Friday, August 26, 2011


 "Longford," a decidedly British film, is a look at the Earl of Longford (Jim Broadbent) and his resolute belief that a notorious serial killer of young children was worthy of redemption first and parole second.
Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton) was convicted along with her boyfriend, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), of murdering a string of children in 1964 and '65 -- one of the most notorious cases in British criminal history. Brady was singled out as the real killer and Hindley his accessory -- less evil by half, perhaps -- whom Brady emotionally manipulated. The killing of the children and burial of the bodies in the remote and moody moors near Manchester became a sensation in Britain and led to the pair being viciously ostracized even in prison.
The Earl of Longford -- "an unconventional politician whose liberal views courted controversy in the Cabinet and the national press," according to HBO -- is perfect fodder for Morgan, who also wrote yet another Oscar-nominated film this year, "The Last King of Scotland." What was going on in Longford's mind as he took up the cause of Hindley? It was an obsession of sorts that put him at odds not only with the public and his friends but even his family, particularly his wife, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), though she, too, would come to support Hindley.
For Morgan, the answer makes for an emotionally unsettling, intricately nuanced story that hints at three areas of Longford's personality. First, he made a name for himself attempting to champion and rehabilitate prisoners, a socially progressive streak that lasted his whole life. With Hindley, Longford also found a fellow convert to Catholicism -- and "Longford" posits that this good and just man believed fervently that religion played an integral part in turning Hindley into "a good woman" after the fact. Last, and with judicious shading, Morgan makes viewers believe that Longford may have been falling in love with Hindley as he devoted years of his life to her cause.
At various times in the languid but always fascinating movie, these traits make the viewer's emotional connection to Lord Longford waver, then stiffen. Was he a passionately committed politician who sought justice where others feared to fight? Did his religious beliefs lead him to seek redemption and forgiveness for someone who didn't deserve it? And was his defense of Hindley blinded by love?
Morgan is a skilled dramatist and, much as in "The Queen," he doesn't want to bash viewers over the head in "Longford." This is filmmaking as character study, not straw man showboating (which a less skilled writer could have easily opted for in either movie). Aided by director Tom Hooper ("Elizabeth I" and "Prime Suspect 6"), Morgan tells his story in a way that doesn't put an exclamation point on a tidy historical story -- he opts for a question mark instead, while ultimately and satisfactorily letting the viewers in on the true-life ending.
Though "Longford" is a much smaller movie and in many ways more expressly British -- the "Moors murders" are almost unknown here, while the tribulations of the "People's Princess" are the stuff of near fairy tale -- it presents Morgan with a more difficult challenge. The isolation from a reality she didn't want to acknowledge revealed the emotional hollowness of the queen, and in the end she earned some sympathy. But Lord Longford chooses to support someone the tabloids dub "the most hated woman in Britain," a woman whose unspeakable acts are not immediately offset by her personality. So Longford the man is a tougher sell.
Credit Broadbent with a flinty, gutty performance as Longford. He's able to convey a righteousness at the beginning that's matched by a naive, infatuated wishfulness in the middle and a more sober recollecting in the end. Serkis adds a bracing, cocksure evilness to Brady that helps to unmask Longford's early beliefs. It's yet another standout performance from him.
And finally, Morton is careful not to give too much away as Hindley. The judge in the case said, "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption, I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence." And yet Brady is steadfast in his assertion that Hindley was equally guilty. And her voice was chillingly caught on tape talking with one of the murder victims.
