A Hole in My Heart (2004)
★ / ★★★★
As his father, Rickard (Thorsten Flinck), and his father’s friend, Geko (Goran Marjanovic), shot an amateur pornographic film in their apartment, Eric (Björn Almroth) retreated to his dark room and listened to heavy metal music. “Ett hål i mitt hjärta” aimed to tackle issues like how addiction to pornography could ruin lives but I’m not sure it was successful in doing so in a meaningful way. The picture showed us graphic images of labial reconstruction surgery, S&M in which Tess (Sanna Bråding), a girl from the streets who wanted to be a successful pornographic actress in America, wasn’t informed of, and sex involving food and vomit. But what was it all supposed to mean? With its style of manic editing, the connection between shocking images and the meaning we were supposed to extract from them weren’t established. While it did have quieter moments of Eric wanting to escape his toxic environment but ultimately couldn’t do anything to get away from his father (he didn’t seem to have many friends), it was difficult to sympathize with him at times. For instance, when his dad was sleeping, Eric woke him up and claimed that the kitchen was on fire when it really wasn’t. And when his dad asked for water to drink, Eric took it from the toilet. It was disgusting behavior which was almost unwatchable as Rickard and Geko pressuring Eric to fire an air gun so that he could feel more like a man. I felt humiliated for all of the characters. Just when I felt a glimmer of hope during Tess and Eric’s conversation, the material jumped back to its repetitive technique of barraging its audiences with strong images but with little meaning. Toward the end, a fact was revealed about Rickard which was supposed to explain his fixation toward pornography and violence. However, since the journey toward the revelation was deeply unfocused, it felt more like an excuse than an explanation. “A Hole in My Heart,” directed by Lukas Moodysson, is easy to criticize because of the way it was shot and edited. Perhaps it was done on purpose because it strived to comment on our consumption of reality television. In any case, I don’t mind the technical aspects as much as long as it had a defined center. Its approach was bold and it took some wild risks in attempting to explain how one person’s dysfunction could enable other people’s dysfunction. But without exploring the increasing distance between the tragic characters, especially the lack of bond between father and son, either we don’t feel closer to them in the end or we end up just not caring about them.
100 Girls (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Matthew (Jonathan Tucker), along with a mystery girl, was using the elevator in an all-girls dormitory when the power went out. Stuck in the box all night, the two college students took advantage of the romantic (or potentially creepy) situation and made love. When Matthew woke up, the girl was long gone. He didn’t even catch her name. But he did manage to keep her underwear. Throughout the rest of the semester, his mission was to find the identity of the mystery girl so they could have a shot at a real relationship. Written and directed by Michael Davis, “100 Girls” was boldly sexual because the protagonist was a teen male who worshipped women’s bodies. The key to its charm was the fact that it didn’t become sleazy. The only part worth cringing over was Rod’s strange fixation, Matthew’s roommate (James DeBello), in making his penis longer by putting increasing amount of weights on it. The mystery girl could be any one of the five main women Matthew met in the estrogen-fueled all-girls dorm. There was Arlene (Katherine Heigl), the girl with big breasts who had a penchant for beating men in foosball. Her minions liked to watch Jane Austen movies every Friday. There was also Cynthia (Jaime Pressly), a girl who could easily pass as a supermodel but hated the fact that things only came easily to her because men would do anything to impress her. Another was Patty (Emmanuelle Chriqui), the artistic girl with a crazy, hyper-masculine, poseur of a boyfriend (Johnny Green). There was Wendy (Larisa Oleynik) who everyone saw as little Ms. Perfect, someone who could give Martha Stewart a run for her money. Lastly, there was Dora (Marissa Ribisi), the ugly-duckling who became a pariah, the one who nobody cared about even if she was about to jump off several stories to meet her death. I loved that the director spent ample time for Matthew to establish a genuine connection with the various women. By the end, it felt like any one of them could be a good match for our smart and sensitive main character, sexually secure enough to dress up as a girl, aptly named Franchesca, to catch up on the latest gossip, information that he wouldn’t have access to as Matthew. The film had a good-natured sense of humor but sometimes I wished it was brave enough to offend some audiences and to rebel against sex comedy conventions. Without doing so, despite its sensitivity and witticisms, it ultimately failed to stand out among more popular titles in the sub-genre. Nevertheless, “100 Girls” had its moments of brilliance and hilarity. I loved it when a character would say something funny but none of the other characters would laugh. Then after several beats, I would realize that the euphemisms cited were actually pretty twisted.
