April 2, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEWS: “In A Better World,” “Rubber” & “Super”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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In recent years, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film has come to stand for not much more than a fair level of craftsmanship and a comfortable pitch of moral predicament (The Secret In Their Eyes, Departures, and The Counterfeiters are the most recent undistinguished winners).  This year’s winner, Susanne Bier’s IN A BETTER WORLD, won’t change that.  Bier, based in Denmark, is a very Hollywood-friendly foreign director:  not only did she direct the Halle Berry/Benicio del Toro vehicle Things We Lost In the Fire, but her Brothers became the basis for Jim Sheridan’s Tobey Maguire/Jake Gyllenhaal remake.  In A Better World, written by Anders Thomas Jensen, is a parable about the Cycle of Violence and the Nature of Evil, and how good people deal with the misfortune and cruelty that cross their paths; it’s all thoughtful, well-meaning and entirely schematic.  A chunk of the action takes place in an unnamed African country where a Danish doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) treats grievously wounded villagers, some of them the victims of a vicious warlord; eventually, the doctor will have to decide how to treat the warlord himself when he needs care.  Meanwhile, back in Denmark, the doctor’s son (Marcus Rygaard) has to deal with his parents’ impending divorce and bullying at school.  The boy is befriended by a new student (William Johnk Nielsen), who is himself coping badly with his mother’s recent death; he protects the doctor’s boy from the bully, but it becomes clear he’s burying his sorrow under increasingly terroristic violence.  We intercut between these sets of moral dilemmas, and despite fine acting, none of the characters ever rises above their place in the overall structure.  In the end, just about everyone survives their trial while learning something from the difficult experience, and they all but hug it out in the pat last reel.  Substitute New England for Denmark, and it’s a Lifetime movie.  There was a time when the Foreign Film Oscar went to adventurous, exciting works of art like Rashomon, La Strada, The Virgin Spring and The Tin Drum.  Now, sadly, the winners feel like they should have commercial breaks.  Watch It At Home.  (IN A BETTER WORLD – Sony Pictures Classics – R- 112 min. – Director:  Susanne Bier – Script:  Thomas Anders Jensen – Cast:  Marcus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen, Mikael Persbrandt – 4 Theatres)


A psychopathic killer lurks in the desert:  he is remorseless, possessed of psychokinetic powers, obsessed with a beautiful young woman, willing to cut down anyone who gets in his path… and he’s a tire.  That’s right, the focal character of the new RUBBER is a discarded car tire who comes to life and launches a vicious killing spree, rolling his way across the Southwest.  Quentin Dupieux’s horror (?) comedy (?) is, if nothing else, a truly original spin on a very old story.  It’s also a postmodern piece of meta-film, as characters break the fourth wall to explain thematic points and question their own reality, and “spectators” stand on a hill, watching the action through binoculars and commenting on the story.  To his credit, Dupieux (who wrote, photographed and edited as well as directed), never cracks a smile, and his cast, which includes Stephen Spinella and Wings Hauser, play it entirely straight as well.  Despite the ultra-low budget, the splattery murder effects and eerie sound design are handled very well.  Dupieux also realizes that a performance art piece like this will get–sorry–limited mileage, and keeps the film to a trim 75 minutes before credits.  Rubber isn’t exactly scary, and it’s not exactly funny, but I guarantee you’ve never seen another movie like it.  Worth a ticket.  (RUBBER – Magnet/Magnolia – R – 82 min. – Direction/Script:  Quentin Dupieux – Cast;  Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser – 5 Theatres/VOD)


The problem with SUPER isn’t that it’s a year late with the same basic premise as Kick-Ass and Defendor (an ordinary guy decides to fight crime by dressing as a super-hero, wreaking violent havoc along the way), but that writer/director James Gunn doesn’t come remotely close to finding a tone that would make the thing work.  Although the budget was low, there was clearly an aesthetic decision to make the film look as ugly as possible (Gunn’s last picture, the enjoyable Slither, had perfectly competent design, and cinematographer Steven Gainer has worked in the past with visual stylists like Larry Clark and Gregg Araki); presumably this is to match its squalid view of human nature.  It’s possible, of course, to find aesthetic glory in visual and moral ugliness, Taxi Driver being a masterful example–but Super is not Taxi Driver.   Super takes its premise to an extreme by making its “hero” (Rainn Wilson) stupid and essentially psychotic:  when his junkie wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Wilson attacks people with a wrench, bashing their brains in (the violence throughout is extremely graphic).   But then again, every character in the story is an idiot, and Gunn goes for broad laughs by having Wilson get a comic-geek sidekick (Ellen Page, easily the best thing in the picture), and letting Bacon play his part like a villain on the old “Batman” TV show.  If the idea is that caped genre vigilantes represent the darker side of humanity rather than being heroes, Super is a long, unpleasant way to make the point. Not Even For Free.  (SUPER – IFC – unrated – 96 min. – Director/Script:  James Gunn – Cast:  Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon – 11 theatres/VOD)


–Mitch Salem

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."