Are we in a movie lull?
Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, September 9, 2010
… through Wednesday, September 15
by Thomas Ohlson
Best Bets: Three Colors [at AF].
“A lull, you say?”
This is Issue Number 45 of Volume 5 of these listings.
EU Film Festival in Bangkok: Oct 21 to 31.
1st Doi Saket International Film Festival: Oct 23 to 30. Film list now available: http://dsiff.tumblr.com/films
World Film Festival in Bangkok: Nov 5 to 14.
Bangkok International Film Festival: Nov 19 to 29.
EU Film Festival in Chiang Mai: Early November.
Luang Prabang Film Festival in Luang Prabang: Dec 4 to 11. Open air, free, 30 films. www.lpfilmfest.org
Seems to me like a particularly dull wasteland we’ve been in for some time now, as regards movies. Do you feel that way, or is it just a mood I’m in?
Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week
* Resident Evil: Afterlife: UK/ Germany/ US, Action/ Horror/ Sci-Fi/ Thriller – 1 hr 37 mins – The series continues. This time, in a world ravaged by a virus infection turning its victims into the Undead (in other words, Zombies), Alice (Milla Jovovich), continues on her journey to find survivors and lead them to safety. Her deadly battle with the Umbrella Corporation reaches new heights, but Alice gets some unexpected help from an old friend. A new lead that promises a safe haven from the Undead takes them to Los Angeles, but when they arrive the city is overrun by thousands of Undead - and Alice and her comrades are about to step into a deadly trap. Rated R in the US for sequences of strong violence and language. Shown in both 3D and 2D versions at Airport Plaza (and the 3D version is for a change real 3D); in 2D and Thai-dubbed only at Vista.
In regards to the 3D process used, I want to emphasize that this is real 3D, in fact using Pace Fusion 3-D cameras, the same cameras James Cameron created with Vince Pace for a number of Cameron’s documentaries, as well as his feature Avatar. Cameron waited ten years until the 3D technology caught up with the vision he had for Avatar, and he was deeply involved in the invention and development of the technology. His systems and cameras remain at the cutting edge of 3D technology. Now, why they would want to use all this marvelous technology for a zombie flic is another question entirely. But I want to do my bit to clear up the confusion as to what kind of 3D is actually being used under the generic and often misleading label of “3D” by places like Major Cineplex. They charge the same price for genuine 3D like this film as for rip-off cheapie post-production 3D, which takes a 2D film and adds some 3D feel to it. And they never let on. Shame, shame.
As to the movie, it really hasn’t been shown prior to its release tomorrow in most of the world. We don’t know what we’re in for.
The Expendables: US, Action/ Adventure/ Thriller – 1 hr 43 mins – Directed by Sylvester Stallone. A team of mercenaries head to South America on a mission to overthrow a dictator. Rated R in the US for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language; 18+ in Thailand. Mixed or average reviews: 45/52 out of 100. (Bold scores are from Metacritic / light scores from Rotten Tomatoes.) Thai-dubbed at Vista.
Actually, I found it kind of fun to see some of these old-timers do their thing and joke around in their inimitable way. The film is put together in a thoroughly professional way, with some nice bits. The one-liners are kind of witty in their testosterone-laden way, and the amazing Mickey Rourke once again comes though with a character who is utterly believable, however disreputable, and an acting job that is another small gem. What a treasure he is, after all he’s been through.
But as for the film . . . Jeez, I’m just sick and tired of explosions and car wrecks.
Rotten Tomatoes: Consensus: It makes good on the old-school action it promises, but given all the talent on display, The Expendables should hit harder.
USA Today, Claudia Puig: This is truly a movie that nobody needs -- gratuitously savage, implausible, and sometimes incoherent.