My Winnipeg (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
In Guy Maddin’s surrealistic and challenging documentary, he recounted his life back when he was still living in snowy Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mostly shot in black-and-white, Maddin covered a plethora of topics in which obsession was something they had in common. First, his relationship with his mother (Ann Savage, Maddin’s real-life parent), both a frightening and a fascinating figure. “Maternal” was not a word anybody would label her: One of the most memorable scenes was, through reenactment, when Maddin’s sister, Janet (Amy Stewart), came home, in shock, because she ran over a deer. A typical parent would be relieved that nothing worse had happened. But Mother, through her strange insight, confronted her daughter and made her feel guilty about having sex with a man on the back of her truck. The reenactment was haunting and I could only imagine the anger, humiliation, and sadness the real Janet felt back when it happened. Maddin was also fixated on the buildings he came to love as a child. He went into great details about how he was born in the locker room of a hockey rink. He divulged information about how he loved looking at the hockey players’ naked bodies, not simply in a sexual way but also relishing the fact that he was in the same room as the people he considered his heroes. Watching the film was like looking in a machine designed to sort through someone’s memories. Though kaleidoscopic as a whole, the pith of the matter was always personal and deep. Various techniques were used with confidence and reckless abandon. Some scenes were in color, others were animated, while some had a complete lack of narration. Whatever technique was used, it felt personal even though not everything made sense right away because it jumped from one topic to another. Maddin claimed he wanted to escape Winnipeg since it was essentially rotting from the inside. Strangely enough, by revealing to us what he disliked about his hometown, like the city officials’ decision to destroy certain buildings that he’d grown attached to, he showed us why he loved it; that no matter how far he was or how strongly he tried to forget, Winnipeg would always be a part of him. “My Winnipeg” was an intense variegation of memories packed with psychosexual undertones. The meaning behind the messages that Maddin wanted to send to the world may not always be apparent because of its heavy experimental style but it was, in the least, worth delving into. Its sheer bravado to push the envelope of alternative filmmaking makes it a diamond in the rough.
Savage Grace (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a tragic true story, Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) was an American socialite in Europe who put her reputation above everything else. She had a husband (Stephen Dillane) who grew increasingly distant and angry with her over the years. She also had a son named Antony (Eddie Redmayne) who she greatly depended on but she failed to let him live his life the way he wanted to. In the end, the son reached a breaking point and murdered his mother. Ambiguity was the film’s greatest asset but there were times when the understated felt insular. Most scenes involved a character talking about, say, a type of linen. We all know that the conversation was not really about the linen but a roundabout way of a character expressing his or her unhappiness. The obvious lesson was money did not particularly equate to happiness. Although the Baekeland family was rich and did not have to work a day in their lives, they spent most of their time as an empty shell, shuffling about the gorgeous beaches and resorts, bathing themselves in sex and sensuality, and not talking about anything particularly meaningful. I felt sad for the characters but I did not pity them because they actively chose not to break outside their bubble. Given the era in which the Baekeland family lived, it was somewhat understandable because repression was almost in style. Julianne Moore was magnetic. There were no other big names in the film aside from Hugh Dancy, but he had a relatively small role as a sort-of lover of both the mother and the son. Moore completely embodied a parent who was not ready to take care of herself, let alone raise a son in a healthy way. Her character was like a teenager who loved and lived to party and became fixated on that stage. As a result of the negligence of the mother and the father leaving his family for a woman half his age, Antony had no one to look up to and model a sense of self who was strong and independent. And since Antony was a homosexual, his mother wanted to “cure” him and would go to desperate measures to do so. Were the parents to blame for Antony’s actions? The movie did not give definite answers. The way I saw it was the parents’ apathy and inability to accept their son for his sexual orientation was a critical catalyst that drove Antony to a breaking point. “Savage Grace,” directed by Tom Kalin, dealt with a dark subject matter in an elegant and respectful way despite showing certain scenes that would make us want to look away. Dysfunctional families in America are often portrayed as quirky and funny. This was a bucket of cold water in the face but, although tragic in its core, it was refreshing.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970)
★ / ★★★★
