(Films not released or shown in Chicago until 2009)


I always feel like rearranging other people’s lists, so this one is fair game as well.  Actually there’s never that much difference from one to ten.  This may reflect the criteria of one who does not attend major film festivals, does not see current releases as they are seen internationally, and most likely does not share the “festival” viewpoints, so I can only wait patiently until they arrive here in town.  Such is the case with three of the films which were released elsewhere in 2008.  Also, made-for-TV movies crept into the best film category for the first time in my recollection, and there is a strong resurgence of films from Great Britain as well.  Perhaps Ken Loach has finally gotten his message across, better expressed now by others.  Two of the top three films have women directors, and two others lie just outside, which is always a positive sign.  While Arnold and Campion’s films have an unmistakable woman’s voice, and are stronger for it, there is nothing whatsoever to indicate Kathryn Bigelow and Heddy Honigmann’s films were made by a female director.  Honigmann’s riveting portrait of Bolivia’s lower class is the highest rated documentary of the year, while there’s two excellent South Korean showings as well, which style-wise both couldn’t be more different, yet both are among the more inventive and best directed films seen this year.      






1.)  FISH TANK                                                         A                    

Great Britain  (124 mi)  2009  d:  Andrea Arnold 


This is a truly complicated film, as everything you’ve been led to believe changes intrinsically, almost without recognition, until by the end one is startled to discover how emotionally gripping this film becomes.  It creeps up on you.  There are no camera tricks, no narrative inventions, no fancy flashback sequences, simply solid direction behind some excellent storytelling that can make all the difference in the world.  30 minutes into this film I wasn’t buying it, finding Katie Jarvis’s 15-year old character Mia nearly insufferable, as she curses everyone, grotesquely headbutts another girl, and has contempt for nearly everything she sees except a strange attraction that comes over her when she sees a white horse chained to a rock in a vacant field.  The allure of that horse feels like a mythical sensation, as if Mia’s very soul is connected to that horse’s ability to run free.  When she tries furiously to break the lock with large stones, she is nearly gang raped by a group of boys who seem to live in nearby trailers.  Instead, they just give her a good scare.  Home is the worst place imaginable for Mia, standard high rise housing projects where she’s already dropped out of school and lives with her alcoholic mother (Kierston Wareing) who makes sleeping with men what she does for a living and little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) who is wild and brilliantly untamed.  These women knock heads whenever they are around one another, so much so that mom is ready to send Mia off to boarding school.  The only reprieve from anger and hostility is Mia’s interest in free form breakdancing, which we see her perform throughout the film, usually locked up in a room by herself, where true to form, she’s not blessed with talent, it’s more that she’s perfectly copied the attitude.   


Things come to a head when mom’s boyfriend Connor, Michael Fassbender, brilliant as usual, moves into the household and develops a personal interest not just in mom, but in Mia as well, which certainly takes Mia by storm, as she becomes consumed by the guy.  At first everything is playful and light, like a big brother where he turns her onto yet another movie take of the song “California Dreamin,” this time by Bobbie Womack, but eventually they’re kicking back beers and hard liquor as well.  Language and atmosphere are key here, beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan, where every note rings true, as the working class setting (without the work) couldn’t be more ultra realistic, from the decaying project towers themselves to the claustrophobic interiors, all matching the interior discontent of the residents who are always at each other’s throats and never get any privacy, which Arnold beautifully captures in the all but invisible moral guidelines and with Mia’s humor, sarcastic comebacks, and brooding.  Without sentimentality or moralizing, the audience immediately identifies with the gut-wrenching household tension because what we witness in the unflinching character of Mia’s mother is so atrocious, as she’s a man magnet with no regard whatsoever for the well being of her own children who must fend for themselves, so there’s simply no way out of this systematic miserablism where like a prison, you’re always surrounded by those same four walls.


Using the Mike Leigh method of working without a script and developing characters through rehearsals, Arnold did not give the characters scripts before shooting, but simply coached them scene by scene in order to obtain a sense of urgency in more naturalistic performances.  Utterly riveting, challenging, and intelligent throughout, with characters that never let down their guard, Arnold displays especially vivid observational prowess.  What’s truly surprising, however, is the level of vulnerability obtained in Jarvis’s tough-as-nails Mia by the end of the picture, where the girl we loved to hate we suddenly sympathize with.  The ultimate triumph of this film is how unspectacular it is to get at the bleak, unsparing truth in these lives, where Arnold does not have to resort to trickery or big scenes.  Even the goodbye she gets from her mother as Mia finally packs her bags and gets ready to leave couldn’t be more underplayed, where the sadness of it all, not the elation, is indescribable.  You just want to reach through the screen and give that girl the hug or sense of affirmation she’s never received.  Wise beyond her years, one has to think she has the capacity to love even after a life that’s been beaten down by abuse and neglect and a world of indifference and pain.  Yet in the words of Maya Angelou, appropriately enough, herself a survivor of rape and sexual abuse: “You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise.   



2.)  VINCERE                                                             A                    

Italy  France  (128 mi)  2009  d:  Marco Bellocchio


As ballsy a film as I’ve seen in awhile, at times showing the ferocity of spirit and matchless flamboyance of CITIZEN KANE (1941), with a magnificent opening 45 minutes that feels like an assault to the senses, using archival footage with the assuredness of a documentary director like Terrence Davies, where instantly we are propelled smack dab in the middle of a precipitous moment in history, as a young Benito Mussolini is theatrically attempting to persuade a group of Socialists that God really doesn’t exist, a meeting that ends in sheer pandemonium.  Out of this darkness, mostly shot by Daniele Ciprí in the shadows of already darkened rooms, the film cuts to a few years later as the police are attacking Mussolini as a rabble rouser, where he is seen like a Keystone Cops episode running towards the camera through a cloud of smoke, followed shortly afterwards by the police.  Later national troops are on his trail firing shots, where he conveniently slips into a warehouse under the protection of an unidentified young mystery woman that we may have seen before in the opening scene, also doing some modeling in Milan, but soon without a word she is in the arms of Mussolini, later in his bed making love, eventually following him everywhere.  Moving back and forth in time with ease, we meet the principle players, Filippo Timo who is fiercely dynamic as the young Mussolini, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno who couldn’t be more breathtakingly elegant as the aristocratic Ida Dalser.  This couple is marked by their sexual liberation, as Dalser in particular is used to showcasing her body.  Mussolini eventually tries to convince the Socialists to get off their asses and actually stand for something instead of remaining neutral, but when he insists on advocating war, he is thrown out of the party for his destructive influence.  Time marches forward as scenes are accentuated by headlines boldly flashing across the screen, punctuated by Carlo Crivelli’s bombastic music, at times resembling the pulsating energy of Phillip Glass, an emphatic, strikingly original use of music that drives home the exhilarating message of untapped raw power. 


Seemingly inseparable, as the two are in nearly every scene together, the now pregnant Dalser is so taken by him that she sells her business, a beauty parlor, as well as her clothes, her jewelry, and all of her personal belongings in order to finance Mussolini’s transition from the editor of the Socialist newspaper Avanti to the founder of his own paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, a platform for his message of Fascism.  Mussolini goes from standing naked on a hotel balcony to becoming the full fledged leader of the country in just a few shots.  As Italy marches off to war in WWI, one of the more inspired scenes is the image of a hospital ward of wounded soldiers where newsreel coverage is shown on the walls, a wonderful blend of cinema and reality thrust together in the same shot.  When word of a wounded Mussolini is printed, Dalser visits but gets in a catfight at his hospital bedside where he is being nursed back to health by the plain and ordinary woman that would eventually become his wife and bear him four more children.  This is the last time Dalser would ever see the man again.  Without warning, the darkness of the opening scenes gives way to the light of day, as the Fascists of Mussolini soon gain control of the Italian government, where Timo the actor is replaced by the real Il Duce as depicted in newsreel footage giving fevered speeches that send euphoric crowds into a nationalistic frenzy.  One of the more vivid newsreel scenes is the use of the music from Tosca, the ultimate betrayal opera, which underscores Mussolini forging an alliance with the Pope offering him his own Vatican City.  Ironic that Mussolini the atheist would subsequently renew his vows with his wife through the church, a sign that he’s all but abandoned his original principles.    


The entire tone of the film shifts away from a Mussolini onscreen to an unseen Mussolini whose disturbing impact couldn’t be more pronounced due to his heavy handed abandonment of Dalser and her son despite her claims she is the legitimate wife of Benito Mussolini and the mother to his firstborn son.  Due to the political embarrassment this brings, she is sent to a tucked away rural estate of her brother for her son’s protection, as the family is under the watchful eyes of military surveillance, eventually kidnapping the son and sending Dalser to a mental institution, where she repeats her claims to deaf ears.  Unfortunately, this storyline, although true, bears a similarity to Eastwood’s recent Angelina Jolie vehicle in CHANGELING (2008), where both women resolutely repeat their claims with such certainty that the state’s only alternative is to suppress the information as the rantings of a mad woman.  Here the film lingers and slows somewhat captivated by her pathos, matching that of the helplessness of the nation, yet there continues to be highly expressive scenes, even as Dalser attempts to escape, and is seen attempting to crawl over the iron bars which go all the way up to the ceiling so there is no escape.  There is a scene of her trapped in the darkness, stuck halfway up the iron bars, as a heavy snow falls outside, throwing letters through the bars that will never be delivered, an image that sticks in our minds where she is all but forgotten.  When they show Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID (1921) at the mental asylum, Dalser is beside herself with grief watching them snatch the Little Tramp’s kid away, but overwhelmed when they are reunited.  What’s not clear is whether she hallucinates the marriage shown onscreen or whether it actually happened, as no marriage certificate was ever found, but it would likely have been destroyed by the Fascists.  Trapped and tortured, it’s clear the message inferred is that Dalser is completely sane while Mussolini’s insanity may well have done irreparable harm leading Italy into two lost world wars.  But this film never projects that far, as the Fascists control the police, who eventually keep both Dalser and her son (also played as an adult by Filippo Timo) in separate mental institutions where both eventually die under confinement.  Mussolini’s historical significance in Italy is enormous, as the country to this day is still coming to grips with its profound impact, especially considering the similarities between Mussolini and the Berlusconi of today, but the personal tragedy of a nation’s leader in denial over his own offspring, imprisoning them instead, perfectly expressed by the developing insanity of his own son mimicking his father’s mannerisms as he delivers his speeches, becomes a highly theatrical Shakespearean tragedy of epic proportions.  



