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10.22.04

The Brown Bunny Primer SawWoman Thou Art Loosed

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Primer
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

A curious and haunting science fiction drama, Primer won the top prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. That alone is an impressive accomplishment. When you realize that it was done for a mere $7,000, it becomes an amazing achievement.

Shane Carruth, a mathematician who is reportedly a self-taught filmmaker, served as writer, producer, composer, editor and star of this ambitious and intelligent mind-bender. Shot with a 16mm camera and later blown up to 35mm, Primer may serve as a primer for all poor, wannabe directors.

Carruth’s story deals with four unusually smart men who are also neophyte entrepreneurs. Aaron (Carruth) and his buddies Abe (David Sullivan), Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) manufacture computer error-checking devices in a garage.

While working on some side projects with their excess materials, Aaron and Abe stumble upon a discovery that could have earth-shaking consequences. Keeping the finding to themselves, Aaron and Abe keep tinkering until they come up with a device that may or may not be a time machine.

Using the apparatus, they create “doubles” of themselves that appear in slightly differing moments in time. At first, Aaron and Abe use it to play the stock market and make some fast dough. As things progress, they are faced with dangers and ethical and moral dilemmas that they never anticipated.

The resulting events create an anxious atmosphere where the two friends find themselves at odds over what to do with their knowledge.

Carruth manages to create a strong sense of verisimilitude that is the hallmark of all good science fiction. As bizarre and unthinkable as a time machine might be, Carruth makes it all seem quite plausible.

With all time travel stories, however, there are plot holes. The film takes some strange twists and turns that are as odd as they are confusing. Viewers will find the resulting ambiguity to be either refreshing or annoying. Some may want to see it again while others will simply dismiss it.

But a film this smart can’t be easily dismissed. The moral conundrums that the film poses should prove irresistible fodder for post-movie coffee talk.

And, as Carruth aptly pointed out when he accepted his award at Sundance, he made the film for roughly “the price of a used car.” Sometimes when an artist’s hands are tied, the creativity that results from those limits can be quite remarkable.

Like it or hate it, Primer will make you think. That’s rarely a bad thing. PG-13) Rating: 4; Posted 10/29/04


Saw
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Saw contains a ton of typical horror movie imagery. There are dark rooms, booby-trapped hallways, gruesome crime scenes, rotting corpses, screechy rusty sound effects, talking mean-spirited puppets and eerie atmospheric rooms of death. First-time director James Wan is clearly playing by a rule first set down by David Fincher in Se7en — that everything must be old, bloody, filthy and decrepit.

Two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and John (Leigh Whannel) wake up in a locked dilapidated bathroom. Reinforced ankle chains bind them to opposite ends of the room and limit their mobility. Both men have no idea how or why they got there, and in the center of the room is a corpse with a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. When both men discover in their pockets tapes with instructions, they realize there is a possibility of survival but only if they play by a sadistic madman’s rules.

The title refers to the only visible way either man could escape. Both men have access to hacksaws that don’t cut through the ankle chains or locks. As Dr. Gordon dryly explains, “He doesn't want us to saw through our chains! He wants us to saw through our feet!

The bathroom scenes are terrifying, carefully paced and well acted. As clues and hidden objects are revealed the stakes go up and the pacing and intensity increase. The dialogue between these two characters is most effective when both of them do not know whether the other is an ally or an obstacle.

This vacillating trust ultimately drives the movie. There’s also a feeling of dread that permeates the whole project, while curiosity and camp makes the gruesomeness somewhat tolerable.

Saw is also filled with a lot of typical horror movie pitfalls. Characters break down into blind panics and get stupid. There’s a side story about an obsessed burnt out detective (Danny Glover) that trips up the movie on more than one occasion. There’s even a “child in peril” scene that is more offensive than scary. Shamefully, weapons are wrestled out of peoples’ hands four times in this picture!

Most importantly, Saw’s third act is so ludicrous that it all but destroys any sense of believability. Saw has a damn scary premise, and it’s carried off beautifully until the end when it becomes overburdened by its own sensationalism, gore and bravado. If the film had contained more scenes of intensity and less action, gore, twists and shocks, maybe it could have been a classic of the genre. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 10/29/04


Woman Thou Art Loosed
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of Woman Thou Art Loosed, Michelle Jordan (played by Kimberly Elise) walks toward the altar in a packed church. The choir is singing softly. The preacher is pleading for people to come forward and lay their burdens down. Michelle continues her halting steps, her eyes softening as though they’re about to melt with grief, her mouth tightening as though damming sorrow. She seems ready to break into tears and fall forward onto her knees.

But she doesn’t. Instead, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a gun. Her expression hardens. She fires several shots. The audience scatters. The screen goes black.

