Rie Rasmussen Talks about ‘Human Zoo’ at New Beverly Cinema

Human Zoo movie poster

Human Zoo” is one of the most astonishing directorial debuts ever as it exhilarates and shocks the audience in a way few movies do these days. Its director is Rie Rasmussen who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film as Adria Shala, an illegal immigrant who is traumatized by a past she is still trying to escape. The fact she performed all these duties on one movie makes her accomplishment all the more profound as it would drive most people in the same position crazy.

Made in 2009, “Human Zoo” finally got its American theatrical premiere in November 2011 courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week-long engagement at New Beverly Cinema. Rasmussen has been at every screening to do a Q&A after the film, and on November 13, 2001, she talked with Julie Marchese who asked the question which needed to be asked most:

“How did you get to be so awesome?”

“Its natural baby, totally natural,” Rasmussen replied.

Rasmussen said “Human Zoo” was inspired by her adopted sister who came out of Vietnam and lost her mother who was sold into slavery in Moscow. Rasmussen’s family spent six years trying to adopt her, and it led her to wonder why our borders and nationalities end up “being our bars.” She talked of how we as a whole “trap ourselves with notions of insecurity” which eventually lead to senseless violence in society. This all fed into the script she wrote which uses the horrific war in Serbia as one of its backdrops.

Born in Denmark, Rasmussen described living in Northern Europe as being “not that fuckin’ fun,” and she even said Inglewood is nice in comparison to it. She got drawn to movies as it provided a much-needed escape from her environment, and because there wasn’t much else to do. The interest of what life had to offer fascinated her, and she found herself looking outside the norm and inspired by what she called the “not so obvious.” She also talked of being attracted to the black and destructive energy in the world and had discovered “Jackass” long before the show made its debut on MTV.

Speaking of that black and destructive energy, it is personified in the character of Srdjan who is an unbalanced psychopath who acts in the wrong ways. In talking about venturing through what she called the “darker alleys of life,” Rasmussen talked about how “the guy who can’t see right from wrong is really interesting.” This is made infinitely clear through Nikola Djuricko’s brilliant performance as Srdjan who gleefully plans to rob houses while the city is being bombed and everyone is hiding in the shelters. We see Shala drawn into this life to where no moral sense is applied to anything, and she gets more deeply involved to where she ends up “going to the dark side.”

Marchese remarked at how “Human Zoo” was sold at movie festivals as a woman’s picture, but she was correct in saying to reduce it to a certain label doesn’t do it justice. Rasmussen’s first movie as a director is so incredible in its accomplishment that it deserves to reach a wider audience than people realize. Boiling it down to a woman’s picture is unfairly misleading, and Rasmussen said it best:

“I have tits, but I’m a person, and that doesn’t take my humanity away.”

Nor should it.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Human Zoo’ is a Thrilling Directorial Debut from Rie Rasmussen

Human Zoo movie poster

Human Zoo” is one of the most exhilarating directorial debuts I’ve seen in some time. It’s even more astonishing to learn its director, Rie Rasmussen, also wrote the screenplay, co-produced the movie and stars in it as well. This got me to thinking about what Robin Williams said when he was presenting at the Oscars:

“There’s the writer, producer, director; one of the few people in the world who can blow smoke up their own ass!”

But having worked with Brian De Palma on “Femme Fatale” and Luc Besson on “Angel-A,” Rasmussen has learned from some of the best and shows a confidence few others have exhibited on their first feature. Released in France back in 2009, “Human Zoo” made its American theatrical debut a few years later courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week at New Beverly Cinema.

Rasmussen stars as Adria Shala, a Serbian-Albanian illegal immigrant who, at the movie’s start, is living in Marseille. We soon learn how she is still deeply traumatized by her past, and the story shifts back and forth in time as we see her trying to survive in the war-torn Kosovo. Adria gets captured by soldiers and almost raped when one of them, Srdjan Vasiljevic (Nikola Djuricko), saves and takes her with him as he decides to desert the Serbian army. From there, the two of them move to Belgrade where Srdjan becomes a gangster and deals out dozens of weapons to the highest bidder. Adria soon learns the ropes of how he does things and stays with him even as things get increasingly nasty (emphasis on the word nasty). It’s this past which threatens to tear apart her present as she finds a new love while helping a friend of hers obtain the citizenship that will help her find a better life.

“Human Zoo” is at times a shockingly violent movie, but never in a flashy way. The violence is an integral part of the lives of these characters, and it is portrayed in all its foul ugliness. It is never glamorized as Rasmussen is reflecting the real-life tragedy of what happened in Kosovo during the war. There is also a rape scene which is one of the most realistic ever featured in movies as Rasmussen never ever tries to make it look the least bit arousing as other directors might have.

Watching this movie twice in the same week, I was blown away at how many long shots Rasmussen pulled off. We’re in a time where movies seem to be about quick cuts and shaking the camera all over the place more than anything else. But she makes each scene flow naturally even as they seem incredibly complicated to put together. There’s one sex scene which looks astonishingly realistic as it lasts two or three minutes, and it’s this kind of directing that sucks you completely into the story and its characters.

Rasmussen also succeeds in staging a brilliant overhead shot in a gunfight sequence which has her character going down a hall as we see what’s going on in the rooms surrounding it. DePalma, among other movie directors, have pulled off scenes like this many times, but Rasmussen makes it all her own to where it feels very fresh.

“Human Zoo” could have been utterly confusing as it constantly jumps back and forth in time, but Rasmussen manages to separate the timelines to where they are easily identifiable. She uses a cold blue color when presenting the past in the same way Steven Soderbergh used different colors in “Traffic.” The color suits this part of the story as it starts in war torn Kosovo and continues on into a world which looks every bit as cold it seems. Watching Adria’s journey into an abyss where the difference between right and wrong becomes seriously blurred is one we cannot turn away from. Her friendship with Srdjan keeps growing into something else even as he maintains a detached mindset on human nature in general.

Rasmussen also gets away with tackling different issues like immigration, slavery, war, and others, and yet this film never feels overstuffed. They are all issues very important to her, and she gives time to explore them without spelling everything out to the audience.

As an actress, Rasmussen gives a ballsy performance as Adria as she takes her character from a naïve young girl to a very self-sufficient one. It’s a great role for any actress because there are so many levels to play with, and she never misses a beat. In interviews, she has talked about seeing the darker side of life which taught her how to defend herself, and this life experience certainly bleeds through into her portrayal of Adria.

Another terrific performance comes from Nick Corey who plays Adria’s American boyfriend, Shawn Reagan. At first, it looks like Corey will coast on the surfer dude stereotype when Nick bumps into Adria by accident. But Corey imbues Nick with a love for life as we learn how he has traveled from one country to another, and he gets a great scene where he prepares to fight in a bar by stripping off all his clothes. Corey makes the scene believable and funny, and it also helps how Rasmussen said she saw a guy do this in real life.

