Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DVD Review: 'Bloody Birthday', 'Nightmares', and 'The Baby'

Severin Films kicks this summer season off right, releasing a trio of obscure, little-seen horror films from the 1970s and early 80s, or as I like to call them, three more reasons not to go out in the sun. We get two entries into the slasher movie sweepstakes, “Bloody Birthday” and “Nightmares”, and one, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-people flick, “The Baby”.

Friday, June 24, 2011

'Bad Teacher' Movie Review

“Bad Teacher” is mediocre. I could stop there, and that sentence alone would more than likely be enough. But I’m not going to stop there, because that’s just the kind of dude I am. However, if you want to stop reading there, I doubt I’m going to say anything more insightful than “Bad Teacher” is mediocre, because that’s about all it is, a middle of the road comedy. There are highs, and there are lows, but for the most part, the movie hovers between these two extremes, not particularly great, but not particularly awful. To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, “Bad Teacher” is meh, M-E-H, meh.

Friday, June 17, 2011

'The Tree of Life' Movie Review

When you consider the career of a filmmaker like Terrence Malick you have to mention the fact that in his career, now spanning more than forty years, the guy has only directed five films. Sure he’s written a bunch of others, and produced a few more, so it’s not like he’s resting on his laurels, but no matter how you look at it, the man takes his time. So it’s understandable that each of his movies is a bit of an event, and his latest, “The Tree of Life”, is no exception. The whole thing has been shrouded in mystery from the get go. We knew Brad Pitt and Sean Penn were in the movie, but additional details have been sparse at best.

'Green Lantern' Movie Review

So far this summer movie season has been a pretty good time for comic book adaptations. “Thor” was far better than I expected, and, though I haven’t managed to drag my sorry ass to the theater yet, “X-Men: First Class” is getting thumbs-up reviews from all over the place. With “Captain America” still to come, it seemed that the summer was destined to be dominated by Marvel, but not entirely. DC gets into the act this weekend with their big-budget big-screen version of “Green Lantern”. With it, we have another worthy, entertaining superhero flick with which to while away our precious summer hours. Just a heads up, I’m not particularly familiar with the source material, so I can’t comment on how closely the story sticks to comics, or how many little in jokes there are, but even from my removed perspective it is a damn blast.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Review: 'Kill the Irishman'

The Movie:

“Kill the Irishman” tells the true-life story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), a legendary Cleveland gangster and folk hero. In the 1970s Greene and a rag tag group of modern day Celtic warriors waged war against the Italian mob in Northern Ohio. The most obvious comparison for “Irishman” is “Goodfellas”, another film that traces the rise of a figure in organized crime from childhood, through the early stages of his criminal career, into the glory days, and his ultimate downfall. Green was most notable for being the man the mob couldn’t kill. Seriously, the guy was like a freaking cat he had so many lives. At one point a house falls on him and he walks away unscathed. He survives bullets, stabbings, and car bombs. Bombs are the apparent weapon of choice in this particular region, and in one summer, no less than 36 go off. There is a pretty amazing montage of exploding automobiles.

Greene grew up in a troubled, predominantly Italian neighborhood. He’s a tough kid, who, despite a voracious appetite for books and learning, had little use for school. After a stint in the military, Greene works on the docks as a stevedore, but he has bigger ambitions, taking over the union, and using it to one, empower the largely Irish work force, and two, for his own financial benefit. When that takes an abrupt turn for the worse, he moves on, hooking up with various gangsters like local big shot John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), a notorious loan shark. With the help of childhood friends like Billy McComber (Marcus Thomas), and former boxer Keith Ritson (Vinnie Jones), Greene muscles his way into the lucrative garbage-hauling racket, and so on and so forth.

Greene has balls like nobody’s business, even going on the news, daring his enemies to come after him, telling them exactly where to find him. Stevenson channels this cockiness and charm, making it his own with a charisma and larger than life personality that made Greene local celebrity. While not afraid to strike back at anyone who came after him, Greene is also a Robin Hood type figure in Cleveland. He gives back to his community, helping out those in need, feeding the hungry, keeping the neighborhood safe for the civilians—he runs off a group of Hell’s Angels who cause a ruckus—and all that noise.

