Sauna (Antti-Jussi Annila, 2008, Finland)
A group of Swedes and Russians journey through the wilderness, marking a new border between their countries after a long, bloody war. Brothers Erik and Knut Spore comprise the Finnish team. Erik (Ville Virtanen) has bloodied his hands with seventy three men, women and children as a soldier while his brother (Tommi Eronen) was away at University.
Visions of a helpless farm girl plague Knut. He sees her as a J-Horror apparition; all long hair and wetness. The watery spirit plays into the elemental themes of the film with frequent discussions of fire used to purge sin and water to wash it away. Knut attempts to rid himself of his visions in the hot waters of the titular sauna which stands next to the strange village the group discovers in the middle of an expansive swamp.
The featureless facade has stood in the swamp since time immemorial, predating any known prior inhabitants of the village which is now populated with seventy three souls. The locale serves as Perdition. It's a place of ancient evil where statues bleed and men claw at their own eyes to avoid terrible visions.
This film marks a surprising comeback for director Annila whose Jade Warrior was seen as a pale imitation of Chinese chop sockey (while some accuse Sauna as being too close to Tarkovsky's Stalker). Expert pacing keeps Sauna moving at a good clip, surfacing the scares frequently while never ceasing to build the central terror to which the thrills cleave.
Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008, USA)
Winner of the “Most Mispronounced American Film” award, Religulous is a comedic documentary which pokes fun at the ever present pink elephant of taboo conversation, organized religion. Concentrating primarily on those kooky Christians, director Larry Charles takes a more direct approach to satirizing American insanity then his previous effort Borat. Charles employs outspoken comedian Bill Maher to eloquently skewer religion as the opiate and destroyer of people.
Often akin to shooting fish in a barrel, Maher finds much at which to shake his head in desperation as he discusses faith, accuracy, and morality with scary hard core Christians. Highlights include a visit to a truck driver chapel, a trip to Orlando, Florida's Holy Land Experience, and a tour of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Maher waxes about the “shamelessly inventive” Christianity to which so many ascribe; a faith sullied by superstitions and based on discordant, antiquated texts.
Briefly touching on sects such as Mormonism and Scientology (both played for tremendous laughs on episodes of South Park), other cults such as Pentecostals were sadly absent. Who doesn't like a good “proving your faith by handling snakes” scene? Other missed opportunities include a discussion of transubstantiation, more talk of the Biblical definition of “abomination,” churches being exempt from taxation (in a country built upon the separation of Church and State), and mysterious apparitions of saintly faces in oil stains and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The film falters when it leaves the confines of the United States and briefly examines Judaism and Islam in Europe and the Holy Land (an entire documentary could be made about the “Muhammad comics” alone). This lack of focus is forgivable, but an unfortunate misstep. America is a comedic treasure trove with all manner of religious nut falling from trees without the slightest shaking.
A good companion piece to Hell House, Jesus Camp, and For the Bible Tells Me So, this decrying of backwards thinking could be turned into a weekly series without much effort!
Appaloosa (Ed Harris, 2008, USA)
The Western has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years with notable entires including The Proposition and 3:10 to Yuma. Based on a book by Robert B. Parker (Spenser for Hire, Appaloosa really works well when it avoids pilfering from Western progenitors.
The story of two roving lawmen, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), these two blue-eyed gunmen share an endearing banter with Everett always helping to expand Virgil's vocabulary. The pair take charge of Appaloosa, NM, where local cattle baron, Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), has started to go rogue. He killed the last sheriff rather than let two of his men face the Law.
The film soon comes to a screeching halt with the appearance of Allison French. Played by Renee Zellweger with all the squint and shiny face she can muster, the actress seems to be channeling Shirley MacLaine from Two Mules for Sister Sara. Allison claims to be a widow (and she probably is), but she's really a society whore, hungry for power and prestige. With a better script and better actress, her part could have been far more interesting. As it stands, she's a damper on the action.
Only when Allison serves as a damsel in distress is her character effective. Here Appaloosa charges back along as a heroic and slightly introspective film. However, the momentum abruptly ends about a half hour before the movie concludes, wrapping up with a long-winded third act.
Somewhere in Appaloosa are elements to a far better film.