Tag Archives: 3.0 Star Movies

The Kindergarten Teacher (2014)

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Yoav Pollack (Avi Shnaidman,) an adorably precocious kindergartner who is also a brilliant wordsmith, captures the attention of his unstable teacher Nira (Sarit Larry) who becomes dangerously obsessed with with maintaining the continuation of his poetic talent in this unsettling Israeli drama. The majority of the film follows Nira as she becomes increasingly disenchanted with the ordinary people surrounding her and pushes her little Mozart to succeed in the poetry world and maintain his creative chutzpah. Obviously you can’t push a child that young to reach artistic greatness without eventually breaking him, and Nira’s all-consuming obsession with young Yoav will have eventual and long-lasting ramifications.

Of course, the boy’s talent is never about him or his happiness as much as it is about Nira and her failure to make anything meaningful of her life. Like an ugly mother who enters her attractive daughter in a beauty competition, Yira is simply living vicariously through her bright-eyed young student. And while she avoids having sex with her husband (Lior Raz,) Nira disturbingly finds some kind of outlet in bathing the young boy (in a supremely creepy scene, although none of the child actor’s sensitive parts are shown.) Yoav’s father (Yehezkel Lazarov) could care less about his son’s burgeoning talent, but the icily determined Nira is determined not to let it fester.

Sarit Larry’s spectacularly unlikable protagonist strikes me as an incredibly cold creature, preoccupied with putting up a veneer of warmth. At this she does a tremendous job, vacillating between deeply damaged and deeply disturbing in the smallest but most tremendously telling ways. Larry has some of the most coldly striking eyes I’ve ever seen, and even when she smiles, it doesn’t seem to reach those eyes as much as startlingly contrast them. The boy is adorable and shows a kind of genuineness on screen, his character displaying a kind of Asperger’s-like oddness in his behavior and precocious examination of his narrow world.

Despite the compelling nature of the premise and the impressive display of acting talents, I felt this movie tended to drag a little too much. It’s two hours long and nothing really seems to happen until the last twenty minutes. The characters also seem pretty unlikable with the exception of the young boy. Although The Kindergarten Teacher is well-filmed, with extraordinary tracking shots and close-ups and well-acted, I had difficulty getting sucked in by the story it had to tell. it didn’t help that I had no sympathy for Nira, an ice queen unconcerned by exploiting her student’s talent and sacrificing his happiness for what she thinks he should do with his life.

Also, no matter how precocious Yoav is, the sheer sophistication of his poems seem very unlikely. I came across a theory online that Yoav was blessed with an eidetic memory and merely recited the poems his uncle (Dan Toren) had written, and that actually sounds more plausible to me than the surface explanation (that the kid was a flat-out wunderkind.) The Kindergarten Teacher is a well-made movie that ultimately leaves you a little cold, without the confidence in its clinical iciness that made Michael Haneke’s films so effective. It’s definitely worth watching, but I don’t expect it’ll make you want to add it to your collection immediately after. Technically outstanding, but not much fun, and not entirely memorable due to your lack of concern or interest it’s characters.

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The Demon (1978)

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Hold your children tight. The Demon is pretty much one of the most disturbing movies you can imagine, and it features nary a drop of blood. Even I, a hardcore horror fan and not the greatest lover of children, was unsettled. Pregnant women, mothers, and people who are sensitive to themes of child abuse and infanticide should probably not even consider taking this on. It’s not a great film- it’s veers toward melodrama and is overacted in some places- but it achieves it’s goal- to make you nauseous and to cause you to question the essential goodness of people. Some people should never attempt to be parents, as being a mother or father requires you to care about and install your interest in something other than yourself, a high-wire act some people are apparently not capable of.

Sôkichi (Ken Ogata) is a weak, pathetic excuse for a man and father, a cheating husband to Oume (Shima Iwashita) and a inadequate lover to Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa.) He has three adorable children with his mistress, kids who his wife apparently doesn’t know about. There is a confrontation, to which the bawling, terrified youngsters are a witness, and the near-hysterical wife leaves Sôkichi to his lover, who owns a printing shop. The girlfriend begins to beat the children, and worse. Sôkichi turns a blind eye. He is consumed by paranoia, he believes the children are not his. But then what are they? Then the infant (Jun Iichi) ends up dead.

