Film reviews: Essential Killing | Tomorrow, When the War Began | The Silent House | The Portuguese Nun | Ballast
Our film critic reviews the best and worst of this week's new releases...
Essential Killing (15) ***
Directed by: Jerzy Skolimowski
Starring: Vincent Gallo, Emmanuelle Seigner
ESSENTIAL Killing isn't quite the controversy magnet its casting of Vincent Gallo as a Taleban insurgent suggested it might be. That's a measure of veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski's skill in evoking the realities of the "war on terror" and "extraordinary rendition" without resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. Instead he crafts a stripped-down survival thriller and provides just enough information about its anonymous protagonist/antagonist to clue us in to his situation without dictating how to feel about him. Here Gallo does his best acting work since appearing in his own directorial debut Buffalo 66 13 years ago. With no dialogue, he's forced to dig deep to give us a sense of a man instinctively doing everything he can to stay alive. Deafened by a blast in Afghanistan and tortured by his US captors, he's being "rendered" for further interrogation when he manages to escape, only to find himself on the run in a harsh Polish winter wilderness. The film never provides definitive answers as to what's driving him, but that works in its favour, forcing us to recognise that on some level the atavistic desire to stay alive might be what makes us all human.
Tomorrow, When the War Began (12A) *
Directed by: Stuart Beattie
Starring: Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang
IMAGINE John Milius's loopy Commies-invade-middle-America fantasy Red Dawn re-enacted by the cast of Home & Away and you'll get some idea of how laughably bad this Australian apocalyptic teen drama is. Directed by Collateral screenwriter Stuart Beattie, it revolves around a group of teens who return from a weekend camping trip to discover their parents and friends have been rounded up (and possibly killed) by an invading army of undefined Asian origin. Casual racism is kept to a minimum by keeping most of the action focused on the impossibly nave teens as they spend ages contemplating the need to fight back, in between batting eyelids at one another and indulging in the most banal teen-angst love chat this side of Twilight. Strung together by an abysmally scripted voiceover narration, and further sunk by a cast so wooden they make Sam Worthington look like Daniel Day-Lewis, this is cringe-worthy commercial cinema of the worst kind.
The Silent House (15) **
Directed by: Gustavo Hernndez
Starring: Florencia Colucci, Gustavo Alonso, Abel Tripaldi
LIKE Rope and Russian Ark, The Silent House attempts to tell a story in a single, continuous, unedited take – an intriguing idea that eliminates traditional film grammar and forces film-makers to be more creative. Unfortunately it only works if it serves the story and, sadly, that's not the case here. Uruguayan director Gustavo Hernndez has applied it to a horror premise that requires more traditional trickery to hide its flaws, though frustratingly it does starts off working quite well. Stranding a young woman in a boarded-up countryside house that she quickly becomes convinced is under siege from intruders, it functions as an innovative, microbudget addition to the home invasion thriller genre (it was apparently shot for $6,000 with a Digital SLR HD camera) thanks to the way Hernndez's roaming camera ratchets up the tension by never leaving the girl's side. Alas, an avalanche of problems ensue the moment Hernandez serves up his idiotic rug-pulling reveal in the second half, something that promptly undermines everything we've been party to thus far by turning the film into a sub-Hollywood multiple personality thriller. That's too bad. Hernndez certainly deserves kudos for making such a good-looking film for no money, but budget limitations are no excuse for sloppy, nonsensical writing.
The Portuguese Nun (18) **
Directed by: Eugne Green
Starring: Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos
"I NEVER see French films," sneers a hotel clerk near the beginning of The Portuguese Nun. "They're for intellectuals." It's hard to know whether this and the other self-referential jokes director Eugne Green makes about the pretentiousness of arthouse cinema in this pretentious piece of arthouse cinema are intended as a genuine attempt to acknowledge the film's limited appeal, or a way of deflecting criticism from anyone not won over by his rigorous formalism. Having sat through all 130 languorous minutes of this wilfully flat and borderline absurd piece of navel-gazing meta-cinema – during which Green puts in an appearance as pretentious film-maker called Denis Verde (geddit?) – I'm inclined to suspect the latter. Cast as a French actress in Lisbon to shoot an adaptation of a scandalous 17th-century text (detailing an affair between a French naval officer and a nun), French actress Leonor Baldaque is called upon to spend most of the film wandering the city having enigmatic encounters with her co-star, an orphan boy and a real Portuguese nun. Epiphanies duly follow. As does boredom.
Ballast (15) ***
Directed by: Lance Hammer
Starring: Micheal J Smith, Jim Myron Ross, Tarra Riggs
UNLIKE European cinema, American independent films don't often deal with class issues in a kitchen-sink kind of way; normally they tether such concerns to a genre conceit, as in the excellent Winter's Bone. Lance Hammer's Sundance-feted debut Ballast, however, has a bit more in common with the kind of Euro-influenced regional cinema currently being practised by Oregon-based Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy) – a kind of "Neo-Neo Realism", as the New York Times helpfully labelled it. Which is another way of saying that while nothing much happens plot-wise in this Mississippi Delta-set tale of marginalised people struggling to hold their lives together, Hammer manages to do enough with his actors and his nuanced script to make this exploration of the way even disparate people can provide stability for one another seem surprisingly engaging. It takes a while to get to that point, though. As a man dealing with his brother's suicide, Micheal J Smith is nearly catatonic for much of the first hour, but the pay-off is watching the way in which the arrival of his character's estranged sister-in-law and teenage nephew provides a glimmer of hope while avoiding false uplift.
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