“The Berlin File” Review

July 26, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Here is yet another terrific South Korean action film!  They keep churning them out at a much more successful rate than Hollywood does.  “The Berlin File” is a riveting and fast-paced espionage thriller along the lines of the Jason Bourne series.  And with the way this film concludes, it may just turn into a series of its own.

To detail this ever so complex plot would be utterly futile.  I will simply lay out the basics.  Pyo and Ryun are a North Korean couple who are living in South Korea as spies.  They become embattled in a series of events that expose their identities and set them on the run from a number of groups… the South Korean authorities… the Israeli Mossad… the CIA… international terrorists… etc.  They have to use their physical skills and mental wits to elude and deceive their way to freedom and to each other.

What is unusually terrific about “The Berlin File” is that the standardized protagonist / antagonist or good guy / bad guy delineations are very hard to decipher.  There is very little black and white here… mostly a clusterfuck of grey hues that will have you wondering what conclusion you are hoping for.  Allegiances and motives are easy to question in this story.  It may not even be that clear as the closing credits begin to roll.

Unfortunately, that lack of clarity may also be why the film falls short of greatness.  There were times during this film when I simply had to accept that I had no idea what was happening.  I was scratching my head trying to keep up with who was who and what was actually what.  It is mesmerizingly complex.  This occasionally becomes frustrating.

Nevertheless, the pace of the film is relentless.  The acting is superb.  I am a massive fan of Gianna Jun after seeing her in this and the even superior heist flick, “The Thieves” earlier in the year.  The visual palette is reminiscent of some of the classic cold war movies.  The action sequences are magnificent.  There is just so much to admire here.   If it weren’t for the confusing opening 30 minutes, I would have given this movie a perfect four-stars.   As it stands, “The Berlin File” is another entry in a long line of very good South Korean films in recent years.

THREE AND A HALF STARS The Berlin File Review

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“Oblivion” Review

July 23, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  4 Comments

The year is 2077.  Earth was devastated by a war with an alien race of “Scavs” some 50-60 years earlier.  Humans won the war, but had to relocate the population to a colony on Titan.  Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician assigned to patrol a section of Earth while tracking down and repairing the drones that hunt down the remaining scavenger bandits.  He lives with his partner, Victoria, who oversees his missions and communicates with the new home planet.   They have both had their memories erased for security purposes. However, Jack is haunted by faint memories of his previous life… and those memories are refreshed when he discovers that all he has been told is not quite what it seems.

“Oblivion”  is an awkward film to grasp.  It is both grand and intimate.  It is both quiet and action-packed.  It is both poetic and silly.  In fact, I am not sure it really know what it wants to be.  There are aspects to admire here.  I loved the visual aesthetic.  I thought the acting was unusually nuanced for this type of movie.  The score was haunting.  The effects were seamless enough to never call attention to themselves.  And I admire the ambitious scope of the film.

That being said… I can’t help but feel that the narrative is lacking.  It feels more like the skeleton of a screenplay than a fully developed idea with all the details adding up to a satisfying whole.  I don’t feel like I truly know any of the characters.  The sequence of events and reasons for some of the larger aspects of the story seem rushed and glossed over.   The movie needed about 30 minutes more screen-time to colorize what is a somewhat bleak palette.

“Oblivion” is the abbreviated highlights of the actual film I wanted to see.  Cruise, Kurylenko & Riseborough are all very good.  Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo are given nothing to do.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is used so little, he might as well not have been cast.   I have to lay the blame at the feet of director, Joseph Kosinski.  He did a superb job with “TRON: Legacy”, but he restrains himself too much this time around.  Perhaps there will be a director’s cut of this movie on DVD with all the parts he chose not to include.  That might make for a far better film.  As it stands, “Oblivion” isn’t a bad effort — but it isn’t particularly memorable either.

TWO AND A HALF STARS Oblivion Review

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“Only God Forgives” Review

July 20, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling collaborate again, following on from their superb 2011 film, “Drive”.  Much of the same aesthetic is on display again here, in “Only God Forgives” — a minimalist dialogue and narrative… a saturated red/blue color palette… eerily haunting music… a Ryan Gosling performance of remarkable restraint… a solemn tone… and characters that are intentionally distant.