So was she manipulated? Or did she manipulate Longford? To his credit, Morgan doesn't make the movie about Hindley or even the crimes. He focuses on one man who tested his faith and his reputation by refusing to pass judgment.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

¨The difference between today and last Saturday is that for the first time in a while, I can look forward to the things I want to do in my life. Bike, eat, drink, talk, ride the subway, read, run, travel, swim, skip.¨ They say that two heads think better than one, and that might be the case with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who have collaborated in the past with films such as Half Nelson (which gave Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination), and the surprise critical hit of 2009: Sugar, about a Dominican baseball player trying to make it in the major leagues and adapting to his new life in the United States. The Cohen brothers also prove this point so there is nothing wrong with teaming up as directors. Boden and Fleck have demonstrated their directorial talents before and do it once again with It's Kind of a Funny Story. The three films they have directed are all very different from each other, and this is more or less a dramatic comedy with probably more drama to it than comedy. This isn't one of those laugh out loud Galifianakis comedies, it is much more serious, but there are still plenty of laughs (or at least scenes that will make you smile). This movie has some heart to it as well; there is good chemistry between the two young characters played by Gilchrist and Roberts. The romantic story works, the drama works, and so does the comedy as long as you aren't expecting a film like The Hangover. Boden and Fleck adapted the screenplay themselves from the novel of the same name written by Ned Vizzini. This is not your typical Hollywood film, it is different and you probably would expect that if you've seen the rest of the films they have directed.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist from the United States of Tara series) is a smart kid, who studies at a gifted school, and has a normal loving family, but who deals with depression and suicidal thoughts. He is obsessed with his best friend Aaron's (Thomas Mann) girlfriend Nia (Zoe Kravitz). Craig decides to check himself into a mental institution on Sunday expecting to spend the day there, but doctors decide he should stay a week and follow the program since he claims to be a danger to himself. His parents Lynn (Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls) and George (Jim Gaffigan) are supportive of the doctor's decision and decide to let him stay at the mental hospital in the adult ward since the juvenile section is under renovation. Craig is really stressed out with his life and about getting the Gates Application for Summer school which would look great for his college resume. His father is always focused on his job, but is pushing Craig so that he can get the application. Craig seems to be obsessed and stressed out with all these little things, and forgotten therefore to enjoy life. In the ward he meets patients with much greater problems than his own. He befriends Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) who teaches him a couple things about life, but who seems to have a lot of issues of his own. Then there is his Egyptian roommate who never speaks to anyone or leaves the room, Muqtada (Bernard White). And finally he meets Noelle (Emma Roberts) a girl about his age who he begins falling for. Together the patients learn from each other and Craig begins to find help in his therapy sessions with Dr. Eden Minerva (Viola Davis), as well as with drawing and music sessions.
It's Kind of a Funny Story might not be as funny as you expect, but it is kind of a sweet story. The film doesn't try to be preachy or anything like that at all, but it is kind of uplifting and one can find a way out of depression by watching this movie. Finding the things one enjoys in life and focusing on them instead of all the other issues can help live a less stressful life. The characters in the ward are much more interesting than the rest of the characters from the outside world. Craig's parents, his friend Aaron and his girlfriend all are left in the background since they are outshined by the patients who are way better developed in the film. Galifianakis shines in every scene he is in, Gilchrist and Roberts are really good together on screen and share some great chemistry, and the rest of the patients all share the most memorable moments of the movie. We are drawn into the world of the mental hospital and could care less about the outside world. One of the best scenes of the movie is when the patients get together for their musical therapy and they all play the song Under Pressure. It's Kind of a Funny Story reminds us that there is more to life than just study and work, it's the little things which can give us the most pleasure out of life. We can't change anything through worrying so why stress out so much. I really enjoyed this movie and recommend it although be warned it's not your typical Hollywood film. It is kind of slowly paced, but once you meet the characters inside the ward it's worth it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Secret Reunion

 At the turn of the millennium, a group of three North Korean agents led by the brutal "Shadow" (Jeon Gook-hwan) made an assassination attempt on a defected cousin of Kim Jong-il. The South Korean National Intelligence Service had turned one, Son Tae-soon (Yun Hee-seok), so Agent Lee Han-kyu (Song Kang-ho) and his team are able to get to the scene. It's a bloodbath, and Han-kyu is fired in the wake of the debacle. The other spy, Song Ji-woon (Kang Dong-won) is disavowed, cut off from his pregnant wife in the north. Six years pass, and Han-kyu is now working as a sort of very low-rent private detective, retrieving foreign-born brides who walk out on their husbands. Relying on his pair of idiot assistants gets him poised for a beating on a construction site, when the fight is broken up by the foreman - Ji-woon, living incognito under the the name Park Ki-joon. They recognize each other immediately, though don't show it, and soon Han-kyu has recruited Ji-woon to work for him. Each thinks the other's low circumstances is a cover, and that learning what is really going on will get them rewarded by their old masters.
