Holocaust movies: Haven't we had enough of them? Son Of Saul (M18, 107 minutes, opens tomorrow, 5/5 stars) offers a resolute "no", then makes every other movie about the genocide look old-fashioned.
Its Hungarian director and co-writer Laszlo Nemes decided that Hollywood's versions of the Nazi final solution are dishonest. The films usually take place in a Neverland where "good Germans" save the day and mass executions happen off-camera. The final insult is that the movies offer hope and uplift by cherry-picking the experiences of a few and ignoring the rest.
Nemes' astoundingly assured debut feature offers a corrective. It chronicles a few days in the life of one inmate, a person whose journey peeks into the routines of a death camp, from the time prisoners walk through the gates, to the gassing, to the plundering and sorting of things found in pockets, to when their ashen remains are shovelled into a river.
Saul Auslander (Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig) is a Sonderkommando, a Jew selected to act as warden. His job is to herd his own kind into the death chambers. One day, he fixates on the idea that the corpse of a child is that of his son. He hides the body, hoping to give it a good burial.
Saul sneaks around Auschwitz, looking for a rabbi to give the last rites, the Kaddish. The clock ticks for him. Sonderkommando live longer than the typical prisoner, but eventually they too are liquidated. Director Nemes' camera follows Saul with GoPro-like fixedness. The frame sees what he sees, ignores what he ignores. Auschwitz, filtered through Saul's subjective reality, is a world of chaos, horror, bureaucracy, marked by flashes of deepest, blackest absurdity.
This work, winner of the Jury Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a favourite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar, is not just an important film; it is also deeply human and deeply moving.
Trumbo (PG13, 124 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars), like Son Of Saul, is an Oscar contender, but in the Best Actor group, for leading man Bryan Cranston. He plays Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960) and Exodus (1960), and a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of allegedly Communist- sympathising artists persecuted by the Reds-under-the-beds witch hunts of the 1950s and 1960s.
Director Jay Roach (The Austin Powers films, 1997-2002; and political works such as Game Change, 2012) imbues this biopic with the same personality as its subject: it is avuncular, wry and forgiving. Perhaps too forgiving - it pins blame on safely deceased witch hunters, such as John Wayne (David James Elliot) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a riveting Helen Mirren), but still-powerful institutions, such as the Hollywood studios and certain branches of government, are let off the hook.
Here we go again with #whitewashingthemovies drama, part seven. The fantasy romp Gods Of Egypt (PG13, 127 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) casts white Northern Europeans in nearly every role, but director Alex Proyas (I, Robot, 2004; Knowing, 2009) at least has the good taste to not "brown" them with make-up (though Sottish actor Gerard Butler as the villainous god Set looks to have sun-bedded himself something fierce).
The epic delivers two hours of strong sword-and-sorcery entertainment, backed by interesting female characters, such as the goddess Hathor (Elodie Yung), and minus the action hero cliches that plagued Clash Of The Titans (2010). In a misstep, this story of war in the heavens is told through the lives of two young lovers, Bek and Zaya (Brenton Thwaites and Courtney Eaton). They, along with everyone else, are given far too much dialogue, and Proyas projects emotions with the delicacy and tact of a bullhorn-wielding madman.
Singapore director Eric Khoo's arthouse erotic drama In The Room(R21, 104 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) is a courageous try at mingling the history of Singapore with the lovemaking of its characters - how the social melts into the sexual, and vice versa.
The results are uneven, with the fault lying mostly with the writing, which tries to be thoughtful and titillating at the same time, while succeeding at neither.
Six short films make up this work, marked by the recurring theme of sexual longing and how they happen in the past, present and future in the same room at the fictional Singapura Hotel. A ghost, Damien (Ian Tan, playing a character created as an homage to writer Damien Sin) appears in the post-1960s threads.
The version that will be released in cinemas from tomorrow meets the Media Development Authority's guidelines for an R21 rating, and differs subtly from the version screened at the Singapore International Film Festival last year. This reviewer, having watched both versions, cannot tell the difference.
The brevity of the short film format and the constraints of the chamber setting limit how deep a character can be. It shows in the writing, which never quite makes living, breathing people out of the the room's occupants. They are speech-making mouthpieces for forbidden homosexual love (in the first vignette, Rubber, starring Koh Boon Pin and Daniel Jenkins), or female sexual empowerment (in Pussy, starring Hong Kong's Josie Ho), or transgender issues (in Change, with Thai Netnaphad Pulsavad).
The more contemporary setting of Search (with Show Nishino and Lawrence Wong) and First Time (starring Koreans Choi Woo Shik and Kkobi Kim) delve into the more complex realms of kink and lust. Search works as visual homage to 1970s soft-core, but First Time offers a bizarre answer to a woman's frustration - frustration of the sort not too dissimilar to what audiences of this work will experience.
•Son Of Saul is screening at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower, Beach Road. In The Room is screening at Golden Village cinemas at Suntec City, VivoCity, and Plaza Singapura. It is also screening at Filmgarde Bugis+,The Cathay and Cathay Cineleisure Orchard.