“No one is going to call you Mayhem if you keep acting like such a pussy! “—Sammy Williams as Probs in Attack the Block
|Perfect Sense (2011, UK)
What an interesting movie: a romance tucked inside an end-of-life-as-we-know-it sci-fi apocalyptic thriller. And thoughtfully done, too, with IMHO just the right amount of chaos in the background, and a tight focus on the two lovers in the foreground. The scenes where Susan and Michael experience the different stages of the disease, which progressively drives everyone mad and then deprives them of their senses, one by one (smell, taste, hearing, sight …) are riveting and unforgettable, and the scenes of people adapting and gradually returning to something approaching normal life (which, as Ewan McGregor’s character keeps reminding us, must go on) are incredibly touching. But the message turns grim when people, our lovers included, lose their sight, because what is left? I’ll let you figure that one out. Good movie!
|The Grey (2012, USA)
The Grey starts out as a promising survival movie but quickly becomes predictable. How predictable? When Liam Neeson’s character mentioned fist-fighting the wolf, I knew immediately how the movie would end. Oops, sorry about the spoiler. Other letdowns: while some wolves looked real, the alpha appeared to be an animatronic descendent of the creature in An American Werewolf in London; later, when Liam climbed out of the freezing river and did not immediately light a fire and begin drying his soaking wet clothes, the whole effort drifted off into fantasy land, because in real life that would have been his death sentence. Still, I must give The Grey at least 2.5 stars, because when the pack started howling my dachshund freaked out.
|Bernie (2012, USA)
Watching this documentary-like movie about a beloved small-town character who kills a woman and gets life in prison for it, I kept waiting for some Coen Brothers-like snark, but everything played out straight. It wasn’t until the closing credits that I learned the movie was based on a true story … I thought it was an unusually subtle tongue-in-cheek satire, a sendup of small-town life in general. As a story (which, again, was all I belived it was) it felt right but a little exaggerated, with a strong undertone of dark humor. As a dramatization of an actual crime, I admire the director’s restraint in not playing it for jokes. Some might think Linklater was poking fun at the townspeople of Carthage, Texas, but some should be reminded that those weren’t actors playing townspeople … those were the townspeople! And Jack Black. Wow, is he good, and can he sing! Shirley McClaine and Matthew McConaughey were totally convincing. This movie delivered more fun than I’ve had in a long time.
|King of Devil’s Island (2010, Norway)
Austere is the word for this movie: frozen landscape, stoic people, isolation from the mainland, strictly regulated lives of hard work and minimal physical comfort. Such, apparently, was life in a Norwegian boy’s reformatory circa 1900. King of Devil’s Island is brilliantly done: what most got me was how the director presented the story through the boys’ eyes. They keep convincing themselves they have a friend in the warden; the warden betrays them again and again; the boys finally revolt and are brutally put down. This is a damn fine story, gripping, elemental, intelligently told.
|War Horse (2011, USA)
It’s Spielberg, so the colors, texture, and scenery are lush. The story, a mix of Black Beauty, Rebecca of Sunnywood Farm, and All Quiet on the Western Front, is impossibly corny. I would have been embarrassed to be seen watching it; especially during the parts where I had a visible lump in my throat. Afterward, I felt manipulated. Too Disney.
|Miss Bala (2011, Mexico)
If Miss Bala is in any way representative of the Mexican film industry, I’ll be watching more Mexican movies. This super-realistic (based loosely on a true story) film is told from the point of view of a 23-year-old Tijuana woman who enters a Miss Baja beauty contest and then, by being in the wrong nightclub at the wrong time, is abducted by members of a violent criminal cartel. You as the viewer don’t know any more than she does; you’re pulled along with her from scene to scene, first as she tries to escape only to be turned back over to the cartel by corrupt police, then as she’s forced to be a mule in a cross-border money for ammunition deal, then as she’s forced to participate in an attempted assassination. Everything has the feel of truth. I was frightened all through the movie and am still, hours later, jumping at sudden noises. There isn’t a bit of flash or Hollywood unreality here; everything is so real you can taste and feel it. One of the most impressive movies I’ve seen in a long time, worth every subtitle.
|In the Land of Blood and Honey (2012, USA)
From all I hear, the Bosnian genocide is not over but only in remission. This movie gives us a glimpse of what it was like in the early 1990s … and what it will be like again the moment the West turns its attention away. First I should say I’m not a neutral reviewer: I think the Serbs should be rounded up and sealifted to some unpopulated desert island where they can murder one another to their hearts’ content. If that seems harsh, I’ll just point out that the viewer review sections on both Flixster and IMDB are infested with pro-Serbian commentary (presumably from assholes who think genocide is a good thing), so there. To the movie: the story is competently told, but Jolie’s pacing is painfully slow and there are some jarringly off things about the characters she focuses on, a Serbian officer and a Muslim sex slave. The Muslim woman, Ajia, seems to be a collaborator; we only find out how she has resisted at the very end of the movie. Because of that I felt no sympathy for her until it was too late to matter. The net effect of the movie, at least on me, was sadness, disgust, and despair.
|Outrage (2010, Japan)
Okay Japanese film about a gang war between Yakuza families. I thought I might learn more about the Yakuza by watching a genuine Japanese movie, but it turns out I knew all this stuff already. Gangs are gangs, they run the same rackets no matter what country they’re based in, and there is no honor among thieves … that’s the takeaway here, that, plus lots of gratuitous gore. I notice Tokyo TV is listed as the production company, and indeed Outrage comes across as a made-for-TV movie. Like I said, it’s okay … but it doesn’t hold a candle to any of the South Korean crime films I’ve seen.
|The Yellow Sea (2011, Korea)
Speaking of South Korean crime films, here’s a thriller from the director of The Chaser, the 2008 movie that turned me into a Korean film addict. Initially I wanted to rate this the equal of the first, a four-star movie (which is about as high as I ever go), but in the second half of The Yellow Sea the violence becomes unrealistic: no one, not even the brutal Myun, could possibly survive so many knife stabbings and axe cleavings (but hey, watch any Bruce Willis action flick and you’ll say the violence here is far more realistic). Apart from that small objection, everything here is fresh, authentic, and absolutely gripping. It’s like the Koreans are starting over from scratch, making movies without regard to precedents set in Hollywood. Great acting, great story, great old-fashioned film-making. I want more. Finally, a word of warning: if you see a Korean gangster with a bloody great ox femur in his hand coming at you, run!
|Attack the Block (2011, UK)
Loved every minute of this science fiction movie, which reminded me of both An American Werewolf in London and Let the Right One In. A gang of young toughs defend themselves, and the enormous South London apartment block they live in, from attacking aliens. That’s just the bare outline of the plot: the movie is shot in and around an actual (and grubby) South London apartment block, and the kids, self-styled gangsters armed with knives and baseball bats, speak in thick London accents with plenty of slang. You start out hating them, and then suddenly you’re cheering for them, and it’s quite a ride. Clever, funny, inventive, quirky as hell, the kind of movie I love to discover.
DVDs I Didn’t Finish Watching
|The Snowtown Murders (2012, Australia)
Well, what do you know? Aussie trailer trash are the same as American trailer trash. The characters in this movie live such squalid and meaningless lives I didn’t stick around for the murders, as welcome as they no doubt were.