The opening sequence of Secret Reunion is as good as this sort of spy movie stuff gets, fusing slick tradecraft with over-the-top action in a way that manages to evoke both the realistic and fantasy modes of spy cinema, set Shadow up as a villain to be reckoned with, and establish Ji-woon as a decent man without painting him as disloyal. Jang is so assured in this tense, violent territory that it's a bit of a surprise when the movie goes in a different direction.
Which it does; although the plot six years later is still a game of spy-vs-spy, it becomes something of a comedy, from the basic misunderstanding each has of the other's place in the world to their odd-couple antics: Han-kyu has become a slob and a bit of a joke, often bumbling around in ways that suggest he would have made a really terrible field agent, while "Ki-joon" is serious and compassionate. The movie takes us from gritty spy drama to what is frequently broad slapstick, but also lets the characters learn about each other as people rather than enemy agents. Jang manipulates the tone like a master, bringing whimsy and gravitas forward at the appropriate moments to prevent the movie from ever going too far in the direction of silly comedy or overwrought melodrama.
Of course, a lot of this work is from the actors, and the two main guys are brilliant. Song Kang-ho, well, you expect this from; it's just another in a long run of good performances in good movies from him. His disheveled charm fits this material like a glove, but he's not just putting on a familiar role; there's a sense of loss to it because we see him as an intense, forceful guy in the opening act, and there's always intelligence, if combined with wasted potential, to him even in his more goofball moments. Kang Dong-won plays off him nicely as the straight man much of the time, but also does well in projecting a guy clearly torn in many directions: He's a good man who hates violence but is still loyal to his country, and affection for Han-kyu does a nice job of sneaking into his portrayal. The pair never slip into practiced buddy-cop banter, but certainly grow closer.
If Secret Reunion has a weakness, it's perhaps in the end, as the spy material eventually grows more serious. A few logical holes appear, and while the film had never been perfectly realistic, it stretches the bounds it had established for itself in multiple directions. Not to the breaking point, but enough to be noticeable, especially when compared to how smooth things had been before.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I Saw the Devil

Director Jee-woon Kim along with actors Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi are three of the most talented people in Korean cinema today. Jee-woon has done such films as A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which both starred Byung-hun and Min-sik is most recognized for his performance in Oldboy, but was also fairly impressive in the drama Crying Fist among many others. Oldboy is really the film that made me love Korean cinema. So when word broke that these three marvelous people were getting together to make a film, I knew I was already there. A little thriller called I Saw the Devil came together and became one of the most spectacularly intense thrillers to be released in quite some time.
