Tag Archives: 3.5 Star Movies

White Bim Black Ear (1977)

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Bad things can’t seem to stop happening to Bim, The canine protagonist of  the heartbreaking Soviet Russian film White Bim Black Ear. Despite happy beginnings with a tender-hearted widower named  Ivan Ivanovich (Vyacheslav Tikhonov,) Bim’s life is thrown into turmoil when Ivanovich’s old war injury deteriorates and he is placed in the hospital.

Despite Ivan placing a neighbor in charge of feeding and taking care of Bim, the faithful dog pines for his master, wandering the streets every day desperately searching for his person and meeting people both sympathetic to his plight and merciless. Is suffering to be Bim’s lot in life? Must he consistently be exposed to the worst human nature has to offer, even when aching for his owner’s return?

Warning; if you’re at all sensitive to cruelty to animals and/or a dog lover, this movie will hit you hard. My helpless weeping at the end of this film can not even be counted as a cathartic cry as such; it was an ugly cry, complete with my vision blurring so badly through a multitude of tears I couldn’t even see the screen. There’s only one movie involving doggie melodrama that made me cry even more than this one; and that movie was Hachi- A Dog’s Tale (the ultimate canine grief porn weeper, which you will desist from so much as mentioning in my presence.)

Although the emotional factor of this movie is alarmingly high, it is by no means a perfect movie. For one thing, it’s wwaaayy too long, just over three hours. It could probably be cut down by thirty minutes or so, but the director is intent on getting every moment of brutal tragedy in there. Luckily, I have a really long attention span for movies; on the other hand, some people don’t. Those people are likely to find White Bim Black Ear excessive or even, ahem, boring (it does manage to be bafflingly grueling at points, especially for a film that seems to have a fairly small story to tell and an awful lot of filler.)

I also have questions concerning how Ivan’s corpulent, gossipy neighbor (Valentina Vladimirova) is portrayed. She really doesn’t seem to have much motivation for ostracizing Bim, rendering her one-dimensional and almost cartoonish. The strident nature in which is she is portrayed in the film doesn’t really work, especially since it is her that deals the final fatal blow to Bim’s fate. It seems like she should be taken somewhat more seriously by the script; the only reason I can imagine for her atrocious behavior is that she is a horrid and deeply bored old hag, intent on making those around her suffer. She seems too over-the-top to be a real person though, despite the definite existence of people somewhat like her in this world.

Now for the good; the animal wranglers have picked an amazing dog actor to play Bim. Vyacheslav Tikhonov does an excellent job as BIm’s much-loved master and has good chemistry with the canine who plays him. This movie really shows the loyalty of dogs, although it goes to far at times at making Bim more intelligent than a dog could be in actuality (including making Bim know in his heart that the note placed in front of him on the floor is from his hospitalized master- I mean, I know that we’re told a million times that Bim is an intelligent dog, but come on.)

Take heed, this movie is not for children. It’s agonizingly sad; you keep holding out your hope things will turn out okay, but the tragedy overrides any happiness that might have been had by the characters. However, if you like heartbreaking Russian stories, drowned in hundreds of years of tears and Vodka, this movie is for you. Bim is a true innocent, ignorant to maliciousness of many human beings, but, as they say, sometimes it is the innocents who suffer. Keep tissues handy.

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The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

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   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

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When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

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Marie’s Story (2014)

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The Miracle Worker in a convent. Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carre) is a well-meaning but somewhat naive French nun who lives in a convent-slash- school for deaf girls. When Marie Huertin (Ariana Rivoire) arrives, Sister Marguerite as her work cut out for her. Born both blind and deaf, Marie is the wild offspring of working class parents (Gilles Treton and Laura Duthilleul) who, although apparently kind and compassionate, were not up to meeting the needs of their out-of-control daughter.

Marie can’t or refuses to dress herself, eats like an animal, and bites and claws anyone who stands in the way of her achieving her whims. While the Mother Superior (Brigitte Cattilion) believes that Marie can’t be helped and should be sent to an insane asylum or someplace else better equipped to control her unusual behavior, Sister Marguerite takes her on as her own personal project despite being very ill herself. This leads predictably, after much frustration and doubt, to a Eureka moment akin to Helen Keller’s at the water pump and some gradual bonding between Marguerite and her protege.

