Review: ‘O Horten (2009, Hamer)

‘O Horten (2009, Hamer)

O’ Horten is the minimalist tale of a newly retired train driver and the overwhelming sense of wandering that immediately accumulates after 40 years of routine. Odd Horten (no reference to the English word odd however fitting it may seem) is a very withdrawn man who keeps to himself and to his routine. After a mishap involving his retirement party, Horten misses his last day of work. Instead he spends the day and night wandering around in a series of events that seem slightly out of order. His experiences are not the sort of extravagant events that a hypothetical Hollywood version of this story would place into the narrative. He visits his mother in a nursing home, he tries to sell his boat, he visits his tobacconist, he swims in a pool, he meets another elderly man who he strikes a quick friendship with, etc.

O’Horten is not going to be accessible for everyone but for those who are willing to give it try it works and had lots of charm without even really trying to have charm. It was funny without ever having any real jokes. Most of all its observational tone allows for a very touching film led by a fantastic and subdued lead performance by Bard Owe. His performance never feels like a one. The script only allows us to get inside his head a few times but the actor shows us through his facial expressions just how lost he is and how confused he is about what to do as an elderly retired person and how to face all of the changes that have taken place throughout his life. Another standout is Espen Skjonberg as Sissener, the elderly man he meets. He has already decided how to look at life and the slight extreme to which he takes things only ends up giving Horten yet another complication as to how to live.

Bent Hamer’s (best name ever) previous films include Kitchen Stories and Factotum, does a fantastic job of observing and telling the story through the silences and the contemplations. He keeps his distance and impresses many times with various aspects of the mise-en-scene. One aspect that comes to mind is the subtle but effective lighting at Sissener’s house. He has made a film about being old as opposed to the types of films we see a lot which are about getting old. The subtle jumble of chronological events is just enough to throw us off but also to convey the confusion of the main character. He has just gone from having a structured life to having no structure at all. This is a nicely told story that explores old age in a subtle, moving and slightly comic manner.

Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009, Gervasi)

Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2009): 8.8/10

Anvil: The Story of Anvil is a riveting, extremely personal documentary about the trials and tribulations of a metal band from the 80’s who are trying to get back the stint of fame they had early in their career.

It starts out with one of the films few missteps. My understanding from a friend who has dedicated his life to metal much in the way I have dedicated mine to film, explained to me that while Anvil was certainly a decent metal band, they are not revolutionary in the way that the beginning makes them out to be. Overlooked maybe, but not nearly as important as the film makes them out to be right from the start. Although he does concede to the fact that their output has been uncommonly consistent which is a nearly impossible feat to any band to sustain any sort of quality for 30 years (look at U2; they suck now. Seriously, what happened?) It is an understandable strategy for the film though. The more legendary that they come off, the more epic their story will seem and the more we will root for the band to succeed. They do not need quite this much hype though because once we meet the two remaining original band members who are the stars of the film, it is difficult not to root for them.

Review: Alfie (1966, Gilbert)

Alfie (1966, Gilbert)

It is no surprise that Alfie is based on a play. Michael Caine spends more of his time talking directly to the camera than he does talking to actual people. His womanizing self is always evident but it his frankness about it is constantly hidden. That is where his narration comes in. It allows us to see and for him to be unabashedly himself. This makes the lessons that he learns all the more effective.

Breaking the fourth wall is a very hit or miss tactic. It works in something like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and fails miserably in something like Whatever Works. It all depends on the film and the way it is done. In Alfie, there is so much narration to the camera that it feels like the entire film. I am pretty sure that 99% of all actors could not pull this off. Michael Caine can though. He takes it and runs with it. He makes it feel so natural that you actually want him talking to you. He has a rare gift to take something very stagy and to make it feel very cohesive with the film. Caine makes the technique seem like something the film is doing to appease the character and not something that he material has forced onto him. His character is appallingly hateful towards women as he uses them solely for pleasure and utters lines like “Call them birds or it”. Very few people can depict a character like this in a way that makes him likable to watch despite how horrible he is and Caine has that rare quality as well. He also makes the very few human moments that Alfie has seem palpable because he depicts Alfie’s own surprise as his emotions so well. It happens only a few times but each time feels human and natural to the character and his growth.

