Plata quemada **½/**** starring Eduardo Noriega, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Pablo Echarri, Leticia Brédice screenplay by Marcelo Figueras, Marcelo Piñeyro, based on the novel Plata Quemada by Ricardo Piglia directed by Marcelo Piñeyro
by Walter Chaw Pushing the submerged homoeroticism of Strangers on a Train to the surface, Burnt Money's homage begins with Jean-Pierre Melville's genre cool and Hitchcock's cigarettes and lighters at a carnival and ends with a certain Wellesian noir seediness (complete with The Lady From Shanghai's ill-fated passion, Touch of Evil's corrupt officials, and even Citizen Kane's totemic paperweight). Burnt Money is deliriously beautiful to look at--all pale greens and mute browns--but its overt politicism in the closing moments begins to dispel the film's magic in favour of over-heated parable. It's an expert genre piece that tries to bear the brunt of all of Argentina's national cynicism and economic corruption (a leaden socio-political platform reflected by its title), and despite his cineaste smarts, director Marcelo Piñeyro just isn't up to the task.
El Abrazo partido */**** starring Daniel Hendler, Adriana Aizemberg, Jorge D'Elía, Sergio Boris screenplay by Marcelo Birmajer, Daniel Burman directed by Daniel Burman
Hard Goodbyes: My Father Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou ***/**** starring Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli, Christos Stergioglou written and directed by Penny Panayotopoulou
WALK ON WATER **/**** starring Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters, Gideon Shemer screenplay by Gal Uchovsky directed by Eytan Fox
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Woody Allen's been on something like a two-decade slide, so if there's a little voice in your head telling you that the last thing you need to see is an Argentine version of a Woody Allen "where's daddy" neurosis opera: listen to it. Daniel Burman's Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido) is an interminable slog through the congested headspace of one Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), an insufferable, navel-gazing Pol expat living out his self-loathing strut and fret in the ridiculous family lingerie shop of a cut-rate shopping centre. (Yeah, it's Scenes from a Mall in Spanish.) Burman likes breaking the fourth wall, likes humourless inter-titles that separate his film into a dozen awkward sketches, and really likes dense monologues about, essentially, why no one is ever happy. The extent to which you will cotton to Lost Embrace has a lot to do with how much you enjoy wallpaper narration and old Jewish-Polish grandmothers singing homey folk songs square to the camera--how much you delight in Jewish mothers nudzhing their schlemiel sons before divesting their aggressively middle-class closets of ancient infidelities set against intra-mall flings with an Internet café bimbo. Ennui, listlessness, and gab gab gab, Lost Embrace earns the occasional moment of interest or topicality in stuff like a semi-amusing interview Ariel endures before the Polish consulate (during which he expresses admiration for the recently-deceased Polish Pope), but the film spends most of its goodwill on masturbating with a furious, chafing intensity. Oh, and it's mawkishly sentimental, too.
½*/**** Image A Sound A starring F. Murray Abraham, Gabriel Byrne, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert De Niro screenplay by Mary McGuckian, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder directed by Mary McGuckian
by Walter Chaw Given its cast as well as its presumption to chart the hazy intersection between predestination and circumstance, Mary McGuckian's excruciatingly dull The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the third adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, might be the biggest miscalculation of the year. Start with Robert De Niro as the corrupt Archbishop of Lima, presiding over the inquisition of Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne). Six years previous Juniper witnessed the unceremonious snapping of the titular bridge, which sent five random people to their howling doom. Had they known how boring our good brown-robed pilgrim would make them out to be, I wouldn't wonder why they didn't try to float. No, Brother Juniper has decided that he's going to write the world's dullest book about this quintet of unfortunates so as to perhaps accidentally ken the mysterious workings of the Almighty in the small lives of small people.
by Walter Chaw The question, and it's a question with currency, is why anyone in their right mind would subject themselves (and their long-suffering editors) to coverage of two concurrent film festivals. A pair of answers: the obvious is that I'm not in my right mind, but as obvious is the fact that San Francisco's Dark Wave, which ran from October 18-20, is one of the most exciting "small" film festivals in the United States. I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to talk about it, in other words--ulcers be damned. Presented by the hale San Francisco Film Society evenings and midnights at the historic Roxie, last year's presentation included one of this year's best films (Larry Fessenden's superb Wendigo) as well as the finest example of retro euro-horror (Lionel Delplanque's Deep in the Woods) since Dario Argento lost his marbles.
CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966) *½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B starring Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache screenplay by Peter Welbeck directed by John Moxey
THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) */**** Image B Sound B Extras A starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Maria Rohm, Howard Marion Crawford screenplay by Peter Welbeck directed by Jess Franco
THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969) *½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Maria Perschy, Richard Greene screenplay by Peter Welbeck directed by Jess Franco
THE BLOODY JUDGE/Il trono di fuoco (1970) **/**** Image A Sound B Extras A starring Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Maria Rohm screenplay by Anthony Scott Veitch directed by Jess Franco
by Walter Chaw The sort of box set that horror fans and film historians slaver over (though Sino-Western ambassadors probably aren't too pleased about), Blue Underground's exceptionally, reverently remastered four-disc "Christopher Lee Collection" gathers four obscure Lee pictures--The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Circus of Fear, and The Bloody Judge--in presentations so vibrant and beautiful that they're almost enough to distract from the uniform tediousness of the films themselves. A little like avant-garde cinema, these pictures--all but one (Circus of Fear) directed by the notoriously, appallingly untalented Jess Franco--function better as theory than fact, unfolding on staid soundstage environments with single camera set-ups, stock footage, and jump cuts, and squandering, for the most part, the magisterial presence and delivery of Lee. (For the record, a lethal drinking game could probably be devised around the number of times Franco zooms to different parts of the same shot to avoid the inconvenience of relighting or moving the camera around.)
*½/**** Image A Sound A starring Sean Penn, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem screenplay by Don McPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn, based on the novel The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette directed by Pierre Morel
by Bill Chambers Sean Penn seems like the last guy who would walk into his agent's office and say, "Give me the Liam Neeson™," because his work doesn't operate on that kind of cynicism. Even I Am Sam, in which he courts an Oscar by playing mentally-challenged, fits neatly into a career whose primary auteurist concern has been the sanctity and fragility of daughters' lives (see also: The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, 21 Grams, and Mystic River). So it's reassuring, sort of, to see him use The Gunman as a pulpit for his humanitarian concerns (presuming I've correctly extrapolated the political firebrand's credited contribution to the screenplay), but there is a disappointing transparency to the character, as if he's afraid that reinventing himself too much in the Neeson mold will reveal, God forbid, a desire to stay popular in a profession he has threatened to quit numerous times. In The Gunman, one of our most transformative actors--a guy who as recently as 2011 turned himself into the spitting image of The Cure's Robert Smith and affected a childlike drawl for the length of a feature--comports himself with a tedious self-seriousness, makes time to surf, and smokes way too much to be a credible action hero. He's Sean Penn in all but name, and he's kind of a drag.
FREE ZONE */**** Image C- Sound B Extras F starring Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, Hiam Abbass written and directed by Amos Gitai
THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS *½/**** Image A- Sound B+ starring Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Javier Cámara, Julie Christie written and directed by Isabel Coixet
by Walter Chaw The not-at-all-hamfisted allegory of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman trekking across the disputed land to find an American who will settle some non-specific debt, Amos Gitai's tediously strident Free Zone opens with ten minutes, uninterrupted, of Natalie Portman weeping over what we discover to be the end of a love affair. It's showy and about as subtle as a kidney-punch--ditto the conception of Portman's passive Rebecca (Portman), the American on the sidelines, a matinee-beautiful beacon who stands by as impassively as Milton's God. That said, the device of a long, car-bound road trip narrated by flashbacks of the protagonists' separate journeys to this journey is, at least for a while, intoxicating. The problem--and it's a doozy--is that Gitai's picture is so blatant an allegory that nothing any of the characters say comes free of dramatic distance or irony, making it impossible to take the film seriously as anything other than ventriloquism for Gitai's, let's face it, unsurprising politics. Nothing wrong with Wailing Wall lamentations about the state of the world, but watching someone shake a fist at a dead horse, long past the hope of resurrection, for upwards of two hours, is tiring and futile. Is there traction in proposing that the film merely mirrors the hopelessness of the Middle East conflict? I guess, but then how many people--specifically, how many people renting a film called Free Zone directed by Amos Gitai--are going to feel edified by that?
El hijo de la novia **½/**** starring Ricardo Darín, Héctor Alterio, Norma Aleandro, Eduardo Blanco screenplay by Juan José Campanella, Fernando Castets directed by Juan José Campanella
by Walter Chaw Restaurateur Rafael (Ricardo Darín)--divorced, paunchy, successful--has a stress- and sweets-inspired heart attack at the age of forty-two, prompting him to reconcile with his estranged mother (Norma Aleandro) and consider selling the family restaurant, and forcing him into a reconsideration of the blasé attitude he has towards his beautiful girlfriend, Naty (Natalia Verbeke). An exhausted contrivance to push a selfish and unpleasant man towards a resuscitation of his wasted life, Juan José Campanella's Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la novia) adds to the "cardiac arrest as a means to mid-life crisis" trope such overly manipulative and sentimental movements as an adorably Alzheimer's afflicted mother, an impassioned monologue about the emptiness of organized religion in the lives of the truly pious, and the return of a childhood pal, Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco, doing his best Roberto Benigni), whose own misfortunes cast Rafael's into stark relief.
