“We’re all bad seeds,” says a character in Elena, a Russian film so focused on moral corruption it feels like a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of drama. The film by Andrei Zvyagintsev unfolds with a graceful efficiency that I have not experienced since the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). But where that film ended on a poetic, if ambiguous note, Elena hums along on a stark, chilling drone that never lets the viewer go.

The film’s tone steers far from the high-pitched. Zvyagintsev guides the drama with a firm, steady hand. It opens slow, as dawn arrives outside an upscale apartment. The shrieks of crows on the bare branches outside the ultra-modern apartment turn to the twitter of little birds. Inside, a couple wakes in separate beds. Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gets up just ahead of her alarm, and she wanders to another room to tap her slightly older-looking husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Their relationship seems ambiguous at first, even after discussion of family and money. Instead,little details of it (they have been married two years, he met her when she worked as a nurse almost 10 years earlier) come out in well-placed tidbits here and there, cropping up to do the best service to the drama, calling for an attentive but not over-alert audience.

The film seems to just wash over the viewer with simple but illustrative situations. The viewer will soon meet Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family, after Elena takes a lengthy trek via streetcar then train followed by a long walk. All the while Philip Glass’ broody  “Symphony No. 3, Movement III” drones along. It is the only extra-diegetic music Zvyagintsev uses, and it will only appear three times in the film. Like the best of efficient filmmakers, Zvyagintsev knows how to use mood music for maximal effect, cuing audience awareness.

He also knows how to use action, dialogue and set pieces to their fullest narrative potential, including subtext. The extreme difference between Sergey’s rundown, tiny apartment, located near a nuclear power plant, which also houses his wife, teenage son and baby boy feels cramped. It seems to ooze cheap possessions from its cracking façade. The graffiti covered hallways on the ground floor, along with the teenage punk loiterers stooped outside the building sharing a bottle of drink bring to mind A Clockwork Orange.

Elena is a stark experience to watch unfold, and it is so well made, it almost feels like a spoiler to explain the plot beyond the director’s expert handling of all the devices he can employee of cinema. He earns every scene while avoiding quick, flashy cuts, hysterical acting and over-stylized camera use. The film only has one jarring scene of shaky handheld camera, and when it appears it carries with it an ominous sense of dread.

Zvyagintsev employs steady-handed direction that even makes the banal dreck of game shows and lifestyle reports coming out of the TV in some scene feel relevant to his statement. Do not expect much of a cathartic release come the film’s end. In fact, the path the director takes to arrive there feels like a sickening downward spiral that offers a harsh critique of society and only continues to propagate the scary image of post-Soviet Russia. Despite its bleakness, watching the masterful work of Zvyagintsev offers its own reward. This film did not win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 for nothing.

Hans Morgenstern

Elena is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in Russian with English subtitles. Zeitgeist Films provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, June 8, at many independent cinemas Miami Beach Cinematheque, the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For screenings across the nation, visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Guy Maddin, cinema’s contemporary master surrealist, has returned with another feature that unfolds like a dream while exploring Freudian symptoms of psychic malaise. Though still influenced by early silent cinema, Keyhole seems like Maddin’s chattiest film yet. He still works with black and white images, and it suits the film’s scenes well. Keyhole brings to life a haunted house where all the occupants seem to be ghosts. Fittingly, shadows are a great part of the cinematography, and Maddin knows how to make the most of black and white to highlight the relationship between light and darkness. In the right hands, shadows are laden with subtext, and here comes a film far beyond literal interpretation using that and many other aspects of cinema to their utmost potential. Maddin has only made one film in color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and seems most comfortable in black and white.

This is an adventure story. The quest is as fantastical, human and emotional as anyone could conjure from both the unconsciousness of the dream world or waking, traumatic life experiences following the finality of a loved one’s fatal loss. After death, how does one make amends? That’s what the ghosts of Keyhole are illustrating. This is what ghosts do when people are not looking. If they are creepy, it only comes from the mystery of their origin. Keyhole is something far more abstract, complex and deep than a horror film.