3.)  THE HURT LOCKER                                           A-

USA  (131 mi)  2009  d:  Kathryn Bigelow

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."  —Chris Hedges, war correspondent

As the former wife of James Cameron (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, TITANIC), we’ll try not to hold that against her, but it’s hard not to be influenced by the maker of such monumentally huge Hollywood blockbusters, probably all were the most expensive movies ever made in their time.  As the director of POINT BREAK (1991), however, one is reminded that its notoriety in film history is not as the best surfer-heist movie (Is there another one?), but for what has been voted as the all time dumbest scene in the history of cinema, ranked #1 here:  Amazing Planet: 49 dumbest movie moments.  However, it’s clear that whoever wrote this movie (Mark Boal) has an intimate knowledge of the subject at hand, as he’s a freelance writer who spent time in Iraq embedded with a real bomb squad that with each and every assignment was given the most dangerous, life-threatening missions.  It’s a meticulously detailed portrait of a 3-member special Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq in 2004 that attempts to de-activate explosives.  One man is the Intelligence Officer, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), another covers the perimeter with his weapon, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), while the third, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), attempts to dismantle the explosive device while communicating with the Intelligence officer, almost always under a hostile environment, as anyone nearby, we soon discover, could be responsible for the explosive and may have a remote to detonate it at any moment.  In the tense opening scene, as Thompson can be heard breathing heavy under his miserably suffocating special suit in a country where the temperature routinely soars above 120 degrees, a man with a cell phone is identified out of the corner of his eye at the last minute, too late for Thompson, the leader of the unit who runs for his life but ends up making the ultimate sacrifice.  Enter his replacement, Staff Sgt. William James (the uncommonly good Jeremy Renner), fresh from a tour in Afghanistan, one of the most unlikely of men, as he wins no popularity contests, an older, independent guy who sets aside all the guidelines which are designed to protect him and works in his own aloof way, usually at odds with his team who invariably lose contact with him, yet he’s driven to do the job right, which means staying alive.  


It's a confoundingly different, but no less accurate, portrait of war that focuses on the unthinkable violence as seen through the minds of the men that are expected to carry out the most dangerous missions.  Without any pop songs to amp up the mood, or other heavy handed Hollywood trappings designed to manipulate the audience, one becomes entranced with the narrow focus of the film, which follows this unit on a series of assignments, much of it near wordless or with long quiet pauses, as we soon discover James is extraordinarily good at what he does.  He works with extreme calmness under duress, but the zone of his concentration is so narrow at times that he may put others at risk simply by ignoring them, which he does frequently, but he’s helpful as a soldier in ways one needs to be, offering guidance and support to those less experienced or on the verge of freaking out from all the stress.  At one point, we see Eldridge intensely concentrating at a war video game, where lurking behind various structures is the enemy, where the object is to immediately recognize friend or foe, placing the brain on instant alert, a similar state of mind when in the field.  He visits a doctor regularly to help him sort out these “issues,” as sometimes it’s hard to tell life from death.  This film is as much about psychological interiors, as this unit constantly sweeps unknown areas that have been determined too dangerous for regular foot soldiers, so the camera becomes the visceral eye of the unit, never knowing what lies behind each door or wall or window.  The audience is mesmerized by the immediacy of the action, which is continually perceived here as the unseen danger, filmed entirely in expectation mode, wondering who and where the enemy (or hidden explosive devise) may be and what will happen next.  One of the more intense scenes in the movie is filmed in near stillness, where the unit gets caught under intense sniper fire and after an initial state of panic has to recompose themselves and figure a way out with military precision and skill.  Another is filmed in near blackness, as they attempt a night search mission in a nearby neighborhood after a suicide bomber blast attacks the base, where after a round of shots, two men can be seen carrying Eldridge down some back alleys.  In rescuing him, James shoots at all three, killing both kidnappers but also shooting Eldridge in the leg, which pisses him off to no end, reminding James that sometimes he pushes too far, calling him an adrenaline junkie, as they’re a bomb unit, so why were they doing a door to door search, which is the job of a foot soldier?  


There’s two other interesting scenes of note, one where a commander recognizes James’s bomb expertise, calling him a wild man, and commends him in front of all the men, forcing him to admit that to date, he has successfully de-activated 873 bombs.  This hardly fits the idea of noble and selfless combat, sometimes embraced as “the myth of war,” where we enshrine war in words of glory instead of the mindnumbing reality of death, and instead veers awfully close to a profession that embraces death first hand, as that’s an astronomical number of times for one man to tempt death.  He becomes so comfortable with that feeling, with death as his constant companion, that everyone else in his life becomes meaningless, as they are completely outside his mindset during that moment of truth.  Another, of course, is when his tour of duty is over and he returns home, and despite constant stories of death and bloodshed, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back over there again, as someone of this expertise is like a prisoner who’s more comfortable locked up, in a world that he’s used to, where being on the outside makes him feel uncomfortable, which is how James feels about being home.  It’s like the Myth of Sisyphus, where he constantly has to push that rock up the mountainside, only to do it again and again, always having to tempt death in order to feel alive.  War is hell, and here it becomes synonymous with the intensity that comes with the meticulous precision of his profession, which may be the only thing in his life that he’s that good at, but he’s playing russian roulette.  Interesting that in a movie theater, this same death wish becomes part of the viewer’s fascination, as we can’t take our eyes off this lurid war game, much like the Knight in Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), a man who lives in the shadow of death that follows him around relentlessly, where one is both attracted and repulsed by a force that taunts and toys with him to eventually succumb, eventually deciding that resistance is futile, as they are forever joined in a terrible dance of death, playing musical chairs, until eventually a chair won’t be there waiting for him. 



4.)  LA BELLE PERSONNE – made for TV               A-                   

France  (93 mi)  2008  d:  Christophe Honoré


Following the success of Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or winning THE CLASS (2008), Honoré returns us to the high school setting but couldn’t use a more radically different frame of reference, loosely adapting a Madame de La Fayette 17th century novel of forbidden passions La Princesse de Clèves set 100 years earlier in the 16th century high society French court to comment on current sexual practices and modern era standards of morality.  From the outset, we are immersed in the hectic energy of hallways and classrooms, where modern day kids hover around one another with good-natured talk and catch up on the latest gossip.  The subjects may be mathematics, Italian, or even Russian, where some students stand out with their intelligence and brash challenges to the teacher’s authority, where over time we become more familiar with various students and teachers.  What’s immediately apparent here is Honoré’s framing of faces in close up, creating a stream of conscious screen look of student’s faces, all in the same room, but each absorbed in something uniquely different from the other, creating a PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) silent era resemblance.  This actually focuses the audience’s attention on reading the faces of characters, as most are invariably hiding something from one another.  We are soon introduced to an Italian teacher, Louis Garrel as Nemours, now in his 4th film with this director, synonymous with the face of French cinema, son of director Philippe Garrel and an heir to the French New Wave’s Jean-Pierre Leaud, in particular Leaud’s character of Alexandre in Eustache’s THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973).  Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times  describes him as follows:  Alexandre is smart enough, but not a great intellect. His favorite area of study is himself, but there he hasn't made much headway. He chatters about the cinema and about life, sometimes confusing them… He spends his days in cafés, holding (but not reading) Proust… women can let a man talk endlessly about himself while they regard him like a specimen of aberrant behavior. Women keep a man like Alexandre around, I suspect, out of curiosity about what new idiocy he will next exhibit.”  This is the character Louis Garrel has inhabited, the guy who talks feverishly to one woman while keeping his eye on another, dropping women whenever it suits him, never giving them a second thought as he’s on to his next conquest.  In the book his character is known as the dashing Duke of Nemours.


The focus of Nemours attention turns to a student in his class, Junie played by Léa Seydoux, a strikingly pretty girl who appears moody and keeps largely to herself, a new girl living with her cousin who has joined mid-term and is subject to mood swings due to the recent death of her mother but also exhibits a liberating sense of honesty, as she doesn’t believe in keeping secrets.  She allows Otto (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) to sweet talk and kiss her, a quiet, sensitive guy who adores her on first sight, as does most every other guy, but Otto is so innocently pure that he’s described by another student as “a saint.”  She treats him more like a friend than a lover, as he so willingly provides whatever suits her purpose.  What we witness are plenty of pairings, where the object of one’s love is often in love with someone else, and where love is often hidden or can only be expressed in secret.  In class, Nemours plays a recording of Maria Callas singing Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, setting into play a choreography of emotions which has a profound effect on Junie, as she’s suddenly the center of attention and the object of everyone’s affection.  This environment of love in the air resembles musical chairs, as Nemours instantly drops another student lover and a teacher girl friend, wiping the slate clean, while confiding his swelling feelings of love for Junie to a fellow teacher.  But Junie is no naïve girl, as is the character in the book, who despite her happy marriage suddenly swoons and falls passionately in love with the Duke.  Instead Junie remains heavily guarded, despite being handed a love letter and told it was written by Nemours, supposedly seen falling out of his pocket, but was instead written by her cousin professing his gay love for another male student, an affair they kept secret which is now suddenly out in the open.  This series of events is like combustible energy, as for every action, there is an equal reaction, where everyone soon finds out what’s going on behind closed doors.  Junie is ensnared in this web of intrigue, as she’s got a safe guy who loves her, but her thoughts lie elsewhere, so she confides in Otto, who soon discovers the real object of her affection.  In an astounding scene, Otto begins singing to himself the song that’s playing on the soundtrack (a device also used in DANS PARIS), while everyone else around him is oblivious to his character or his thoughts, as if he’s invisible, until he throws himself off a balcony.  