****/**** starring Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
by Walter Chaw Brutal and ignoble, the antithesis of romantic, the violence in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth slaps metal against flesh like the flat of a hand against a steel table. It's the only element of the picture that isn't lush, that isn't laden with the burnished archetype of Catholic superstition as it exists in eternal suspension with the pagan mythologies it cannibalized. By itself, this seems a metaphor for the pain and the magic of how fable turns the inevitability of coming-of-age into ritual. An early scene where hero girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)--a storyteller equal parts experientially innocent and allegorically savvy, making her the manifestation of del Toro's ideal avatar--tells her prenatal brother a story about a rose that blooms nightly on a mountain of thorns touches in one ineffably graceful movement all the picture's themes of immortality, aspiration, isolation, and the promise of escape held, sadistically, just out of reach. There's something of the myth of Tantalus in Ofelia's tale, as much as there is of Lewis Carroll's Alice and the sagas of parental absence by the Brothers Grimm, which surface in the premise of a young girl traveling, as the film opens, with her pregnant mother into the war-torn Spanish countryside during Franco's rule to join her wicked stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López) at his remote outpost. Ofelia will be reminded repeatedly throughout the film that there's no such thing as justice or innocence left in the world, and that the best intentions are crushed by cynicism and rage. The question left as the picture closes has to do with whether Ofelia's taken the lesson to heart, to say nothing of del Toro--or us.
Virus */**** Image C+ Sound B Extras B starring Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo, Selan Karay, Robert O'Neil screenplay by Claudio Fragasso, J.M. Cunilles directed by Bruno Mattei
Rats - Notte di terrore *½ Image C- Sound B Extras B starring Richard Raymond, Janna Ryann, Alex McBride, Richard Cross screenplay by Claudio Fragasso, Hervé Piccini directed by Bruno Mattei
by Bryant Frazer It's quite possible there is no better-known director of truly terrible genre movies than the late Italian filmmaker Bruno Mattei. Though I've not seen any other Mattei films, I feel comfortable making that assessment based solely on the "blood-soaked double feature" assembled here by the B-movie mavens at Blue Underground. By any rational measure, Hell of the Living Dead and Rats: Night of Terror are cheesy barrel-scrapings, budget-starved and blandly offensive horror counterfeits. But by the standards of Mattei's oeuvre--which also includes nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, women-in-prison flicks, and mondo-style "documentaries"--they are the cream that rises to the top of the milk. Unless you're willing to make a case for his nunsploitation flick The Other Hell, or maybe one of the early Nazi sexploitation pictures, these two films seem to form the cornerstone of Mattei's reputation, such as it is, among genre buffs.
Autómata */**** starring Antonio Banderas, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, Birgitte Sorensen screenplay by Gabe Ibáñez, Igora, Javier Sánchez Donate directed by Gabe Ibáñez
by Walter Chaw Though I've seen worse movies than Gabe Ibáñez's Automata, I've also seen Automata what feels like a few dozen times. Rather than turn this into an exercise in listing source materials, however attractive shooting fish in barrels might be, best to focus on how the picture makes Isaac Asimov's three rules of robotics into two (making it different!), and how its closest film analogue is probably somewhere in the junction between Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium and Richard Stanley's Hardware. That'll have some of you feeling pretty excited and most of you either puzzled or properly dissuaded. Yes, Automata is a muddy piece of pseudo-profundity showcasing its creators' lack of vision, discretion, and judgment. It needed at least a few more passes through the typewriter, frankly, and a mid-film appearance by a distractingly-altered Melanie Griffith--altered by real-life plastic surgery, not in-film techno-debauchery--highlights exactly how brutal the Hollywood machinery is in destroying people like her and Kim Novak and Lara Flynn Boyle and on and on. Griffith's kind of like the girl-version of Mickey Rourke at this point. There's more sadness and auto-reflection embedded in how she looks now than in anything in the film.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie ***/**** DVD - Image B Sound C+ Extras B BD - Image B Sound B Extras B starring Ray Lovelock, Christine Galbo, Arthur Kennedy screenplay by Sandro Continenza & Marcello Coscia directed by Jorge Grau
by Walter Chaw Without having to squint much, you could see the hero of Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, art-dealing Easy Rider hippie George (Ray Lovelock), trying to deliver the airplane propeller his spiritual brother, David Hemmings' mod-photog from Blowup, buys in tribute to form over function midway through Antonioni's counterculture classic. Instead, George is trying to deliver the sister of the fatal fertility juju from Arthur Penn's Night Moves through titular Manchester into the green countryside on the back of his too-cool motorcycle. He's thwarted initially by the bumper of maiden fair Edna (Cristina Galbo), then by the hungry undead stalking the countryside in search of meaty sociological metaphors, then by an ossified Scotland Yard dick (Arthur Kennedy). Luckily, there's plenty of allegorical beef for everyone, as Grau paints a vivid picture of Mod Madness in steady, deteriorating orbit around the entropy and hedonism of the time--sprinkling it liberally with a disdain for dictatorships Grau no doubt nursed whilst working under the heel of Francisco Franco's regime.