The darkest, most mysterious character must be the patriarch of the clan (Louis Negin) and father-in-law of the hero, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) searching to reconnect with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a life of crime, adultery and neglect. The patriarch, whose craggy wrinkles even cast shadows on his own features, is fittingly credited with two obtuse names: Calypso and Camille. Wearing only white briefs or arbitrarily nothing at all, Calypso / Camille is never seen without a thick chain draped over his body. “I’m a part of the house,” he says early in the film. “It would be misleading to say I live here.” Between his solitary creeping around in some distant chamber of the large home, whispering, “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” Ulysses arrives in search of Hyacinth. The film opens with multiple layers of superimposed scenery and the cacophony of a shootout. The images blur and flash in quick cuts. All the while, images of the old man appear, as he whispers: “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” It makes for an abstract, expressive set-up. After the shootout, Maddin shows his wit and profundity by having a character ask all of those inside the home to line up against a wall. Those who have died in the shootout are told to face the wall. He tells them to go to the morgue, and they walk out of the scene. “They’re the lucky ones,” someone says. For, as the film will show, death is not a solution in this movie at all, and, as the ghostly father notes, “forgiveness [is] much worse than revenge.”

Maddin does more than flashy cinematic tricks to channel the surreal. He creates atmosphere in subtler ways as well. The voices are warped or have a strange flat quality with no echo, like early talkies. Jason Staczek’s orchestral score seems to emerge from another dimension. The instruments vary from horns to piano to vibes. They play dynamic melodies that sometimes warp and stretch and do not always gibe with the images. Sometimes they seem to emit from some distant radio, off-screen.

The setting of a large home with many rooms makes for the ideal setting for Ulysses’ quest to return to his wife and sons. Rooms in dreams are symbolic of the unconscious, and distances covered by Ulysses inside the home seem extended beyond earthbound physics. He arrives carrying a drowned woman over his shoulder, Denny (Brooke Palsson). It takes a long time for him to cover the ground between the front door into the dining area where a host of gangsters and hostages await him. Though Denny is blind, she provides a psychic guide for him through the home. The home feels labyrinthine, as the quest continues from room to room and encounter to encounter. Ulysses also carries his son Manners (David Wontner), who spends most of the film gagged and bound to a chair. There is even a swampy garden secluded among the interior’s twists and turns, where more traumas lurk buried under a pond of murky water.

Though it plums some dark depths of the psyche, Keyhole still has room for humor. At one point in his quest, Ulysses is weighed down by carrying a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Maddin glazes over the de rigueur phallic symbol in a witty moment as Denny leads Ulysses down a hall. They approach a small erect penis protruding out of a wall. “Cyclops ahead,” deadpans the girl.

“That penis is getting dusty,” notes Ulysses matter-of-factly, as he passes it by.

The actors serve the film well. Their faces are filled with mystery and sometimes a subtle befuddlement. Maybe they are trying to make sense of the dialogue, which still works for this film that explores the dream world even better and more honestly than Inception. Sure, the film seems incongruous, as its logic, like the best dreams, never allows the viewer any insight toward where it is headed. Maddin constantly changes the rules of the narrative. By doing so, he heightens and maintains the mystery throughout the film as marvelous sequences parade by. No one should expect any concrete, definitive answers in a film by Guy Maddin, just a bold and confident expression of the complexity of human relationships. Keyhole captures the Maddin tradition well and exploits the potency of cinema as the physical, temporal manifestation of dreams.

Hans Morgenstern

Keyhole is Rated R and runs 94 min. Opens Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at the  Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It opens at the same time in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. It is also currently showing at select theaters across the US.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

After bursting on the indie film scene in 1998 with American History X, director Tony Kaye has worked sporadically, to say the least. His next film would arrive more than 10 years later and was even better received, though very different in form. Released in 2006, some declared the two-and-a-half-hour documentary Lake of Fire the definitive film on the abortion debate. The man has a mind for social consciousness and it continues to show in his ambitious return to feature film making: Detachment. With an expansive cast that includes James Caan, Blythe Danner, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina HendricksLucy Liu and starring Adrien Brody— all giving powerful performances— it seems such a shame the director does not explore them more than superficially.