“Kill the Irishman” is executed well enough, and while it is middle of the road entertaining, it’s ultimately empty. It has all of the bells and whistles of an underworld biopic, but it never goes beyond the surface, and the whole film watches like a caricature of a gangster movie, where everything that happens, happens because that is what is supposed to come next. There’s no real struggle, conflict, causality, or motivation, and things simply happen too easily. Instead of showing why things happen, they just sort of happen. One prime example is with the Greene’s home life. There is supposed to be strife between Danny and his wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), but you never see any of it, and when she leaves him in the middle of the movie, that’s just it, there is nothing more to it. There’s no build up to that moment, nor is there any fallout following it. The topic never comes up again, and doesn’t impact Greene, or the film, ever again.

“Kill the Irishman” is like a history book, where this and that and this other thing all happen at the appropriate moments, but there is little in the way of character development or emotional connection. You see Danny Greene do things and go through the motions, but you never know what he feels about any of it. It isn’t a bad movie, and there are admirable things about it, but at the end of the day, it isn’t anything special, and comes across as “Goodfellas” lite.

The Disc:

Out on DVD and Blu-ray today from Anchor Bay, “Kill the Irishman” only has one bonus feature, but it’s a doozy, an in depth, hour-long documentary about the real Danny Greene. There are interviews with his wife and daughter, retired figures from the Cleveland underworld, and assorted others who knew, or at least knew of Greene and his exploits.

Like the movie, the documentary traces Greene’s life from his humble beginnings, through his rise and fall. They explore his role as a Robin Hood, but never shy away from his darker, more violent side, which the film does. In fact, you get a much more rounded, complete picture of the man from this extra than from the actual movie, and they establish some of the depth that the fictional portrayal lacks. One thing you realize from watching the documentary is that, at least as far as the details are concerned, “Kill the Irishman” is factually quite accurate, something of a rarity among biographic films. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder, did this rigid adherence to the facts negatively impact the film from a narrative and character perspective? If they had played a little looser with the details, would it have been a better movie?

'The Catechism Cataclysm' Movie Review

When a movie starts with flames and blackmetal, you know you’re onto something. That’s exactly how “The Catechism Cataclysm”, the latest, crazy-ass indie comedy from director Todd Rohal, starts out, and it only builds from there. The film is kind of a road trip, kind of a voyage of self-discovery, and kind of an “Apocalypse Now” style journey into a chaotic, surreal hell. It is a tribute to Rohal, who also wrote the script, that despite being absurd, irrational, and at first glance, unsound, that “Catechism” is ultimately an entertaining, surprisingly watchable movie.

Father William Smoorster (Steve Little, “Eastbound & Down”), Father Billy to his friends, is a priest, only he’s become bored and indifferent with his path. Instead of providing guidance to his flock, he tells his Bible study group funny stories that have nothing to do with God, watches amusing videos on the internet, and uses his great-grandfather’s Bible as an autograph book. When the higher ups—other priests, not God, not that high up—make Father Billy take a semi-forced vacation, he tracks down Robbie Shoemaker (Robert Longstreet). Back in the day Robbie was in a sweet, sweet metal band, dated Billy’s sister, and, unbeknownst to him, was Billy’s first hero in life. At Billy’s insistence, the two reunite for a canoe trip through the wilderness. Robbie is not who Billy thinks he is, and you can imagine things don’t go quite as planned as the journey leads them in directions they never imagined, including an encounter with two Japanese maybe-prostitutes named Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their nearly mute male companion.