A well-to-do British family without a father figure immersed themselves in childhood games. They picked men off the streets–men who would not be missed such as hippies and homeless folks–and if the men tried to escape the mansion or expressed that they no longer wanted to play games, they were killed in a ritualistic manner. Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor), and Girly (Vanessa Howard) were the demented predators and their most recent prey was named New Friend (Michael Bryant) who took an intense liking for Girly even though she was at least twenty years younger than him. I thought the premise of the picture was fascinating but I’m afraid the screenplay was stuck in one concept and it grew more stale as it went on. I understood the psychoanalytical message. The film was all about commenting on the suffocation of constantly having the need to remain loyal with traditions. Since the father was not there to lead the family, the movie made an argument that the family would most likely rot from the inside. Since the father was believed to have a key role in the maturity of children, the teenagers became fixated in acting like six-year-olds. Since there was no father to take care of the mother, the mother and the nanny developed an unusually close bond. They even slept in the same room. Anyone with a basic understanding of psychology would be able to pinpoint such obvious messages, so I was hoping that the director, Freddie Francis, allowed the picture to evolve. While the acting was tolerable most of the time, at times I felt like the actors were rehearsing a play. Since the subject was already so bold, the actors’ decision to portray their roles as caricatures was like hammering the audiences over the head with mallet. Its cartoonish tone was very distracting so the horror did not work. As a dark comedy, it was arguably effective but I was not convinced that the filmmakers wanted it to be more amusing than horrific. In a nutshell, its arguable success was accidental. It should have paid more attention in generating tension because there were far too few rewards in between the sinister kills. At the time of its release, the film’s subject matter was very controversial. While I do enjoy movies that are different, the anti-formula to the formula has to have intelligence and an energy that does not leave me so frustrated after the experience. Unfortunately, “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” wasted its potential to be something great.
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four friends (Josh Hamilton, Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Jason Wiles) decided to move in together after graduation. The thing was, they still lived very close to campus because they couldn’t quite let go of college and they still weren’t ready to face the “real world” for various reasons. What I appreciated most about this film was its honesty. Although it had many quotable one-liners and very funny dry humor, all of it almost always felt secondary so it didn’t feel gimmicky. It felt modern but realistic. The core of the movie was always at the forefront: the four friends feeling lost and the way they tried to deal with the pressures of essentially getting stuck at a specific point in their lives. I liked the fact that the four characters were smart and had potential to be great yet they found themselves hanging out in the same places and having the same kinds of conversations about literature and pop culture. This was highlighted by a girl always telling them that they talked the same. There was a certain sadness about it all because the characters constantly avoided the main issue of lacking the motivation to pursue their potential. Instead, they distracted themselves by magnifying every small problem to instill some sort of meaning in their lives. Another element I thought was interesting was Eric Stoltz who played a tenth-year student. The four characters recognized that they didn’t want to end up like him yet time and again they made decisions that would most likely lead them in the same path. “Kicking and Screaming,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a story of postcollege angst for astute individuals who are willing to look past the surface and extract meaning from certain glances and dialogues. I read a review stating that this movie was simply a series of random scenes of twenty-two-year-olds being lazy and it didn’t come together in the end. I disagree in some ways. While it did feature random scenes that didn’t add up to anything, I think those scenes reflected the characters’ inner turmoil of not knowing what to do with their lives. After an expensive education, everyone sort of expected them to do something meaningful. Because of the paralyzing fear of living up to people’s expectations, they became stuck; each day blended against the other and the fact that they did the same thing every day didn’t help their situation. As for the way the picture ended, I thought it was borderline great. There was something heartbreaking about that scene in the airport yet something so sweet about the Hamilton’s conversation with the girl who liked to give people money if she believed she wasted their time. “Kicking and Screaming” is not for everyone because it’s heavy on dialogue and Baumbach lets the audiences derive meaning from it instead of spoon-feeding us what to think and feel.