Oume denies all responsibility for the death, but the viewer has their doubts. Oume then grooms Sôkichi to ‘get rid’ of his remaining kids. Things would be so much better, easier, and more financially stable without them. She directs particular loathing on the boy (Hiroki Iwase,) who ‘looks like his mother.’ He’s a ‘bad boy.’ To desperate or too emasculated to argue, Sôkichi sets out to dispose of the children.

You will hate the adults in this movie. They are loathsome, evil, and cruel. A real man wouldn’t allow his woman to brutalize his children, let alone agree to kill them for her. No matter how much Sôkichi displays guilt, crying and sniveling and contemplating his dark and twisty past, I could feel no sympathy for him. I told myself he wouldn’t follow through with it. A father is bound to his children. He can’t just throw them away like garbage. Well let’s just say, withholding spoilers, that I was sadly mistaken.

The children, on the other hand, are just innocent and infinitely forgiving kids just trying to get by. The boy is described as ‘stupid,’ but he proves himself to be a remarkably self-reliant tyke, walking around town doing his own thing at the tender age of six. I was concerned for the youngest actor in this movie, the infant. Babies can’t really ‘act,’ and I was thoroughly disturbed by the scene where Oume forces soft food into the kid’s mouth out of just plain meanness while he screams and struggles, a punishment for him eating off her table. The kids aren’t the greatest actors in the world, especially during the more emotionally tense scenes. Ogata tends to overact. There’s are very little shades of grey to the characters, who range from pure and kind (the children) to sadistic and vile (the mistress) to weak and basically no less repugnant than the main antagonist (Sôkichi himself, a specimen of revolting apathy and the lack of the balls to even stand up for what’s right.)

Yet there’s something about this movie. It plays on your primal fears, the fear of being a truly inadequate parent, the fear of being endangered by someone who claims to love and protect you. It keeps your interest, albeit dishonestly (by continually showing small children in danger or being abused by their caretakers.) It smashes long-standing taboos about the sanctity of a child’s life being preserved onscreen, and appeals to our fundamental motherly instincts- these moppets ought to be loved and protected, and instead they are clenched in the hateful grasp of a twisted couple that doesn’t deserve them.  In this way it is not fair, but effective. In one scene, Sôkichi and Oume heatedly discuss the baby’s death. “You’re secretly glad the little brat’s gone,” Oume insists. They ‘resolve’ it by having abusive, passionless sex. This chilling juxtaposition- a dead, probably murdered child and a couple who think they can distract each other by fucking away the problem- is more disturbing than anything you’re likely to find in the annals of horror.

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Housebound (2014)

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Best described as a ‘haunted house movie that’s not a haunted house movie,’ “Housebound” starts out rather unimpressively and gradually takes hold of your attention with an intriguing mystery and a surprising twist. Once I realized it wasn’t going to be a laugh-out-loud giggle fest like another recent NZ horror/comedy, “What We Do in the Shadows” (although “Housebound” as it’s chuckle-worthy moments, however modestly offered up) I settled in and enjoyed the mix of camp and cult sensibility combined with some legitimate creepiness and entertaining, if cheesy, practical effects.

Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is a world-class bitch and juvenile delinquent which a long standing bad attitude toward adults, authority figures, and the world in general. She is picked up by the police while bashing open an ATM to satisfy her methamphetamine habit and sent to live with her family on house arrest. Worse, Kylie hates her overly gregarious, soap opera-watching mom (Rima Te Wiata) and taciturn stepdad Greame (Ross Harper,) so she’s pretty much as pissed off about the arrangement as she could possibly be.

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Until the supernatural gets mixed into the arrangement, and her bratty, futile anger turns to fear. Her mom has always suggested that the house could be haunted, being a hotspot for strange and ghostly activity. The weird happenings intensify when Kylie arrives in the house, but who, besides her oddball family,will believe her? Certainly not the authorities who put her under house arrest; certainly not the cops. Or so she thinks- until the realization that her parole officer Amos (Glen-Paul Naru) is a huge paranormal enthusiast and could not be more eager to accompany her on her spooky investigation.

The beginning of this movie doesn’t bode well for the film as a whole, with too little humor and too few things of particular interest going on. Plus, Kylie isn’t exactly a likable character,  with her self-absorbed disdain for anyone who tries to stop her from doing exactly what she wants to do. At the beginning, I was tempted to pack it up and go to bed, but by the end I was glad I didn’t . This movie’s twist is creative and astonishingly well-thought-out.