The problem with this film is the length. It takes far too long to get to the issues at hand and there are far too many women clamoring for attention here. About 2 of them could have been cut. The main plot points; the women he has the child with, the older women he has a relationship with and the women who he sleeps with who he gets to have an abortion, are the issues at hand but a lot of the film deals with other things that could have been cut out. Each scene shows Alfie treating women like dirt in dozens of different ways and 20 scenes of it are not necessary; 5 will suffice. By showing his treatment of women through the situations he finds himself in, which the film does, is much more interesting than showing scenes of him emotionally abusing and using women that do not contribute anything to the plot. About 20 minutes from the film could have been and should have been cut. This is a major flaw in the film as the pacing is completely dragged out because of it.

Still though, Alfie is a film that by all accounts should not have been successful but is. It really delves deep into the lifestyle of the Swinging 60’s and the new values that were being ushered in at this point in history. The best scenes were anything involving Alfie talking about his child (particularly the long scene in the doctor’s office), any scene with Shelley Winters because it is Shelley Winters and the abortion scenes which I would imagine were very risqué at the time and features 2 upsetting and moving scenes. The first is Lilly (the woman getting the abortion) after being induced. The second is when Alfie comes back after she has finished and his reaction at seeing the aborted fetus. It is a bravado moment both in performance and in the way it is shot by director Lewis Gilbert. He keeps the camera close on the face and particularly on the eyes as Alfie tries to hide his emotions even from the camera but he cannot escape its ability to capture his breakdown.

All in all an insightful and wonderfully dated yet still relevant look at the 60’s in London featuring a star making performance by Michael Caine. It is almost undone though by its redundancy and unnecessarily long running time. Special props are to be given to the title song sung by Cher at the end. Best song ever.

Review: An Education (2009, Scherfig)

An Education (2009, Scherfig)

We have all seen this story before. A young inexperienced girl meets an attractive older man who seems to have everything. He is not what he seems and her world comes crashing down but through all of it she has learned a lesson and it has all been a growing experience. The goal for these types of films, because they are so familiar, is to find a new level of authenticity within the story and characters and to essentially bring something new to the table. With the combination of Lone Sherfig’s direction Nick Hornby’s screenplay and the ensemble cast, An Education does that.

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has an idea about what she wants in life. She wants to lead an interesting life filled with interesting people and not be stuck in the place she grew up which she sees as being populated by dull people. Her parents want very badly for her to go to Oxford which she is studying constantly for. One day she meets David, an older man who has the culture and sophistication she has been looking for, especially compared to Graham the local boy her age who likes her (adorable!). She soon finds herself involved with him and his friends Helen and Denny. She begins to question everything about her life leading up to this point. She questions her studying and where that will eventually take her. She questions what she really wants in life and whether or not an education will provide her the life experience she is looking to have. As far as she can tell, it will not and she uses her English teacher Miss Stubbs as a prime example of what her life could potentially be if she continues her education and all she sees is dull and boring. Soon though, we can see the cracks in David and his friends’ lives and even though Jenny is much slower on the uptake, or rather on making the right choice, she eventually learns a lesson and is left to reassess her life and what she ultimately wants from it.

There is so much going on in this film and a lot of elements that are worth touching upon. It is important to mention Danish director Lone Scherfig’s accomplishments. She does an admirable job of transferring Jenny’s views on both her school life and her life and times with Davis to the audience. The school scenes are all very monotone in color, using lots of blues and steady shots. All of the scenes with David and his friends pop with color and even have a slightly unsteady camera as Jenny tracks through unfamiliar waters. The Paris montage is a prime example of this. The scenes with only Jenny and David that have anything to do with sex take on a very different vibe. They are darker in visually in tone. Scherfig also take a slightly unconventional way of shooting certain scenes that really enhances the content of the scene as opposed to having technique overshadow everything. The scene that springs to mind is the one where Jenny first meets David and gets into his car. The scene is shot with two different POV shots going back and forth. We either see David looking at the camera because of Jenny’s point of view or we see Jenny looking at the camera because of David’s point of view. The effect makes itself known but never distracts and is very effective.

What is there to be said about Carey Mulligan’s performance that has not already been said? She has had a bit of buzz surrounding her in the UK since her appearance on the critically acclaimed Doctor Who episode “Blink” aired 2 years ago in which she has a starring role and made a remarkable impression on fans of the show with some declaring Sally Sparrow (her character) as their favorite Companion of the Doctor’s despite her appearing in only one episode. Her role in The Seagull on stage with Peter Sarsgaard last year earned her a lot of buzz as well. All she needed was a role like this in a film to allow for an official public entrance into the world of film. Very rarely is there this much buzz anticipating the potential in a young woman’s career. I know I have not been this excited for quite some time. Ellen Page is the last person I could think of. But before that…I have no idea. Next year she will appear in an adaptation of my second favorite novel Never Let Me Go with Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield (of Boy A), Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling. (Words cannot explain how nervous and excited I am by the film and especially with this ridiculous cast)

