Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ides of March

THE IDES OF MARCH                 C+                  
USA  (101 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  George Clooney
America remained obsessed with the ramifications of the Vietnam War for decades afterwards, where the anti war protests of the 60’s and 70’s left the Democratic left subject to attacks from the Republican right for being soft on defense, a criticism that stuck a chord with American voters, leading President Reagan to coin the phrase the Vietnam Syndrome, which was a reluctance on the part of Americans to support foreign military intervention, still reeling from the negative effects of the experience in Vietnam, where so many lives were unnecessarily lost.  This led to a series of Republican Presidents in a 24 year cycle from Nixon to Bush, interrupted only for four years by Washington political outsider Jimmy Carter, who offered amnesty for draft dodgers that fled to Canada during the Vietnam era.  The quick success of American troops in Operation Desert Storm (1991), declaring a cessation of ground operations just 100 hours after the campaign started, made many forget about the shameful debacle of Vietnam, which remained something of an unspoken embarrassment for decades afterwards. 

What this film does is resurrect the scandalous legacy of the Clinton years, completely ignoring any political success or failures during his two terms, but instead focusing entirely on the shameful conduct of his personal life, much as the Republican opposition did when he was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998, later acquitted by the Senate.  All people talked about during that era was how a President having extra marital sex in the White House demeans the office of the Presidency.  If one didn’t know better, you’d think this movie was a Right wing smear campaign against Clinton, only to discover George Clooney directed and co-writes this script with Grant Heslov, adapting Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, which resuscitates from the dead the Republican argument 15 years after the fact, all but conceding the Republican view that Clinton’s womanizing was an embarrassment to the nation, as if the nation’s cynicism about politics can be traced to this single act. 

Despite the preaching and overreaching tone of seriousness where everything looks larger than life, this is basically a rehashing of the Monica Lewinsky story where a Democratic Presidential candidate (Clooney) is again caught having sex with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), despite believing he had taken every precaution to avoid getting caught. The story even includes the intern having a powerfully connected father, as here he is the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  This is all about the inside ramifications within a political operation rather than the overall effect it has on the nation, but certainly by the end, there is no denying that politics itself have been tainted with this kind of tawdry descent into tabloid journalism.  For Clooney to exploit the salacious sex angle undermines any other meaningful point the movie may be trying to make, as a revisitation of the immorality of the Clinton years is quite simply an astonishingly regressive step.  Nonetheless the movie is so slick that many may actually miss this point, as it’s not so much a movie about THE CANDIDATE (1972), where Clooney himself is relegated to a mostly offscreen secondary role, it’s instead what’s going on in the lives of the political operatives behind him, where their lives are surrounded by the intense pressure and daily intrigue of running a high profile political campaign.        

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rumpled, cigarette smoking man behind the candidate, the head political operative with all the years of experience, where his wing man media advisor is the up and coming rising star, Ryan Gosling, where together this team runs a formidable political operation, known for their shrewdness in manipulating the press and for their inspirational political savvy, making sure their candidate stays on message.  In contrast, the opposition campaign is run by none other than Paul Giamatti in a Rabelaisian role of a guy willing to “get down in the mud with the fucking elephants” and play dirty tricks and political hardball, not at all afraid to use smear tactics to raise his candidate’s standings in the polls.  The behind-the-scenes intrigue is especially convincing by the power of Gosling’s performance, as he single handedly elevates this material, as does an affecting turn from Evan Rachel Wood, as the two are the real heart and soul of this movie.  Despite excellent performances from some heavy hitters, the problem is that this never elevates the political discussion, instead it only rehashes old news, bringing it all back to the forefront, something we all hoped was forgotten long ago.  Leave it to a liberal leaning Democrat to once more embarrass the Democrats with another eager young intern and cast an ugly stain over the entire political system in the process.  All that’s missing is the blue dress.    

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La Piel Que Habito)     D+                  
Spain  (116 mi)  2011  d:  Pedro Almodóvar

This is a wretchedly ugly film, using a sterile, medically antiseptic, super clean gloss along with a healthy dose of women’s naked breasts to disguise the fact that this is really a sadistically appalling subject matter, where one wonders what the attraction was in the first place.  Perhaps there is something inherent in the Spanish character going back to the Middle Ages that has a love for the grotesque, artistically speaking, from Velázquez and Goya to Gómez de la Serna and García Lorca, or more particularly the cinema of Fernando Arrabal which can be gruesome and revolting, showing sequences of extreme brutality.   Perhaps these are the aftereffects of enduring the darkly repressive Franco era, which was really a Fascist police state for nearly 40 years.  But that said, there’s really no excuse to deliver this kind of junk on the public, as there’s little to no redeeming value.  The film itself is very competently made and a welcome return for Antionio Banderas, who plays a wickedly sinister character with utter calm and nonchalance, a world renowned plastic surgeon who specializes in unorthodox methods, but also reports fantastic results, making him something of a God-like superman in the field.  And therein lies part of the problem, as Banderas exhibits a feeling of invincibility, where no power on earth can stop him from practicing inscrutable experiments, some of which recall the exploits of Burt Lancaster in THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (1977) or Charles Laughton in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932).

What’s different here is rather than disfigured characters who reflect the barbaric methods of grotesque experimental surgeries gone wrong on human beings, each left in the garbage heap of mutilated scrap parts, Banderas is such a gifted surgeon that his patients become idealized pictures of beauty, yet his methods are the same, as he keeps a beautiful young woman Vera (Elena Anaya) locked up in a room at his estate like a prized guinea pig, practicing the most advanced, as yet untested, scientific techniques on her, supposedly with unparalleled results.  Almodóvar has a penchant for unseemly close ups that actually get too uncomfortably close to the subject, where the camera actually feels invasive.  Initially the viewer has no idea why she would be kept in a room like this, but when we see a gigantic, one way, wall-sized window in the good doctor’s adjoining room, where he can sit and observe his prized specimen like a living work of art, we’re quick to catch on.  There isn’t an ounce of character development anywhere in this film, so there’s simply no identification with the doctor or the patient, as neither are particularly appealing, nor is anyone else in the movie, creating a loathsome air of disgust with what’s happening onscreen.  The film only descends further into more revolting territory.