“Housebound”‘s acting is halfway decent (nothing that’s going to win a Academy Award, but good in the context of the movie) and the identity of the true baddie is a shocker- in classic mystery fashion, they’re the last person you would expect! I’m not sure why this was so highly lauded by Rotten Tomatoes, but I’m glad I watched the whole thing. The movie, while not being the future horror classic some made it out to be, has it’s charms. It’s no “What We Do in the Shadows” (a movie I feel in love with immediately upon watching) but it’s got some value in the horror/comedy world of the great, the okay, and the just plain awful.

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Scarfies (AKA Crime 101) (1999)

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Take this film for what it is (an uneven and extremely low budget thriller and morality play) and you may find yourself enjoying the effective acting displayed within and bruising social commentary concerning the self-absorption and sometimes outright shittiness of humankind. It’s Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets early Quentin Tarantino with a distinct lack of the technical verve Tarantino showed even early on into his career.

That said, this is one of the more psychologically harrowing and disturbing ‘black comedies’ of recent times. Dark humor, or just plain dark? When the douchebag college kids glue their weed-peddling captive’s lips and hands together and force him to squat with his pants pulled halfway down and shit into a bucket, I was struck by the indignity of it all. “Scarfies” remains relatively compelling despite the almost nil production values and contemptuous cast of characters because it starts out with a somewhat sympathizable ‘what would you do?’ scenario until it takes a sudden plunge into the darkest of places, where sadistic mind games and senseless violence overtake rationality and basic human decency.

The film follows a group of college students who squat in an abandoned house that incongruously has electricity. Initially they are relatively carefree, partying and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, bonding and making love and getting high. Impulsive frat boy-type Alex (Taika Waititi) uses a monumentally awful pick-up line on the object of his affections, straight-laced Nicola (Ashleigh Seagar) and coaxes her into his bed, while Scott (Neill Rea) and Emma (Willa O’Neill) make moon eyes at each other but don’t act on their mutual attraction. Graham (Charlie Bleakley) has a crush on Nicola, but waffles around it and acts generally irritating.

It’s all fun and games until the five students open and jammed-up door in the basement of the squalid building and find a collection of pot plants, all primed and ready to smoke. After a fierce debate, they sell the lot and blow the entirety of their drug money on various electronics and personal vanities. So when the dealer (Jon Brazier) shows up volatile and royally pissed at the loss of his crop, they lock him in the basement. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Movies and literature continually show that kids are scary as hell. So why shouldn’t a group of well-groomed, outwardly innocuous college youngsters be any different? It is Alex (Waititi,) however, who makes me suspect that his brain is made of bits and bobs and cogs that render him not quite a person, at least not in the spiritual sense. Despite being good-looking, calm, seemingly ordinary, and well-liked, Alex possesses the heart of killer, a sense of apathy and sadistic glee at his misdoings, and the self-confidence to coerce his frightened roommates into obedience and stunned silence.

Graham, however, while initially appearing to be a ineffectual innocuous type (pining pitifully for Nicola and crying at the slightest provocation,) proves to be the kind of guy who held your hands behind your back as you got punched in the gut in high school. He enjoys the high-stakes excitement of having a prisoner to heckle and hurt, so he follows the smugly cruel Alex’s lead in what is essentially torture, culminating in a electronic device to control the prisoner’s behavior through electric shocks.

“Scarfies” is not really a comedy, except in the sense of ironic human indecency. However, it is an interesting study of human behavior and the innate sense of self-interest exhibited by people everywhere. “Better him than me.” How many times have we innately said that to ourselves, believing that it would be ultimately preferable that someone else take the fall for us? The acting and the story are better than you might expect, and there are a few laughs to be had among the dark sense of foreboding and transgression.

If nothing else, you’ll watch to the end hoping the ‘protagonists’ get what they deserve. Taika Waititi definitely shows early promise in a precursor to his work as a director. His not only smug and self-satisfied, but (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) downright sociopathic character’s face needed punching. Make no mistake, this movie is no masterwork of cinema, but if you like cynical social commentaries that pull no punches in regards to how they view people (superior to apes? I think not!) you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Just don’t expect a laugh riot or a glossy Hollywood film.

