Blind Mountain (Mang shan) (2007) • China

Bai Xuemei, recently graduated from college, is unwittingly sold, not by her family but by her friends, to a villager deep in the bowels of mountainous rural China ... in the 1990s! This is not a documentary. It's more a typical horror film pacing through a Texas Chainsaw Massacre suffocating terror without any blood, there's only psychological and physical abuse, including rape—father and mother hold her down while her purchaser rapes her. Ouch!

China is a vast expanse and this film's cinematography captures that space wonderfully. Bai Xuemei is so far up in the mountains it is simply too far for her to run to safety.

Lu Huang who plays Bai Xuemei is the only professional actor in the film. The rest of the cast, from the shopkeeper to the Village Chief, are actual villagers. When the police arrive to make a rescue and the whole village gangs up on them demanding the girl repay the 7,000 they paid for her if she is to return home, it rings with a frightening authenticity. I watched this film feeling that with 5 minutes left to go she would be rescued despite everything suggesting otherwise.

It's not that kind of film. Blind Mountain is an essay on the collision of traditional and contemporary Chinese culture. It's not pedantic, nor is it belittling to the realities of the culture at its source, but it's hard not to see it that way, especially through twentieth-century, western eyes. The film does a remarkable job of showing that it's not a matter of simply enforcing contemporary law. It's much deeper and more difficult than that.


Chaos (2005/I) • USA

Kevin Gage is good as the killer/rapist. He cuts a nipple off one of the girls, makes her eat it, kills her and then rapes her. He shoves a Crocodile Dundee sized knife up another girl's butt. Nice moves but but he's all alone here. Everyone else in this movie is an embarrassment. The acting is painfully bad.

This is another film that's supposed to be a message about torture porn instead of simply being torture porn; the film begins with a written message saying as much and hopes that by alerting parents and potential victims to the scaries out there it will save a life.

What a joke. What a wimp of a filmmaker. Who cares if Roger Ebert didn't like your film? I didn't like it either because it totally sucked.

1408 (2007) • USA

I've seen porno with better plot and better acting. I'm a fan of both John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson but have no love for either of them in this film. There is too much terrible face-acting which is usually the result of actors reacting to, and trying to compensate for, a bad script. I know I'm in the minority but I say skip this one.

Last Quarter (Kagen no tsuki) (2004) • Japan

A good movie, maybe, to those it's meant for, but not me. I could barely sit through it. I don't think it is necessarily a poorly made film. It's a film clearly targeted at Asian early- and pre-teens with its inclusion of super-secretive Japanese rock star Hyde in a prominent, though not leading, role. Every time he appears on screen I roll my eyes and groan because he looks like a Keith Partridge wannabe trying to appear tough by smoking cigarettes. He might be a talented musician but he's a terrible actor, at least in this film.

The rest of the cast does a credible job. Model, actress and hair-do, Chiaki Kuriyama is always refreshing on screen. Western audiences may recognize her as Gogo from Quentin Tarentino's Kill Bill Vol 1. She appears to play the piano quite well, vamping on the film's musical theme a couple times. I like the theme a lot, but in the end this modern fairy-tale is just too sugar-coated and precious for my aged sensibility.


Suicide Club (Jisatsu saakuru) (2002) • Japan • Sion Sono

This is one of the funniest albeit confounding movies I have seen in a long long time. It's ridiculous to argue this movie is a mature and well-thought out essay on contemporary culture with an emphasis on the problem of teen suicide.

The Writer/Director is a skilled artist in the vein of Kim Ki-Duk. Both take a subject and present images on film that touch on that subject. They are intentionally ambiguous and incomplete. Thank gosh they don't find it all that interesting to hold our hands from start to finish. If Sion, or Kim in his films, wanted to make a great big point they should do it differently—or else they are just plain bad at making points.

Is it creepy and gross that 50 high school girls throw themselves in front of a train? Maybe. But it's so over the top it's funny; blood flying everywhere. Later the kids joke about the train skidding along on "Human Grease." Eeeeewwwww! When the kids jump off the school building, you can actually see stage hands tossing buckets of blood at the windows! Watch the scene where the detectives are at the station trying to prevent the next mass suicide. It's all comedy. "Do you have a tattoo?" ... "NO she doesn't. I've seen her naked." One detective yawns long and wide. The oldest guy plays the perv when he sees a girl with a tattoo on her chest, but it's the young guy who complains: "Cheap tattoos, everyone's got 'em these days." It's that young detective who is the comedy relief throughout the film, ready to call ralph on the big white phone at any time.