But the best performance by far in “Human Zoo” comes from Nikola Djuricko who gives us one of cinema’s most enthralling and seductive sociopaths as Srdjan Vasiljevic. We should despise Srdjan for what he does, but Djuricko makes him too entertaining to be around. For the majority of this film, his eyes never tell us if he’s a good or bad guy. In watching the delight he takes in his bad deeds and his bleak perception of humanity in general, Djuricko pulls the audience in with a tight grasp to where we can’t take our eyes off him. It’s a fearless performance as he believably portrays a person with qualities we want to believe are not a part of us, and this actor makes an infinitely appealing character out of a certified monster.

I hope “Human Zoo” eventually finds a wider audience than it has already received. The movie more than succeeds in breaking through all borders in its path, and it deserves to be taken a chance on. We are still stuck in a cycle of endless (not to mention needless) remakes and movies “based on a true story,” but this movie has a life force about it which commands your attention and exhilarates you from start to finish. I can’t say that about many movies which come out these days.

* * * * out of * * * *

Duncan Jones Revisits ‘Moon’ at New Beverly Cinema

Moon movie poster

Filmmaker Duncan Jones was the guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on November 19, 2011 where his first two movies “Moon” and “Source Code” were being shown. Right after “Moon” finished, he leapt up to the stage like a contestant on “The Price Is Right” for a Q&A alongside his “Moon” producer Stuart Fenegan. Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey were not in attendance, but Jones brought along Rockwell’s spacesuit and a balloon of Gerty’s face as their stand ins.

Jones explained how he had worked in the advertising industry for years with the goal of eventually working in movies. He originally wanted his first film to be “Mute” which takes place in a futuristic Berlin, but he and Fenegan came to the conclusion it was too big for them to make into a movie at that point. It’s amazing to learn “Moon” only cost $5 million to make, and Jones said he was determined to squeeze as much out of that amount as possible. Fenegan was quick to point out what was at stake and said, “With the first movie, commercial success is far more important than critical success as it determines whether you’ll make another.”

There were two distinctive sets Jones had to work with on “Moon;” a 360-degree space station set which everyone got stuck in for the day once it was sealed, and another for the lunar module which Rockwell’s character uses to travel outside. As for Gerty, the “2001” Hal-like character voiced by Spacey, Jones described it as a beautiful model which could be moved around the set, but that it was a CGI effect in the wide shots. The special effects ended up getting a polish from Cinesite, a digital visual effects and post-production facility in London.

One audience member asked if Rockwell’s character was named Sam on purpose, to which Jones said yes. “Moon” was made with Rockwell in mind for the lead, and since he plays different clones of the same person, Jones really wanted to mess with his head during the 33-day shoot. This way, Jones said, the actor would be constantly reminded of the movie’s thematic elements. While this made Rockwell uncomfortable at times, Jones described him as a good sport overall.

In terms of influences, Jones said “Moon” was inspired by many science fiction movies he watched in the 60’s and 70’s. Specifically, he cited Bruce Dern in “Silent Running,” Sean Connery in “Outland,” and the first chunk of “Alien” as the biggest influences on the movie’s story. The characters in these films came from a working class or blue collar environment, and the portrayal of it in an outer space setting made everything seem more real and relatable. As for must see movie recommendations, Jones replied “Blade Runner” is the be all and end all of science fiction. You could follow any character in Ridley Scott’s film, he said, and you would still have an amazing movie.

When asked of his future plans, Jones said that he has finished polishing his latest script and will be sending it to the one person he wants to star in it (he wouldn’t say who). It is another science fiction movie, but the director is eager to move beyond this particular genre. With “Moon” now being considered as one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years though, I’m sure his fans will be begging him to revisit the genre more often than not.

‘Survival of The Dead’ Finds Zombies Running Afoul of Family Rivalries

Survival of the Dead movie poster

“We’re not gonna make it, humans I mean.”

 “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves

                                                                  -Edward Furlong & Arnold Schwarzenegger from “T2”

There was a 20-year gap between George Romero’s “Day of The Dead” and “Land of The Dead.” Some parents now have kids who are slightly older than the number of years Romero sought financing to make zombie movies on his own terms. But since “Land of The Dead,” Romero has been pumping out one living dead movie every other year. Talk about strong productivity. His latest flesh-eating opus is “Survival of The Dead” which looks at the rivalry between two families on an isolated island, struggling to maintain power as the zombies continue to outnumber them and reject their vegan ways.

Actually, we first get introduced to a group of mercenary National Guardsmen who appeared briefly in “Diary of The Dead” when they stole supplies from the protagonists as they traveled the deserted highway in their old Winnebago. These soldiers are lead by Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett (Alan van Sprang), and they are now on their own, struggling to survive in a god forsaken world. As a result, “Survival of The Dead” is the closest thing to a direct sequel this series has ever had.

These days, Romero is not trying to scare with these movies, and he even “Night of The Living Dead” was the only true horror movie of the bunch. These zombie movies act as a conduit for his social commentary which is both humorous and yet very bleak. In Romero’s point of view, it is only a matter of time before these “deadheads,” as one young boy calls them, devours what’s left of humanity. What can be said about us in the meantime?

Whereas “Diary of The Dead” was a clear take on the You Tube/social networking generation of today, the meaning behind “Survival of The Dead” is not as clear. It took me some time after watching the movie to get an idea of what Romero was attempting to accomplish. Apparently, this one was inspired by a 1958 western called “The Big Country” which follows a new man in town who gets caught up in a feud between two rival families over a valuable piece of land. The same thing happens here between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, but their rivalry is amped up by the fact that many of the people they know and loved have died and come back to life as drooling flesh eaters.

The O’Flynns believe the zombies are dead and will never return to normal, and therefore must be destroyed. The Muldoons, however, believe they should be kept alive in the hope a cure can be found for them. Romero sees their sharp differences as symbolic of the state of our world today as we can’t agree without being disagreeable, and the lack of civility reigns over the ability for us to listen to one another.

With the Muldoons, things get a little confusing at times because they are not above shooting zombies dead if necessary, so their protection of these same beings threatens to make them utterly hypocritical. Then again, their hypocrisy may be the point. “Survival” goes along with one of the plot threads of “Land of The Dead” as it shows how zombies have evolved somewhat to where humans can now teach them things. What the Muldoons hope to do is teach these lumbering bodies to consume something other than human flesh. Whether or not they succeed is for you to find out.

When the National Guardsmen arrive on the island, they are caught in the middle of this conflict and provide a more objective point of view. All they want to do now is survive. They can take an island and make it their own, but they won’t hesitate to abandon it when it becomes overrun by unwelcome guests. They are also not about to get caught up in some family duel when they run a high risk of turning into the thing they blow away at close range.

