Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Film Review: Amer

"Amer"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

There was a part of me that really wanted to like "Amer" (2011), a French, psycho sexual, Euro trash, giallo inspired, thriller. But there was a stronger part of me that didn't think the movie worked.

The first half hour of this film is pretty close to brilliant filmmaking. The movie had a heightened my sense of anticipation. What would happen next? Where is this movie going? It is visually never a dull picture. But in the end it feels like a case of style over substance.

The film follows Ana, played by three different actresses at different stages in her life. The best sequence is the beginning as a young Ana (Cassandra Foret) is convinced her dead grandfather is coming back to life each time Ana opens a pocket watch, which she stole from her grandfather. Meanwhile her grandmother, Graziella (Delphine Brual) is referred to as a witch, as she walks around their mansion house dressed in black with a veil. Is there an evil spirit lurking around? Are Ana's fears justified or is it all merely her imagination?

Imagination is a major theme in the film. Our inability to sometimes separate that blurry line between fact and fiction. As Ana grows older she has more and more difficulty distinguishing the two.

"Amer" is an at times haunted house story and a slasher film at the end with sexual titillation thrown in for good measure. As I stated it is a giallo inspired film, but, never seems to completely fit into the genre, even though we can clearly see the attempts to pay homage.

Stephen Holden, film critic for the New York Times wrote "Amer is a voluptuous wallow in recycled psycho sexual kitsch". That sounds about right to me.

I can't deny "Amer" has moments which work but too much of the film doesn't make a lick of sense. It doesn't feel like a rich character portrait, a study into a disturbed mind. It feels cheap.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Film Review: The Exam

"The Exam"  *** (out of ****)

The 48th annual Chicago International Film Festival has started this weekend and I have managed to already attend a few screenings.

As most readers know, every year when the CIFF comes to town I always like to attend screenings for the Hungarian films, since I am Hungarian and like to keep up with cinema from Hungary. This year only one Hungarian movie was playing at the fest. Naturally I made sure to attend the screening.

"The Exam" (2012,  A Vizsga) takes places in 1957 Budapest and revolves around the secret police and a test of loyalty members are subjected to.

The importance here is that the film takes place in 1957. There was an uprising in 1956 as Hungarians tried to get the Soviet Communist out of Hungary. It was a failed attempt, for a few reasons, "The Exam" shows us the aftermath of that experience.

In the past I have complained that many modern Hungarian films, which I have seen at various festivals, are "too Hungarian". That is not to say they are bad movies, I just wonder if a non-Hungarian audience will be able to comprehend the meaning the film would have to Hungarians. The movies are too much about Hungarian history. "The Exam", while dealing with a specific time in Hungary, is actually broad enough that it should be able to enjoy cross-over appeal.

The film, much like the German film, "The Lives of Others" (2007) shows us the world of secret police and double-crossings. The power the government had over its people and how no one was above suspicion. "The Lives of Others" was a bit more epic in its feel and scope, whereas
"The Exam" is more limited in its impact. Mostly because we are dealing with a smaller group of characters. We don't fully see the far reaching power the Communist had over its people. Or at least I didn't come away feeling the movie had shown us that.

Andras Jung (Zsolt Nagy, a familiar face in Hungarian cinema. You might remember him in "Kontroll" (2005) and "Children of Glory" (2006, Szabadsag, Szerelem), both of which I have reviewed) is a hot-shot young member of the secret police. According to his superior, Pal Marko (Janos Kulka, who also appeared in "Kontroll" and "The Last Blues" (2002, Az Utolso Blues), Andras is his best and most trusted man. A true believer in the party. But what Andras doesn't know is that his loyalty must be tested, despite Pal's opinion. Andras must be observed and recorded, under constant surveillance. In order to make things interesting Pal and other party members like Emil Kulcsar (Peter Scherer) have created a situation where they feel Andras' loyalty will be put to the ultimate test.

By keeping Andras under such wraps certain discoveries are made, such as, a love interest. He has been seeing a woman, Eva (Gabriella Hamori, a very young and beautiful actress who has appeared in some very good movies. She was in "The Last Report On Anna" (2010, Utolsa Jelentes Annarol) which I saw at the fest and have reviewed). The party knows nothing about this woman but when they do find out about her we are led to believe there may be more to her than meets the eye.

The film was directed by Peter Bergendy. It is only his second feature film. His first film was an enjoyable, if slight, romantic comedy, "Stop! Mom Theresa" (2003, Allitsatok Meg Terezanyut) which was where I first saw Hamori act.

Bergendy has a good eye. I thought that at the time when I saw his first movie. He knew how to visually set-up a joke and with this movie he shows he knows how to create suspense. One very effective scene deals with Andras beginning to realize what is going on and Pal trying to escape from being seen.

The script was written by Norbert-Kobli, who wrote a comedy called "Made in Hungary" (2009) which I also saw at the CIFF. You wouldn't think either of these men would make a movie like "The Exam" with their prior experience but they pull things off nicely.