Almodóvar uses another trademark device featuring a fabulous artist performing live onstage, this time Concha Buika, a bisexual Spanish artist who performs a kind of flamenco jazz fusion onstage, singing two songs at an elaborately upscale party, but unlike earlier works where the artistic blend of cinema with other art forms like dance and music only enhances the experience, especially in the utterly sublime TALK TO HER (2002), this falls flat this time as Almodóvar mixes disturbing rape images during the middle of love ballads, which all but seals the deal of doom for this picture, where one considers actually walking out on this one, as is there nothing worth hanging around for?  And if truth be told, there really isn’t, as the back story revelations are equally disturbing, where it turns out the story itself just isn’t all that fascinating, where the overall experience offers little substance or meaning, but instead just grows more revolting.  It’s none of the actor’s faults, as they perform admirably, including Banderas who got an early start working with Almodóvar in MATADOR (1986) and LAW OF DESIRE (1987), but they haven't worked together in twenty-one years and he creepily inhabits the role, so the fault lies with the director, never pulling all the pieces together, never creating any tension or suspense, as the tone of this film fills the viewer with disgust bordering on complete disinterest, as there’s simply nothing to identify with here.  It’s all an exercise that takes place in a loathsome vacuum of dreary unpleasantness, easily the worst Almodóvar film on record.    

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht)

WORLD ON A WIRE (Welt am Draht) – made for TV                       A                    
Cologne, Munich, Paris  (Pt I 99 mi, Pt II 106 mi)  January – March 1973  d:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1973):
“I directed a series of two one-and-a-half-hour segments based on a novel by Daniel F. Galouyé.  It’s a very beautiful story called WORLD ON A WIRE that depicts a world where one is able to make projections of people with a computer. And of course that leads to the uncertainty of whether someone is himself a projection, since in this virtual world the projections resemble reality.  Perhaps another larger world made us as a virtual one?  In this sense it deals with an old philosophical model, which here takes on a certain horror.”

One of the most unique works over the course of Fassbinder’s entire career, his only venture into science fiction, where this may be the very first Virtual Reality movie, though it was readily explored on sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek (1966 – 1969) or Doctor Who (1963 – 1989).  This was also made for German TV, which is mindblowing in itself, as there is simply nothing else out there like this on TV, either before or since.  Some may find this excessively slow, as there’s no action to speak of for the first two hours, really only showing up in the finale sequence, yet this continually holds the viewer’s attention by the sheer boldness of the subject matter and the mind-altering production values used by Fassbinder, filtering nearly every shot through doorways, long hallways, frosted windows, glass fishbowls, peeking through a hole in the wall or around some object, where there are multiple reflections throughout caused by the incessant or one might say obsessive use of mirrors.  Only CHINESE ROULETTE (1976) comes close to using this kind of dazzling, shooting-through-the-Looking Glass stylization, both movies shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.  In terms of look, this film most closely resembles the mannequin acting style of THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972), where naked or fashionably dressed characters have a tendency to stare off into empty space, which in this film works excessively well, especially because it is projecting an artificially designed virtual world that contains no signs of human life, as it’s all a computerized reproduction. 

Adaptated by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz from a 1964 Daniel F. Galouyé novel Simulacron 3, where computers can create projections of people, leading one to wonder if they, themselves, are just a projection?  This is a paranoid, ALPHAVILLE (1965)-style, corporate-controlled world of super computers where the company director mysteriously commits suicide, but not before muttering one of the prevalent themes of the film, “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you,” referring to the co-opting of his brilliant creation by an all-controlling inside elite, where programmed individuals are indistinguishable from actual humans. The powerful interests of the U.S. Steel corporation intervenes and wants to use the successor, Klaus Löwitsch as Fred Stiller, to manipulate the international markets, as the artificial computer design so exactly replicates our own world that the computer has the ability to accurately predict future trends before they happen.  He meets Eva Vollmer, Mascha Rabben, the daughter of the deceased former director, and the two begin to realize that they may be artificial, controlled by a higher intelligence, their knowledge of which could cause a threat to those actually in control, so it is a world where love is threatened by the repressed police state.  Can humans prevail?  Initially shot on 16 mm, now blown up to 35 mm, this is riveting from start to finish, adding improbable flourishes of dark humor, simply a stunning, highly original and unusual film, with Fassbinder regulars Adrian Hoven, Ivan Desny, Günter Lamprecht, Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Ulli Lommel, Kurt Raab, and even a brief appearance by Gottfried John. 

Certainly one prevalent theme is the Third Reich dream of world domination, only using a behind the scenes business model to accomplish what the German Army couldn’t achieve militarily.  Whoever controls the computers controls the world, including a Virtual World of people who are all prisoners in this alternate world, like the most brilliantly designed gulag imaginable, as all of the artificial creations are programmed to work solely to benefit and improve the lives of those living at the highest level, the real humans, creating a Virtual Reality society that remains a METROPOLIS (1927) designed underground world, where captive artificial slaves can never escape to the higher ground.  Fassbinder beautifully enhances this Nazi design as only he can, through a staged musical production in a beer hall, actually the Alcazar in Paris, where Solange Pradel performs her smoky Marlene Dietrich renditions of “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” and “Lili Marleen,” sung to the shadowed images of marching boots.  Actually much of the futuristic design of the film was shot inside shopping malls, upscale hotels, and in the streets of Paris and Munich, adding that 70’s impersonalized, avant garde, corporate glass-windowed skyscraper look that defined Alan J. Pakula’s modernist THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) a year later, also using an oblique and radically abstract electronic score by Gottfried Hüngsberg that reflects psychic distress, but also a clever use of Wagner’s Liebestod, synthesized Bach, Strauss, and Peter Green’s strangely hypnotic “Albatross.”  Much of the first half introduces the viewer to the concept of a simulated world, while the second half shows Stiller growing ever more suspicious and paranoid, feeling continuously threatened, like a rat in a maze, as if he’s being hunted down by the controllers at the highest levels. 