Machete: US, Action/ Adventure/ Crime/ Thriller – 1 hr 45 mins – Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez. The highly skilled “Mexican Federale,” Machete, is hired by some unsavory types to assassinate a US senator. But just as he's about to take the shot, he notices someone aiming at him and realizes he's been set up. He barely survives the sniper's bullet, and is soon out for revenge on his former employers, with the reluctant assistance of his old friend Cheech Marin, who has become a priest and taken a vow of nonviolence. Rated R in the US for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content, and nudity. Mixed or average reviews: 60/64 out of 100. Playing at Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza only, and according to their website, only in a Thai-dubbed version. I doubt that, and I think you’d better check at the box office. (Probably English with Thai subtitles.)
The film has gotten some people in the United States very upset indeed. For a taste of the dire consequences, such as race riots which the release of this movie is sure to create, follow the Alex Jones YouTube link in the second paragraph of the Times review below.
Rotten Tomatoes: Consensus: Machete is messy, violent, shallow, and tasteless -- and that's precisely the point of one of the summer's most cartoonishly enjoyable films.
New York Times, Stephen Holden: Conveniently timed to sprinkle gasoline on the fires of the immigration debate, Robert Rodriguez’s splatter comedy Machete has already riled up hardliners in advance of its release. Although laughter is the appropriate response to this pulpy, lighthearted gorefest, its pro-Mexican, anti-American stance is so gleefully inflammatory that some incensed nativists may refuse to get the joke.
Reacting to the film’s leaked screenplay, the radio talk show firebrand Alex Jones posted a YouTube video in which he warned that Machete could foment a “race war.” A comedy showdown with the Wayans brothers would seem more likely. Machete begins with a massacre involving a naked woman and many severed heads, and it keeps on slamming and banging with a gleeful, nose-thumbing insouciance. Making fun of itself as it goes along, this live-action comic book, with roots in the pungent swamp of 1970s B movies, was foreshadowed in a fake trailer Mr. Rodriguez made for Grindhouse, his 2007 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. The pace is swift, the tone playful, the screenplay peppered with one-liners.
A central joke is the casting of Danny Trejo, the 66-year-old Mexican-American actor and veteran of several Rodriguez movies (including Desperado and Spy Kids) in his first lead role as the heroic title character. With his buffalo-nickel head; craggy, unsmiling face; stringy hair; and superhuman facility as a knife thrower, Mr. Trejo offers an amusing inside-out caricature of the Hollywood stereotype of a Latin American drug cartel’s sinister enforcer who speaks in growled sound bites (“Machete don’t text”).
An ex-Federale, Machete has escaped to Texas after clashing with Torrez (Steven Seagal, in a rare turn as a villain), a Mexican drug kingpin who owns every politician on both sides of the border. In Torrez’s pocket is McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), a Texas senator who campaigns on a rabid anti-immigration platform and whom Mr. De Niro plays as a crinkly-eyed, hate-spewing hybrid of Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush; one campaign commercial compares illegal immigrants to cockroaches. From his smirking lips issue rhetorical bombshells that even the most fervent supporter of Arizona’s new immigration law wouldn’t dare utter in public.
Hired to assassinate McLaughlin, Machete is unknowingly set up as the fall guy. During the botched attempt, Machete is wounded, and in the movie’s funniest gag, he escapes from the hospital by lowering himself on dangling intestines. Slicing, stabbing, and shooting his way to glory, he ascends from day laborer to leader of an army of United States-bound Mexicans wielding garden tools. ...
For all its political button pushing, Machete is too preposterous to qualify as satire. The only viewers it is likely to upset are the same kind of people who once claimed that the purple Tinky Winky in “Teletubbies” promoted a gay agenda.
Hello Stranger / Kuan Muen Ho / กวน มึน โฮ: Thai, Comedy/ Romance – 2 hrs 15 mins – Riding the local wave of fascination in all things Korean (but especially the teen and tiny boy-band, pop-star craze), another director tries his hand at a rom-com about Thais in that mesmerizing country that seems to breed only cute muppets. In Thai only at Vista, with English subtitles at Airport Plaza. The number one film in Thailand currently, and a huge hit.