I could go on and on. I will say that the middle section, with what many have described as Rocky-Horror meets Clockwork Orange, isn't all that funny, except Genesis, himself, is a laugh riot. He sings "Because the Dead .... shine all night long" in English, with a lisp, and it's hysterical. That whole scene is a modern dance masterpiece. OK OK rape is not funny and stomping on little kittens upsets me, but that's the schlock factor. A genre cliché. A childish move thrown in to appease the non-thinkers.

Speaking of genre clichés, when Detective Kuroda comes home for the first time, his wife gets a lot of face time while the day-time soap opera music sets the mood. What was the point of that except comedy? All three songs by the pre-teen pop group Dessert, Desert, are as good as you can get. They are catchy and funny. This is a happy film with a happy ending. A connection is finally made between young and old, the pop group's work is done and the most suicidal of the teenagers, the one whose boyfriend surprises her by landing on her when he jumps off a building in a suicide attempt, but doesn't die until he's had time to discuss the irony of the event with her, (tell me that isn't pure comic genius), she doesn't commit suicide. She takes the train home like a good kid. She's the one who delivers the line: If your woman had a bent nose would you ask her why?

The kid who coughs after every sentence when he speaks over the phone to the detectives, it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't imply anything. It was not one of the Dessert girls trying to disguise her voice, it was just plain creepy for the sake of being creepy. It creeped me out and it's a perfect example of one of those things that just screams for some profound interpretation when there isn't one.


Lilya 4-ever (Lilja 4-ever) (2002) • Sweden • Lukas Moodysson

Three recent films dealing with human trafficking: Trade, an unbelievable suck-fest; Jammed, from Australia, which was good, way better than Trade; and Lilya 4-Ever.

Trade was propaganda nonsense Hollywood style and tried to consciousness-raise but failed miserably because its story was too far fetched. Jammed wanted to make you angry showing a lot of how the world of human trafficking suffocates the people inside it. Lilya 4-Ever is a much simpler and more personal story, sad and dreary.

The weather in the film's unnamed Russian locale was awful, foggy and cold, reflecting the life of this poor girl. Lilya's mother leaves her, moves to the States with her new boyfriend, then sends a letter to Social Services renouncing her guardianship of the "unwanted child"; her aunt assumes control of Lilya and essentially takes everything away from her for herself and tells Lilya to go downtown and spread her legs; and her best friend, Anna, tells everyone that Lilya is prostituting herself for money in order to cover up the fact that it's really her that is doing it. So she has nothing except the friendship of another child who has been abandoned by life. Ergo ... easy prey.

Screen time is devoted almost entirely to Lilya and her 14 year glue sniffing friend Volyada. Both performances are well-executed and believable by these two young people. This is the second film I've seen by Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodysson. The other was Fucking Åmål (Show me Love). He tells simple stories and I think this helps to get sympathetic performances from his young actors.

Of the three trafficking films mentioned here, this one is probably the best, but it is also the least about trafficking. It's a sad story about a simple girl whose life is pulled out from under her.


Closer (2004/I) • USA

Two actresses, who I've thought often appear near empty, give intriguing performances here. Natalie Portman sizzles in this film and Julia Roberts acts like she was made for her part. This is a smart and daring film that knifes its way through its characters' lives with razor sharp dialog. It's pretty obvious this film was developed for the stage before it made it to the big screen.

There are many films that explore intimacy, lying, infidelity and other difficulties that burden relationships, but Closer does it with a wounding honesty. There are a number of times in this film that one character will sling an accusation at another and then be trumped by the self-critical analysis of the recipient's retort. Everyone here struts around with a Machiavellian self-image except for Julia Roberts. Her power appears to come from a purity, an ideal that others point to as impossible, and it comes as no surprise that that ideal is easily deflated by the pressures exerted upon her. If you like your films smart and brutal, check this one out. Don't be put off by the beauty of its stars. They are all made pretty ugly in this picture.


Audition (Ôdishon) (1999) • Japan • Takashi Miike

The infamous needle torture is more conceptually gruesome than it appears in practice at the end of this film, but the foot amputation by wire is kick-ass-sexy-hard-to-watch. I wish Miike would have shot it without those few quick flashbacks, however. They cut into the flow.

This is a pretty normal film about a man who lost his wife to illness and is being encouraged by his colleagues and his son to find another partner. That is, until it goes bonkers at the end ... a nice manipulation technique by the director. Eihi Shiina's range of performance from ideal femininity to psycho-killer is fabulous and accounts for a sizable chunk of the shock we experience at the end of the film. You'll watch the wire part because this woman is so beautiful and the pleasure she takes in her work so adorable.


