Of Horses and Men (2013)

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Love, sex, and horses take center stage in Benedikt Erlingsson’s equine-accented debut, Of Horses and Men (Hross i Oss), which took the Best New Director award at 2013’s San Sebastian International Film Festival, along with several Audience Awards for Best Film the following year—at CPH PIX, Goteborg, and Tromso International.
     Set in a bleak yet breathtaking Icelandic community where everyone works to know everyone else’s business (binoculars are clearly a big seller down at the General Store), the film is lovely to look at, from the wide-angled beauty of its staggering scenery to the comely close-ups of its four-legged stars—coats, eyes, and lashes are all brought into intimate focus by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson’s camera, while David Thor Jonsson’s score clops along in tandem with the horses’ strange and unique gaits.
     Of Horses and Men is comprised of several loosely-connected vignettes, often with unexpected outcomes: a man’s prized mare is compromised by a randy stallion; a vodka lover’s chase after a departing boat becomes his undoing; two men feud over natural boundaries; a young wrangler proves her mettle by solely rounding up a team of wild horses; lost in a blizzard, a tourist is forced to take drastic action. While Erlingsson skillfully juggles humor along with sequences of a more unsettling nature, some of the characters’ motivations are a little tricky to grasp—perhaps you have to be Icelandic to fully appreciate the director’s intent; those in Peoria, I daresay, will have no chance.
     But despite this cultural aloofness, as prevalent as the barren landscapes and the raging hormones, this unusually frank film mostly pleases through the passion of its performers, hoofed or otherwise.
     The end credits make a particular point of stating that no horses were harmed during the making of the film lest viewers come away feeling a little uneasy after some of the tragic denouements depicted. There’s no such disclaimer about the fates of its human players, mind.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Therapy for a Vampire (2014)

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Given the inherent silliness of the vampire subgenre—humans turning into bats, dust, or over in their graves—it stands to reason that the comedy would be almost as common as its more dramatic bloodsucking counterpart.
     In many cases you need go no further than the title: Roman Polanski’s classic The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck; George Hamilton vamping it up in the campy Love at First Bite; My Best Friend is a Vampire and My Grandpa is a Vampire and My Stepbrother is a Vampire!?! (sic). And lots of sucking too: Dracula Sucks, Vampires Suck, all the way down to plain old Suck.
     And now the Austrians (of all people) are getting into the act with Therapy for a Vampire (loosely translated from Der Vampir auf der Couch), an affectionate take on vampire lore that’s a lot more in keeping with the recent spoof Things We Do in the Shadows (with Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement) than, say, the less-subtle Mel Brooks parody, Dracula – Dead and Loving It (starring Leslie Nielsen).
     Therapy‘ stars a bunch of Austrians we’ve never heard of in a German-language period pic (“1932, somewhere near Vienna”) about a depressed vampire, Count Geza von Kozsnom, seeking psychiatric help from none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud himself. The Count’s marriage, to the vain and glorious Countess Elsa, who’s bummed that she can’t bask in her reflected beauty, is on the rocks. Tobias Moretti and Jeanette Hain, who play our undead aristocrats, resemble a Weimer-era Geoffrey Rush and Anjelica Huston respectively; Karl Fischer is appropriately Freudian as the famed psychoanalyst.
     As Count von Kozsnom recounts to Freud: “I’m not good at self-reflection. I need your help. I feel old and tired. I’ve seen everything. There’s nothing left for me to discover. I no longer have a thirst for life. Even food bores and wearies me. It’s monotonous, like everything else. My blood flows languidly and cold through my veins. I’m fed up of this everlasting night. This eternal darkness, swallowing me up. I long for light. Bright light, where I can disappear and dissolve. Dissolve into thin air. Vanish.”
     That’s typical of the pun-accented wordplay in writer/director David Ruehm’s film, and his couched vampire tale gets by cheerfully on its sweetness and silliness, albeit with the occasional bucket of chum tossed in from the sidelines. In addition, acclaimed D.P. Martin Gschlacht imbues the film with a heady Gothic atmosphere.
     Ruehm draws on various sources for his sanguine screenplay, perhaps even Sesame Street. One of our protagonist’s OCD symptoms is his rabid need to count—each time someone upsets a tin of drawing pins or drops a handful of coins or scatters a box of candies, von Kozsnom is down on his hands and knees, totaling the contents in a flash. In a similar vein, Buffy’s vampires had their share of personal demons, but the soulless sadsacks of Therapy for a Vampire tend to struggle more with head-shrinking than heart-staking.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