Much of the narrative centers around people who simply disappear from reality, people that Stiller remembers, but everyone else has been programmed to forget, wiping that memory off the face of the earth, even in police and newspaper reports, except it still exists in Stiller’s memory, making him think after awhile that he’s the one going crazy since no one else recollects his version of events.  This is also a brilliant depiction of the vulnerability (and need) of outsiderism, showing how the State can easily program reality to reflect the propagandized views of the masses, where anyone who doesn’t conform to those views feels particularly powerless and isolated, subject to police arrest for becoming a threat to the stability of society, which almost perfectly resembles the real life fate of currently imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Russian oligarchy and the wealthiest man in the country before Russian President Vladimir Putin returned the nation to its police state origins, not to mention former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who was assassinated by radioactive poisoning in 2006 allegedly by a Russian secret agent while Litvinenko was living in political asylum.  As outlandish as that sounds, that’s effectively the story here, as Stiller literally falls from grace in the corporate hierarchy and begins to see how he’s being used and manipulated by higher powers, how he’s taking the fall for their crimes, where his name is being posted on television news reports as a murderer to explain the strange disappearance of people.  Barbara Valentin is exquisite as the voluptuous corporate secretary who appears to be a virtual projection of the manager’s dreams and desires, also there are extraordinary set designs for party sequences, indoor swimming pools, and beer halls, where ironically the music of Elvis Presley blares out to a programmed virtual world of utter conformity, where society is in such lockstep they actually resemble the horrified depiction of zombies in horror movies.  From this State controlled world domination, can humans survive?  This is a beautifully staged theatrical rendition on the question of free will, where the entire planet appears to be an artificially designed mirror reflection of the real world.       

Friday, October 21, 2011


MARGARET               A                    
USA  (149 mi)  2011  d:  Kenneth Lonergan

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah!  ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Spring and Fall:  To a Young Child (September 7, 1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889)

A hugely ambitious work, something along the lines of Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK (2008), not in subject matter but as it similarly covers such a broad canvas, released a decade after his last work YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), originally shot in 2005, where despite the 6-year history of lawsuits it was considered by the studio Fox Searchlight as unreleasable, requiring that it be under 150 minutes and refusing to pay for a film they thought would never be released, but with the help of additional money from actor Matthew Broderick and a final editing by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Lonergan approved their edit for this theatrical release.  Considering the circumstances, the pace of the film is brisk and fluid, the subject dense and complex, and is surprisingly well constructed, where there may be a few odd dangling moments that could have been left out, or more likely expanded, but this film offers more sensational sequences that stand alone on their own artistic merit than any other film in recent memory, as there are at least a dozen or so such scenes, each wonderfully realized and well incorporated into the film.  Most all include the brilliantly sensational dialogue, perhaps the best written film in the past decade, along with so many impressive performances both large and small, where so much spins off the interpretation of a single word, where this is a film replete with misunderstanding, with a near obsessive drive to be understood, yet a single word may be picked out of one’s comments which in the eyes of others refutes everything else said.  This misunderstanding, then, is not accidental, but willfully misunderstood, where there is an equally obsessive drive to hurt and belittle others with chaotic and embarrassing insults. The language here is so combative that it often resembles the theatrical fireworks of a play, hurled with the ferocious invectives of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), and, reinforcing a theme, there are several stage performances witnessed before a live audience, where the reaction to them changes and evolves over time, revealing the significance of personal transformation.

The film is a bold and brutally honest exposé of a post 9/11 New York, which most importantly unveils the complexity of one’s own evolving personal reaction to a horrific accident, a film experience that thrives on combustible force, such as the friction and combative language between two people, the unpredictability of the theatrical experience, the boredom of an overly structured classroom setting, the hotly contested courtroom litigation, the chaotic dynamics of multiple parties on a speaker phone, several unannounced visits to perfect strangers, or even the improbable dynamics in initiating sexual interest.  Anna Paquin, now 29, was only 23 when she played this 17-year old student (Lisa Cohen) at a privileged New York City high school, living with her single mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife), a Broadway actress.  The two beat each other up emotionally, never really understanding each other and rarely giving the other a chance, feeling overly suspicious of each other’s motives to the point where both feel smothered by the other’s contempt or utter indifference.  Lisa’s Dad (played by the director) lives in a plush beach house in Santa Monica, seemingly the idyllic world, except his relationship with his new girlfriend reveals its own deficiencies, so it’s no paradise to run off to, though initially Lisa is making preparations for a visit.  Everything unravels following a single event that happens right off the bat, a tragic bus accident that leaves Lisa devastated, as an innocent pedestrian (Allison Janney) ends up dying in her arms, while waves of guilt and confusion rush through Lisa’s comprehension of the events, as she was attempting to get the bus driver’s attention just before the accident.  However, she fails to mention this when she tells the officers on the scene that this was all just an accident. 

Often using a slowed down change of camera speed, especially in the streets of New York, this reflects the change of pace going on inside people’s heads as they’re walking down the street, often daydreaming or easily distracted by window displays, food vendors, or their own cellphone conversations, where a part of their brain is operating at a different speed than the rapidly passing traffic.  This also expresses a kind of compartmentalization, where people’s focus is broken down into separate and different parts, which may operate in school classrooms where your thoughts may lie elsewhere, or a teenager’s conversation with their parents, or a disrupted phone call, or even a conversation with one friend when you’re actually thinking of someone else.  Lonergan figures all of these fractured and imbalanced moments into his film, where they come into play in ways people least suspect, as they have no idea the significant impact that seemingly throwaway lines have on other people who are intensely interested in what they have to say, where the indifference of one hurts and overrides the acute curiosity of the other, where emotions are existing simultaneously on so many different levels, like an architecturally designed playing field of human drama.  Paquin is near brilliant in conveying all these mixed and conflicting emotions, not as a particularly appealing character, but a rich and pampered prima donna who’s used to being the center of attention whenever she feels like it, who selfishly indulges in whatever she likes, showing little to no regard for others, but who also craves the attention and adoration of adults she admires or needs.  She willingly bullies and manipulates others to get what she needs, pretending she cares, but never for a minute does she take responsibility on any level.  Frankly, she’s a thoroughly despicable character throughout most of the film, but also completely captivating, a whirlwind of mixed emotions, where there’s an authentic adult person hidden underneath fighting to get through the adolescent cloud of confusion.   

