“The Chaser” Review

July 16, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

“The Chaser” (Chugyeogja) was released in South Korea in 2008 — the following year in the USA.  It was met with universal acclaim and there was serious talk of an American remake, along the lines of the Scorsese version of “The Departed”.  DiCaprio was even rumored to be attached to the lead role.  I’ve been meaning to watch this film for going-on five years.  Sometimes a film gets lost in the shuffle.

It was worth the wait.  “The Chaser” is a taut and riveting thriller that never loosens its grip, even for a moment.  It stars Yun-seok Kim as Joong-ho, an ex-cop turned pimp who is having trouble hanging on to the girls in his “employ”.  The girls keep disappearing and he suspects they are being kidnapped and sold on.  Soon, however, he discovers that the truth may be even more grim than that.

One of the things I love about this film, and Korean cinema in general, is that it never takes its foot off the gas.  In a Hollywood thriller, audiences always get what they expect.  They always deliver in spurts, letting you come up for air.  And they almost always require, if not a happy ending, a just and fair conclusion that leaves the audience fully satisfied.  Without giving anything away… “The Chaser” isn’t going to let you off that easily.

Consider the great chase scenes in this film.  They are not car chases, laden with explosives and amazing stunts.  They are long, hard slogs, up steep hills, on foot, that end with desperately tired fist fights that are awkward and unathletic.  Each punch is not accentuated by a foley artist smacking a watermelon with a 5-iron.  The fight scenes use real sounds, much like the ones in Soderbergh’s “Haywire”.  It works far better than the typical Hollywood sounds — WHAAAA-PACKKKK!!!!

The only thing that may hold “The Chaser” a fingertip away from a Four-Star rating is its relentlessly bleak tone.  I admired the courage it displayed… but I am not sure it would lend itself to many repeat viewings.  It is too dark and heavy for that.  However, it is a superbly well directed thriller with top-notch performances from the entire cast.  It ranks as yet another great film from South Korea — a country whose cinema succeeds at a higher strike-rate than any other country at the present time.

THREE AND A HALF STARS The Chaser Review

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“The Great Beauty” Review

July 14, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

“The Great Beauty” (La grande bellezza) is a gorgeous slice of classic Italian cinema.  It is very reminiscent of Fellini’s most iconic work — sewing together a tapestry of scenes that may not add up to a complete narrative whole, but which evoke wistful remembrances, profound ideas and grand imagery.

Toni Servillo gives one of the finest performances of 2013 as Jep Gambardella, an intellectual 65 year-old socialite, who has lived a life of surface pleasures and is, perhaps, finally starting to appreciate the beauty of the life around him.  One morning, he notes to himself, after making love to a beautiful woman, that he doesn’t have time to do things he doesn’t want to do.  Rather than stick around to see her photo album, he slinks away to saunter along the river bank.

Paolo Sorrentino directs a film that intertwines deep image poetry with cynical and darkly humorous dialogue that rings true on so many occasions.  We are treated to languid visuals of glorious Italian art and landscape.  It all seems to be a reminder of that age old notion — to stop and smell the roses.

There are also some brilliantly written and superbly acted party scenes that act as commentary on life, love, work and what matters most.  Jep Gambardella tries to portray that he has it all figured out… but we get the impression that he is just starting to comprehend what matters most to him.  He is still on the journey.

“The Great Beauty” opens with this quote, “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”   This film lives up to that quote.  It is a vague journey, from which we have to extrapolate what matters most to us.

THREE AND A HALF STARS The Great Beauty Review

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“The Armstrong Lie” Review

July 14, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

In 2009, the director of this documentary, Alex Gibney, probably began making what would eventually become a fluff piece on Lance Armstrong’s comeback to the world of cycling after a four-year lay-off.  He probably never envisioned that it would become the definitive story of Armstrong’s disgraceful downfall from the sport.

One of the myriad questions Lance Armstrong answers candidly in this film is whether or not he would have been caught if he hadn’t tried to make a comeback.  He clearly believes that he would have been free and clear were it not for his ego compelling him to return.  After all, that seems to be what Armstrong is most guilty of  — having a massive all-consuming ego.