Marie’s Story is a film which, while very well-acted, should seem familiar to people who hve seen films such as The Miracle Worker, Nell, or Truffaut’s slightly superior oldie The Wild Child. While the character’s disorders are slightly different in the two latter films (having previously been feral humans rather being born blind and deaf,) the set-up is very much the same. The big confrontation between Marguerite and her young charge over whether the wild young thing should eat with a fork strongly echoes a defining scene in The Miracle Worker, while the sequence where the girl is tormented by the poking and prodding fingers of some mean-spirited deaf girls seems reminiscent of the boy’s jarring first arrival to supposed ‘civilization’ in The Wild Child.

It is not surprising that this film should seem uncannily similar to The Miracle Worker, after all, both are based on true stories that occurred around the same time period and both incidents resemble each other a great deal. If Annie Sullivan was a nun who was dying of an incurable disease, well… With all that said, acknowledging that no, Marie’s Story does not feel fresh or particularly innovative or original. it is not a bad movie by a long shot. There’s are some good performances.

Ariana Rivoire does an amazing job as Marie. Not once does she break character, it is easy to imagine that she is really a disabled, nearly feral young girl. Isabelle Carre provides steady support, and while she did not impress me as much as Rivoire (Rivoire admittedly having the more showy role,) she didn’t fail to compel me as a true woman of God. I don’t know if there is a God (being a very skeptical agnostic,) but if there is, people like Sister Marguerite do him proud.

Despite very little dialogue spoken by the character throughout the film, Gilles Treton as Marie’s father touched my heart in a way I can’t exactly explain. You can tell by his look of concerned devotion that he is a good man who provided his daughter with a life much better than most severely disabled people in that era could dare to dream of. He just couldn’t provide her with what she needed most; communication. I found myself liking his character even though he had next to no lines, just call it a hunch, or really good acting on Treton’s part. Although it gets a bit too sentimental at times, Marie’s Story has a good story and strong characters.

It’s a good film in all respects, but it just can’t manage to avoid the pitfall of seeming like ‘another Miracle Worker type’ movie. It doesn’t differentiate from the former enough to give it a true identity. However, if you want a film with Faith-based themes that doesn’t condemn the Catholic church yet doesn’t feel like a proselytizing ‘Christian movie,’this might be a prudent choice. I enjoyed this movie and as a skeptic I consider it a religious movie that doesn’t make a agnostic want to barf. It balances God with a fascinating (if familiar) story and gifted actors. In French. So if you like these kinds of movies, in all likelihood, you’ll enjoy this one. There are far worse films about people living with handicaps to choose from.

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Aliens (1986)

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There’s something inherently terrifying and grotesque about the creatures in Alien and it’s sequel, Aliens. The way they scuttle across the floor like crabs. The way they latch onto your face and impregnate you with their evil spawn. But nothing has posed quite as epic a threat as the alien queen mother in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. She’s fucking huge, for one thing. She has a vendetta. No wonder, Ellen Ripley, our heroine, abhors her.

Let me just say that Aliens is not a bad movie, by a long shot. It has good production values, effective acting, a solid story, and sympathetic characters. But, frankly, it just didn’t measure up to Ridley Scott’s original in my opinion. I know, right? Let the incredulous comments begin.

The plot of Aliens picks up right where the original left off. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) hops in an escape pod on the doomed spaceship the Nostromo and puts herself in cryo until rescue arrives. hopefully sooner rather than later. Fifty-seven years later (later, definitely later) a large ship picks her up and she soon finds herself at war once again with her mortal enemy, the face-huggers. Engineering her return to the vile creature’s planet is the weasley, manipulative Burke (Paul Reiser,) and she sets forth to save the settlers that have inadvertently arrived on the planet from the original with a bunch of soldiers with huge egos who, in the end, don’t stand a chance.

