Tag Archives: world cinema

Family Affair; ‘Like Father, Like Son’ (2013).

21 Oct

Like Father, Like Son posterLike Father, Like Son is the latest in a long line of demure, unassuming family dramas from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Much like 2011’s I Wish,his latest enterprise also focuses strongly on the plight of misplaced children, featuring a pair of six year-olds who were incompetently swapped at birth. As the winner of the prestigious Jury Prize at Cannes, does it deliver the promised goods?

You betcha, it does. Like Father, Like Son centres around a busy architect called Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukushima) who lives with his wife Midori (Machika Ono) and their polite, neatly turned-out son. Keita. A harrowing call from Midori’s former maternity hospital results in the gruelling discovery that Keita is not really her or Ryota’s kid, but biologically belongs to a Mr and Mrs Saiki, who likewise have raised the ‘wrong’ boy. Nature battles nurture in Ryota’s mind as he struggles to reconcile tradition with his own emotions.

Both families rendez-vous at shopping centres and playgrounds in an effort to get along. While both mothers empathise in their shared ordeal, the two dads wage a socio-cultural war of words. Ryoto finds Mr. Saiki buffoonish and irresponsible, while Mr. Saiki finds Ryoto’s arrogant pretension hard to swallow – his ultra modern Tokyo apartment is total anathema to the Saiki family’s barely profitable electronic knick-knack emporium-cottage hybrid.

Like Father, Like Son captures a magic unique to its Japanese setting. A famously patriarchal society, as well as one traditionally obsessed with familial bloodlines, Japan is the ideal artistic soil for planting the seeds of a mismatched children story. Ryota is stereotypically onerous, forcing hated piano lessons on poor Keita and politely demanding dinner upon arriving home. While his archaic behaviour isn’t excused by the geography, it’s certainly contextual.

Mercifully, a vital sense of humour underscores the proceedings; a lack thereof would render Like Father, Like Son a very sombre affair indeed. The Saiki family’s whimsical, happy-go-lucky attitude is perpetually regarded with derision by Ryota, but Kore-eda shoots their personal scenes at home with a playful coyness that’s utterly charming. Rather, it’s Ryota’s insufferable snobbery that the movie lampoons, all the while championing diversity and unorthodoxy.

Spellbinding drama is a tough gig to maintain, and unfortunately Like Father, Like Son wavers and loses focus by the third act. Unnecessary distractions are peppered throughout, from aimless dialogue to gratuitously protracted ‘nothing’ scenes, which culminate in the last half-hour. The film infuriatingly delays the finale and drags out the runtime for no apparent reason other than arbitrary longevity. A generous 20-minute haircut would have really suited.

Whisperings of an upcoming Spielbergian remake of Like Father, Like Son seem somewhat counterintuitive. Although Kore-eda’s traditional ‘absent father’ yarn would place it in familiar Spielberg territory, the delicate finesse displayed here would likely be tarnished by the heavy-handed Hollywood movie-grinding machine. Lets leave the movie as it is – an overlong but gentle, intriguing and fabulously acted examination of Japanese social norms.

Simon says: finally, a refreshing change from the usual scares or cartoons of usual international Japanese cinema.

[Written for GCN]

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Swedish meatbrawls: ‘Easy Money’ (2012).

1 Aug

Easy MoneyIn absolutely no way related to the goofy 1983 Rodney Dangerfield flick of the same name, Easy Money is a Swedish export full of gang violence, backstabbing and really quite wonderful acting. A recent release here in Ireland, the movie follows three main characters whose individual stories progressively overlap and eventually explode in a super dramatic climatic zenith towards the end.  Gritty and darkly subversive, Easy Money is one of the most intense dramas I’ve seen in a long time.

JW (Joel Kinnaman) is an economics student at Stockholm University, who drives taxis, pushes drugs and parties with the bourgeois in his free time to fund his education. Jorge (Mattias Padin Varela) opens the film with an inventive yet undeniably plausible prison break, although subsequent events clearly show that he hasn’t become a law-abiding citizen.  Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic, a real-life reformed bank robber) is also involved in the narcotics trade, though being recently burdened with a daughter he may be investigating more wholesome career paths. This trio of dramas expose the layered aspect of organised crime, while simultaneously reminding us that even hardened criminals are, in fact, human beings.

