expecting a fairly tame young adult hacker story (based off the plot review). Instead, I got an incredibly disturbing tale involving rape, nazis, serial killers, and lots of sex. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dark and gritty crime thriller and I only wish the main story had as much substance and weight as the directorial stylings and the leads’ performances.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative journalist, being sentenced to jail for libel after being framed by a major industrialist he was investigating for gun-running and corporate fraud. Since he has six months before he has to serve his sentence, Blomqvist takes a job offer from a wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his 16 year old niece, nearly 40 years ago. During all of this, we are introduced to a rebellious but resourceful young hacker named Lisbeth Salander, who looks like something out of a goth/punk handbook. Shown to be in the care of government appointed guardians (initially for undisclosed reasons), Lisbeth does research and info gathering for a security firm while facing the sexual assaults of her newly appointed caretaker. When the company she is hired by investigates Blomqvist, Lisbeth finds herself intrigued by Blomqvist’s investigation of the Varger case, and before long, the two team up on a mystery that will sprawl into a decades long case of religiously motivated serial killings and the dark secrets that a family would rather keep private.

This movie was so difficult to watch at times that I, a film veteran who has seen far more than his fair share of disturbing events on screen, still had to turn my head away at times. This film is most certainly not for kids as there are incredibly graphic displays of sexual assault (and regular consensual sex). The film doesn’t shy away from those moments in the slightest, and if it doesn’t make you unbearably uncomfortable on at least three different occasions, you are a broken human being. It can be shockingly violent and I’m very happy that David Fincher is the individual making the American version of this film, because he’s the only American director I would trust to handle this material right without it slipping into the realm of exploitation cinema. It’s only in these themes of violence or disturbing sexuality though that I find the film attempting to be anything other than a conventional and straight forward adaptation of Larrson’s novel. For the most part, the film is shot in a very standard manner, and it’s only in the most shocking and terrifying moments that the director lets slip a bit of real artistry that scratches past the surface of just the action occurring on screen.

Noomi Rapace was expertly cast in the role of Lisbeth. She fully inhabits this part. Lisbeth is an especially complex part. Mostly because she is nigh inscrutable for the first 3/4 of the film and only a little more understandable at the film’s end. She is one of the most aggressive definitions of a female anti-hero that I’ve seen since the Bride in Kill Bill. Lisbeth is the anti-Bella Swan. Rather than being a helpless victim that relies on others to save her from dangerous situations, she takes charge herself and goes to shocking and brutal lengths to exact revenge. She does some things in this tale as disturbing as what is done to her. Rapace’s performance perfectly nails the mysterious and enigmatic nature of Lisbeth’s personality while simultaneously providing those moments where her armor cracks for a second and we get to see a little bit more than the image she so carefully portrays to the world. Michael Nyqvist was also well cast as Mikael Blomqvist even though his part carried considerably less weight than that of Lisbeth. I’m excited to see Daniel Craig in this part because if anyone has been able to nail moral ambiguity in starring lead roles, it’s been Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond.

The film does have its considerable share of flaws. At two and a half hours, it is far too long and the end runs on a good twenty minutes more than it should have. The actual investigation at the heart of the story is almost incomprehensible and involves such leaps of logic and unfollowable investigative techniques that I eventually started to half pay attention to that aspect of the story because the chemistry between Rapace and Nyqvist as well as those moments when the film truly tried to shock are what carried it to its most memorable moments. I’m definitely going to watch the two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, at some point in the near future, but that will probably have to wait til I’m a little more caught up with my blogging. Ever since Skyrim came out, it’s consumed 80% of my free time. I’m nearing (if I haven’t already surpassed) the 100 hour mark in time invested in that game and it’s only been out for a few weeks. Anyways, for anyone that’s a fan of crime thrillers and foreign movies, this is definitely a must see feature that should get you excited for how the material will be handled by the masterful David Fincher.