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The character of Ripley is consistent with the original, but we learn new things about her, like she has a daughter that aged and died while she was in cryo. Ripley’s new daughter figure comes in the form of Newt (Carrie Henn,) a little waif who’s whole family has been killed and who has been living in the ventilation system in the  compound where the face-huggers attacked. This adds an emotional component, as Ripley struggles to protect Newt and the soldiers from a larger-than-life menace and her extra-terrestrial children.

Now on why I think this is a good movie, but not as good as the original film. The first movie in the series was claustrophobic and loaded with atmosphere, whereas this one is more of a standard action flick. Alien incorporated modest practical effects and was done on a fairly low budget, while Aliens has a much larger budget and is much bigger and brassier than the original.

Now for the good. The characters are more sympathetic and more fully developed in this one, from the soldiers played by the likes of Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn to the little girl, Newt. You didn’t care as much about the protagonists in the first movie (other than Ripley,) but the side characters here are given some serious consideration by the writer. Aliens is also much less of a slow-burn, so if you like fast-paced action films that are not so much mood pieces as roller-coaster rides, this is the movie for you. The first was less of a Hollywood film, which was what I liked about it. But this one has more of a character arc, exciting mood, and a sense of mainstream appeal.

I was occasionally not as into Aliens as I probably should have been, I’m not much of a action fan. It gets to the point where I actually get bored by explosions and gunfights no matter how well they’re done for that sort of movie. I very much enjoy more atmospheric/ ‘slow burn’ films, but don’t let that deter you from this action-packed, entertaining movie. Alien and Aliens are very different films, despite being linked by the same heroine and universe, and they’re both worth watching in their own way.

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Together (2000)

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    Together is a comedy of small events and big characters, which is sure to have you laughing and cringing at the same time. The premise is a mix of the dramatic and absurd; the year is 1975, and Swedish housewife Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren) is a downtrodden mother of two who gets smacked around by her alkie husband (Michael Nyqvist) (again.) So she grabs the kids, Stefan and Eva (Sam Kessel and Emma Samuelsson) and moves into her brother  Goran (Gustaf Hammarsten)’s commune.

No sooner has she shacked up there than personalities clash big-time. The brother, a kind-hearted but ineffectual communist-sympathizing beatnik, wonders why everybody can’t just get along. But in a group of the Liberal, the very very Liberal, and the even more Liberal arguing on profound matters such as whether washing dishes is bourgeois, the arrival of a relatively strait-laced mother and her two young kids might be more than the odd  little family can handle.

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As the commune’s resident free-spirited lesbian Anna (Jessica Liedberg) encourages Elisabeth to reclaim her feminine power and independence, the deeply unhappy kids try to reconnect with their father, who has sunk into a drunken despair; and the group must find some way to balance the children in their crazy lives. This leads to a disagreement between the hippies when meat eating, television, and war games are thrown into the mix.

Although the film makes fun of hippies to some extent, it kind of embraces them too, and this juxtaposition is handled evenly and consistently throughout. While Elisabeth is getting out of a bad relationship, her brother Goran is stuck in one, and the two siblings inspire and aid each other to some extent. Together is somewhat disturbing at times because of the borderline neglect the hippies inflict on their own children in the commune. One little boy of about six claims to have built a tolerance to alcohol by stealing wine from the kitchen, insisting that the adults ‘never notice,’ and the kids witness the grown-up’s self-absorbed drama as members of the commune have indiscriminate sex, experiment with homosexuality, and show no discretion about anything around their children, who seem more like an afterthought than a important facet to their lives.

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It’s preferable to, say, growing up in a crack house, but that’s a discernment no child should ever have to make. Out of the hippies, Goran is the most likable and sympathetic- he’s a sweet and all-around good guy who genuinely cares about his companions and wants to make everyone happy. The character arc dictates that he will eventually learn that you can’t make everyone happy, no matter how nice a guy you are. Elisabeth’s character arc is a little bit more questionable, especially when you see the decision  she makes at the end. The kids give charming and charismatic performances, particularly Sam Kessel as little Stefan, and a cute ‘forbidden’ romance between the son (Henrik Lundsrtom) of prudish, repressed neighbor parents and Elisabeth’s daughter is a welcome escape from some pretty dark subject matter.

