erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Friday September 12, 2014

Movie Review: Red State (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For an hour I was impressed. Unfortunately, this thing lasts an hour and a half.

I didn’t pay much attention to “Red State” and its surrounding controversy when it arrived in 2011. Maybe because the controversy arrived and the movie didn’t. After so-so reviews at Sundance, writer-director Kevin Smith created his own company, SModcast Pictures, to distribute it. Kinda sorta. “Red State,” according to Box Office Mojo, played in five theaters in March, one in August, and one at the end of September. Then it went to VOD. Then it disappeared. Blip.

Part of the problem is the one Philip Roth identified in 1961—the difficulty of making the absurdity of American life credible—but at least in one area Smith doesn’t do poorly. He gives us a version of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, but with guns guns guns. He puts us in their church. He forces us to hear their sermon. Then he gets trigger-happy. He dramatizes not only a version of Westboro but a version of Waco. Equal time, I suppose. Doesn’t work. Falls flat. Feels false.

Plus, for a movie that makes a homophobic group the enemy, it feels a little homophobic.

A vengeful God
Three teenage boys are hanging out, bored and horny, in a small Southern town. One, Travis (Michael Angarano), late for school, sees a protest by the Five Points Trinity Church and its leader, Rev. Abin Cooper (a stellar Michael Parks), at the funeral of a homosexual kid who was recently murdered. Kevin Smith's Red StateIt’s Westboro’s “God Hates Fags” package with one exception: Five Points Church actually murdered this kid. We find that out later.

One of Travis’ friends, Jarod (Kyle Gallner), has found an older woman on the Internet (Melissa Leo) willing to put out. Since boys will be boys, they visit her at her trailer—sidewiping a car en route. There, they drink beer, get undressed, pass out. Drugged. A trap. When Jarod awakes, he’s in a covered cage, inside the Five Points Trinity Church, where Abin Cooper begins his sermon.

Cooper talks about the horrors of modern American society and its homosexual agenda. He preaches on Noah and the Flood: how God killed everyone but one family. He mocks softer churches that talk of a loving God. Does the Noah story sound like a loving God, he asks? God, he says, demands fear. Then he and the members of his church, nice, middle-aged folks, reveal a homosexual kid shrinkwrapped to the cross, whom they kill. Then they push him through a trap door and into the basement, where Travis and the third friend, Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), are tied up. Then they begin to shrinkwrap Jarod to the cross.

These are intense scenes—the best part of the movie—and Parks completely sells them. He’s awful and charismatic and in some sense logical. If you believe in the Flood, why would you believe in a loving God? Jesus’ corrective notwithstanding.

The kind of preaching Cooper does is actually in Kevin Smith’s wheelhouse. I don’t think I’ve seen a Kevin Smith movie as interesting as Kevin Smith talking. YouTube has tons of these videos. He’s a racounteur. So it makes sense he’s at his best when he lets one of his characters speechify.

But then we get into the Waco portion of the story. From wacko to Waco.

A vengeful government
Remember the sideswiped car? Turns out the local Sheriff (Stephen Root) was inside, where he was giving head to another guy. Back at the office, cowardly, shaking, he tells his deputy, Pete (Matt Jones, Badger from “Breaking Bad”), to track down the other car. Pete, it turns out, is pretty good at his job. He does it. It’s at the Five Points Church, where Pete is in the process of being mollified by Abin Cooper until a gunfight breaks out between one of the parishioners and an escaped Billy-Ray, both of whom buy it. Pete buys it, too, but not before calling in the gunfight to the cowardly gay Sheriff. At which point the cowardly gay Sheriff calls in ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman).

Keenan first has to convince his superior to get involved; then he has to convince him to get involved in a measured way. Apparently, the superior, whom, like God, we never see, wants to kill everyone inside—women and children included. It's the story of Noah all over again. But this is about the time my attention began to waver. I didn’t buy it. Seemed like bullshit. And why does Keenan have to convince another agent to follow these orders when he doesn’t?