Politically speaking, we are so seriously divided these days, and we believe the side we are on is right without any question. We just think the other side is full of horse dung and incapable of looking at the world objectively. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around us, and we appear to be unable to pull together as a whole when a crisis hits. I’m sure we can all see by now it’s not the zombies who are going to do us in, but ourselves instead. That’s the way it has been from the start.

The budget for “Survival of The Dead” was around $4 million dollars; not a lot, but enough to give Romero total creative control over his content. I have to give him a lot of credit because he gives this movie a look which makes it look like it cost much more. I don’t know if this is because the scope he is shooting in is bigger than on his previous movies, but it looks more like it cost at least $20 million to make.

Plum Island almost seems like the land time forgot. Whereas on the mainland people are utterly consumed by technology and have made themselves a slave to it, these families live like they are still stuck in the Old West. You never see anyone other than the National Guardsmen with a laptop computer or an iPhone. They simply ride on their horses or in their cars, and they appear happy to be isolated from the rest of the world. Feminism also seems to not have been introduced yet to the island, and this is regardless of how Janet O’Flynn (Kathleen Munroe) is perfectly capable of taking care of herself without the help of a man. Leave it to Romero to always include strong female parts in his films.

Both families are Irish by the way. I’m not sure why Romero went this route, but perhaps it was to remind us how America is, and always has been, a land of immigrants. Their accents at times were a little too thick to where I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, but as long as I got the gist of what was being said, I didn’t complain much.

There is a strong of familiarity which runs throughout “Survival of The Dead” in the themes and characters Romero employs throughout. Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett is close to being a doppelganger of Captain Rhodes from “Day of The Dead.” Janet O’Flynn is your basic strong willed female character who is in every “Living Dead” movie. And, of course, the movie ends the same way the others do with the zombies having more than enough room for leftovers. So really, there’s not a lot new here, but once you get past that, the movie is still fun.

The cast is the usual batch of no-name actors Romero prefers to use. I liked Kathleen Munroe and thought her to be very lovely, and I also liked Alan van Spring as the no-nonsense sergeant who manages to hold it together throughout. Kenneth Welsh also has a very strong presence here as Patrick O’Flynn, the patriarch of his family who gets thrown out but ends up coming back with the guardsmen for revenge. Athena Karkanis also makes a badass soldier out of Tomboy in the same way Jeanette Goldstein made an undoubtedly tough marine out of Vasquez in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” All in all, the cast does very good work here.

Many of you probably are wondering how gross the effects are in “Survival of The Dead.” Well, let’s just say the Fangoria fans will not be disappointed. One character makes creative use of a fire extinguisher to dispatch one flesh eating bastard. All the other characters have their own creative kills as they are equipped with the full knowledge that zombies need to be shot in the head to be killed. They are no longer terrified of the living dead as much as they are hopelessly annoyed by them, and the living dead exist more as a nuisance to them instead of a threat.

“Survival of The Dead” is not as good as “Diary,” and the themes and meanings behind this sequel are not easy to decipher at first. I’m not even going to bother comparing it to the original trilogy because it’s just going to take away from Romero was trying to accomplish here. I still enjoyed “Survival” for what it was, and there is something really inspiring about how Romero still makes these zombie movies after so many years. It’s like you could never make him give up on the chance to make another one after the box office disappointment of “Day of The Dead.” There is a way to make a movie all your own. It’s just that there is not as much money involved.

The movie’s last image of two men facing off at each other with their guns is a strong one as it illustrates the folly of rivalry, especially when it’s over things which become increasingly insignificant in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Romero still has a bleak worldview of humanity, but he still manages to give this film some biting humor which keeps us entertained. It seems like all we can do is just survive and make it to another day. In his movies, this seems to be the best victory anyone can hope for.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity,’ a Movie Not to Be Watched Before you Go to Bed

Paranormal Activity movie poster

“I know something about opening windows and doors

I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors

I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers

Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires

The sense of isolation inspires

Inspires me

I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there

I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air

I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear

Intruder’s happy in the dark

Intruder come

Intruder come and leave his mark, leave his mark

I am the intruder…”

                                                                                                       -from “Intruder” by Peter Gabriel

                                                                         (sounds even scarier when he sings it in German!)

I finally got around to watching “Paranormal Activity” on Blu-Ray, and I truly regret not seeing this movie while it was on the big screen. How great it must have been to take in the audience’s reaction; watching all the ladies shriek and recoil into their lovers’ arms, and seeing guys who think they are so fearless jump out of their seats during some of this movie’s scariest scenes. I imagine the experience would have been like when I first saw “The Blair Witch Project” back in Irvine at a crowded art house movie theater. The last scene of that indie horror film had the audience completely freaked out, wondering if what we saw was real or fiction.

“Paranormal Activity” is an ingenious little horror movie which cost only $15,000 (excluding marketing costs of course) to make and made over $140 million dollars worldwide. It has joined the likes of “The Blair Witch Project” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as one of the most profitable independent films ever made and was released through Paramount Pictures which employed a unique strategy where audiences had to “demand” for it to be shown in their area via the internet. This strategy is probably what kept me from seeing the movie initially because prints of it had already been sent out to theaters all over the country, so the whole idea of participation was just an illusion to get people excited as they are led to believe they have the power. But getting past the overblown promotion which threatened to upstage it completely, “Paranormal Activity” is one of the most unnerving horror movies I have ever seen.

The word paranormal is a term used to describe unusual experiences that are outside of science’s ability to explain or measure (I think Dan Aykroyd has a PHD in this). This is exactly what’s going on in the home of Micah and Katie, a normal looking couple when we first meet them. Micah has recently purchased a video camera to capture what happens while they sleep at night. Katie has confessed to Micah and a psychic that a ghost has been haunting her since she was little, and she now believes it has followed here to their house in San Diego. They are both told by the psychic this ghost is a demon which feeds off of negative energy, and it will pursue poor Katie everywhere she goes. From the start, you know this is not going to end well for anybody.

Micah Sloat, like Katie Featherston, uses his first name for the character he plays. With him parading around the house with the camera, he could have easily been a character in George Romero’s “Diary of The Dead.” Like those college students studying film, Micah seems more interested in catching paranormal activity happening more than in helping Katie until later on, and he complete annoys Katie in the process. But he soon discovers there is a mysterious force intruding on their well-being as they sleep, and it puts them in the most vulnerable position possible.

Don’t worry, I’m not going into a scene for scene breakdown where I give away the best moments of “Paranormal Activity” as it is full of many hair-raising, jump out of your seat moments which deserve to be discovered with your own eyes if you dare. With a budget similar to the cost of hiring a celebrity bodyguard, director Oren Peli utilizes special effects very simple in their construction, yet incredibly effective when used. By filming in a typical suburban house, it feels no different from homes we grew up in. There’s nothing extravagant shown here, and that’s exactly the point. The more this home reminds you of your own, the scarier this movie becomes.