What’s striking in Honoré films is the consistent tone of emotional authenticity, even when using artificial Sirkian melodramatic means to express it, such as the assaultive metal music taking the place of unspoken grief in 17 TIMES CÉCILE CASSARD (2002), the hedonistic and incessant use of sex while spewing philosophically transcendent dialogue in MA MÈRE (2004), the device of characters speaking directly to the camera before veering into a reverential tribute to the energetic French New Wave style in DANS PARIS (2006), or the use of original songs in a naturalistic musical that soar into the stratosphere of poetic expression in LOVE SONGS (2007).  In this film, like the last, it’s the exquisite use of pop song culture that expresses the emotional sincerity of the teenage students, all of whom are more mature than their teacher Nemours, even in their mixed up confusion over being dumped or fooled in love.  Their emotions are real, even if covering up the catastrophe that is teenage life.  Honoré is deft in using music as a psychological thread throughout this film, first as background music or later as a read-out-loud poem in Italian by Junie in class that turns out to be a pop song that is first read in Italian before being re-read again as it is translated back to French, but he also uses the playing of a jukebox song or the recording of the opera, all creating a romanticized operatic atmosphere drenched in the spirit of love, exploring its essence inside and out without ever resorting to explicit sexuality.  There’s a wonderful line by aging bar owner Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), who matter of factly confesses “I haven’t been French-kissed for 23 years.”  When Nemours obsessively turns into a stalker of Junie, who is obviously avoiding him, she agrees to talk with him, where he rushes her into a hotel room only to be told what a cad he is, how she doesn’t wish to become another number in his forgotten list of lovers, so she’d rather avoid him altogether, deciding to honor Otto’s love even in death rather than disparage it.  From an era of forced or arranged marriages to a day when women are free to speak their minds and reject interested suitors, where despite any sexual or women’s liberation that has taken place, love still hurts in every way imaginable.  Throughout the passage of time, nothing has changed that inherent fact of life.  Indescribably, this film was made for television, though there are no noticeable compromises in style or substance, excellent camerawork from Laurent Brunet, brilliant editing, terrific ensemble work all around, and an intriguing use of music from Alex Beaupain with songs by Nick Drake that once again enter the film like an unseen character.   



5.)  RED RIDING TRILOGY – made for TV               A-                   


Pt I   RED RIDING:  1974                   A-                   

Great Britain  (102 mi)  2009  d:  Julian Jarrold 


“This is the north, where we do what we want!”


Originally airing on British TV, this is one of the better made-for-TV films seen in recent recollection and all three are equally successful as stand alone films or as part of the 3-part trilogy, which is an adaptation of David Pearce’s four novels (one novel is also set in 1977), each set in a different year in West Yorkshire.  Subtitled and using the same screenwriter (Tony Grisoni) throughout along with several cast members, each has a different director offering their individual style to present the material in their own way.  For instance, only the last 2 versions are in ‘Scope, while the first is shot in 16 mm.  The author grew up near Yorkshire and was 8-years old when he heard of a prostitute being murdered.  12 more women would be murdered by the “Yorkshire Ripper” by the time Pearce was 14.  Peter Sutcliffe was eventually convicted in 1981.  The film version is a fictionalized composite that emphasizes the bleakness of the landscape, especially the dilapidated tenement housing project set right next to 6 nuclear power smokestacks, a place everyone agrees needs to be razed, but families are still living there.  Like David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS (1990), there is a welcome sign nearby, Welcome to Fitzwilliam, with the ominous presence of the looming smokestacks, but also plenty of profanity-laden graffiti scrawled onto the walls, such as “Fuck the Argies.” 


Endlessly entertaining due to the crisp pace of the film, each of the three segments features the brutal corruption of the West Yorkshire police squad, while the vast array of characters introduced keeps the audience on their toes and couldn’t add more intrigue and suspense.  Shot on a grainy 16 mm, the atmospheric mood remains dark and creepy, matching the insidious corruption within the police department which seems to have little interest in solving the serial killings, a constant reminder of moral decay that has infested the entire community.  A young upstart reporter, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), joins the local paper on the crime beat and displays a needed curiosity about why the newspaper and police are in bed with a sleezy real estate developer, John Dawson (Sean Bean), a man with a penchant for swindles and swans.  When Eddie and his more senior partner Barry (Anthony Flanagan) arrive at his modernized house, Barry comments that there is a crime that matches every house.  Within his own newspaper department, Eddie Marsan is the sleezy and cocksure Jack Whitehead, the senior reporter who reeks of lies and doublecross, a man who will do whatever is convenient to stay in the good graces of the police department who own and control the town like a Sicilian Mafioso.  


Shot in the film noir manner of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, where young Eddie has a brazen style, he is constantly getting pulverized by the local cops who exhibit a mean, sadistic streak to keep him from getting too close to what they don’t want him to know.  Eddie suspects several crimes are linked and that the cops brutally arrest mentally deficient suspects and beat and threaten them into signing confessions of guilt.  In this manner, the police don’t even attempt to solve crimes, instead they find fall guys to take the rap so they can quickly close the book on these police cases.  So when Eddie digs for information, they shut him up.  He finds comfort in one of the women who lost a daughter, Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall) who has been nearly crushed by the experience, and just when she lets Eddie get close enough for her to trust him, someone pulls the rug out from under him, as they do throughout this entire episode.  The director does not hold back and creates truly bizarre, evil, and lovelorn characters, all mysteriously connected through nefarious activities that have not come to light.  There’s nothing compromised here, as the disturbing underworld unleashes the full impact of its menace, where torturing victims is their stock and trade, and where all bets are off in an assault to the senses that takes place at the Karachi Club, an incident that reverberates through several episodes.  This film is dark, beautifully stylized, almost dreamlike and surprisingly intense, with a swarm of terrific performances and a well-earned, well-crafted edge that reeks of more bad guys ahead.          


Pt II   RED RIDING:  1980                  A-                   

Great Britain  (93 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  James Marsh   


So after the passage of time, the cops are as corrupt as ever, perhaps even more entrenched in solidarity within the department to cover up their own criminal acts.  Time has made them even bolder in their blatant disregard for searching out the truth, instead they find the weakest link and make an arrest, using the same torture interrogation methods as before, only now they’re better at covering it up from the public.  Easily the most elegantly directed of the three, there is a fluidity of motion throughout where one senses similarities to David Fincher’s meticulously detailed serial killer police procedural ZODIAC (2007).  Paddy Considine is introduced as an outside Manchester cop supposedly given free reign to investigate the Yorkshire Ripper murders, which are still unsolved, thinking a new approach couldn’t hurt.  But despite the expertise of his chosen team, Considine is genuinely despised, so when he suggests one victim may not have been at the hands of the Ripper, he is met with a solid wall of resistance from his fellow cops who think this is all about their heads rolling, finding a scapegoat to blame, so to a man they stonewall the murder investigations.  Throughout the first two episodes, the Ripper killings are a devastating headline that have all but been ignored, seen by the police as a secondary afterthought, as the primary concern is the cops taking care of their own. 


The poor morale within the department where it is suggested they have done shoddy work and botched their investigations matches the palpable fear in the streets where women are afraid to walk alone or let their kids play on the streets.  Marsh moves the action through a steady accumulation of small details, where the more Considine and his team dig, the more inconsistencies are discovered which reveal gaping holes in the cases.  But Considine has a few secrets from his own past, such as an affair with a female officer, Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), part of his elite squad, so his authority is challenged through internal blackmail to get off the case.  But the more certain he becomes of a coverup, the farther removed from the case he gets, eventually thrown off the case entirely, leaving him completely powerless.  In the event he still didn’t get the message, the cops in this town know how to make it illuminatingly clear to him.  The film starts with an assertive assault on meticulous policework, but then turns into a hiding game where there is no one left he can trust, no chance to play the hero.  This film uses a realist, near documentary style to produce a staggering amount of information, including a broadened view of the internalized criminal behavior within the department, where the larger than life personalities behind the operations begin to emerge.  The viewers are in for a few surprises, not the least of which is some despicably violent images of the aftermath of murder, seen almost as a meticulously detailed still life of the horrible scene of a crime, as events ensue that the audience would have no way of preparing for.  Both the initial episodes lead to shocking conclusions, each fully realized through separate yet unique cinematic visions that have perfectly captured the economic downturn of the times through vivid characters and an assured director’s hand.  The melancholy score is by Dickon Hinchliffe of the Tindersticks.


Pt. III   RED RIDING:  1983               B+                  

Great Britain  (103 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  Anand Tucker 

This episode introduces us to a cunning little rotund, pudgy character with a bulldog demeanor that physically resembles Fassbinder’s Franz Biberkopf, an ordinary everyman who is steamrolled by the volatile changes in society all around him, which lead to his unfortunate end.  But here John Piggott (Mark Addy) plays a tiresome solicitor who is among the most hopeful characters in the series as the focus shifts from a police procedural to the individual perspective of two characters, also singling out one of the senior cops that we’ve seen before, Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), aka the Owl.  One we can sympathize with for trying to sort through the muck while the other is so knee deep in shit that despite his reserved bespectacled manner, we already know him to be a murderer.  Starting with a flashback that serves as a short prequel, the wedding of Bill Molloy, aka the Badger, a deeply corrupt police kingpin played by Warren Clarke, where in a backroom the deal is made for the horsemen of the apocalypse to stick together in order to run the entire North for themselves, this episode then re-experiences the entire series, oftentimes the same events from a different character’s viewpoint. 

While the police have their scapegoat safely rotting in his cell, the mentally defective Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), whose own solicitor urged him to confess to the Ripper crimes after the police got through with him, it should come as no surprise that the Ripper strikes again.  Oddly enough, Jobson seems to grow weary of their torture tactics as still more suspects are rounded up in the usual way and brutally urged to confess, this time the Reverand Martin Laws (Peter Mullan) withstands their little fun for awhile before offering his foolproof alibi.  To everyone’s astonishment, they actually let someone go, something we wouldn’t think the mafia would ever do.  Jobson then pours over the files and is stuck with real police work.  Interwoven into this story is Piggot’s visits to Myshkin in prison where he tries to piece together what actually happened, where we spend less time between characters, but more time in a series of flashbacks.  Jumping between the two leads, we begin to develop a broader picture of the entire events.  One of the reasons the series is so spread out over time is having to reveal so many evil characters involved and the full extent of the mayhem caused. 