If you felt cold and removed from “Drive”… then you will likely despise “Only God Forgives”.  However, if you were drawn into to Refn’s direction, and you are prepared to go even further into the obscure darkness, then this may be of interest to you.

Early word is that this film is polarizing critics.  Some love it… Many hate it.  It feels very much like some of Stanley Kubrick’s work… initially despised — only to slowly gather momentum as the years treat it favorably.   I happen to admire this film’s originality and daring.  You can put me squarely in the “love it” camp.

Gosling plays Julian, a shady character who runs a gym for Thai-boxers.  Clearly though, it is a front for more unseemly business practices.  After his brother commits a heinous crime, the cops allow the father of a murdered girl to exact bloody and fatal revenge on the perpetrator.  Julian initially seeks justice… but hears the truth of the story and decides not to kill the father.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julian’s vicious mother, Crystal.   When she arrives in town to “see the corpse of her first born son”, she demands that Julian reconsider his leniency.  The father of the girl must die — and the cop, played magnificently by Vithaya Pansringarm, who allowed the vengeance, must also pay with his life.

What transpires after that point shall be left for your viewing interpretation.  All I will say is that the events feel dreamlike and hypnotic.  It is like a combination of “Fight Club” and “Belle de Jour”… a melange of fantasy and violence and sado-masochistic ritual that could be considered in many different ways.

Is it an entertaining movie?  No.  Is it exciting?  No.  Is it fast-paced?   No.  Is it for the average moviegoer?  No.  This film requires an experimental soul.  It demands that you experience the film rather than observe it.

I thought that “Only God Forgives” was fascinating, riveting and beautiful.  It was a relentless and rhythmical procession of haunting scenes that won’t soon be forgotten.  Nicolas Winding Refn is a visionary auteur whose work will only improve over time and upon reflection.  I am giving the film three and a half stars… but  I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up with four stars in about 10 years’ time.

THREE AND A HALF STARS Only God Forgives Review

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“Killing Season” Review

July 14, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  2 Comments

Roger Ebert once highlighted the “Talking Killer Syndrome” — a cinematic contrivance that has the powerful man (usually armed) babble on and on until the captive has a chance to free himself from the predicament at hand.  In “Killing Season”, that overused contrivance rears its ugly head on no less than five occasions.   This movie could have been over five times.  One can only wish.

Robert De Niro and John Travolta star as soldiers who fought in the Bosnian war.  De Niro is the tortured American veteran who is trying to forget about the past.  Travolta is the Serbian soldier who was once on the end of De Niro’s rifle and has revenge in his cold heart.

At its best, the film would have been a cat and mouse thriller with shades of “The Edge” and “Surviving the Game” coursing through its frames.  Unfortunately, it never approaches that level of excitement.  Instead, it presents a screenplay that feels like it was scribbled in crayon by a 9-year old.  It is cringe-worthy to watch these two actors mumble their way through a minefield of cliches.

De Niro isn’t horrible… simply on autopilot.  He used to be the “greatest living actor” back in the 1980′s and early 90′s.  Since then, his aura has been dulled by the passage of time and an endless sequence of poor choices.  Travolta, on the other hand, has never really been considered an actor of note by anyone.  He is more of a movie star than an actual talent.  Despite a few iconic roles, his batting average is one of the worst of his era.  His performance in “Killing Season” ranks as one of the worst of 2013 — and it will definitely win the worst accent of the year prize… if there is such a thing.

Steer well clear of this one.  It opened in 12 theaters for a total box office of $25,000.  That lack of confidence by the studio, especially considering the star power on offer, shows you exactly what to expect.  “Killing Season” is an awful film that will go in one eye and come out the other.