The suspense and tension which continually escalates throughout “Paranormal Activity” is accomplished through the power of suggestion. It does not contain the gallons of blood and gore most horror films employ. Not that I have any issues with gory movies, but what makes a horror movie all the more effective is when the filmmakers don’t you show everything. It’s what you think you see that really messes with your head as it forces your own fears and superstitions onto these characters throughout the film’s 90-minute running time.

Watching “Paranormal Activity” reminded me of a story my dad said he heard as a kid which scared him half to death. It involved some guy on TV talking directly to the camera about how that sound you heard behind you was probably nothing, or so you would think. But what if it was something sinister? What if that feeling of someone coming up from behind you was not just a feeling? Anyway, the more my dad talked about, the scarier it seemed.

Anyway, I bring this up because “Paranormal Activity” gets at a fear so universal and primal as we try to get a good night’s sleep, something which seems impossible these days without Ambien. Those little noises you hear right around you… What if they’re not just noises? What if someone is in the room with you? What if you didn’t lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? Peli plays will all the sounds which keep us awake at night, and the shocks these characters end up enduring easily resemble ones we have all experienced. It was a huge mistake to watch this film at night before I went to bed. I figured it would not be so scary as it was said to be while in theaters, but then again, I made the same mistake with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Movies often benefit from a music score which can really escalate the powerful emotions the director has already captured. But as “The China Syndrome” and Michael Haneke’s “Cache” demonstrated, sometimes they benefit by not having one. I honestly think “Paranormal Activity” would have suffered if it had a score as one would have made several moments seem anticlimactic and premature as a result. The sound of loud footsteps from someone you’re not sure you know is scary enough as it is.

What Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston do act as much as they inhabit their characters here. They are not called upon to be Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to actually catch them acting, the illusion of the movie would have been completely destroyed. What both succeed in doing is acting naturally, and they make us recognize ourselves in them. We quickly come to recognize their fear and relate to it in a way we would rather not experience on a daily basis. These two were complete unknowns when this movie was released, and this elevates the sheer terror we feel for them as casting known actors would have taken away from the proceedings.

I also have to give credit to Mark Fredrichs who plays the psychic who visits Micah and Katie’s home. This role could have been an absolute cliché, one guy who comes across as a madman no one ever fully believes until it is too late. Seriously, this guy could have been just like that crazy old man from the first and second “Friday the 13th” movies who kept warning all those camp counselors, “You’re doomed! YOU’RE ALL DOOMED!!!!” But Fredrichs makes this character into a down to earth guy whose fear is quite palpable once he enters the peaceful looking home. Mark never overdoes anything here, and he more natural he is, the scarier this movie becomes. While the psychic is only on screen for a brief time, it is long enough to where he makes a forceful impression of impending doom.

They say “silence is golden,” but what is truly golden about “Paranormal Activity” is how silence is used so effectively. We’ve all had nights where we lie in bed and hear something fall in another part of the house, but maybe that something didn’t fall on its own. Maybe someone pushed it off to get our attention, to lure us out of our safety zone. Most movies are jam packed today with noise, but Peli recognizes how powerful the lack of sound can be, and he uses it to brilliant effect. I don’t know about you, but I need to be listening to something like soft music as I fall asleep. The quietness of the night has my mind racing when it should be resting.

Some will despise “Paranormal Activity” as nothing more than a gimmick while lacking the blood, gore, and occasional impalements and decapitations they feel are mandatory in a horror film. Others will hail it as a new horror masterpiece which will leave audiences extremely unsettled after leaving the theater. For me, this movie is definitely on the same level with “The Blair Witch Project,” a movie this one owes a huge debt to. It doesn’t try to blow us away with an overabundance of special effects, but with simplicity as the ordinary things are far more terrifying than monsters who wear hockey masks. Seeing a chandelier swaying back and forth definitely throws off my balance and makes me feel wide awake because I get so used to seeing it staying so still. Seeing a chandelier move from side to side in this movie gives the events an especially unsettling feeling.

Okay, I’m going to stop writing about this movie now. The thought of it is freaking me out, and I’m going to end up ripping down my shower curtain if I’m not careful.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Girlfriend Experience’ has Sasha Grey Teaming up with Steven Soderbergh

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

The Girlfriend Experience” represents one of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental films as well as the occasional escape he gets from mainstream filmmaking. Like “Bubble,” he shot it with a very low budget and a relatively inexpensive camera, and he cast actors in it with no previous experience. There is, however, one exception to this, and that is Sasha Grey. Known to people, though they probably wouldn’t openly admit it, as one of the biggest stars in pornography films, she gives the term “Grey’s Anatomy” a whole new meaning. Her being cast in the lead role should show just how big of a breakthrough the world of pornography has made into the mainstream media, something which can no longer be denied.

This movie takes place a month or so before the 2008 Presidential election between Obama and McCain. Sasha plays Christine, a high-priced escort who goes by the alias of Chelsea, as she services the rich commodities brokers of New York. Sex does play a part in her job, but this is not the only thing she provides. Chelsea gives herself over to you as your girlfriend for the evening; one who will listen to your problems over a dinner at a nice restaurant, and she is there for you when the reality of life hits you too hard, or if your wife and kids are giving you too much to deal with. Basically, she is selling companionship as a commodity, and she has become independently wealthy because of it. Throughout the movie, she seems to have a disconnect between what she does, and the life she has outside of it. But as the story goes on, you will see this façade take quite a beating.

Sasha’s life outside of being an escort includes having a boyfriend who works as personal trainer at gyms. He is played by Chris Santos, and his relationship with Sasha is a stable one. While their chosen professions differ from one another, they are essentially the same; they sell their services for a price and try to remain independent while running their individual businesses their own way. Chris and Sasha are, to put it bluntly, pimping themselves for a price, except Sasha is getting a better price for her services. Unlike others, Chris is comfortable with what Sasha does for a living, assuming it remains in certain parameters the two of them have set for one another.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is really not about sex, and there is no simulated or non-simulated sex to be found here. Those looking for the typical Sasha Grey experience need to be made fully aware of this before they sit down to watch this film. She does have one nice full-frontal scene near the beginning of the film, but it is hardly titillating in the way you would expect. What this movie is really about is the practice of buying and selling certain commodities, and of how even the feel of loving companionship has become an ever-growing business. The question presented to us is, are we so drained of feeling and morality that we feel more comfortable buying companionship than we are in obtaining it naturally? Furthermore, what if the line between what you do for a living and what you do outside of it becomes blurred? Can you remain objective in such a situation?