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Eagle vs. Shark (2007)

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Was I the only one who hoped this movie’s sweetly awkward heroine would unceremoniously dump Jemaine Clement by the end credits? Jarrod, Clement’s character, was by far one of the most infuriating, self-absorbed, callous romantic leads I’ve had the (displeasure) of encountering. I know he was supposed to be socially retarded as all fuck or have severe Asperger’s or something (probably the latter) but seriously, he was a jerk.

The heroine in question is cute girl nerd Lily (Loren Horsley,) who fools around on her guitar crooning Kimya Dawson-esque melodies in the privacy of her room and is laid off from her menial job at the local burger joint shortly into the movie. She lives with her supportive movie fanatic brother Damien (Joel Tobeck) and seems to have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

The object of Lily’s awkward affections is Jarrod (yes, the jerk,) who works at the video game store and remains bafflingly self-obsessed throughout the movie. Lily pursues him, and the pursuit continues for a while, until finally they get together at a ‘dress as your favorite animal party’ (Jarrod as the eagle, and Lily as the shark, hence the title,) have singularly unerotic sex and start tentatively dating.

The problem is, Lily has an all-consuming desire to hold on to Jarrod, a real catch (or so she thinks,) and Jarrod’s barely able to put in an effort. He continually treats Lily like crap and has the two excuses handy that either (a he’s frustratingly complex or (b he’s got clinical depression and therefore it’s his right to be dick. This would be unconscionable if it weren’t abundantly clear that Jarrod was even more severely impaired at dealing with the real world than Lily.

Lily goes on a roadtrip with Jarrod to his hometown where he hopes to get revenge on a guy that bullied him in high school. They stop by Jarrod’s home and Lily meets his bizarre family, including Jarrod’s loser sister (Rachel House)  and brother-in-law (Craig Hall) who shamelessly peddle shit merchandise to anyone and everyone they encounter and his wheelchair-bound father Jarrod (Brian Sargent,) who idolizes Jarrod’s dead older brother but won’t give Jarrod the time of day.

“Eagle vs. Shark” is actor-director Taika Waititi (“Boy,” “What We Do In the Shadows”)’s weakest film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a completely tepid affair. The stop-motion animated sequences are whimsical and charming. And Loren Horsley is sweet as pie as Lily in a performance that makes you want hug her and knit her a warm sweater. Jemaine Clement is markedly less appealing as an offbeat weirdo who does nothing but take, take, take from Lily’s fragile confidence and self esteem but still manages to win her over for good in a finale that’s probably more depressing than it ought to be.

It’s not laugh-til-you-cry funny, but it’s chuckle-worthy and cute, though it seems an odd directorial choice to make the majority of the characters not only almost Autistic in their social ineptitude, but also act quite literally like they’re on the spectrum. It’s a movie where quirky people do quirky things at the exact right moment, but it’s hard to believe such a plethora of oddballs could even exist in the same story.

In other words, “Eagle Vs. Shark” is okay and worth watching once for its myriad moments of mild humor, but it doesn’t measure up to Waititi’s other features (“Boy,” which was quite charming and dramatically effective if formulaic, and “What We Do in the Shadows,” which was outstanding and one of the funniest horror-comedies of the 21st Century.)

To say it is better than the thematically similar “Napoleon Dynamite” is not saying much, but this sometimes overly quirky dramedy has it’s undeniably sweet moments.

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Afterschool (2008)

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Best described as a ‘Haneke film that is not by Haneke,’ “Afterschool’ is just good enough to make you respect the filmmaker while wishing he would adopt a style of his own. Mostly though, it makes you think that director Antonio Campos has seen “Cache” and Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” way too many times, and has tried to copy their approach with middling results (although “Afterschool” is less boring and better acted than Van Sant’s supposed classic, he doesn’t hold a candle to Haneke at his best.)

In a world of prep school jerks and uncaring adults, disaffected Robert (Ezra Miller) is just trying to stay afloat while dealing with violent tendencies and teen libido- we first meet him wanking to a particularly exploitive porn video. It’s hard to feel partial to him after that. His mom is overly preoccupied with him being ‘okay’ (not applicable for medication or an extra minute of her time) and not in the least concerned with him being happy. In his fancy-schmancy boarding school, he simply floats through life- barely regarded by his group of friends, engaging in schoolwork he could care less about- he is dulled. deadened, and perhaps worst of all, bored.