From Pakse with Love / Sabaidee 2: Mai Me Kamtob Jak Pakse / สะบายดี 2: ไม่มีคำตอบจาก…ปากเซ: Thai, Comedy/ Romance – 1 hr 40 mins – A follow-up sweet picture postcard from Laos following the first sweet picture postcard from Laos in this planned trilogy, 2008’s Sabaidee Luang Prabang. That movie starred Ananda Everingham, and was the first feature film made in Laos in 20 years. This one stars Ray Macdonald and Laotian beauty queen Khamly Philavong, reprising her role from the first film as a charming tour guide. At Airport Plaza only.
Ngao / เงา / Shadow: Thai, Horror/ Thriller – 1 hrs 23 mins – An anthology horror film which tells four stories of sins and the consequences of what will happen if you commit a sin. Rated 18+ in Thailand. At Vista only, and this week with English subtitles, apparently.
First Love / Little Thing Called Love / Sing Lek Lek / สิ่งเล็กๆ: Thai, Comedy/ Romance – 2 hrs – A young and ordinary high school girl has a big crush on a heartthrob senior at school, played by for-real heartthrob Mario Maurer. To make him see that she exists in his world, the girl tries to improve her physical looks and tries to become the star at school, without getting the results she wants.
Scheduled for September 16
Eternity / Chua Fah Din Sa Lai / ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย: Thai, Drama/ Romance – One of the most interesting Thai movies to come along in some time, for a number of reasons. Based on a revered and classic Thai novel of 1943, the film depicts a forbidden love story in which adulterous lovers are physically chained together for all eternity. It’s also gotten some controversy because of lots of nudity of the couple, perhaps especially the many views of Ananda’s rear end. But for me, I’m mostly interested in what the director will do. His name is ML Pandevanop Devakul, better known as Mom Noi, and he’s an interesting guy. He’s an acting teacher, arguably the best acting teacher in Thailand, the mentor of Ananda Everingham among others. He comes from a classical theatrical background. As a director he has presented some of the most severe examples of Western drama in Thai adaptations over the years, including Greek drama, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and modern American drama. Starring Ananda Everingham and Chermal Boonyasak. Rated 18+ in Thailand.
The Bangkok Post’s Kong Rithdee puts it like this: “Both Chermal and Ananda have attended Mom Noi's acting classes for over a decade. They're among a few dozen young actors who've been put through Mom Noi's supervision, by all accounts an obligatory step before newcomers can make a leap into the drama business. Mom Noi – who directed his first play, an adaptation of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, in 1974 – has taught acting for 30 years and actually put Ananda on the star map when he directed the actor's debut feature Anda Kab Fahsai in 1997.”
And looking forward
Sep 23: Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps: US, Drama – 2 hrs 13 mins – Oliver Stone directs Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Frank Langella, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Charlie Sheen, and Vanessa Ferlito in this scathing follow-up to the acclaimed 1987 film – 23 years later. Here the disgraced Wall Street corporate raider imprisoned in the first movie is released, and as the global economy teeters on the brink of disaster he partners with a young Wall Street trader on a two-part mission: To alert the financial community to the coming doom, and to find out who was responsible for the death of the young trader's mentor. Early reviews: Generally favorable: 72 out of 100.
* = Coming soon
AF = Alliance Française; FS = Film Space
At Alliance Française on Fridays at 8 pm
The Alliance Française shows its series of French films in a small room in their building at 138 Charoen Prathet Road. The building is directly opposite Wat Chaimongkhon, near the Chedi Hotel. Tell your taxi "Samakhom Frangset" and/or "Wat Chaimongkhon." A contribution of 30 baht is requested; you pay outside at the information desk of the Alliance Française proper.
On Friday, September 10, 8 pm: Trois Couleurs: Bleu / Three Colors: Blue (1993) by Krzysztof Kieslowski – 100 mins – France, Drama. English subtitles. With this film, the Alliance begins a repeat showing of the great Three Colors Trilogy of Kieslowski, some of my favorite of all films. The three films will be shown on successive Friday nights. For my money, this is a major film event for Chiang Mai. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 84 out of 100.
With Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Hélène Vincent, Philippe Volter, Claude Duneton, Hugues Quester, Emmanuelle Riva.
“Three Colors: Blue is the first part of Kieslowski's trilogy on France's national motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Blue is the story of Julie who loses her husband, an acclaimed European composer, and her young daughter in a car accident. The film's theme of liberty is manifested in Julie's attempt to start a new life free of personal commitments, belongings, grief, and love. She intends to spiritu
ally commit suicide by withdrawing from the world and live completely independently, anonymously and in solitude in the Parisian metropolis. Despite her intentions, people from her former and present life intrude with their own needs. However...”
– Alliance Française description
For me, Blue is a powerful motion picture - both in terms of its dramatic impact and in its method of presentation, and it is an adventure I prize highly.
Review by Bryant Frazer, at www.tu-harburg.de
It's hard to defend the artiness of BLUE. With a Kieslowski movie (maybe with all Kieslowski movies), either you get it or you don't. If you get it, you're a fan. The movie becomes a mystical, dream-like experience. You recall the most indulgent camera angles and close-ups at the oddest moments of your day. Perhaps you hum a few bars of Zbigniew Preisner's formidable score as you drink your coffee in the morning, or you have a nightmare about the kind of car crash that sets this story in motion. And when a friend doesn't appreciate the film -- in fact, they think it's a dull, pretentious throwback to the French New Wave or somesuch -- you find yourself speechless. It's hard to use words to explain the cinema's moments of great beauty, and you may as well give up before you begin.
THREE COLORS: BLUE is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy built around the precious themes of liberty, equality, and fratenity (the second and third films are WHITE and RED, respectively). The concepts correspond to the three colors of the French flag, and the conceit is actually less a stricture than a simple excuse for Kieslowski to make a set of movies that meditate on love, loss, and our essential humanity. Liberty is personified in the newly-widowed Julie (Binoche), who survives the automobile accident that kills her husband Patrice (a famous composer) and daughter Anna. This sea change in her life drives her to divorce herself from familiar people and surroundings, but she's dogged by an unwelcome artifact from her husband's life. His unfinished composition, Song for the Unification of Europe, is the subject of intense interest, and although Julie disposes of Patrice's notes for the piece (and tries to dispose of all her own memories), it continues to insinuate itself into her life until she confronts the music as well as her own devastated psyche.
It sounds very color-by-numbers, but the film is actually anything but. Kieslowski is a bold filmmaker, with a knack for hypnotizing an audience. As much as Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE seemed concerned with lenses, this one dwells on reflections -- Julie's face reflected on the curve of a spoon, a doctor's face reflected in the iris of her eye, filling the screen. The richness of imagery occasionally rivals that of a novel (Julie touches a sugar cube to coffee; as we watch, the sugar turns the luminous color of her own skin). And Kieslowski works at capturing the essence of memory and the passage of time. At four moments during the film, the screen fades completely and music swells Patrice's unfinished piece and then the music cuts, and the scene fades back in at exactly the moment where it faded out. It's part of the mystery of the film that a viewer can have an immediate and intuitive grasp on such an abstract device.
Intuition, indeed, is the driving force behind Kieslowski's films. The relationships and imagery are drawn so intricately that the pictures reward repeated viewing, and it's only on the second or third time around that the whole power of one of these films really becomes apparent. It's easy to belittle a film like this, with its languid pace, elliptical dialog, and propensity for introspection (navel-gazing?). Don't these somber sequences substitute a content New Age-ism for any real statements in response to the questions they pose? Isn't Kieslowski living in a blithe, egocentric dream world? How can we be expected to identify with the rich widow of a French composer as she mourns her way through Paris?