Easy Money is brought to us by Daniel Espinosa, the director of 2012’s disappointing Safe House. While that film was marred by a clunky script and embarrassingly bad editing, his latest endeavour suffers no such abnormalities. Through a myriad of accents and languages (Swedish, German, Spanish, English, Serbian and Albanian all get an airing) we are treated to memorable characters and powerful dialogue; certain scenes pack such a dramatic punch that they are genuinely jaw-dropping. One moment in particular at an illegal dog pound is beyond harrowing.

Trundling along as it does at breakneck speed, we scarcely have time to savour a beautiful shot or cathartic scene before we’re whisked away to one of the other parallel storylines. It’s this unflinching sense of pacing that really makes the movie fly by – it’s one of those misleading two-hour films that feels like half its actual length. Nefarious dealings are propped up by random bursts of beautiful cinematography – from sunsets to people lying bloodied in nightclub toilets, this movie is certainly a winner in the visuals department.

Leagues ahead of any crime thriller Hollywood has produced in recent months, Easy Money is an exciting and powerful drama that packs plenty of dramatic punches. The performances are all great, the story is involving, the art direction is impressive…. This movie rocks. It’s no Godfather,but then again, neither is anything else… Except The Godfather.

Simon says: much like healthcare and education, the Swedes know how to make good films.

‘In The House’, ou ‘Dans la Maison’ (2013).

16 Apr

In The House posterA film released here in Ireland with an English title to appeal to us subtly xenophobic non-Francophones, In The House stars Fabrice Luchini as Germain, a charismatic teacher of literature at a local lycée, or high school, and opposer of school uniforms. Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a pupil with a knack for writing fiction, and he donates two pages of an episodic love drama to his professeur each day after class. However, the line between fiction and non-fiction begins to blur as remnants of Claude’s writings slowly creep into Germain’s personal life, and pique his interests. Where on Earth is this going to go?

I was surprised at how consistently I laughed at this. World cinema often relies on visual or situational gags to tickle the funny bones of us uneducated anglophones, and while In The House does adhere to this tactic once or twice, much of the humour is down to the script. Mainstream movies tend to rely on tone and pronunciation to carry jokes; often how something is said is actually funnier than what is said, and that this movie can have such witty dialogue yet remain in a foreign language testifies to the strength of the material. True wit shines through the language barrier.

That’s not to say this In The House is a comedy, or anything like it. In reality, it’s a risqué and oh-so-typically French film about romance,  betrayal and general sauciness, all filtered through a modern surrealist lens. Germain’s tale about the struggling English teacher aiding his gifted pupil is juxtaposed with the much more audacious tale of lust and brazenly sexualised adolescent fantasy. Without giving anything away, the story heads down some unexpected roads, and the various twists sprinkled throughout the film are genuinely surprising.

French cinema tends to be strong on the acting front if nothing else, and In The House doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Ernst Umhauer is great; he pulls off the slightly unhinged yet friendly loner with ulterior motives perfectly. A breakthrough role for the young actor, after appearing in 2011’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, we’ll certainly be seeing more of him. Luchini really fits the role he’s in; he just looks like an English teacher, you know? His wife, Jeanne (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) provides much of the comic relief, and often at the expense of her failing hipster art gallery.

Director François Ozon gives us some extremely tense scenes.

Director François Ozon gives us some extremely tense scenes.

This film has a very interesting method of dealing with its problems: as roughly half of the film is set in Claude’s fantasy fictional land, under Germain’s supervision most of the issues with the story are ironed out in front of our very eyes. Needless scenes or plot points are called out for their flaws almost before we can realise their ineptitude, and this process of continuous editing does actually correct most of the movie’s shortcomings. This meta approach is very cleverly handled, and only goes to show how well-made the film actually is.