Robert has a preference (I hesitate to say ‘passion’) for videos of all kinds- from laughing babies and jokester cats to videotaped schoolyard fights and amateur pornography. He is a symbol of our short attention-spanned, gratified-at-the-click-of-a-button society. Seeing these clips, the footage of giggling children seems equally as ‘wrong’ and voyeuristic as the more hardcore videos. They are rendered eerie and uncanny by the context of the movie. When two young girls (Mary and Carly Michelson) OD while Robert films, he is sucked into a fallout among the students and staff- but with how much is Robert complicit?

You won’t necessarily find the answer within this film, but “Afterschool” does prove to be an interesting (if well-worn by more established directors) experiment. Known for his roles in films such as “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of being a Wallflower, then- barely pubescent Ezra Miller is eerily apathetic and effective here. While I’d argue that the last shot was a example of breaking the fourth wall (Robert is ‘filmed’ by the complacent audience,) there’s enough of a mystery element to the conclusion to keep the viewer thinking if they wish.

However, “Afterschool”‘s preoccupation with being deliberately obtuse makes it quite a frustrating experience, and the social commentary is a little obvious for this kind of film. It’s  showy in the way of “Funny Games” (Haneke’s weakest film)- they’re pushing the bumbling incompetence of adults, the apathy of our kids, and the brokenness of our society in our faces. In the end I didn’t care too much whether Robert killed the girls or whether his friend Dave (Jeremy Allen White) was to blame- I didn’t long for it to be over, but I wasn’t exactly sucked in by it either.

Ultimately, while Campos’ cold, calculating cinematic method and long, still shots of nothing happening at all might appeal to Haneke fanboys, I found it to be too derivative of that filmmaker to be anything of consequence. It’s okay- but movie like this (art, not entertainment) can’t be just okay- it really has to pull you in, making its world yours. If anything, this movie will just make you develop a further distaste for entitled rich kids and the preppy mischief they make.

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Enter the Dangerous Mind (2013)

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At times “Enter the Dangerous Mind” feels like an extended music video, but, for the most part, that’s okay. Just don’t expect a particularly accurate (or sensitive) portrayal of mental illness. This disturbing and somewhat exploitative psychothriller focuses solely on the most extreme and even deadly mental health crises, the James Holmes’ in a social group of mostly harmless individuals.

The story concerns a Paranoid Schizophrenic named Jim (Jake Hoffman, son of actor Dustin,) who makes… noise for a living. Well, technically jarring techno music, but I don’t want to get into semantics here. Jim develops these tunes to ‘drown out the noises in his head,’ but when he tells Wendy (Nikki Reed,) a cute social worker, that, it doesn’t seem to concern her. It should. Jim has a roommate (Thomas Dekker) who is the proverbial devil on his shoulder, urging him to get over his crippling shyness and get laid.

Jim begins a tentative relationship with Wendy, but an embarrassing bedroom incident triggers a downward spiral for the disturbed young man. As Jim becomes increasingly delusional, Wendy breaks off all ties with him, leading to horrific consequences for both of them.

The plot develops okay up til the silly ending (apparently not only do Schizophrenics kill dogs, murder people, and engage in horrific acts of self-mutilation, their disease is also as contagious as the common cold,) while actor Jake Hoffman does a good job as Jim, making his tics and affectations believable while keeping his character somewhat sympathetic despite the reprehensible things he does.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the jerky ‘hard-rock-music-video’ cinematography or the constant, grating electronica score. I don’t like electronic music; I never have, so you can imagine I found the omnipresent pulsing techno to be irksome, to say the least.

“Enter the Dangerous Mind”‘s commendable performances elevate it infinitesimally above average territory, and while the movie is not politically correct regarding the horrors of mental illness- not by a long shot- it does keep you guessing and capture your attention for it’s short duration.

It is similar in subject matter to the recent film “The Voices,” although “The Voices” is the superior film due to it’s visual verve and it’s cheeky sense of humor regarding the portrayal of extreme insanity. Both movies could easily be called “Dating a quirky, weird guy becomes a health hazard when…” Poor Wendy. like Anna Kendrick’s character in “The Voices” believes she can save her troubled beau from himself. But sometimes, girls, being nice and considerate and compassionate to a guy who is batshit crazy just doesn’t cut it anymore. Once in a while a restraining order does what all the kindness in the world can’t.

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