The film explores an array of perspectives— too many perspectives, slipping into ungainly narrative overkill. It opens with a confusing setup from the get go: black and white footage of talking heads who talk about how they stumbled into teaching at public schools and grown to love it. Brody’s character joins the monologues, but his image is in color. He talks about educators with his own admiration. It almost comes across as a documentary on school teachers. But, no, this is a film about a substitute teacher named Henry Barthes (Brody) with a load of baggage, which appears in flashbacks on what looks to be 8 mm home movie footage, intercut a few seconds at a time into the film’s action. These flashbacks follow him at school, at home caring for a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he took in from off the street and while he tends to his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich) at a nursing home.

As the film plays out, Henry’s memory will be revealed. Though it offers a doozy of a dark trauma, it illuminates the character too late for the sake of the action that plays out during the majority of this meandering movie.

That action unfolds in quick snippets with shaky, handheld camera that sometimes slips out of focus trying to keep up with it all. It’s an artistic embellishment but also highlights the film’s issues. The narrative moves around so much it allows little room for believable, dynamic interaction between the characters, much less honest character development. As the educators act out in extreme ways: crying, yelling, popping pills, throwing desks, curling up on the floor in the fetal position to make announcements over the school’s PA, none of these people seem to genuinely connect.

The gulf between teachers and students is even more ungainly, as it should be in the dramatic frame of the school-based drama. However, when the connections do occur they seem contrived and clichéd. Barthes arrives at a failing school to sub in an English class for a month. He immediately sacrifices a child who talks back to the hallway as an example. Next, a foul-mouthed black kid in a do-rag gets up in his face demanding a sheet of paper and pen. Henry stands his ground and gives the kid what he wants, along with a little speech about understanding his anger. He also shows a gentle touch to Meredith (Betty Kaye), a chubby girl sitting in the back of the class. It is soon revealed she has an artistic talent that portends a troubled psyche, but no one seems to pay attention to it. Her father tells her she is wasting her time and Henry calls her talented. But the connections do not go deeper than superficially.

Henry is only in the classroom a few times in the movie. Reading from George Orwell’s 1984, he lectures his students on doublethink and ubiquitous assimilation, a great term for the hypocrisy of popular culture nowadays. The lecture offers a revealing moment, illuminating not only the character’s frustration with getting through to kids today but also probably the director’s well-intended motivations behind the film. However, one cannot throw in a dramatic speech in the middle of a film about dysfunction and put a bow on it. It is too easy to make this moment alone the connecting bond with the students and teacher. The film needs more than an array of hysterical, revolving door characters and one tidy moment of connection that seems to contradict the problems at the heart of film. While offering a grim look at the generational divide of today’s youth and the teachers trying to reach them through out-dated curriculum, the connection between Henry and his students seems a clichéd moment. Reading from a book long part of the high school curriculum is too easy and hypocritical a solution.

Brody gives a focused and powerful performance, as do many of his co-stars, but the camera should have stayed more focused on him and his need to come to terms with a traumatic past. Everyone has issues in Detachment, but a few minutes of the intimate, extreme problems of the other characters who never seem to connect with the main character only feels superfluous. Detachment might have been a better film with a longer runtime, allowing for more character development for the main characters. In the end, the film just feels like a lumpy, melodramatic mess that leaves the viewer feeling too little for too much.

Hans Morgenstern

Detachment is not rated and runs 97 min. It is currently playing in limited engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Detachment is also playing in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema and at the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand and at select theaters across the US.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

For now, most have only seen 16-year-old Sami Gayle co-starring as Tom Selleck’s precocious but sensitive granddaughter in CBS’ acclaimed drama “Blue Bloods.” However, the Weston-raised actress is on the cusp of a major breakout in films. Next year will see her sharing the screen in a sci-fi thriller with Paul Giamatti (The Congress) and an actioner with Nicolas Cage (Medallion), but her introduction on the big screen arrives in a much-anticipated independent film: Detachment.