Soderbergh gives the movie a non-linear approach as the movie shifts back and forth in time, and we see the characters in different emotional states. This will undoubtedly annoy many who are so used to watching movies where everything is shown in chronological order. I, on the other hand, welcome this approach because it is always refreshing to see any filmmaker challenge the medium especially when movies these are mostly about tried and true formulas. This method makes this movie seem more unpredictable in regards to what will happen next, and it also gives the audience a somewhat alienating feeling which forces us to view these characters from a clinical distance. “The Girlfriend Experience” doesn’t want us to feel like we are in the same room with these characters. Instead, it wants to observe them and think about what they are going through. The movie also wants us to question if there really can be an unbreakable line between work and play. If we lose sight of this, is it even possible to bring ourselves back to where we once were?

As an actress, Sasha Grey is no Meryl Streep, but she does do good work here. Soderbergh made it clear he chose her in part because of her name value in porn films, and that is understandable. It will certainly bring a bigger audience to this film than it would have gotten if another actress played her part. Soderbergh also said he chose Grey because she is a lot like the character in that she runs her own business and is her own agent; she runs herself and has no one managing her. Indeed, looking at Grey’s career overall, it’s hard to think of another actress, let alone a more accomplished one, who could have been more believable here. In many ways, Grey is Chelsea, and she may even be the first to admit this.

Shooting this movie with a digital camera, Soderbergh makes it clear “The Girlfriend Experience” takes place in the real world and not some fictional one. The Elliott Spitzer scandal which came about because of his dealings with escorts like Chelsea could make this film seem like a documentary. In casting people with no previous acting experience, Soderbergh succeeds in giving us characters we recognize from our daily lives. Still, he doesn’t let you get too close to them. Just as you’re about to get closer, he moves the story in another direction to where you are just as starved for feeling as the characters are.

The film’s final image, of two characters locked in an embrace, seems to define it completely. We want this closeness to another person just as much as we are frightened of it. It makes us wonder if it is possible to achieve it without having to pay a price for it. The movie does not lay judgment on escort services or other forms of prostitution, but simply acknowledges how one of the oldest professions in the world still plays a significant part in our world whether we admit it or not. It has since evolved to another level where it is being offered for more than just a quickie in a motel.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is one of Soderbergh’s more interesting films of the past few years. It runs at a scant 77 minutes, but it feels longer as there is much to take in. Many will say he owes us a movie this short after splitting his previous movie, “Che,” into two. It’s not quite a great movie, but it is very good and willing to take chances other movies in 2009 have not. It will be interesting to see where Grey’s career will go from here. Porn actors and actresses rarely, if ever, make a break into mainstream films because of the stigma attached to their profession. But even those who consider themselves “morally superior” to pornography are probably bigger fans of it than they will ever admit. It all plays a big part in our lives, probably on more of an unconscious level more than anything else.

Of course, it will become a very lonely world if the only way we can get intimacy is to pay a high price for it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ Belongs in the Cinematic Abyss

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen poster

To a certain extent, I have been happy to defend Michael Bay on some of his movies. “The Rock” was a kick ass action flick, and it brought Nicholas Cage to a whole new level of stardom which he has since pissed away. When he gave us “Transformers” two years ago, it seemed really good when you compared it to his other movies. It seemed like he might turn out to be better than we typically give him credit for. Heck, Steven Spielberg worked with him on it for crying out loud!

But now comes the inevitable sequel entitled “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen,” which I thought could be the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise, but this not even close to being the case. If I didn’t have an intense hatred of Bay before, I sure as hell do now. I came out of this sequel cursing his name as if he had no reason to live. “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” may very well represent the biggest waste of money ever spent on any film I have seen since “Waterworld” or even “Norbit”. Yes, the movie has action all over the place and the effects are incredible and incredibly loud as you would expect them to be, but I came out of it wanting to spit at the screen. This is a movie with no heart or soul, and it renders all the hard work put into it as utterly meaningless. What a pathetic waste of celluloid this is! But what’s truly depressing is no matter how critically thrashed this movie gets, it will still make tons of money.

Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky in a performance which threatens to be as utterly annoying as Ralph Macchio’s in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Despite being a hero and helping the Autobots defeat the evil Decepticons in the first movie, he still acts like a pussy whipped bitch here. I don’t think LaBeouf is a bad actor, but he needs to stop playing characters like this lest people start thinking he’s playing himself. The first “Transformers” gave his career a huge leg up, but this god-awful sequel can take him down just the same.

Megan Fox also returns as Sam’s voraciously attractive girlfriend Mikaela Banes, and she makes her entrance by leaning over a motorcycle showing off one of her best “assets.” This will probably piss people off as Bay makes good sport of objectifying women throughout, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. Still, I would be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t say I enjoyed this visual even if it was from a faraway distance. Hey Fox, I know you want to be taken seriously as an actress and, believe it or not, I would like to see that happen for you. All the same, if there is a third “Transformers” movie, I strongly advise you NOT to do it. I honestly think you deserve better than this.

The plot of “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is… well, it’s somewhere in there. It involves… uh, some shard from that cube lodged in Sam’s clothing which…umm…well, ends up filling his head with symbols that… Jesus this is hard to describe! It makes Sam write all these symbols that…that…I don’t know, lead him to this big fight in Egypt… Oh yeah, he meets up again with Optimus Prime from the first one… Bumblebee is back too, and he threatens to be even more of a pussy than Sam is, but he kicks ass… Then they end up in Egypt and fight alongside those military dudes from the previous film…you know, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson? And then… uh, well… There’s a lot of action!

It’s clear from the start Bay is not concerned with developing a good story or giving us characters who are anything but shallow. It certainly would help to bring us into the action more on an emotional level. I have a pretty good idea what Bay is thinking: Fuck the critics! I make movies for the audience, not you snobs! But in the process of flipping the bird to film critics, he is also insulting the audience’s intelligence. And yes, this includes all those 12 and 13-year old’s who this movie was clearly made for. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the Transformers as a kid, but I bet the most die-hard fans will find much to hate about this horrid sequel, and the call for Bay’s blood will be as loud as the explosions are in this film.

All the hallmarks of a Bay movie can be found here; loud explosions every other millisecond, characters communicating by yelling at each other even when they are in earshot of each other, and inane dialogue which makes George Lucas’ sound like John Patrick Shanley’s. I’m sure there are many who will say this is a movie where you should “check your brain at the door,” but this sentiment only goes so far. There is a point where you take your audience for granted, and finding forgiveness for this transgression is a bitch. This isn’t the first time Bay has gone out of his way to intentionally piss off those critics who hate his films. “Bad Boys II,” another cinematic monstrosity, was Bay lighting a fire under the ass of many a film critic. But the maker of one god awful sequel has now succeeded in creating one which is far worse.

