Review- Chernobyl Diaries

The nuclear incident in Chernobyl is one of the most unfortunate events in modern human history. It’s effects are far-reaching in terms of both distance and time, as the illnesses caused by radiation spread far and wide. Lest you confuse this with a Wikipedia entry that’s about as much as I need to say up front save that the Chernobyl incident is one I learned a great deal about and have a tremendous amount of sympathy for. Therefore, despite the fact that it’s rare, this was a film I was likely to be sensitive to in the horror genre. However, I went in hopefully, as horror cannot play it safe and I was rather surprised that this angle hadn’t yet been taken.

One of the few things I can happily report is that the film is not overly-exploitative. The deliberate pacing of it, the restraint it shows and the fact that it takes the point of view of a group of American tourists looking for an extreme locale make it much more palatable.

However, that is not to say it works entirely. The film works to about its midway point and then it starts to seriously degenerate into typically silly, dumb tropes that are only half-baked and highly illogical. Granted Hitchcock had a very valid point about feasibility, and it usually doesn’t come into play in horror, but what I mean is it seems the consequences of the exploration could’ve been greater and more logical simultaneously, so why not do that?

The set-up works very well and what’s more the acting is quite good. I speak frequently of acting when it comes to horror films because quite often it is not a prerequisite for this kind of film, or many actually, to have exceptional thespians to work on a narrative and technical level. However, this film has no weak-link that stands out in that regard. Particularly effective is Jesse McCartney, who not only plays the requisite Doubting Thomas but also spends a good deal of time injured. He is a talented actor who should be getting many more chances to show what he can do aside from being my favorite Chipmunk.

The film thankfully doesn’t take the found footage approach but there are a few unusual decisions visually. Some of them work well, some of them not so well. When the tour group is first threatened we watch the first search part go out from afar, see muzzle flashes, hear off screen noises but we eventually lose them. In a vacuum it’s an effective tactic, however, combining it with how minimal the rest of the film is it’s regrettable in hindsight. Towards the end there looks like there’s an incredible fight and struggle. The shame of it is I can’t see it because of the crazy handheld swish-pans and frenetic editing. The handheld camera in modern cinema is perhaps the biggest double-edged sword. Much vitality is added to action shots with the jostling that goes on, with the proximity that we get to the subject, but the pace of the edit needn’t be as frantic as the framing if we need to see something.

The climax of the film and the conclusion is so unsatisfying it nearly taints all that preceded it. Now, it’s is by no means The Devil Inside but perhaps this would’ve been a case where a few more incidents and a little less explanation would’ve made a bigger impact. The film falls close to over-explication than under and perhaps less truly would’ve been more here.

The Chernobyl Diaries
simmers for a while and never really comes to a full boil, which in the end leaves it tepid and a bad taste in your mouth.

4/10

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Thankful for World Cinema- Son Frère

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Son Frère

Bruno Todeschini and Eric Caravaca in Son Frère

This is quite an interesting French drama about the difficult relationship that two brothers have. One of whom is gay and receives his brother one night as learns he is fighting a mysterious and seemingly incurable disease.

One thing that is interesting about this film is that while it does deal a lot with treatment of this illness it goes out of its way to say that the disease even has a name but never says what it is. It insists on being about the patient and the care-taking brother and not the disease itself.

Aside from being a relationship film that doesn’t take the traditional route of dealing incessantly with whatever relationship it addresses. It also deals with death obviously, but moreover with being a patient. In examining those with chronic illnesses it casts an eye on the hopelessness of it all and the fear of surgery.

In that vain there is an amazing one-scene performance by Robinson Stévenin in which the brother witnesses the fear very sharply by seeing someone else in pain.

The film works very sure-handedly and keeps its pace steady but don’t let it fool you in that regard because there is a climax coming and it might even fool you in that regard. You may miss it or its impact immediately but it is one that leaves you thinking.

It is a very intimate and taut drama that is worth looking up.

8/10

Review- The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

The First Beautiful Thing is an Italian film which can be characterized in a few different ways but it’s mainly a biopic without the celebrity and a character study without the self-indulgence. It concerns Bruno (Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns home to see his estranged family as his mother is terminally ill in the hospital.

The first interesting thing about this film is that it tells simultaneous tales in a fractured narrative, which unapologetically, artistically flows back and froth in time unannounced. Thus, we first meet Bruno and his sister Valeria when they are quite young and their mother is being awarded “Prettiest Mom” at a beauty pageant at random. This scene is mirrored beautifully at the climax and we truly see why it was so crucial to have that scene be first. Bruno and his mother saw that event in very different ways; Bruno’s view being similar to his father and to an extent it shaped both him and his relationship with his mother.

This film doesn’t put on any airs when dealing with intra-familial relationships and shows them for what they are. Cultural attitudes, the estrangement and the scenario allow them to be more open than they might be otherwise but there’s still a lot of imperfection, unconditional love and silent forgiveness shown throughout. This is a film that could very easily go into over-the-top melodrama but it is beautifully restrained throughout and slowly lets go of the reins allowing for a catharsis only at the end of the film.

This film is littered with very good performances. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film wherein it would get tedious to cite them all when there are many other facets of them film also worthy of attention. However, consider this each of the three main characters have more than one actor playing them. The children have 3 stages: child, teen and adult and there’s a young version of the mother and an elderly one. All of of them are quite strong an each is playing one character in such a way that we can see the trajectory of their life. Bruno, for example, is now professor, afraid of committing, hooked on drugs, stone-faced and wary of seeing his family anew. The actors playing Bruno in earlier moments chronologically have to make this interpretation acceptable and possible and they do.

The film plays out as a tragicomic one as there are certainly moments of genuine laughter and joy and moments that can and likely will bring tears to your eyes. It strikes a delicate balance of poking fun at truths we know about family life and also knowing what draws us in and brings us back home no matter how prodigal we may be.

Similarly coming off an absolutely absorbing and wrenching climax you get a quietly resolute denouement that ends the film on just the perfect uplifting note after the expected occurred.

The First Beautiful Thing, as intimated above, is accomplished technical film. The edit works quite well aesthetically and technically to blend time. The cinematography is often lush and places us in the right perspective to properly absorb the emotion of a scene (whether in overhead, creative over-the-shoulder or wide). The score and occasional use of source music, especially the songs the kids sing with their mother, is spot on.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to date this year. It’s the kind of film you feel as if you experience not merely watched. It’s engaging on all levels.

10/10