Friday, February 3, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MILL & THE CROSS (2011), OUTRAGE (2010)

(Poland/Sweden - 2011)

THE MILL & THE CROSS is that rarest of happenings: a truly unique, original film experience.  It's admittedly a film of very limited interest and not without flaws, but Polish auteur Lech Majewski, whose work has been little-seen in the US, has created one of the most visually breathtaking films to come down the pike in a long time.  A mix of CGI, greenscreen, and old-school matte work creates a look that almost seems 3D without being as such.  Majewski's film deals with Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary," and places Bruegel, played here by Rutger Hauer, in the middle of the painting as we observe his inspiration and creation of the famed work of art. 

The painting puts Christ's crucifixion in a contemporary 16th century Flanders, where Bruegel and his friend and benefactor Peter Jonghelink (Michael York) witness Protestant Flemish persecution at the hands of the Catholics of the Spanish Militia. Using the crucifixion as an allegory for the atrocities committed by the Spanish Catholics, Bruegel observes all and conveys it in his art, and Majewski, in effect, turns the film into a living, breathing painting.  It's hard to describe and I didn't really get what the film was going for just by reading about it.  But seeing it...you've never seen anything like it.  The detail and depth of every shot is simply astonishing, and the film is at its best when Majewski just lets the camera roam around "the painting" and we see the painstakingly recreated daily routine of Flemish life. 

Oddly, the weakest elements are the dialogue scenes, which come off as tediously lecturing in a way that recalls the dry educational films that Roberto Rossellini made at the end of his career.  It's no fault of the actors, but Hauer, for instance, isn't playing Bruegel as a character as much he is a tour guide.  Much of his dialogue could've come straight from Wikipedia.  The same goes for York, whose job is to basically ask Hauer "Do you really think you can express that?" and provide background info that makes Peter Jonghelink come off more like a 16th century Flemish ancestor of Basil Exposition.   THE MILL & THE CROSS is by no means a mainstream film, and will likely be relegated to screenings in college Art History courses, but from a purely visual, cinematic standpoint, it's highly recommended.  How did this not get any visual effects Oscar nods? (Unrated, 96 mins)

(Japan - 2010; 2011 US release)

Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano's first starring "Beat Takeshi" yakuza vehicle since 2001's BROTHER seems like little more than a series of escalating slights and insults between rival yakuza.  Almost every scene involves a bunch of pissed-off gangsters busting each others' balls until punches are thrown, shots are fired, or someone has to chop off their own pinky in disgrace.  Kitano, again acting as "Beat Takeshi," still has a powerful screen presence and it's great seeing him in this kind of film again, but his past works of this sort like SONATINE had a bit more substance to them.  That's not to say OUTRAGE isn't entertaining.  It is, and very much so.  There's a lot of dark humor, a synthy '80s-style score, and some inspired scenes of insane violence (Takeshi slashing a guy's face with a boxcutter; accosting another during a dental appointment and drilling deep into his gums; forcing another to stick out his tongue and then quickly cracking him on the chin; one guy getting stabbed in the ear with chopsticks), but the plot is confusing as hell and the fact that every scene ends with someone getting punched actually becomes comical. You could make a drinking game out of it and you'd be hammered by the 40-minute mark.  It's almost as if every character in the film is modeled on Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS/CASINO mode.  The grim finale aside, perhaps Takeshi intended this to be a sick black comedy.  It certainly works when approached from that angle. (R, 109 mins)

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