Scott Hicks’ “The Boys are Back” – A Portrait of Fatherhood

Kevin Smith’s 2003 film Jersey Girl was an adept depiction of the changing relationship between a father and his child after the tragedy of the mother’s untimely death. It was not a perfect film, but it demonstrated some real progress for Smith as a filmmaker, and contained some noteworthy performances. I mention this for two reasons… First, because Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s previous collaboration ensured that Smith’s film would not be given a fair shake by audiences or critics when it came out (notwithstanding Lopez’s death 15 minutes into the film), and second, because Shine director Scott Hicks has succeeded in crafting an even better take on the same concept.

Loosely adapted from The Independent writer Simon Carr’s autobiography, The Boys Are Back tells the story of Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a sports writer who lives in Australia with his wife Katie (Laura Fraser) and six-year-old son Artie (played by newcomer Nicholas McAnulty). His teenage son, Harry (George MacKay) lives with his ex-wife in England. Following his wife’s sudden death from late-stage cancer, Joe struggles with his grief, his job, and how to comfort and take care of Artie. They are eventually joined by Harry, who comes from England to see his father, seemingly for the first time since he was Artie’s age.

The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems.

Much of the film’s bright tone is owed to the gorgeous scenery of Hicks’ native Adelaide, as photographed by cinematographer Greig Fraser. Fraser, incidentally, was a second unit director of photography on Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film Australia, whose cinematography relied as much on digital arts as on the natural beauty of the continent. This film sticks almost solely to the latter. From the roads winding through the rolling, windswept hills to the grand, sweeping vistas of the South Australian coast, the scenery feels in every way like a love letter to Hicks’ home. And as a backdrop to such an earnest personal narrative, it sets the tone of the film rather well.

The pacing and backdrop of the film are further complimented by Hal Lindes’ breathtaking score. The cardinal sin of a musical score is to be overbearing, vomiting musical flourishes to lend emotion to a scene that is lacking, or step on the emotion that is already there. This score comes very close to that line once or twice in the film, but never crosses it. I found it impossible to suppress a grin during a scene (some of which is in the trailer below) in which Joe drives his SUV down the beach with Artie draped across the hood and windshield, laughing and screaming happily. If the score had relented in its delight long enough to let me fully think through this scene of patent child endangerment, I may well have sided with the myriad of people on the beach screaming that Joe is a lunatic.

Boys will be boys, and a friend of mine is fond of the theory that this is why the population begins skewed slightly male, but starts to even out early on (skewing female by age 40*). Any of my boyhood jaunts across the monstrous boulders of an oceanside jetty or through the branches of an alarmingly tall tree could have rendered me a similar statistic, but this is what fathers do with their sons, and this is one of the things the film captures so well.

Allan Cubitt’s script and Clive Owen’s performance paint a portrait of a father who is deeply devoted to his children, but is nonetheless quite flawed. He left his elder son when he was six, and prior to his wife’s death, he was absorbed in work. His reward is one grief-stricken son that he barely knows how to comfort and another halfway around the world that he barely knows at all. Once both sons are thrust into his exclusive care, he adopts an almost entirely permissive parenting style of “just say yes”, seemingly the product of wishful thinking and a deep desire to protect his kids from further unhappiness. This style works…with variable success, and the two child actors play their parts quite believably.

While figuring out how to be an effective dad, Joe deals with all the other struggles you might expect – relationships with the boys’ grandparents and his ex-wife, a budding romance with a single mother at Artie’s school, the return to his job as a sports writer… All of these issues were handled deftly by the film, with the exception of his job. In a long third act that was already trying to cover a myriad of topics, most of the job-related scenes fell flat and seemed out of place tonally with the rest of the film.

But none of these scenes detracted too much from the film’s great strength, which was its depiction of relationships – between Joe and each of his sons, between the sons as new half-brothers, and between this newly reunited family and the rest of the world. This film dares to ask what hope this new and semi-functional family has of staying together under the circumstances, and manages to thoroughly earn its sanguine message by the end.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” – The Devil’s in the Details

Megan Fox has something very much in common with her Transformers co-star, Shia LaBoeuf – they’re both strangely off-putting. LaBoeuf’s awkward reception can likely be attributed to being this generation’s geeky answer to Bruce Willis, but it seems to decrease as his acting prowess is steadily demonstrated. Conversely, Megan Fox has done very little to distinguish herself from any other honeypot on-screen, but from her vast array of tattoos and various attempts at being “edgy” to her public bickering with Michael Bay, she’s has done a fair amount to deserve a chilly reception off-screen.

