Saturday, April 26, 2014


(Israel - 2013; US release 2014)

Quentin Tarantino cited this Israeli import as his favorite film of 2013, and it's no wonder.  It's not only the work of a directing team (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) that obviously loves movies, but it's also frequently a slobbering fan letter to Tarantino himself. Not only is there a foot chase that replicates some shots of the Marcellus/Butch chase in PULP FICTION, but the second half of the film is essentially an extended homage to the RESERVOIR DOGS torture scene. Despite no hard evidence, loose cannon cop Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) is convinced that mild-mannered schoolteacher Dror (Rotem Keinan) is the pedophile serial killer who's been raping and killing young girls, decapitating them, leaving the bodies for the cops, and burying the heads in a secret place. Micki and some thuggish cops take Dror to an abandoned warehouse to beat a confession out of him, but a kid hanging around films them and posts the video on YouTube.  After he's read the riot act and busted down to traffic--burly captain Tsvika (Dvir Benedek) actually says "I'm gonna bust you down to traffic"--Micki starts tailing Dror on his own time, and is given a wink and silent approval by Tsvika to "deal with" Dror in any way he sees fit.  Micki's plan is derailed by Gidi (Tzahi Grad), the enraged father of the latest victim, who has his own plans for Dror and won't let Micki get in the way.  Gidi follows Micki following Dror, incapacitates both men and takes them to a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere, a house he bought for the sole purpose of taking Dror there to torture him and put him through what all of the dead girls have gone through.  He agrees to split the duties with Micki, at least until Micki realizes Gidi is a madman and instead forms a shaky alliance with Dror, the man he was going to kill on his own in the first place. Then things go from bad to worse when Gidi's aging father Yoram (Dov Glickman) unexpectedly shows up.

The filmmakers want to invoke a sense of Israel's history, and the occasional appearances by an affable Arab man on horseback ("Why do you Jews always think that we all want to kill you?") pay lip service to that, but really, BIG BAD WOLVES is just another vigilante movie, complete with broken and smashed appendages, cutting and slicing, yanked fingernails and toenails, and various blowtorchings, and while it's better than most, being in Israeli with English subtitles doesn't add a layer of arthouse cred or meaningful depth. There's no denying it's a very well-made film anchored by four terrific performances, and the directors get things off to a hypnotically powerful start with a hauntingly graceful De Palma-esque sequence of kids playing hide-and-seek.  There's also some amusing bits of dark humor throughout--the Arab stranger, circumstances forcing Micki to ride a kids bicycle, Tsvika and his young son ("It's take-your-child-to-work day") tearing into Micki over his initial handling of Dror (Benedek is a real scene-stealer)--and while some will decry it as little more than torture porn, it's a bit above that.  I don't think there's as much substance here as the filmmakers believe there to be, but enthusiastic filmmaking, an unabashed love of cinema, top-notch performances, and many instances of genuine suspense give BIG BAD WOLVES much credibility just as a solid, straightforward thriller, albeit one that's quite wince-inducing.  (Unrated, 110 mins)

(US/Romania/Belgium/Germany/France - 2013; US release 2014)

