Not only does the story of a seductive female spy give Dutch director Paul Verhoeven the opportunity to again explore screen sexuality in vivid and unflinching ways, but by placing his heroine in the midst of the German SS headquarters during World War II, "Black Book" also gets to dole out violence, torture and double-crosses regularly. Basically, everything that's made him famous with American audiences (i.e. "Showgirls", fascism in "Starship Troopers") gets a once-over in subtitles. Luckily, "Black Book" is also tense, intricately plotted and features one of the most gorgeous female screen presences I can remember in many years. And for those of you lusting over a pubic hair shot ala "Basic Instinct", you get that as well. In her role as Rachel/Ellis, actress Carice Van Houten certainly goes through hell. From seeing her hiding place go up in flames as she idylly lays on a pier in the film's opening moments to almost being drowned by a bucket of human feces dropped on her head in a torturous act of humiliation by her fellow countryman after the war, van Houten manages to keep her dignity throughout. Verhoeven often uses women as malicious and dangerous, but for the first time, he envisions a female character with courage and resilience. And van Houten embodies the role as Rachel/Ellis with patience. She is classical and modern at the same time. Her face recalls the stars of silent film while she uses her body and sexuality with a modern sense of abandonment. Even during some clunky moments of direction from Verhoeven, van Houten and the strong resolve of the films narrative make "Black Book" a rewarding film experience.
Settling into my seat at Nimrod Antal's "Vacancy", I began to get that sinking feeling as trailer after trailer rolled, featuring the likes of Eli Roth's "Hostel 2" and some other shameless pic that exploits torture as a means of cinematic catharsis. Ever since the "Saw" series and Roth's 2 "Hostel" pics (and even to some extent John Stockton's "Touristas"), the genre of torture pics has grown exponentially, not only out-selling each other which commends the filmmakers for making horror films that relies on blood and gore rather than artistic creativity in sound and mood, but out-grossing each other as well. What could be more sickening than a girl falling into a pit of used hyperdermic needles?! I'm sure Eli Roth will come up with something in his latest. And not that I'm totally against the expoitation genre (I grew up with so many great 80's slasher flicks and discovered a host of terrificly twisted grindhouse films over 6 years ago), it's just that the current crew of filmmakers have substituted laziness for substance. They're not even fun in a cheesy manner, just nasty. Luckily, Antal's "Vacancy" doesn't follow the current schematic and the trailers were all just a prime example of Hollywood marketing at its finest. The idea of the 'snuff film' has been an exploitation jewel since the early 70's, lending itself to the main plot of films such as "Last House On Dead End Street" (which was widely considered a snuff film itself for many years due to the unknown wherabouts of many of the film's no-name actors and director) and less so intriguing in Joel Schumacher's "8MM", in which Nick Cage hams it up way before he was hamming it up in recent films. Antal's "Vacancy" plays with the idea of a snuff film as a peripheral effect, clearly sympathizing with his two lead characters more than others lost in this genre. There's some bloodshed, but it's not overdone. And though his characters do make some bone-headed mistakes which show the subtle failings of Mark L. Smith's screenplay, what redeems the film is the tough resilience exhibited by Beckinsale's performance. Moreover, the film features an extremely unsettling soundtrack full of loud shrieks and ambient noises that heightens the already failing psychological tension of Amy and David. And, as in Antal's previous film, the wonderfully atmospheric Hungarian film about a murderer on the loose in the underground Budapest train station called "Kontroll", "Vacancy" gives us a tightly controlled, claustrophobic look at a surreal environment totally controlled by a madman. Antal is clearly at home in this insomniatic world. And he has some great potential ahead of him.
Smokin Aces (DVD)
Director Joe Carnahan's film certainly impressed me more than expected. I loved his pevious film, "Narc", which earned a spot of my favorites list from that respective year, and it's clear he loves his violence and mayhem. While some of the dialogue in "Smokin Aces" reeks of that post-Tarantino style of talking, Carnahan knows how to frame and squeeze every ounce of tension from a shoot-out. Some of his actors (especially Taraji Henson, Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) even manage to scrape together some emotional connections that overcome the falsities of the script (i.e. an exaggerated group of neo Nazi hitmen that serve more as a fatalistic in-joke than anything else). This was an enjoyable romp that features a 'twist' ending that actually kinda makes sense. Carnahan's use of music in this film is also quite good.
Forty Shades of Blue (DVD)
I wasnt a big fan of Ira Sachs previous uber-indie film called "The Delta", but "Forty Shades of Blue" is a miraculous little movie. Full of understated moments, a brilliantly underplayed lead performance from actress Dina Korzun and a moving score, this is a strong movie that turns a well-tread narrative (son comes into an older womans life and shakes up her sexual and emotional existence) into an interesting examination of one womans life. And the final few minutes are quite devastating in their own small way. It's an 'arthouse ending', but altogether satisfying.