Tag Archives: Foreign

When Animals Dream (2014)

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Sod the naysayers. I think this movie is wonderful. Lycanthropy as a metaphor for the hairier aspects of puberty is a motif that’s been used before, but never as a story like this been so meditative and visually astonishing as the the Danish chiller When Animals Dream. I knew as soon as I saw the gorgeous opening credits that I was in for something special, Animals’ coastal small town setting as stunning as it is deeply desolate and bleak.

Comparisons, of course, will be drawn to Tomas Alfredson’s haunting story of young vampire love Let the Right One In, both are outstanding films that effortlessly outdo American fright films and prove, once again, that horror can have truly scary implications without focusing on gore or wanton brutality. This is why off-the-radar horror is often (never say ‘always’) better than the slasher films and gorefests mainstream studios offer up to the bloodthirsty masses.

Marie (Sonia Suhl) is an awfully nice girl who happens to be turning into a werewolf – the victim of a family secret that has been kept from her for the majority of her youth. Marie lives with her dad (Lars Mikkaelson,) who seems well-meaning but is way over his head with the women of his family; and her mother (Sonja Richter,) who- ahem – doesn’t seem to be all there, lacking the ability to even rise from her wheelchair or express herself verbally.

And what’s with all those injections mom keeps taking? What exactly is making this woman sick in the first place? Could it have something to do with an attack by a group of Russian sailors years before? Whatever the case, Dad isn’t telling, and Marie grows up none the wiser until she begins developing strange bruises and coarse hair all over her body.

Marie starts working in a fish plant, where she is pushed into a vat of rotten fish by her jeering co-workers the first time under the pretense of ‘hazing.’ The bright spot in Marie’s life is Daniel, (Jakob Oftbro) a cute guy who doesn’t treat her like a total outcast. However, several other men at the plant (led by the leering Esben,) who abhor Marie for her femininity and perpetuate attacks and harassment of a sexual nature on the girl.

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Marie begins to separate herself from her parents and takes up Daniel as a boyfriend, goes to a rave-even has sex, discovering her sensuality and becoming more self-confident in the process. But as the townspeople discover Marie’s fleshly habits, things can’t end on anything other than a full-scale bloodbath. You just better hope you’re on the right side of this war, or you might just end up being this girl’s dinner. Marie didn’t start this. But she’ll sure as Hell finish it.

Some people might not like that Marie doesn’t devour anyone who is not a direct threat to her life, and that her wolf make-up doesn’t look as wolfish as, say  An American Werewolf in London. But these things didn’t bother me. There are some unanswered questions like, will Marie randomly kill people who don’t mean her any harm, or is she harmless just as long as you don’t push her buttons too much? Regardless, it was fun watching the narrow-minded townspeople get what’s indubitably coming to them, in the form of a ravenous, empowered Marie.

Sonia Suhl gives a very good, understated performance as the main heroine and I really liked that she was pretty without being particularly ‘glamorous’ or made up.  There are some really creepy moments in his film, for example the eerie sounds during the sex scene (akin to a rusty door rattling on it’s hinges (!))

Honestly, When Animals Dream is not terribly scary, but it’s creepy and loaded with unsettling atmosphere. It isn’t as thought-provoking as Let the Right One In (mostly due to Marie’s most unwerewolf-like benevolence unless her life is being directly threatened,) but it’s incredibly moody and- wouldn’t you know it?- sometimes incredibly heartbreaking. It’s easy to see who’s the real monster in a town of merciless louts and bullies. But in the end, they’re all pretty much fucked. There’s a new queen in town, and once you’ve wronged her, you better hope you can run fast enough to avoid being nibbled on.

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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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Zero Motivation (2014)

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Who’d of thunk that the women’s training sector of the Israeli military would be a lot like high school? Cat fights, cliques, and general snarkiness are all par for the course. Moody Daffi (Nelly Tagar) would like nothing more than dispose of her uniform in favor of serving coffee at the Tel Aviv, but her service is mandatory, which means that she’s pretty much screwed until her senior officer Rama (Shani Kein) decides she can go. Daffi’s bestie Zohar (Dana Ivgy, star of the heartbreaking Or, My Treasure) tries her best to keep Daffi’s spirits afloat, but several differences of opinion turn the two friends into the bitterest of enemies.

     Zero Motivation is broken into three ‘stories’- one about a girl on the base’s suicide, another on Zohar’s self-consciousness about her virginity, and the third about a power shift between the two friends and the epic falling-out and stapling-gun war that ensues. The film seems to suffer from uncertainty about what genre it belongs in; sometimes it seems to be making a valiant attempt as a comedy, but it lacks much of the requisite mirth and humor; other times it comes off as dark and even depressing (as with the bloody suicide of a lovesick girl (Yonit Tobi) who was passing off as a soldier to get the attention of a boy who was, as they say, ‘just not that into her’ in the film’s first segment.)

