Tag Archives: 3.5 Star Movies

Vera Drake (2004)

Mike Leigh’s 2004 effort, Vera Drake, is sure to be controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. Instead of providing shock value (and the blood and guts of franchises such as Saw and Hostel,) Vera Drake takes a hot-button topic and views it from a much-maligned perspective. It may make you uncomfortable or angry, but the well made status of the film is hard to deny. The eponymous Vera is a jolly 1950’s housewife who lives in post-war Britain and works cleaning other people’s homes. She is the proud mother of two adult children, sarcastic Sid (Daniel Mays) and excruciatingly shy Ethel (Alex Kelly) and wants to find a eligible bachelor for her isolated daughter. She is happily married to mustached mechanic George (Richard Graham).

In secret, Vera is an abortionist, terminating women’s pregnancies for no pay. She uses the same soothing rhetoric for every incident and is never caught. The procedure is relatively clean and safe, and as far as she is concerned she does no wrong. I didn’t always like Vera. She was blind to the implications of her acts and cheery to a fault. Yet she always tried to do the right thing. I think something horrible happened in her past, but it was never fully explained. Yet, life goes on. Vera and George find a possible “eligible bachelor,” Reg (Eddie Marsan), an introvert highly affected by the war. Vera continues her operations with women who have been  put into contact with her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who has untrustworthy motives. But when a near tragedy occurs, Vera is put out in the open and ages ten years in a strenuous couple of days.

Possibly more interesting than Vera are her kids Ethel and Sid. Ethel holds herself hunched and quiet, with zero self-esteem. She meets her match with Reg, who seems as unsure of the courtship as she is. I wasn’t quite sure where their relationship would go. Sid and his friend Ronny (Leo Bill) discuss post war issues and try to score a dance at a party, and Sid is the one to reasonably question his mother when the doody hits the fan.

The film has a strong sense of place. A rape scene occurs, and it is handled tastefully (as tastefully as a rape can be). Imelda Staunton gives a great performance, going from a cheery, confident woman to a slumped person who can barely drag her feet across the floor.

Vera is not a liberal Wonder Woman, a superhero who keeps her powers of cheerful strength no matter what. She is vulnerable and fallible, and she can be and will be broken.  But somehow, I wasn’t as involved the second time I watched it as I could have been. I think the director was pushing me too hard with the tragedy of it all and what a great person Vera is. That never helps. You’ve got to hand it to Sid though. With everyone else referring to  the center of the operations as “trouble” and “problems,” Sid is the first to offer the humanizing word “babies.” (Rated R.)

Ben X (2007)

Ben X, Belgian director Nic Balthazar’s film debut, is an ambitious drama exploring the autistic mind and how far harassment can go before the victim loses control.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Ben (superbly played by Greg Timmermans), a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives with his well-meaning mother and younger brother. Ben spends all his free time playing Archlord, a fantasy role-playing game where he becomes Ben X and plays alongside Scarlitte, a teenage girl who is impressed by his gaming skills. The game gives him a sense of purpose in a world that becomes increasingly out of control.

Ben’s life at school, quite simply, is hell. He is relentlessly tormented by two repugnant teenage boys. His teachers try to help him but are ineffectual. The situation worsens when an embarrassing prank perpetrated on him is videotaped and posted all over the internet.

Feeling that he has no where to turn, he hides what happened from his family and teachers and becomes increasingly disturbed and suicidal. Finally, close to breaking point, Ben decides to meet with Scarlitte, who is interested in visiting him in real life. Together with Scarlitte, his divorced father, and his desperate mother, he comes up with a bizarre plan to get back at his tormenters.

I waited a long time for this movie, and as it generally is in this case, was disappointed. Which isn’t to say thatBen X is a bad film. On the contrary, it has many good qualities. The main thing that struck me was that this is one of the first times a character on the autistic spectrum takes center stage and is treated as a person, not a plot device. Often, the character with autism is used to evoke feelings from the other people in the movie or to teach them what is really important in life.

This film, without avoiding the family’s perception of the situation, concentrates on Ben and his reactions to what’s happening around him. Secondly, the acting in Ben X is top-notch, especially from Greg Timmermans and Marijke Pinoy, as Ben’s mother. Greg Timmermans has excellent facial expressions and mannerisms, and in his and the directors hands, the main character becomes a real person.

Many scenes and situations in Ben X, however, are very melodramatic and over-the-top, but the ending is its greatest weakness. Alternately bizarre and unrealistic, it detracts from an otherwise good movie. The director seems to think that neatly tying things up is more important than realism, and it shows.

The film builds up a great deal of suspense and a foreboding that something terrible will happen, but seems to wimp out toward the end. I don’t enjoy depressing endings, but I felt that the conclusion wasn’t believable at all. I am bound to cut this film some slack, because there are so few movies about high-functioning autism and because I waited a long time to watch it. Although I think it was ultimately disappointing, it also did many things right and tried to do what most directors haven’t done effectively before.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Unsettling and provocative, “The Piano Teacher” is at once a study of the lives of deeply unhappy people and a commentary on the dangers of repression. It’s not pretty or pleasant, but one can expect nothing less from controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. He shines an unyielding light on his character’s perversions, prejudices, and desires.

The piano teacher of the title, Erika (impressively portrayed by Isabelle Huppert) is an aging spinster living with her crazy-domineering mother (Annie Girardot,) who still treats her like she is a girl on the cusp of puberty, who needs to be nettled and looked after constantly. They fight viciously, share the same bed, and there’s an incestuous subtext going on. Even when that subtext is confirmed, we still can scarcely believe it.

Erika is a very lonely and repressed soul, but she’s not a particularly sympathetic character. She is cruel, petty, sexually aggressive, and at one point inexplicably maims a promising student’s hand with shards of glass. However, it is impossible not to feel sorry for her at some point. She is an extremely hard character to read, and her seeming lack of emotion puzzles us deeply.

We are given virtually no backstory on Erika at all- her father is locked up in an asylum somewhere, and she and her mother have long be entangled in a sick, co-dependent relationship. That is all. When Erika meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel,) he pursues her, but neither of them know what they’re in for. They promptly head down the path of Sadomasochism and mind games.

I was surprised that this was categorized on my favorite site as ‘erotica.’ Frankly put, this is not in the least bit erotic and has some of the most unsexy sex scenes for a film containing so many. “The Piano Teacher” is not unlike “Shame” by Steve McQueen in that respect. There is no joy or virility in the ‘love’ scenes, even the consensual sex has a not only clinical but aggressive feel to it as well.

Isabelle Huppert is fabulous here, and Susanne Lothar (late, great actress and one of the only good things about Haneke’s pretentious bore-fest “Funny Games”) has a small part as the mother of one of Erika’s students whose distinct lack of warmth mirrors Erika’s mother’s own.

I wish Walter’s character had been developed a little more. He exists simply to pursue Erika’s character for one half of the movie and brutalize her emotionally and physically for the other. If his motivations had been considered more thoroughly, and his attraction to Erika better explained, the movie would have been better.

There’s a lot of ambiguity and subtext in Haneke’s films, and “The Piano Teacher” is no exception. This ambiguity is both a gift and a curse, as it is endlessly frustrating but also intriguing and may command multiple viewings. There were some thoroughly ‘What the Fuck’ moments as well, for example when Erika urinates on the ground of the drive-in theater.

“The Piano Teacher” contains some distinctly ‘Haneke’-esque annoyances like superfluous long takes but the film is startlingly adept in its power and never betrays itself with Hollywood B.S. or an inappropriately upbeat ending. Ultimately it is as as it’s as enigmatic as it’s heroine but less weirdly naive- it knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Worth watching.