Bay flips the bird at us even more by introducing two Autobots which are nothing more than extremely offensive stereotypes of the blatantly racist kind. I’m talking about Mudflap and Skids, the Transformers’ answer to Jar Jar Binks. I figured by having an actor like Tyrese Gibson might balance out things here since he doesn’t descend into any stereotypical behavior, but this is a movie whose main audience will be kids for crying out loud! I usually think people look into the way certain people are portrayed in movies a little too much, but this time the criticism is more than justified as Mudflap and Skids are two infinitely misconceived characters.

Speaking of characters yelling at each other, this god forsaken sequel may very well contain the most yelling of multiple characters in any film. Do you have any idea of just how annoying it is when people TALK LIKE THIS AS IF YOU HAVE SOME HEARING DISABILITY AND THEY THINK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR HEARING AID EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ONE BUT THERE’S SO MUCH FIGHTING AND EXPLOSIONS GOING ON TO WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO APOLOGIZE TO EACH OTHER BECAUSE YOU EITHER ARE RUNNING LIKE HELL FROM THOSE NASTY DECEPTICONS OR YOU HAVE TO FIGHT THEM ASSUMING YOU GOT ANY BALLS LIKE THE MILITARY DOES BUT HAVING ANY OLD GUN WON’T HELP BECAUSE YOU NEED THE EQUIVALENT OF A BAZOOKA?… I’m not sure I have seen another movie where I have been desperate to see so many tracheotomies performed in one sitting! It’s not enough to tell one person in this movie to shut the fuck up just once. You have to do it over and over, and they still will end up screaming their anxieties right out at you!

Not just that, but half the time I couldn’t even understand what the hell anyone was saying. Did Bay sneak crystal meth into everyone’s food? It’s bad enough he gave us a movie at two and a half hours long, but is this how he chooses to condense a lot of it? I wonder if Bay could actually explain to us what’s going on here. I bet the way he sees it, if he gave us all sorts of loud explosions and expensive special effects, then who are we to argue? You can get away with this in another movie, but not this one.

My reaction to this new “Transformers” movie reminds me of when I witnessed Roland Emmerich’s tragically horrific take on “Godzilla.” I went out of that movie feeling depressed and saying to myself if this is the way Hollywood is going to keep making movies, then I am not going to another one ever again. Over ten years later, it feels like we haven’t come any further. Does Bay really think this is something people will instantly embrace? In the end, it won’t really matter because “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is bound to make a ton of money no matter how bad it is.

It’s not worth it wasting any more time on this movie than I already have. Seriously, I was all but ready to spit on the ground of the theater I saw it at. If you didn’t hate Bay before this movie, you will now. As I exited the theater, I quietly said to myself, “Fuck Michael Bay! Fuck him royally! Burn in hell!”

In regards to the audience I saw it with, the best piece of praise I heard from anybody about the movie was, “It’s okay.” Talk about being generous! Right now, I am sick of movies being just okay. So far, there has only been one truly great live action movie out this summer, and that’s “Star Trek.” Coincidentally, two of the screenwriters on this massive train wreck, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also wrote the screenplay for that one. What the hell guys? Or maybe you’ll get off easy since Bay runs through your dialogue so fast to where we can’t possibly understand what anyone is saying. But don’t worry guys, Bay is taking all the heat on this one.

Michael Bay, you have just given us a great example of how NOT to make a summer blockbuster. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “No Country for Old Men” just so I won’t forget what great filmmaking looks and feels like.

ZERO out of * * * *

*This review should suffice for the “Transformers” sequel of your choice.  

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Antichrist’ Shakes You Like Few Movies Can

Antichrist movie poster

This review was written in 2009.

It’s been over a week now since I saw the latest cinematic provocation from Danish film director Lars Von Trier. What I witnessed in “Antichrist” is still on my mind, and it took me a long time to process all I saw. I found myself talking to complete strangers about it as we each tried to interpret the movie on our own terms. Some found it too long which had me wondering if they ever saw Von Trier’s “Dogville” which was three hours long (“Antichrist” is only 109 minutes). Some just didn’t get the story. Either way you look at it, “Antichrist” is to 2009 what Michael Haneke’s remake of “Funny Games” was to 2008; an immensely polarizing film people will have passionate disagreements on. I found it to be a completely mesmerizing experience which had me transfixed throughout its entire length.

“Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in performances which don’t deserve Oscars as much as they do Purple Hearts. They play a married couple who are referred to as He and She, and the movie opens with them making love while their baby boy plays in his room. There is even a hardcore insertion added to the sex scene which may seem inappropriate to some, but it adds a raw carnality to a moment which makes it all the more immediate. Their lovemaking becomes equated with death as their son goes up to an open window, fascinated with the falling snowflakes, and ends up plummeting to his death. From there, “Antichrist” follows them as they cope with their son’s tragic death, but things get even worse. And just when you think they have hit rock bottom, things getting even worse than that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

It really helps to go into “Antichrist” with no expectations and an open mind because it will not be anything you predict it will be. So much attention has been paid to the unnervingly graphic moments to where you think Von Trier is trying to court fans of “Saw” and “Hostel.” But anyone expecting this will walk out of this movie horribly disappointed. “Antichrist” does not exist merely to shock viewers with copious amounts of blood and gore. Instead, Von Trier seeks to challenge the things you believe in, and he dares you to look beyond the darkness of our own human natures to get a glimpse of what he implies.

An ominous hum runs throughout this movie in the same way it runs through many of David Lynch’s films (“Lost Highway” and “Blue Velvet” among others). Dafoe’s character is a therapist, and his conflict of interest is clear from the start as he questions how his wife’s psychiatrist is treating her. The wife disagrees, telling him he shouldn’t get involved, but his love for her overrules everything else, including common sense. Almost immediately, he makes her flush her medication down the toilet, causing her a frightening amount of emotional upheaval. He then takes his wife to a cabin in the woods, which is ironically called “Eden” (it’s anything but). She finds this is the place which scares her the most, and he decides it will be the perfect place to try exposure therapy. By facing her greatest fears, he feels this will get her past the tragic loss of their son.

You would think Dafoe’s character has his wife’s best interests at heart, but the exposure therapy only exacerbates her grief and despair. We later discover her hold on reality is tenuous at best when He finds She has been working on a thesis regarding gynocide, which itself is a take on the word gendercide; referring to the systematic killings of a specific sex, in this case, women. He comes to see She has embraced the witchcraft of women and that they are seen as evil beings, something he quickly tries to disprove to her. But having made her emotional state even worse than it already is, He sees her grief has made her justify the punishment She inflicts on herself as She lets herself believe it is her fault their son died.

Von Trier has long been accused of rampant misogyny in his films, and yes, he does seem to put his actresses through an emotional wringer most of the time. But while “Antichrist” deals with misogynistic themes, it is not a misogynistic movie. I’m sure many will make a good that it is, but the film could also be interpreted as empowering in some respects. “Antichrist” does call into question how the female sex is viewed as nurturing and caring while the male sex is seen as stronger. But for the last half of the movie, even though She has gone completely mad, She seems to have all the power and proves to be anything but weak and helpless.