I think I should be able to relate to these people, as a world-class slacker, but the characters lack likability. This is not the fault of the cast members, who are very good- it’s just that the protagonists (except Daffi, who seems pretty sweet for all her drama) take bitchiness to a whole new level. Sometimes their bile is funny, but mostly not so much. I guess this is kind of the point; to humanize the military in far away countries that people generally picture as dramatic or extreme by portraying their raucous, even silly set-backs and foibles. And the film is not a bad effort by a  long shot.

But there’s a crisis of tone at play here, as evidenced by the scene where the Daffi and Zohar beat the living shit out of each other when Daffi threatens to delete her former friend’s much-loved collection of online games from the military PC. The situation is absurd, and I guess they’re going for comedy, but by the end the girls are full of staples from a staple-gun attack and bloody. Not only that, but one girl tries to actually strangle the other with a length of cord. So, it’s a bit too dark to be slapstick, but is it supposed to be dramatic? (we’ve got to remember that the fight was over some video games, which is ridiculousness if I ever saw it.)

Is Zero Motivation a comedy? An attempt at dark and cynical absurdity? A drama with humorous elements? In the end, it’s just so hard to tell. I found myself chuckling a few times, but other times it seemed astonishingly dark but didn’t have the seriousness to be a drama. I love black comedies if they’re done right, but I’m just not sure this one is. Ultimately it’s just a curiosity (albeit a well-acted and competently written one) about raging estrogen and histrionic back-stabbing in a military facility for women. Which is not in of itself funny.

There is, however, some interesting political and social context to this movie,  like the patriarchal hierarchy the male soldiers inflict on the women, refusing to listen to their opinions, enlisting them to fix them nibbles at staff meetings; and surreptitiously ogling shapely female asses when the women come to bring them said nibbles. We see how hard it is to be taken seriously as a woman in the military; you kind of have to be mean; as Rama the perpetually angry and overlooked officer well knows. It is in these moments that the film really excels; showing us how unappreciated women who choose to be soldiers are, whether it be here, there, or anywhere.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that 99% of the men in this movie are huge dicks. This Borderline display of misandry might frustrate male viewers, but to be fair, the male characters are a minority here, as the film focuses on femininity and how the women balance it in a job dominated by men, and men annoyingly mired in their own machismo at that. Just like I imagine it would be hard to be a female cop; especially an attractive one (if you’re a female officer and unattractive, it’s easier to blend in and become one of the guys.)

    Zero Motivation is not a movie without value, it just could have done so much more with it’s intriguing premise. When all is said and done, it feels a little lightweight, which is a shame. it could have been great. However, it still worth watching for buffs of multicultural films that look at social issues in a slightly skewed way, if not for those in search for a laugh-until-you-cry comedy.

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Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

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Most children can’t refrain from doing some whining and complaining on their weekly excursion to Wal-Mart. So when you see these little troopers trekking across the country, you can’t help but be uplifted a little. And have things placed in some serious perspective.

In Australia in the year of 1931, white settlers are extremely concerned that the half-caste aboriginal children of the bush will procreate with partners of the darker persuasion and stamp out sacred whiteness from peoples’ lineage. So concerned are they that they recruit an expert at white bigotry by the name of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) to help send mixed race children to grim work camps. Their intention is to ensure the children will learn to walk the walk, talk the talk, and worship the higher power of white Christians, and, God willing, pair up with white mates, gradually easing the aborigine lineage out of their family tree. Because everybody knows that the more whiteness you put in someone’s genealogy, the whiter the descendants will look. And white is might, apparently. But what these people didn’t count on intrepid youngsters Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.

Molly (Evelyn Sampi) is the oldest of three aborigine girls, and she leads her younger sisters Gracie (Laura Monoghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) on an epic escape from the camp in which they’ve been placed. Using the tracking techniques of their ancestors, the girls manage to evade detection for days while attempting to follow the ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to freedom, and ultimately to their much-beloved home and family. Unfortunately, Neville has other ideas, and his determination combined with the girl’s gumption leads to a cross-country chase that will test all four people’s willpower. Because Molly and her sisters aren’t just three little girls on the lam anymore- they’ve captured the hearts and attention of the disfranchised aborigines wheedling away their days in labor camps. They stand for something- and that’s the one thing Neville won’t allow.