Amid the scuffle of forced and angry celebrity, we’re presented with Jennifer’s Body, the latest outing from critically-polarizing Juno scribe Diablo Cody and Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, a sultry teenage sexpot-cum-succubus who is working her way through the boys at her high school…killing and eating them in the process. Her friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) works to uncover the truth and stop any more boys from being killed – including her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons).

Diablo Cody has once again shown her talent for whimsical character names and gratingly awkward teenage dialogue. Within the first ten minutes, we are treated to the following phrases:

“You’re just jello that you can’t go. Admit it! You’re just green jello!”
“You are so lesbi-gay.”
“Cheese and Fries!” [think “Jesus Christ!”]
“It smells like Thai food in here… Have you guys been f*cking?!”

And yet, as in Juno, if you can overlook the momentary twinges of painful repartee and hipster sensibility (which frankly didn’t bother me much in that film), what shines through is a fairly smart and amusing genre-straddler. The characters, some of which are in the film for the sole purpose of being killed, are much more fleshed out than most horror films would bother with these days. We’re treated to several none-too-elaborate, but nonetheless solid performances from Johnny Simmons (Hotel for Dogs), Kyle Gallner (“Veronica Mars”), Adam Brody (“The O.C.”), and Josh Emerson (I Love You, Beth Cooper). J.K. Simmons probably should’ve stayed home; he and Amy Sedaris are largely wasted in their minor adult roles.

Then there’s Megan Fox… About all I can say about her performance in this film is that it was one-note, but effective. There isn’t much to this character, and yet I can scarcely imagine anyone else playing the part. I suppose I must concede that Fox’s performance was passable, if utterly undemanding, but in spite of what the the posters might say, the real star (and indeed, the most prominent character) of this film is Amanda Seyfried. This is an actress whose work has steadily improved since she first caught her break as the dumbest of the Mean Girls, and went on to give a very effective turn on “Veronica Mars”. In this film, her character subscribes to the usual teen cliche of “hot girl + glasses/uncombed hair = plain girl”, but Seyfried continues to bring all of her signature likeability and earnestness to the role.


-“Our library has an occult section?”
-“It’s very small.”

As Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead have demonstrated, an effective blend of horror and comedy can make for a groundbreaking and fantastic film. This film may not reach the same levels of brilliance as either of those films, but it mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do.

It plays freely with the conventions of horror, often managing to surprise the audience by playing on the typical direction and storytelling. The film doesn’t overly rely on jump scares, and establishes an effectively frightening ambiance to several scenes. There was one shot in this film in which Megan Fox looked absolutely terrifying, and the camera lingered on it just long enough to make certain that the entire audience was squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the film’s appeal to the horror genre is unfortunately limited to just a few strokes of directorial aptitude. Once it begins to delve seriously into the rules of its world, the film throws itself firmly back into the realm of teen comedy.

I had to laugh at a scene toward the end in which Megan Fox was hoisted out of a pool by her invisible wires and harness to hang limply in the air, and the following exchange ensues:

Chip: “She can fly?!”
Needy: “She’s only hovering!”
Jennifer: “Do you have to naysay everything I do?”

What ensues is a myriad of nonsensical demonic combat and subpar wire choreography, but it’s all largely immaterial. By this point in the film, if you haven’t erupted in laughter several times, you’re probably not the target audience. This is a film that is unafraid to tackle the connection between painfully generic indie rock and the occult. A film that will gleefully present us with a scene of awkward teenage sexuality (rendered with alarming accuracy), and then cut back and forth to a boy getting brutally murdered. A film in which a scene of abduction and human sacrifice unfolds with all the subtlety of a “MadTV” sketch, but is nonetheless played for ample hilarity.

This was a fun film – just as laughable as the majority of the franchise horror films that will appear over the next few weeks, but not nearly as insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Or check out the red-band trailer at Shock Til You Drop (NSFW).