A small character throughout the series, mysterious street hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan), who has witnessed, even participated in some of the more diabolical acts, turns into a poetic, near apocalyptic narrator by the end, occasionally resorting to simple rhyme.  Himself a victim of child molestation, he is intimately familiar with what passes as Yorkshire justice, and after a prison stint is horrified to discover that nothing has changed, that the Ripper is still abducting little girls and the police force is still headed by the same rotten band of organized criminals.  True to form, throughout this saga there have been no tidy endings or easy resolutions, instead the prevalent odor of malice has not brought closure to the victim’s families or to society at large.  Instead, violent crime only breeds misery.  The true measure of this trilogy is capturing the unflinching portrait of Yorkshire as it lived and breathed, filled with soulless men whose deep-seeded malevolence filtered throughout society, where the decaying infrastructure, unsolved crimes, and social neglect is perfectly captured in the venal and foul-mouthed language of cops, where Britain is the only country that specializes in the use of the word “cunt,” which seems to be the worst possible thing a man can call another man.  This is one amazing ensemble drama that digs its feet into a depraved word of such heartless, systematic criminal injustice that hopelessness has become incestually inbred into the very core of society where the aftereffects of disillusionment may not be fully understood for years to come.


6.)  THE CLASS (Entre Les Murs)                              A-                   

France  (128 mi)  2008  ‘Scope  d:  Laurent Cantet


Hardly sugar coated, but definitely troubling, as many viewers will be aghast that the “system” doesn’t work any better, this is a self-portrait of a flawed inner city school system inside Paris, France, given a healthy dose of authenticity when one of the co-writers, François Bégaudeau, wrote the book on which the film is based and is also the featured junior high school teacher in the film, giving it a near documentary portrait of the goings on inside his classroom as well as a look behind the scenes at his school.  Outside of an opening shot where the teacher (François) grabs a cup of coffee, the entire film takes place “between the walls” (translated French title) on the school grounds.  In general, most of the students are dark-skinned with African or Arabic roots with ethnic backgrounds from former French colonies, specifically North and West Africa as well as French-speaking Caribbean countries, while nearly the entire teaching and administrative staff, who introduce themselves in an opening orientation meeting, are white.  So just looking at this scenario, one sees we’re on a collision course just waiting for accidents to happen.  While François is a committed white educator with four years of experience teaching French, his class remains a cry of rebellion, as students are free to interrupt or interject their thoughts whenever they please, as if it is a democracy.  Initially he sets a standard of raising one’s hand but then never follows this criteria for the rest of the film.  What’s curiously unique about this classroom is that it’s as much about the students as it is the teacher, where in a somewhat provocative gesture, he calls upon students to voice their views, even if they express a disinterest, which results in open rebellion and arguments, occasionally insults, where the time spent is hurling personal insults and challenges to one another, sometimes with name-calling and disruptive classroom laughter.  What begins as an attempt to utilize teaching methods turns into something different altogether, as few students do the homework assignments or express any interest in what he’s teaching.    


Unfortunately, part of the problem is the teaching method itself, as a classroom of 13 or 14 year old kids is not a democracy where every student openly engages one another using the Socratic method of open dialogue, instead each seeks their own way to attain attention, breaking down any system of authority through disruption.  François pleads his case, but usually makes challenging, personal remarks to each student that only lead to defensive personal responses, where they go back and forth attacking one another, basically throwing any lesson plan, and these kid’s futures, out the window.  François is very good at exposing problems, but his interrogation techniques rarely solve any of them.  For instance, when there are classroom breakdowns, it’s simply a free for all instead of an accompanying follow up on what went wrong, where the teacher establishes guidelines for what is appropriate and what is not, where he actually takes the time to implement a classroom structure.  Instead he gives up on this almost immediately, as he’s overwhelmed by the student’s negativity, believing nothing he’s teaching them is relevant in their lives.  Well his challenge is to make it relevant.  There are African writers, or Caribbean Pulitzer prize winners they could study, also each of these students has extended families that could be encouraged to bring in personalized information like food, clothing, stories, cultural dances or customs, sports figures, photographs, where they could place colorful pictures on the wall, making everyone all part of a true learning experience.  But rather than incorporate what’s actually meaningful to this group of students, their needs are all but ignored, exacerbated by the blatantly racist French policy to ignore all cultural ethnicities in the name of one supposedly united France, a policy that in a classroom like this makes little sense, as their birthplaces themselves could serve as a geography lesson.       


François fails to get through to two of his strongest classroom personalities, Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) and Souleymane (Franck Keita), both black, each of whom commands the respect of their fellow classmates.  Khoumba, a bright, opinionated girl refuses to read out loud when called upon, believing she’s being picked on, which obviously irks the teacher who tries to find out what’s wrong after class, but she’s unable to say what the matter is and sarcastically makes things difficult for him, creating a dramatic scene in front of others.  But then she writes a terrific essay on “Respect,” saying she doesn’t feel respected by him, claiming she will no longer even look him in the eye, as she doesn’t wish to give him the wrong impression.  More importantly, she doesn’t place it on his desk, but in his locker, which couldn’t be more personal.  This is a student crying out for a humane response, for guidance, but he never gives her what she is obviously looking for and what she deserves.  Even worse, Souleymane is a well-liked, good looking but undereducated kid from Mali, where French is obviously his second language, as he has problems reading, writing, and acting out, as he has difficulties communicating with many of the teachers, so he remains sullen much of the time, or he overreacts, getting into some of the worst and most offensive arguments with his fellow students.  But this is the Alpha male, the kid who’s obviously smart, but his brazen outspokenness is wasted on street cred hailing insults and shouting others down.  Again, this is a student crying out for a personal tutor and a different set of priorities.  At the parent/teacher conferences, we never see the father and we learn that the mother can’t speak French, so all they know is what Souleymane tells them—that everything is just fine.  Rather than attempt to resolve this conflict of communication, as the family deserves to know early on that there are problems in the classroom, the teacher, and the institution itself, is remarkably silent.  So it comes as a surprise to his mother when a short time later Souleymane is facing charges of expulsion, where her impassioned pleas in Arabic (with no translator present except Souleymane) fall on deaf ears. 


The teachers themselves have group discussions about how to respond to individual behavior problems, like Souleymane, even as they are about to discuss his possible expulsion, but the views are usually washing their hands of any responsibility, all but disregarding his side of the story, implementing punishment whenever possible.  The group also discusses the merits of each student in the presence of student reps, where they all share their views before deciding upon grades and what they mutually decide are the appropriate educational remarks, a system that is ultimately undermined by the student reps who tell all the students what grades they’re going to get ahead of time and what the teachers had to say about them.  Apparently the subject of confidentiality was never raised before, as this systematic approach is guaranteed to align the students against the teachers, mostly through old fashioned concepts like rumor and heresay, all taken out of context, but highly effective.  In fact, this seems to be the metaphor for failure, that spreading rumors behind people’s backs is a much more effective means of communicating than anything the educational system offers.  Speaking personally, that would make my lesson plan the very next school day, how rumors spread like a disease, not based on facts or any answerable truth, but based on the quickest and deadliest means of bringing harm to someone.  What’s clear here is that the school isn’t budging an inch to learn how to help anyone other than those that already have the tools to help themselves, as the system instead is designed to blame and punish those students who express difficulties.  Not one of these kids was lost to the system prior to the school year, as they’re still young and impressionable, but by the end, that’s another story.  Unlike American films that would spend a great deal of effort searching for answers, the provocative nature of this film is instead asking all the right questions. 



7.)  ADVENTURELAND                                            A-                   

USA  (107 mi)  2009  d:  Greg Mottola                        Official Site


“They hate people like me in Pittsburgh.  I’m a romantic who actually reads poetry for fun.”  James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg)


What appears to be a cliché’d and formulaic summer romance story where the majority of the characters, especially the adults, resemble life on sitcom TV, instead turns into something decidedly different where the major players are surprisingly authentic, especially the way they express their self doubts, which is what this is really all about.  While for most, TWILIGHT (2008) would be the door to discovering Kristen Stewart, but in my case it was INTO THE WILD and THE CAKE EATERS, two 2007 releases both shot earlier which along with her performance here reveal a surprising range on her part.  She plays Em, an alienated girl with a dark edge that she doesn’t really like about herself, as much of it is in reaction to the shit and lovelessness that has been imposed upon her tender young age, but it’s where she’s forced to spend most of her time, so it follows her like a dark shadow.  Into her life strolls James, Jesse Eisenberg, the horrid “I hate my mom” character from THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005), an overly naïve but nice kid who’s so nervous most of the time that he confesses his most intimate secrets to total strangers.  They’re an odd couple, as they don’t really fit, and she’s more mature and having an affair with the married Clu Galager type repairman/would-be-indie-rock-star who simply gets into her pants whenever he has a spare moment.  They all find themselves working together at a run down amusement park called Adventureland during the summer of 1987 in Pittsburgh, a horrible place where dreams seem to die.   


Backtracking a bit, James was heading to grad school at Columbia University in the fall on a scholarship, but his plans change drastically when his closet alcoholic father gets transferred to a less lucrative position.  So instead of traveling to Europe with a friend over the summer where he hoped to get laid and get the virgin stigma off his back, he has to get a job to help pay his way and let his friend travel without him, leaving him a large sack of good weed which he hopes will help keep him relaxed over the summer, where in the fall they plan to be roommates in New York City.  With no real job experience, the only available job is at a hole-in-the-wall amusement park that seems run by the last vestiges of humanity left on earth after the apocalypse, as no one in their right mind would work there willingly.  But instead of another obnoxious summer movie laden with grotesque physical comedy, that’s only the undercard to what turns out to be the bigger picture, a tender, coming-of-age love story that develops from the bowels of this hell on earth, a place where the same horrid songs repeat endlessly, like Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” and the games are rigged to guarantee nobody wins the big panda bear as a prize.  Despite hundreds of reasons why anyone should hate this movie, with plenty of barf and getting socked in the balls jokes along with exaggerated caricature, where every adult is typecast as a humorless strain of human species, where life is taken *way* too seriously, from their offspring breeds hope eternal.  From this doomed and broken down amusement park filled with people with stagnant and dead end lives, the characters of James and Em turn out to really mean something, as they’re authentic voices of a voiceless generation, similar but hardly equal to DONNIE DARKO (2001), as both are brilliantly edited films set in the 1980’s featuring a treasuretrove of imminently listenable music.  Here the soundtrack is filled with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Replacements, Hüsker , The Cure, Crowded House, Poison and others along with an ambitious score written by Yo La Tengo, contributing especially memorable sequences, like Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream it’s Over” as fireworks explode over James and Em on the 4th of July, or Robert Smith singing Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” as the two of them ecstatically play bumper cars together.     


