Thursday, March 15, 2007

Adam's Apples

Adam is a middle-aged neo-Nazi sentenced to community service at a remote, rural church. Ivan is the long-suffering minister of the church tasked with controlling his unwilling charge. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven, but their darkly humorous relationship drives the highly original narrative of Adam’s Apples.

When Adam arrives at the church, Ivan allows him to choose a goal to achieve during his service time. Adam spots an apple tree on the church grounds, so he floats the ridiculously simple idea of baking an apple pie, which Ivan immediately accepts at face value. Unfortunately, the tree seems to be immediately cursed by various natural disasters that throw the simple plan into jeopardy. These disasters only add to the long string of personal bad luck experienced by Ivan, a faithful man who always manages to see good in everything in spite of his personal misfortune.

Adam is joined by two other convicts living at the church: a Pakistani immigrant with an itchy trigger finger, and an overweight kleptomaniac/sex addict. This combined menagerie of memorable characters is tasked with attempting to find common ground in spite of their seemingly insurmountable differences. Adam doesn't make his acclimation any easier by immediately hanging a framed portrait of Hitler on his bedroom wall, and he seems destined to maintain his brutish shell for the duration of his stay.

Although the film is propelled forward by the various misfortunes suffered by the faithful Ivan, it’s ostensibly a study of the transformative power of faith on the tough, uncaring skinhead Adam. He’s a character so calloused that he has no qualms about viciously punching Ivan inside the church, but also so complex that he immediately drives him to the hospital afterwards.

Adam’s Apples was written and directed by Oscar-winner Anders Thomas Jensen, a prolific Danish artist previously associated with the minimalistic Dogme 95 movement also followed more famously by countryman Lars von Trier. Here he abandons the stripped-down approach for a more traditional widescreen, mainstream production but keeps the focus firmly on his amusing, inventive story.

The two lead roles are played by long-time Jensen collaborators Mads Mikkelsen (Ivan) and Ulrich Thomsen (Adam). Mikkelsen has gone on to more recent international fame as the latest Bond baddie in Casino Royale, a well-deserved reward for the talents he displays here. Thomsen also contributes an outstanding performance, providing the necessary depth to his character to keep the audience guessing and caring about his ultimate disposition until the end.

Adam’s Apples is now playing in NY before expanding to select markets in the coming months. For more information, visit the website.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

The Host

Do you like dramatic monster movies like Jaws? Do you like dysfunctional family comedies like Little Miss Sunshine? What if you could get both of those fine flavors in one tasty Korean film? It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and unfortunately The Host doesn’t quite make it.

The Host has two major items of interest: it boasts some special effects work by Peter Jackson’s Weta gang, and it’s the all-time box office champ in South Korea. It was seen by over 13 million viewers during its run in Korea last year, an astonishing figure in a country of around 50 million. So what’s all the fuss about? Sure, we have a scary and innovative monster brought to life exceptionally well by CG wizards. We also have comedic family dynamics played out by talented actors. There’s even some light political commentary about US involvement in South Korean affairs, but nothing particularly notable. Unfortunately, the film is lacking a tight script to hold the disparate elements together, so we’re left with momentary bursts of terror and comedy surrounded by slowly-paced filler and an unsatisfying conclusion.

The film opens in a lab populated by a US scientist and his Korean assistant. The deranged US boss determines that they should dispose of large amounts of formaldehyde simply because of some dust on its containers, so his obedient assistant proceeds to dump the toxic liquid down the drain where it runs into the mighty Han River. Flash forward a few years, and suddenly the populace is menaced by a whale-sized critter living in the river. The creature is incredibly impressive, especially his unique way of moving along the underside of a bridge. Oh yes, this isn’t just a water-based monster, he’s also able to run on land and hang upside down from overpasses. There’s no direct explanation of what animal he mutated from, or how the toxic substance came into play, but you won’t really care once you see this impressive freak of nature in action.