One of the things this documentary does terrifically well is to match-up the detail of the “doping program” with the actual footage from the days it was being perpetrated.  As a huge fan of the Tour de France… I remembered a lot of the days in question.  It was fascinating to hear of “motorman” — the guy on the motorcycle who would travel the route of the tour at night, packing the drugs and blood bags and equipment necessary for the program to function secretly.  The brazen confidence of the US Postal team program was amazing to behold.

I love the sport and I admired Lance Armstrong.  Clearly, he was a pretty manipulative and shady guy.  This film details all the people he bullied and threatened with legal action.  It highlights all the teammates and rivals who participated in the “code of silence”.  However, I never once got the impression that Lance was doing anything that wasn’t standard practice.  Was he cheating?  Yes.  Was EVERYONE else?  Yes.  He just did it better than they did.

THREE AND A HALF STARS The Armstrong Lie Review

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“Life Itself” Review

July 13, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Roger Ebert was one of my favorite people.  I grew up watching him — and spent a great deal of my life reading his reviews and columns.  He was one of the driving forces behind my passion for movies.  Much of who I am is because of Roger Ebert.

So, with that being said… it will come as no surprise that I loved this documentary about the great film critic.  It is a lovely tour of his memories.  It is a road map to the pivotal moments of his life.  And it is a truthful depiction of the final few years, months and weeks of his life that included a lot of hardship, due to a prolonged battle with cancer, as he found a new way to reach his millions of fans.

I was especially touched by his wife, Chaz Ebert, who was a life altering soul mate for Roger.  Her words and actions in “Life Itself” are brave and poignant.  She is a lovely, warm and intelligent woman who assuredly gave Roger’s life true meaning.

Other interviews, from friends, family, directors and colleagues, all serve to show how influential and brilliant Roger Ebert’ was in the world of cinema.  The director, Steve James, owes a lot of his success due to the championing of his 1994 epic documentary, “Hoop Dreams”.  That was one of Roger’s greatest gifts — championing the little guy.

I never had the privilege of meeting Roger… but he did mention me once in a column.  He quoted me quoting him in an article on what it takes to be a film critic.  I would like to think that he read some of my reviews.  I would like to think he thought I had promise.  I would like to think that he knew how much he meant to me.

“Life Itself” is one of the most gentle, honest and touching films of 2014.  It is a fitting tribute to one of the giants in the world of cinema.

FOUR STARS Life Itself Review

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“Non-Stop” Review

July 8, 2014 |  by  |  mike horne, movies, reviews  |  2 Comments

Review by Mike Horne – contributing film critic.

Some roles have the power to resurrect or change an actor’s career.  “Pulp Fiction” brought John Travolta back to life and gave him a good box office run though the rest of the 90’s.  “The Bourne Identity” turned Matt Damon in an action hero.  Similarly, “Taken” transformed Liam Nesson into a bad-ass. Yes, Liam was no stranger to action movies, and even managed to train Batman, but his role as the deep throated Ex-CIA bone breaker highlighted a particular set of skills acquired over a long career.

This time around he plays Bill Marks, a depressed and abrasive federal air marshall who doesn’t actually like flying. He also enjoys hard liquor more than he should. During a flight from New York to London things take a turn for the dramatic, as the first of many threatening text messages start to roll in.  “If you don’t do what I tell you, people will start to die”, type of threatening. The thing is, these texts can only come from someone on the plane. The other weird thing is that no one else seems that concerned.

With the help of Julianne Moore, and a few other reluctant passengers, Bill races against the clock to capture the technical mastermind who will continue to kill if his demands for $150 million are not met. What follows is a highly enjoyable cat-and-mouse action thriller. We are also treated to some surprisingly emotional moments, as Bill begins to crack under all that pressure. He’s not perfect. He has made mistakes, but one thing is certain… You shouldn’t fuck with him. He is a bad-ass after all, and it is his determination that drives us through the twists and turns of this little caper.