Shane Acker’s “9” – A Big, Beautiful Disaster

Poster for "9".

Shane Acker’s 9 is best viewed as a lesson in the perils of great expectations. For my part, I first saw the thoroughly engrossing trailer back in February alongside Henry Selick’s Coraline (a film I’ll certainly have to review if I keep calling back to it), and got a vibe not unlike that of Kevin Munroe’s 2007 take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – a highly stylized and potentially entertaining (if slightly generic) piece of animation.

And what happened next? I saw it again. And again. And the anticipation built, and the questions flowed. What is their mission? Who is 9, and how will he protect the future? How do you fight a robot with a pair of scissors? What’s more, I became increasingly enamored of its score, courtesy of Coheed and Cambria, and came to see it as a possibility for something magnificent at the end of the summer movie season – an elaborate and magical new world to explore, and possibly the next great animated film of the year.

The film tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world in which all of humanity has been wiped out by machines, and the sole survivors are…well, basically machines. What begins as what Ben Croshaw might refer to as “science so soft you could spread it on a croissant” slowly reveals itself as more or less a work of fantasy. The nine “stitchpunk” dolls are equal parts mechanical and spiritual, imbued with clockwork hearts and “the spark of life”. They are hunted by other machines, each more grotesque and animalistic than the last, for no clear purpose.

And I had no problem accepting any of that. The film’s problems are not of setup, but of coherence. 1 (Christopher Plummer) is the stitchpunks’ oldest member and self-appointed leader, who insists that they stay hidden and wait for the machines to sleep. 9 (Elijah Wood), on the other hand, insists on getting into the fight. This ideological split is central to the film’s plot, with stitchpunks on either side. The film’s overall intent seems to be to extol the virtues of bravery and selflessness, but through the course of 9’s antics, it inadvertently makes the opposite point.

Still from "9".

When 2 (Martin Landau) is dragged away into the “emptiness” by one of the machines, 9 insists on going after him (over 1’s objections). He tracks him to a factory and inadvertently awakens a terrible machine intent on destroying them all. However, this machine suffers the notable disadvantage of being tethered to a wall and only capable of manufacturing killbots from whatever scraps are lying on the factory floor, but despite the relative insignificance of this setback, 9 manages to make it worse at every turn. In the end, nearly all of the misfortune that befalls the stitchpunks is due to 9’s continuing recklessness (and his subsequent attempts to rectify his mistakes). By the end, I was left wondering if they would have been better off if listening to 1 and staying hidden, or indeed, if 9 had simply been dragged off by the machines in the first place.

In the end, this is a film that just tries to do too much, and skimps in all the wrong places. It forges a team of diegetically archetypal characters and barely fleshes any of them out. It creates a rich and breathtaking world of terrifying machines and neuters them with illogic and incoherence. It takes a number of beautifully choreographed action sequences and attempts to weave them into an utterly nonsensical story. And (minor spoiler) all it succeeds in creating is yet another morality tale about the perils of filling your evil lair from floor to ceiling with explosives.

By the end, neither the audience, nor the stitchpunks themselves seem entirely sure what they’ve accomplished (apart from getting several of their number killed), but they’re sure of one thing, as indicated by the film’s horrendous final exchange:

“What happens now?”
“This world is ours now. It’s what we make of it.”

After all its missteps, 9‘s final moment is imbued with far more bitter irony than the film would like… Instead of an inspiring message of hope amid adversity, it feels more like the gleeful nihilism of the final scene in Burn After Reading*:

“What’d we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I guess we learned not to do it again.”
“Yes, sir.”
“F*cked if I know what we did…”

FilmWonk rating: 2.5 out of 10

*Clip here (NSFW, and major spoilers for Burn After Reading).

Week in Brief: “G.I. Joe”, “Gamer”

Poster for "G.I. Joe".
Check out the trailer here.

This film almost made me reconsider my love for Team America: World Police. There are no lengthy musical numbers to speak of, nor are there any wooden puppets (with the exception of Dennis Quaid), but the premises feel very much the same. IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, an uber-patriotic team of American heroes (well, they’re actually a multi-national NATO force based under the sands of the Sahara, but who’s counting) utilize high-tech weapons and a complete disregard for national sovereignty to fight the forces of evil. In this case, the forces of evil include a rogue weapons manufacturer with a plot to “steal” some high-tech nanobot warheads – which he also manufactured – and use them to destroy three major cities, which will allow him to take over the world. Somehow.