Lisa has a change of heart about the accident, plagued by the idea that there’s no justice if the driver is not held accountable, reconnecting on her own, with varying degrees of success, with the bus driver, police, and even the family of the deceased, where she meets Jeannie Berlin (Elaine May’s daughter) as Emily, the person closest to the woman who died in Lisa’s arms, whose achingly real remarks at the memorial service are among the highpoints of the film, where Berlin delivers the performance of her career, whose grace under pressure offers Lisa a new friend and role model.  Emily is also an entryway to taking relevant action, finding an attorney who will sue the bus company for negligence.  Lisa’s mother finds this attention discomfiting, proud that her daughter is following up in a socially relevant manner, but also a bit disconcerted that her daughter’s personal obsession has relegated her own mother to the sidelines, as it’s been an issue Lisa refuses to even discuss with her mother, instead placing her at arms length.  Again, the imbalance of emotions between the doers and the watchers are swinging on significantly different levels, where the interplay between Lisa and Emily only grows more intense, reaching a climax with a proposed settlement offer, a compromise offering monetary rewards that refuses to hold the driver accountable, as this would admit liability, the sole objective of Lisa coming forward, which evolves into a blitzkrieg of conflicting emotions, one of the superb moments of the film.  Afterwards Emily starts questioning Lisa’s need for drama, to always be the center of attention, and refuses to allow her lifelong friendship with the deceased to be jeopardized or defined by a teenager who won’t even speak to her own mother.  Incredulously, this is another one of those sequences of the film, all set in motion with the use of the word “strident,” as Lisa goes absolutely berserk with this rejection, as if her entire world is crumbling and she has nowhere else to turn.  Where she does turn is to sexually inappropriate behavior, perhaps one of those regrettable sequences that if it can’t be expanded deserves to be cut.

The canvas of the film is an emotional battleground, where blood gouging and unhealed scars are evident everywhere, where characters are defined by their emotional limitations, but also their willingness to keep at it, to persevere through what can only be considered the unknown.  There’s a novelistic complexity to the overall sweep of the film, which takes the viewer through a breathtaking panoply of emotional conflict on an unprecedented scale.  This is accompanied by luminous photography of the streets of New York, capturing the glisten of the streets at night along with the beautifully lit street lights.  The sidewalks are a constant reminder of the teeming life in the city, using a 360 degree pan at one point, or a street level shot that eventually elevates pointing upwards and skyward towards the tops of the skyscrapers.  Like the complicated emotional landscape, there’s also an accompanying architectural potency to the city’s design, both seemingly in harmony in this film, where the film is replete with unforgettable sequences, like Lisa’s spontaneous visit to bus driver Mark Ruffalo, where his wife Rosemarie DeWitt’s suspicious reaction is especially intriguing, a high school kid who insists his version of Shakespeare is as equally relevant as Matthew Broderick, his high school teacher, and then doesn’t back down, something most kids don’t do, also the reading of the “Margaret” poem, seeing Lisa’s devastating reaction at the time, Jean Reno’s firmly held convictions of the “Jewish” response, the ongoing arguments between Lisa and the Syrian student in her class, the scene of Jean Reno’s son describing the thoroughly intense nature of his father’s feelings towards Lisa’s mother, the phone call where the lawyer announces the settlement offer leading to Paquin’s heartfelt reaction of defeat instead of victory, and an acknowledgement finally that she caused the accident, followed by Lisa’s cigarette moment at the opera which evolves with a grandiose sweep until the haunting quiet of the finale - - simply exquisite and sublime. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Happy Happy (Sykt Lykkelig)

Director Anne Sewitsky

HAPPY HAPPY (Sykt Lykkelig)              C               
Norway  (85 mi)  2010  d:  Anne Sewitsky       Official site

With two Norwegian films among the Top Five films seen at the recent Chicago Film Festival this year, headed by OSLO, AUGUST 31 and TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!, it’s hard to fathom how this film got selected as the nation’s choice for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards.  Something of a variation on Mike Leigh’s HAPPY GO LUCKY (2008), where Sally Hawkins was the perennial upbeat force of nature who never for a second allows herself to drop that veneer of a smile and a happy face, Agnes Kittelsen plays Kaja, an ever cheerful Nordic optimist who continually sees the sunny side of life even in an endlessly expansive snow-covered Norwegian countryside.  While she’s in a loveless marriage with her high school sweetheart Eirick (Joachim Rafaelsen), a recluse who watches wrestling matches on TV before going to bed and who would rather go off hunting with the boys than spend time with her, leaving their ingrate of a son at home, Theo (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø), a kid who occasionally tells his mother that she’s ugly.  But something happens, like a switch turns on when a new couple moves in next door, the tall and handsome Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and his beautiful wife Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) who teaches German in school and whose indiscretions caused them to seek a new start out in the country along with their adopted Ethiopian son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), who is mute.  While the neighbors appear perfect in every way, as they cook, sing in a choir and are a pure joy to be around, Kaja may take her warming party enthusiasm just a bit too far when she offers sex to Sigve, turning this into a wife swapping battle of the sexes where no one wins, especially the kids who grow more strangely off-balanced.

“Can’t we all just get along?’ was the Rodney King plea to stop the police brutality after his horrendous beating was caught on YouTube, Rodney King Beating Video - YouTube (1:17) and the police officers acquitted, though probably not seen throughout Norway, as the only reference to black culture in this home is a book on slavery, where Theo starts ordering Noa around playing slavery games, where he can make him do whatever he wants, which distastefully takes place throughout the entire film, as kids are so non-politically correct, right under their parents noses, who aren’t really paying attention anyway.  Added to this ugly subtext is the continuous presence of an all-male singing group, a Greek chorus of four guys singing in English who interrupt the narrative with American spirituals, gospel hymns or country ballads, sounding very much like a Nordic version of an American Gospel group, a strange association in a lily white Norwegian film that is suddenly incorporating touches of black culture, where the thematic elements of these songs add a supplementary track to the existing narrative, including brief classical interjections as well, mostly for the romps in the snow.  One of the most gorgeous uses of music is a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which set in a snowy landscape adds a completely different perspective. 