It’s a great opening scene and a shocking one, shocking because it marries the concept of life-saving grace with the too-common reality of consuming rage.

This film, based on a novel and stage play by Bishop T.D. Jakes, has been compared to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and there are obvious similarities between the two films. Both express a Christian viewpoint. Neither turns the lens from the dark side of human nature, and both were promoted through churches. But there’s a major difference in the focus and themes of the two movies. The Passion of the Christ focuses on love-motivated sacrifice, but Woman Thou Art Loosed takes an unflinching look at the rage that can simmer in a damaged soul.

Elise carries the movie with a measured portrayal of Michelle, a young woman hardened by pain. Her mother’s boyfriend, Reggie (played convincingly by Clifton Powell) molested her when she was only 12. Then Michelle’s lonely mother, Cassey (Loretta Devine), chose to ignore the abuse and ultimately favored the abuser over her own child.

The movie gives us insights into Michelle’s life through her conversations with Bishop Jakes while she’s on death row and through flashbacks to Michelle’s childhood and to the days preceding her crime. The filmmakers managed to provide a realistic glimpse of sexual abuse and the permanent damage it can inflict. But the strength of the film is that it doesn’t simplify the problem with one-dimensional characters.

Elise’s Michelle is sometimes hard, her words sometimes sharp and biting. But she is also vulnerable, charming and understanding at times. In turns she shows compassion for her mother, anger at her mother’s apparent betrayal and finally, blind rage.

Elise has played a range of challenged women from the developmentally disabled Loretta Claiborne on the small screen and to John Q’s Denise Archibald, the morally outraged and financially challenged mother of a dying boy, on the large screen. She manages to pull off the complexities of this role with admirable style. Her facial expressions tell a story beyond words, and she delivers her lines with just the right measure of restraint.

The supporting cast also delivers strong performances. Debbi Morgan handles the role of Twana, a friend of Michelle’s mother, with her typical air of wise sophistication. Loretta Devine brings life and complexity to the character of Michelle’s single mother Cassey. Michael Boatman uses his broad smile and easygoing manner to make the small role of Todd, Michelle’s childhood friend, memorable. And Bishop T.D. Jakes dramatizes his role as a soft-spoken, compassionate preacher with the finesse and understated style of a seasoned actor.

With all of these strong elements, the movie should be a hit with both secular and religious audiences. But the long and frequent church sequences will be a turnoff to some people who might have enjoyed the core story. The revival sequences at the church ran a total of about 20 minutes too long, and snippets of Jakes’ sermons hammered home points that would have worked better as dialogue. But overall, the film addressed a common but difficult and sometimes shocking topic with intelligence and compassion. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 10/29/04


The Brown Bunny
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How’s this for hyperbole? The trailer for the new film The Brown Bunny reportedly claims that it is “The most controversial American film ever made.”

Yes, there is a bit of controversy surrounding this curio, and that is its only real attraction.

When Roger Ebert saw Vincent Gallo’s film at Cannes, he said it was the worst film ever shown as the festival. Gallo angrily responded by saying that Ebert was “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.” Ebert countered by saying, “"Although I am fat, one day I will be thin, but Mr. Gallo will still have been the director of The Brown Bunny.”

Furthermore, Gallo reportedly put a “hex” on Ebert, wishing Ebert got cancer. Ironically, Ebert did.

Gallo has since re-edited his highly controversial movie and the recovering Ebert admitted that the new version is a great improvement. But The Brown Bunny is still a mind-numbingly dull exercise in self-indulgence that borders on self-delusion, and most of the controversy comes from Gallo’s erratic behavior. (He promptly fired both Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst from the project after they had already filmed several scenes.)

Gallo, a one-time model whose disheveled, grungy look was the embodiment of “heroine chic,” has been acting for some time. His first feature film as a director, Buffalo 66, was a long-winded drama set in his hometown. By comparison to The Brown Bunny,

Buffalo 66 was an exercise in concision.

In Gallo’s self-indulgent home movie, he plays Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer who embarks on a road trip from the East Coast to LA in order to be reunited with his lost love.

Model Cheryl Tiegs appears as a woman he meets at a rest stop and Chloë Sevigny plays Daisy, his LA girlfriend. The film is achingly monotonous in spite of their presence, with Gallo indulging in endless shots of him driving, looking glum and occasionally weeping.

Gallo has a knack for being able to establish a keen sense of the passage of time. The action in The Brown Bunny takes place over several days, and boy does it seem like it.

In fairness, there is a kernel of originality at the core of The Brown Bunny. The film’s payoff contains an idea that could have made the film worthwhile. If it had been a short subject, it might have had an impact.

In spite of the well-publicized hardcore oral sex scene at the climax — no pun intended — The Brown Bunny is an exercise in tedium. (Not Rated) Rating: 1; Posted 10/29/04


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