There isn’t a whole lot of plot to “The Catechism Cataclysm”, and the film is really just an excuse to let Little off of his leash for 87 minutes. Despite Rohal’s insistence that everything in the film was actually in the script, the whole thing has a loose, improvised feel. Little’s spastic, sheltered, clueless, and gullible Father Billy carries the film. He’s like an ADD riddled child who found where his parents keep their stash of soda, and he bounces through every bizarre, sacrilegious scene with a giddy energy. After a while you start to wonder if he’s mentally handicapped or just a lunatic. Initially I expected to get really pissed off at Little’s tomfoolery, you just know that eventually he’s going to cross that line between endearing into full on obnoxious, but, while he comes close, he never quite gets to the point of no return.

Rohal does a good job of reining the story in before it falls off the rails completely. He keeps things short and to the point, in a manner of speaking. “Catechism” is a rambling, directionless story that, though it builds to a twisted, nightmare of a finale full of exploding heads and a throbbing Japanese techno assault, there is little in the way of concrete conclusions. If you get a chance you should definitely watch “The Catechism Cataclysm”, it is a lot of fun, but don’t go in expecting a lot of story, character development, and the usual cinematic affectations. If you can look past it’s limitations in these areas, you’ll have a damn good time.

DVD/Blu-ray Review: '36th Precinct'

Originally released in 2004, French cop drama “36th Precinct” is hitting region 1 DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Palisades Tartan. The film starts strong out of the gate, and the first half favorably compares to crime films like “Heat”. There is action, drama, flawed characters, cops who play by their own rules as they dispense their own brand of justice, and a general level of badassness. It is tense, packed with violence, and kicks some serious ass. That is until it falls completely apart halfway through.

Somewhere in the middle “36th Precinct” shifts from an admirable action yarn to a melodrama about the internal politics and power struggles of a police force. It’s like a soap opera about cops, or an episode of “Law & Order”. Either way, out of nowhere all the momentum stops and the pace comes to a total, grinding halt. You keep thinking it is going to pick up again as it nears the end, you keep hoping for some redemption, but, sadly, that is a waste of your time, as things never get back to where they were, and you’re left wondering what the hell happened.

A Parisian gang outlaws has pulled off seven armored car robberies in the last year, killing everyone, leaving no witnesses. Leo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) is the head of the “Mob Squad”, and Denis Klein (Gerard Depardeiu) is the head of the Bureau of Detectives. The two are bitter rivals, though they were once close friends, until a woman, Valeria Golina, came between them. Now, whichever one manages to bring in these criminals before they strike again will be promoted to the senior position in their precinct. Vrinks is an old school cop, one who is not above roughing up a couple of thugs who raped a prostitute, or helping cover up a stool pigeon’s crime in order to get information on an even bigger crime. Klein is career driven and power hungry, only in the game to benefit himself and gain control. He wants to climb to the top, and will do anything necessary to get there.

When “36th Precinct” deals with the pursuit of the robbers, it is awesome, and if it had continuted on like this, it would rank among the best crime films in recent memory. The grim, grizzled cops chase down leads, exploit their underworld contacts, and hunt down their quarry until they are nearly indistinguishable from the criminals they’re after. You hang on every scene, on every twist and turn. Auteil and Depardeau are perfect in their mutually antagonistic roles. Right in the middle there is a huge, epic shootout, and you’re stoked. Life is good. You’re excited that the choices you’ve made in your life led you to the moment where you put this disc in your DVD machine.

But then something goes horribly awry and all of the action comes to a screeching halt. It is such a letdown, such a crushing disappointment. There are betrayals and backstabbing and treachery, but it’s all done with such an overly theatric approach that it is groan inducing. Nothing happens. In the first portion of the film there are regular action scenes and badass moments, like the cops shooting a guy, but not killing him, and leaving him naked in a shallow grave in the middle of the woods just to teach him a lesson about fucking with them. But all of that stops, and instead all you are left with is tepid histrionics and false sentimentality that never amounts to anything.