The musical chairs bedroom farce shifts from light and funny, where Kaja and Sigve initially have sex or run naked in the snow, to dark and tragic, eventually profoundly serious with the interjection of Elisabeth who spills the beans to Kaja’s husband, who has his own secret to conceal, as she suspects her husband is gay.  Quickly growing more dour by the minute, without the quirky fun to hold us through, a chilliness instead hangs in the air like a morning frost that never thaws throughout the day, growing insufferable at times, as no one talks to anyone anymore, where the movie descends into the picture of family dysfunction, perfectly represented by the tasteless slavery games of the two kids, where Theo actually whips the back of Noa.  But when Noa discovers President Obama accepting his Nobel Peace Prize on TV, it’s a grossly naïve and misleading image, as if the picture of Obama can or has somehow replaced the images of slavery or the Rodney King beatings.  It’s all too simplistic, especially coming on the eve of Christmas, the day that for Christians most represents the idea of hope.  Afterwards, the film really loses any hint of profundity, as the characters ring hollow and untrue, never really fleshed out of their somewhat formulaic roles, feeling all too contrived, where only Kaja is allowed any signs of growth whatsoever, as the others drift out of the picture altogether, not actually real anymore, but instead representative of the idea that things can hopefully get better. 

2011 Chicago Film Festival Recap

One festival trend worth mentioning is the feminist usage of sexually degrading depictions of women, something I admit I don't altogether understand, but is expressed in both THE SLUT and SLEEPING BEAUTY, the latter a "Jane Campion presents" movie, which can be seen on the poster.  I do understand appropriating one's own depictions of sexuality as one's own, but the idea that these films somehow improve or expand the quality of life for women escapes me. 

In other historical dramas, like Campions' THE PIANO or her more recent BRIGHT STAR, the historical aspect of how few options were available to women is what's highlighted, obviously prevalent even today.  But both these recent films are given modern subtexts, and also available options which the female characters readily refuse, where these are actually their intended choices among the available options, the ones that suggest the most sexual debasement, reflective of their own view of their self worth.  It should be pointed out both women were not poor or in the bottom realm of a social class, but both were presumably middle class examples of self hatred leading to self destructive life choices. 

Both films solicited groans from the audience, as these sexual representations are not exactly appreciated these days, but present the opposite of what would be considered politically correct views.  It's the feminization of such outrageously negative sexual depictions that I find so interesting, as they're obviously meant to challenge an audience with such degradation, but I'm curious how such depictions find their way to film fests, endorsed and championed by likely male programmers.  If the roles were reversed, and these films depicted males behaving in the exact same manner, my guess is there would be little interest generated.  What elicits a festival response is the prevalent nudity onscreen.  It all feels somehow icky to me. 

TYRANNOSAUR was likely the most punishing film to watch, a hard core immersion into the lower realms of British social class, featuring the most obvious references of male spousal battery and male self hatred, accentuated through the lens of alcoholism, where the Guardian or some such British review called it "poverty porn."

Now kitchen sink realism has been expressed since at least the 50's, perhaps earlier, but this takes it much deeper into severe personally degrading behavior, as does VOLCANO by the way, though far differently, as it uses a Lear like old Icelandic patriarch in a darkly comedic depiction of a man who hates everyone and everything around him, where the blackness of his humor matches the foul things that come out of his mouth, where you have to laugh at the sheer absurdity of a man who would utter such things. Of course in that film, the tables are turned and the joke is on him when he loses his wife, where the tone shifts entirely.  MICHAEL is the pedophile film of the year, creepy and horrifying, told in such a banal manner, yet with that Austrian coldness, where the all too precise direction is effective.    

The literary film of the fest was THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH, which I think may entirely take place in a writer's head, but the whole thing plays out in real life, offering multiple layers of reality which are inventively appealing, as is the weirdness of the characters.  This is a real mind fuck of a film that I would think those literary enthusiasts would heartily endorse.  It's also brilliant filmmaking, like being trapped in an altogether different world. 

Not sure why my friend Kirk hated MISS BALA so much, the only real negative view I've heard, finding it boring, as the subject matter alone was among the most riveting and relevant at the fest, and the direction was superb, but Kirk thinks some of the hyped movies lead to disappointment as they rarely live up to all the build up of greatness, suggesting part of the film's universal praise is that it's an action film in a festival atmosphere that offers so little action in a sea of art films, so it stands out.  I disagree with that assessment, as another Mexican film AMORES PERROS elicited similar thrills of praise, and in my view both are well deserved in or out of a festival atmosphere.  The narco traffic lifestyle is brilliantly depicted as never before, and that macho military aggressiveness is laced with increasing shots of boldness and adrenaline with a parallel layer of one woman's overriding fear and panic at what's simultaneously happening to her, as she's literally a tourist in the middle of repeated gang wars, where she just happens to be in the center of the action and chaos, so who wouldn't be scared shitless?  The realistic tone mixing visual with internal worlds is quite effective throughout, also the use of offscreen sound.  Hard not to like this film. 

BUDDHA MOUNTAIN was a real surprise for lovers of Chinese films, as it offers the stylish appeal of early Wong Kar-wai or Jia Zhang-ke, but filtered through the softer lens of a female director, think Clara Law, adding a more poetic internalized realm to their experience.  This is another film where unlikable characters become beloved by the time the film is over, featuring a brilliant lead performance from someone who's not even onscreen until about a third of the way in the picture, and also featuring some of the most stunning sequences viewed all year in the wordless freight train ride sequences through the lush Chinese countryside. 

The top 3 films do distinguish themselves with superb camerawork and memorable scenes that also brilliantly internalize what's gorgeously magnified onscreen. 

So much for this year's fest, another immersion into spending 8 - 10 hours a day inside a theater, awaiting who knows what, as you never know what to expect, where you can count on spending a good deal of time standing in lines and then looking for a decent seat, especially in some of those smaller theaters that fill up fast, and then coming home and spending another 6 - 8 hours trying to find words to match the screen experiences.  It does become increasing blurred, where the mental acuity present at the beginning is worn down by the end from sleep deprivation, where it becomes increasingly hard to get sleep, and also focus on that next film.  But all in all, this is as good as it gets in Chicago, as the opportunities to see films likely to make your end of the year Top Ten list are unprecedented.  It's rare that a festival goes by that has no such film.  It has happened on occasion, but this was not one of those dry years.  Hard to believe MISS BALA and LE HAVRE were not included in those $20 dollar Special Presentation tickets, as they were among the most highly rated films at Cannes.  So be thankful for small treasures. 