Why he can’t skip the pretense of stealing the warheads is unclear, since he does have an underwater base and an entire army of fearless, mind-controlled super-soldiers at his disposal – a base which, according to the Joes, is “the perfect location – difficult to locate, and easily defensible”, and yet becomes the perfect deathtrap as soon as someone cracks one of the windows. What it becomes is a climactic set-piece for an underwater version of a Star Wars battle, and the result is cheesy, but satisfying.

Conversely, the Joes’ base was one of the worst setpieces in the film. At no point does the base feel like it could be a real place on this planet. It makes Team America flying out of Mt. Rushmore seem plausible. The CG design of this place was laughable, and indeed, a lot of complaints have been made about the “bad CG” in this film.

But I must speak to one sequence of “bad CG”, in which the two lead Joes (played with great gusto by Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans) don “Delta-6 Accelerator Suits,” which allow them to run and jump at superhuman strength and speed through the streets of Paris. The movement of these entirely CG characters does indeed look cheesy and artificial, but I must question whether any such CG could ever truly look realistic. Even the best uses of CG involving humans will inevitably break the illusion as soon as the characters engage in impossible stunts. And while this particular sequence could certainly have looked better, I don’t think it could possibly have looked real.

They’re chasing a Humvee with a spiked snowplow on its front – a vehicle with the uncanny ability to hurtle skyward any car that it smashes through. It’s as if Stephen Sommers’ saw the legendary car-tossing sequence from Bad Boys 2, and thought to himself, “Needs more cars.” The sequence is absurd, plays freely with the laws of physics, but is nonetheless quite fun. The only drawback was the complete lack of tension over whether or not the Eiffel Tower would be destroyed, thanks to the film’s trailer. The only real surprise is the sheer amount of collateral damage inflicted upon the population of Paris by both sides in the process.

I won’t speak too much about the acting, since the only actor that seems to be straining his craft is Channing Tatum… Dennis Quaid swaggers maniacally as General Hawk, with a voice somewhere between John Wayne and George C. Scott. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost”, “Oz”) reverts to his native, but nonetheless uncharacteristic British accent, and Jonathan Pryce dons a half-assed American accent as the completely useless American President. I was pleased to see the return of Brandon Soo Hoo (Tropic Thunder) for one of the film’s many brazen flashback sequences (in a scene that was shockingly brutal and effective for one involving child actors).

I’ll say very little about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, except that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, and his comical (and digitally-enhanced) voice reminded me a great deal of gay porn star Brandon St. Randy* (Justin Long) from Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (clip is likely NSFW, due to language and brief Seth Rogen ass):

*An observation I first heard from IFC.com’s Matt Singer on a recent episode of the /Filmcast, but the resemblance of the voices was uncanny nonetheless.

Laremy Legel of Film.com, in a recent article, makes a pretty convincing case against lowering one’s expectations for any film. The point applies quite broadly, but really didn’t apply to this film for me. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra delivered on most of my expectations, and to say that I lowered them would be an oversimplification.

I’ve had a great affection for director Stephen Sommers ever since the Mummy films. He’s an earnest Michael Bay – a purveyor of CG diarrhea who seems to genuinely believe that he’s creating artful cinema, and the results are generally pretty satisfying. And despite my nitpicks about this film (of which there were many more than I included in this review), I actually had a very good time with it.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Poster for "Gamer".
Check out the trailer here.

IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, the top spectator sport in the country is “Slayers”, a first-person shooter in which gamers take mental control of a real human being in full-scale combat. The top competitor in this game is Kable (Gerard Butler), who is controlled by Simon (Logan Lerman), an overprivileged teenager. From the trailer, this film looked like a second-rate knockoff of a third-rate remake, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, and indeed, the backdrops are very similar. In both films, the participants are ostensibly volunteers – death row inmates (of which there seems to be an ample supply) playing in exchange for a slim chance of freedom. And in both films, society revels in the violence inflicted by the inmates upon each other.

