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The term “Leviathan” is used in the Old Testament to refer to a large sea creature; the word has been used to refer to Satan as well. Leviathan is now also the name of an acclaimed film out of Russia that’s a modern retelling of the Book of Job. It’s no surprise that a packed crowed showed up on Saturday, Jan. 3, to see it at the Camelot Theatres as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Leviathan begins on a peninsula near the Barents Sea. Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) is driving to a train station to meet his friend, Dmitry (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). Dmitry is Nikolay’s old Army buddy, and he’s come from Moscow to act as Nikolay’s attorney. Nikolay’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his teenage son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), have a troubled relationship, and there’s also tension with Nikolay, given their situation: Nikolay’s home is in danger of being taken by the town’s corrupt mayor, so a communication center can be built.

Dmitry reveals that he has information on the mayor that he believes will help save the home. However, Nikolay loses his case, and the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), shows up that evening drunk, angry with Nikolay for causing delays; he humiliates Nikolay in front of his family as Dmitry tries to intervene and send the mayor away. Nikolay begins to fall apart as Vadim uses his political clout to destroy him; Nikolay finds himself losing everything, questioning God, and unaware of what horrible fate lies ahead.

Religion is present throughout Leviathan. A Russian Orthodox priest has ties with both Vadim and Nikolay. During a scene in which Roma goes off to be by himself along the shore, a skeleton of what appears to be a sea monster appears right in front of him. Later on, we see a living version of it in the water.

Leviathan has made the rounds at other film festivals and is a favorite to earn an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Film category, but the film isn’t without flaws. The pace is slow, and major plot events are often merely discussed rather than depicted. However, the film succeeds because of the mesmerizing characters, who are each engaged in their own personal struggles with morality.

The film covers a lot of hot topics in modern-day Russia, including political corruption and the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church. One humorous scene references the Soviet Union, when one of Nikolay’s friends breaks out several framed pictures of leaders, including Stalin and Gorbachev, for target practice. He adds: “I have Yeltsin, too.”

It’s a film worth seeing. It’ll return to the valley on Friday, Feb. 13, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or.

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There’s no denying that writer-director Lars von Trier is a true talent. Melancholia, Antichrist and Dancer in the Dark represent some of the best bizarre cinema this side of David Lynch. His other offerings, Dogville and Breaking the Waves, are not favorites of mine, but they are still respectable.

Alas, now comes Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, a despicably bad attempt at shock cinema that represents the very worst in sensationalistic, lazy filmmaking. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a confessed nymphomaniac who is found bleeding in the gutter by a kind soul (Stellan Skarsgård); he takes her back to his apartment. After a cup of tea, Joe starts telling her sad story (a boring framing device that rips off, among others,The Princess Bride). In flashback, we see Joe’s sad, humiliating story as she (played in her younger days by Stacy Martin) recounts her outrageous sexual escapades and supposed emotional problems.

This movie is hard to watch and features nothing that stands out as original or genuinely provocative. Instead, it comes off as desperate, with von Trier laboring to shock his audience—something that was never evident in his prior films.

Only Uma Thurman shines as a jilted wife; she blisters the screen in what feels like an improvised moment. The rest of the movie is just stuff like Christian Slater crapping himself and Shia LaBeouf getting naked.

This is a total piece of garbage—and it is only Part One of the saga: Part Two is coming out right on its heels, so God help us all.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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Ryan Gosling has recently re-teamed with two directors who came up aces for him on their last films.

Earlier this year, Gosling gave a magnetic performance in The Place Beyond the Pines for director Derek Cianfrance, maker of the excellent Blue Valentine. Pines is one of the year’s best pictures so far, a movie worth revisiting.

Now comes Only God Forgives from Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the masterpiece Drive. While Drive cemented Gosling as one of the better young actors on screens today, Forgives winds up being a complete nonevent.

This movie has virtually nothing to offer. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok drug-smuggler whose brother is killed by a local cop. At the urging of his foul-mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), he seeks revenge on his brother’s killer, resulting in a fight in which he gets his ass supremely kicked.

That’s it. That’s the movie: Gosling gets his ass kicked while Thomas curses up a storm. Some people get their arms cut off; some people get worse; and that is all.

Other than Thomas talking in a way that would make Harvey Keitel blush, there isn’t that much dialogue. There are a couple of dreamy karaoke sequences that feel as if they were lifted from the cutting-room floor of the last David Lynch film, and that’s it.

The word out of the Cannes Film Festival is that Only God Forgives received boos mixed with a standing ovation. Those who hated the film cited it for gratuitous violence that went beyond the realm of excusable.

The violence is pretty extreme, but most folks will handle it. The real problem is that there is no discernible story. Refn got a crew together, gave his performers little to say or do, and delivered a revenge story in which viewers will care about nobody.

This will draw comparisons to Drive, and it should. Drive was a movie that positioned Refn as a force to be reckoned with. Characters actually said things together; Gosling looked like he had a clue; and Albert Brooks provided dark humor. The shimmering soundtrack and excellent cinematography made it a complete film.

Only God Forgives, in contrast, is one of those impressionistic affairs in which a director thinks he’s made a movie simply because he went out, shot some stuff, and edited it together. There’s some sort of symbolism going on with shots of hands and touching, apparently Refn’s weak attempt to make his film “deeper.” All the hand stuff really does is help get the film’s running time to 90 minutes.

Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang, Julian’s nemesis and the person who is chopping people’s arms off. says that Refn directed Pansringarm by telling the actor he was God before every shot. Whatever.

I get excited when I hear that a good director is doing something experimental. Nothing had me more excited this movie year than the idea of Gosling and Refn together again. But after watching Only God Forgives, I’m thinking these two need a break from each other. All they’ve come up with is a bore fest about a mopey drug guy with serious mommy issues.

I also think Refn should go back to directing other people’s screenplays, as he did with Drive. The screenplay for this one is all his, and the blame for its profound stupidity lies squarely on his shoulders.

Only God Forgives is playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert (760-779-0430).

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The amazing Sarah Polley continues her directorial hot streak (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) with this introspective look at her own origins.

Polley mixes archival footage, new interviews, and well-done home-video re-enactments to tell the story of her mother, the father who raised her, and her birth dad. It’s fun—and a little shocking—to find out about Polley’s dad, and the events that led to her birth.

Michael Polley, the man who raised Sarah, provides wonderful narrative from a memoir he wrote himself; other major contributors include Sarah’s sisters and brother. It wasn’t until the movie was almost half over that I realized some of the archival video sequences were re-enactments. For a change, somebody has done re-enactments for a documentary that fit.

Polley is one of the more gifted filmmakers going today. (If you haven’t seen Away From Her, see it now!) This will surely be one of the year’s best documentaries.

Stories We Tell is now playing at the Cinemas Palme d’Or, 72480 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430.

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In Ginger and Rosa, Elle Fanning delivers a stellar performance (with an excellent British accent!) as Ginger in this film about two teenagers in Cold War England in the 1960s.

Fanning runs the gamut, showing all of the joy, anguish and fears of a girl living in an age when the world seems to be falling apart. Alice Englert is also terrific as Rosa, Ginger’s more-depressed best friend, while Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks are excellent as Ginger’s parents.

The film goes a little off the rails in its final scenes, but it’s solid and steady for most of its running time, with Fanning showing the world that she is an actress with whom to be reckoned. Written and directed by Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa is a showcase for Fanning that should propel her into great future roles.

Ginger and Rosa opens Friday, April 5, at the Cinemas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730;

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