The film’s director Tony Kaye burst on to the indie scene in 1998 as the director of American History X, a film about a Neo-Nazi skinhead that helped make Edward Norton a star, and Kaye had not made a feature since. Kaye found Gayle working on Broadway and cast her as a teenage prostitute in his long overdue follow-up, Detachment.

Starring and co-produced by Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, the film offers a grim look at the generational divide between today’s youth and the teachers trying to reach them. Speaking over the phone ahead of her visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where Gayle will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A, Gayle says, “We’re really trying to promote the film and promote the message of the film, which we think is very strong and socially relevant in today’s society.”

As can be expected from Kaye, Detachment features some heavy subject matter. Dealing with issues of sexuality, bullying and abuse, the MPAA has not rated the movie. However, Gayle thinks a more mature young audience can handle the film. “I think that, ultimately, that’s up to the parents,” she notes, “but I think that the message the film gives of parental guidance and about the effect that a teacher can have on a student’s life, as well as the flaws in the public education system and the good things about the public education system, I think it’s good for kids to see it.”

Detachment marks Gayle’s first experience in a feature film. Shot two years ago, she still relies on many lessons she learned working with Brody. “Every single day, Adrien said to me, going into a scene, ‘It has to be you and me against the world in this scene,’ and what he taught me is the importance of intimacy between the actors in a scene … I think Adrien is such a present actor that it was easy to portray the feelings that I had to portray in the film.”

Hans Morgenstern

Detachment is not rated and runs 97 min. It opened in Miami Beach Thursday, May 10, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this story. Co-star Sami Gayle will appear tonight at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Friday, at 8:45 p.m., to introduce the film and for a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Detachment also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, May 11, at 9 p.m. and at the Tower Theater at 9:15 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne work in a world of efficient drama. Their cinema is stripped of sentimentality yet still captures intimate moments with powerful focus that stays with a viewer long after leaving the cinema. Their spare films are experiences that stick like solid memories. You know when you have seen a Dardenne film. Characters suffer ordeals or undergo life changes that feel visceral and personal. Sometimes they are subtle (the titular character of Rosetta [1999] undergoes a glimmer of change that may or may not help her rise out of a downtrodden life in a trailer park). Other times they are more dramatic (the main character of Lorna’s Silence [2008] finds the strength and cunning to free herself from a world that could be considered modern slavery).

The Dardennes have a consistent style. Simple, sudden splices separate the scenes. There are no fades, overlaps or dissolves. Everything is shot on handheld high-definition digital cameras. There are no dramatic singular shots like swoops, zooms or close-ups. The soundtrack generally avoids non-diegetic music. When such music does appear, it stands out with potent purpose. Lighting seems natural and unfiltered. The actors have a natural style, and the Dardennes have been known to work with non-stars or non-actors. The brothers have never strayed from this style over the years. In fact, they have only perfected and fine-tuned it. The mix of these techniques effectively capture a austerity where only the drama of the situations influence the audience in an authentic and honest manner.

All the action that unfolds in a film by the Dardennes never feels superfluous. They build up the scenes with such efficiency that when the last few scenes arrive toward the end of the film, the balance of suspense fills you with anticipation. You begin to trust the Dardennes on an almost subconscious level. If a character goes off to do something seemingly banal, you know it will have to serve the story in some way. No moment is wasted in a film by this duo.

None of the Dardenne films I have seen have felt more tight and focused than the Kid With a Bike, which only now finally finds a distributor in IFC Films after sharing the 2011 Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) on his quest for a father figure after his biological father (Jérémie Renier) leaves him at a boarding school. The insistent quality of this little boy is smartly established at the start of the film when he refuses to give up listening to an out-of-service message on the phone, as a school counselor pleads him to hang up the receiver.

Cyril feels kinetic, even while laying in bed. He always seems breathless. He’s a steadfast creature. When the neighborhood drug dealer Wesker (Egon Di Mateo) names him “pitbull” the name seems apt. The kid fights for his bike, his final connection to his AWOL father, with unrelenting zeal. Wesker preys on this fatherless child, inviting him to video games and soda at his apartment and soon devises a scheme that will harness this child’s peculiar energy. It’s an energy and drive familiar to many who are preyed on to enter gangs at young ages. The purpose in Cyril to impress a male figure in his life is so strong, it transcends criminal activity. He does not even care for a cut of the take from Wesker, telling him he’s only doing it for him because he told him to do it.

The boy is in deep pain, which comes out in equal parts aggression and aloofness, when it’s not focused on impressing Wesker or during the quiet bliss in the all too brief company of his actual father. On the receiving end of most of this misguided aggression is the boy’s foster mother, the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile De France). She hesitantly agrees to take Cyril in after helping the boy find his missing bike at the start of the film. He imposes himself on her, asking if she might see him on weekends. She cannot seem to help herself from saying “no.” She even helps Cyril track down his father, who only sees the boy as a burden he does not want. The film is as much about this woman’s courage to step in when the boy’s father decides to take the easy way out to “start over.”

Though the Kid With a Bike is the Dardennes’ tightest film, I have not seen them ever compromise their style for a pat ending. Though the boy seems to find some kind of peace at the film’s end, the Dardennes do not hold back throwing a monkey wrench into the story with a powerful finale that leaves the viewer wondering. The open-endedness of their films is also key to their style defined by their lo-fi cinematic style. The rawness of their movies seek to capture the sensation of true-life experience. Just as life goes on after one completes a phase in growth (however big or small that experience might feel), thus it goes on after the final fade to black in a Dardenne film. Just as you never know what might happen next with every moment in life, you never get luxuriated with the promise of a tidy ending in a Dardenne film. Life goes on and who knows what is next? Bring on another Dardenne film.

Hans Morgenstern

The Kid With a Bike is not rated, runs 87 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens in Miami Beach Friday, Apr. 6, at 6:45 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It will play a series of dates as part of the theater’s on-going series “Les Freres Dardennes.” The series also includes one-night-only screenings of the above mentioned Rosetta (Thursday, March 29, at 8 p.m.) and L’Enfant, which also stars Jérémie Renier (Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m.). The Kid With a Bike also opens in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Friday, Apr. 6, at 7 p.m. and to the north, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, also on Apr. 6, but at 6 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The notion of love is a slippery thing, and the Deep Blue Sea, captures its elusive sensation with a visual patchwork of evocative and dramatic scenes that forgoes exaggerated set-ups like fancy weddings and over-the-top situations. Too often Hollywood celebrates contrived situations like the Vow* to conveniently tell a story of people in love. How about something more expressive, abstract and complex, like the sublime experience itself? Director Terence Davies subverts traditional storytelling with his latest and captures not just people in love, but people who love but never click. I’ll go out on a limb and say no one has done this better since Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love. By defying a straight forward narrative and working in expressive, almost photographic collage, Davies recreates something more beholden to a feeling than most films with lovers at its center.

We meet Hester (Rachel Weisz) at the height of her most passionate moment in love. She is about to kill herself. The viewer has to work to put the pieces together, as the situation leading up to this moment unfolds in a patchwork of flashbacks. In fact, a second viewing of the Deep Blue Sea will probably prove more satisfying than the first. Though the film has its dramatic moments, Davies’ loose, flowing work captures experience in retrospect, similar to our own recollection of jumbled memories. In effect, offering a more human connection to the audience better than a straight-up narrative would ever achieve.

The film opens with pure evocation. A simple blue light spreading over a dark screen, as if coming up from the dark depths of the ocean. As the credits unfold in simple, swelling white block letters, the blue light gradually emerges** Davies seems to be offering the abstract representation of love entering one’s life. It’s a minimalist version of how the world seems to feel a little brighter, more Technicolor, when a new love appears. Opening credits do matter (see yesterday’s review), and not enough filmmakers use them nowadays.