Add to this motley crew the downhearted voice of nihilism, Joel (Martin Starr), even more geeky than James, a guy enthralled with the anguish of Russian literature, in particular Nikolai Gogol who all but destroyed romantic notions with monstrous imagery where no human horror is left unspared.  As this group spends time together, more a collection of random acts than a story, James is actually one of the least fucked up among them, which gives him a kind of star attraction, a pedestal upon which he’s never stepped before, as people actually like him for his open-hearted sincerity and endlessly youthful curiosity.  He’s a good kid, but he’s surrounded by people that have only known deadbeats, phonies and bullies.  Sincerity is like from another planet.  It may as well not exist, any more than hope in a prison-like environment where the thought of it can only make you feel worse.  But this perfectly balanced mixture of humor and emotional authenticity is beautifully captured in the dialogue written by the director who not surprisingly himself once worked at a Long Island amusement park.  Kristen Stewart, especially, has become the “it” girl and is especially good as a troubled teen who has to keep everything bottled up inside, where James and his endless monologues about himself actually offer her a way out of her own inner doldrums.  James, she feels, is the last person who would hurt her, and her life has been flattened by people who used her for a door mat.  Stewart is a kind of everywoman, as we’ve all known someone like her, but she’s immensely appealing in the way she keeps struggling to fight her way out.  Eisenberg is youthfully innocent, but he’s given terrific lines, all of which add up to a real surprise, as this film delivers on several different levels, beautifully acted, musically inspiring, well-written with large doses of observational honesty, not the least of which is a wonderfully authentic summer romance set amongst the doom and devastation of near impossible odds, filled with people who have been hurt to the point where this film feels like its carrying the banner of lost causes, where the ultimate goal feels like the resuscitation of lost or otherwise dead souls.  


8.)  CORALINE – 3D                         A-                   

USA  (101 mi)  2009  d:  Henry Selick             Official Site (U.S.)

Everything's right in this world, kiddo.    Other Father (John Hodgman)

Designed by the same team that created THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993), it will be released in 3-D and regular animated versions, where you pay a few dollars more for the 3-D glasses, which in my view are an absolute must, as otherwise you’re missing part of the experience.  3-D glasses have improved over the years, as they don’t give you those cardboard frames anymore that bend and break nearly instantly, instead you get actual plastic, reusable frames that improve the experience considerably, even for the 3-D coming attractions.  But the real deal is instantly recognizable in the opening credit sequence where there are layers of depth that are nothing next to stunning, from the forward placed title words, to the central scene of the action, to the universe that appears mysteriously behind that world, and most spectacular of all, on occasion, the action exists well out in front of the screen jutting into the realm of the audience so you feel like you can reach out and touch it.  This happens rather maliciously as the point of a needle is poked through the eye of a cloth doll, as a button is sewn over the eye.  The audience is immediately drawn into the aura of modern day 3-D possibilities, where one imagines how this would feel at an IMAX theater.  Mechanical sounds from a music box play accompanied by a children’s choir in a gently percussive meter, brilliantly conceived by Bruno Coulais, as it mixes earthly work-like images with angelic sounds.  Although Tim Burton is not among the credits, his film EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) is a model of the doll construction that we see in the opening sequence, as they are being made by needle-like mechanical fingers. 


Taking its time to explore how a smart, inquisitive and somewhat cynical girl operates, early on we see examples of 11-year old blue-haired Coraline’s behavior, where she’s a bit of a spoiled brat, constantly whining and complaining, making it difficult for even her parents to stand her.  A young boy next door, Wybie, who wears some of the more inventively designed space masks I’ve ever seen while riding his motorbike, is not welcomed by her at all, and is immediately seen as an annoyance because he’s not giving her his full attention.  The guy barely has a chance to catch his breath before she jettisons him from her world of concerns, him and his wiry cat who’s just another nuisance, yet both play prominent roles later on.  Taken from a Neil Gaiman novella, the story bears a SPIRITED AWAY (2001) resemblance, as young Coraline appears in a new home set out in the country where she’s all alone and easily bored, yet her parents are always too busy typing at their computers to give her the time of day, all but ignoring her, forcing her to explore the house on her own where she soon discovers a hidden door to another universe, an alternate version of her own world with wish fulfillment, dream-like, fantasized elements added, including another version of her own mother and father with buttons sewn over their eyes, both of whom go out of their way to make sure she’s happy, who greet her with the ominous words, “We’ve been waiting for you!”  Her initial entry into this world is greeted with some of the best sketches in the film, from a walk through an eye-poppingly alive phantasmagorical magical garden that is sculpted into the look of her own face, to a wonderfully delightful circus act filled with colorfully dressed mice in little red uniforms all twirling and performing in unison, actually spelling out her name with their tales tied together, in what rivals any of the gorgeous sequences in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005).  What she soon discovers is that rather than “find” new parents there, she’s actually “lost” her real parents who are stolen and locked away, hidden in this alternate world, where what resembles bright, captivating colors along with plenty of fun and games soon becomes colorless and frightfully dour, a ghoulish world run by her fiendish button-eyed other mother who shapeshifts into different versions of herself, each one more dastardly than the last, where much of this world loses all color and actually vanishes altogether, leaving behind a stark emptiness.  It becomes Coraline’s journey to find and bravely rescue her real parents in this ever more delirious, strangely mysterious world.      


Initially Coraline easily crosses over to the other world and can’t wait get until she can go back again, but successive visits make it harder for her to return home, as her other mother urges her to stay forever, so long as she allows buttons to be sewn over her eyes.  But she soon realizes her other mother has a hidden motive of stealing people’s eyes and trapping them in her underworld where she rules with the magical powers of a mythological demon.  Coraline discovers other trapped souls who remain caught in her lair, opening up her own eyes to a world of dread and fear.  What’s interesting here is how easily the worlds mix, which is how it should be, as it’s a time in her life when she can’t be the center of attention all the time, and where losing that sense of individualized importance makes her feel more lonely, isolated, and afraid, something all children feel.  What this film does is imaginatively illustrate how the worlds come together to such an extent that it’s hard at times to tell the difference.  Coraline, however, uses her wits and pays attention to clues which help her understand what’s really going on, all of which helps her realize that reaching out to help others is an essential part of her life.  Whether she can pass this test or not, especially driven by such a hyperactive imagination, is her real challenge, and she’s up against an especially formidable foe. 


The dense details of this illusionary dreamworld are brilliantly inventive, especially the womano to womano finale, which is like a death match fight to the finish, where the art design reveals a disturbingly bleak world that the other mother is hiding underneath all her pretense.  For animation, this is truly something to behold, as Coraline’s petulant behavior is in perfect synch with the other mother’s equally offensive decision to play dirty by pretending to be something that she is not.  This is precisely the kind of “real” world that children enter, where magazines and targeted advertisements lure kids into believing they must buy certain products to be popular or to be liked at school, all sold in shopping malls across America.   How does a kid who doesn’t comply have any self esteem when everyone else that dresses exactly alike seems to be happy?  Coming from a more sheltered and protected world, these are the first tough choices children as individuals are expected to make.  Like Coraline, most initially choose on the side of conformism as a means of being happy, until they realize it’s all a scam to make somebody else rich.  People are happy or unhappy based on characteristics within, not the brightly color coordinated outfit that they’re wearing.  The beauty of this film is that it sends a positive social message, but also shows all the turmoil that someone must go through to figure it out, sending out a last wave of 3-D magic even after the final credits have ended.    



9.)  MOTHER (Madeo)                                               A-                   

S. Korea  (128 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  Bong Joon-ho


Another extremely intelligent film, a psychological thriller that veers into murder mystery territory, with a shifting storyline that leaves the audience a bit off-kilter by the end, still wondering more about the full extent of the central relationship between mother and son.  There’s a killer opening credit sequence that features the title character wandering through a grassy field looking somewhat dazed before stopping, turning to the camera, and performing a free form dance, not really in rhythm to the Spanish guitar music, but lost in her own peculiar world, a scene that repeats itself later with a different perspective.  Korean TV star Kim Hye-ja is mercilessly plastered all throughout this film, never seeming to enjoy a single minute of it, as every second is spent watching over her grown son Do-Joon (Won Bin), who due to his mental impairment has the brain function of a young child, including considerable memory loss.  Do-Joon contuinues to live at home with his mother, even sleeping in the same bed where his hand can be seen resting on her breast.  But there’s an eye opening jolt when Do-Joon is nearly run over by a luxury Mercedes Benz car that continues on without stopping.  His friend, local bad boy Jin Tae (Jin Ku), figures it must be heading to the golf course and they follow to administer local justice, but they bungle their mission, spending the afternoon with the hit and run drivers cooling their heels at the police station.  


Even though Jin Tae appears to be his friend, he nonetheless blames Do-Joon for breaking the Mercedes side mirror that he himself broke.  This establishes the pattern where Do-Joon is routinely called names by others in town and blamed out of convenience for things he didn’t do.  The idea that the disabled are weak and easy to be exploited is a central theme of Bong Joon-ho, ocurring previously in MEMORIES OF A MURDER (2003) where the police are quick to blame a village idiot character for a series of murders.   The same thing happens here as Do-Joon is quickly arrested and charged with the murder of a young girl in what the police are calling an open and shut case.  The audience is shown a few visual cues just around the time of the murder, but nothing substantial.  A lawyer is hired, but he is soon depicted in the most reprehensible manner, a man with few, if any, remaining ethics, as he’d just as soon sell out his own clients, concerned more about his own image and the collection of his fee.  The police aren’t much better, as they easily coerce Do-Joon through fear of physical violence to confess to a crime he has no knowledge of ever committing.  The authorities have no interest in what really happened, despite parading every known CSI contraption out before the public in a blatant effort to fool people into believing they know what they are doing, covering up the real fact that they haven’t a clue.  