It’s all scattershot and the body count mounts up. There goes Travis, who gets it in the head—ironically, from the cowardly gay Sheriff. There goes Agent Brooks (Kevin Pollack), who’s barely in this thing. He says a couple of witty lines and is gone. Shame. There goes the cowardly gay Sheriff.

We’ve got one guy left: Can Caleb survive? Do we care? There’s an odd scene, or several scenes, between Caleb and Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), the cute, blonde Five Pointser, who is trying to bargain for the lives of the babies in contradiction to the “blaze of glory” end demanded by Cooper. Both she and Caleb wind up getting killed in cold blood by ATF agents. As always happens. Then the trumpet sounds, announcing the return of God to the world. Or so Cooper believes. It’s actually pot growers next door, playing a joke on him with a huge horn, a huge amplifier, and an iPod. (Not a bad bit, but couldn’t they hear the automatic weapons fire?) Keenan explains all of this at an inquiry that really isn’t an inquiry, where he’s both suspended and promoted. It’s supposed to be a cynical end but the cynicism is immature. There’s nothing subtle about it.

That’s always been Smith’s problem: a lack of maturity and subtlety. I get it with “Clerks”; Smith was only 24 then. Now he’s into his 40s. Time to grow up a bit.  

Posted at 06:05 AM on Sep 12, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday September 08, 2014

Movie Review: Dolphin Tale (2011)

My review of “Dolphin Tale 2” will be in The Seattle Times on Friday ...

WARNING: SPOILERS

Picking on “Dolphin Tale” is like picking on the polite kid at school with the combed hair and the shirt buttoned to the top. Only a jerk would do it.

Here I go.

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a quiet kid in the small, coastal town of Clearwater, Fla. His dad ran off five years ago, his mom (Ashley Judd, everyone’s mom now) is a busy nurse, while his favorite cousin, the hunky state swimming champion Kyle (Austin Stowell), has joined the Army to save money to train for the Olympics. Because that’s how it’s done these days. State swimming champions don’t go to college, and Olympic hopefuls don’t get funding; they just go off to war in their athletic prime and hope to return whole. Since the movie is about a dolphin without a tail, you kind of know where this subplot is going.

Besides being a Mr. Fix-It in the garage, Sawyer is also dumb. Or at least he’s flunking school: Ds and Fs. That’s why he has to go to summer school. And that’s where he’s biking one morning when the Old Jewish Fisherman on the beach (‘70s sitcom staple Richard Libertini) tells him to call 911 because a dolphin has washed ashore tangled in ropes and nets. Dolphin TaleSawyer, with the trusty Swiss Army knife his cousin gave him (“Family is Forever” inscribed on the side), cuts the worst of the ropes off and talks to the dolphin until a rescue unit arrives. This unit is led by ultra-serious dad, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.), chatty daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and the usual background contingent of buff dudes and fit girls.

Sawyer slowly gets immersed in their world. He shows up uninvited, meets a comic-relief pelican, Rufus, and discovers that the dolphin he rescued, named “Winter” by Hazel, is slowly dying. Ah, but Winter revives when she hears Sawyer’s voice! She starts trilling. She starts caring. So Sawyer is allowed to stay.

Except wait, isn’t he supposed to be going to summer school? Ah, but his mom decides, after one line of dialogue from Kyle’s father (who knows best), that this is a better experience for Sawyer than diagramming stupid old sentences in a classroom.

Except then Winter loses her tail; it was just too damaged by the crab trap. Ah, but with Sawyer’s help, she learns to swim side to side rather than up and down!

Except this damages her spine. And the spine is everything. Ah, but at the local VA hospital, where Kyle is recuperating from damaging his leg in one of America’s many unnamed wars, Sawyer meets a prosthetist, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman, on loan from Bruce Wayne), and convinces him to create a prosthetic for Winter!

Except Winter won’t wear the prosthetic. Ah, but ...

And thus the movie stutters along in this episodic manner: from “Except” to “Ah, but!” From handwringing conflict to facile resolution.

By the end, the major conflicts are three-fold: 1) Will Kyle get out of his funk?; 2) Can Morgan Freeman create a prosthetic Winter will wear?; and 3) Can they save Mr. Clay’s aquarium from being shut down? The resolution to this last is particularly facile. The aquarium and land, without government funding, is bought by a rich developer, Philip J. Hordern (Tom Nowicki, looking like Richard Branson), who plans to turn it into seaside resorts. Except the kids do an Andy Hardy number and put on a show that’s hugely successful, particularly with amputees, and it melts the developer’s heart; and he lets them keep the aquarium and do whatever they want with it. Cue cheers.

“Dolphin Tale,” written by Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2,” “Duma”) and directed by Charles Martin Smith (my man from “American Graffiti,” “Starman,” and “The Untouchables”), is based on a true story. Winter exists, the prosthetic exists, she’s an inspiration to amputees. So you feel like a shit saying anything bad about it. But the story they’ve constructed around this true story is steeped in an anodyne 1950s TV sensibility, where fathers know best, women and girls have clumsy enthusiasm, and everything is telegraphed so we won’t be worried for long. I imagine the real story is much more interesting. 

Posted at 05:43 AM on Sep 08, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday September 11, 2013

Movie Review: Super (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“I’ve wondered all the time why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero.”

That’s Libby (Ellen Page), early in James Gunn’s low-budget, Troma-inspired “Super,” before she becomes Bolty, girl sidekick and sometime lover (or rapist) to the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson). Anyone not caught up in a fantasy world, of course, knows the answer to this one, and it comes to Libby later in the movie. Too late, it turns out.

She and the Crimson Bolt are storming the palace of drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in an amused performance), until one of the bad guys shoots them both and they fall in the high grass. Super poster: Shut up, Crime!By this point, we know they’re wearing body armor so we’re not worried. And sure enough, Frank Darbo, the Crimson Bolt, groans, shakes his head and begins to get up. He shakes Bolt Girl, who is lying on her side away from him—c’mon, get up—and she rolls on her back and half her face is gone.

That’s the answer. That’s why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero. Because bullets don’t bounce off.

Credit “Super” for not imagining otherwise. “Kick Ass,” which was released a year earlier, and had a bigger budget and bigger stars, pretends a young girl with martial arts moves can take on a roomful of bad guys and not get injured. That movie feigns ironic indifference to the very thing it desperately wants: wish-fulfillment fantasy.

“Super” doesn’t. But it’s still an odd movie. It still sends mixed messages. It still gives us an improperly sweet ending.

Finger of God
Frank Darbo is a man for whom two good things happened in his life: he pointed out a thief to a cop (“He went in there, Officer!”), and a beautiful girl, Sarah (Liv Tyler), agreed to marry him. He draws pictures of both of these things and puts them on his wall. Then Sarah gets involved with drugs again and Frank is too weak to stop her. Then she leaves him for Jacques, the local, genial drug lord.

Jacques is so genial, in fact, and Frank so grotesquely, huffingly obstinate, it’s as if Frank is the villain. Frank goes to the cops, who tell him they can’t arrest Jacques for winning the girlfriend battle. Frank goes to Jacques, who remains good-natured even as Frank pounds on his car. But then Jacques’ men, including Michael Rooker, pound on Frank.

Why the superhero route? Because Frank comes across a TV show, “Holy Avenger,” in which the long-haired pot-bellied hero (Nathan Fillion) uses the power of Christ to defeat villains and keep the same two clean-cut teens on the straight and narrow. Apparently this show is based on some direct-to-video thing called “Bibleman,” starring Willie Aames, which is an odd thing to parody—something that’s barely made inroads into popular culture. Oh, and Frank also has a dream, or maybe a vision, in which his skull is cut open and his brain touched by the finger of God.

Despite God, his crime-fighting starts poorly. He hangs behind a garbage dumpster for a few days waiting for crime to happen. In his first encounter, a drug dealer pulls his mask down (“No fair! No fair!”) and Frank is forced to run. So he returns to the local comic book store, where Libby works, and asks a question: How do superheroes without superpowers get by? Libby shows him Batman, who has a utility belt, and the Green Arrow, who has his arrows, and Frank decides on a weapon: a pipe wrench. He clocks bad guys on the head with it then says his line: DON’T STEAL! DON’T MOLEST KIDS! DON’T DEAL DRUGS!

Is he too distracted? What does fighting crime have to do with rescuing Sarah? He gets further distracted waiting for a movie only to have a middle-aged couple butt in line. He speaks up; they sass back. Then he splits the guy’s head open. It’s actually kind of funny—the awfulness of what he does—but then Libby, guessing his identity, defends him to him. “I hate when people butt,” she says. That’s kind of funny, too.

Libby is there to make the wholly unreasonable Frank seem entirely reasonable. She insists on dressing up as his sidekick, all 5’ 1” of her, and taking out a smarmy dude who keyed her friend’s car. She crashes a glass vase over the dude’s head but afterwards reveals doubt about the crime. “Yeah, pretty sure it was him,” she says. She rams one bad guy into a wall with Frank’s car and revels in his pain:

That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ha ha ha ha ha! .... It’s called internal bleeding, fucker!

People cheer.

I assume we’re supposed to laugh and be horrified at the same time—that’s what I did anyway—I just can’t tell if there’s more going on or less. The goal of “Super” is to shock us with the consequences of violence, but to what end? To what alternative? And what to make of the sex?

Right, the sex. Libby comes on to Frank. She asks to make out with him. Later, she rapes him. If “no means no,” she rapes him. It never would have made it off the page, let alone on screen, if the genders had been reversed, but here it’s, I don’t know, horrific and funny again. And sexy? A bit.

Plus her action spurs Frank to action, to taking on what he’s been putting off. They attack Jacques’ place, and Libby sacrifices half her face, and her life, but the Crimson Bolt kills everyone else, and rescues Sarah, who’s a virtual prisoner by this point, a near rape victim herself. In a few months, we’re told in an afterword, she leaves Frank again to marry a better man. She has four kids with him. These kids call Frank “Uncle Frank”; and Frank, who began the movie with only two good memories, and who was too timid to even buy a rabbit for a pet, now holds his pet rabbit while gazing at a wall full of great memories he’s had from the adventures we’ve just watched, and his voiceover searches for a greater meaning to everything that’s happened.

Mixed feelings
Now I guess I’m doing that. I’m searching for greater meaning to everything that happened.

“Super” was written and directed by James Gunn, who also wrote “The Specials,” a lame superhero parody from 2000, but is this movie even a superhero parody? I like the scene where, in the mirror, a la Travis Bickle, the Crimson Bolt tries out his signature lines:

  • Everybody give up!
  • It’s me, the Crimson Bolt!
  • You just made the biggest mistake of your life!

Before settling on one:

  • Shut up, Crime! Here’s the Crimson Bolt ... Crime.

But the Crimson Bolt isn’t super. He knows no skill like Batman or Green Arrow or Zorro. If anything, the movie feels like a parody of vigilante movies or worm-turns movies than superhero movies. It’s a “true life” version of those genres. It reveals, via an imperfect, dangerous hero, the awful violence implicit in our stories. Gunn doesn’t clean it up; he doesn’t make it easy for us. We are revealed by what we want—even as he sometimes gives us what we want.

Overall “Super” gives us massive mixed feelings. When the Crimson Bolt stabs Jacques to death, he says the following:

You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t CHANGE!

This is wrong twice over:

  1. The rules do change
  2. The rule that changes least is the one Frank is engaged in.

Would the movie have been better if it had not played up Jacques’ 11th-hour villainy—allowing Sarah, for example, to be nearly raped? If Jacques had remained fairly genial throughout? If Sarah had been watching TV when Frank burst in? Would it have been better without the semi-sweet ending, which allows Frank both epiphany and happiness? His epiphany involves self-sacrifice, in letting Sarah go, which is also how he finds happiness. Fine. But Libby is still dead, dozens have been wasted, and that couple in line still had their heads cracked. It gives us sweet when we needed a little more horror.

Posted at 07:08 AM on Sep 11, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday April 08, 2013

Movie Review: The Intouchables (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a scene 30 minutes into “The Intouchables,” the second-highest-grossing film in French history (after “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis”), in which a family friend of French aristocrat and paraplegic, Philippe (Francois Cluzet), warns him about his new North African caretaker, Driss (Omar Sy).

By this point in the movie we’ve seen Driss: 1) barge into the job interview for the caretaker position by pretending to be someone else; 2) proposition Philippe’s red-headed assistant, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) at the job interview; 3) steal a Faberge egg from same; 4) still get the job; 5) object to the most basic elements of the job, such as fitting Philippe with support hose; 6) pour boiling water on Philippe’s legs because he has trouble comprehending that Philippe feels nothing below the neck; 7) poke Philippe in the eye with a forkful of food because he’s watching Magalie’s ass; 8) refuse to give Philippe chocolates (M&Ms), saying “No handy, no candy”; and 9) disparage the artwork Philippe buys.

So by this point, the family, and the family friend, are justifiably concerned. “These street guys,” the family friend says at an expensive café, “they have no pity.”

“Exactly,” Philippe responds. “And that’s what I want. No pity.”

It’s the first true moment in the movie. It’s practically the last.

Our asshole
What to make of the appeal of this film? Google “the intouchables” and “magic negro” and you get 1,200 results from critics in America, where the film The Intouchablesgrossed $10 million. What must the French, with their tendency toward philosophizing, be saying? That Philippe is representative of modern France, a once-strong entity now reduced to wriggling its head helplessly? That the old, crippled France needs younger, more brash immigrants to revive it? That France, made immobile by centuries of crippling civilization, needs to find its brash voice again?

Who are the intouchables of the title? Both men, one assumes: the North African immigrant and the paraplegic. French society doesn’t want to touch either. They don’t know how to deal with either. If that’s the idea, we don’t get enough of it in the movie. No one stares awkwardly at Philippe. They tend to react with fear to Driss only when he physically threatens them.

Are we supposed to like Driss? He’s an asshole but the movie stacks the decks in his favor. At the job interview, the other applicants, with their degrees and knowledge and empathy, can’t answer the actorly question, “What’s your motivation?” Money, one says. The men, says another. I like crippled people, says a third. The question is never asked of Driss because we know the answer. He wanted the signature that showed he was looking for a job so he could continue to receive unemployment benefits.

There’s a jerk, a businessman, nouveau riche (you know), who parks his sports car in front of Philippe’s gated driveway, talking on his cellphone all the while, so Driss strongarms him, threatens him, to the smiles of the servant, Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) inside. Philippe’s daughter goes out with a boy with swooshy hair, who dumps her and calls her “a whore,” so Driss strongarms him, too. Demands croissant pour la famille tous le matin. The boy is dutiful. He even puts his hair in a barrette as Driss suggests. Driss may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.

We get a bonding scene. One night Philippe wakes in a panic with labored breath, barely able to talk, and Driss put a warm compress on his face and talks him through it. He brings him outside in the night air. They stroll along the Seine. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen Paris at night,” Philippe says. Good, sad line. They talk about girls, sex. “How do you …?” Driss asks. “You adapt,” Philippe says. “You find pleasure elsewhere.” The ears, for example. Odd that he doesn’t talk about giving pleasure. He can still do that, yes? The two smoke pot. Philippe barely seems to know what it is, what it does. Assume Philippe is Cluzet’s age. That means he was born in 1955. That also means he was 18 in 1973, 21 in 1976. And he doesn’t know from pot? Please.

We wind up at Le Deux Magots at dawn and get some of Philippe’s backstory. He always liked extreme sports, he says. He liked speed. He went paragliding in heavy winds, crashed, broke his 3rd and 4th vertebrae. Et voila. At the same time his wife contracted an illness and died. “My real handicap,” he says, “is living without her.” Another nice line.

But at the moment he’s corresponding by mail with a woman named Eléonore (Dorothée Brière), who lives in Dunkirk. He dictates purplish prose to Magalie, who sends off the letters. When Driss listens to the awful dictations, when he finds out this has been going on for six long months, he takes matters into his own hands, as he is wont to do. He snatches one of the letters off the lap of the helpless Philippe, finds Eléonore’s number, calls, puts Philippe on. Magalie does nothing. In this moment she’s as helpless as Philippe. Of course Philippe loves it. Of course this is what he wanted all along. Photos are then exchanged. (Turns out Eléonore is gorgeous.) A meeting is set up. But Philippe is nervous, too nervous, and leaves just as Eléonore is entering. We see, he doesn’t. La tragedie.

The movie keeps doing this. Driss will act the asshole, but he’s either our asshole or he’s doing something the characters wanted all along. So it’s good. We were just too uptight, see? We were paralyzed with inaction. Thank God we hired this asshole. He’s making everything right.

Buying into the bullshit
Eventually Driss’ own life, in the form of a cousin being enticed and/or harassed by a drug-dealing gang, shows up, and Driss must return to it. This doesn’t ring true, either. Driss finally has a good job, with good pay, but he’s going to leave it in order to help his family? Really? We see him and his cousin meet the hard-working family matriarch (aunt/mother, respectively) at the train station and carry her bags. I liked that scene. We see Driss talk to the gang members in their black SUV. I didn’t like that scene. Because apparently that took care of the problem. Just that.

Meanwhile, Philippe is lapsing. None of the other caretakers work out. They’re too polite, no fun, don’t get it. When Philippe asks for a massage, the caretaker brings in a dude, for God’s sake, rather than two Asian babes who will massage both men while they smoke pot, as Driss had done. And Philippe can’t ask for himself. Because while some of Philippe’s culture rubbed off on Driss, none of Driss’ matter-of-fact brashness rubbed off on Philippe. So in the end, after a bad episode, they have to call Driss back, and he takes Philippe first on a joyride, then on a carride to a seaside town, where they go to lunch. That’s where Driss abandons him. Why? Guess. Right. Eléonore. And she and Philippe meet and fall in love. And Yvonne winds up dating one of Philippe’s relatives, and Magalie’s girlfriend (ah ha!) moves in with her, and we get a final shot of the real Philippe and Driss looking out to sea—because apparently this bullshit is based on a true story—and all is right with the world.

France loved it: $166 million at the box office in 2011. (Perspective: The No. 1 box office hit in France in 2012, “Skyfall,” grossed $60 million.) It was nominated for nine Césars, including best film, best director, best original screenplay, and two nominations for best actor. It won one: best actor for Omar Sy. Over Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”

Me, I felt trapped 10 minutes in. I felt paralyzed, helpless, forced to endure the movie’s odd form of race fantasy and wish-fulfillment fantasy. Philippe isn’t representative of the problems of modern France; the success of “The Intouchables” is. Even France buys into the bullshit.

Posted at 06:51 AM on Apr 08, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday March 11, 2013

Movie Review: The Monk (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For half the movie we’re wondering: Is it “the devil is a woman” or is it just the devil? The answer disappoints. Me anyway.

Vincent Cassel plays Capucin Ambrosio, who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a monastery in 16th-century Spain. The title graphic, “1595,” intrigues on its own when you consider that, for most movies, 1979 is ancient history. (The source material, by the way, is a gothic novel first published in 1796 by Matthew G. Lewis, Esq., who was not yet 20 years old. It’s been filmed twice before: in 1972 starring Franco Nero; and in 1990 starring Paul McGann. We get a new version every 20 years, basically.)

Groupie? Snake? Gateway drug?
The movie opens with Ambrosio in the confessional telling a penitent, a man known only as Le Débauché (Sergi Lopez), that “Satan only has the power we give him.” Turns out Le Débauché has given Satan much power. He talks of falling, again and again. He talks of sleeping with his niece several times a day. “What an exquisite abyss,” he says with wonder in his voice. He seems to be enjoying his confession. Ambrosio is not amused. His eyes get darker and spookier. This is Vincent Cassel, after all.

Vincent Cassel is "The Monk" ("Le Moine") (2011)At this point, Ambrosio is something of a local legend. He is a firmly devout man who is able to communicate his faith, and the glory of God, to others. “His faith is so alive it swept my heart away,” says one supplicant, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who faints after a sermon. We can’t help notice she’s pretty.