Unlike in Death Race, the viewers aren’t just casual observers of a gladiator-like spectacle; they’re active participants. In addition to “Slayers”, there is a game called “Society”, an X-rated mind-control version of “The Sims”, in which blubbery leviathans take control of attractive people and force them to engage in every kind of debauchery. While the gamers who play “Slayers” use full-body controls and appear to be in good shape, we are shown a typical “Society” player who is depicted, to put it mildly, as a fat, self-deluding, sexually deviant waste of life.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this film, if not for the fact that it is written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the same team of manic guerilla filmmakers behind the thoroughly entertaining Crank series. Neveldine and Taylor bring their usual frantic handheld style to this film, along with their particular flavor of over-the-top action.

But unlike in the Crank series, this film starts out taking itself completely seriously. And the result is a rather boring first half. The gaming sequences, which make up the majority of the first hour, exist in the same generic grey/brown ruined city and shaky-cam style that all boilerplate first-person shooters include at some point. These sequences are jarring, frenetic, and subject to constant interruption by fake static and video cutting out, which made them almost impossible to comprehend.

Nonetheless, there’s still some pretty compelling imagery in the first act. The prison where these men are held (when they’re not playing) appears to be set down inside a canyon, and is shot in such a way that the desaturated blue sky feels huge and all-encompassing. The resulting setpiece feels bizarre and otherworldly – an almost Limbo-like place for these men to await their doom.

The film really hits its stride in the third act, when we’re subjected to the most hilarious scenery-chewing from the Southern dulcet tones of Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) as Ken Castle, the inventor of “Slayers” and “Society”. Castle is basically Dr. Evil – a parody of a James Bond villain, and Hall is immensely fun to watch in this role.

This film’s most significant improvement over Death Race is that it effectively depicts just how backward, complacent, and violent a society would have to be in order to support this kind of system. And this may also be its most significant disadvantage. Gerard Butler plays his part completely straight, given that Kable has real stakes (wife and child), but the film just doesn’t make enough sense to be taken seriously. And while the ending is immensely satisfying, I can scarcely say the journey was worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival – Saturday Roundup

The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival, which wraps up today. I attended on Saturday, and had the opportunity to see films from all over the world, ranging from very good to extremely bizarre, some of which can be viewed online (I’ve included links below where applicable). The films were presented categorically, and I’ve arranged them in presentation order below. Bold text means I enjoyed the film, and an asterisk (*) means it was my favorite film of the category.
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Best of Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) jury award winners:

  1. Photograph of Jesus* (Director: Laurie Hill, United Kingdom, 7 minutes) –
    A brilliant, stop-animated retrospective on strange requests to the Getty photo archive. Well worth a look.
    Watch it here!

  2. Next Floor (Director: Denis Villeuneuve, Canada, 12 minutes) –
    A group of voracious upper-crust diners sit around a table eating at a grueling pace. The food looks normal, and yet thoroughly disturbing. This film is an effective visual allegory on a society that threatens to consume itself.
    Watch the trailer.

  3. Lowland Fell (Director: Michael Kinirons, Ireland, 21 minutes) –
    A woman meets two brothers and finds a dead body. Then they all have sex. It’s bizarre, overlong, and really not worth it.

  4. The Herd (Director: Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 4 minutes) –
    A herd of cattle adopt a wayward fawn. Very cute. Watch it here!

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Hej! (Swedish shorts)


  1. Tile M for Murder* (Director: Magnus Holmgren, Sweden, 8 minutes) –
    A man plots to murder his wife over a game of Scrabble. Based on the short story “Death by Scrabble” by Charlie Fish. Darkly funny and well acted. Apparently, there are a bunch of different amateur versions of this film, most with notably bad cinematography and almost certainly unauthorized. However, I must applaud these filmmakers both for doing a competent adaptation of the story and for effectively translating the concept into another language, since so much of the story depends on the words played in the game. More info here.

  2. Dreams from the Woods (Director: Johannes Nyholm, Sweden, 9 minutes) –
    Stop-motion two-dimensional shadow puppetry. The film’s backlit, shadowy animation style is very surreal and…well, dreamlike, complete with some breahtaking renditions of water, fire, and weather effects. I can certainly recommend this if you want some unique animation, but see Coraline first. More info here.