Mar adentro *½/**** starring Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera screenplay by Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil directed by Alejandro Amenábar
HOTEL RWANDA **½/**** starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix screenplay by Keir Pearson & Terry George directed by Terry George
by Walter Chaw Marking the second euthanasia melodrama of the 2004 awards season after Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, Alejandro Amenábar's peculiar follow-up to The Others is another ghost story of sorts documenting the last, sad days of Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), made a quadriplegic by a distracted dive into a shallow tide pool. "Shallow pool" could also describe the film, a miserable little gimp-of-the-week exercise awash with clichés and platitudes that the real Sampedro would probably have found condescending and insulting. The Sea Inside (Mar adentro) is the very equivalent of an elementary school teacher taking your hand and helping you find a seat on the short ride to made-for-TV-dom. If not for its unromantic central performance from Bardem, the best actor in the world at this moment, this appallingly sentimental work would be a candidate for the most misguided movie of the year.
Seres queridos **/**** starring Guillermo Toledo, Marián Aguilera, María Botto, Fernando Ramallo written and directed by Dominic Harari & Teresa Pelegri
Casa de Areia ***½/**** starring Fernanda Montenegro, Fernanda Torres, Ruy Guerra, Seu Jorge
screenplay by Elena Soárez directed by Andrucha Waddington
by Walter Chaw Married hyphenates Dominic Harari and Teresi Pelegri craft a
screwball comedy (which has the audacity to end with the final line of
Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot) about what happens when good
Jewish girl Leni (Marián Aguilera) brings Palestinian nebbish boyfriend
Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her My Big Fat Greek Wedding
ethnic cartoon family. There's the blind, rifle-toting old fossil fond
of recounting his days of potting Arabs along the Gaza strip; the
short, hysterical Jewish mother; the slutty older sister who only fucks
anything with a dick because mama loved little sister more; the younger
brother who's newly fanatical about the Koran and the observance of the
Jewish Sabbath; and the niece who's a monster because, well, who
wouldn't be in that household? Discomfort turns into farce when Rafi
drops a cube of frozen soup out a window, killing someone who might be
Leni's father (said father later mistaking a black prostitute for
Leni's mother)--this event also leading to the discovery that Leni's
mother has never had an orgasm and the tableaux homorte where grandpa is caught groping Rafi during a trip to the loo.
Ma mère *½/**** starring Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes, Joana Preis
screenplay by Christopher Honoré, based on the novel by Georges Bataille directed by Christopher Honoré
Exils ***/**** starring Romain Duris, Lubna Azabal, Leila Makhlouf, Habib Cheik written and directed by Tony Gatlif
Bill Chambers Even after the Hays Office lost its stranglehold on the
screen trade, mainstream American erotica remained a largely
intellectual affair. Rather than try to get you off, films like Paul
Mazursky's Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge
were interested in examining the fallout from sex. Meanwhile, France
was cranking out Sylvia Kristel movies, and the raincoat crowd could
enjoy even such highbrow fare as Last Tango in Paris for long
stretches. If the legit French sex cinema ultimately bore a closer
resemblance to red-blooded American filth in the '70s (and not just
ethically: the 'X aesthetic' was like dumbed-down nouvelle vague),
it makes sense that it would chart a course parallel with stateside
porno's gradual descent into the penetration abyss. But while the
(d)evolution itself is an organic one born of desensitization, things
have progressed along a more self-conscious path in recent years, with
the incendiary work of Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, and Michael
Haneke helping to foster the impression of contemporary Gallic life as
a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah.