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20.12.08

Fat Girl (2001)





Director: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anais Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero Di Rienzo, Arsinee Kharjian
Unrated, 83 minutes
Released by Criterion





We start out with a story about two sisters: twelve-year-old Anais is overweight and frumpy, Elena is three years older, beautiful, and popular with the young men. Though they love each other a great deal, Elena confesses to her sister that she must bring Anais along with her on her outings in order to appease their parents. Anais knows this and is equally unhappy with the situation; she says she is sick of being Elena's ball-and-chain. While out one afternoon the sisters meet a much older man, a twentysomething Italian law student named Fernando who is instantly attracted to Elena. A summertime romance begins, while Anais seeks comfort in an enormous banana split. After a very brief courtship, Fernando sneaks into the girls bedroom one night and attempts to badger Elena into having sex with him. Elena is a virgin and would prefer to stay that way; she wants to know that she is loved before she will relent to Fernando's pressure. Fernando says that he loves her, and threatens to sleep with other girls if Elena will not give in. There is a very painful compromise made. Anais, in a bed nearby, has only been pretending to be asleep and has witnessed the entire act.

Fernando has promised his love to Elena, giving her an enormous opal ring to demonstrate his sincerity. Elena is overwhelmed by this gesture and believes that they will marry shortly after she finshes school. Anais, the eternal cynic, warns her sister that taking the ring may not mean what Elena thinks it means. Elena disagrees, and allows Fernando to return in the night and take what he has wanted the entire time. Anais, once again pretending to sleep, weeps as her sister loses her innocence.

The affair comes to an abrupt end when the girl's parents discover what is going on. Their mother is furious and heartbroken, and tearfully drives her devastated children back home. And then something happens. It is so shocking and so unexpected that it changes Fat Girl from a quiet and naturalistic study of the lives of two sisters into something else altogether.

Catherine Breillat has gained a reputation for using onscreen sex in her films the way Sam Peckinpah used violence. Fat Girl is no exception. The love scenes between Fernando and Elena are explicit to say the least, made even more startling by the fact that Roxane Mesquida, who plays Elena, certainly looks like a fifteen-year-old girl. Mesquida was actually in her twenties at the time of filming - a fact which did not prevent the film from being banned in a handful of countries. I cannot imagine the film's jaw-dropping conclusion helping its case. It is legimately shocking, not only because of the things that we are seeing, but also that they are so completely unexpected. Some have suggested that Breillat simply ran out of ideas and had to resort to shock tactics. I don't think that this was the case; everything that preceded the film's climax is much too precise, too measured, and too confident to believe that Breillat would simply tack on a throwaway finale. If anything, it may be a little too ambiguous for its own good - denying the viewer any sense of closure or comfort.

This is one of those movies that will leave you feeling like you've just been hit over the head with a shovel. For a film which largely consists of dialogue and dialogue alone, that is quite an accomplishment. Bergman did it better than no other. Catherine Breillat is no Bergman, but she does possess a similar understanding of the human heart.

19.12.08

Sweet Movie (1974)



Director: Dusan Makavejev
Starring: Carol Laure, John Vernon, Anna Prucnal
Unrated 98 minutes
Released by Criterion

Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie has been made legendary by film academics and intellectuals who see this film as a profound and devastating indictment of belief systems, governments, philosophies, and any other man-made social constructs which are devised to inhibit or oppress the inescapable animalistic nature of man. Or something like that. There are plenty of essays and analyses out there waiting to be read by folks who are interested in finding some deeper meaning in Makavejev's most infamous film, so I will not attempt to butt heads with the intellectual elite. I can, however, describe my feelings about this film, finally watched after years of reading countless reviews which mostly praised this film's savage genius.

It's icky.

Golden penises. Golden showers. Naked women writhing in chocolate. Sex in tubs of sugar. Vomiting. Food fights. Spitting. Singing. Footage of the Katyn Forest Massacre. People slathered with human excrement. Some more singing. There is a plot, but it's little more than an excuse for Makavejev to place star Carol Laure in one very unsanitary situation after another, which get increasingly weirder and harder to watch as the film rolls on.