As a decidedly non-Hollywood fish-out-of-water comedy, Together definitely has it’s moments, but it’s as a bittersweet drama that it really seems to excel. It’s obviously a low-budget effort; it looks cheap and the sound editing could really use some work, but the actors do a good job and the characters alternately charm you or infuriate you with their craziness, sometimes at the same time. The movie offers up the message that even the biggest radical needs to give and take a little to find balance in life. Although from vastly different worlds, Goran’s commune and Elisabeth’s family find goodness and personal enrichment in each other’s company. Sometimes the perfect combination of values isn’t far left or far right, but somewhere snugly in the middle.

Warning; this movie has full-frontal nudity and a disturbing scene where an adult tries to seduce a child. However, if you are a more adventurous and less sensitive film goer, these aspects should not deter you from watching an engaging and likable film.

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Free Fall (2013)

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That awkward moment when you realize a woman’s touch just can’t compare to the caress of your bosom cop buddy.

Free Fall as been described as the ‘German Brokeback Mountain,’ a comparison that will have movie fans cheering and homophobes running for the hills. I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain for years (not since I was twelve or thirteen) but I remember I had a problem with not finding the characters very likable. Free Fall suffers from a same issue, but not to the same extent, and unlike Brokeback Mountain, which is a straight-out tragedy, Free Fall has a dark but redemptive quality to it, and features a realistic but somewhat hopeful and satisfying ending. The actors show enormous potential, and while the characters are often infuriating, they’re also authentic, and their motivations ring alarmingly true throughout.

Marc (Hanno Koffler) is a fresh-faced young cop-in-training whose wife Bettina (Katharina Schüttler) is pregnant, and whose interfering parents are living right next door and are getting a little too involved with the couple’s lives. In the police academy, Marc is paired up with his new roommate Kay (Max Riemelt) and they get into a testosterone-fueled scuffle almost immediately after meeting one another, but reconcile shortly thereafter. Marc is not a particularly great runner, so he and Kay practice by taking jogs together in the woods. One day on one of their excursions together Kay kisses Marc, and Marc reacts with predictable surprise and disgust. But there was something about the kiss; something that makes Marc (who previously never considered himself to be nothing other than a typical, heterosexual man) experience something he’s never felt, something that makes him crave more. And Marc can only disguise his feelings for so long…

I always feel bad for the wives in films like these. In Katharina Schüttler as Bettina we have a strong and determined actress, but due to a script that doesn’t emphasize much on it’s female players her character comes off a little flat. Her main role is to pry (where were you tonight, Marc? What are you playing at, Marc?) and fret while her swollen belly and innocent features give her a kind but vulnerable look. She never really comes into her own or displays any interesting personality traits. Which brings us to the romance between Kay and Marc.

Kay and Marc are both very flawed characters at times, which makes for a fairly interesting dynamic. While Kay tends to be a little aggressive and interferes with Marc’s life, Marc can be appallingly cagey and disloyal, refusing to acknowledge what he is even to the expense of protecting Kay from prejudiced bullies on the work force. The main big bad bully in question is Gregor Limpinski (Senja Lacher,) a somewhat stereotypical but also unfortunately fairly true-to-life sexed-up misogynist and homophobe struggling under the weight of his own machismo. When Kay is discovered to have been going to a gay club, the bullying begins, and Marc doesn’t find the strength to stand up for his lover at the expense of his own reputation til the very end.

Kay and Marc have kind of an aggressive sexually charged thing going, pushing each other  and delivering some rough in the throes of passion. Marc has feelings both ways and even enjoys sex with his wife to some extent, but Kay provides him with an experience he never could have thought he’d find so weirdly irresistible. But considering his emotional dishonesty and considerable disloyalty to Kay, it’s a pretty good bet that the relationship will never get past it’s trial period. It’s kind of surprising that Kay puts in the time and energy. Although their relationship isn’t healthy by a long shot, the men actually have good chemistry and a highly potent sense of eroticism going on between them.

The characters and situations presented in this film are fairly realistic, with a genuine vibe and minimal melodrama or blatant tearjerking. Marc’s lack of likability is a  bit of a problem. It seems Marc, while not a bad person at heart, has a knack for hurting the people in his life and evading his own moral responsibilities. Free Fall isn’t one of the all-time great gay films (and it’s plot has a bit of a sense of the old been-there-done-that) but it is, as they say, ‘well-done’ and features good performances across the board.

