Film reviews: April 7

The landscape of war was never more unsparing than in the prizewinning documentary Armadillo. A Danish film about death, injury, cruelty and despair, it grabs us for 100 minutes by the most pain-sensitive parts of our hearts and minds. The movie’s nationality, somehow, makes a difference. We are accustomed, and almost anaesthetised, to the sight of British and American soldiers being hastened to hell in handcarts in a province aptly named Helmand. But Danes? Aren’t they peaceable liberal-hearted folk? A bacon-loving nation that perpetrates inhumanity only on pigs . . . ?

Everyone, though, is corrupted by war. Between battles these men watch porn or play video war-games. After an explosion that kills comrades a soldier neutrally, matter-of-factly reports: “I collected body parts for six hours.” When a grenade is thrown into a ditch containing cowering Taliban fighters, another soldier jokes about the mess he has to sort through (“these bodies stink”) to prise away – his main aim – their valuable weapons. War makes ogres or victims of us all. In the crossfire of daily battle live the Afghan locals, who help the Taliban because they daren’t help anyone else. Farmer to Dane: “If I talk they’ll cut my throat.” When the soldiers accidentally kill a cow its owner wails, “It gave us milk. Nineteen of us lived on it.” The soldiers hand them some banknotes.

Film-maker Janus Metz calculates perfectly the distance to keep from his material: not too close, not too far, the exact point in space where compassion can merge with critique. The western world needs nerves of steel, or Teflon, to carry on this marathon of death and tragedy, performed in the faith that anything is better than the Taliban’s return to power. It probably is. But for these soldiers, in some of whom desensitisation is turning to dependency (see and compare The Hurt Locker), each return to frontline action is a return to the powerlessness that masquerades as power.
Automata of fate or foreign policy, they do what they like (or think they like) and like what they do, under the distant but total control of the warlords their masters.  

Mars Needs Moms, a box-office disaster from Disney, has been greeted by many as the bullet that will put an end to the latest 3D cycle. It can’t happen too soon for me. Let’s make 3D the discriminating exception as a style choice (from Up to Cave of Forgotten Dreams), not the ram-raiding rule of every new assault vehicle from Hollywood’s family entertainment sector. This maudlin-matriarchal tale, staffed by digitised characters, makes you long for the parentless state of the Martians the movie depicts, who kidnap a mother and inadvertently whisk up her little son during a mom-harvesting trip to Earth. Terrestrial mothers can train the alien planet’s robot nannies in the proper use of discipline. On Mars everything becomes a “rescue mom” mission for the boy, amid the dark bombastic decor and the tedious supporting characters (the fat expat earthling growing into John Goodman lookalike and grouch-alike, the rebel Martian girl speaking dated hippy lingo). The best moment is when the inevitable cute machine-sidekick, a Mars R2D2, throws up at yet another mention of the “crazy ‘love’ thing” we are repeatedly told the red planet is in need of.The film is whimsical, witless, whifflingly sentimental.  

Parrot-lovers will be over the moon for Rio. 3D macaws dancing and singing. Adventures with men, women and monkeys. The Rio carnival as a tuneful, rumbustious finale. Only sensitivity to the word “psittacosis” stops me calling the film “infectious”. “Pixar-cosis” is more appropriate here: the film’s makers have borrowed from Up in their story of an American city girl pining for the Latin continent’s tropic lure. Her pet Blu, the domesticated bird-hero, is her passport to Brazil. A mad Italian wants to mate him with an indigenous she-parrot to preserve his (Rio’s) endangered subspecies. Take it away, Fox Animation. Director Carlos Saldanha previously made Ice Age and deserves the move to a warmer climate. The colours are gorgeous, the voice actors perky (Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway). I did not even resent the fact that the film’s villain, a sneery sulphur-crested cockatoo, is named Nigel.  

I did resent much of Shion Sono’s Cold Fish from Japan. The real Japan has now moved to larger dimensions of tragedy. Here half a dozen sickos menace, maim, murder and/or rape each other. The film lasts 144 minutes; the plot resembles The Revenger’s Tragedy out of Monty Python Does Sex and Violence. Is it a black comedy? Is it a horror thriller? More wit and ingenuity might have made it Tarantino-esque.

But by the time the fourth body is being sliced and diced on the blood-slicked bathroom floor you think: haven’t current events made all this seem picayune? Just a little nasty, wilful village violence in a country whose entire being is now throbbing with uninvited apocalypse?  

A plate of carrots free with every viewing: that is what the distributors of the Uruguayan horror thriller The Silent House should provide. Darkness is the rule here and enlightenment, in so many senses, the exception. What exactly is going on as young Laura (Florencia Colucci) prowls a murder-punctuated property for sale, the thumps of bodies relieving the not infrequent longueurs of this Stygian film shot, like Hitchcock’s Rope or Sokurov’s Russian Ark, in a single unbroken sequence? I loved the basic plot idea, its mordant minimalism inspired by surviving Polaroid photos from an actual crime scandal. But the execution is faltering and the murkiness relentless. An English-language remake is in the works and will be with us soon. If it has learnt from this movie’s errors, bring it on.  

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