Although the film version of the real story of Molly Craig and the book that ensued is probably a rather sugarcoated account of the horrors the Craig girls endured and their harrowing escape from captivity, it still captures the imagination and sympathy of viewers with very little understanding of these events. I personally knew nothing about the racial issues between the white settlers and the natives in Australia, although I know that the white man has tended to conquer wherever hew saw an opportunity to do so, from the Native Americans, to Africa, to even this. The filmmaker, Philip Noyce, chose a trio of good little actresses and although their inexperience sometimes shows they manage to carry the film for the most part on their small shoulders.

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Kenneth Branagh is despicable without being extravagantly and exaggeratedly evil, and the horrors of the camp where Aborigines are trained as domestic servants and have their culture systematically stamped out are shown with harrowing restraint. I think Neville (or ‘Devil,’ as the native children not-so-charitably call him) believes he is doing the right thing by attempting to ensure the preservation of the white race; it’s just that what he sees as right is in reality so very, very wrong. His character reminds me of a quote I once heard (I don’t remember who it’s attributed to, though,) that ‘every villain is a hero in his own mind.’ I’m sure Neville thinks he’s just dandy and righteous with the Lord and doing right by his countrymen, but it just so happens he’s an asshole- a big one.

The set-up of Rabbit-Proof Fence is kind of standard, not particularity innovative or new for the genre of dark emotionally charged biopics, but there are moments of genuine heartbreak and legitimate darkness. In one harrowing scene, a Aborigine maid hides the runaways in her bed because she believes if they’re in the room, it will prevent her white boss from raping her. It is scenes like these when you get a glimpse of how screwed up these events in history are. It also proves that you can leave some things to the imagination (where they are often just as scary, if not even scarier) when you’re making a movie about bleak historical events. At times I thought this movie could have benefited from showing a bit more of it’s horrific content; it’s not that I get jazzed up by child abuse and racism, I don’t; it’s just that there could have been a little more impact if it hadn’t stayed within the confines of the PG-13 rating. But in a way, they showed enough- enough to give you the idea of what Australian Aborigines went through during this time, the aftereffects of which their still grappling with today.

While Rabbit-Proof Fence is a meditation on a tumultuous time in history, it’s not a bore- slim at just over 90 minutes and compelling for it’s entire runtime, it’s probably a more arresting experience if you know nothing about the film’s social and political events beforehand. I suspect if you know a lot about the period the movie describes, it’ll seem a little lightweight and unsubstantial. It’s one of those movies that, while not hugely original, does hold the viewer’s investment and sympathy throughout and achieves the single greatest thing a film can achieve- it tells a great story. My guess is that if you like these kind of heart wrenching biopics, you, as I did, will be rooting for the girls all the way; and you, too, will have shed a tear by the closing credits.

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The Death King (Der Todesking) (1990)

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There is a moment in Jorg Buttgereit’s shockfest anthology “The Death King” where a man arbitrarily blows his girlfriend’s head off when she comes back from shopping and scolds him for not attending a party. Like this scene, much of the film is random and lacks context, it is literally seventy minutes of people killing each other and themselves. It certainly commands your attention (for a while at least) by beating you over the head with a bit of the old ultra-violence, but for a movie primarily about suicide, it ultimately has as little to say about people who take their own lives as it does about human nature.

While avid fans of underground and ‘transgressive’ films will probably love this movie to bits, for me it seemed like a whole lot of nothing. The premise is absurdly simple- a death-themed short for each day of the week. The shorts range from surprisingly decent (the first one, with the goldfish-loving man poisoning himself in the bathtub) to the totally WTF (the retarded man in Captain America underwear literally beating himself senseless in a small, windowless room where he is presumably (?) held prisoner) and the acting is quite spotty. Many of the actors don’t seem to be acting at all as much as just looking vaguely at the camera while blandly delivering their exceedingly few lines.

So, this movie isn’t big on acting and dialogue, you say? What does it excel in? Well, The Death King does make use of a limited budget and includes some really creepy editing/sound effects. It’s not much, but it might be worth a view by people who are into weird for weird’s sake and low-budget experimental film making. I like weird movies, but I just couldn’t get into this bizarrofest; give me an compelling plot, a character I can care about, anything. Pure experiment can be intriguing, but Eraserhead this is not. It’s actually quite boring, despite all the sadistic violence and eerie sound effects and people offing themselves.

The director claimed in the intro on my DVD that The Death King is a film against suicide. “Of course,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. But how can a movie that offers it’s victims no development and no other alternatives be against suicide? The movie is less an attempt to bring light to a misunderstood act of desperation and more a eager attempt to shock the viewer into thinking it’s ‘deep.’ I can just picture Jorg getting all his friends together, and saying, “Hey guys, let’s make a movie of people waxing themselves. We’ll call it… The Death King.” And his friends, not being entirely sober themselves, let out a collective “Whoa… that’s rad.”

