Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Human Centipede (Saturday, May 29, 2010) (47)

The Human Centipede is one of the most shocking and disgusting movies I've ever seen and at the same time, one of the most elegantly conceived and presented films of recent memory. It is a disgusting thriller, and not for the timid, but it is much more than the typical gross-out blood-and-guts horror flick you might find at the local cineplex.

The story begins typically with two young, hot American sorority girls on vacation in Germany. One night they go looking for some hot dance club, when their car breaks down on the side of the road (of course). They go searching for help and come to a beautiful modern house set in a remote forest. Inside is a crazy doctor, a surgeon who spent his career separating conjoined twins, who now is looking to spice up his life by connecting three people ass-to-mouth in one long "human centipede". The idea is totally gross, yes, but it is presented with respect and a bit of a wink.

Of course the two women are imprisoned in the doc's basement laboratory along with an equally unlucky Japanese man. When one of the women tries to escape, she is caught by the doctor and told that she will be the "middle section" of the centipede - unable to escape because she has one person on either side of her.

The film is beautifully directed by Tom Six and shot by Goof de Koning (both Dutch, I think). (Six's IMDb profile is hilarous, saying he collects AK-47s, eats curry every day and loves Klaus Kinski). The house is stark white and off-puttingly modern with a lab that is antiseptic, medical and isolated.

More than anything is the wonderful horror created by the situation. Not just is it shocking to think of your mouth connected to someones anus (so you have to eat their shit), but then, what happens if they die and you're suck to the ass of a dead person. OK, this is clearly something that normal people don't think about, but it's hilarious and shocking in the context of the film nonetheless.

Despite its Dutch/German production, most of the film is in English (with the two girls speaking English and the doctor speaking English to his three captives). Brilliantly, the head of the centipede is the Japanese guy, so he is able to scream and cry in his own language, making the film marketable in Japan, where gross-out horror is super popular.

By far the worst part of the film - the most unfortunate part - is the silly American slasher opening 15 minutes. It begins exactly like any other dumb American slasher flick would open (with two hotties getting into a bad situation). One could argue that Six is merely starting with something that we know in order to twist it into something we don't know - but I think it's just simply dumb. The elegance and respect throughout the rest of the film make the first few scenes seem especially silly.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Friday, May 28, 2010

North Face (Friday, May 28, 2010) (46)

North Face is a German movie about the push to get to the top of the Eiger mountain by means of the northern side, the hardest climb in the Alps. The film takes place in 1935 after the Nazis are already in control of Germany. Some mysterious group of people, some mix of Nazis and journalists, decide that if a German team can summit the mountain before others, it will be a sign of Aryan might - especially ahead of the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

One duo, found by a Berlin newspaper, are two country boys who are amateur but accomplished hikers, who seem to be screwing around in some official capacity in the Nazi army. By the time they are convinced to go try the hike, there is another team of Austrians who are also making a go at it.

The two groups begin together and our German pair are clearly the more experienced and better team. At some point, the Austrians get into trouble that could foil the bids of both teams.

My main problem with this film is that it's really boring, it moves very slowly for an "action/adventure" film and there are too many characters with too silly sub-plots. I guess we're supposed to like the German guys because they're nice and friendly and don't seem to be Nazi party members. For a movie set in 1935 Germany (OK, Switzerland), Nazis are almost not present at all (the only real Nazi stand ins are the Austrians, who seem more interested in their Aryan heritage than the German guys.)

But there are layers and layers of ridiculous story lines and relationships. There is no need for a newspaper to be involved in this (even if it's historically true, I don't really care and it feels totally like an add-on to the story). What's worse, the main journalist is a young woman who is a childhood friend of the climbers. There are suggestions of a sexual affair between her and one of the guys, but this too goes nowhere. Then there's the woman's editor who makes untoward advances at her... as if I cared about her chastity in the first place.

All I really want is a story about two guys hiking up a mountain, and due to bad planning of others and bad weather, they had a hard time doing it. I didn't need all the other stuff. I mean don't show me Nazis and then suggest that a successful climb would be good for German propaganda and then do nothing with that (I mean I can't even get a single scene with Goebbels in it?! C'mon!).

Beyond this, the characters are really boring (I think that's actually part of the point. They're simple, boring guys who love climbing mountains. They are not political and don't care about the propaganda) and the technical parts of the film (the photography, music, editing) seem banal (even as beautiful as shooting in snow generally looks onscreen, this is just trite and unimpressive).

Director and co-writer Philipp Stölzl does a really lousy job of making me care at all about what is going on with the hike or the ridiculous sub-plot about the journalists off the mountain. It's basically a lot of snow and frostbite with some dull action scenes (that might have been shot on a sound-stage) and a mess of a story.