I thouroughly enjoyed “Non-Stop”, but I found a few things to be a little too convenient and some characters a little too thin. There were a few points in the film where I shook my head, but it never really took me out of the movie. Thankfully, these minor niggles were put aside after some good old fashioned fist fights and a heavy doses of “Who the hell is it?’. I also have to mention the onscreen text overlays. They were some of the best I have ever seen, and their presentation helped to keep the tension and story rolling. They became a kind of character themselves, floating around the frame like some textual menace. It was also the first time I think I have ever seen spellcheck represented in a movie. Yea… I noticed that.

I also noticed a few other things:

A curtain’s effectiveness for privacy is directly correlated to how wide open you decide to leave it. Smoking on planes without setting off alarms is actually super easy. Being able to act like everything is hunky-dory is a hugely important part of being a good air stewardess The stereotype for Afro-American males with attitude is annoying. The stereotype for upperclass British males is stupid. Kids in movies, that are only there to cheaply play with our emotions, are annoying. Bad guys with poor motives are stupid AND annoying.

“Unknown” director, Jaume Collet-Serra, does a great job with his once again lead, actively forcing him into highly compromising situations. He dishes out some truly amazing camera tricks and manages to make a static environment both dynamic and exciting. He also captures the nervousness and group-thinking of the post 9-11 passengers perfectly. He uses all of this to slowly turn up the heat in that confined space, and manages to keep us guessing until the very end.

Liam is again delightful as the man possessed. There are a handful of familiar faces littered about, each playing their parts well, but Neeson is the reason why I watched and enjoyed this movie. Despite his age, he is giving our modern action stars a good run for their money. I truly hope “Taken 3″ will remove some of the bad taste left in my mouth by the second one. If this is any indication, he is still up to the job.

I wouldn’t say this is a perfect film, but it does serve up some decent heart-pumping eye candy. Personally, I was let down by the revelation. I heard this described as “Die Hard” on a plane. Like O.J’s glove, that doesn’t quite fit for me. Hans Gruber is one of the greatest villains of all time. Our villain doesn’t even come close. This didn’t pop my fun balloon, but the air was definitely let out.

In the end, “Non-Stop” was a bucket full of adrenaline soaked popcorn, with a few annoyingly burnt kernels that got stuck in my teeth.

THREE STARS Non Stop Review

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“Anna” Review

July 7, 2014 |  by  |  mike horne, movies, reviews  |  2 Comments

Review by Mike Horne – contributing film critic.

Watching “Anna” is like getting a cheap lap dance. It is thrilling, mildly erotic and a bit of a rush. And like all good things, it ends too soon. You are then left alone, unsatisfied, filled with regret and with less money in your pocket.

“Anna” had so much potential. A borderline sci-fi thriller, with enough of an original concept to truly bend your mind. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. The only brain bending received is when you try to figure out how such a wonderful idea could go so horribly wrong.

Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”, “Green Lantern”) plays John, a grieving and emotionally wrecked ‘Memory Detective’. He is hired to help people relive their memories and witness them as they are recalled, inside their minds. Having run out of money, he needs to get back in the game and returns to his former boss, Sebastian, played by the excellent Brian Cox. It just so happens that Sebastian has the perfect job for him: Help a bright 16 year old, spoiled rich girl to start eating again. She is confined to her mansion and is on hunger strike. Easy enough. What could possibly go wrong?

So we meet Anna, the centerpiece of this thriller. She quickly proves herself to be a very shrewd and devilishly clever piece of work, leaving our John very perplexed indeed. It is in his journeys through her mind that we get the real meat of the story. Lines between reality and imagination start to blur, accusations are cast and we go on a hunt with John to find where the truth truly lies.

I have to admit that I was emotionally caught up with the movie towards the end and had no real idea where I would end up. I did pick out a few telling clues along the way, but the final destination was still hidden from me. I was put in a welcomed, fun-filled state of confusion and began to slowly edge myself off my seat. I was brought ever so close to a magnificent climax… The pace quickened… almost there… things heated up… getting closer… Oh yes! Yes! HERE WE GO!! YES!!

Then nothing…

Sweet F.A.

Bar’s closed. Time to go home. Drink up and get the fuck out.

And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why.

All of the required components were there. Good story, great actors, pace, mood, originality, decent direction, and lots of lovely twists and turns. Then, somehow, the entire movie decided that suicide would be the best course of action.