Final Score: B+

When it comes to the quality of films that I review for this blog, the quality can be streakier than a poorly washed window. I might watch 4 or 5 movies in a row that I give at least an A- and the same thing could happen with movies that I give no higher than a B to. By this blog’s very nature, I am mostly watching award-winning and nominated films so the quality curve is obviously slightly tilted. Right now, I’m on one of those high quality streaks as this film makes three out of the last four movies I’ve reviewed films that have received the normally elusive score of “A” from me, and honestly, this film was easily the best of the bunch, and only it’s completely exhausting length kept it from the even more elusive “A+”. I just finished Wolfgang Petersen’s classic war picture, Das Boot, and clocking in at three and a half hours, it is officially the longest film I’ve reviewed for this blog but also one of the most thrilling and engaging.

Das Boot is a 1981 German film  that was originally a six hour long miniseries for German television that was edited down to a two and a half hour film and eventually re-released in the 90’s at its current length of 3 1/2 hours. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the crew of a German U-Boat at the end of World War II as they suffer one near death experience after another. Deeply claustrophobic in presentation, the film examines the psychology and character of the very large crew that services the ship as they turn from a fresh-faced crew of young boys (some crew members excepted) to a battle-hardened and grizzled group of survivors. At the center of the film is the boat’s unnamed Captain played by the marvelous Jurgen Prochnow (Beerfest), who starts the film as a man haunted by the realities of submarine warfare and is broken down even further by film’s ending. Without wanting to ruin anything, the film has one of the most shocking and heart-breaking endings of any film I’ve ever watched.

One of the most fantastic things that the film accomplishes is that despite (for whatever odd reason it doesn’t do it) not naming the vast majority of the cast besides their rank on the ship, you get a very large number of compelling and complete psychological portraits of the crew of this ship. Lieutenant Werner starts out as an eager and bright-eyed journalist who is meant to feed the German propaganda machine by capturing one of the “heroic” U-Boats in action but he ends up a disillusioned and broken mess by the end of the film. One of the other named crew members, Johann, is a veteran of countless patrols but during one harrowing encounter he cracks under the nerve-wracking pressure of the Allied attack. You have the sheer will and determination of the Chief Engineer who saves the ship from certain doom. There is the young man who writes a letter every day to his French girlfriend despite knowing that he’s probably never going to see her again. You even have the the one member of the crew who is loyal to the Nazi regime instead of just loyal to Germany who comes to see the reality of his situation.

From a technical perspective, this film is practically flawless. As I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, they created a virtually perfect recreation of one of the German U-Boats that was actually used, and the extreme attention to detail and realism is apparent in virtually every scene. At no point in the film, did I feel like any thing was put in to look cool or stylistic. It served a legitimate historical purpose. Also, I have never watched a film that made me feel as claustrophobic as this film does. The ship itself was tiny and very crowded. There was hardly any room to sleep or walk, let alone maneuver and be comfortable. That feeling persisted through out the entire film. The sense of claustrophobia was practically smothering and I was in a more comfortable sized bed-room. When I finish this review, I may walk around my house a little bit just to get a sense of freedom. Also, the camera-work did a great job of really placing you in the action and tension of the film’s many moments when life and death hanged in a precarious and inherently chaotic balance.


The entire cast gave stellar performances, but special mention must be given to Jurgen Prochnow as the Captain. His transformation throughout the film is really something to behold. While he starts the film off hardened and a little beaten, he still has some life in him and the ability to smile and appreciate things. By the time the film ends, he is simply alive and surviving. Prochnow achieves this illustrious turn through a frightening sense of weariness. While I’m sure Petersen applied a lot of make-up to achieve the haunted look on Prochnow’s face, no make-up can achieve the power of his thousand-mile stare and hauntingly piercing blue eyes. When it comes to truly losing one’s self in a role, this is quite a powerful performance. While I would need more time to think about where it stands against the best male performances I’ve seen for this blog, I can definitely say that for the current 50 movie set I’m working on for this blog, Prochnow is sitting comfortably on top.