HALF A STAR Killing Season Review

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“Man of Steel” Review

July 13, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  3 Comments

After an endless 30-minute prologue, set on the planet Krypton, which includes Russell Crowe reprising his role as “Gladiator” and flying dragons that seem more at home in a “Lord of the Dweebs” movie, I had just about had enough of yet another unimaginative attempt at rebooting a superhero franchise.  This woefully tired genre became defunct for me somewhere around 1997, and I have only enjoyed a handful of the 75-80 superhero movies since that time.  “Man of Steel” hammers another nail in that long sealed coffin.

I have rarely seen a more grim, bleak, monotone, dark and depressing film.  After that interminable opening salvo, the story jump cuts to a Superman in his twenties, morosely moping from one scene to another, trying to hide his powers rather than using them for good.  Thanks for being a total dick Superman!  You could have saved millions during that time… but instead, you decide that you should go lobster fishing.  All this delaying of the inevitable is due to his late father’s insistence that the world is not ready for him yet.

Cue Lois Lane, played generically by Amy Adams.  This incarnation of a Superman / Lois Lane relationship could have been mapped out on the back of a postage stamp.   There is quite literally no chemistry here… primarily due to the fact that the screenplay doesn’t even attempt to build any.

Then the bad guys arrive from Krypton and we are treated to (and I am not exaggerating here) at least 837 fight scenes where one of them flies into Superman and they go careening into buildings and gas plants and cars and bridges etc.  They get up, dust themselves off, and do it again… and again… and again… and again… and again… and again… and again… and again… and again… and again.

The film is nothing but carnage upon mayhem upon annihilation upon devastation.  Cities are leveled.  Millions must be dead.  And still… Superman and Lois end up having a smooch and a joke amidst a scene that looks like September 11th times a thousand!!!

“Man of Steel” is one of  the worst movies of 2013.  If you value subtlety and nuance and empathy and intelligence… you will despise this movie.  It feels like the moviemakers added up the special effects destruction from the last few “blockbusters” and decided that it was necessary to double-down.   “Transformers” destroyed 78 buildings, 3257 cars and killed 8 million people… NOT ENOUGH!!!  Let’s set some records and make hundreds of millions at the box office.  That’s what the sheep want!!!

HALF A STAR Man of Steel Review

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“Spring Breakers” Review

July 8, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  3 Comments

Here is an absolutely stunning film from director, Harmony Korine.  “Spring Breakers” threw me for a loop.  I had no idea what was coming, but I loved every second of it.  This will rank as one of the best surprises of 2013 and will definitely make a run at my year-end Top 10 List.

A film starring Disney princesses about spring break rebelliousness — how good could it really be?  Well, that’s what I thought going in.  However, I knew within a few minutes that this movie was far more than the sum of its parts.  Perhaps I was too dismissive of Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson.  Perhaps I saw previews of James Franco’s initially cartoonish character and decided that I already knew what was coming.  Perhaps I was distracted by the endless amounts of uber-hot tail in skimpy bikinis that dominated the trailers.

All that being said, once I fell into the rhythms of this film, I was completely under its spell.

Four broke college girls, desperate to go on a spring break adventure, stick up a restaurant and use the cash to make their way down the beer-soaked beaches of “it’s not important where”.  The screenplay traces their rather typical debauchery as they consume mass quantities and smoke weed until their eyes burst.  Money soon runs out, as does their luck, and soon they find themselves behind bars for underage drinking and possession.  Cue James Franco!  He rolls in, a creepy wannabe gangster rapper who bails the girls out and shows them where the real partying takes place.

The movie then proceeds to go places I did not expect.  It never feels like something I’ve seen before.  Typically, a Hollywood film would have these girls get into adventures, troubles and imminent danger… only to get out of that danger, scramble back home and learn valuable life lessons.  Well… no such contrivances here!  “Spring Breakers” meanders down a hypnotic path with hidden corners and dark alleys — none of which holds any lessons I can decipher.

Originality is so valuable in films today.  There are endless sequels and tired genres that pummel viewers into submission with their relentless sameness.  “Spring Breakers” defies convention.  It is uncomfortably funny.  It is utterly unpredictable.  It is sexy and dangerous and haunting and fascinating.  All the performances are superb — especially from the quad-girl leads.  Gomez announces herself as something far more than just a tween queen.  Benson and Hudgens are unforgettable… especially in the final third of the run time.  Franco has the easiest role because it is so overtly crazy.  The girls deliver subtlety and mystery throughout.  This is must watch cinema!

