Batoru rowaiaru (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.
Piel que habito, La (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) was a renowned plastic surgeon whose wife’s body burned in a car crash while trying to get away with her boyfriend (Roberto Álamo). Robert transported Gal home and took care of her for months, but when she saw her reflection on a window, she jumped out because she couldn’t bear living with her teratoid appearance. Since the tragedy, we learned that Robert had been performing experimental skin treatment on Vera (Elena Anaya). Although artificial, it was resistant to burning and insect bites which was promising for the scientific community. However, Robert’s colleagues were led to believe that he had been experimenting with mice, not on humans. “La piel que habito” had plenty of ideas about how anger and grief could drive a person into trying to achieve something so radical, it threatened to destroy him. The picture was most fascinating when it allowed the camera to observe the surgeon’s work sans dialogue. I liked watching him navigate his hands with precision while cutting a piece of skin and applying it onto his model. When something went wrong, he maintained his composure and consistently found a way to work around the problem–a quality that also served him well outside the lab. By observing his routine, though shot with cold detachment, we learned a lot about his experiment and how invested and desperate he was to make the seemingly impossible a reality. The film held a lot of secrets about identity. The most curious was Vera and why she lived like a prisoner. While it made sense that she lived in a relatively contained environment because her skin was being replaced, there were some red flags that grabbed (or should grab) our attention. For example, she wasn’t allowed any visitors, never handed sharp objects, and there were writing, like tallies of dates, on the walls of her room. If she was a voluntary patient, why was she considered a danger to herself? Pedro Almodóvar, the writer-director, did a solid job on keeping a lid on what was really happening. The less information was available for us to put the pieces together, although I felt a bit of frustration due to its unhurried pacing, the more I felt compelled to think of increasingly ridiculous hypotheses. One of the most interesting characters was Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who, to Robert, was just a trustworthy longtime maid, but was actually his biological mother. I loved looking at her face, the way she moved across the room, and why she was convinced that Robert ought to kill Vera. Marilia provided another layer, if you will, to the story. I just wished that she had been used more. The most critical opportunity that the film lost was not relating its story deeply enough to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature. Marilia was Robert’s creator and Vera was Robert’s. Instead of looking to the future and exploring the repercussions of the surgeon’s transgressions, the screenplay went back in time about halfway through and gave us images of what happened to the wife and daughter. While it was necessary for us to know, several lines of dialogue would have sufficed. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” “The Skin I Live In,” wonderfully shot even without Almodóvar’s usual primary colors, could have used less family history and focused more on horror that came about from ignoring certain moral obligations.
Hål i mitt hjärta, Ett (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.
Ojos de Julia, Los (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During a neighborhood blackout, Sara (Belén Rueda) stood in the living room talking to someone but we couldn’t see who was there in the shadows. When lightning came, the corner that she seemed to be transfixed on revealed no person despite flashes of a polaroid camera directed toward her earlier on. As the camera focused on her face, we saw that she was blind. Attempting to escape her invisible tormentor, she ended up the basement. She climbed a stool, put a rope around her neck, and a second person knocked the stool from under her. Julia (also played by Rueda), Sara’s twin sister, felt a choking sensation while at her job in the observatory. She just knew something was wrong. Written by Guillem Morales and Oriol Paulo, “Los ojos de Julia” took inspiration from Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark” and made it much more sinister. It was suspenseful because from the moment Julia suspected foul play, she felt compelled to gather clues that would prove her sister was murdered. It didn’t help that she shared her sister’s medical condition: extreme stressed diminished her eye sight. Ironically, the more knowledge she attained, the less she saw clearly, thus the less reliable her testimony. The best scenes were of Julia’s interactions with people who knew her deceased sister. For instance, when she visited a home for the blind, they smelled her presence… and of a man’s. But she came alone. She aggressively looked behind her and there was, in fact, a man watching her every move. Similar scenes worked in two ways. First, it served as a foreshadowing of what was eventually going to happen to the lead character. It should come to no surprise that she was going to lose her sight completely. If she was to survive, she needed to learn how to depend on her other senses and instinct. Secondly, it worked for the chase sequence that came right after the realization that she was being followed. We saw most of the action through Julia’s eyes. The majority of her peripheral vision was already gone so being forced into her perspective was awkward and claustrophobic. There was an effortless horror in it. What if the killer decided to attack from the side? She had no chance. Much to the dismay of her husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), it seemed as though there was nothing he could do to stop Julia’s obsession. In here, the romance wasn’t utilized as currency to simply buy minutes until the next scary moment. What they had was tender and believable. I felt as respected as an audience because we really got to experience their history and what they meant to one another without necessarily using words. Their relationship held weight and it was, in a way, the picture’s emotional core though we weren’t always aware of it. The villain was truly monstrous. A hotel janitor (Joan Dalmau) described his motivation so perfectly, I almost began to feel bad for the silent stalker. Although we saw glimpses of him early on in the film, it wasn’t until much later that we observed his face dominating every inch of the camera. When he screamed at Julia without restraint, watching him through her eyes, it felt like such an invasion of my personal space, I wanted to push his face away for being so close. “Julia’s Eyes,” directed by Guillem Morales, skillfully placed us into Julia’s nightmarish experience without it being contrived. Other movies of its kind pale in comparison even under bright lights.