Yet through Binoche's performance and Kieslowski's guidance, we do identify. We feel Julie's aloneness even as we understand her resolve to cast off her sentiment and distance herself from the inexorable sadness. At the end of BLUE, as Preisner's music swells up on the soundtrack, all of the disparate characters and situations that make up Julie's story finally come together. Pictures recall pictures as Julie is finally reflected in the eyes of another, and the delicate shape of another character is traced on a video monitor, echoed in shades of blue. These final moments articulate character and contradictory emotion in one crystalline, irrefutable passage of images, absolutely wordless -- the very definition of great cinema. If you're asking the same questions as our director, the simple clarity of such images provides answers enough.
On Friday, September 17, 8 pm: Trois Couleurs: Blanc / Three Colors: White (1994) by Krzysztof Kieslowski – 91 mins – France, Drama. In Polish and French with English subtitles. Generally favorable reviews: 76 out of 100.
With Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr, Aleksander Bardini, Grzegorz Warchol.
“This is the second of the "Three Colors" trilogy Red, White, and Blue: the colors symbolizing liberty, equality, and fraternity. White, therefore, was written around the destructive dynamics of a relationship based upon great inequality. Karol is a Polish hairdresser working in France. He has a beautiful wife, Dominique, whom he loves to obsession, and who is in the process of divorcing him for his inability to "consummate the marriage.” Karol loses all of his earthly possessions and is literally driven out of France by his estranged wife. Karol decides to fight back...”
– Alliance description
White is perhaps the craziest of the three: Kieslowski moves quickly and fluidly through a careening narrative that encompasses love lost and regained, death and rebirth, France and Poland, abject poverty and capitalist triumph. All in 90 vivid minutes. It’s actually a comedy, though it might take a second viewing to convince you of that. A black comedy. Which I suppose is why it’s called White, Kieslowski being Kieslowski!
There’s an interesting film clip of an interview with Julie Delpy discussing and dissecting the ending of White, where her character uses sign language to communicate with her ex-husband. There seems to have been some disagreement about what her signs were meant to convey, and here she explains it all.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gqYoVAErLQ. Interestingly enough, this whole scene seems to have been an afterthought, and she was called back to film this additional scene in the middle of the shooting final film in the series, Red.
About the director:
"Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain."
Krzysztof Kieslowski (b. June 27, 1941 in Warsaw, Poland – d. March 13, 1996) was a leading director of documentaries, television and feature films from the 1970s to the 1990s. The social and moral themes of contemporary times became the focus of his many significant films and his unique humanist treatment of those themes secured his place as one of the greatest of modern film directors. He was a prominent member of the Polish film generation who defined the so-called "Cinema of Moral Anxiety" - films which tested the limits of Socialist film censorship by drawing sharp contrasts between the individual and the state.
Kieslowski graduated from the Lodz Film School in 1968 and began his film career making documentaries that were both artistic and political and aimed to awaken social consciousness. Workers '71 attempted to relate the workers' state of mind as they organized strikes. The people's desire for more radical change was addressed in Talking Heads. In 1973, social and political commentary infused The Bricklayer, the story of a political activist who becomes disenchanted with the hierarchy surrounding Party politics, and returns to bricklaying. Kieslowski's documentary Hospital (1976) is both homage to the hardworking surgeons in a Polish hospital, and a revealing look at the problems with health care in Poland.
His early feature films were made for television; they include Personnel and Calm. Because his feature films evolved from the documentaries, he continued to use documentary techniques to enhance and add realism to the fiction films. The Scar (1976) was Kieslowski's first theatrical release, a socio-realist view of management problems in a large industrial factory. He came to festival attention with Camera Buff (1979), a parody on the film industry, an exploration of the unknown and a wry commentary on censorship. Blind Chance, a 1981 feature film, concentrates on what role fate or chance plays in our futures.
In 1984, he began a longtime writing collaboration with Polish lawyer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz with No End. Set during Poland's martial law of 1982, it is the story of a dead lawyer who watches over his family as they continue on with their lives. His wife becomes involved in his last case involving a worker who had been arrested when he tried to organize a strike.