The DVD/Blu-ray of “36th Precinct” comes stacked with a nice collection of bonus material. A 30-minute making-of featurette kicks things off with a look behind the scenes of filming. Topics run the gamut from the genesis of the script, to discussions of shooting, and watching director Olivier Marchal work with his actors. In another extra you get an in depth look at how the crew selected the ample supply of guns featured in the film. They take into account the character and actor, their size, style, attitude, and match the appropriate style of weapon to each personality. It is an interesting glimpse into the process, into a significant choice that most of us take for granted when we watch action films.

A recent 10-minute interview with Marchal is, in my opinion, the best of the bonus features. An ex-cop who spent time on the anti-terrorist squad, much of the script is based on his own experiences, or on stories he heard and things that happened when he was on the force. He used his history to try to lend the film an authenticity, which carried over into the way he filmed the action sequences, close up and over the shoulder in order to make them feel real. Rounding out the bonus features are a couple of trailers, and a compilation of footage from a wardrobe run through that is notable chiefly for documenting the back and forth banter between Marchal and his actors, which gives a good feel for the atmosphere on set.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

'The Yellow Sea' Movie Review

After his debut film, 2008’s “The Chaser”, Korean director Na Hong-jin was definitely on a lot of people’s radars, mine included, and many of us have eagerly been waiting for his newest crime thriller, “The Yellow Sea”. Fresh from Cannes, “The Yellow Sea” just made its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival. Be warned, there is an absurd amount of hatchet fighting and stabbing, not to mention people getting beaten to death with a large bone. If that sounds like a good time to you, it certainly does to me, then this movie is right up your alley. “.

The region where the borders of North Korea, China, and Russia come together, forms a sort of modern day wild west, where more than half of the population relies on illegal activity in order to survive. In Yanbian, on the Chinese side of the border, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) wiles away his days driving a cab, and spends his nights getting drunk and gambling, and losing horribly. In fact he’s so bad at mahjong that he has built up a sizeable debt to some small-scale hoods. His wife went to Seoul to work and send back money, but it’s been months since he has heard from her, and he’s tortured by visions of her wild, passionate, imagined affairs. So he’s broke and crazy and unraveling at the seams. When local crime lord Myun (Kim Yun-seok) offers to erase Gu-nam’s debt in exchange for a contract killing in Seoul, Gu-nam, at the end of his rope, reluctantly accepts.

Gu-nam is smuggled into South Korea by what is best described as the Korean equivalent of a coyote, in the claustrophobic, nightmarish belly of a creaky ship. While scoping out his target, he gets distracted by looking for his wife, who has mysteriously disappeared from her new life as well as her old. With time running down, and Gu-nam about to act, he finds himself in the middle of a series of unexpected events, and the situation spirals quickly out of his control. Before long Gu-nam is running from Korean gangsters, the Chinese mafia, and the local police, all the while looking for answers and side of stone cold revenge.

“The Yellow Sea” starts off with a deliberate, calculated pace that builds exponentially. Poor choices, lies, deceit, and deception pile on top of one another, and Gu-nam’s predicament escalates into a crazy, violent mess. Over time the tension, action, and savagery of the film gather speed, like a stone rolling down hill, bouncing and careening and crashing through everything. The plot twists and turns and circles back on itself; just when you think the story is going in one direction, Na, who also wrote “The Yellow Sea”, spins the action on its head, defying your expectations. You think one group is going to hunt down another, only to discover that the opposite is true; when it looks like Gu-nam is going left he breaks right. At first you think Myun and his crew are little more than rough-around-the-edges pseudo-rednecks who are going to be eaten alive by the big city gangsters, but Myun is a madman, and not afraid to take down a whole crew with a hatchet, wearing only his underwear. No matter which way you look at it, Gu-nam is totally fucked. He is on the run from everyone, he gets shot, beaten, kidnapped, tormented, and just generally besieged from all sides. As the story escalates, so does the level of hell he’s put through.

Despite the serious level of violence and ample action, including a handful of great chase scenes and insane car crashes, there are no guns in “The Yellow Sea”. The brutality is perpetrated almost exclusively with knives and axes. It is a much more personal and savage style of violence, the kind that results in a person being covered head to toe in blood spatter. The film is bleak and grim, but there is also way more humor than you expect, though it is definitely of the darker, gallows type. A good point of reference is “Reservoir Dogs”, which “The Yellow Sea” overtly references at one point. It has that sensibility where the violence and savagery is so heavy and brutal that all you can do is laugh at it.