All of this led me to a big question when I walked out of the movie theater in my emotionally shaken state; who is the antichrist of the story? Many may see it as the Gainsbourg character in how She embraces the sexist teachings which She has been studying, and of how the stick figure in the movie’s title seems to look like a woman. But I felt this illustration was not gender specific in its design, so this makes it subject to interpretation. Neither character is of sound mind throughout the movie, and both deal with their soul-sucking grief in very unhealthy ways.

Nature itself is a huge character in this movie, and the majority of the action takes place there. The house which sits upon “Eden” is much like the one we have seen from the “Evil Dead” movies so you can see in advance how bad things will happen there. Maybe nature is the antichrist of because out there, the laws we live under don’t exist in the same way, and there is no order to be found in anything. “Antichrist” almost ends up being like “Deliverance” but without the demented hillbillies. No one is put in cages. This all leads to the moment where Dafoe encounters the fox who takes the time from disemboweling itself to utter the words which define the film, “Chaos reigns!”

This scene apparently led to much laughter in the audience at Cannes when “Antichrist” was shown there, but it is the most truthful and frightening of moments in the entire film. Whether or not you believe Gainsbourg’s character when She says “nature is Satan’s church,” it is clear the relationship between these two, let alone their state of minds, are descending into total chaos. Many movies show how nature can force us to discover the animalistic parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather not know about, and “Antichrist” is no exception.

I took some time to look at the definition of the word antichrist and what it really meant. According to Christianity, the antichrist is one who fulfills Biblical prophecies concerning an adversary of Christ while resembling him in a deceptive manner. Clearly, someone of sin, he or she opposes against anything that is worshiped, claiming divine authority. Most notably, this person also works all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs. With this in mind, I can’t help but think Dafoe’s character is the antichrist of this movie, for he has taken his wife’s well-being into his hands thinking his experience trumps that of a younger doctor. He rails against all which is medically sound, and he subjects his wife to unnecessary torment despite his intent to help her. If he really thinks exposure therapy is the way to handle things, I wonder how it worked with his other patients who were not family related.

Much of what we see in “Antichrist” is open to interpretation. Von Trier has not gone out of his way to try and justify what he has shown us. There is a story at work here, but its meanings will be different for those who dare to see it. Watching this movie reminded me of when I was a student at UC Irvine and saw a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” It was a play which focused on a meeting between a male professor and one of his female students whom he gave a bad grade to. At the end of it, no one could decide who was more at fault. It frustrated many because the play seemed to be devoid of a straight answer, but this was the point. One made the play so great was how thought provoking it was. It made you think about what you just saw, and it expanded how you saw certain things and maybe gave you a deeper understanding of the world around you more than ever before.

“Antichrist” gave me this same kind of experience, and I can’t remember the last time I had one like it. Most movies today don’t challenge you out of fear of offending too many paying customers they depend on, so as emotionally draining as this film is, it still feels s like a victory something this artful actually got made. It is meant to shake you, and that it did to me. Many will hate the film, but for those filmgoers who are far more adventurous in what they watch, I think there is much they can appreciate.

Is there anything audiences can come to agreement on with “Antichrist”? Well, one thing’s sure; you cannot deny the astonishing beauty of the cinematography on display. The director of photography is Anthony Dod Mantle, the same cinematographer who shot “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening prologue stands out as one of the most beautiful pieces of film I have ever seen. The juxtaposition of He and She making love while their son ends up falling from his bedroom window is as lovely as it is horrifically tragic. Mantle also gives us some incredible dreamlike shots which capture the beauty of nature while hinting at the inescapable darkness lingering beneath the surface. I somehow doubt that I will see more beautiful imagery in any other movie I see for the rest of 2009.

What else can we agree on about “Antichrist”? Ah yes, the performances! Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg rise up to the unthinkable challenges Von Trier lays at their feet. What they both do here almost seems criminal were they not such willing participants. Both actors are known for taking big risks, so this makes them well suited to take on material so emotionally naked.

Gainsbourg won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and she clearly deserved it. Ironically enough, she also appeared in a production of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and she played the title character in the 1996 version of “Jane Eyre.” Her opening intro from “The Cement Garden” was used in one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs, “What It Feels Like for A Girl.” Throughout her career, she has disappeared into her characters with an abandon you don’t find in many other actors. Her performance in “Antichrist” shows her at the peak of her powers, but I’m sure there is greater work we will see from her in the future.

But let us not leave out Dafoe who can add his role here to the many great ones he has played. His character is a witness to an unspeakable despair, and he does not hide the fact his character deals with this despair in ways which are selfish more than anything else. Dafoe’s career has spanned several decades, and it includes controversial movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Dafoe’s mission and intent as an actor has never been to simply get under your skin, but to explore the darker parts of humanity so we can better understand them. He is unhindered by the trappings of stardom and glamor, and he continues to take chances with movies like this one.

Von Trier may not be “the greatest director in the world” as he proclaims whenever given the opportunity, but he is certainly one of the best directors working today. Watching his movies, you can understand why there is actually a benefit to people booing his material. Were a film like this were not generating strong emotions such as booing, this film would have been a failure for him. Art, be it in film or in paintings, serves to challenge the things we believe in, and that is what Von Trier has done here.

“Antichrist” is a movie which takes its time in getting to where it’s going as opposed to going for a quick payoff like most movies do. If you can keep up with its slow pace, you will be in for a movie as mesmerizing as it is psychologically draining.  Many will it intensely, but I count myself as one of its defenders. For me, this is far and away one of the best movies of 2009. But like both sides, I will warn you this is not a movie for everybody. If you are easily offended or not in the mood for something deeply disturbing, then don’t see “Antichrist.”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious movie poster

This review was written in 2009 when this movie was released.

I never bothered watching either of the sequels that came out after “The Fast & The Furious.” What was the point? You have Paul Walker headlining “2 Fast 2 Furious” (clever title) which did not inspire much confidence in me at the time. Then came “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift” which had none of the original characters in it (excluding cameos). For many, including myself, this second sequel seemed to be the last gasp of a franchise trying to get by on its name only. But now we have “Fast & Furious,” a movie every bit as tight as its title. With this one, we finally have the original cast back with the clever tagline of “new model, original parts.” With this in mind, I actually found myself excited at what looked to be the first true sequel to the 2001 original.

Okay, the original was by no means a great movie. Even Rob Cohen, who directed it, didn’t try to hide the fact the story was ripped off from “Point Break.” In essence, “The Fast & The Furious” was basically “Point Break” on wheels. At the same time, it was never less than entertaining and offered us a surprisingly authentic look into the world of street racing. What astonished me most was how it brought all kinds of ethnicities together who were all in pursuit of being the ultimate racing champion. In a way, it made you look at street racing as an equal opportunity killer. Car crashes of all kinds know no prejudice.