Late one snowy, winter night, a woman named Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) sits stranded in her car waiting for a tow truck to arrive and help her fix a flat tire. She talks to her fiancé, Dae-hoon (Byung-hun), over the phone as she waits. It's Joo-yeon's birthday and Dae-hoon, a secret agent, gets caught up with work and can't be there with her on her special day. A strange man shows up and begins to pester Joo-yeon about fixing the tire himself. After declining his help, the man known as Kyung-chul (Min-sik) attacks Joo-yeon before brutally murdering her. Kyung-chul is actually a notorious serial killer who mostly kills women and young girls. As the investigation unfolds, Dae-hoon swears merciless revenge on Kyung-chul and a deadly game of cat and mouse begins. Does Dae-hoon really know when this game will end or has he already become a bigger monster than the man he now preys upon? The chemistry between Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi is what really drives the film. Byung-Hun is the broken down shell of a man when he's not in the hunt, so to speak. He has several emotional breakdowns that are incredibly heart wrenching, but the urge he has to make this bloodthirsty maniac pay for taking the love of his life away takes a front seat to any sort of emotion he once had. Byung-hun portrays the struggle his character has between sadness and revenge flawlessly. Min-sik plays the role of a lunatic incredibly well. His character seems to lack that which makes a person who they are; morals, a conscience, and above all a soul. Killing is the only thing that brings out the real Kyung-Chul. His first initial reaction to someone trying to beat him at his own game is agitation and borderline out of control rage, but once he regains control he not only enjoys himself but claims it's the most fun he's ever had. Min-sik acts level headed when his kills go well, but the way he expresses how insane his character really is when things go bad for him is what makes his performance so memorable. While the scenes where Byung-hun and Min-sik fight with each other are great for obvious reasons, there's a scene at the end of the film where they both have a heart to heart conversation that is just spectacular. Every little glimpse you have of that confrontation leading up to that point is fantastic, as well.
Jee-woon Kim certainly knows how to shoot a beautiful looking film. Lush and vibrant colors make grisly murders and spontaneous revenge tactics look much more pleasant than the blood that endlessly splatters all over every wall and floor in the film. Other than the brilliant colors, the cinematography is rather unique as well. There's a scene near the end of the film where Dae-Hoon is walking toward the camera on a deserted road. It's simple and shot like we're basically walking backwards in front of him while staring directly at his face. He eventually begins to cry; an uncontrollable sobbing. The way the scene is shot along with Byung-hun's performance made it one of the more memorable scenes in the film. There's another where Kyung-Chul gets picked up by a taxi. He gets into the front passenger seat while there's another man in the back, so there are three people in the car altogether including the driver. Kyung-Chul realizes he's going to have to beat these guys to the punch, so as their adrenaline escalates the camera rotates around the inside of the car. You get this continuous 360 degree shot of the action occurring inside this cab. It's amazing.
Leave it to another Korean thriller revolving around revenge to make an impression on me. Jee-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil is a superbly acted, exceptionally written, grotesquely gorgeous film that'll make you cringe during some of the more horrific and blood soaked acts in the film while secretly leave you craving so much more. That craving is satisfied thanks to the interactions and chemistry between actors Byung-hun Lee and Min-Sik Choi. The disturbing content in the film is more than enough to satisfy the hungriest gore hounds out there while the captivating story will please anyone looking for something more than someone being chopped to pieces. I Saw the Devil is one of the most morbidly delightful films to be released in recent years.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Simple Plan

This is one of those rare fairly recent movies in which everything just adds up perfectly. It also pleases me to see that you don't necessarily need a big budget to make a brilliant with these days and still have a great talented and acclaimed cast & crew involved in it.
This movie has always been compared a lot to "Fargo". And yes, there also are similarities; both movies involve a large sum of movie, both involve some odd but yet realistic character, both involve killings, both involve a seemingly good plan that goes from bad till worse and both involve snow. A lot of snow. "A Simple Plan" is also a very white looking movie, which provides the movie with a good- as well as beautiful looking settings and atmosphere. But perhaps the reason why this movie never really became a financial or critical big success was also "Fargo". This movie was made only 2 years after the brilliant "Fargo" and like always the majority of the public say this movie as a bad copy, trying to cash in after the success of "Fargo". And also like always, the movie is now, almost 10 years later, slowly gaining more credit and is better known and watched by more and more people.
What mainly makes "A Simple Plan" such a great movie is that it features ordinary everyday people. It makes the characters and therefor the movie as a whole, a very realistic feeling one to watch. It of course also helps that they are being played by some top-class actors. It's funny how Bill Paxton always basically plays the same guy but hey, he's good at it. Billy Bob Thornton is also always at his best playing these sort of simple minded characters. This is yet another wonderful performance by him and he rightfully so was also nominated for an Oscar for it.