I mentioned this particular concept in one of my reviews for Band of Brothers, but it’s very difficult for a war film to be anti-war, because by its very nature, showing acts of heroism and bravery will inherently glorify said actions and therefore war itself. Francois Truffaut was the man to really analyze that concept. I can easily say that Das Boot is one of a handful of films that I can name that really is anti-war and in no way, shape, or form glorifies war itself. The over-riding theme of this film besides the battle for survival is that war is Hell. And in Das Boot, Hell might be an understatement. This film consists of suffering, suffering, and a little more suffering, and then it gives you Hell itself for its terrifying and bewildering final act. Much like The Deer Hunter, there is no glory or heroism in this film. There is simply survival.

I’m Jewish, and it’s going to have to take a great movie to make me cheer for Nazis. The sheer fact that Das Boot accomplishes this feat would by itself nearly make this a great film. The fact that it is easily the most compelling and authentic chronicles of the hellish realities of war since The Deer Hunter confirms this greatness. I realize that this review is one of the longest that I’ve ever written, but what else can I do for a movie that is of such epic length and ambition. I wish I could give this film an “A+” as it so clearly deserves this, and I bet I would give the mini-series an “A+”; however, 3 and a half hours is just a long time to sit through any film, especially one where there is a lot of down time. If you’re a fan of war movies that challenge your brain and emotions more than your adrenal gland, this is simply one of the best war films that I’ve ever seen, and you need to watch it.

Final Score: A

 It’s not a huge secret on this blog that I’m a bit of an otaku. Well, I fancy myself to be an otaku, but I really only have a slightly above average knowledge of anime and manga. Anyways, I remember when I read my first manga a couple of years ago and how much I enjoyed it. It was Death Note which I read in its entirety in about a week or two. I was than engrossed by it. I have since read Fullmetal Alchemist, some Elfen Lied, some Bleach, and some Soul Eater. One manga that I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to was Battle Royale. My dad saw the live-action movie a while back that it was based off of and really enjoyed it, so I put it at the top of my Netflix queue even though it isn’t on my official list for this blog. It came today and while it wasn’t a great movie, it was still pretty cool and entertaining, and I’m definitely going to read the manga now.

The plot of Battle Royale is an amalgamation of Lord of the Flies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man (I use the term classic so loosely there). When Japan’s unemployment rate reaches 15%, it’s student population boycotts the education system. Out of fear of the riotous and rebellious youth, the adults enact a fascist new law to take care of the rising problem with the youth. An entire 9th grade class is chosen by a national lottery to take place on a deadly game on a remote island. The rules are simple: the children are given weapons and supplies (although each kid gets a different weapon) and are then given three days to kill each other until there is only one child left standing. While some kids merely try to survive, others begin to take a psychotic enjoyment in the murder while all bonds of friendship and community quickly disappear.

This is easily one of the most violent movies that I’ve watched for this blog (at least since Kill Bill). There was so much blood and action that I thought I was watching one of the stylistic action films of like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. Fortunately, it was also mixed with a healthy amount of social commentary ala Lord of the Flies. My only real problem with the film is that there are so many kids, around 40, that other than the main 5 or 6, it’s really hard to actually care about any of them. A lot of the deaths that are supposed to be meaningful outside of the main group fail to carry any emotional weight because I don’t know their names, let alone anything about them to make me care about them.

If you like action flicks, this is a pretty decent one. My dad actually watched it one time entirely in Japanese with no subtitles and still knew almost exactly what was going on (even though he doesn’t speak Japanese. He was just dumb and didn’t know how to turn on the subtitles) so if you have concerns about foreign films, you really shouldn’t have those problems. Even if you don’t like action films, this one is still pretty entertaining. I’m of the firm belief that straight action films can never be great works of art so unless they’re deconstructing their genre (which I guess makes them not straight action films), but that’s my own personal bias against the genre. Anyways, everybody ought to give this one a go unless you’re offended by copious amounts of blood.

 Final Score: B