However, there is clearly meant to be some kind of giant emotional upheaval near the end which simply didn’t work for me. Amidst the clarification of all the preceding wackiness, quite a hullabaloo is raised which swiftly culminates in a quiet, sentimental and intentionally bittersweet final scene. But it packs such a light punch, that in comparison with everything that’s gone before it seems to fizzle out rather than close with a bang. It’s actually not all that strange or even shocking in comparison to previous plot twists; all of the sexual vaudeville of the rest of the movie desensitises us to practically any sexual immorality at that stage.

A crazypants black-comic commentary on the philosophy of teaching and the student-tutor divide, In The House is a clever and meticulously crafted romp which manages to be both serious and wonderfully light-hearted too.

Simon says: c’est magnifique!

Did I adore ‘Lore’ (2013), or did I snore?

24 Mar

Lore posterA long-understood formula for success has been to throw likeable, innocent or unassuming characters into the nightmare that was WWII. In doing so, the horrors of that particular era are juxtaposed with the positiveness of the protagonists in order to emphasise both the virtue of the latter and the hellishness of the former. Films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist are testament to this established theory, but aside from the odd exception like Grave of the Fireflies or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, very few movies focus on the lives of children in these situations. Lore is a welcome addition to this under-represented subgenre of WWII-themed cinema.

An Australian-made German-language film, the first major twist is almost instantaneous… Turns out Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is actually a person! A German girl in her late teens to be exact, and she along with her younger sister, twin brothers and baby bro Peter travel with their parents to a remote farmhouse in the middle of the Black Forest (though not before suspiciously grabbing all of the silverware and burning lots of be-Swastika’d paperwork). However, both parents eventually vacate, and the kids must travel across the German countryside in order to reach the great city of Hamburg. The journey involves hostile locals, bugs, hairbrushes and many puddles of mud.

While their quest is fraught with dangers, it starts to get boring very fast, mainly due to the lack of anything happening on screen. While the kids, lacking any adult supervision in war-time rural Germany, are undoubtedly in danger, you really feel a noticeable lack of tension. Their very situation should leave viewers on edge but the only occasion where any sort of mutual anxiety is felt is during scenes where their lives are in direct danger. Had the film featured background sounds of explosions or gunfire in the distance (which would be perfectly plausible, given the context) the film would be an infinitely more enthralling experience.

This is a film which relies heavily on dialogue and character development rather than action or storytelling. That said, unfortunately the kids in this film have paper-thin personalities which really makes it tough to invest virtually any degree of empathy or solidarity for their predicament. Here’s how they breakdown: Lore, the eldest girl, is a semi-resourceful but ultimately quite cranky young adult with the oddest seduction tactics I’ve ever seen. The next oldest (12-ish?) girl is better with baby Peter but even more unlikeable from a personality perspective. Of the twin boys, all we know is that one is a trouble-maker. They are wholly two-dimensional and lack practically any depth whatsoever.

The costume design and makeup is all top-notch, but the characters themselves are lacking.

The costume design and makeup is all top-notch, but the characters themselves are lacking.

A big problem with Lore is that the story is both meandering and consistently unclear. At more than one instance I was left figuratively scratching my head, wondering “how exactly did they get there?”. Other than the obvious “they walked”, it’s never clearly explained how they got from point A to point B. About a third of the way in, they reach a bombarded former city, which I initially thought was Hamburg (their ultimate destination). However, within ten minutes they were back on the road again! I was confused for a significant portion of this film.

This may sound like I hated this movie, but I would like to make something clear: Lore is well worth seeing. The cinematography is stunning, with beautiful locations and very convincing makeup. There is one scene by a lake, where one character is hanging upside down from a tree, and the camera is shot through their eyes. Gazing at a friend in the water, whose head is poking out so as to be equal with their reflection, the mirroring of the faces in the water from an inverted perspective is wonderful. The acting is convincing (the chain-smoking mother (Ursina Lardi) is the pick of the bunch), even if none of the characters are friendly, and the emotional payoff at the end has its intended punch. A tentative recommendation.