“The Yellow Sea” is full of great performance, stunning, gore-soaked fight scenes, and frantic action pieces, like when Gu-nam takes out half of Seoul driving a delivery truck. It fits in with other Korean films, like “A Bittersweet Life” and “Oldboy”, where a lone, tragic figure goes up against staggering opposition, but Gu-nam is cut from a different cloth. He’s not an outlaw, a gangster, or any sort of real criminal at all; he’s just a desperate man in dire straights. The film is a nice, controlled burn, and you feel Na’s steady hand on the controls.

Released in Korea in December 2010, “The Yellow Sea” was an enormous box office smash. Now that it has been making the international festival rounds, I can’t imagine a distributor won’t pick this up for a domestic release, and hopefully you’ll all get a chance to see it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

'Burke and Hare' Movie Review

What’s not to like about a black comedy about grave robbers starring Simon Pegg and directed by John Landis? Nothing, that’s what. Throw in Jessica Hynes and you’ve got a miniature “Spaced” reunion. And what the hell, why not add Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, into the mix just to up the creepy factor? You get all of this and more from the new film “Burke and Hare”. While not earth shattering, this is Landis’ best feature film since “Beverly Hills Cop III”—though he did helm a couple of episodes of “Psych”, which I have to give him credit for.

It’s 1828, and apparently Scotland is a grim place to be. The citizens live in abject squalor, everyone is grubby and unemployed and broke, and the best way to get rid of your own poo is to dump it out of a window, which leads to some disgusting situations. In fact, the only thing the city of Edinburgh has going for it is a dueling pair of world renowned medical schools, one led by Dr. Monro (Tim Curry, creepy as ever), the other by Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson). The best way to teach medicine to new students is by dissecting human cadavers, but when Monro’s school bogarts all the fresh corpses, a new growth industry springs up in the Scottish underground.

William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) are small time con men without much game to speak of. Their best scam to date is selling cheese mold as a magical cure-all. Hare is married to Lucky (Hynes), a saucy alcoholic who runs a seedy boarding house, and when one of the lodgers dies, the enterprising friends stumble upon a lucrative new business venture. But how many random dead bodies do you just happen upon in a given week? Not many, even in Edinburgh in 1828. Grave robbery is a dangerous, not to mention gross, endeavor, and before long they’re killing random folk in the streets. Their shady dealings lead them afoul of the law, and local a local crime boss who wants his cut. But those aren’t the only troubles. Burke, with his newfound wealth, takes a shine to Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher), an actress turned prostitute, who wants to stage an all female production of “Macbeth”. Smitten as all hell, Burke promises to fully fund the production, thus kicking his need to continue on with this unpleasant business into high gear. Talk about more money, more problems.

Based on a series of real life killings, there is a dark absurdity to “Burke and Hare”, one which makes you implicit in their crimes. Like watching an episode of “Dexter”, where you root for the serial killer to kill in order to get his mojo back, you actively cheer the protagonists on towards murder. As the stakes increase, so does the moral tension. Burke and Hare aren’t bad men, even though they kill people just to pawn the corpses. They don’t necessarily like what they do, but they’re driven forward by dire, desperate circumstances. Hare’s newfound go-getter attitude saves his marriage, while if not for their new trade, Burke would never be able to land the love of a nice looking lady like Ginny.

This duality is represented visually through a series of shots of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, but it is not the only double-sided coin in the film. The main subplot of “Burke and Hare” is about old versus new, about stasis versus progress. Monro’s medical school is firmly rooted in the medical tradition where doctors were little more than skilled butchers, hacking off limbs willy-nilly. On the other hand, Knox is at the forefront of medical advancement, pushing the boundaries in order to save hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of lives.