Kieslowski's mammoth Decalogue, co-written with Piesiewicz, is a series made for Polish television based on the Ten Commandments. Each episode is set in a contemporary apartment complex in Warsaw and is one hour long. Kieslowski tackled the project after feeling "tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of worse yet to come - everywhere, everything, practically everybody's life." The series was shown in its entirety as the centerpiece of the 1989 Venice Film Festival and is considered a masterpiece of modern cinema.
Lack of funds in Poland drove Kieslowski to seek financial backing from the West - most notably in France. The Double Life of Veronique (1992) firmly established Kieslowski with an international reputation. This moody, atmospheric study of two women, doppelgangers, one French, one Polish, who share the same name, birthday, heart condition, and a vague sense of the existence of the other, was a commercial as well as critical success and made a star of its leading actress, Irene Jacob.
The Three Colors trilogy, representing the colors of the French flag, Blue (1993, liberty), White (1994, equality) and Red (1994, fraternity) followed. The trilogy explores these three themes; in Blue, Juliette Binoche grieves as she loses her husband and child in a car accident and her new life and freedom cannot replace lost love. In White, a Polish hairdresser tries to regain the love of his ex-wife, a beautiful French girl played by Julie Delpy, and seeks equality in their one-sided relationship. In Red, Irene Jacob is a model who gradually falls in love with an older man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) after she accidentally [hits] his dog in a traffic accident. The retired judge arranges for her to "accidentally" meet someone her own age and for whom he thinks will be good for her. The films were scheduled to be released three months apart and while each can stand on its own; they were designed to be seen as a single entity.
Kieslowski periodically announced his retirement from filmmaking, though he never actually abandoned the cinema completely. His last project was to coauthor another trilogy with Piesiewicz, with the films tentatively titled Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Kieslowski died before the trilogy was completed. A chain smoker, the great director died following cardiac surgery at the age of 54. Heaven, the first in the trilogy, was completed in 2002 with Tom Tykwer at the helm and Cate Blanchett in the starring role.
At Film Space on Saturdays at 7 pm
September is “The Month of Sleepwalker” at Film Space.
Film Space is to the right and in the back of the CMU Art Museum, in the Media Arts and Design building across from the ballet school. Showings are in a classroom on the second floor or on the roof, weather permitting. A contribution is requested in the donation box at the entrance – you should leave at least 20 baht. Well worth supporting. All films not in English are shown with English subtitles.
At Film Space Saturday, September 11, 7 pm: Dream / Bi-mong / 비몽 (2008) written and directed by Ki-duk Kim – 1 hr 35 mins – Korea, Drama/ Fantasy/ Mystery/ Romance – In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. Jin awakes from a dream where he causes a traffic accident to find that the accident actually took place. The police suspect a woman, Ran, though she denies any involvement as she was asleep the whole time. It transpires that while Jin dreams, Ran acts out those dreams in her sleep.
Culture Views, Vomitron: One night, the introvert artist Jin causes a hit-and-run accident, only to wake up and discover it was just a nightmare. As if he felt it was some strange omen, he decides to jump in his car and drive to the crossroad where the accident occurred in his dream. There he sees it actually did happen. The police has already arrived at the scene of the crime. Convinced he is responsible for the accident, he’s shocked to learn the police already have a culprit, a young woman named Ran. Her car was spotted on a surveillance camera. During questioning however, Ran claims she was at home asleep, that night when the accident happened.
During those first 15 minutes of the movie, a solid mystery is presented. A logical expectation of any viewer might be for it to get more complicated, offering occasional thrills and twists. But basically, it doesn’t. There are a few puzzling surprises, but the mystery itself never fully develops and only a vague, possible explanation is given pretty early on in the movie. Instead, Dream turns into a much more personal, psychological film that toys with logic, at times even dislocating its own time/space framework. All this certainly doesn’t mean Dream results in a worse film than it should have been. On the contrary, it displays originality & authenticity. You just have to be prepared to follow the path Ki-Duk will take you on. And that is one of a descent into personal madness for the protagonist couple Jin and Ran. Mystery and fantasy are merely subtle undertones present throughout the film.