Back to Mulligan though, she radiates every second here. There are so many moments when her face reads so clearly and so authentically to anyone watching her. We fully believe every moment Jenny is living through. The scene when she lowers her nightie for David was incredible. There were so many emotions reading on her face in that one moment. Jenny makes a lot of bad decisions but can we blame her? She shows off a bit too much but can we blame her for that either? While Jenny is not perfect, Mulligan and the script make it impossible to be upset or frustrated with her because both the performance by Mulligan and the script make Jenny’s actions so relatable and understandable. Would any of us do anything differently? Mulligan even steals scenes from Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson! Carey Mulligan has an ageless quality about her. She could belong in any time. She appears to be wise beyond her years and extremely mature but she captures the naiveté, youth and inexperience of Jenny so well. She also excels in showing us Jenny’s progress as a character and her growing maturity by the end.

All of the other actors excel here as well. While the character of Jenny’s father Jack borders on caricature much of the time, Alfred Molina is superb in the role and brings humor to the proceedings. He also really nails the scene when he brings Jenny tea and biscuits at the end; powerful stuff. Olivia Williams, while not having any flashy scenes, manages to create the film’s most interesting character besides Jenny and David, Miss Stubbs. Cara Seymour, a highly underrated actress is great as Jenny’s mother. She wants to relate to her and she can but she never allows herself to outright link herself with her daughter. Emma Thompson has a pretty flat role but its monotony sort of outlines all of the sexism going on within girls’ schools at the time, an issue I wish had been explored slightly more blatantly. Even Matthew Beard as Graham did a great job. He was so adorable! I needed to mention that again. Also, thank you Sally Hawkins for popping up in one scene, a great scene, and leaving me to want more Sally Hawkins. Thanks a lot.

For me the standout besides Mulligan was Peter Sarsgaard in what I believe to be his best performance yet. Ok so the accent was only passable but it did not distract at all. Sarsgaard’s performances have always been too subtle for Academy voters. Molina’s performance will be the one recognized and not undeservedly but I wish Sarsgaard was getting more attention. David is not nearly as simplistic as other roles like this have been portrayed. He is a scumbag, charming, manipulative and all of those lovely traits we have come to know and hate in these characters. There is an ambiguity with David though that is beautifully played by the actor. He really does like Jenny and her parents even but he is unable to harness the genuine feelings he has for people into anything healthy. The speech he makes to Jenny about being clever after she finds out about his job pertains to more than just his job. He is really talking about the way he lives in every respect and the audience does not catch onto this until after it is revealed that he is married. We get the sense that he has never really grown up. The nicknames he places with Jenny and he is creepy, but oddly sincere and very very childlike. He reveals the different layers of David through little moments such as the way he treats Jenny when they go to the old woman’s house, the way he looks at her as she dances with Denny, etc. The scene when David asks Jenny to marry her is why his performance should be getting serious awards consideration. The subtleties are spellbinding. I was taken aback by his facial expressions in these moments. Then there is the moment in the car which I did not see coming. Sarsgaard plays the charming schemer role in An Education but he brings so much more to the role which is one of the reasons that the film brings something new to the table with this story.

There are other reasons that An Education brings something new to the table. One very important reason is the constant assertion that sex does not play a role in Jenny’s newfound lifestyle. It IS the lifestyle and her love for French things, sophistication, interesting conversations, jazz clubs, fun clothes and exciting adventures that is causing her to stray from her studies. It is not some passionate romance. Sex plays such a small part as can be seen in the great short scene after Jenny has sex when she observes “All of that poetry and all of those songs for something that lasts no time at all”. There are also a lot of little moments that make the film quite special. An example is the auction scene and the way David signals to Jenny to bid. The film also allows Jenny to be manipulative as well. She is shown manipulating her parents along with David in order for them to get what they want instead of the predictable route of Jenny watching amazed as David does all of the work.