“Burke and Hare” is funny and dark, and full of the quick, clever humor that you’d expect from two alums of “Spaced”. Pegg is charming and personable as the love struck Burke, and Serkis runs through his scenes with a maniacal glee. Hynes is good, though totally underused here, but Fisher does her thing as the chipper, sexy, aloof thespian. Like I said earlier, you won’t be blown away, but “Burke and Hare” is definitely worth watching, and is far better than most comedies floating around out there these days. Hell, it’s better than “Paul”.

Monday, June 6, 2011

'Detention' Movie Review

Is it time to start wistfully longing for the 1990s already? Since “Take Me Home Tonight”—which oddly enough I did enjoy—was pretty much the last nail in the 80s nostalgia coffin, it makes sense that things would start moving in that direction. That’s the definite impression that you get from “Detention”, Joseph Kahn’s first feature film since 2004’s “Torque”, though he’s stayed busy working music videos for high profile pop artists. The movie is a mash up of horror, time travel, and teenybopper comedy, and doesn’t so much have plot as a lot of excuses to reference earlier days of music, fashion, and popular culture. You’ve never seen so many nods to the Backstreet Boys.

Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) hates her life and wants to die. She hates her suburban high school, her 90s obsessed bff, Ione (Spencer Locke), suddenly started hating on her, and her dream boy, the ironically clad, skateboard riding Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), doesn’t know she’s alive. To make matters worse, there’s a masked killer on the loose, and even though he’s targeting Riley, no one believes her because she’s not popular enough to be killed. So she has to find out who wants her dead, solve her romantic woes, and figure out something do about prom. That is, until Principle Verge (Dane Cook), throws all the potential murder suspects into a “Breakfast Club” style Saturday detention. Then there is a time traveling bear, which I have to say is a nice touch.

“Detention” is a fun little romp at first, but the kitsch wears thin before long, especially when you realize that it is just a shield for nonsensical oversimplification of a generation and an excuse to pretend that empty stereotypes are something more. It is a little bit “Heathers”, a little bit “Scream”, and a little bit “Mean Girls”, all thrown in a blender and poured in a “Donnie Darko” mold. A good comparison might be a less nerdy “Scott Pilgrim”. It is a cheeky, self-aware film that attempts to lampoon other cheeky, self-aware films, only to cover well-worn territory, poking fun at things that have already been poked and prodded and parodied and sent up time and time again. Riley is a caricature of the overly serious high school girl—she’s a vegetarian who wears a homemade “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. That’s teen movie code for “this girl cares about important things”. Essentially she’s the exact same character as Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh) from “Not Another Teen Movie”—you know, the cute girl who is supposed to be ugly and unpopular—only ten years after the fact.

The script is not as clever as it thinks it is, and does things like compare “Avatar” to “the Smurfs”, something “South Park” already did a couple of years ago. The random antics and constant asides, like a football player who pukes acid and has fly blood, can’t distract from the fact that the plot never really goes anywhere or does anything, and that most of the movie is a bunch of hollow theatrics that amount to very little. In reality it is just as shallow as it wants to be deep.

After having a trying, to say the least, experience with the studio on “Torque”, Kahn financed “Detention” independently for a proverbial song. It feels like an ADD riddled mess, where Kahn and writing partner Mark Palermo toss in every joke, gag, and bit that they can think of, regardless of how it will impact the larger flow and structure of the movie. Occasionally this benefits the film. Some of the bits work, and are a lot of fun, like the story of Elliot Fink (Walter Perez), a mysterious student that shows up out of nowhere and has been in detention every day for 19 years. And again, there is a time travelling bear! That’s always a good idea. But for every up there is a down, for every peak there is a valley where the movie falters and falls flat on its face.