"The Exam" works because it creates a nice atmosphere. It has good suspenseful scenes, does a nice job of creating a time period, has good acting, especially by Hamori and Kulka and an interesting theme. The movie resembles a puzzle as we try to piece everything together only we keep losing the pieces and are never quite sure what the final product is suppose to look like.

Viewers that enjoyed "The Lives of Others" I would be willing to bet would get something out of this movie. Sadly though, "The Exam" has one setback which will prevent it from finding distribution in the U.S., it is a Hungarian movie. For whatever reason, Hungarian films are not distributed in this country. That's why the CIFF is so important. Many times it is our only opportunity to see particular films. And many times we will discover little gems like "The Exam" which would otherwise go unnoticed.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Film Review: What Have You Done To Solange?

"What Have You Done To Solange?"  *** (out of ****)

Since the inception of this blog it has been a tradition that I spend the month of October reporting on the films shown at the Chicago International Film Festival and review horror films in honor of Halloween. This year will be no different. One year I reviewed the work of producer Val Lewton. Another year I reviewed films starring Universal Studio Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man). This year I thought I would try something different and spend some time reviewing foreign horror films, in particular Italian giallo films.

Those that read me on a regular basis know of my great appreciation for the work of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, considered by some of the master of the giallo genre. I have reviewed several of his films in the past on this site. But, Argento isn't the only filmmaker associated with this genre. Several other giallo films have been made, "What Have You Done To Solange?" (1972) is one you may hear mentioned now and then.

First lets discuss what exactly "giallo" means. Giallo is Italian for yellow. This is the color of the cover of cheap (as in price not quality) supernatural horror stories. Thus, the genre was named after the color. Again, if we associate the genre with Argento, the familiar cinematic traits consist of lavish death sequences, the super natural, heavy violence, and an almost fetish for blood.

"What Have You Done To Solange?" doesn't exactly follow that formula. It is more of a psychological suspense film rather than a horror film. It does offer a bit of titillation though, showing naked college age girls, lots of thighs and the promise of breast.

The sexuality aspect of the film actually plays a role in the film as it is in many ways a cautionary tale against premarital sex. Many would argue horror films in general are arguments against premarital sex. Remember in the horror satire "Scream" (1996) one of the characters says the virgin is always the survivor?

In "What Have You Done To Solange?" (which was released in the U.S. in 1975) the setting is an all-girls Catholic school where an Italian teacher, Mr. Rosseni (Fabio Testi) may be a suspected serial killer who is killing off these students one by one. Mr. Rosseni has a reputation of becoming intimate with these students which makes him a prime suspect. Or may make his jealous wife, Herta (Karin Baal) a suspect.

The murderer rips off the clothes of these young girls and kills them with a knife. He inserts the knife in their vagina. Already we are able to make the sexual connections. First of all the knife, I suppose, could be seen as a phallic object. The fact that it is inserted into the vagina would only add to that point. The fact that the girls are of college age and therefore perhaps sexually active makes the dangers of premarital sex argument. You see, the killer is only going after sexually active students.

Now of course with all of this we feeding into the stereotype that horror films are misogynistic. These are claims with have even been thrown at various filmmakers in the genre, i.e. Argento, Hitchcock. The victims are almost always female and they die the most gruesome deaths.

Why am I making a point of discussing the social context of this film as oppose to merely writing about acting or plot? Because the film makes these social points so strongly. It is what is front and center in the plot. Yes, it follows the milieu of the horror genre but "What Have You Done To Solange?" is expressly about sex, virginity and abortion.

It is because "What Have You Done To Solange?" pushes these themes so strongly I was a little off put by the film. One would think the filmmaker wanted to make a morality chamber piece. I would have preferred if these themes were in the subtext of the film not the forefront. I would have also preferred more suspense and horror. Still, the film follows in the tradition of standard suspense films.

When compared to an Argento film, Massimo Dallamano's film seems polished but not quite as artistic as say "Suspiria" (1977), Argento's best film and a film which also takes place in an all-girls school, or "Deep Red" (1975) another contender for Argento's best. The acting seems more natural. Sometimes an Argento film can be campy, especially his later films. Here we are dealing with people who behave in a normal manner. We can understand their motivations.

The film does have a nice look to it but feels dated. The musical score by Ennio Morricone was an, at the time, "modern" jazzy score but doesn't always compliment scenes nicely heightening our sense of suspense. But I did like some moments. My favorite is a POV (point of view) angle where we follow the killer walking up stairs approaching his victim and then running down the same staircase.

As I said, "What Have You Done To Solange?" is not a scary film. It has some nice suspenseful touches, moments of good acting and some interesting camera work. The movie works more as a suspense film. I do believe there is an audience for this movie. I'm not sure how much enjoyment people may get watching this movie on Halloween. At its best "What Have You Done To Solange?" follows the formula of your standard suspense film at its worst it is a preachy message film.

Still, I somewhat recommend it.