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Old Partner (2009) (Thursday, May 27, 2010) (227)

Old Partner is a very sweet and small South Korean documentary about an old man who lives on a poor rural farm and has a 40-year old cow who still helps him tend his crops. The man deeply loves and trusts the animal and does not want to believe that his old friend might die soon.

There is not much in this movie and it is very slow moving, but it is delightful. The man smiles all the time and has a generally positive view of the world. It's another interesting view of life in South Korea outside of the major cities (along with Treeless Mountain from last year and the break dancing documentary from a few years ago, Planet B-Boy), which is frequently very poor and desperate. Director Lee Chung-Ryoul does a very nice job making a peaceful movie about a peaceful man. It might be a bit too slow for some, but I liked it OK.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Daddy Longlegs (Sunday, May 23, 2010) (44)

Daddy Longlegs is a nice little drama about a loser, Lenny, living in New York City. After a divorce, he has lost custody of his two young sons (both under 10-years old) and only sees them once in awhile. He's a projectionist in a movie theater in New York and lives in a tiny, filthy apartment somewhere on the West Side. He loves his kids immensely and relishes the time he gets to spend with them. He's a good man and a good, loving father, but he can't get his life in order and screws things up when trying to do right by his kids.

The movie is totally small and has a wonderful independent feeling, looking totally homemade and rough throughout. This is actually a really nice thing, as it feels much more honest that lots of other stuff that might come out with a similar storyline. (I can just imagine a big Hollywood movie, along the lines of Mr. Mom, about a can't-do-right dad who gets into silly quagmires while spending time with his kids. Kevin James would be in the movie. Vomit.)

The real heart and soul of the film is Ronald Bronstein who beautifully plays Lenny. He comes off as a freak, but also a good guy you could see being a friend. As he constantly messes things up he realizes it right away and feels guilty about each instance immediately. He responds wonderfully and naturally to the two boys (Frey and Sage Renaldo) and seems to really honestly like and get along with them.

There is an overall grittiness to the film that I really appreciate. Something about the film stock and the dark, yellowish-brown color of the whole picture makes it look like a film from the 1980s (maybe this is a play on Mr. Mom, I don't know - it could be).

By far the most frustrating thing for me as a New York movie-goer and movie theater patron is a sequence where Lenny has to look after his sons and work the projection booth at the same time. The booth seems to be upstairs in a corporate-type building (who knows, some office building - maybe the hall of a mid-town screening room). The cut-away to the kids in the theater watching the movie is in the Walter Reade theater at Lincoln Center. Finally when the kids go outside and create craziness on the sidewalk, they're in front of the Cinema Village theater. This is really not a big issue, but is frustrating for an anal-retentive location-obsessed person like myself.

But this is the only real "problem" with the movie. It's a lovely little piece and nice to see a non-mumblecore independent film being made today (outside the normal means of production). It's very sweet and upbeat, and brothers Ben and Josh Safdie (who co-wrote and co-directed it) deserve a ton of credit for making such a solid, simple movie.

Stars: 3 of 4

Ondine (Saturday, May 22, 2010) (43)

Ondine is a nice little movie by Neil Jordan about an Irish fisherman, Syracuse (played by Colin Farrell), who pulls a woman out of the sea in one of his nets. She is not forthcoming about who she is or why she was in the water and insists on staying out of the way of the locals in town.

Syracuse, known as Circus by his friends for his penchant for wildness, is a devoted father who has been struggling to kick alcohol and improve his life. He and his wife are divorced and she is in much worse shape than he is. He's a good, likable man and is very good father. His daughter Annie, physically disabled and in a wheelchair, decides that the woman, Ondine, is a silkie, a Scots-Irish folklorish mermaid-like lady who lives between humans and the ocean. Through the film it becomes more and more unclear whether she is some sort of magical creature or just a woman who fell in the water.

The movie is very nice and simple. The best thing about it is how Jordan never really lets us know the truth about Ondine (until the end). We recognize that this world is very real and supernatural stuff probably doesn't happen in it, but Annie is very convincing and for awhile it's the best option we have. I really like this mystery and how it is played. It's not insulting us - but showing how the people of this small coastal town are in a position (economically, culturally) that such an idea might be conceivable.

Colin Farrell is really great in this role. He is respectful to Ondine from the moment he meets her (and considering his boozing past, it's nice to see that he treats this gorgeous woman with such class). His character struggles with his sobriety, but he is clearly the most constant force in his daughter's life (she lives with her more drunk mother).

Ondine is played by Alicja Bachleda who is, again, beautiful and very convincing. I like that Jordan decided to have the character enjoy playing along with the mystery and not telling people what she really is. There's a wink-wink to her performance as she thinks the uncertainty about her humanness/silkieness is fun.