This is not really the sort of movie you 1,2,3 would expect from a guy like Sam Raimi. There is also basically very little in this movie that can be described as 'typicaly Raimi'. Not even Ted Raimi is present in it! Everything indicates that his is just an in between little project for him, which all makes it sort of ironic that this is also one of his best movies.
It has a very effective story, that on top of all things is really well written and constructed. It's a character movie but also with lots of twists and turns in the actual plot. The story style reminds us of a good old fashioned film-noir. It's about ordinary people who get themselves into an ordinary situation. They form 'a simple plan' but almost immediately things start to go from bad till worse, without giving any spoilers. The story was written by Scott B. Smith, who based it on his own novel. The screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar as well.
A rare great movie, that is so great due to its realistic approach, performances and a well written and constructed story.

Monday, August 01, 2011


Oh. My. God. If you ever thought a movie twisted the fabric of your mind as to what is and isn't possible in this modern world of cinema, watch Oldboy and I'm sure it will surpass all your previous notions. Chan-wook Park is a Korean director who specializes in incredible stylistic camera work and artistic cinematography within a carefully constructed narrative. Oldboy is the second film in his aptly named "vengeance trilogy." It is about a man who is imprisoned 15 years for unknown reasons. After enduring painful loneliness for all this time, he is released, only to find out he has five days to find out why he was imprisoned. It starts off strange and different, yet don't get discouraged. Everything echoes throughout the film to end with one of the most twisted and stunning climaxes I have ever witnessed. My jaw was left wide open for the last fifteen minutes of this movie, and then about ten more after the credits finished rolling. If it hadn't been so late I might have hit the play button again as soon as I made it back to the DVD menu. It was utterly mind blowing.
I was most definitely not prepared going into this film, but it only served to heighten the experience of watching this practically perfect film. Oldboy hits the ground running and within five minutes of the film we get an incredible taste for what Chan-wook Park's filmmaking is all about. It's fast. It's fun. But it's also smart. Amidst the vibrant colors and the beautiful cinematography there is an incredible narrative. As the mystery of this film unravels we are pulled farther and farther in. And of course at the end of the film it just explodes in our faces without hardly any warning. You will be amazed. You will be disturbed. It will most definitely catch you off guard. It was all so expertly done and I just couldn't avert my eyes for one second in fear of missing the mysterious grandeur of this film. Every moment and every character serves the plot to some avail. There isn't a moment in Oldboy that felt unnecessary or overdone. It's one of the brilliantly made films which comes full circle by the end, only wanting you to rewind and watch the whole thing over again, immediately. I can't come up with enough words to describe how awesome this story is. It is definitely one of those you absolutely must see for yourself.
I'm sure it's a ballsy statement to make, but Chan-wook Park could be the next Akira Kurosawa, only this time slightly more hardcore, obviously. Every shot of Oldboy is so incredibly crafted, down to the most finite detail. The entire film is handled with such care and precaution, and the results are astounding. There are moments in the film which resonate the style of other master directors. There are multiple shots in the film which are heavily Scorsese influenced, for example. However, there is still an extremely definitive style here which belongs to Park. This style is what prevails over any of the specific influences scattered throughout the film. If Park continues to make films like this he will most likely go down in history as one of the genius auteurs of the 21st century. However, on that same note I would be amazed if he ever made anything that could top Oldboy.
Oldboy is one of those films which you will never be able to get out of your head. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to you, but to me it was a great thing. It's a one of a kind film which could never recreated in it's full glorious essence. There was once talk of an American remake of this film, and I'm not sure I could have stomached that, knowing for a fact that any American team could never top the demented perfection of the original. Oldboy is utterly incredible. Every moment is perfect. It gets everything right and goes farther than you could ever imagine. The best part is that Oldboy doesn't fall into one specific genre of film, making it an example of how practically any film should be made, in essence. It would be a crime to go through life never seeing this film.