I’m not disturbed by this movie. It takes a lot more than an amateurish attempt at cringe cinema like this to shock me. But The Death King is roughly acted, written, and directed, like a film school project, and above all it gives you no reason to fucking care. I’m not asking for a sentimental and pedestrian motion picture on suicide where the kind, gallant hero goes all ‘Goodbye cruel world,’ leading to an epic confrontation with the film’s antagonist and a tearjerker ending. I like edgy. But if you’re going to make a movie, have something to say. If you’re a self-proclaimed fan of the dark and disturbing with a Salo; 120 Days of Sodom poster on the wall of your college dorm who attributes depth to the arbitrary and grotesque, this movie’s for you. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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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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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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Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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The Wild Child (1970)

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During a short period in my late teen years, I had a offbeat interest in feral children and the behavior of kids forced to sink or swim in scenarios of extreme neglect. A strange obsession for a much loved, protected, and comfortably middle class white kid, but I’ve always been fascinated by abnormal psychology; how the mind works, or doesn’t work, depending on the situation. So I had had Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” for several years, bought during the peak of my feral child phase, when I impulsively picked it up and popped it into my DVD player.

I don’t know much about Truffaut, having only seen The 400 Blows years ago, and I always get him mixed up with Au Revoir Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart director Louis Malle. I was bored for the first few minutes of The Wild Child, but I quickly got into it’s modest but psychologically intriguing narrative. The Wild Child is not a sentimental film (certainly less so than The Miracle Worker, which it mirrors in many respects.) In some ways it has a clinical feel, but at the same time is empathetic to the characters and their motivations.

In the 18th Century, dedicated scientist Jean Itard (writer/director Francois Truffaut) takes on his hardest challenge yet: a dirty, wild, malnourished boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found in the woods of rural France. The boy, eventually named Victor, is taken to the School for the Deaf and Dumb where he is eyed and prodded by curious onlookers, actually becoming a spectacle for visiting Parisians.  Finally, when the people at the school tire of their dancing monkey and contemplate dropping the boy off at a institution for the incurably retarded, Itard takes charge and brings Victor to his home on the outskirts of Paris.

There Itard and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) set out to train the child to be a proper human being. But Itard becomes increasingly obsessed with indoctrinating Victor into civilization, taking his failures incredibly hard and busying himself with instructing his young charge with rewards, punishment, and earnest attempts to give  the kid a normal life. However determined Itard is, he still fails at the most rudimentary aspect of the boy’s education- treating him like a human child and not a science experiment. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to teach Victor language, and considers surrendering him to a potentially dreadful institution.

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  The Wild Child is based on the true story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron,’ and from what I understand it is fairly faithful to the facts. What the scientists, the townspeople, even Itard fail to realize is that Victor’s behavior isn’t that of a incurable crazy or an imbecile. The way Victor acts, emotes, and relates to people is quite normal for someone of his unusual upbringing. He doesn’t like wearing clothes; he never had to wear them in the wild. He doesn’t understand stairs. He abhors the idea of eating with a fork. Are these the traits of a moron? Of course not, he’s never had to do things differently. In truth, Victor’s ability to survive in the wild and hunt and gather from a very young age requires much more ingenuity than being a proper 18th Century Dandy, but the ‘normal’ upstanding citizens don’t see it that way. They just think he’s defective and stupid.

The boy who played Victor was an adolescent gypsy boy and nonprofessional actor; in truth, he often doesn’t appear to be acting. The child on which this movie is based is speculated to have been Autistic, it would explain why his parents rejected him  at a young age and tried to kill him (as evidenced by the scar on his throat) before driving him into the woods. Whether or not Victor has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or has just been deprived of a normal childhood and developmental milestones, Jean-Pierre Cargol displays one of the most natural, unshowy portrayals of severe Autistic-like behavior I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Victor watching this movie; it’s the obsessed, chilly Itard that comes off as weirdly alien. However, Itard’s sometimes harsh methods of behavioral modification is preferable to the alternative of being shackled up in a mental ward. It is Guerin who approaches Victor’s challenges with  the unconditional love of a mother. She is a catalyst to the unfeeling, judgmental Frenchmen who treat Victor like an animal and an outcast.

There aren’t a lot of close-ups or expressions of sentiment in The Wild Child, but it’s a great film for people with any interest in psychology whatsoever. Despite the lack of earth-shaking events, there’s a lot going on under the surface, in contrast to loud, big-budget movies that are ultimately hollow.  The main conflict involves Itard struggling to discover if Victor has a innate understanding of empathy and fairness, or if he only reacts as such because he’s been conditioned to. Whether what he finds out ultimately satisfies him is anyone’s guess. The Wild Child is a slow-moving film but those interested in sociology and the inner workings of the human mind should find a treasure trove of intriguing thoughts and ideas.

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