At worst, the film is a bit too slow and very small. There is nothing really brilliant about this, but also nothing bad either. I think having Annie in a wheelchair is unnecessary and silly, but whatever. It is a fun little real-world fairy tale and very nicely executed by Jordan.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Holy Rollers (Saturday, May 22, 2010) (42)

I will admit that I went to this movie because I thought the trailer was ridiculous and terrible. Jesse Eisenberg, the lead actor, looks like he's wearing a terrible wig (though after watching the film, I do think it's his real hair) and the story looked silly and over-earnest. I was basically not wrong at all. This is a ridiculous movie that tries too hard to make me give a crap about an utterly boring story.

Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a Hasidic kid in his late teens/early twenties living in his parents' house in Brooklyn in the late 1990s (I think it takes place in Williamsburg, though it's never really clear - which is one of the many problems with the film. I guess it could be Crown Heights, but I don't think so). Sam is rather bored with his life and looking ahead to marrying the neighborhood hottie (who he, of course, can't speak to because, well, they're Orthodox and all) and ultimately becoming a rabbi or taking over his father's fabric store on the Lower East Side.

His best friend and next door neighbor is Leon, a super gooddie-two-shoes who is the star of the rabinical class they take together. Leon's brother Yosef is a misfit and soon recruits Sam into his business of smuggling extasy from Amsterdam into the the U.S.

At some point Sam is making more money than he knows what to do with, has lost the chance of a good marriage, has been kicked out of the house by his family and has become much more successful at drug running than he ever would have been, had he gone down a good path.

I guess the tension throughout the film is based around the split between Sam's Orthodox religion and the free, modernness of his life style - including pushing drugs that specifically lead to sexual liberation. The problem I had with this dichotomy is that Sam never comes across as all that serious a Hasid in the first place. He does not want to become a rabbi - that's what his parents want him to do - he wants to work for his father in the secular world. He screws around in his Yeshiva class. He's smart and knows talmudic stuff, because he's a smart guy, but he's never really seems like a true believer.

What you get, then, is a guy who is basically just going into an illegal business - and doing well at it. So what? Why is that interesting to watch? I never really saw that he was all that regretful that he was doing what he was doing. He was much more interested in the new crazy lifestyle he was leading and the new access he had to sex and women.

It really seems that he is only incidentally Hasidic - that that is not really a relevant part of his character. Before he gets involved in the drugs, he does the things he supposed to do and says the things he's supposed to say, but we never really get a view of why that the Hasidic lifestyle is bad or good - or anything. That he is Hasidic is almost a punch-line it's so irrelevant to the events of the story.

Some details don't make much sense to me - and really hurt my connection to the story. For reasons that I couldn't figure out, Sam's family only speak in perfect English to one another. I can say from living near Hasids for awhile in Brooklyn that most that I see on the subway speak Yiddish to one another or some other Eastern European language. When they speak English, it is with a pretty thick accent (as English is their second or third language). That Sam's family at the dinner table sounds exactly like my family at the dinner table is weird.

And then there's the hair. I am sure that Jesse Eisenberg's payas were his own and not clip-on, but they are terrible. I guess this happens with curly-haired Jews (I'm sure I would have bad payas too), but these really looked like a joke. Also - is Jesse unable to grow facial hair? At what point to hassids start growning beards? Jesse remained baby-faced through the whole thing which felt weird even if it isn't.

The film is slow and dull throughout with a very predictible and uninteresting storyline. At no point was I interested in an emotional level to the story or worried that one thing or another would happen to Sam. On top of everything the execution of the film is sloppy. Director Kevin Asch and writer Antonio Macia really do a bad job with this one. It's not even fun to watch and laugh a the hair-dos. I't just boring.

Stars: 1 of 4

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nowhere Boy (Wednesday, May 12, 2010) (41)

This is a movie by studio artist Sam Taylor Wood about the young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson, recently of Kick-Ass) in his mid-teen years in Liverpool. He is a good looking young lad, interested in girls and rock 'n' roll. He lives with his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle in a nice middle-class area. One day he meets his birth mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who gave him up when he was a little boy. She is a bright, young, sexy woman who is overjoyed at being reunited with him.

The two have an instant connection over their shared love for American R&B and rock music. John subsequently meets a young Paul McCartney and George Harrison and has an instant musical bond with them too. They begin to play shows as the Quarrymen and gain a local following. As this is happening, John is fighting an internal battle over his true feelings for his mother.

There are a few different stories in this film. One is certainly John's musical journey from English skiffle to American R&B to blues and rock. His mother teaches him how to play the banjo and guitar (sorta weird, because I believe the fingering is different on both) and he picks them up with little trouble.

