Dedicated to showing the dismal lives of teen junkies in '70s Berlin, "Christiane F." has a deserved reputation as one of the more grim drug films to come out of that genre (although, for my money, nothing beats the Al Pacino downer, "Panic in Needle Park"). The kids hovering around Zoo Station prostitute themselves and shoot up in an endless, dreary cycle, all the while resembling a gaggle of extras from "Night of the Living Dead." There's some impressive projectile vomiting in the de rigeur cold turkey scene, and David Bowie's Low/Heroes-era tunes are used to great effect. Natja Brunckhorst does an excellent job of going from a sweet, attractive young girl who just wants to hang out at the hippest disco in town to a glazed-eye junkie who barely flinches at sticking a needle in her arm. Whatever allure this scene may have held for those drawn to it is ruthlessly and effectively debunked in scene after depressing scene.
A low-key, subtle drama with strong female characters doing their best to keep their families together, despite the hardships of poverty, absent husbands, and the bleak, bleak winters of upstate New York.
I haven't read "Running with Scissors," but I definitely plan to after seeing this adaptation. Two similar films that spring to mind are "The Virgin Suicides" and "The Ice Storm," both set in the 1970s and both revolving around dysfunctional families. That's only a surface description of these films, though; they all share a melancholy poignancy and dark humor as well as excellent performances. Annette Bening and Jill Clayburgh are the standouts in "Running with Scissors," but Gwyneth Paltrow does a nice turn as the droll, disturbed Hope, and newcomer Joseph Cross projects the necessary combination of vulnerability and toughness that this character needs. I even found myself tearing up at the end. Despite the emotionally heavy situations that the film delves into, it never feels forced, always remaining true to its characters as they stumble, fall, and (occasionally) get back up.
The Russians excel at fabulist tales like this, and although sci-fi/fantasy films with lots of whiz-bang computer graphics aren't really my thing, this one is well-done and would definitely appeal to fans of that genre. The good and evil/father and son aspect of the plot gives it a Star Wars, Harry Potter-like feel that further universalizes it, although there's still enough of a uniquely Russian vibe to keep it from devolving into a typical Hollywood formula.
Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, "twist" movies glutted theaters: "The Sixth Sense," "The Usual Suspects," "The Game," "Memento," "Identity," etc. It got to the point where you found yourself wearily bracing for the shock ending even in romantic comedies. Perhaps if I had seen "Frailty" when it was actually released in 2002, I would've felt some modicum of surprise, but I doubt it. By typical twist standards, this one's as obvious and dull as the ceasless scenes of ax bludgeoning that dutifully lockstep throughout this yawn of a thriller. By the end, director Bill Paxton (who I've always liked as an actor; maybe he should stay in front of the camera from now on) has raised the glimmer of an interesting ethical issue, but its impact has been blunted by inconsistencies and unimaginative direction. Matthew McConaughey, whom I'm coming to believe has done nothing decent since his debut in "Dazed and Confused," sleepwalks through the film with the obligatory Texan drawl, since people never seem to go both mad and religious in the northern regions of the country. A clunky frame holds together a series of flashbacks in which McConaughey recounts how his father (played by Paxton) saw a vison of an angel telling him to destroy demons, i.e., kill people. Young McConaughey and his brother are torn as to whether to help Dad carry out his plan; McConaughey is against it, little bro is for. Hence the deluge of capture, torture, and ax scenes leading to the twist end. A much better film in this genre is David Gordon Green's "Undertow," about two Southern brothers battling their evil uncle.