A Second Chance (2015)

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With unnerving accuracy and trademark devastation, director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen will rip the heart from your pounding chest, shake it violently, and drop-kick it into sweet oblivion with their sixth crushing collaboration, A Second Chance (En Chance Til). This is what they do and this is what they do best and this is what they should keep on doing. Less successfully, Bier partnered with writer Allan Loeb on 2007’s Things We Lost in the Fire, her first American-soiled feature, and the results were watered down at best, despite valiant turns from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro as a couple struggling with tragic loss. And the less said about the Christopher Kyle-scripted Brad ‘n’ Jen costumer Serena (2015) the better.
     In A Second Chance (from later in 2015 than Serena and therefore dispelling any concerns that the Bier/Jensen partnership is a thing of the past), Game of Thrones heartthrob Nikolaj Coster-Waldau leads a fine supporting cast as Andreas, a cop living an idyllic life with his beautiful wife Anna (Maria Bonnevie) and their newborn son. When Andreas and his partner Simon (the dependable Ulrich Thomsen) are called to settle a domestic dispute between a junkie and his prostitute partner, a dramatic discovery triggers a series of startling events, with Andreas pushed to cross legal and moral lines in order to keep his nuclear family intact.
     And that’s all the plot you’re going to get here.
     Coster-Waldau is excellent. His scenes with the infant son are unusually tender. Likewise, Bonnevie handles the emotional demands of her finely-written role with conviction. And Thomsen, like I say, is almost always good. But it’s the powerhouse pairing of Bier and Jensen that makes this ‘Chance one you should consider taking, but expect to be dragged through the emotional wringer more than once.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Trust (2016)

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Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood co-star as inventors of the medical apparatus consisting of a pad usually supported by a belt for maintaining a hernia in a reduced state.
     No, wait.  That’s The Truss.
     The Trust (two Ts) is about a pair of crooked cops, Cage and Wood also, who, during the course of their corrupt police investigations, stumble across a secret bank vault in the rear of a grocery store—the money goes in but never comes out—and decide to divvy up the contents.
     Cage is almost always watchable, even when he’s bad (make that especially when he’s bad), and his Jim Stone is another off-the-wall weirdo he seems to relish playing. He’s erratic, explosive, and unpredictable. Wood, as usual, mostly provides goggle-eyed reaction shots whenever his relatively-stable David Waters isn’t drinking or whoring or getting stoned—it’s our tax dollars at work! But somehow the pairing works.
     I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend The Trust exactly, but it’s competently made (by the Brothers Brewer) and that counts for a lot these days, when anyone with an iPhone can essentially remake Titanic while slopping about in the tub. Dance-pop Internet phenom Sky Ferreira gets third billing, yet plays a character credited as “Woman” (so much for gender equality) and Jerry Lewis, who settles for fourth billing, is only in the one scene—maybe co-directors Alex and Benjamin thought the French would get a chuckle out of him playing a nonagenarian (he is 90, after all).
     The Trust announces itself as a visually-arresting crime thriller set in Las Vegas, but the script favors irreverent buddy banter over thrills, especially in the first act. When Jim and David finally start drilling into the vault from above, the film becomes more absorbing, although you’d swear these guys were professional safe crackers, not bent police officers, the way they negotiate all those pin tumbler latches and rings. It’s probably fair to say that you won’t guess the ending, as the Brewers play their cards pretty close to their chests, but I will tell you this much: no trusses are involved.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com