Based on the novel The Death of Ipu by Titus Popovici, who scripted the original 1971 Romanian film version THEN I SENTENCED THEM ALL TO DEATH, A FAREWELL TO FOOLS is a heavy-handed WWII-set morality tale that has too many mood swings to work effectively. The grim subject matter doesn't really mesh with the frequently comic presentation, complete with a bouncy, lighthearted score that sounds a lot like the sequence in THE GODFATHER PART II when young Vito Corleone and Clemenza broke into a house to steal an expensive rug. In a relentlessly hammy performance, Gerard Depardieu is Ipu, the idiot in a Nazi-occupied Romanian village who lives with a bullet from WWI lodged in his head and is regarded as a genial goof by the rest of the citizens. Ipu farms and does fix-it jobs and spends his free time playing war with lonely, mischievous orphan Alex (Bogdan Iancu), who lives with his aunt Margherita (Laura Morante) and minister uncle Johannes (a seriously miscast Harvey Keitel).  On the edges of the village, a friendly German soldier (Andrei Seusan) lets Alex ride his motorcycle, and when Alex finishes taking it for a brief spin, he finds the soldier lying dead with his throat slit.  The Germans in charge demand a confession from the guilty party or ten of the village's top authority figures and their wives will be executed at 5:00 the next morning. Rather than investigate the murder, Johannes and the rest--Margherita, the mayor, the police chief, the doctor, the notary public, etc., hatch a plan to invite Ipu over for dinner, butter him up, fill him with food and drink and convince him to take the fall, even though Johannes admits "Ipu was working with me all afternoon" when the soldier was murdered.

Johannes and the others are a reprehensible lot, and it's rather amusing watching them realize that Ipu isn't as dumb as he seems, but that's another problem with the film: Depardieu has been directed to play Ipu as whatever a particular scene needs him to be: lovable oaf, mischievous scamp, shell-shocked battle vet, or sly, duplicitous manipulator. Given significant latitude by director Bogdan Dreyer, the actor is all too happy to oblige and chew the scenery throughout, and Depardieu's gregarious presence is enjoyable even when it doesn't always make sense. It's possible that Ipu has been playing them to some extent all along, but 30 years is a long time to keep a ruse going (it also doesn't help that, at just 84 minutes, the film feels like it's been hacked down).  Morante does little more than shriek and act hysterical, while Keitel just looks tired, sounds hoarse, and has no business playing a Bronx-accented Romanian priest (Keitel has never been good with accents).  A FAREWELL TO FOOLS isn't a bad film, it's just a confused one that never finds a balance between its wildly varying tones of downbeat drama, biting satire, and borderline slapstick. Filmed in 2011, this bombed in its European release and only made it to a few theaters and VOD during its US dumping in early 2014. (PG-13, 84 mins)

(UK/US - 2014)

An overbearing would-be satire of office politics, WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is noteworthy only for the presence of a self-deprecating Jean-Claude Van Damme. JCVD plays Storm, a survivalist hired by an advertising CEO (Dennis Haysbert) to take the underlings in his firm to a distant island for a weekend team-building retreat in the wilderness.  The pilot keels over after they land, and Storm is mauled by a tiger, which prompts a battle of wills between nice-guy Chris (Adam Brody) and asshole Phil (Rob Huebel) as the staff splits into LORD OF THE FLIES factions. Phil rechristens himself "Orco" and turns the island into an orgiastic SURVIVOR nightmare that makes the Kurtz compound in APOCALYPSE NOW look cozy and inviting, while Chris, office hottie crush Lisa (THE BLACKLIST's Megan Boone), bunny-obsessed quirky girl Brenda (Kristen Schaal), and stoner Jared (Eric Edelstein) try to figure out how to get off the island. That description sounds a lot darker than the film really is, as director Rob Meltzer and writer Jeff Kauffman consistently go for the cheapest laughs, usually involving orifices and things that come out of them. The comparisons between cut-throat world of the workplace and "the jungle" are forced and obvious, and the early office scenes play like a tired retread of HORRIBLE BOSSES or OFFICE SPACE. There's nothing here other than the novelty of seeing Van Damme in a comedy, but the movie isn't that funny and doesn't make very good use of him as he's absent for long stretches--Storm survives the tiger mauling and turns up again later, only to disappear once more until the climax--which probably has more to do with the filmmakers only having him for a limited time (of course, as per his usual package deal, he's brought along the dead weight duo of son Kristopher Van Varenberg--one of the film's 29 credited producers--and stunningly untalented daughter Bianca Bree).  The Chris vs. Phil plot line is bland and predictable, and WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE feels a lot like a rambling SNL skit that won't end. (Unrated, 94 mins)

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