The film is not perfect. The consequences of Jenny’s actions and of David’s actions are not very felt and last for too short a time. The film also wraps up all of Jenny’s problems with a montage of her studying. I love the scene when she goes to Miss Stubbs to apologize but once she asks for the help, the film does not observe nearly as acutely as it did before. I do wish a few issues had been touched on a bit more like as I mentioned the conditions of women’s schools in the 60’s. Then there is the last scene. My friend who I saw it with said after it was over “It’s like they showed the film to a moronic test audience that needed even more finalization to the already too wrapped up ending and this was the result”. I said “I feel like I just walked out of a mediocre film even though I really loved it.” That last minute is a killjoy. There is the narration that makes no sense. There is the confirmation that she indeed went to Oxford even though the scene before shows us that she was accepted!! There is the overly clichéd statements about life and learning that the film already blatantly depicts throughout. What a horrible note to end on. Horrible, just horrible.

Despite these problems, An Education on the whole is a marvelous and deftly observed story about a girl growing up in the 60’s and grappling with her options. Featuring a star making performance by Mulligan, a great ensemble cast, a nicely layered script by author Nick Hornby and subtle and creative direction by Lone Scherfig, An Education is one of my favorite films of the year.

Short Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928, Leni)

The Man Who Laughs (1928, Leni)

This silent film, produced by Hollywood and made by German expressionists including director Paul Leni, is not really a horror film. It falls more under the melodrama genre and is based on a novel by Victor Hugo. Conrad Veidt’s performance, the makeup, art direction and Paul Leni’s expressionist point of view make for a melodrama presented as a horror film. Conrad Veidt’s as Gwynplaine is filled with expression and sadness (using only his eyes) that cannot be forgotten. Olga Baclanova nearly steals the film away from Veidt as Duchess Josiana who loves to do what she wants and has an inexplicable facination with Gwynplaine. Baclanova is captivating with sizzling sexuality dealing with an ambiguous and complex character. Her subplot is even more interesting than the main story. Leni makes very early use of sound by creating certain sound effects and lending a lot of atmosphere with audio during the crowd scenes. The love story is moving, a bit repetitive at times, but still effective. The grimace on Veidt’s face is one of the more unforgettable images film has to offer. Leni’s directorial voice stands out with many techniques that enhance emotion and atmosphere. One of the best silent films ever made, this is a must-see.

Short Review: Pin (1988, Stern)

Pin (1988, Stern)

IMDB Summary: A doctor has a lifelike, anatomically-correct medical dummy, with muscles and organs visible through its clear skin, named Pin (after Pinocchio). Via ventriloquism, Pin explains bodily functions in a way kids can relate to. When the over-strict doctor and his wife are killed in a car crash, his son (Leon) transfers his alter-ego into Pin, whom he always believed was alive. He starts using Pin as an excuse to over-protect his sister (Ursula) from admirers and deflect unwanted intrusions, even to the extent of committing murder.

Pin is a film that will distance some and entrance others. It is a hidden gem not only of the horror genre, but of any genre. In fact, it is more psychological drama than anything else. It will be cast off by some as being silly, but Pin is one of the more intense and layered character studies that exist. Luckily, it has a solid cult status and has managed to gain the respect of most that see it. It features a unique plot based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman and is grounded in two superb lead performances by David Hewlett and Cynthia Preston as Leon and Ursula. The film is not scary but it is deeply unsettling. Each scene is about painting a portrait of a troubled paranoid schizophrenic and the sister who has adapted to living with him. The last scene, which will forever haunt me, conveys the sense of remaining mystery that exists to the story.

This is a film that could have been terrible every step of the way; it asks a lot of its audience to buy a story this outlandish. The performances could have easily stripped away any credibility within the script. Instead, this is a film that should not have worked but does in every way. Hewlett is a revelation in an early role, performed whole-heartedly and thoughtfully. Certainly one of the most underrated performances in film. It also has a female protagonist that manages to be extremely sympathetic, intelligent and likable. Seeing Ursula navigate through the rocky terrain of her relationship with Leon is fully engrossing. Terry O’Quinn as Dr. Linden is excellent as a man who was never meant to be a father and whose methods of connecting with his children are unorthodox.

I implore you to seek this out. It is on Instant Netflix. To say this is one of my new favorite films is a vast understatement. If you are looking for scares, seek something else out. If you want a disturbing character study that fully and sincerely draws you into its weird, outlandish and creepy world, see this film. I’d love to write extensively about this one day as this is a very short summary of initial thoughts.

Short Review: Piranha 3-D (Aja, 2010)

Piranha 3-D (2010)

If I wanted to watch “Girls Gone Wild”, I would have simply watched “Girls Gone Wild”. Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3-D is so abrasively targeted at the heterosexual male demographic, that it becomes hard to even sit through this obnoxious onslaught of Spring Break antics and gratuitous nudity. Of course, in the final third, when all hell breaks loose, Aja takes the same amount of glee in showing women being ripped apart mercilessly when hardly any men are shown being eaten on screen. Jerry O’Connell’s death scene admittedly makes up for some of that. The film tries way too hard to be irreverent and to gain a cult following. It also has an inconsistency that sharply divides the pointless first two thirds and the legitimately fantastic final third. The first two thirds feature little violence and too much plot set-up which matters little. The characters are not worth the time spent on them.