Marc’s sexual ambiguity is another interesting aspect in an all around effective film- can you be a lover of both men and women but show a preference for one at a time considerably after adolescence? Marc’s story is a warning for all those people who make assumptions about their preferences and their part in the bigger picture too early in life, and discover that they made all the wrong decisions. Most people know whether they like men or women from the time they learn to masturbate. For some, it’s harder. Marc reminds us of that, and tells a pretty good story in the process.

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10 1/2 (2010)

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Whether or not this is what the filmmaker intended, 10 1/2 makes an excellent case for sterilization. Cretin parents spawn a psychotic child, who’s young age belies his appetite for destruction. Said child abuses a younger child and is left to sink or swim in the system. Kind of one of those ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’ movies, isn’t it? On the plus side, the film is achingly realistic and the child actor playing the demented tyke at the center of this bleak picture gives it all he’s got, so it’s high degree of quality makes it a watchable, if not exactly palatable experience.

The title, 10 1/2, refers to the age of the protagonist. The first five minutes of this movie are as grueling a beginning as you’re ever likely to see. Inspired by a steady diet of pornographic films, an abused boy named Tommy (Robert Naylor) tries to make a 7-year-old perform oral sex on him. He fails, is caught, and he is beaten senseless by the small boy’s older brother. Following this catastrophe, Tommy is relinquished to the system by his desperate foster mother.

Tommy’s explosive temper soon proves challenging (to say the least) for the staff of a home for troubled boys. The majority of them want to pass him on to the psychiatric hospital to deal with. Gilles (Claude Legault) is the one who doesn’t. He’s determined to make Tommy see the error of his ways and get to the bottom of his troubled past. Tommy is pretty much the worst kid you can imagine- kicking, biting, throwing shit around the facility, spewing every manner of expletive he can come up with. Can a heart this wounded be healed? Can Gilles get through to Tommy, or are some people, no matter how young, a lost cause?

‘Harrowing’ is an apt way to describe this film. ‘Intense.’ ‘Infuriating,’ when you see what Tommy’s parents have done to him (although he has apparently repressed and internalized most of his early childhood memories) you will want to kick the ever-loving crap out of them. A child like Tommy has suffered major hurt and trauma at a very young age. I believe only a small minority of sociopaths are born evil. Parents ruin their children and leave them to screw up the next generation, on and on.

Tommy’s only foil is his dad (Martin Dubreuil,) who grooms him with false promises that he will take him in and normalize his life. Ultimately, patient, soft-spoken Gilles is the only one who gives a shit whether Tommy lives or dies. He wants to believe Tommy can be better, but Tommy proves to be an extremely hard child to believe in.

While Legault gives an effective performance as the dedicated social worker, it is Naylor who really impressed me as Tommy, especially given his young age. The part of Tommy must have been extremely hard for any actor to pull off, let alone a child actor. Most of the movie is simply a battle of wills between Gilles and Tommy, with the boy smashing things, displaying inappropriate sexual behavior, attacking staff members, and making suicide threats. It’s morally questionable to let a child play a role like this (it’s clear Canada has more lenient child pornography laws than we do (!)), but Naylor’s handling of his part is nothing less than heroic.

The ending’s ambiguity means we don’t really have an idea what will happen to Tommy at the end of this movie. I waited and waited for some kind of redemptive moment, but that moment unfortunately never came. All I can do is hope that Tommy gets his shit together. Whether (if he were a real person) he becomes a functioning member of society or a hardened sex offender depends so much on those crucial years, and we’ve gotta love Gilles for taking a chance on this frustrating, impossible boy.

10 1/2 is not a popcorn movie, not a family-friendly flick. It’s a dark, disturbing, impossibly grim (did I say disturbing?) look into a child protective system that needs a lot of work, and ‘parents’ who, should they refuse to use birth control or sterilization, would do society a favor by neutering themselves by any means possible. There are thousands of Tommy’s braving the system at this very moment, and I truly fear for them, and what their eventual maturation will mean to us as a society.

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