With “Fast & Furious,” the series comes back to what Cohen originally hoped it would be; the continuing soap opera of what’s happening with Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia, his girlfriend Letty, and his friend turned nemesis Brian O’Conner. Of course, this particular sequel would never have happened without the participant of one individual: Vin Diesel. Having opted out of the other sequels, Diesel returns to his star-making role as Dom, the character all the fans desperately wanted to catch up with.

“Fast & Furious” has been described as an intersequel, as opposed to just a prequel, in that it takes place between the events of “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift.” We catch up with Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, as luscious as ever) in the Dominican Republic as they are up to their usual game of hijacking trucks, in this case oil tankers. The movie gets off to a fast start indeed as the hijacking quickly develops some rather dangerous complications. From there, Dom comes back to Los Angeles to avenge the death of a very close friend.

When the movie heads to Los Angeles, we then catch up with Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who is now an FBI agent. Brian starts the movie on a chase which is indeed furious as he runs after a fugitive who has information on a major drug dealer he is pursuing. It is a wonderfully executed chase scene which gets us primed for what will happen next. Of course, the real man Brian is after is the same man Dom wants revenge on, so these are forced to work together again even though they couldn’t trust one another any less.

“Fast & Furious” allows us to also catch up with Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), who fell hard for O’Conner before realizing who he really was. She now looks at him with disdain as she feels completely betrayed by his lies. But come on, you know these two are still hot and heavy for each other. Of course, it takes them some more time to realize this.

Is it even worth it to be critical of a movie like this? The plot threatens to be paper thin throughout, and it is there of course to hang a lot of car chases and other action sequences on. There are clichéd characters aplenty, such as Brian’s superior officer who wants results or his ass is grass. There’s also that rival agent who doesn’t trust Brian one bit, and that’s even before Brian drives the guy’s head into the marble wall at the FBI office (ouch!). Then there is dialogue which sounds like it comes out of every other action movie you have seen, and some of it will have you rolling your eyes. But seriously, it’s not like the filmmakers are trying to make “Lawrence of Arabia” here. I mean, you could compare the two to determine which is the better movie, but this is more likely to make you look like a snob rather than an objective film critic.

Truth be told, I just went into “Fast & Furious” to have a fun time, and that’s exactly what I got. This is a well-maintained action picture which has much to appreciate. I especially liked the chase scenes which, while not necessarily the best ever, are heads above a lot of the recent action movies Hollywood has churned out. I especially dug the street racing scene where Dom and Brian race two other guys for the chance to become drivers for hire. The only catch is the streets are not closed off for this one. They are being led by GPS monitors showing them the direction they need to go, but they also have to keep their eyes open for oncoming traffic which is oblivious to the reckless endangerment about to be unleashed.

There is another cool sequence where cars race across the desert to get across the Mexican border. While the chase itself succeeds in defying the laws of logic in several ways, and it does have those CGI moments which takes away from it, it was still fun as Dom and company barrel through these secret caverns with their twists and turns. This leads to an all-out furious climax as the tunnel is utilized again for more deadly results.

There is also a high volume of scantily dressed women to be found just like in other movies in this endless franchise. Very appealing to the eye, I found it to be. Still, it continues to astound me just how lax the MPAA is with movies like these. There is a lot of skin left uncovered for a PG-13 movie and then some. Very stimulating it was! Sorry to sound like Yoda, but I am not going to lie about the eye candy on display.

As for the movie’s faults, the female characters keep getting short shrift compared to the men in this franchise. Seeing Michelle Rodriguez here made me forget about all her troubles which she got into during her time on “Lost” and of how the media paid way too much attention to. She is a hottie to put it mildly, and you totally believe she would actually go out of her way to do some of the dangerous shit herself. It doesn’t matter if a stunt double did most of her work because you come out of this movie believing she would have done some of this on her own. The fact she is underused here is painful.

The same goes for Jordana Brewster whose character of Mia is left around just hoping and worrying about Dom and Brian. She’s great to watch, and she doesn’t even try to hide her character’s anger and bitterness at Brian. Still, to have her just sit around worrying about the guys instead of doing more threatens to make this a waste of her talents. She gives the movie the heart it needs though, and she strengthens the connection between Dom and Brian. The end of the movie seems to imply that if there is another sequel, she will have a bigger part in it. It would have been great if this were the case here though.

It’s great to see Vin Diesel back in this franchise. Lord knows it wouldn’t be worth doing another one if he were not participating in it. Over the last few years, Diesel had become envisioned by the media as an actor with a very over inflated ego, and many of his movies released after “The Fast & The Furious” tanked at the box office. In retrospect, this seems largely unfair as studios were quick to blame him for trying to be the next big action star way too quickly. While Diesel is not a great actor (not yet anyway), there is no denying he has a charismatic presence onscreen. Some of his strongest moments come when he doesn’t say a word. After all these years, he still has the physical confidence which spells out to the audience, “Let’s not mess with me today.”

Paul Walker is, well, Paul Walker. Every performance I have seen him give is basically the same, so his rep in Hollywood as a nothing more than a pretty face feels pretty much justified. To be fair though, he is more believable as Brian O’Connor this time around than he was in the original. That rough facial hair he has helps illustrate the years he has been on the job and of a history he still has to absolve himself of.

John Ortiz is also on board as the nefarious Campos. It’s a role very similar to the one he played in Michael Mann’s movie version of “Miami Vice,” except he has a lot less hair this time around.

The director behind the wheel of “Fast & Furious” is Justin Lin who also helmed “Tokyo Drift.” Lin is best known, however, for his brilliant 2003 debut feature “Better Luck Tomorrow” which brilliantly transcended the stereotypes many people have of Asian Americans. Ever since then, however, he appears to have gone all Hollywood with wussy studio movies like “Annapolis” with James Franco. Many still want him to come back and make another movie like his first feature, but Lin does a good job here in delivering a good old fashioned B-movie which delivers the goods. His skills as a filmmaker are not in doubt, and I expect great things from him in the future.

Lin also brings along his “Tokyo Drift” composer Brian Tyler for the ride, and Tyler gives the movie the kick ass score it deserves. A combination of thunderous guitar riffs and orchestral movements, the propulsive score he comes up with more than matches the horsepower the cars have here.

“Fast & Furious” was a lot of fun and that’s all a movie like this needs to be. Whether or not it stands the test of time, it is great to see these characters back on the silver screen. It was worth it to see these characters live a quarter mile at a time once again.

I also want to add that the movie does have that disclaimer which says, “The car and motorcycle sequences depicted in this film are dangerous.” To this, I say, duh!

* * * out of * * * *