FOUR STARS Spring Breakers Review

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“A Good Day to Die Hard” Review

March 29, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

This is not a “Die Hard” movie!  It should be called “A Bad Day for a Generic Straight-to-Video Action Flick”.  It is a drab, uninventive mess of a film.  In fact, it is more reminiscent of a low budget Dolph Lundgren turd than a sequel to an action classic.

“Die Hard” –  A legendary four-star action epic that will reign forever as one of the great guy-movies of all time.

“Die Hard 2: Die Harder” — A quality three-star sequel that retained most of the best elements from the original.

“Die Hard with a Vengeance” — Slots in between the first two as a three-and-a-half star effort with a great plot.

“Live Free or Die Hard” — Barely eeks out three stars despite a ludicrous sequence of events and suspect acting.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” — A one star piece of shit that has nothing in common with any film in the series.

For some reason, the film is set in Russia.  For some reason, the writers felt the need to include John McClane’s son as one of the leads.  For some reason, there are bad guys — They are so generic that we don’t know or care who they are or what they really want.  For some reason, there seems to be an arbitrary and obligatory father/son relationship problem in the McClane family.  For some reason, there are some terribly absurd action sequences that have to be endured rather than enjoyed.  For some reason, the plot gets more bizarre and unbelievable as each minute passes.  For some reason, this sequel was made.  And for some reason, I kept watching.

I think I kept watching because I felt some loyalty to the franchise.  If it weren’t called “Die Hard” and it didn’t have Bruce Willis, I would have shut it off faster than a feature length gay midget porno… and that’s pretty fast!!!

The dialogue is so corny and wretchedly delivered that you’d think it was a Saturday Night Live skit.  There is nothing of note here. There is nothing good to say.  In fact, I am not really sure why I am giving it a full star.  Perhaps I just can’t bring myself to give this once proud action franchise the worst grade imaginable.  “A Good Day to Die Hard” will have you scratching your head in disbelief at its utter lameness.  This is a total dud.

ONE STAR A Good Day to Die Hard Review

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“Eden” Review

March 8, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Jamie Chung plays a young Korean girl who mistakenly accepts a ride from the wrong guy.  She is kidnapped and driven deep into a remote American landscape of depravity and corruption.  She is one of many girls held against their will in a concrete compound.  They are sold off for sexual entertainment by a group of men led by a corrupt police officer.  It is a world that seemingly has no escape.

Based on a true story, this film tells the story of this young girl as she learns the ins and outs of the business and slowly works her way into a position of power amongst the other girls.   She manages to elevate herself above the demeaning sexual slavery — becoming part of the booking process and accounting of money.  It is a cold and calculated, long-term effort to find a window for escape.

The film is well made and well acted, especially by Chung.  It is a depressing  movie — as is any that deals with the subject of  human trafficking.  However, it moves swiftly and deserves to be seen.


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“Lincoln” Review

February 24, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

This movie gets the benefit of a lofty subject.  It also fits the profile of what should be a great film.  Spielberg directs.  Daniel Day Lewis acts.  The supporting cast is a who’s who of Hollywood.  It is like a paint-by-numbers manifesto on how to get double-digit Oscar nominations.  However, under closer inspection, “Lincoln” is a flat and pedantic retelling of what was a momentous time in American history.

We are witness to the last few months of President Lincoln’s life, as he pushes through the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, and tries to end the war.  That process involves dozens of congressional debates, war room conferences, private conversations and solemn speeches.   In fact, this movie feels far more like a low budget play than a high-dollar Hollywood production.   I felt like I was watching a “behind the scenes” political documentary on the history channel.

There is nothing fundamentally bad about “Lincoln”… But there is nothing fundamentally absorbing about it either.  It is a colossal bore, delivering no insight or information that is not already common knowledge.  Essentially, the viewer is forced to endure two and a half hours of dry dialogue delivered by crusty old white men.