Long dimanche de fiançailles, Un (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
Falscher Bekenner (2005)
★ / ★★★★
Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) had recently graduated from the university. With a competitive job market and his lack of enthusiasm during his interviews, he couldn’t seem to snag a job. His parents’ (Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff) insistence that he put in more effort to everything he did didn’t quite sit well with him. As a response, he sent a false confession about a crime he didn’t commit. It seemed as though getting away with it was his biggest accomplishment. Written and directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, I knew the message that the film wanted to relay to its audiences. That is, young adults’ minds are irrational, volatile, and curious. However, it lacked important transitions between scenes. Too often were we left with Armin in his room as he stared at his computer, procrastinating instead of working on job applications. Then it would jump to scenes when he would search for Katja (Nora von Waldstätten), a girl who he considered to be his girlfriend but she thought otherwise. When he did find her, he was at a loss for words. What was the relationship between the two scenes? The formula became almost unbearable to sit through. Since the scenes lacked transition, the rising action felt disconnected and the film lacked tension. The movie was at its most interesting when Armin was being interviewed for a job. His voice sounded apathetic and his body language lacked energy but his responses were unpredictable. There were times when I was impressed that he could think on his feet and sometimes flat-out lie about his experiences. But there were instances when I felt like he was drowning in questions, that his mind needed more time to process the situation and come up with a reasonable response. When Armin was most vulnerable, the picture seemed to wake up from its deep slumber. The parenting was another critical strand in the plot. It was obvious that the fathered preferred Armin’s older brother (Florian Panzner): He played sports, sociable, had a career, and about to start a family. Our protagonist didn’t like to show it but he was sensitive to his father’s expectations. What son isn’t? On the other hand, the mother was lenient. She thought that if Armin tried harder, he would have no problem getting a job. She was in denial. I got the impression that it never occurred to her that her son was simply not ready to have a career that he would have, or was expected to have, for the rest of his life right after graduation. Some people just need a bit more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong it. “Falscher Bekenner” had some decent ideas about society’s expectations of its young minds that happened to be a little lost. However, it desperately needed to snap out of its insularity and not be ashamed to allow us to feel for its main character’s struggles.
★ / ★★★★
A wealthy family was in the process of moving into their new home. As the movers scrambled to empty the trucks, Marta (Ana Wagener), the matriarch, stressed about having all the members of the family to have dinner together and celebrate. Isa (Manuela Vellés), the spoiled, whiny, and inconsiderate daughter, would rather go out with her boyfriend (Xoel Yáñez) than to grant her mother’s simple wish. The patriarch, Jaime (Fernando Cayo), couldn’t care less. One could argue that the events in “Secuestrados,” written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Javier García, were repercussions of bad parenting. In its first few minutes, instead allowing us to relate to the family, it wasn’t difficult not to dislike them because they passively and unnecessarily allowed small annoyances to turn into big problems. When three masked thieves (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) broke into the family’s new house on the same night as the move-in, there was a cold disconnect between the audiences and the horrific events that were unfolding. For example, when forced to show their credit cards and write down their pin numbers on a piece of paper, the camera was at least fifteen feet from where the family trembled in their seats. There were yelling, screaming, and protesting but the distance represented a lack of sympathy. I argue that if the filmmakers’ intention was for us to care about Jaime, Marta and Isa, to root for them to be able to extricate themselves from their plight, the camera would have been as close as possible to that couch because mostly everybody can relate to suffering. The picture eventually started to feel gimmicky. Since there wasn’t enough cash in the house, one of the robbers, unmasked, took the father for a drive so that they could look for various ATMs and withdraw money. In order to simultaneously keep track of what was happening in the house, the screen was divided into two. Split-screens can be effective if used wisely and sparingly. The problem was, splitting the screen didn’t feel necessary. While we had a chance to observe two events at the same time, only either the left or the right was interesting. Both was never involving at the same time so that we would feel compelled to move our eyes in either direction. Furthermore, I found that in order for one side to capture my attention, someone would have to raise his voice or scream bloody murder. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the psychology of Isa. She was probably one of the most despicable daughters (or persons in general) I’ve seen on screen for quite some time. When she and her mother had a chance to escape by locking themselves in a bathroom with a window big enough so that a person could fit one at a time, Marta actually had to beg Isa to climb out and find help. Isa didn’t want to do it because the masked men had her boyfriend in the other room and threatened to kill him. I watched in astonishment. After several attempts to carry her daughter out of the window (and Isa selfishly wouldn’t budge), I actually wanted Isa to break her neck if she happened to make it outside. She was idiotic and useless. Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas, “Secuestrados,” also known as “Kidnapped,” was bleak and uncompromising. I would have admired its audacity if the characters were fighters instead of punching bags and if it had been more sensible of its craft.