Remember that this was a festival seen without those 20 Special Presentation films that were considered outside the reach of the mainstay viewer, as few are willing to shell out $20 a ticket, even for the best of films, so that lowers the bar considerably in terms of what was left.

These top 8 films are unique and exceptional, films that I heartily recommend, among the best of the year, as they are also challenging to the viewer. 
I'd have to say I enjoyed all the C+ or above rated films, at least to some degree, while the C's and below are films I have no interest in revisiting.

It should be noted that while this Film Fest was underway, also playing for a quiet one week run at the same theater was easily one of the best films of the year, in the top 1 or 2 category, superior to anything playing at the Fest, in my view, and largely unnoticed by the viewing public.  That review will be forthcoming.    

MISS BALA  Miss Bala                                                                              
OSLO, AUGUST 31  Oslo, August 31                                                           

TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!  Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen)                        
WOMAN IN THE FIFTH  The Woman in the Fifth                                                        
THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD  The Forgiveness of Blood         
PLAY  Play                                                                                      
THE KID WHO LIES  The Kid Who Lies (El Chico que Miente)                     

MICHAEL  Michael                                                                               
TYRANNOSAUR  Tyrannosaur                                                                 
LOVERBOY  Loverboy                                                                             
VOLCANO  Volcano (Eldfjall)       
LE HAVRE  Le Havre
BUNNY DROP  Bunny Drop (Usagi doroppu)
SILVER CLIFF  The Silver Cliff (O Abismo Prateado)                                                
THE GOOD SON  The Good Son (Hyvä poika)
GOODBYE FIRST LOVE  Goodbye First Love (Un Amour de Jeunesse)
IF NOT US, WHO  If Not Us, Who    

THE TURIN HORSE  The Turin Horse                                                        
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia                        
SOUTHWEST  Southwest (Sudoeste)
BEST INTENTIONS  Best Intentions (Din dragoste cu cele mai bune int...
THE MOLE  The Mole (Kret)                                                                  
SLEEPING BEAUTY  Sleeping Beauty                                                                   
DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART  Don't Go Breaking My Heart   

WITHOUT  Without                                                                                  
RETURN TICKET  Return Ticket   

JOINT BODY  Joint Body                                                                           
THE SLUT  The Slut (Hanotenet)                                                              
GOODBYE  Goodbye (Bé omid é didar)                                                              

AMERICAN TRANSLATION  American Translation                         

A LITTLE CLOSER  A Little Closer
LOVE IS IN THE AIR  Love Is in the Air (Magi I Luften) 
TARGET  Target (Mishen)                                                                    

Bunny Drop (Usagi doroppu)

BUNNY DROP  (Usagi doroppu)            B                    
Japan  (115 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Sabu (Hiroyiki Tanaka)

Taking a page out of Takeshi Kitano’s endearing KIKUJIRO (1999), where an adorable young child hooks up with an improbable gangster yakuza on a road journey across Japan, where their diametrically opposite impulses keep the viewers on their toes and the film from sinking into familiar territory, Sabu on the other hand instead chooses a more formulaic style, a single man raising a child, told in a rather straightforward manner but then enhances the experience by for the most part avoiding cheap sentiment.  Once more, the centerpiece is an enchanting child, in this case 6-year old Rin (Mana Ashida), who resembles the daughter Sachiko (Maya Banno) in Katsuhito Ishii’s THE TASTE OF TEA (2004), noticeably off to the side with no one paying attention to her during a grandfather funeral service, where it turns out she is his illegitimate child.  Everyone is too involved with their own affairs to worry about this child, believing child services would eventually intervene—everyone, that is, except the deceased’s grandson, 30-year old Daikichi (Kenichi Matsuyama) who asks if the child would like to come home with him where he gets a quick refresher course on parenthood, knowing next to nothing, but stubbornly refusing the help from his sister (Mirei Kiritani) who indicated he would crack within a few days.  Adapted from a manga comic by Yumi Unita, the point of view is clever enough to include Rin’s views throughout the film, feeling very much like a Miyazaki children’s film, as Rin has to make her way through this terrifying experience virtually alone, where Daikichi is more of her sidekick than the other way around.  Rin is firmly the centerpiece of this film.   

What is clear from the outset is that the two are perfectly matched, as both are a bit mature for their age, but Daikichi’s refusal to patronize the young girl helps considerably, as they work as a team, where she offers him advice on parenting skills, which are needed, as he quickly finds a child care center, but it’s unnerving having to carry this new girl through rush hour commuter trains and the swarms of pedestrian foot traffic in order to eventually find a center which is nowhere near his job, where he has to sprint the entire way if he expects to make it to work on time.  It’s evident no one could keep up that hectic schedule, where he’s forced to transfer to a lower paying position in order to avoid the late night mandatory overtime, arriving much too late to pick up Rin.  It’s amusing to discover none of his original coworkers had children, but all of his new coworkers do, where they’re quick to compare photos of their kids.  But the heart of the film is the interpersonal relationship between Daikichi and Rin, as it’s a sweet and warmhearted duo, told realistically and intelligently, where they both earn every bit of love and affection that they offer and receive.  Rin, for instance, occasionally asks profound questions, developing a complex inner life of her own. 

The first variance from the tone of realism are Daikichi’s daydream sequences, where he sees gorgeous women in magazine photo shoots and instantly fantasizes dancing an ultra-sensual tango, where the two sizzle with sexual intoxication, which are delightfully amusing moments, nothing kinky about them, but adds a suave and debonair step to Daikichi’s character.  He’s no super parent, as his many mistakes only make him more endearing and vulnerable, where he’s helped along the way by another single mom (Karina, one of the dazzling women in his fantasies) whose son and Rin become fast friends.  They are apparently the only two kids at the childcare center without two parents, as they are deeply affected by an assignment to draw many different pictures of their two parents, which sends them bolting out the door on a journey alone through the city.  Reported missing, there is a frantic citywide search for them, which has a familiar tone with Miyazaki’s MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988), especially the way the search brings everyone closer together, an effective use of unforced realism, where a child’s world is not patronized or embellished by cheap narrative tricks, but is fully captivating by the attention to small details that capsulizes what matters the most, where their whole world is present in these everyday moments, often enhanced by Masayuki Iwakura's quietly effective score.  One of the best sequences of the film is a parallel alternative to Daikichi’s fantasy sequences, a children’s theatrical spectacle where they’re all dressed up in costumes and where the universe of children couldn’t be more magical and alive. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Good Son (Hyvä poika)