This leaves Kim Hye-ja to trudge through the rain in search of clues to save her son, actually turning into a police procedural film through her meticulous efforts to follow the evidence.  This of course leads to dead ends mixed alongside essential information.  Perhaps the most outrageous sequence in the film is when she tries to offer her condolences to the grieving family who nearly start a riot in outrage over her presence.  The authorities in town have everyone convinced that her son is the killer, so she is threatened and eventually assaulted by the girl’s family.  The mother initially suspects Jin Tae, actually sneaking into his home where she is forced to hide behind a curtain in a perfect example of Hitchcockian suspense, where Lee Byeong-woo’s music matches the frayed nerves.  Out of sheer desperation, she is force to hire Jin Tae to try to break down a couple of glue sniffers who have been concealing information about the girl.  Do-Joon himself, pressed to recall what happened, has brief flashbacks of clarity, but they’re not always pertaining to the case, as he scares the hell out of his mother when he recalls a horrifying memory of such a hideous nature that it's hard not to recoil in disbelief.  If it’s not one setback, it’s another, but the mother relentlessly pursues what she can, stopping at nothing, crawling ever closer to knowing what happened.  Hong Gyeong-pyo’s cinematography captures in great detail the small, decrepit quarters of the rural poor where the walls are crumbling, where dark community secrets are held, where the physical reality matches the deteriorating state of mind of the mother’s ever increasing desperation.  By the time we reach the finale, some viewers may believe she has solved the puzzle while others may feel she is no closer to ascertaining the truth, as truth remains ambiguous and elusive, leaving the mother rattled and in a state of shock.  Bong Joon-ho utilizes near experimental imagery for his final sequence, one that has little basis in reality and instead extends the realms of the imagination to near formless images of fire dancing in the air as if the truth is going down in flames.  



10.)  SOMERS TOWN                                               A-                   

Great Britain  (75 mi)  2008  d:  Shane Meadows 


A short feature film on loneliness and the awkwardness of adolescence, a comedy of errors that is almost too short, because as soon as you gear up to the quirky rhythm and emotional pulse of the film, it’s over.  So this film is really just a blink of the eye, a time capsule, a brief moment in time, with one of the best endings since PIECES OF APRIL (2003).  Shot by Natasha Braier in black and white, the film is shot almost exclusively in the Somers Town area of northern London, an area of wide cultural diversity that features a large immigrant population and plenty of noticeable construction, including the still under construction St. Pancras station, an immense railway station directly across from a giant apartment complex that resembles a housing project, especially the giant signs warning children that playing is not allowed.  Of interest, we’re privy to a father and son breakfast conversation spoken exclusively in Polish, where they read “the personals” from the newspaper in an attempt to learn English.  The father, Mariusz (Ireneusz Czop), is one of the construction workers building the railway station while his shy young teenage son Marek (Piotr Jagiello) stays home and wanders the neighborhood all day taking photographs.  As it turns out, the father works all day and goes out drinking with friends all night, so the son barely gets a chance to see his father except over breakfast.  Adding to the authenticity, these are in real life a father and son, where the son had no previous experience, while the father previously worked in Polish television.  It’s apparent the son can barely speak English, so rather than be diminished to an interesting side diversion or an amusing character sketch, it takes awhile to discover this family unit is one of the centerpieces of the film.  Another is the introduction of a holdover actor from the director’s last film, Tomo, Thomas Turgoose, who played a somewhat autobiographical child skinhead in THIS IS ENGLAND (2006).  Tomo inexplicably arrives on a train (from the Midlands, in this director’s first venture outside his home turf) and is another aggressive young teenager even more lost and alone than Marek, as he’s soon sleeping on the streets just blocks from the station, penniless, battered and bruised, with only the clothes on his back and no place to go.  Despite their differences, apparently having absolutely nothing in common except a refusal to remain alone, they improbably become fast friends, where a street kid is so desperate for friendship that he’ll even associate with a foreigner, someone he’d likely reject out of hand in the neighborhood where he grew up.  


Tomo is intrigued by Marek’s gorgeous photographs of a French girl, Maria, Elisa Lasowski, who played one of the prostitutes in Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007), who works here as a waitress in a local café and is unusual in the display of affection she shows to each boy.  They, of course, are beside themselves with rapturous sexual delight, which she seems to get a big kick out of.  She is obviously the “it” girl for them, expressed in an outrageous scene where they both wheel her home after work in an abandoned wheel-chair, jubilantly running and smiling the whole way.  She lives in another one of these faceless high rise building complexes and disappears overnight, apparently back to France, leaving the boys in a morbid state of mind which turns into a drunken funk in a scene right out of Harmony Korine, dreaming of the day when they can see her again.  What’s truly intriguing here is that we enter in the middle of the story, as we’re never told any beginning or end, so we have no idea what the circumstances are that these characters are coming from.  After spending some time with them, we can only surmise who they are and where they’re heading.  They’re a couple of knuckleheads who grow more brazenly peculiar in each other’s company, expressed by Tomo’s clothes and exacerbated by a local guy Graham (Perry Benson, another Meadows regular), outrageously peculiar in his own right, a guy who sells black market goods on the side and pays the boys to help out.  An entire film could be made exploring the seedy side of this guy’s life, but here he’s understatedly comforting, as he’s the closest thing to a friend either one of them have.  Much of the film resembles the mood swings of teenage boys, realistically sullen and glum or hysterically offbeat, shown through sequential vignettes that collectively become the film. 


Easily the most poignant scene is a father and son conversation, again over breakfast, following the boys’ drunken rampage, where it’s obvious something is not right, as Marek is beside himself for companionship, apparently abandoned by his mother and left to fend for himself by his father, and now abandoned again by the girl of his dreams.  What options does he have?  He pleads for his family to get back together again, and this time his father listens.  The answer may not be what he’d like to hear, but it couldn’t be more heartfelt and authentic.  Your heart just tugs for this kid, who’s quiet and polite and dreamy-eyed, and all he has in the world is this dysfunctional street hustler in Tomo, who himself is a liberated bundle of misassembled nerve endings, as he’s a rebellious, occasionally hilarious kid that can be a joy to be around simply because he can’t keep still, so he’s dumfoundingly unique, but eventually when you need a little quiet time he becomes a giant pain in the butt—but he means no harm.  He’s just a numbskull.  The way their friendship plays out is close to dream-like, reminiscent of the ice-skating sequences in Korine’s JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (1999), where the brutal mindset of reality is set aside for the trance-like beauty from one’s imagination, where at least for a moment, the world couldn’t possibly be a more perfect place.  The director floods the screen with hyper saturated grainy colors from blown up video, creating a luminous palette of somewhat ambiguous design, perhaps presenting the world the way it could and should be seen, where happiness saturates our every waking thought.  The original music by Gavin Clarke resembles indie guitar music, quiet, never interfering, occasionally poetic, always a constant reminder of a hushed, tender side of this zany story even as it occasionally spins out of control. 



Special Mention:

NIGHT AND DAY (Bam gua nat)                               A-                   

South Korea  (145 mi)  2008  d:  Hong Sang-soo


Korean director Hong Sang-soo, considered the only remnant of what's left of the Korean independent movement, has grown extremely comfortable with his film style in this two and a half hour film, which is his first shot outside Korea, and actually uses Jean Eustache's THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973) as his starting point for writing a Korean film taking place on the streets of Paris.  Due to the length and the focus on a single individual throughout the entire film, this has the look of his most autobiographical film yet, as it seems to contain many of the elements from earlier films that have now been refined and reworked into this existential examination of a man’s life, seen through the many characters he interacts with.  Using digital video for the first time and blown up to 35 mm, the director also playfully uses the zoom lens throughout, changing the focus of attention as easily as the mind shifts from one thought to another, perhaps taking the place of the narrative complexities that were on display in his earlier works.  Opening with the magisterial chords of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, innertitles and a subsequent voiceover narration explain our lead was caught smoking a joint with foreign students who were subsequently arrested, naming his name to the police, violating the country’s strict drug laws, so Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) takes the next flight to Paris where he remains exiled from his wife in Seoul.  While he does cry about it on late night phone calls to his wife (which is daytime for her, thus the title), he also has an eye out for young and attractive Korean girls who inhabit his neighborhood.  While he identifies himself as a painter, and lurks in the vicinity of younger students in art school, there is little evidence to corroborate this claim, as he never lifts a brush in Paris.  Supposedly taking a break, getting a fresh start in a new land, this is certainly one of the themes of the film, as Sung-nam is hardly who he appears to be, instead hiding behind various personality changes where he can be meek and apologetic, humbling and gracious, but also a drunkard and braggart, bellicose and hostile, even a bully, leaving one scratching their head wondering which one is his true character.  In addition, the film unfolds like entries in a diary, with month and date innertitles, revealing only a single shot or fragments that just get started only to be interrupted by a quick cut to the next day, leaving what was about to happen totally in the imagination of the viewer.  This is a clever style of filmmaking, oftentimes absurdly humorous and self-deprecating, but almost always delightfully inventive. 


Despite this carefully mapped out strategy to follow the calendar, many in the audience will grow restless and some will leave the theater, as it’s overly detached and slow going, where for the most part next to nothing happens, as it’s a low-key, absurdist and minimalist modern drama that could just as easily be performed onstage, guided throughout by overlapping layers of dialogue between characters.  Sung-nam’s always helped by the owner of the Korean boarding house, Mr. Jang (Ju-bong Gi), who joins him for an occasional smoke outside and offers him some Korean contacts to help him explore and enjoy a richer cultural experience in Paris.  But mostly he has his eye on a revolving door of several young art students, honing in on Yoo-jung Lee (Eun-hye Park), a self-centered girl who plagiarizes other artworks, frequently lies, has a reputation for sleeping with anyone, and is gossiped about so negatively by other women that she’s the one he instantly lusts after and constantly tries to get into bed, usually apologizing for his forwardness, before putting the make on her again.  It’s an absurdist game of trial and error, where if at first you don’t succeed, try again and again until she gets tired of resisting, but Joo-yung adamantly resists married men, as there’s no future in it.  But he persists nonetheless, usually making an absolute fool of himself in the process.  What makes all this interesting is that Sung-nam has no other pursuits whatsoever other than putting the make on girls, which is exactly what the character Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) did from the sidewalk café’s of Paris in THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973).  While this is not nearly as confessional and gut-wrenching, it’s clear that Sung-nam is little more than a whore himself, a guy who is constantly trying to weasel his way into bed.  What we discover about his character is that he’s willing to step over other people to get what he wants, which includes making up stories, lying in someone’s face, going behind someone’s back, making promises he knows he can’t keep, whatever it takes to get the upper hand at least for a moment.  Over time, we learn he has a rather contemptuous view of others, so he feels no remorse whatsoever when he tries to use people.  It’s as if he feels that’s his birth right. 