Meanwhile, a family with a snack shop beside the river is about to have a very bad day. Each character is just a tad bit off the norm, adding a unique dynamic to the family unit, and while it’s clear they’re all fond of each other it’s not clear how so many oddballs could be in the same family. The monster decides to check out the scene on land one day, unfortunately deciding to catch some rays and some humans near the snack shop. When the youngest daughter gets captured by the creature, the rest of the family bands together to go on a quest to locate her and bring her home safely.

The film builds up suitable suspense in its early stages, but constantly allows it to dissipate by switching between the various family members once they get separated. We follow the young daughter as she finds herself in the monster’s den, then switch to her family’s adventure as they pursue the monster and get separated along the way. Each time the film follows a family member, it seems to lead up to a conclusion for their arc such as certain death or at least removal from the monster hunt, then switches to another character where we follow the same scenario. The problem is that characters that seem to be down for the count come back for more, so even though we think we’ve seen the last of a character and can focus on the search with the remaining players, we’re suddenly thrust back to the presumably dead characters where the tension-building process starts all over again. By the time the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, it has lost so much momentum that the end is just a relief instead of a culmination of carefully stacked plot lines.

The Host isn’t particularly scary or gory, and its comedic family elements give it a broad-based appeal that certainly explains some of its success in its homeland. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the consistent, breakneck pacing needed to produce a truly exhilarating experience, so viewers are left with an absolutely astounding monster trapped in a poorly executed family search for reunion. The Host is now playing in theaters everywhere, check the website for additional information.

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Beyond The Gates

In 1994, approximately 800,000 Rwandans were killed during a brutal genocide. Beyond The Gates presents a dramatic recreation of the events that transpired during the initial days of the genocide, centering on the efforts of two British citizens to protect the endangered natives. The events portrayed in the film are presented much as they transpired, although the two main characters are fictional creations based on people encountered by the writers. Lending a further sense of reality to the production, it was filmed in Rwanda in the same compound where the events originally took place.

Hugh Dancy stars as a young teacher who has come to Rwanda in the hopes of making a difference in the lives of his local students. He’s idealistic and a bit overzealous, but he quickly discovers his youthful energy won’t solve all of his impending problems. John Hurt also stars as a wise Catholic priest and headmaster of the school who has been in Rwanda for decades and has no intention of leaving. He brings a compelling gravitas to the role and contributes one of the strongest performances of his career. Their school is a base for a UN peacekeeping force with strict directions to observe but not intervene in a tentative peace accord between the two warring ethnic groups of Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

After the assassination of the Rwandan president, the Hutu militia begins a systematic extermination of the Tutsi as well as their moderate Hutu brethren. Bodies begin piling up in the streets, and terrified Tutsi flee their homes in search of sanctuary. Since the school is a secure compound with the added protection of a UN force, the panicked Tutsi congregate within its boundaries in the hopes of finding protection from the madness outside. Meanwhile, the rest of the world fails to act, with the US taking a decidedly uncharacteristic hands-off approach and the UN refusing to even label the uprising a genocide, leaving their peacekeeping troops with no authority to assist the Tutsi.

As the violence escalates, Dancy and Hurt’s characters are faced with a harrowing choice: abandon the Tutsi who trusted them for protection or stay and risk the chance of death at the hand of the Hutu extremists. France and Italy quickly send troops into the country, but only to extract their own nationals. Finally, the UN decides to recall their troops rather than send them into action, removing the last hope of salvation for the doomed Tutsi citizens.

In the hands of veteran director Michael Caton-Jones, the story is presented in a straightforward, polished fashion that belies the difficulty of its production. Filming in Rwanda presented numerous logistical challenges, as the country has no film infrastructure and the production's modest budget didn't allow much leeway to create one. Filming the story in the exact location where it took place also affected many of the local crewmembers hired on to assist the production as they had personal knowledge of the site’s terrible history. In fact, the most moving aspect of the entire film occurs during its final credits through the descriptions of the family members lost by its crewmembers and the steps they took to survive. It’s not played for shock value, but it’s an extremely effective method of driving home the extent of damage caused by this largely forgotten genocide.

Beyond The Gates is now playing in select theaters, check the film’s website for additional information or view the trailer below:

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