There is also a story of John as a rather reckless young man searching for direction and identity in the world. He goes from being a bad-boy in school to being a rock star and taking on more and more responsibility. His relationship with his aunt, who has become a mother to him, of course, grows over time too. Their relationship is strained by the arrival of his mother (her sister) and they work to see eye to eye about their bond.

The most unexpected part of the film is the suggestion that John had a very specific Oedipal crush on his mother once he met her at age 16. I certainly knew that John's childhood was rather emotionally strained (being abandoned by his mother in the arms of his aunt), but I never would have expected that he had any anything other than a totally typical relationship with his mother once they reunited. I also have no idea if this is merely Taylor Wood's interpretation of the story or if there is documentary evidence of such emotions.

My main problem with a bomb like this is that I don't know what to do with it. Does this information help me better understand him as an artist? Did it change how he saw women and romantic relationships? Her certainly had an unusual relationship with Yoko (one could even say that she became a mother figure to him), but was that just co-incidence and the result of being scorned as a child, or was it more Freudian?

Unfortunately there are so many layers to the story here that this ends up being simply another item about him. I felt that the psychological aspects of this relationship was never really examined and this Oedipal idea was really just a descriptor - like the fact that he had brown hair and liked to play guitar.

Taylor Wood does a decent job with the unfocused script of Matt Greenhalgh. This is her first major feature film and she definitely has an interesting visual style and vocabulary. One of the nicest parts of the movie is the use of colors and how the palette changes through the story. The film starts out rather typically in the dark grays, blues and browns of industrial Liverpool. John's aunt is a stern woman who wears heavy cardigans and dark-colored wool.

His mother, on the other hand, is light-colored, fresh and colorful. She has bright red hair, wears bright red lipstick and colorful sweaters and dresses. Perhaps this is a bit too overt (and rather contrived), but it is a nice visual touch, I think. I really shows the world he's coming from and the world he is moving to - and helps convey the eroticism he sees in his mother.

There is much too much in this film. Between the music and the history and the psychology, it is hard to keep straight what we are supposed to be learning in the movie. I get that there was tension between John, Paul and George from the first time they met. I get that they were all musical geniuses. I get that John felt abandoned and unloved (and that this was a major part of his relationship with Paul who had lost his mother years before). But why do I care about it all? This feels more like a grocery list of things rather than an examination of John. All of these details are presented to us, but basically nothing is analyzed or dissected.

I frequently feel that bio-pics about people before they were famous are rather useless and mostly just historical masturbation by the creators. The reason I care about John Lennon is because he was a great songwriter and singer. I don't really care that he was a typically anxious teen. That's not all that interesting.

If you want to tell a specific causal relationship story - that, say, John wrote music about lovers because he lost his mother - then do that. But don't show me details of a person's youth and then not connect them to his later life when he became famous. That's all I feel that we get here.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, May 1, 2010

City Island (Saturday, May 1, 2010) (40)

City Island is a nice little comedy about a crazy, stereotypical Italian family who live on City Island in the Bronx. Father Vince (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who has a secret dream of becoming an actor. His loving wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is a very loving wife and a good partner for him. They have two kids, Vivian and Vince, Jr., who both can't wait to get away from their parents' house. She is supposed to be in college, but has dropped out and is now working as a stripper; he is a super arch and wise high school senior who is a screw-off and has a sex fetish for fat girls.

One day, when Vince is at work at the prison, he meets a new inmate who he realizes is Tony, his out-of-wedlock son from a previous relationship. He takes the young man in, under the pretense of rehabilitating him in his own house. From there Tony finds out about all the secrets that all the family members have.

This is a very nice and light story. The script by writer/director Raymond De Felitta is easy enough and rather elegantly reveals all the secrets of the family to Tony. He is a interesting cypher of a character - and not the typical con-cum-good-guy that we see so much in movies. He is a person that all the family members feel comfortable talking to, thinking he is far enough away from them that they can confide in him their stories.

The acting is nice throughout, though Garcia lays the eye-talian Bronx accent on a bit thick, I think. Young Ezra Miller as Vince, Jr. (who was previously the boyfriend of Hank's daughter on Californication) is very good, if a bit too wisely written. He seems a bit older than his age. I think this is a script problem more than an acting problem. His delivery is very good and well timed.

There is not a heck of a lot of depth here, however. I guess you could say it's about what keeps a family together (respect to not ask about secrets; the naive delusion that one's loved ones tell them everything), but that's a pretty tired idea, I think. This is a small picture and has a nice, sweet ending - but it is not much of a challenge.

Stars: 2 of 4