For the first time in any Hong Sang-soon film, which are notoriously non-political exercises, Sung-nam meets a young art student from North Korea, which he finds astounding on the streets of Paris (“Should I notify the consulate?”), so at a gathering of friends he treats him like a puppet of the Kim Jong-il government, embarrassing no one but himself in the process for his spectacular poor taste.  This is all part of a continuing theme in all his films that reflect the ill-mannered, boorish behavior of men, guys that are beyond crude, that drink and eat too much, constantly manipulate whoever they can for sex, usually younger girls, and then perform poorly if at all in bed.  While not exactly a picture of impotence, it’s clear the macho exteriors rarely lead to satisfactory performances in bed, where we typically see a naked couple in a hotel room bored out of their minds with little to say to one another afterwards, where they guy usually sleeps it off well into the late morning and is forced to apologize afterwards or dump the girl.  This film, on the other hand, is noted for its lack of explicit sexual scenes, instead we get plenty of hugs and kisses and promises of love.  By the end, we even get a mysterious dream sequence that takes place seemingly after the final shot of the film, which seamlessly continues, allowing fantasy and reality to become indistinguishable.  These dream sequences of how Sung-nam idealizes his view of himself are most peculiar, revealing a surrealist absurdity, and represent a unique advancement in Hang-Sang soo’s film development, as it’s an example of an experimental film style through a continuing realist depiction, something French director François Ozon, for instance, routinely uses in his films.  But it’s a refreshing change of atmosphere in this otherwise completely naturalistic style that mandates authenticity in every gesture.  There’s very little drop off between one Hong Sang-soo film and another, as they are all of such high quality.  Compared to Eric Rohmer in the film press for their use of conversation and character to explore human relationships, I find that misleading, as Hong is far more confrontational in his use of deluded and misbehaving men, using complex narrative schemes and creating a far more experimental style all his own, as his films are a devastating critique of befuddled male abhorrence, where it’s fair to say the abominable behavior on display is universal, the ultimate power play option where men are constantly trying to get the upper hand even while they’re flailing away in utter futility.  They simply refuse to admit their weaknesses, even when they’re caught in the act.  My guess is seeing this with a mostly Korean audience who are more familiar with the cultural subtleties might be a different experience altogether, as it would certainly generate more laughter, but this is well worth seeing, where the length and use of fantasy are something of a departure in the Hong repertoire, a subtle and challenging film that extends his observations of the human dynamic.   



BRIGHT STAR                                               A-

Australia  Great Britain  (119 mi)  2009  d:  Jane Campion

Thank God somebody still shoots on 35 mm and produces a “real” film that in every detail looks the way film is supposed to look, where color, detail, and art matter.  A film laced with Campion themes and ideas, all beautifully rendered, where one especially admires the meticulous attention to minor details, this is a tormented love story between a sickly young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), unheralded at the time, and his inspiration, the object of his affection, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is consumed by his adoration.  From start to finish this film is an idealization immersed in Romanticism that freely mixes speech and theatricality into cinema in an attempt to broaden the audience’s understanding of the period, from the composition of each shot, where each frame is a portrait in still life, to the extraordinary use of costumes, where actress Abbie Cornish is decorated throughout in simply outrageous, overly dressed outfits which seem to exist only in the movies, to moments where characters break out in a song or dance, and are encouraged by others to do so, usually met with applause, but most importantly with the reverential use of language, which is after all, what we have left from the writings of English poet John Keats, who died of tuberculosis when he was 25.  Jane Campion has done something I’ve never really seen before in films without being pretentious (think of Sally Potter’s 2004 film YES which is spoken entirely in iambic pentameter), which is to create a literary language within the film language that interjects itself from time to time, like a film within a film, or a play within a play, where characters break out into lines of poetry, spoken to one another just like ordinary conversation, except the language itself is such a thing of beauty, including the perfectly exquisite way it’s being spoken, that it feels as if we’re being transported into an entirely new Shakespearean play of young lovers.  This theatrical device increases the emotional intensity and saturates the screen with yet another layer of sensuousness on top of the luscious and inspired cinematography from Greig Fraser, not to mention the hauntingly lovely musical score from Mark Bradshaw.  Everything in this film points to sensuality, from the eloquent way they speak to one another, to the manner of her dress, to the intimately stylized way they’re being framed in close up, followed by idyllic, painterly long shots of her two younger siblings as portraits of innocence in a luscious, unspoiled landscape, always capturing the natural beauty of the world outdoors reminiscent of the cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).

Written by Campion herself, seen through the eyes of Fanny Brawne, we are thrown into a period drama without any introduction or preface, where John Keats has already written his first book of Poems as well as his follow up Endymion, but he remains penniless and not yet a writer of repute, living nearby and supported by a friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a somewhat rakish, ill-mannered gentleman who spends all of his time in the company of Keats, probably borrowing liberally from his writing methods, supposedly liberated fellows intent on writing poetry.  Campion captures the irony of the Romantic era as a period of female acquiescence where Fanny’s quick tongue and self confidence immediately fascinates Keats with her beauty and outspoken candor, not to mention her new interest in his poetry.  Interestingly, Fanny has a skill in clothing design and wears her stunning creations as if on parade throughout the film, where she can usually be seen sitting quietly in a chair with needle and thread.  Keats is seen as reserved, isolated, and shy, well mannered, with a moral disposition and a keen awareness for language, while Fanny is still a teenager at the time and appears self-centered, a bit conceited in her dress and opinion of others, yet she’s also thoughtfully inquisitive, especially for things beyond her reach, like the world of poetry, which quickly becomes her latest curiosity.  She is seen throughout accompanied by her younger brother and sister, as a “proper” lady never goes anywhere unaccompanied.  The initial signs of love are simply a ravenous desire to talk with and be in the company of one another, all of which couldn’t be more natural, even when moving into the theatrical language of the era, stealing moments while trying to elude the net that the possessive Mr. Brown surrounds Keats with, who’s probably of the opinion there’s money to be made from this young protégé.  But the flowering of their love couldn’t be more exquisitely realized, especially with walks in the woods and the remarkably inspired butterfly scenes with her little sister Toots (Edie Martin), also a few shots of Fanny in the throes of love, laying on her bed as the curtains flutter in the breeze, or happily playing in a field exploding in the color of violet flowers with her precocious younger sister, actually projecting her love for Keats to her little sister and the rest of the world at the moment.  But trouble ensues, as Keats tries to earn a living elsewhere, where the entire world stops during those anguishing absences until the next letter arrives, where his letters are all that matters in the world.  But as Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox from INTIMACY) points out, Keats does not have the financial means to marry, so Fanny’s family is concerned with this all consuming passion, as it prevents her from meeting more economically prosperous prospects.  It is the era of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where even strong, opinionated women have absolutely no opportunity in life other than to marry a rich husband.  Other than that, they were viewed contemptuously by men thinking their opinion as pretty much worthless, which is exactly the way Fanny is viewed by Mr. Brown, so Campion really gets the tone of the era right.  This social dilemma haunts the couple like a plague throughout their entire lives.


After Keats’ brother dies of tuberculosis, followed by his sudden fascination with Fanny Brawne, his poetry takes on an increasing complexity, intermingling the subjects of love and death, eventually falling victim to tuberculosis himself, soon having to come to terms with his own mortality, writing in one of his last letters: “How astonishing does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us.”  Set in the poverty stricken, pre-industrial, pre-Victorian world of the 1820’s, there was no treatment for tuberculosis other than bed rest and moving to a more temperate climate, so his need to write, like Mozart on his death bed writing his own Requiem, becomes a race with time.  When Keats moves to Italy during the winters, their love affair appears doomed, but Fanny’s hopes throughout will not be deterred.  The blissful optimism of their budding love affair takes on darker, somber tones by the end, where much of the story is advanced through the reading of letters, as Cornish does an excellent job releasing her pent up anguish at the end where she lets out a ghastly death wail.  The finale over the end credits was unnecessarily confusing, as Whishaw reads “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety while music plays over the credits all the way to the end, but theater patrons are gathering their coats, talking with one another, even starting cellphone conversations, all with noisy, typical end-of-film behavior, which for most patrons happens as soon as the credits roll, so the voice onscreen couldn’t really be heard over the commotion and just sounded like it went on and on endlessly.  It’s an unfortunate finale, leaving some customers puzzled, as the rest of the film couldn’t have been more meticulously well-constructed, quiet, restrained, uncompromising, and well acted, always finding the right tone between the two characters, who could never marry or even consummate their love, as Keats was an English gentleman.  Certainly the Romantics were fond of suffering, and the initial bliss of love in this relationship is replaced by a tortuous longing for which there is no release, not even after death.  Such is the power of being in the everlasting grasp of love.    



OBLIVION (El Olvido)                                               A-                   

Netherlands  France  Germany (93 mi)  2008  d:  Heddy Honigmann                


From the outset, the audience is treated to a wonderfully told story filled with the most graciously expressed, eloquently understated personal outrage by a bartender as he explains what he’s making as he prepares a Peruvian national drink, a pisco sour, blending and shaking it to perfection as he speaks, describing how he has personally served it several times to different Peruvian presidents, as the presidential palace in Peru’s capital city of Lima is nearby.  This gentleman may as well speak for an entire nation, as one common element of nearly all the persons populating this film is a blisteringly low view of its nation’s leaders, who can be seen in succession in archival footage taking their vows of honor, promising to fulfill their duty for all Peruvian citizens.  Instead, for the last 25 years Peru has been caught up in a cycle of corruption, bribery, and large scale inflation that has devalued whatever little money people might have earned, creating a permanent underclass living on the margins of society.  Using her camera like a surgical instrument, Honigmann has a Louis Malle documentary style, which is to say her camera’s intrusion into people’s lives is impassive, used strictly as an outside observer, respectfully listening to and responding to total strangers, where her role is to authenticate her subjects in their natural environment, whether it be roaming dogs on the street, or jugglers or street children performing tricks while cars stop at red lights hoping to persuade motorists to offer them a few coins, a distinguished waiter proudly and respectfully serving his table guests, or people returning home to their ramshackle huts built in the slums on the side of a ravaged hillside, where instead of handrailings a rope can be used to offer support as people climb up endless stairs carrying their groceries up a dirt hill that seems to rise into the horizon.