I won't question Makavejev's intelligence, or criticize his willingness to push cinema into uncharted territory. That said, Sweet Movie comes off as misguided and more than a little juvenile. Its message, or at least what I think is its message, is overshadowed by its desire to shock and repulse the viewer. It is not unlike a bright teenager who feels the need to join a satanic cult or get their face tattooed just to show their parents that they are free and capable of making their own decisions. While you appreciate the kid's desire to demonstrate their independence, their actions leave you scratching your head all the same. Makavejev sets out to repulse and he succeeds, but not without revealing his inability to create a film which cannot get its point across without resorting to cheap shock tactics. You could edit these scenes out of the film, but then there would be next to nothing left.

You are probably better off reading about this movie than actually watching it. If you do decide to experience Sweet Movie, I would recommend doing so on an empty stomach and with plenty of Lysol handy.

2.5 out of 5. 

16.12.08

The Burning (1981)



Director: Tony Maylam
Starring: Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Brian Matthews
Released by MGM

Slasher flicks were so prevalent in the early eighties, film critic Roger Ebert created a catch-all term to categorize this particular genre: dead teenager movies. While I have nothing but respect for Mr. Ebert, his phrase is a little misleading; most of the victims in these films had not seen the inside of a high school in more than a decade. Despite his questionable choice of words, he was correct to lump these films together. Most followed the same predictable template, only attempting to be creative when it came to the onscreen skewering of the mostly forgettable young actors who found work in these things. The Burning is an odd duck. While it follows the formula to the letter, it remains more memorable than most of its peers, thanks to unusually high number of talented people on both sides of the camera.

The story begins at an upstate New York summer camp, where a handful of ornery campers are looking to pull a prank on Cropsy, a particularly unpopular caretaker. The prank takes a very flammable turn and to the boy's horror, Cropsy is severely burned. After years of skin grafts and reconstructive surgery, the disfigured caretaker is released from the hospital. Cropsy makes the leap from unlikeable caretaker to homicidal maniac; showing his newly found murderous side by immediately procuring and slaughtering a prostitute, presumably just for kicks.

Back at camp, a new batch of kids have arrived and the pranks, bullying, and outdoor fun that makes up your typical summer camp movie are in full swing. A group of friends, led by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (sporting a full head of hair, and not looking much different than he did as George Costanza) are engaged in a protracted battle against a hotheaded thug named Glazer (Larry Joshua, who was pushing thirty at the time of filming, but looks thirty-five). Camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) is always around the make sure that their shenanigans don't get too out of hand. Fisher Stevens appears as Woodstock, and a very young Holly Hunter can be seen if you make sure not to blink. The slash-and-kill action kicks in when the older campers set out for a brief rafting trip....and run headfirst into Cropsy, now brandishing a pair of shiny hedge clippers.

Storywise, The Burning is fairly unremarkable. This is, for all intents and purposes, your typical madman-at-a-summer-camp slasher flick. Somewhat interestingly, though, the makers chose to skip the whodunit element that was typical of the genre. You know who the killer is from the get-go, it is only the disfigured face of Cropsy that is kept from viewers until the final moments. The lack of mystery is compensated for by the fact that the campers are better developed, a little more three-dimensional than the characters that usually populate these kinds of films. The film is also accompanied by a very effective soundtrack, courtesy of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

The real star here, and the reason The Burning has so many admirers after all these years, is the work of legendary make-up effects man Tom Savini. Savini was knee-deep in slasher work at the time (Eyes of a Stranger, Maniac, Friday the 13th), and here he debuted several innovative techniques that would go on to become the industry standard. The film features some extremely violent murders, most notably the notorious "raft" scene, and a very good melted flesh effect for the Cropsy maniac. Savini's work gives The Burning a realistic and brutal quality that gives the film an edge over the other slasher flicks of the era.

What can you say? It's dumb fun. And apart from a horribly botched ending (which features the crummiest insert shot I have ever seen), it's a notch better than most of its competition. Whether you are nostalgic for the gory slashers of a less P.C. time, or a new fan of the genre who is tired of the PG-13 trash that litters the market, The Burning is worth revisiting.