After three epic-length, extended-cut, double and triple multi-disc dippings of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is this week's release of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" really any less expected than another Hollywood sequel, remake or reboot? Furthermore, save yourself 160 minutes of the atrociously conceived, off-key "Les Misérables" or 134 minutes of the whiny, self-indulgent "This is 40" and seek out this trio of underrated, international indies, plus an absolute must-have classic. (Although, to be perfectly fair, "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Rust and Bone" are worth all 157 and 120 of their respectively thrilling minutes.)
From its first couple of episodic, sexually explicit sequences, director Sacha Polack's sophisticated, stunning debut might seem like "Shame" may have been transposed to the Netherlands, with Michael Fassbender's agonized addict now a twentysomething Dutch girl, but that's not quite the character study "Hemel" aims to be. The title translates to "Heaven," an unusual name for a promiscuous young woman (played fearlessly, shrewdly and vulnerably by the ravishing Hannah Hoekstra) who couldn't be further away spiritually. Hemel is a brazen hedonist, telling strangers in bars how wet she is before taking one home, but she's an emotional woman-child whose compulsive flings and provocative behavior are driven less by lust, addiction or misplaced love than a masked, terrified desperation to avoid actual intimacy. It surely doesn't help her stunted maturity that her closest ally and role model is her bachelor father Gijs (Hans Dagelet), himself a habitual womanizer who burns through younger lovers quickly, and their nonconformist father-daughter dynamic is overaffectionate, even inappropriate—subtly Oedipal, but not outright incestuous so much as sensually goading; they're slutty peas in a pod. But Hemel's real deterioration, painted into the crisp dialogue, wistfully electronic score and her own evocative, alienated expressions, begins after Gijs is grounded by a kind-hearted, down-to-earth new partner, unleashing in our eponymous heroine combative hissyfits and an abrupt need to grow the fuck up.
"The Big Picture"
Welcome, not just derivative strains of Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and even Antonioni's "The Passenger" lie in the DNA of this terrifically unpredictable French thriller, arguably more Chabrol-esque than Hitchcockian in its sharp psychological focus. Headlined by a scruffy, angst-ridden Romain Duris ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Dans Paris"), director Eric Lartigau's adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel concerns the existential plight of a wealthy Parisian lawyer who only finds himself by becoming someone else. Paul (Duris) is partner to a successful firm, with beautiful children and a wife (Marina Fois) who is slowly drifting away right under his roof. His workaholic nature represses the fact that he feels cramped and empty inside, envying his photog neighbor Grégoire (Eric Ruf) for staying true to his artistic passions despite not having much money. But there's also a toxic friction between the two men, especially once Paul suspects the guy is sleeping with his wife, an assumption that leads to a confrontation and accidental death. Past the point of no return, Paul kills off "himself" and swaps identities with the dead guy, not just to start a new life away from his family, but to take up his photography hobby as a newly vetted professional. The back half of the film demands a profound suspension of disbelief that's more fitting for B-movie junk than such polished naturalism as this, but there's both poignancy in the idea of a mid-life crisis pushed to its tensest extreme, as well as every feral, fearful tic of Duris' unforgettably charismatic performance as a man whose peculiar new freedoms are a result of both calculation and utter carelessness.
"The Other Son"
(Cohen Media Group)
The predictable themes of most Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramas—tolerance, equality, religion, loyalty, and the more direct "what exactly does it mean to be _______?"—are given a freshly humanistic resonance in French filmmaker Lorraine Levy's switched-at-birth drama. About to turn 18 and enter the army in Tel Aviv, Joseph (Jules Sitruk) is given a blood test that reveals an uncomfortable truth about his birth: as a Gulf War missile strike hit the hospital where he was born to a French doctor mother (Emmannuelle Devos) and Israeli army officer dad (Pascal Elbé), he was unfortunately given to the wrong parents. His biological parents (Khalifa Natour and Areen Omari) instead raised Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi) in the West Bank, and therein lies a mess of emotional tensions, conflicting ideologies, and the uneasiest of decisions. Melodramatic if honest, logical admissions rear their head (Joseph sulks at first: "Will I have to trade my kippa for a suicide bomb? Am I still Jewish?"), but where Levy earns the film's unexpectedly heartfelt optimism is in allowing the fairly progressive-minded boys to try to accept instead of fear their weighty fates, while the older generation has a more difficult time moving forward. (In one warmly comical scene, the two fathers sit in a café together, sipping coffee in silence because they don't actually know what to say to one another.) Far from preachy, the outstandingly acted "The Other Son" doesn't betray age-old histories and despairing truths, but reaches a convincing, moving conclusion that hopeful sensitivities and irresolvable politics aren't mutually exclusive.
Blu-ray of the Week: "Badlands"
The richest discovery in revisiting the fairy-tale Americana of Terrence Malick's 1973 on-the-lam crime drama and directorial debut, long before his massive ambitions began to sink into occasionally self-parodic pretentiousness (don't get this writer wrong: every new Malick picture is a reason for celebration) is that "Badlands" has a buoyant, off-kilter sense of humor that's sorely missing from later work. Plenty of ink has been spilled—and bile, in Pauline Kael's case—about outlaw lovers Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) and teenage Holly (Sissy Spacek), their oddly romantic cross-country murder spree, the mystical magic-hour panoramas that you can never unsee, and the film's tricky tone of ferociousness and banality. Criterion's newly 4K-transfered Blu-ray, an absolute must-have for anyone collecting the canon, doesn't just highlight the sun in Spacek's hair, her amazing green dress ascending the staircase, or the panoramic plains. It also throws Malick's auspicious beginning into historical and artistic context with an all-new 42-minute featurette. Sheen talks about his early relationship with Malick that led to him taking a part that he felt he'd be too old for, while Spacek discusses how production designer and future husband Jack Fisk has a Stanislavski-like way to help her find character through clothing. Fisk, in turn, remembers how an inexperienced assistant almost turned the film's iconic house fire into tragedy, and why a panel was removed from Warren Oates' painted sign to give Malick more sky and depth ("You can't paint Terry in a corner"). In a separate interview, producer Edward Pressman speaks anecdotally about the film's then-unprecedented $1-million advance and the veteran script supervisor who kept her slate upside down in protest of a young new director whose untested shooting methods weren't going to match up later. Associate editor Billy Weber, who also worked on "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" talks about reshooting, unintended montages, cutting to the rhythm of voiceovers, and his personal philosophy on why movies cannot be "saved in the editing room." All that's missing is the notoriously publicity-shy Malick, but it's safe to say that even without his input, this delicious remastering (presided over by "Tree of Life" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) is still a buckshot to the stomach.
Aaron Hillis has written about film for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, LA Weekly, Variety, Filmmaker, IFC News, Premiere and Spin. He is the former curator of the reRun Gastropub Theater, and the new owner of Video Free Brooklyn (three-time "Best Video Store in NYC" winner, 2012/2013).