Then we follow several storylines:

  • Ambrosio’s mentor is dying, and warns of great evil all around.
  • A boy in a mask, a burn victim who has lost his parents, Valerio, asks to join the monastery. “I want to withdraw from the world and be closer to God,” he says. The other monks are doubtful and fearful; Ambrosio lets him in.
  • A nun visiting Ambrosio’s confessional drops a note indicating an illicit relationship. She begs understanding but Ambrosio gives her up. “Instead of fleeing punishment,” he tells her, “you should yearn for it.” She gets it. Pregnant, she’s imprisoned by L’abesse (Geraldine Chaplin) until she starves to death. She blames Ambrosio for her fate.
  • Antonia is courted by a handsome noble but her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), haunted by her own past, is doubtful.

We wonder how these stories will come together. Antonia’s, in particular, seems to have no relation to Ambrosio’s. Until it does.

The mentor dies, the nun dies, Valerio is revealed to be a girl (Deborah Francois of “Les tribulations d'une caissière”), who wants to be closer, not to God, but to Ambrosio. Is she an early version of a groupie? She asks for a rose from his garden before he sends her away, but as he reaches for it a scorpion bites him and poisons him. Near death, Valerio arrives and … Does she suck the poison out? Does she make love to him? Both? He lives, realizing he’s sinned, then sins again. She’s less groupie than the snake who has entered his Garden of Eden. But is she the snake?

The world turns dark. A fellow monk, about to finger Ambrosio for his infidelity, is killed by a fallen gargoyle. When Ambrosio investigates on the roof of the monastery, he realizes, as do we, that he’s living through a moment he’s dreamed about several times. Over the parapet, on the ground, he sees a woman in a red cloak praying in the baking sun. In his dream he reaches for her but can’t touch her. Now he does. It’s Antonia. She wants him to console her mother, who is dying and haunted by her past. He does. But now he’s haunted by his present and Antonia.

Rebuffed, Valerio offers Ambrosio a further temptation: a floral aphrodisiac, or organic date-rape drug, with which to seduce Antonia. He takes it, takes her, and the two of them, naked, are discovered by Elvire, who recognizes the birthmark on Ambrosio’s shoulder as the birthmark of the baby she gave up. Ambrosio is her child! And he’s sleeping with his sister! But before Elvire can say anything, Ambrosio wakes, walks up to her, and kills her. His mother.

By this point, yeah, I’d lost interest.

Why Satan should stay on the sidelines
While Ambrosio is worth watching in his moral rectitude, he’s not at all interesting in his fall—or in how he falls. It’s an unfair fight, really. Throughout I kept wondering what sexual release 17th-century monks had. None? How impossible. And to then have Satan gang up on you? Poison you and entice you with beautiful French girls? Speaking for men, we have little shot even if Satan stays on the sidelines. Once he gets into the game, it’s over.

The interesting battle, in other words, is internal, not external. The interesting foe is within, not without.

“The Monk” (“Le Moine”), directed by Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry…”), is beautifully photographed by Patrick Blossier, who juxtaposes the cool monastery with the white-hot, baked surroundings. As always, Vincent Cassel is a force, here mostly held in check. Joséphine Japy has a delicate beauty. But I’m not a fan of gothic anything.

After his trial but before his death, Satan finally appears before Ambrosio. He’s Le Débauché, from the beginning, who throws Ambrosio’s own words back at him: “Satan only has the power we give him.” Then a final deal is struck. Antonia has gone mad (her rapist is her brother who kills their mother) and Ambrosio sells his eternal soul to make her well and happy. One wonders: Is this redemption for Ambrosio, since it’s the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it the final step in Ambrosio’s fall, since his eternal soul belongs to Satan? At which point, black birds, who pecked at the baby Ambrosio at the doorstep of the monastery, pick at the remains of the grown man, dead in the desert.

So probably the latter.

-- March 10, 2013

Posted at 06:19 AM on Mar 11, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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