Spielberg brings very little to the table here.  There are no directorial flourishes…  Not a single “wow” moment or shot.  It is, by far, his dullest effort in his forty magnificent years behind the camera.

Daniel Day Lewis does a good job as Lincoln — but I fear his acting reputation has been coupled with the admiration for the historic President to generate overly lavish praise.  It is a very nice performance, but very far from being the best of 2012.

Tommy Lee Jones has also been getting a lot of nominations in the supporting actor category all throughout the awards season.  I fail to see why.  He is a sour-faced mope who hasn’t ever been on my Christmas list.  In fact, I think he always delivers the standard Tommy Lee Jones character whether or not he wears period piece clothing.

The supporting cast is a distraction too.  They made a massive error casting so many famous faces here.  Every time one of them shows up, the viewer is taken right out of the film, asking themselves who it is and where they know them from.

Listen, “Lincoln” is made with care and it has some good qualities which I don’t have the inclination to detail.  However, I was bored after 30 minutes and it never recaptured my interest.  I watched it at arm’s length and ho-hummed my way to the final credits.  The famous President is a fascinating historical figure, but you wouldn’t know it based on this film.

TWO STARS Lincoln Review

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“Amour” Review

February 24, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The end of life is usually so very anticlimactic.  It can be a dull, monotonous trudge toward the inevitable.  It is often consumed by medicine, paperwork, sleep, mumbling gibberish, pain, loneliness, boredom… etc.  We are embarrassingly helpless during the final months, weeks and days — and we can only hope that we have someone, who loves us very much, that will help us fade away with as little discomfort as possible.  That is the story told in “Amour” — an intimate masterpiece that ought to be seen by everyone and won’t be forgotten by anyone.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has a minor stroke, beginning the spiral that will eventually end her long life.  Her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), promises her that he won’t take her to a home or a hospital.  Instead, he takes care of Anne himself… Washing her, feeding her.  For the first few weeks or months (the film is unclear about the timeline), it seems manageable.  But she soon becomes too much for an elderly man to care for without some assistance.  A nurse comes three times a week.

Anne is losing her memory.  Her mobility is a thing of the past.  Her mind is soon unrecognizable.  It is a heartbreaking and sad process that ages Georges quickly.  He is fiercely determined to care for his beloved life partner.  It is clear that they have shared a lifetime of experiences that no one else will ever be privy to.  They are “together” in every sense of the word.  His love for her is unquestioned and immense.

Riva and Trintignant are quite simply astonishing in this film.   Riva seems to be getting all the acting plaudits and awards this year, but that is imbalanced.  I chose the above still image of “Amour” because it is the reverse angle of the iconic poster photo that everyone will be familiar with by now.  Trintignant is equally as mesmerizing here.  This is a couple.  This is a dual performance unlike any you will have seen this year.  Both of them are award worthy and their efforts will not soon be forgotten.  A huge reason why this film is a masterpiece is the work they deliver on screen.  The always superb Isabelle Huppert is also noteworthy as the elderly couple’s daughter.

Michael Haneke is an unsympathetic director.  He and his work are hard to love because the emotions are cold.  He is very careful to avoid any manipulation of sentiment.  His films are very matter-of-fact… Sometimes to a fault.  However, in “Amour”, that technique works with astonishing power.   We observe the intimate moments of this tender couple in their most private of times.   We are spared nothing — the camera lingering for what seems like eternity on the most gentle of scenes.    Haneke’s lack of camera movement is reminiscent of the great Japanese director, Yasujirō Ozu.  We are just a fly on the wall… and nothing is hidden from us.

“Amour” is not a film that many will ever revisit.  It is emotionally draining.  It may be a scenario that we will have to endure toward the end of our own lives.  However, it reminds us that love is the only true key to happiness.  Some will endure that end with no one to love them — and that is truly tragic.  At least Anne has Georges to hold her hand when she hurts.  At least Anne has Georges to feed her gently.  At least Anne has Georges to cut her flowers.

FOUR STARS Amour Review

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