At Film Space Saturday, September 18, 7 pm: Insomnia (1997) directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg – 1 hr 36 mins – Norway, Crime/ Drama/ Mystery/ Thriller– In Norwegian and Swedish, with English subtitles. Two criminal investigators arrive in a town in the north of Norway to help the local police solve the murder of a young girl. Generally favorable reviews: 78 out of 100.
Rotten Tomatoes synopsis: Sent to a Norwegian town to help with a homicide investigation, tenacious detective Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and his partner set a trap for the suspect. But the fog-shrouded stakeout goes awry: Engström mistakenly shoots his partner, then covers his tracks -- forgetting that the suspect witnessed the killing. Soon, Engström's guilty conscience and insomnia in the land of the midnight sun lead to a downward spiral into chaos.
Reel Views, James Berardinelli: Most murder mysteries take place in the dark. Insomnia, a compelling thriller from first- time Scandinavian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, occurs in a state of perpetual light. The setting is north of the Arctic circle in the middle of summer. At that time and place, we have entered the land of the midnight sun, a strange world where daylight holds court twenty-four hours a day. Yet, even in such bright circumstances, the darkest impulses of the human soul can not always be held at bay.
Insomnia starts out like a relatively traditional murder mystery - the kind of thing that might play on any episode of the PBS TV series, Mystery. However, by the time the final reel has concluded, Skjoldbjaerg's film has revealed itself as something both interesting and unusual. The murder investigation has become almost secondary to a fascinating game of wits as the main character, Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgard), fights a multi-front psychological war against a killer and his own dark impulses.
Engstrom and his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), are cops from Oslo brought in to a small town to help with a murder investigation. A 17-year old girl, Tanja (Maria Mathiesen), has been found naked and dead, and the killer has carefully removed all traces of his presence by washing her hair and scrubbing under her fingernails. Engstrom and Vik, who have a reputation as Scandinavia's most effective and tenacious investigators, are on the case immediately, and an early break allows them to set a trap for the suspect. But things go wrong, and, in the confusion of a shoot-out, Engstrom kills Vik. He is about to confess this career-damaging act to the local police chief when the man gives him an unexpected way out. From that point onward, Engstrom finds himself trapped in an increasingly-complex web of deceit as he attempts to solve the crime while covering up his own misdeed. And, as his guilty conscience and the never-ending light keep him awake at night, the lack of sleep makes him increasingly desperate and prone to error.
Although Insomnia is not without its share of surprises and unexpected plot twists, it does not offer the red herrings of a whodunit. Instead, it's a dissection of moral decay - of a once-decent man whose circumstances cause him to contemplate actions that place him in an increasingly- indefensible situation. Along the way, he engages in the sexual molestation of a teenager and mistakes the flirtatious advances of a pretty hotel receptionist for something more serious. Engstrom is the kind of darkly complex, morally ambiguous character that American movies rarely highlight.
Stellan Skarsgard, the internationally-known actor who portrayed the paralyzed husband in Breaking the Waves and the math professor in Good Will Hunting, is strikingly effective as Engstrom. At the beginning of the film, he is calm, cool, and a little arrogant - the perfect picture of a cop who believes in his infallibility. By the end, he is a mess, both physically and psychologically. The role is challenging because it demands so many shifts in personality (some gradual, some sudden), but Skarsgard pulls it off with seeming ease. And, although we may not always identify with Engstrom (some of the things he does are difficult to sympathize with), he remains a magnet for our attention.
Insomnia works as a noir thriller of a different sort, where circumstances gradually warp a hero into a villain. Mysteries typically focus so intently on plot that there's little room for a detailed character arc, but Insomnia manages to balance both aspects. And, at a relatively short 97 minutes, it tells the story quickly and cleanly, then starts the end credits before we have a chance to tire of anything that Skjoldbjaerg has placed on the screen. For those in search of an intense noir thriller that challenges many of the basic tenants of the genre but still fits nicely within it, Insomnia is a superior choice.