Based on just one of three stories from a novel by the Norwegian writer Olaug Nilssen, Turn Me On, Dammit homes in on the sex life of a teenaged girl named Alma. Actually, it’s not much of a sex life. Mostly she fantasizes, masturbating while talking to a genial phone-sex operator or discreetly rubbing her privates in public as she waits, eyes closed and dreaming dirty, for something — anything! — interesting to happen in Skoddeheimen, the isolated small town she reluctantly calls home.
This no-frills film-festival favorite from Greece is a single-family scenario. Like last year’s excellent Belgian film Home, with which it shares a certain dark comedy (but not the earlier film’s reluctant optimism), it features a wife and children who exist largely apart from the larger world into which the male breadwinner ventures on a daily basis. But where that separation in Home was generally a question of geography, in Dogtooth it’s a matter of patriarchy.
Fish Tank walks well-trod ground, but it’s still riveting from start to finish. Director Andrea Arnold proves that her debut feature, Red Road, was no fluke — she has a great eye for urban landscapes and a real way with actors. Set in Essex County, England, Fish Tank is all about Mia, an obstreperous 15-year-old with a stack of chips on her shoulder and a way with hip-hop dance moves. The central performance by Katie Jarvis is the bright ball of energy around which the whole film revolves, and she’s pretty terrific — she gives an easy, naturalistic performance that’s pure teenage girl, whether she’s bloodying the collective nose of her peer group or (symbol alert) pounding the hell out of a padlock that keeps a friendly gray horse chained up on one of the neighborhood’s desolate, nearly empty lots that smells of young men and menace.
Never having read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter movie, I was keen to see exactly how confusing this fifth installment in the wildly popular young-wizard saga would seem. Happily, this is the kind of movie where nearly every character is identified by name (and loudly!) as they make their first appearance on screen. It doesn’t take much knowledge about the complicated backstory to enjoy the cracking coming-of-age story about responsibility to your conscience, the importance of friendship, and the evil that can be done by corrupt bureaucrats. (Alternate title: Harry Potter Fights the Power.) The picture is derailed occasionally by that rushed, strait-jacketed feel associated with slavish adaptations, and the last reel is a bit anticlimactic, but this is still an engaging yarn with some gorgeous special-effects work. There’s also a special pleasure in seeing so many very young actors holding their own in scenes featuring their prodigiously gifted elders—Fiona Shaw, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Maggie Smith, just for starters. (Even Helena Bonham Carter shows up in a frightwig for what amounts to a cameo as a “Death Eater” named Bellatrix Lestrange!) Not a great film, but an ideal family matinée.
A sensation in its native Japan and nigh unreleasable in the U.S., Battle Royale is one of the year’s most amazing movies—a vicious take-off on reality TV that turns a high-school milieu dominated by cliques and childish relationships into a war zone. Now, I have no actual way of knowing whether venerable Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku had Survivor or programs like it in mind when making the film, or whether those programs influenced the novel by Koshun Takami upon which it is based. But the film is permeated by a sadism that’s redolent of the voyeuristic pleasure American audiences have taken in Survivor and programs like it, entertainment that involves the humiliation of at least one participant per week on national television.
Amid the current cycle of films that exist primarily to exhibit an excruciatingly fetching array of young refugees from popular TV shows, I’ve got to say that it’s kinda nice to see a teen movie that harks back, unashamedly, to the days of sexually frank, borderline-offensive comedies about growing up with a dirty mind.