You can tell that Kahn intends “Detention” to be a big middle finger to critics and movie industry folk. When he came out to introduce it at SIFF, he made sure to note that anyone in the audience taking notes shouldn’t bother, that they would just hurt themselves, and that undercurrent of antagonism informs the whole movie. Some people are going to love “Detention”, and I’m sure it will spawn many a late-night screening. On the other side of that coin, there are people who are going to hate the crap out of it. I’m not fully committed to either pole. I like the blatant antipathy and combativeness, but in the end I find myself leaning towards the latter camp. After a strong start, the 90s obsession, preciousness, and air of pretentiousness get irritating, and ultimately infuriating. Then again, I’ve been known to be wrong.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

'Black Bread' Movie Review

“Black Bread” starts of with a scene of such stunning violence—without giving too much away, it involves a sledgehammer and a horse, among a slew of other very nasty things—that it casts a shadow over the rest of the movie. Set in post-Spanish Civil War Catalonia, the film creates an atmosphere where the potential for death and hostility to erupt exists around every corner, in every situation. From the outset you learn that no place is safe; not the family hearth, government offices, and certainly not the multitude of caves, woods, and fields where the 11-year-old Andreu (Francesc Colomer) grows up.

Andreu witnesses the final moments of his best friend, and the dying child gurgles the name Pitorliua, the name of a ghost said to haunt their village. His father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), is accused of the murder, and must go into hiding. Since the boy’s mother, Florencia (Nora Navas), works ridiculous shifts in a sweatshop yarn factory, she sends Andreu to live with his grandmother, aunts, and a collection of cousins, including Nuria (Marina Comas), who had one hand blown off by a bomb. The two wounded children form close bond, and are forced into the grown-up world of secrets, lies, jealousies, rumors, politics, and redemption. Ultimately Andreu is forced to make arduous, soul-rending choices about his dreams, family, and loyalties, decisions that are difficult—at best—for adults, let alone a child trying to come to terms with the world.

Andreu begins as a kind, wide-eyed innocent—sneaking bread to a consumptive, contagious inmate at a monastery, a young man who may or may not be an angel—and he believes the best in people, until little by little it is revealed to him that what his father tells him is true, that people are capable of extreme acts of evil. Andreu and his cousins still believe in magic and curses and hope and dreams, but when faced with the devastating press of reality, they can’t escape into fantasy for long, and are compelled to adapt and come to terms with the harsh world they inhabit. Nuria serves as a guide for Andreu through these treacherous waters. Most of the idealism she had disappeared with her hand, and what remnants lingered after that vanished when she discovered her father’s body hanging from the rafters, a suicide. She is pragmatic, and uses what she has to get through and better her situation—doling out sexual favors for benefits. She’ll show you hers, for a price. It speaks well of their talent that two such young actors can carry parts with this much depth and weight, roles that would crush most adult actors into flattened, mushy little pancakes. Colomer and Comas both deliver subtle, nuanced, and at times heartbreaking performances.

There are definitely supernatural elements at play in “Black Bread”, enough to earn it comparisons to other Spanish-language films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but it is cut from a different cloth. Atmospherically and tonally it resembles those films, and definitely belongs in that discussion, but for all the talk of ghosts and monsters, and grandma’s fireside horror tales, the world of “Black Bread” is firmly rooted in the physical, corporeal realm. The characters are certainly haunted, all of them to some degree, but not by ghosts, by decisions and actions that they cannot take back, and pasts they cannot escape. And monsters and horrors abound, but not the kind of myth and legend, these are the much more human, much more frightening variety, the ones that can actually reach out, touch you, and do you harm.

As the film progresses Andreu slowly unravels the truth about his father, his mother, Nuria, Pitorliua, the twisted nature of their town and their story, and the part he is to play in everything. Anchored by skillfully executed cinematography that lends an air of urgency to each scene, “Black Bread” is a cynical, almost callously realistic, meditation on defeat—as the alcoholic school teacher says, “woe the vanquished”—and what it means to win or lose, and the lingering effects of ideals and politics in war, even after the war has supposedly come to a conclusion. Based on the acclaimed novel by Emili Teixidor, the film nearly swept the Goya Awards—think the Spanish Oscars—and is making the festival rounds, screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, and will hopefully find a distributor.