Maximum exposure to the Spring Break crowd proves to be as barbaric as it always has seemed, making the mass destruction that happens late in the film a welcome arrival. Is this the point? Probably, considering that films like this are trying to get us to root for violence; having terrible characters helps that. There seems to be an odd tone of justice racing through the violence in the last act, as if the director could not take any more of watching drunken college idiots acting moronic for over an hour.

This is where the film succeeds; the final third. Aja not only manages to construct very impressive sequences of violence and chaos, but he makes the irreverence he had been seeking a success. I get that this is a B-movie that is meant to glorify sex and violence but did it have to be so inconsistent, predictable, repetitive and obvious? It is clear that Aja wanted to save the goods for the final act and provides filler for the rest of the film complete with a boring and unsympathetic protagonist, and a Joe Francis parody that gets old minutes into O’Connell’s performance.

Overall, it’s all too easy to see what Piranha 3-D was going for. There is one third of a really good film here and the rest is schlock that is trying far too hard to be schlock. For the record, the underwater nude scene was the best part of the first two thirds. It carried an absurdist tone the rest lacked and used nudity in an amusing way as opposed to the redundant overexposure going on elsewhere. At least it was a hell of a lot better than Mirrors.

Short Review: Eyes of Laura Mars (Kershner, 1978)

Eyes of Laura Mars (Kershner, 1978)

IMDB Summary: Suddenly Laura Mars can see through the eyes of a serial killer as he commits his crimes. She contacts the police and with the aid of a police detective, tries to stop the killer. But first, they have to figure out who it is.

Eyes of Laura Mars has the type of horror kitsch that draws me in. Featuring elements like opening to Barbara Streisand’s “Prisoner” and elaborate sequences that focus on fashion photography accompanied by disco music, its time-specific elements and ludicrous nature cannot help but suck one in. There are a number of reasons that the film, even though it is not successful as horror, works. The characters, even the secondary ones, are rather well-rounded. It gives us a sense of the characters both as individuals and in their dynamic with Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway). Even the two models she regularly works with, Lulu and Michelle, are sympathetic. Most slasher films have flat characters that function and are presented as objects to later be killed. In fact, many sub-genre characters are purposely made unlikable just so the audience can look forward to their kill scene. Thankfully, this tactic is not employed here. The performances are also rather good. Tommy Lee Jones in an early role brings a great deal more than was needed as Lt. John Neville. Also standing out are Brad Dourif as Laura’s driver Tommy and Rene Auberjonois as Laura’a agent and friend Donald Phelps.

Entering the second half of the film is where it begins its descent into disappointment. Laura’s visions and her reaction to them become more than a little redundant. All of the relatively interesting conversation about violence in the mass media is dropped. Finally, the last 10 minutes dislodge any quality that came before with its twist ending. Making no sense and seemingly tacked on for impact, the film simply ends. Overall, it was well worth seeing, but the film had nothing exciting up its sleeve after a certain point.

Short Review: Play Misty for Me (Eastwood, 1971)

Play Misty for Me (Eastwood, 1971):

IMDB Summary: A brief fling between a male disc jockey and an obsessed female fan takes a frightening, and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.

Clint Eastwood’s first directorial debut is a standard entry into the psycho stalker woman type of horror film, later to be populated by Fatal Attraction. Jessica Walter fills the film with life, giving an unpredictable performance. It is admittedly fun to see increasing desperation play on Eastwood’s face. The scenes between Dave (Clint Eastwood) and Evelyn (Jessica Walter) are the high point. Evelyn constantly walks the line between assumed “cutsy”-talk and aggressive outbursts. Contrasting those scenes, it is difficult to get involved in the subplot between Dave and Tobie (Donna Mills), a former flame who he is in the midst of reuniting with. The two actors have no chemistry and deliver their lines monotonously when together.

Eastwood also mistakenly forays into lengthy scenes that completely remove us from the narrative and offer nothing in return. These include a scene at a jazz festival that chops up the final act and a corny extended sex scene in the woods between Eastwood and Mills. Play Misty for Me is certainly enjoyable but its standard issue packaging offer little else beyond killing a couple of hours.