THE GOOD SON (Hyvä poika)                B                    
Finland  (88 mi)  2011  d:  Zaida Bergroth

Don’t we all wish we had a gorgeous remote lakeside cottage deep in the woods that we could retreat to?  Wouldn't that solve a lot of our collective ills, like a mind curative seminar or retreat?  Well that’s exactly what actress Leila Manner (Elina Knihtiä), a woman used to being the center of attention, has in mind after seeing her name plastered across the tabloids, using her as the butt of the nation’s jokes, something that really aggravates her, so it’s off to her summer villa on the lake with her two sons in tow, the older Ilmari (Samuli Niittymäki), a moody, downbeat, and extremely self-absorbed teen and the much younger Unto (Eutu Julin), who is largely left alone to fend for himself.  It’s interesting that the initial visit establishes a visual cue used throughout the film, a quick pan of the water leading up to the home beginning as if we are standing on the near shore, so there’s a quick zoom across the water right up to the shoreline in front of the house, as if something dark and foreboding is about to happen there.  What’s soon apparent is that Leila has absolutely no parenting skills, where these kids must have raised themselves, as she never lifts a finger to spend any time with them and instead quickly plans a weekend party of friends where they can all get wasted.  One guy even falls out of an arriving car naked and unconscious, already wasted before he got there.  They let him lie there, put a parasol over him to protect him from the sun, and ignore him until he decides to join the party on his own.  Other than that, it’s a typical display of boorish bad manners and insulting remarks, occasional old-fashioned music, where one of the guests is quickly escorted out the building for making less than flattering remarks about the dramatic prowess of the hostess.

Other than the obnoxious behavior of the rich, who spend their lives thinking only of themselves, the brooding Ilmari grows extremely protective of his mother, behaving like her bodyguard, removing from the premises anyone or anything that might cause her any degree of alarm, spending much of the weekend lost in thought just staring at his mother.  When a published author, Aimo (Eero Aho), decides to stay on after the others have left, Ilmari grows disgusted at his presence, which his mother of course ignores.  Wandering into town, Ilmari is quickly propositioned by a waitress, Karita (Anna Paavilainen), inviting him to a party, where to a slow and sultry Finnish song, they have sex.  Afterwards, wandering along the beach where stragglers are still drinking, Ilmari listens to a series of insults about Karita before bashing one of the guilty in the head with a beer bottle.  So much for subtlety.  The next morning as his mother and Aimo are having their post coital morning coffee, Ilmari is lying in the sun with Karita, mirror images of one another, both preening like peacocks.  As always, poor Unto is left to fend for himself, usually dragging along a video camera where he invents various narrative passages to amuse himself.    

Ilmari is anxiously awaiting that moment when he can kick out Aimo as well, something he’s apparently done his entire life, but his mother has alerted him that there’s something different about this man, and despite her initial cool veneer, dropping hints of disinterest, Aimo’s been smart enough to read his own signs and not be fooled by hers.  Attempting to help out around the place and make himself useful, Aimo also makes an effort to bridge the gap with Ilmari, who has none of it, responding with lowlife gutter language which gets him shoved off the pier into the water, where mysteriously the kid can’t swim and is thrashing around violently, so Aimo rescues him even though he was never more than 5 or 10 feet from the pier.  Rather than calm the storm, one can only suggest these are initial signs of that descent into the dark night, where the camera again skims over the water, poor Unto is once more left alone, and things only grow more shocking and macabre at the lakeside retreat.  This filmmaker does show a directorial flair with an economy of style, winning the 1st Prize in the New Director’s Competition at the Chicago Film Festival, “for its real psychological insight. Economical without being overly abstract, the film depicts each character as selfish, but dependent on someone else, exposing their unstable familial relationships. Director Zaida Bergroth impresses with her ability to create characters and their environment, intersecting in believable yet shocking ways.”   

Buddha Mountain (Guan yin shan)

BUDDHA MOUNTAIN (Guan yin shan)                     A-                   
China  (101 mi)  2011  d:  Li Yu

Without any fanfare, this is a special treat, one of the most sublime and drop dead gorgeous films of the year, a rare mix of the hopelessness of the current generation, as portrayed by lounge singer Nan Feng, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, a fearless in-your-face girl who steadfastly stands up for her friends, and her two admirers, bike courier Ding Bo, handsome Taiwanese actor Chen Bo-lin, and his comically rotund sidekick known as Fatso, Fei Zao (Fei Long), reflecting the down and out, rebellious youth style of Jia Zhang-ke’s UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), and the classical elegance of an earlier generation, reflected by a towering performance by Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang.  Little do we know what’s in store for us in this movie, as it starts out like many other coming of age films, establishing a near documentary rhythm and lifestyle of this threesome, much of which is captured through vibrant street scenes, where their infectious energy represents the pulse of the nation, but they feel no connection to their country or their future and are largely disconnected from their families, living day by day, spending what they earn in food keeping Fatso happy.  Their easy going style with one another is quite reminiscent of the French New Wave, shot in vérité style by Zheng Jian, who also edits the film, where their casual and mostly reckless behavior often finds them clashing with others, where their offbeat, non-conformist manner sets them apart.  When performer Nan Feng accidentally hits a front row patron in the groin with her swinging microphone onstage, she loses her job at the same time their home is about to be demolished, finding a new apartment in the home of a retired Beijing Opera star Chang Yueqin (Chang), a quieter, much more reserved personality.  No one thinks this living arrangement will succeed, least of all Chang who is constantly criticizing their rude manners and behavior, usually mocked and mimicked behind her back afterwards. 