Seriously, who needs closure these days? Let the viewers put all of the pieces together themselves. Movies are far too obvious anyway… Besides, we can always wrap things up with some crappy, seemingly poetic narration to conclude this mindfuck of a movie. And conclude it does. Badly.

All of the actors earned their money and there is a certain classy feel to everything. Taissa Farmiga does very well playing with our heads as Anna, but I feel her performance was entirely wasted due to the so called ending. I still don’t know if she was a remorseless psychopath, or damaged goods. I enjoyed my time with Mark Strong and connected with him as the broken, concerned professional. I loved him in “Welcome to the Punch”, but felt like trading a few fists of my own after he uttered the film’s closing line.

Disappointing is a word that can be freely thrown at this movie but, if I am to be honest, I did enjoy it. Well, the better part of it anyway. I just wish it had paid off. There are too many unanswered questions and obvious plot holes that you can’t help but feel that the plot gave in under the weight of its own grandiose ideas.

This felt like so many bad dates, birthdays and Christmas let-downs. My hopes were deliciously raised, but in the end, all I got was a kiss on the cheek, some poorly homemade cake, and a pair of woollen socks.

Ultimately, “Anna” is like premature ejaculation, but in reverse. If you can deal with that kind of torture, there may be something here for you. And if that is true, then you are one sick puppy, my friend.

TWO AND A HALF STARS Anna Review

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“Transcendence” Review

July 7, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Consider this list of mediocre movies…

The Lone Ranger
Dark Shadows
Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides
The Rum Diary
Alice in Wonderland
The Tourist
Sweeney Todd
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Corpse Bride
Secret Window
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
The Man Who Cried
From Hell
The Ninth Gate
Sleepy Hollow
The Astronaut’s Wife

Sure… You may find a few films in there that you like.  I doubt there are any that you really love.  And to be completely objective, that is one shockingly average filmography from a so-called megastar actor.

How many great films has Depp been heavily involved in?  “Edward Scissorhands”, “Benny & Joon”, “Gilbert Grape”, “Ed Wood”, “Donnie Brasco”, “Pirates of the Caribbean 1″, “Finding Neverland”, “The Libertine”.  Maybe four or five of those could be considered great.

You could argue strongly that Depp has the worst success ratio of any leading actor in cinema history.  He makes at least three clunkers for every mild success… and most of his good movies were made years ago.

Well, you can safely add “Transcendence” to the list of clunkers.  It is a hodgepodge of fortune cookie philosophy combined with a 1980′s-style cheap sci-fi that would feel like a B-movie, were it not for all the famous people involved.

Depp plays a scientist who is slowly dying after being shot for his beliefs.  In order to save his mind, he and his wife, played by Rebecca Hall, try to transfer his consciousness to a super-computer.  This ludicrous transformation is wholly impossible to accept as a viewer.  A better film could have suspended our disbelief, but “Transcendence” resorts to showing us montages of people putting together desktop PC’s, bundles of wires, and gibberish on screens.  Ahhhh… so that’s how you transfer a human mind into the digital realm???!!!???

The performances are all run-of-the-mill.  In this movie, Depp doesn’t have all the wigs and clothes and make-up to distract us from his limited talents.  He is stuck being very Depp-like… mumbling his lines like a stoner who is coming off a weed-high, trapped in that depressed mode.  Rebecca Hall has done better work in her primary school Christmas play.  Morgan Freeman does a good Morgan Freeman impression as he mails in his lines.  All of the supporting cast are instantly forgettable.

“Transcendence” takes its low-budget veneer and ambles to a hysterically pompous attempt at a grand finale.  All the viewer is left with is an elongated third act that tries to convey grand philosophical thoughts, only to deliver silly nonsense about the dangers of technology, the beauty of nature and the motivations of a deranged lunatic who just wanted to be with a girl.

Johnny Depp is the biggest smoke and mirrors success story in Hollywood.

ONE AND A HALF STARS Transcendence Review

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“Locke” Review

July 2, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Here is the pitch… Tom Hardy drives a car for 90-minutes and takes phone calls along the way.  Literally nothing else happens.  Does that make you want to see it?