Spun (2002) • USA

If it doesn't bother you when a director blatantly rips off another movie, take this one for a spin. It's Requiem for a Dream for the methamphetamine crowd. Not as good, of course, but it's a fun ride. Lots of quick edits, lots of Oliver Stone weird, sweaty, extreme close-ups, and absolutely no substance. It's just a week, or so, in the life of a bunch of speed freaks. Nothing more.

Billy Corgan contributes some good stuff, via Djali Zwan to the soundtrack and gets in a quick cameo. There are lots of cameos alongside the ensemble cast. Leguizamo's a little over the top, and Mena Suvari seemed a little stretched, but all in all not too bad. This is a much better role for Brittany Murphy than Love and Other Disasters. It's a fine line between over-acting and acting like you're freakin' on speed, so I'm not going to complain.

Spun is also surprisingly explicit in a number of ways: Leguizamo's masturbation scene wearing nothing but a sock; the shot of a little turd splashing in the toilet while Sorvino takes a dump; a girl tied to a bed for pretty much the length of the movie, naked and spread eagle with gaffer's tape over her mouth and eyes forced to listen to a skipping CD the whole time.

There is no moral to the story. Heck, there really isn't any story. It's just one big buzz with events. I don't mind that it's a Requiem for a Dream clone in style, not substance. I would imagine this kind of physical film making via power-edits would be difficult to do, and I think this first time director did a credible job.


HIdden (Caché) (2005) • France • Michael Haneke

The worst of all possible scenarios is when a director sets out to intentionally and patronizingly bore the audience and succeeds. There is no story here. The plot is incomplete. It takes a stab at trying to implicate 'bourgeois' life in ... in what, I'm not sure it's very clear.

Juliette played a couple scenes really well, but I think they were a reaction to the script rather than a reading of it. One of the grossest scenes in cinematic history involves some one petting her head trying to create some story. It fails, he fails, it's gross.

This film is not strong enough in character(s) to be a personal story--man against himself. Troubled pasts are not a class exclusive. There was no one and nothing to care about, fear, or empathize with in this film. None of which is absolutely necessary but it might have been sufficient.


Humanité (L' Humanité) (1999) • France

I don't know what Humanité was about, or what the director was trying to say; it would be boring if one was after some plot. There was one there, but all together there was about five minutes spent disclosing it. At first blush the ending was silly, trying to be provocative for no reason. I don't care.

Pharaon gives Joseph a big smooch to thank him for giving him Domino?

Emmanuel Schotté as Pharaon is mesmerizing. He lets you see inside his head. His walk is modern dance. I can't imagine him being anything else but this character. All three of the male actors were masters of the facial expression. So subtle. The sound design is spectacular. I noticed it as much as anything else.

Many of the scenes which seemed to have nothing to do with anything more than revealing character were captivating. There is one scene of Pharaon riding his bicycle several miles that takes a few minutes of real time. He gets to a random place, stops, looks back and breathes heavily for a few moments. Then he rides back the other way. Fade to black, next scene.


Spider Forest (Geomi sup) (2004) • South Korea

I had to watch this film once, visit the IMDb and read all I could from other folks attempting to explain it, then watch it again before arriving at a score of nine. The first viewing left me bewildered. The Spider Forest is a place where the souls of those who die alone or unloved live in limbo, as spiders, until someone remembers them. That's a cool premise. Then it's a story about murder and memories. The Spider Forest is also the cobwebbed memories each of us navigate as we attempt to deal with trauma, guilt, shame, etc., but in the Spider forest memories are erased and must be discovered anew.

This is one of those Korean films which could not exist or be told with a traditional narrative structure. There are shots and scenes that come out of nowhere and seem not to touch anything around them until much later in the film. This can be frustrating. So why watch it again? As one can imagine, these out-of-nowhere scenes look completely different after you've been to the end once. All the nuances of a simple story blossom the second time through. And the film is shot and played so well it's satisfying just looking at it. I wasn't confused while watching the film. Only when it was over and I tried to 'sum it up' did I find myself puzzled by loose ends.

The film is beautifully photographed and the acting top notch. Jung Suh, from Green Chair and The Isle is beautiful and captivating in a very understated performance in dual roles, which, by the way, is a huge spoiler (this info is absent from the credits) that doesn't spoil a thing.

This film is incredibly complex without being obtuse. It is more of a journey than a story. I will be watching it many more times.