Simon says: not explosive, but not a bomb either.

As cartoons go, ‘Dwae-ji-ui wang (The King of Pigs)’ (2013) is brutal.

20 Feb

King-of-Pigs-2011-Movie-PosterKorean animation, hell Korean cinema in general is a genre of film which is almost entirely alien to me. Dwae-ji-ui wang (The King of Pigs) is my first foray into the fascinating wilderness known as Manhwa (essentially K-anime), and will probably be my only one for a long time – it’s not exactly a major industry here in Ireland. But the question is; does this movie make me want to see more of the same!?

Dwae-ji-ui wang is a cartoon, written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, which follows the middle-aged Jung Jong-suk and Hwang Kyung-min as they recall the rather miserable childhood they had. A mixture of reminiscence and present-day drama, in recounting their not-so wonderful school days tears are shed, voices are raised and, penultimately, suspicions are confirmed.

This is easily the grittiest, unhappiest and darkest cartoons I’ve seen in a very long time, possibly ever. The tone is more bitter than the blackest of coffees, and the movie is so flowing with dread that it virtually permeates through the screen and elopes you in this inescapable, palpable misery. Most ‘dark’ films tend to have at least one positive element; nobody even smiles in this film, save the bullies who kick the stuffing out of the younger kids. Incredibly offensive language, extreme yet (mostly) realistic violence and taboos such as bullying, prostitution and masturbation combine to make this a gloriously upsetting film.

The above may sound like a criticism to some, but don’t get me wrong; I had a blast as this movie! I was hooked right from the start, and though I felt a sense of nauseating discomfort I praise the film for making me feel this way. Any movie which elicits that level of an emotional response from its viewer, regardless of genre, deserves a standing ovation, which this film actually received at its conclusion.

From a technical standpoint, Dwae-ji-ui wang also shines. Manhwa is similar to anime insofar as it tends to be more colourful than typical Western cartooning (even in this grimy mood), though it is less overt and exaggerated – no ridiculous clothes or impossible hairdos are to be found here, and peoples’ eyes do not resemble two colliding moons. The music is minimal, though it pops up at times of dramatic exposition, which it compounds marvellously.

The only complaints I have with this movie are so minor they barely warrant mentioning. As is always the danger with any foreign-language film, there is the inevitable typo in the subtitles, and it just so happens to be a particularly hated spelling error of mine; ‘principle’ appears when it should have read ‘principal’. Grr! Also, the camera has this odd habit of randomly zooming out and swooping about the place in this pseudo-3D effect. It takes you completely out of the film because it is uncharacteristic of the rest of the shots, and adds nothing to the story, tone or atmosphere at all. Finally, the ending gets progressively predictable, though it still packs an emotional punch.

These minor quibbles aside, Dwae-ji-ui wang is not only a fantastic piece of Asian cinema, but a brilliant film overall. Catch it if you can! (Special props to Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and the South Korean embassy for showing and supporting the film, respectively).

Simon says: an awesomely brutal introduction to Manhwa.

Make sure to have a can of Red Bull before ‘Midnight’s Children’ (2012)… Or just don’t go.

19 Dec

Midnight's Children movie posterDemonstrating the riskiness involved in letting an author adapt their novel for the big screen to an impressive degree of perfection, Midnight’s Children – based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie – takes the epic tale offered by the book and drains it of all the emotional, dramatic and allegorical integrity which made it so deserving of its award.

Midnight’s Children tells the story of Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha), whose birth at the stroke of midnight following India’s independence from Britain is marred by an unscrupulous nurse’s decision to switch his name tag with that of another baby, Shiva (Siddharth Narayan). Both at diametrically-opposed ends of the socioeconomic ladder, the affable Saleem soon discovers that he can communicate with the other kids born on that fateful hour, the other “Midnight’s Children”.

There is an awful lot going on in this movie, and over the course of its two and a half hour runtime so many new characters are introduced that it just becomes cluttered and confusing. The scores of actors all try their best, and while Sinai clearly puts a lot of effort in, I just didn’t care. This is my main issue with the film; there is not one likable, memorable character, which is a major shame because the book is bursting with them.