  3. Stig (Director: Henrik Gyllensklöld, Sweden, 18 minutes) –
    A bald, naked, middle-aged man attempts to go down a metal slide. Some pretty gay hilarity ensues. And that’s just the first act. More info here.

  4. Let’s Dance (Director: Erick Love Luncqvist, Sweden, 12 minutes) –
    A homeless man loves to dance and sleeps on a bench outside a hospital. A brother and sister, mentally handicapped and heart-diseased respectively, show up. This film is redundant, predictable, and borderline offensive. It has an extremely overbearing score, and no respect for its audience.

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The Animated Life


  1. Mite (Director: Karl Tebbe, Germany, 6 minutes) –
    An old lady with giant mites that threaten to destroy her home…and then the world. Shot in 35mm using a combination of stop-motion and real actors. Awesome score. More info here.

  2. I Am So Proud of You* (Director: Don Hertzfeldt, USA 22 minutes) –
    Don Hertzfeldt, probably best known for his Academy Award-nominated animated short, Rejected, presents this film, the second chapter of his “Everything will be OK” series. This film is a mix of Hertzfeldt’s usual minimalist hand-drawn paper animation and some other stylistic touches, such as the use of real-life footage, either with a low framerate or stop animated. Like Hertzfeldt’s other films, the humor is extremely dark, joined this time with an amoral and dispassionate narrator. Amid the jet-black comedy, there are some genuinely touching and sad moments. Hertzfeldt’s films just keep getting better. More info here.

  3. Otis v. Monster (Director: Patrick Neary, USA 4 minutes) –
    Stylish little claymation piece with a fun score and a good sense of humor. Watch it here!

  4. The Mouse that Soared (Director: Kyle Bell, USA, 6 minutes) –
    This CG-animated short is about a pair of birds that attempt to teach a mouse to fly. The film is loaded with references to other works, including (according to the filmmakers) music from The Third Man, the same opening shot of a No Trespassing sign from Citizen Kane, among others. For me, the most prominent reference was to Wile E. Coyote, when the birds, out of desperation, strap the mouse into a giant makeshift slingshot. This film would feel very much at home opening for a Pixar film; the animation quality is easily on the same level. And there’s never a dull moment. More info and trailer here.

  5. That Idiot Stinks (Director: Helder K. Sun, USA 2 minutes) –
    Like the Don Hertzfeldt film above, this film utilizes a minimalist, hand-drawn style. Unlike the DH film, however, this film is absolutely grating. The music is a cacophony of bangs, smashes, and wails of the damned, and the animation looks like a bad acid trip after being struck color-blind. If this film could find a way to be offensive to more than just two senses in its two-minute runtime, it would. Avoid this film at all costs.

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Love and Marriage


  1. This Is Her (Director: Katie Wolfe, New Zealand, 12 minutes)
    An omniscient narrator, the future self of a woman about to give birth, walks us through the characters of the present day, including the little girl who will grow up to steal her husband twenty years later. This film was a bit of a surprise for me. The narrator’s bias is apparent from the start, but the film nonetheless becomes an artful showcase of how people can change in unexpected ways as the years go on. At first, it seems bitter in the extreme, but somehow ends up being uplifting. More info here.

  2. The Little Blue Man (Director: Hélène Guétary, France, 10 minutes)
    A “sadness repairman” wanders the park sprinkling his magical happiness powder on anyone who needs it. Ten minutes is the perfect length for a film of this premise. Any longer, and we would need a healthy dose of brooding moral ambiguity, and the grander implications of a “magic powder that can make people happy”. What we end up with is a simple delight, with a hilarious and well-acted scene involving a breakup that suddenly takes a turn for giddy honesty. More info here.

  3. True Beauty This Night* (Director: Peter Besson, USA, 11 minutes)-
    A delightfully bizarre tale of forbidden love at first sight, and I should really leave it at that. See this film if you can. More info here, trailer here.

  4. Flat Love (Director: Andrés Sanz, Spain, 15 minutes)-
    A boy starts to disbelieve in the third dimension, and falls in love with a picture in the museum. Shot in New York City, told like a children’s picture book, and narrated to great effect by Isabella Rosselini. More info here, trailer here.