Well, think again., because “Locke” is one of the more stressful and exhausting thrillers of the year.  It is a multi-layered film that seems more like a radio play than standard cinematic storytelling.  Viewers will find themselves imagining the scenes that take place at the other end of the phone.  The conversations are scripted so supremely well that you will visualize the action with all the necessary clarity.

Hardy plays Ivan Locke, one of the most trusted construction managers in the business, who gets in his car one evening and drives away from everything that matters most in his life.  An enormous cement pour is happening the following morning, at which his presence is supremely important.  He leaves it in the hands of his inexperienced subordinate.  It will likely result in Locke losing his prestigious career.  Without giving too much else away, Locke will also be making some personal phone calls, along the way, that will change his family life forever.

The film is in constant motion, despite never leaving the confines of his BMW.  It reminds the viewer of the gimmicks used in movies like “Phone Booth” and “Buried”… both of which use a single claustrophobic location.  All three are good films because the writing is superb and the performances are strong.  In “Locke”, Tom Hardy cements his status as one of the finest actors of the era.  He delivers a deeply thoughtful and emotionally complex turn in one of the most physically restrictive sets imaginable.

“Locke” is gripping and tense.  Perhaps there are moments in the film that feel a tad repetitive… most notably the phone conversations with his sons and the imaginary conversations with his father.  Still, those are minor quibbles.  I can wholeheartedly recommend the movie and urge you to seek it out.  It is a small film and you will probably have to go out of your way to find it… but Hardy’s efforts alone are worth the time.

THREE AND A HALF STARS Locke Review

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“Enemy” Review

July 2, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

“Enemy” may not be the best film of 2014… but it is one of the most memorable and absurdly intriguing films of the year.  Denis Villeneuve directs a mind-bending mystery starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent.  It is strange and hypnotic and very creepy.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a loner college professor who is prompted to watch a film by a colleague.  One of the extras in the film catches his eye — appearing to be his exact doppelganger.  The experience compels Adam to find the actor, a man named Anthony Claire.  He observes the actor from afar, developing a dangerous, consuming obsession with him.  Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent) is very troubled by his new behavior.  Anthony shares a far more exciting life with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).  He is much more outgoing and confident than Adam… but soon starts to feel the obsessive gaze of his stalker.

After an arranged meeting, where they compare the exact same hands and mirror-image scars, “Enemy” starts to takes some bizarre turns.  There are surreal images and scenes that create altogether chilling moods.  The film meanders slowly down a path of paranoia and psychosis.  It all leads to one of the most shocking final sequences in recent cinematic memory.

The cast is all superb.  The direction is calm and assured.  “Enemy” is an unapologetic oddity that works symbolically rather than literally.  It is the type of film that I am not sure I will ever be able to fully wrap my brain around.  Instead, it creeps beneath the skin, takes root in the recesses of the subconscious… and festers.

THREE AND A HALF STARS Enemy Review

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“Young & Beautiful” Review

July 2, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

I watched “Young & Beautiful” (Jeune & Jolie) entirely in French — without subtitles.  That is a first for me.  I am what you would call “casually conversational” in the language.  I get the gist of most conversations… but occasionally I miss things and need it slowed down or repeated.  I feel the need to qualify this review by admitting that I probably didn’t comprehend every single line of the film.  That being said, I can only imagine this film getting better when I see it a second time… with the subtitles.

The director, François Ozon, has crafted some wonderful films over the years… most notably “Swimming Pool”, “8 Women” and “Under the Sand”.  Here, he delivers a delicate exploration of a teenage girl’s sexual awakening as she enters a life of prostitution.

Marine Vacth is an absolute revelation as Isabelle, a high school girl who loses her virginity on a family holiday.  The encounter leaves her cold.  Upon her return to the city and to school, she finds an avenue to easy money by using this unemotional sexual power she has over men.  However, one older man, Georges, is a little different from all the rest.

The movie is quintessentially French… and that is a compliment.  It is patient and inquisitive, languid and wise.  It never devolves into the trivial or the salacious.  “Young & Beautiful” is a lovely and poignant story with terrific performances.  It demands a second viewing… one where I catch all the spoken words I missed out on the first time.

THREE AND A HALF STARS Young & Beautiful Review

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