We soon learn Chang has a deceased son she never talks about, as his photo is in the living room, and Chang secretly keeps a car in a garage which still has a bashed in windshield.  When the kids find the car, they get it started and go on a joyride, experiencing momentary bliss on the road but eternal condemnation from Chang upon their return, where she is heartbroken at their sign of disrespect.  What follows is a train ride sequence where the three hop a freight, one of the most breathtaking wordless sequences seen all year both in length and poignancy, passing through endless mountain tunnels and some of the most impressive natural scenery in China, beautifully accompanied by original music from Peyman Yazdanian.  Interjected into this harmonious beauty is real life news footage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killing nearly 70,000 people, leaving nearly 5 million people homeless, where on Buddha Mountain this trio eventually finds a shattered Buddhist temple in a lush mountainous landscape in ruins, where the Master on the premises indicates he plans to rebuild, which becomes a prominent theme of the film, where these rootless stragglers need to find something worth holding onto.  When Ding Bo, who never expresses his feelings, is caught with another girl, Nan Feng ditches him and leaves town, perhaps forever, making him feel foolish and regretful afterwards, something Fatty doesn’t let him forget.  Nan Feng goes back home and stands up for her mother, as her abusive and alcoholic father is in the hospital with cancer.  This is one of the more singularly ferocious scenes of the film, perfectly expressing the in-your-face attitude of this young woman. 

But it is the haunting beauty and quiet personal devastation of this film that most impresses, freely moving the characters in and out of the frame, continually changing the focus on who remains onscreen, perfectly expressing the restless anxiety of youth, never amounting to much, never seemingly satisfied, but along with the tragic implications of the earthquake, the director also adds the breathtaking beauty and extreme tranquility of the world that is also within their reach, using a complicated editing scheme, often changing the pace, reflecting the changing rhythms of the characters.  The style evolves as the interior world of the characters changes as well, each broken and damaged in differing ways, the wounds becoming more exposed, where each has an unspoken sense of the tragic depth of each other’s anguish and pain, which holds them together, like an extended family, where quietly Chang becomes a silent force onscreen, nurturing them in ways they’ve never dreamed possible, becoming a dominant presence in their lives.  The director blends together poetic notions of fragility and loss, loneliness and friendship, but also a haunting regret and a renewed sense of place in the world, filling a spiritual void.  But the aftermath of this film is one mixing grief with the haunting beauty of the mountainous landscape filled with lakes, natural springs and spectacular waterfalls.  Renewal or rebirth is the quality of transcending life’s endless series of tragedy and pain, where this film is beautifully affixed on the journey of that transcension.  

Target (Mishen)

TARGET (Mishen)                               D                    
Russia  (154 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Alexander Zeidovich

An utter disaster in the making, dreadfully uninvolving, yet it’s two and a half hours long, which feels like an eternity, as this picture just never gets off the ground.  While it’s possible the Russian references are too oblique for a Western audience, as there may be specific phrases that a Russian audience would understand all too clearly, but as it stands, this is one of the worst films seen all year.  Basically, this is a futuristic rape fantasy, where what starts out as an intriguing idea unravels into a nightmarish chaos of uncontrolled anger and hostility.  Set in Russia only ten years in the future, the social classes are more divided, where the rich live in an extravagant luxury where they can afford anything, while the rest suffer offscreen somewhere, where their presence on earth is of little consequence, as they are only necessary to serve the rich.  While the influence of the United States is totally absent, China has become an Eastern superpower, a rival of Russia, where there is a transcontinental highway between the nations that is simply a neverending logjam of trucks where police swerve in and out issuing harsh penalties for alleged infractions.  In this altogether imperfect world, the super rich are always looking for ways to make their lives even better, where they can make a pilgrimage to a remote location near the Mongolian border, the site of an abandoned astrophysics station which allegedly receives cosmic rays, known as the “Target,” where those exposed, even for a short duration, receive everlasting youth, as from that point on they cease aging.  All right, so far, so good. 

One feels there are likely smaller chapters to this story, where it might play out better in a serial installment Movie-of-the-Week format, where the element of suspense would create anticipated interest, as people would be curious what would happen next.  However in one sitting, the film grows prolonged without ever establishing any tension or suspense.  Vladimir Sorokin allegedly worked nearly a decade on this script, supposedly an underground take on Tolstoy's Ana Karenina (really?), but it falls horribly flat, evolving into exasperating dribble in spots, where all too many subplots get thrown into the mix, not one of which ever generates interest.  Part of the problem is the dreadfully unappealing characters that only grow more contemptuous over time.  Nikolai (Vitaly Krischenko) is the brutal Putin or Stalin figure, a man who crushes his enemies as head of the customs division, responsible for all transport of cargo, which of course is rampant with corruption.  Viktor (Maksim Sukhanov) is a Russian Minister of Natural Resources, a man living in European extravagance with a much younger trophy wife, Zoya (Justine Waddell).  Also along is Zoya’s brother Mitya (Danila Kozlovskiy), an obnoxious Reality TV host with impressive looks who takes an interest in Anna (Daniela Stoyanovich), who runs a radio show on learning Chinese.  Zoya ends up infatuated by Nikolai, where each relationship becomes unhinged due to arousing suspicions and paranoia.

It turns out there’s little science fiction to this tale, as most of that plays out in anticipation of what the viewer expects, where the consequences of the visit has a Macbethian theme, a feeling of invincibility, which initially feels powerful and irrefutably ecstatic, near delirious, developing a ravenous appetite for animalistic sex bordering on brutality, descending into obsessive anxiety about the partner, while in some instances it feels like the brain ceases to function, where a switch overrides all reason and the world is divided into good and evil, where lengthy philosophical quandaries may turn to mush, absolute nonsense, as there are apparent unexplained side effects of the experience that overtake the initial euphoria of everlasting youth.  The problem here is that the story lacks vision or insight, as the usual view of Russia is that it is a country defined by a strong and powerful leader, something of a dictator who holds everything in check, where if you remove his influence and toy with the idea of democracy, for instance, the country will immediately descend into chaos.  Well this is not science fiction, this has been the view of Russia for the last several hundred years, so to reiterate this fear is hardly something new.  While there are a few ravishing location shots, cinematography by Alexandre Ilkhovsky, the mostly discordant music is something of a headache, as is the complete unengagement of the characters that couldn’t hold less appeal.  When the screenwriter resorts to babbling nonsense, as if characters have been subjected to electroshock, where life ceases to hold any meaning, it feels strangely like a completely humorless and continually dour apocalyptic version of THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956).