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Crime and Punishment

  1. Kidnapping Caitlynn (Director: Katherine Cunningham-Eves, USA, 10 minutes)
    Jason Biggs and Jenny Mollen star in this film about a girl who brings a date to break into her ex-boyfriend’s house. If nothing else, this comedic film is quite effective at showing the gradually escalating nature of criminal activity as it ventures into increasing levels of absurdity. More info here. This film was released online as a FunnyOrDie short, but is unfortunately no longer available. Instead, check out Hostage: A Love Story starring Zachary Quinto (“Heroes”, Star Trek).

  2. Because There Are Things You Never Forget* (Director: Lucas Figueroa, Spain, 13 minutes)
    Black comedy about a group of kids playing soccer who plot revenge on a mean old lady. This was a surprise favorite for me. It has some exceptional cinematography, with several lengthy, well-composed tracking and transition shots. It showcases some brilliant visual storytelling and very effective child actors. More info here. If you can’t find a way to see this film, check out the trailer, which gives away more or less the entire plot.

  3. Thorns (Director: Nitzan Rotschild, Czech Republic, 7 minutes) –
    A bizarre silent film. Starts out as a romance, but becomes…something else. More info here.

  4. Dockweiler (Director: Nick Palmer, USA, 15 minutes) –
    Ex-cons supervise the court-ordered cleanup of Los Angeles beaches. This film dabbles in some serious themes, such as how the justice system never completely lets you go, and some punishments never end. Unfortunately, it does very little to earn the character development it claims, despite a solid performance from Tony Todd as “The Duke”. The film tries to tell a feature-length story in 15 minutes, and the result is mostly disappointing.

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Nightmare Factory

  1. The Archivist* (Director: James Lees, United Kingdom, 8 minutes)
    Finlay Robertson (Doctor Who – “Blink”) stars as a man who vacu-seals and labels a series of increasingly creepy souvenirs from important moments in his former relationship. Watch it here!

  2. Alexandria (Director: Eric Elofson, Singapore, 9 minutes) –
    Three men are trapped in a rapidly flooding bookstore. This film does a lot with very little. It made me believe I was in a flooding building, and has an effective undertone of apocalyptic doom. It showcases some very effective character moments, despite dialogue that occasionally strains credulity. More info here.

  3. Tara (Director: Laurence Walsh, USA, 17 minutes)
    Men are clueless, and women have secrets. The “horror” of this film is simple, mundane, and rather cryptic. What’s even more surprising is that I mean that as a compliment. This film will probably leave you wondering what the hell just happened, but it is nonetheless beautifully shot (in some gorgeous vistas) and well acted. More info here.

  4. Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre! (Director: Robert Cosnahan, USA, 18 minutes)
    There will probably come a time when I grow weary of grindhouse tribute films, but it hasn’t happened yet. Ignore the hacky attempts at political allegory (“We need to take preemptive action against these hillbillies!”), and see this film for the gore, intentionally bad acting, and mud wrestling. More info here. And while you’re at it, check out Treevenge, from the makers of Hobo with a Shotgun.

Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule” – Presque perdu dans la traduction*

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*Almost lost in translation.

Films about pre-revolutionary France tend to share a kind of sadistic fatalism. They present a picture of boorish aristocrats too consumed in their own petty affairs to see the opposition and hatred fomenting beneath them. They’re tragic characters, but in some sense, they deserve whatever they get.

Patrice Leconte’s Academy Award nominated 1996 film Ridicule is no exception.

In the court of Louis XVI, wealth and status rule the day, but the real king is belle esprit – literally, “beautiful mind”. Belle esprit is what the aristocrats call a sharp, biting wit. They craft a perfectly brutal and entirely zero-sum situation in which the only way to advance one’s status in the court is to publicly and brilliantly humiliate another (and avoid being ridiculed oneself).

Entering the fray is Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a small-time nobleman from the Dombes province who seeks the support of the king to rid his country of the horrible swamps that kill the majority of his peasants via mosquito-borne illnesses. He meets the Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort), an aged aristocrat whose wits are no longer sharp enough to compete in court. The Marquis takes Malavoy under his wing, teaching him the use of repartée, word games, rhyming epigrams, and other clever bits of malevolent wordplay that will bring him ever-closer to an audience with the king.

