Oblique. Unsettling. Grim. Just a few words to describe this Finnish-Russian horror film that has stayed with me much longer than anticipated. Given a bit of steam last year when it played at the Toronto Film Festival as well as Fantastic Fest, A.J. Annila's psychoanalytical (and metaphorical.. and allegorical) horror tale takes its time, yet it's the type of scary movie that relies on atmosphere and ideas to burrow beneath your skin. Following the end of the 25 year war, a group of Swedish and Russian soldiers are given the task of mapping out a new boundary between the countries in the late 16th century. Eerik (Ville Vertanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen) are brothers. Eerik is having a difficult time dealing with the peace that now exists between the countries. As they venture further into the heavily wooded wilderness, strange occurrences start happening, not the least of which may be tied to the gruesome acts Eerik has committed in the past. A woman keeps re-appearing to Knut from a distance. A dead fox is discovered with its eyes clawed out. Compasses inevitable lead the group into a large swamp area where they encounter a village full of people and a cement sauna that seems to be calling various members of the expedition. All of this is handled with extreme patience and dread by director Annila. The soundtrack is soon overtaken by low droning sounds... the camera often holds on a dark doorway for what feels like unbearable moments... the scares (when they do come) are fast and unnerving. "Sauna" is the type of horror film that rewards the more adventurous viewers. Several conclusions can be drawn from the film, and I'm still mulling over many of its suggested intentions. I've said it before and it's worth repeating: the best horror films are being produced overseas, and "Sauna" is the prime example.
The Girlfriend Experience
I stand amazed at the prolific career of Steven Soderbergh. While not all of his films always hit their mark with me (see this year's "Che"), his ability to sneak through genre, tone and ideas in such a quick way is admirable. His latest venture, "The Girlfriend Experience" is like a Godardian return-to-zero film. It doesn't amount to much as a whole, but on reflection, the ideas he hints at and the nonchalant, glacial performance of porn star Sasha Grey exert a calming power amidst a dazzling visual scheme. Obscuring any real emotions, often filming the speaking person from behind or off-screen (where we simply hear the voice and are forced to place it within the timeline of the narrative), and emphasizing background glass and space instead of his actors...."The Girlfriend Experience" continues Soderbergh's fascination with a person's overall presence in the world rather than hitting point A or B. Playing a high class escort, Grey nails the erotic side of her persona with a more human side, placing the narrative during last year's election when the presidency is oft-mentioned as well as the ensuing economic recession. In fact, for most of the film's initial scenes, we're given glimpses of Grey with her various clients where sex is often side barred and the conversation turns to the worries and anxiety of the downturn. Grey is relegated to the role of mother/psychiatrist, another clear indicator that Soderbergh is much more interested in ideas rather than the gimmicky attraction of "porn star" turned "mainstream actress". Thrown into the mix is a complicated relationship that exists between boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) and Grey. He knows what she does, and seems fine with it. She comes home to him every night. But one client makes Grey see something in herself and feels they connect, and makes plan to go away with him for the weekend. This plot point enters fairly late in the film. The rest of "The Girlfriend Experience" is all hazy context, relaxed conversation, calculated long takes and editing that breaks time into a mosaic rhythm. Soderbergh (who relishes this type of filmmaking) makes it all relevant and incessantly watchable. A very good film.
Angels and Demons
It's surprising how much better a film can be when they drop the mullet from it's leading man. But seriously, Ron Howard's second adaptation of a Dan Brown religious gobbely-gook novel is brisk, well acted and stands to defy the viewer's hip expectations. Just when I thought I had everything figured out, the film shifts its perspective and a new meaning opens up. Tom Hanks reprises his role as Professor Langdon, the uber-scholar on all things mysterious and secret in the world- this time his target is the always interesting idea of the Illuminati- and "Angels and Demons" hones its sights on the scathingly violent power clash that erupts within the Catholic church after the Pope dies. A group of Cardinals (led by the always estimable Armin Mueller Stahl) shuffles about like dons of a mafia family and a hit man runs rampant on the streets of Rome casually and methodically eliminating any carabineri who crosses his path. There are plenty of possible eye-rolling moments, but I found myself swept up in the film's mad dash for ancient statues, fire-and-brimstone-clues and engaging performances. One has to carry a certain affinity for this type of film (aka the avid listener of, say, Coast to Coast nightly) and I dug it.