When the neighborhood Hester lives in fades in from the darkness of this opening sequence, it almost appears alien. A series of streaming lights from a tangle of weeds seem so unreal it may as well be fairies dancing out of the dark. As the filtered camera lens lethargically pans left, the title card “LONDON” appears, followed by “AROUND 1950,” as it becomes apparent that this is a late-night suburban street scene. The camera continues its sluggish movement into a window where Hester stands. There is a blue and gold tint to everything, giving the interior of Hester’s apartment an unreal glow. The camera does not follow her as she goes through the motions of preparing for her own demise. She closes the curtains, fade. She bolts the door, fade. She puts a towel at the bottom of the door, fade. And so forth. These are key moments, as if recalled, whatever footsteps in between forgotten to lost, superfluous time. Before she lies down, a diamond-shaped mirror with roses intricately painted on its surface catches her face. The reflection stands out among the busy detritus that fills the apartment. Already the consistently beautiful shots recall a sense of In the Mood For Love. Whoever is playing a violin during the accompanying score (Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14”) is not holding back, as the stringed instrument seems to scream and howl after Hester turns on the gas, and the film fades to another time and another place.

Following another fade out, the tone of the images grow more subdued and flat, dominated by the plainness of brown and darkness. We see Hester again, dressed differently, sitting in a plush chair inside a study, half-smiling to her husband William (Simon Russell Beale), who sits behind a desk. When he is not looking, she tears up. We know she is not thinking of him during this attempt on her life. Fade. Hester is sitting outdoors on a patio bench, on a bright, sunny day. Everything shimmers in soft focus, and the scene seems dominated by an incandescent white. A debonair looking man, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston, who recalls Michael Fassbender) smiles at her. We will later learn he becomes the man who has taken her heart.

More scenes unfold, jumping here and there through time and space. The link between them is a magnetism between the people or a pushing away. There are efficient moments of dialogue with little context. What provides more information comes from Davies’ visual prowess: the framed shots of Hester and Freddie, smiling at each other. He chatting close to her face, and she taking it in. Meanwhile, William and Hester walk separate ways and are never shot without something between them. The best obstacle being William’s mother (Barbara Jefford bringing on the mean old lady). On one of the few occasions the husband and wife face each other, it’s at a dinner table with the mother passive-aggressively offering such tidbits like “Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly … A guarded enthusiasm is much safer.”

But would the film be more interesting taking a safe path? In the end, lust does die out, and Freddie becomes more than the cypher that wedged itself between the married couple. He is the product of war, a topic often explored by Davies. When we meet him early on, he talks of the “excitement and fear” of battle. “There is nothing like it,” he says. He will never find that kind of passion in this downtrodden wife, and the broken triangle, elegantly but tragically creeks forward. Mirrors often appear in the movie, a nice cinematic touch referring to false perceptions, and as the knots tangle and ultimately break, Davies dives in with unrelentingly gorgeous takes. The actors are captured at their most passionate moments. It’s not what they do, but how they do it. That simple early shot of Weisz in the study, turning a delicate, forced smile to quiet tears captures the profound sadness that is this tragic story.

The Deep Blue Sea is not a fun film, but it is an honest one… and beautifully shot. Davies, who happens to be a gay man raised in 1950s post-war England, captures not only this difficult form of love expertly but also the era. Love is a powerful feeling and few films can capture that power as well as this movie. Too often writers have to cook up stories that falsely try to represent the feeling. It’s a sublime experience that demands a sublime touch, you’ll find that in the Deep Blue Sea.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

*Yes, I know the Vow is based on a true story, but leave it to Hollywood to adapt it into a movie. Plug in While You Were Sleeping, Serendipity or even the Twilight movies, whatever such dreck you like. It’s all the same.

**This can only look good from a high definition projector or, better still, 35mm. Considering the range of theaters where this film opens in limited release, on March 23, 35mm, might be an option. Below are the many theaters where it opens in the South Florida area. Check the film’s official site for other venues. The film opens wider on March 30.

The Deep Blue Sea is rated R, runs 98 min. It plays opens in South Florida Friday, Mar. 23 at an array of theaters, including:

Miami:  Miami Beach Cinematheque, UM’s Bill Cosford Cinema, AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place
Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre, Boca Raton: Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood 16
Delray Beach: Movies of Delray, Regal Delray Lake Worth: Movies of Lake Worth,  Jupiter: Cobb Jupiter 18

If you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).

But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.

Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.

During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.

After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.

However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.

The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.

Hans Morgenstern

Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)