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Films I Neglected To Review: See You On The Dark Side Of The Earth. . .
by Peter Sobczynski

New planets, old traumas and a story so unbelievable that it might be true (or not)--these are among the movies covered in this collection of short reviews of smaller movies currently in release. (And no, I did not see “The Smurfs”--deal with it.)

“Another Earth,” which caused a stir last winter when it came out of nowhere to win a couple of the top prizes at this year’s Sundance festival, could loosely be described as science-fiction but this is a film that has more in common with the quiet and contemplative likes of “Solaris” and “2001” than in the cinematic videogames that drop in the multiplexes every couple of weeks. The film opens with the astonishing discovery of a new planet that appears to be an exact copy of Earth, right down to its inhabitants. On the night it is discovered, future astrophysicist Rhoda (Brit Marling) finds herself driving home after a few too many drinks and staring up at the sky when she plows into a car containing a family, killing the mother and young child and sending the father (William Mapother) into a coma. A few years later, as plans are being made to send a group of travelers to visit the other Earth (complete with a corporate-sponsored essay contest with a seat as the prize), Rhoda is released from jail and when she learns that the man is alive, she goes to his house with the vague plan of apologizing. What happens from then on is best left to be discovered by you except to note that what develops is closer to a short story by Raymond Carver than Ray Bradbury and those who are lured into it with the hopes of standard-issue genre thrills are liable to come away from it disappointed. For those who are able to get beyond that, or who don’t have that much of an interest in laser battle and such are likely to find this to be an absorbing drama about loss and guilt that just happens to have some admittedly intriguing futuristic stuff hanging around the edges. Although the central story may not be the freshest in the world (it is, of course, only a matter of time before the man discovers, at the worst possible time, of course, who Rhoda really is), it nevertheless works because of the thoughtful and intriguing screenplay co-written by Marling and Mike Cahill, Cahill’s strong but subtle direction and the two engaging and powerful central performances by Marling (who has the kind of off-beat personality to make her the Greta Gerwig for people who can’t stand Greta Gerwig) and Mapother. Combine all of these elements and a final image that is both heartbreaking and haunting as well as being thought-provoking enough to fuel any number of post-film conversations, “Another Earth” is a startlingly effective little gem of a film and while it is likely to get overlooked amongst the current avalanche of big-budget blockbusters, I can almost guarantee that you will be thinking about this one long after those have blessedly faded from memory.

“Sarah’s Key” is based on a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay that I have not read but which appears to have been a beloved international best-seller. Therefore, I cannot say for certain whether the sheer lousiness of the film version is the result of a botched adaptation or if its countless flaws are inherent to the source material. If I had to guess, however, I would say that it is probably a little bit of both because as incredibly off-putting and tone-deaf the film is as a whole, the central dramatic conceit is so ill-advised that I can’t imagine that any sane person would have added it in later as an improvement. The film tells two intertwining stories and in the first, set during the beginning of the Nazi occupation of France in which the French were themselves rounding up Jews to send to concentration camps, young Sarah (Melusine Mayance) locks her younger brother in a hidden closet during a round-up in their apartment building and promises to return for him as soon as possible. Inevitably, her journey is longer and more harrowing than expected and when she finally does make it back, she makes a discovery that haunts her for the rest of her life. The other story takes place in the present day and features Kristin Scott Thomas as a Paris-based journalist working on a magazine article about the French round-up of Jews and discovers that the apartment that her husband has just inherited and is rehabbing is the one that used to belong to Sarah’s family. Of the two storylines, the one involving Sarah is the one with more genuine dramatic potential and is blessed with a good performance by Mayance) but is undercut by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner clumsy handling of the material (the big revelation scene is meant to evoke horror and loss but only inspires bad laughs). As for the modern story, it needlessly distracts from Sarah’s story by forcing us to spend time with an annoying and impossibly self-centered bore of a central character and the pointless decision to give her a pregnancy that her gradual lout of a husband is firmly against adds an extra level of soap opera-level silliness to the proceedings. This is a smarmy and silly melodrama that tactlessly latches on to one of mankind’s darkest hours as a way of inflating its own sense of importance and while it may strike a chord with the Lifetime network crowd--the kind who will eat up anything in which the women characters are all strong and resilient types and all the men are spineless creeps at best and monsters at worst--but those who prefer just a touch of nuance and subtlety are likely to come away from it feeling absolutely appalled.

Over the years, filmmaker Errol Morris has made some of the most fascinating documentaries that I have ever seen with subjects ranging from pet cemeteries (his brilliant 1978 debut “Gates of Heaven”) and a Death Row inmate who just may be innocent after all (“The Thin Blue Line”) to portraits of an executioner-turned-professional Holocaust denier (“Mr. Death”), naked mole rat experts (“Fast Cheap & Out of Control”) and Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara (the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War”) so when I say that his latest work, “Tabloid,”]/b] contains one of the most astonishing stories that he has ever told, that should tell you something. His subject this time is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who gained notoriety when she became a key player in what the British tabloid press dubbed “The Case of the Manacled Mormon,” a scandal in which she allegedly kidnapped a Mormon missionary whom she had fallen in love with in America, handcuffed him to a bed and made him her sex slave for several days. To hear her tell it, she was trying to rescue the love of her life from the clutches of a mysterious cult and paid the price for merely following her heart but other observers brought in by Morris (including tabloid journalists who feasted on the story for months) have a somewhat different story to tell, one that is so bizarre that when it is comes out later on that McKinney was the owner of a dog that was allegedly cloned by a mysterious Korean scientist, that is hardly the strangest revelation on display. Is McKinney telling the truth, a pathological liar or completely delusional? Most of you will doubtlessly have your own opinions but one of the most interesting things about the film is that Morris is not especially interested in whether McKinney’s story is “true” or not. Instead, he is more fascinated with McKinney herself and how she is able to calmly and serenely account for every aspect of her increasingly surreal saga. I have seen this film three times now and each time I have watched it, it has grown more and more complex and intriguing and with the fascination with tabloid journalism under increased scrutiny these days thanks to the current scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, it feels as fresh and contemporary as today’s newscast. As thoughtful and compelling as any documentary you are likely to see this year and as compulsively and shamelessly entertaining as the rags you can’t help but sneak a peek at while standing in line at the grocery store, “Tabloid” is one of the best films of 2011 to date and once again proves that Errol Morris is an American filmmaking treasure of the highest ranking.

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originally posted: 07/29/11 06:43:11
last updated: 07/29/11 06:46:32
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