Rushdie wrote the screenplay for this, so he is at least partly to blame. He actually provides oddly out-of-place vocal services as the third-person omniscient narrator, a vague figure whose identity and relation to the plot is kept hidden. The film is devoid of all humour – I recall yawning much more than smiling. I did giggle at one instance of hilariously poor dialogue – one uptight general’s use of the non-existent phrase “given the circz” instead of “given the circumstances” was gloriously out of place and absolutely murdered the until-then serious tone of that scene.

Historians and those more politically-minded among us should enjoy the film’s depiction of India’s struggle for peace following its separation from Britain. But the diabolical editing and punishing 148-minute length makes this a frankly gruelling experience. The camera has this strange habit of wobbling on occasion, as if the guy holding it has some sort of nervous disorder, and couldn’t find a tripod.

A cold, distant appraisal is what’s required to successfully translate a good book into a good movie, and no author should be expected to operate on their babies in such a way. As it is, Midnight’s Children is essentially a patchwork of nice scenes, acceptable dialogue and decent acting threaded together by a flimsy, X-men like subplot. Had the film used this plot device as its main concept, instead of the boring dramatic narrative, it could have been much better. An overlong tirade of boredom.

[Written for The Student Standard]

Simon says: worse than having a Fatwā issued on you. Just read the book.

‘The Raid: Redemption’ – Movie Review.

27 May

So yesterday to kill time before a gig I went to see The Raid: Redemption in Cineworld. I didn’t know anything about it, and frankly I wasn’t expecting much going in. That said, rather than seeming particularly good from the poster, it just seemed less terrible-looking than the other movies on offer. So I sat down in a half-full screen 11 and it wasn’t long before my mind was blown.

The Raid is the best action film I’ve seen in a long time, and a contender for the best one I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. The story goes that an Indonesian equivalent of a SWAT team is going into an infamous apartment block run by a nefarious criminal mastermind, who lets out rooms to thugs needing a place to lay low. The ‘main’ character is a young member of the team who we see at the beginning has a pregnant wife.

This poster does not exemplify the awesomeness contained in the film it advertises.

It has it all: awesome fight scenes, fast-paced running around and spectacular shoot-outs. The Indonesian film is of course not in English but has English subtitles. That said, the dialogue is actually really good. While the characters aren’t developed much past the main guy, and exactly who  the various villains are is pretty much left to the imagination, The Raid manages to have a very involving story which sucks you in and makes you empathise with the good guys. Frankly, their personalities and backstories, while kind of present, are irrelevant; this film is all about the action, which it delivers in spades.

What impressed me most about the film is the fact that over the course of its 101-minute duration, it does not let up for a single second. You are literally kept at the edge of your seat the entire time, and are left almost tired by the end of it. Now, this is probably stereotyping, but going into an Asian action film I expected lots of kung-fu scenes, and I was not disappointed. The hand-to-hand combat is amazingly choreographed and superb to watch. Never mind the rather vast array of arsenal on display here –

This leads on nicely to the issue of the violence. The Raid is a very appropriate 18s-rated film. The intensity of the fighting is not so over the top as to render it silly; however it is all realistic enough to make it very believable, and quite brutal. People are impaled on things, thrown out windows and literally no region of the body is left un-stabbed in this film. The one absurd moment of action is actually quite brilliant: it involves a fridge, a methane tank and a grenade. Oh man that bit is awesome.

The film is really well lit. The action scenes are caked in darkness while the more serene moments of solace, such as quiet snippets of dialogue, are bathed in artificial light, contrasting the violence with peace.This gloom combined with the paranoia that the film exudes due to the entirety of the movie being filmed indoors makes The Raid: Redemption a distinctly pessimistic film. It’s dark, it’s violent as all hell and overall it’s an incredibly well-made film that I’d urge all non-squeamish people to check out!

Simon says: grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Wonderful!

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