But never puns, warns the Marquis. Puns are the “death of wit”. And never laugh at your own jokes.

Malavoy takes to these rules famously, despite conflicting strategic and romantic interests in the gorgeous and cunning courtesan widow, Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant), and the Marquis de Bellegarde’s breathtaking and scientifically-minded daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche). He also faces opposition by Madame de Blayac’s current companion, the Abbot de Vilecourt (Bernard Giraudeau). While the film’s hollowly-crafted love triangle is made a good deal more convincing by marvelous performances on the part of the three leads, this film’s effectiveness is made entirely by the brilliantly crafted court dialogue.

Rémi Waterhouse’s script shines in these scenes. If Aaron Sorkin wrote about old-world aristocratic politics, this is almost certainly what it would sound like. However, the film strikes a somewhat bizarre tone. It revels in the cruelty of these scenes in a fashion that is almost darkly comedic, but also feels the need to impress upon us how deeply misguided and out-of-touch these people are.

The court scenes also contain such precise and esoteric language that they raise an unfortunate and seemingly unavoidable issue that comes when bringing a film to a new language – inaccurate translation. At times, the English subtitles accurately conveyed the language, and at times they were adjusted as the scene required, such as a scene in which the characters are rhyming. However, the language would occasionally be oversimplified in a way that seemingly contributed nothing to the scene, and in some cases, completely changed the meaning of the original line.

A few examples…

French line English subtitle Actual translation
Votre place n’est pas ici. We don’t belong here. Your place is not here.
Il est moins bête qu’il semble. He’s smarter than he looks He is less dumb than he seems.
Nous sommes de la même espèce. You and I are alike. We’re of the same species.
Il ne faut pas sacrifier tout à nos destins. Our plans come first. Do not sacrifice all for our destinies.
On voyait un diable devant la croix? Have you seen a ghost? Did you see a devil before the cross?

There was an outcry back in March of this year when Magnolia Pictures mangled the subtitles of Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant Swedish vampire coming-of-age film, Let the Right One In. Having seen (and loved) the theatrical version, I promptly returned my copy of this film to Amazon when I heard the news about the faulty subtitles. It’s always a tough balancing act when deciding how to watch a film in a language you don’t know (or even a language I do know, in the case of Ridicule). If you choose the dubbed version, you get a caliber of acting typically reserved for cereal commercials, but at least you don’t have to read any subtitles. If you choose the original version, the acting is better, but you still have to contend with lazy translation. Some films, such as those of popular animators like Hiyao Miyazaki, receive solid translations and dubs with real actors. Just have to take what you can get, I suppose.

But I digress.

Ridicule is a solid film, competently shot, and feels visually authentic (with the period backdrops and costumes). It’s probably more enjoyable if you know a bit of French, but the acerbic wit and incisive jabs are delivered well enough to transcend the language barrier.

Details about Ridicule‘s ending will follow.

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Like the court scenes, the film’s ending is tonally bizarre. It introduces a duel with a character that had not appeared in any prior scene, and seems to serve only to give Malavoy some minor triumph, or at least demonstrate his hypocritically selective pride. The love story is ended in a more satisfying manner, owing largely to Mathilde’s quite believable transformation (and Judith Godrèche’s brilliant performance), but the central conflict between Malavoy and Vilecourt is not resolved in any conventional sense. Vilecourt’s antagonism is compelling, but Malavoy only ever wins a few minor skirmishes. Vilecourt’s largely self-inflicted downfall seems to suggest that in such foul and petty company, it is quite possible to be too clever for one’s own good. Or perhaps, even more simply, the longer you spend in this court, the more likely you are to pass out of favor like last year’s fashions.

Ultimately, the characters’ machinations count for very little. And given the proximity of the film’s timeframe to the Reign of Terror, it’s probably better for Malavoy that he finds himself digging through the muck alongside his peasants in the end. Any success at court would’ve gained him, at best, a half-dug canal, and at worst, a guillotine blade to the back of the neck.

But at least he met a nice young lady for his troubles.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10