Somos lo que hay (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.
★★★ / ★★★★
The wife of a television producer had passed away when their son was still very young. Mr. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) raised his son on his own and had grown accustomed to the loneliness of being a single parent. His son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), noticed that his father seemed a bit sad for quite a while so he suggested that Mr. Aoyama should find a girl and get married. With the help of his co-worker (Jun Kunimura), the two men held an audition for a movie. Out of all the girls, Mr. Aoyama was most interested in Asami (Eihi Shiina), a girl who was passionate about ballet but had given it up due to a bad hip. He didn’t know she held a very dark secret. Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami and directed with great control by Takashi Miike, the neat thing about “Ôdishon” was if all the scenes involving the psychosexual horror were taken out, it worked as a solid romantic drama. The first half of the film consisted of tender moments between father and son, like fishing and sharing meaningful conversations over dinner, and funny scenes of various women auditioning for a lead role. There was a natural progression away from the light ambiance to a truly horrific finale. There were red herrings thrown at us to give us the impression that there was something seriously wrong about Asami. Despite his friend telling Mr. Aoyama that he felt something not quite right about the girl, the widower was intent in forming a relationship with the woman. He read her essay, which was a part of her resume, and he wanted so badly to believe that he knew her, that she was right for him. He saw that, like himself, she had been damaged by the past and that commonality was, from his perspective, deep enough for the two of them to want to share a life together. It brought a new definition to the saying that love is blind. He took a blind eye to her lies and so he failed to see her true intentions. The gruesome scenes toward the end had real potency. The picture earned showing us the grotesque images because of its steady rising action. In some ways, I wanted to see the gore and the mutilation. But the funny thing was, when I saw it, I almost immediately wanted to look away. However, I must mention some details that didn’t quite fit into the big picture. How did Mr. Aoyama, through a hallucination or dream sequence, learn the content of the bag in Asami’s apartment (or how her place looked like for that matter) when not once did he visit her place? It made me wonder that perhaps there was a missing scene prior to the third act. However, such details could be easily overlooked because the images that “Audition” offered were creepy and some were downright terrifying.
Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
In “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) was rushed to the hospital because she’d been beaten to a pulp and was shot multiple times. Her allies, including “Millennium” journalists Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Erika Berger (Lena Endre), attempted to do everything in their power to protect Lisbeth from men who wanted to kill her in cold blood with impunity. The men didn’t want Lisbeth to be given the chance to go to trial (from claims that she tried to murder her father), earn her freedom, and expose their dark underground activities. A key addition was Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister and Lisbeth’s pregnant lawyer, who reminded me of Frances McDormand’s plucky character in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” because she was brave, intelligent, and resourceful. The first forty-minutes was unimpressive and summoned the weakest points in “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” While it was refreshing to see Lisbeth being more vulnerable as she attempted to be more pleasant with her doctor (Aksel Morisse) who seemed like he was romantically interested her, the tone felt flat and almost painfully ordinary. However, the film finally started to gather momentum when our protagonist left the hospital and been transferred to jail a few days before the much anticipated trial. Watching the last hour made me feel like I was watching a poker game where everyone was all in. Since the mysterious organization had failed to kill Lisbeth multiple times, it appeared as though anything could happen. Reputations, careers, and lives were on the line. While Lisbeth’s side did have their aces, since I wasn’t familiar with Stieg Larsson’s novels, I was curious with how the aces were going to be played. There was also a lot of tension in the “Millennium” headquarters. Erika had been getting e-mails that threatened her life as well as her staff’s. She felt she had a responsibility of stopping the next publication of the magazine because its contents were directly related to Lisbeth’s case and the men about to be exposed. But Mikael insisted that they published because Lisbeth was very important to him. He believed that the publication was key to his friend’s freedom. In a way, he was torn between two women he loved, but he loved them in different ways. It was fascinating to observe his decisions because he wasn’t always fully convinced that he was doing the right thing. Another strand in the story was Lisbeth’s half-brother (Micke Spreitz), physically incapable of feeling pain, wanting to kill her. The final confrontation between siblings in the end was highly suspenseful which reached the level of intensity that “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” seemed to effortlessly possess. Director Daniel Alfredson’s “Luftslottet som sprängdes” ended on a high note. The “Millenium” trilogy had moments where it stumbled from the bumps on the road. But when it did get something right, it was outstanding.