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen a lot of really weird pictures but György Pálfi’s “Taxidermia” is probably one of the most bizarre. The story was about three generations of men: a hospital orderly who impregnanted a woman that had a child born with a tail, the child who grew up as a man who loved to participate in eating contests, and that man’s son (Marc Bischoff) who loved to preserve dead animal carcass. Although I thought all three were entertaining to watch (to some degree), it wasn’t until we got to Bischoff’s story that things picked up and really became engaging without sacrificing consistency and purpose. The common theme of this film was obsession and it nicely tackled the strange fixations that each of the characters had. At first I didn’t understand what was happening because the first twenty minutes subjected us to watch a creepy man spying on women while masturbating. I was aware that the film was supposed to be a dark comedy but those scenes made me wonder what the director was trying to portray. Were there symbolisms that he wanted us to realize in each generation or did he just create such images for mere shock value? I think it had elements of both; I may not have understood all of it because perhaps the cultural barrier was the problem (it was set in Hungary). Nevertheless, I was absolutely horrified when the camera would fixate on people eating like there’s no tomorrow and regurgitating the food they just ate. (It didn’t help that I like to snack while watching movies.) I was really disgusted but I couldn’t stop watching because I was curious what would happen next. Although the movie was far from anything I expected it to be, I’ve got to give it credit for doing something creative and unpredictable. This is definitely not the kind of film for mainstream audiences because it’s easy to label it as pointless or unnecessary. Speaking of, there were some scenes that depicted animal cruelty. I don’t mind much the taxidermy scenes but actually showing a live goat or a pig getting stabbed and things like that (you see the animals struggling) made me angry. I think those could’ve been taken out and the story wouldn’t have changed whatsoever. If you are feeling like watching something morbidly dark and funny in a very twisted sort of way, “Taxidermia” is a good choice because it wasn’t afraid to push the limits. Just don’t eat before watching the film.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I usually don’t like screwball comedies because the characters are stupid without any sort of redeeming qualities, the jokes are rude and sometimes mean-spirited, the story has no idea where to go, and I quickly get bored watching them because they fail to get me to think. Strangely enough, I enjoyed “The Big Lebowski,” written and directed by the Coen brothers, because of such qualities except for the fact that it is far from mean-spirited. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, whose real name was Jeffrey Lebowski, a guy who was mistaken by two miscreants as the millionaire Lebowski. Since the two didn’t get what they wanted from The Dude, one of them decided to pee on his carpet. What started off as a story about a slacker who wanted compensation for his carpet ended up being about a lot of things: a kidnapped woman (Tara Reid), an artist who had intentions of her own (Julianne Moore), nihilists who craved money, and the dynamics among bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). All of such disparate elements came to together in a way that didn’t necessarily make sense–in fact, sometimes I had no idea what was going on–but it was very funny because each character was driven by well-defined motivations (no matter how strange they might have been). I did not expect this kind of movie from the Coen brothers because I’m more familiar with their thrillers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Simple”) and dark comedies (“Intolerable Cruelty,” “Fargo”), but after watching the film I was glad that I got a taste of their lighter side. The only real complaint I had with this picture was it had no reason to run for almost two hours long. Somewhere after the half-way point, I began to wonder when it was going to be over because at that point it still did not try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The characters were still too busy running around like children and it made me restless. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I still enjoyed watching this movie because of the characters’ funny fixations and interesting mistaken identities. And considering I detest stoner comedies, I think it’s a solid accomplishment.
Momma’s Man (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Have you ever seen a movie where fifteen minutes into it you have a feeling it’s going to be a disaster but you decide to sit through it, hoping that it will get better or maybe even redeem itself but ultimately doesn’t? “Momma’s Man,” written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, is that kind of movie. It tells the story of a man (Matt Boren) who initially visits his parents (Ken Jacobs and Flo Jacobs–the director’s real-life parents) for a few days but then decides he wants to say for a longer period of time as he totally abandons wife and child. He comes up with so many ways to stay such as lying to people about the health of his mother, lying to his parents about his wife cheating on him and even deliberately falling down the stairs hoping to break his bones. It’s supposed to be funny but I didn’t find anything amusing about it because I seriously thought that this man had a psychological disorder. And to me, people with psychological disorders are not to be poked fun of unless it’s done in a bona fide manner like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In here, the character is so unlikeable because he fails to see how his actions cause a ripple effect to the lives around him. His parents are very worried about his mental state and his wife has no idea why he refuses to come back. I didn’t like the parents either. I felt like they have no real authority over their son: the mother is an enabler, the father is emotionally distant. No wonder their son wants to relive his childhood–he wasn’t brought up in a healthy way. I don’t want to delve into Freudian mechanics but the main character is literally fixated on everything about his younger years. As for the film’s tone, I found it to be really annoying. I couldn’t believe I was made to sit through bad song lyrics written by the main character back when he was a teenager or even watch him put shaving cream on his face for five minutes. I’m very familiar with independent filmmaking and I love smaller films. However, this one is just weak all across the board. The acting was painful for me to sit through, especially the mother’s, because her tone of delivery is so consistently flat. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about this picture (which is a rarity because I usually find something positive about most movies) and I urge everyone else to stay as far away as possible from this wreck. It was a waste of a hundred minutes.