This director lets the viewer gaze and decipher for themselves what they think, where Godard might over-intellectualize, and Herzog over-dramatize, but in Honigmann’s hands, her moving and intimate portraits of shoeshine boys, child acrobats, a leathergoods repairman, a bartender, a distinguished waiter, a man who has handmade presidential sashes for decades, a frog-juice vendor, street singers, or proud yet mournful mothers become a quiet, understated reflection of life in this city, where begging for money may seem common, but a family of five or six living off the proceeds is the grim everyday reality.  Much of this is heartbreaking because of the matter of fact way so many lives have been permanently affected, where there’s little to hope and dream for, where some of these kids can’t even remember when they were happy, or had a good or bad memory, or when they were in school.  As far back as they can recall, they’ve always had to work—this from a young teenager who works from dawn til dark and earns only pennies a day.  Yet none of these subjects asks anyone to feel sorry for them, or that they’re victimized.  One man who lost nearly all his savings due to record levels of inflation has tears well up in his eyes, not of sadness or regret, but because he knows he would have been lost without the help of his family for which he was eternally grateful and appreciative.  Rather than being perceived as one of the lost or forgotten ones, like the troubled criminal infested youth depicted in Bunuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS (1950), they are thankful to be among the living, still proudly having a chance to work.  When the sounds of Chopin add an entirely new dimension to what we’re seeing onscreen, there’s a hauntingly quiet reverence for human dignity, even in these marginalized lives, which the camera eloquently visualizes with a profound sense of unsentimentalized clarity, perhaps deserving the same company of some of the better documentary works of Chantal Akerman, which are provocative, unsparing, quietly unsettling, and poetically dense works.



REVOLUTIONARY ROAD               A-                   

Great Britain  USA  (119 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Mendes                         


“Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”  —John Givings (Michael Shannon)


Another one of those incendiary emotional dramas about doomed lovers, fractured American Dreams, and a marriage on the rocks with plenty of unleashed fireworks, where the real drama is what’s left unsaid in the empty spaces between people that over time all but consumes them, perhaps sealing their fates.  Adapted by Justin Haythe from the infurioratingly personal 1961 Richard Yates novel, this examines the flight to the suburbs in the 1950’s supposedly to lead idyllic lives that never materializes, and how some people are simply disappointed to lead sad, meaningless lives, while others are crushed by it.  What’s truly unique about this film is not only the amount of screen time between the two extraordinary leads, Leonard DiCaprio (perfectly cast for his naiveté, but no match for Winslet) and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, but how the perfect couple (“You’re the Wheelers!”) in their perfect little suburban home comes to resemble Ibsen’s Doll House, where Winslet, with the internal force of a hurricane, is truly trapped living a life with a man she comes to loath and despise with so few options available to her.  In hindsight, one might project possibilities that simply didn’t exist yet, instead she was forced to suffer and endure her stiflingly empty existence, made all the more uncomfortable by a husband who was clueless that his own demeaning behavior was the source of her unhappiness, leaving her feeling trapped with no way out.  What’s also interesting here is how few shots include the children, and how their home barely even acknowledges their existence.  This accentuates the self-centered ambitions of the adults, particularly the man, who’s overly defensive and quick to point out things are never his fault, while she believes the only hope is getting the hell out, moving elsewhere, anywhere, suggesting Paris, as that’s the last place her husband felt really happy.  As fate would have it, her husband was given a good sales pitch that he couldn’t refuse, where money induces him into believing he is getting what he wants, while she’s left to fall on the tip of her own sword and expunge any last vestiges of hope.  The last act of the film feels like a horror movie, especially the transition from their worst blow up to an eerily haunting breakfast scene that looks like something out of THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), as we’re simply waiting in the end to see what tragedy will bring down the final curtain. 


What’s interesting is from the outset, no one tells the truth, as they all seem to be fooling themselves living under a cloud of self delusion.  Early on, we see potholes along the way, as Frank crudely responds to the poor reception an off Broadway play receives in Greenwich Village with his wife as the lead, deciding inappropriately that this is a moment to have a heart to heart talk, which seems more like bullying and taking advantage of her when she’s vulnerable and feeling low.  But she stands up to him in a way only Winslet can, leaving her husband feeling more than a little inadequate.  Next thing you know his inadequacy is replaced by a dream house in Connecticut.  This typifies the problems in their relationship, as he has a built in system of rewards just for himself, which includes an after hours affair, the ability to climb up a career ladder, and the aggravating habit of having the final word on any given subject, including their lives.  He’s also seen as a typically immature male who's so caught up in himself that he can't even conceive what she's going through, a guy who always demands that they see things his way and when she refuses, it leads to acrimony, where he even threatens to call in the shrink, believing she must be crazy not to adhere to his views.  Such is the male-centric world of America in the 1950’s.  There are flashback sequences to their earlier, happier days, where there’s an interesting use of 50’s doo wop songs that shine a light on Winslet’s sensuality, but in no time, their intimacy has been replaced by a mundane life, a dreary job that Frank can’t stand, and an over-indulgence in cigarettes and martini’s and dreams of a better day.  And when Frank pulls the rug out from under her on that score, never really taking the idea of moving to Paris seriously, she feels betrayed, knowing he’s incapable of ever taking her seriously again. 


Kate Winslet is brilliant, as she never resorts to largesse or the Sean Penn style of overdramatized histrionics, but always reels her emotions in, providing a much more naturalistic fit to whatever story she’s in.  She never becomes a character through mimicry, by imitating or duplicating the behavior of others, instead she invents an original person in every single role.  She has an exquisite dance sequence that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in her career, much of it due to the stylish manner in which it is filmed (by her husband), but her commitment to that character who is simply fed up with the world around her is overwhelming.  And that look on her face as she’s being verbally assaulted by her husband is a thing of beauty, as without a word she couldn’t possibly portray greater strength than that look when she’s staring him right between the eyes.  Frank, as usual, gets the final word, but it’s a lie cruelly designed to demoralize and humiliate her in pure domineering fashion.  But it’s not all gloom and doom.  The unmistakable presence of Michael Shannon as the realtor’s son recently released from a psychiatric hospital adds both a humorous change of pace but also a devastating tone of unvarnished, no holds barred truth, the kind that feels like surgically precise, heat seeking missiles shot from a gatling gun as this guy lets them have it and what he has to say is at the very core of the film.  The question is can they handle the truth?  By the end, we may be asking ourselves the same question.  Though it’s an overly somber affair, seen through modern eyes this is an extremely well written film that resembles the acerbic dialogue and cruel power games of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), which itself was a daring display of acting on the highest order.  Hopefully this may motivate many viewers to rediscover the writing of Richard Yates, as this is a towering work that doesn’t fully come alive onscreen, but its lacerating portrait of middle class despair is completely on target.  




Tony Servillo – Il Divo

Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

Peter Capaldi – In the Loop

Filippo TimoVincere

*Nicolas Cage – The Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans  

Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart

Colin Firth – A Single Man



*Kate WinsletRevolutionary Road 

Zooey Deschanel – (500) Days of Summer

Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia + It’s Complicated   

Giovanna MezzogiornoVincere 

Kim Hye-ja – Mother (Madeo)

Katie Jarvis – Fish Tank

Carey Mulligan – An Education 



Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road

Martin Starr – Adventureland

Christopher Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Paul Schneider – Bright Star

Michael Fassbender – Fish Tank

*Christian McKay – Me and Orson Welles



Kathy Bates – Revolutionary Road

Marie-Josée Crozes – Hidden Diary

Jossie Harris Thacker – Mississippi Damned    

Mary Tyler Moore – Against the Current

Mo’Nique – Precious

*Bailee Madison – Brothers

Marion Cotillard – Nine



Kathryn Bigelow                       USA                            The Hurt Locker

Shane Meadows                       Great Britain                 Somers Town

*Andrea Arnold                       Great Britain                 Fish Tank

Marco Bellochio                       Italy  France                 Vincere 

Ulrich Seidl                               Austria                         Import Export 

Bong Joon-ho                           South Korea                 Mother (Madeo)

Hong Sang-soo                        South Korea                 Night and Day



Greg MottolaAdventureland

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – (500) Days of Summer

*Mark Boal – The Hurt Locker

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, and Ian Martin – In the Loop

Marco Bellochio and Daniela CeselliVincere 

Andrea Arnold – Fish Tank 

Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr, adapted from Robert Kaplow – Me and Orson Welles

Tom Ford and David Scearce, adapted from Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man 



Natasha BraierSomers Town

Christopher Doyle – The Limits of Power

Alexis ZabéLake Tahoe

Greig Fraser – Bright Star

*Daniele CipríVincere   

Hong Gyeong-pyo – Mother (Madeo)

Charnkit Chamnivikaipong – Nymph (Nang Mai)  

Martin Langer – Effie Briest



Revolutionary Road

Somers Town

La Belle Personne

In the Loop

*Red Riding Trilogy

Fish Tank

Me and Orson Welles



*Coraline 3D

The Limits of Control

Lake Tahoe

Bright Star


Effi Briest

Me and Orson Welles




Wendy and Lucy

*Somers Town

The Hurt Locker

In the Loop


Fish Tank

Me and Orson Welles



*The Romance of Astrea and Celadon


Bright Star

Red Cliff


Effi Briest




*Bruno CoulaisCoraline

Teho TeardoIl Divo

Yo La TengoAdventureland

Ross Godfrey – The Girlfriend Experience  

Carlo CrivelliVincere 

Hugues Tabar-Nouval – Angel of Mine 



*Oblivion (El Olvido)

Waltz With Bashir

Every Little Step

The Beaches of Agnès

The Cove

Theater of War