Saturday, December 20, 2008

CTJ/The Cinemaddict's Fix

Divorce Italian Style ****
If divorce were illegal in the U.S., what would people do? Surely they would kill each other. And that is pretty much the point of this Criterion release. The main character wants to ditch his wife so he can pursue his 16-year-old cousin, who is a bright but vacant blonde. It may sound like Jerry Springer, but instead of dirty sensationalism, this film offers dark comedy throughout. Adultery, it turns out, can actually be pretty funny. But only when the people who are involved are fools, and only when their pursuit of romantic freedom at all costs ultimately ends in unforeseen entrapment. This is a winning film that most Americans would enjoy watching, and another gem from Criterion.

Knife in the Water ***1/2

Danny told me this movie was boring and, while I disagree, I see where he was coming from. It's a slow-burner that is billed as a thriller, and thrills rarely happen in slow-motion. This is a beautifully shot and executed Roman Polanski film that, in my opinion, does not reach the same level of mastery that is found in other films of his like Repulsion, The Tenant, and Rosemary's Baby. It is subtle in its suspense, quietly deceptive, momentarily violent, and seemingly as meandering as the sailboat where the majority of the film is set. I admire this film more than I actually like it, and I found it a pleasure to watch even though I walked away saying to myself, "What was the point of this? What are we to take away from this?" It leaves the viewer with more questions than answers and, in this, it may be more like life than other films like it. It is a slice of the nothing that we find from day to day, but with the sorts of momentary exhilarations and frights that occasionally jostle us. See it? If you like Polanski, sure. If you're not familiar with his other films, start with Rosemary's Baby.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger ****1/2

This is probably my pick for best documentary of 2008, and I say that because it manages to breathe life in the stale steroids issue. I once had a student in my public speaking course who gave a speech on why steroids should be permitted in baseball. They would make the games extraordinary, he said. That's pretty much the sort of thing this film explores, but in a very intimate, personal, entertaining way.

It's about 3 brothers, all of whom have sought to "pump up" their physiques over the years, and with mixed results. Two of them used steroids, and the third is directing the film, guiding us through a tour of previously uncharted dimensions of performance enhancement, interviewing the principal voices on the issues, and bringing the camera into his family's home.

The results are intensely personal, at times humorous, at times heartwrenching. Most of all I was taken with his parents, who appear to genuinely care for the well-being of their kids, physically and spiritually. I walked away from this film feeling like I had gotten to know someone, warts and all. It was like a punch in the face and a hug all at the same time, and in the process it really challenged my thoughts about steroid use. All films should aspire for this kind of greatness.

Alone With Her ****

It would be easy to write this film off as yet another voyeuristic venture into the world of cyberspace, a lesser recasting of Peeping Tom. But what is really interesting about this is that it is based on actual activities of stalkers who use hidden cameras and other forms of surveillance to engage in voyeurism. It's not that this is a joy to behold or anything, but it does add an air of realism to the picture. It also makes one think about the accessibility of such gadgets. In essence, how can sort of thing be prevented? And can it at all?

Colin Hanks turns in a convincing performance as the stalker du jour, and he sufficiently creepy in the role. I wonder what his Dad thinks of his son's turn to the dark side. This is not a career-making picture, but it is a worthwhile and often graphic exploration of stalking. One reviewer compared it to the Blair Witch Project, and this is apt. It is predicable in this way too, but all the same it's hard not to connect with the leading actress because she is such a central focal point in the film. Predicable or not, you care what happens to her. It brings the reality of stalking home to the viewer, and with chilling results.

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