Friday, October 10, 2014

 

The Guest

The Guest official site People intend to be more vulnerable and trusting when they are grieving. But that might be just part of the reason for the Peterson family to take in an unexpected house guest in the director Adam Wingard's entertaining film "The Guest" (USA 2014 | 99 min.). Perhaps the main reason is that the film's main character, the polite yet mysterious guest, is simply hard to resist. This slickly packaged film perfectly delivers each twist and unleashes plenty over-the-top black comedy.

The guest is a handsome and soft-spoken David (Dan Stevens) who shows up at the Peterson family's front door. He claims to be a close soldier friend of the elder son Caleb who recently died in Afghanistan. He comes to tells Caleb's mom Laura (Sheila Kelley) that Caleb loved her. Laura quickly embraces David's visit and invites David to stay, and David gratefully accepts.

David doesn't just come to comfort Laura, he swiftly gains the trust from the dad Spencer (Leland Orser), helps the younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) fending off bullies in high school, and charms the sister Anna (Maika Monroe) to make a music CD for him. However, a few days later, David's pleasant visit takes a dramatic turn and things spins out of control.

The Guest Official Site

When the first music score bangs out the film's title, the viewer is cued that there will be violence even it might not get as bloody as in Quentin Tarantino's films. The director Adam Wingard shrewdly balances the amount of blood he spills and the level of suspense he builds. He doesn't make it a secret that his main character is not as innocent and nice as he appears to be, and the story won't be as calm as during the first half of the film. When all hell breaks loose in the second half of the film, the director seamlessly changes the film from a clever thriller to a laugh-out comedy.

It's remarkable that the film's seemingly far-fetched story is convincingly constructed and smoothly unfold. However, despite each mysterious move that David makes, the film doesn't lean to the direction in solving a complex puzzle. Instead, it's having a blast along with the viewers. It's both brilliant and hilarious when the film sets the last chapter at a Halloween maze. The familiar sound effect in a horror film becomes natural and comical, and the viewer no longer asks why David comes to the family at the first place.

Does this film stimulate any deep thought or provide any revelation about anything? Probably not. Will you have fun at the screening of this film with a group buddies? Absolutely.

"The Guest," a Picturehouse release, opens on Friday, October 10, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Friday, September 12, 2014

 

The Drop

The Drop official site If I were to name one actor who deserves an Oscar but has not even been nominated yet, that would be Tom Hardy, a robustly terrific and immensely talented working actor today. He magically disappears into each role he plays and brings the character to life. He should have been nominated for his outstanding performance in "Warrior" (2011). Let's hope when the award season comes, he won't be overlooked for his exceptional work in "Locke" (2013), or how he captures our attention from start to finish in Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam's suspensive gangster drama "The Drop" (USA 2014 | 105 min.). In this new film, he never raises his voice as a low-key bartender. But even when he mumbles, his words carry extraordinary weight and clearly convey his character's mind.

The film is set in New York City's Brooklyn. A friendly bartender Bob (Tom Hardy) works at a bar run by his savvy cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). Marv used to own the bar, but now it's owned by a Chechen mobster Chovka (Michael Aronov) and is occasionally used as "the drop" where dirty money converges secretly in concealed envelopes.

That certainly makes the water hole a robbery target for someone who dares to mess with the mobster Chovka. After one robbery took place, a few individuals including the laid-back Bob and sly Marv are under the watchful eyes of Detective Torres (John Ortiz). However, that robbery may be just a prelude to a bigger scheme which targets the drop.

Meanwhile, Bob rescues an abused little puppy in his neighbor Nadia's (Noomi Rapace) trash can. Because of the dog, he ends up not only having to deal with the mobsters, the detective, and body parts showing at the bar, but also confronting Nadia's frightening ex-boyfriend Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The Drop Official Site

Based on writer Dennis Lehane's short story, the film's plot is relatively typical for a gangster genre and sometimes it's even confusing. For example, what's the content of the file which the detective reads in a car? The film never explains. The film also lacks the excitement of a grand climax. However, the terrific performance, particularly by Tom Hardy, makes the film gripping and entertaining.

Like any film about mobsters, violence is inevitable. Yet, the film manages to keep it to a minimum without compromising the thrilling effect. It smartly establishes an atmosphere that is both dangerous and suspensive with little blood.

Bob, the passive nice guy, appears to be easy going and avoids troubles when he can, but you can sense from Tom Hardy's expressive eyes that he takes notice about everything surrounding him. Obviously, he is not a typical bartender, and he is more observant to say the least. His intelligence, good nature, and likable personality is smoothly unveiled as the plots unfolds.

This is James Gandolfini's last film before his sudden death. Although the film is centered at Bob, James Gandolfini gave a memorable and solid performance that reminds us what a great actor he was. The fine performance by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini is enough to make this film to be satisfying.

"The Drop," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, opens on Friday, September 12, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Friday, September 5, 2014

 

The Notebook (A nagy füzet)

The Notebook Official Site There are numerous films that tell compelling stories about civilians' horrific suffering and the war's brutality during World War II. But the director János Szász's apathetic "The Notebook" (A nagy füzet | Hungary 2013 | in Hungarian | 110 min.) is not one of them. The film makes you feel like a voyeur who peeks into two emotionless twin brothers' exotic but hush rural life after the war forced them to leave their comfortable city home. However, the film always keeps you at arm's length from the twins and people around them so that in the end, you still don't know who these people are and why these one-dimensional characters behave in their own (often bizarre) ways. You only get to see what they have done, which is hardly anything good.

The film begins by telling us that the two preppy unnamed teenage twin boys (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are inseparable. To make this point, in one scene, their father clips the nail for one boy in bed (how touching that is for a thirteen-year-old boy, but really?), the other boy lies in the same bed inches away in order to be in the same picture. (Why?) When the city becomes increasingly dangerous toward the end of World War II, their parents send the boys to the safer countryside to live with their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), who has never met the boys before because the twin's mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) has not spoken a word to her for twenty years. (Why?)

Before the boys are dumped to their abusive and alcoholic grandmother who is called a witch by the villagers, their father (Ulrich Matthes) gives the boys a blank notebook and asks them to document everything about their experience in the countryside.

Surviving on limited resources and without supervision, the two straight-faced boys become more apathetic, violent, cruel, and even sadistic. They believe that's the only way they can endure the hardship and stay together. (Why?) They faithfully record the process of removing any sentiment from themselves in that carefully crafted notebook.

The Notebook Official Site

Based on Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf's French-language novel "Le Grand Cahier," perhaps the director János Szász wants to assemble a collage of images to illustrate how difficult life can be during the war. But like the fractured notebook the two boys clumsily put together, the film only takes snapshots of the boys' lives and never gets any deeper than being a passing onlooker. We see each incident in the film as if we witness a traffic accident on a highway when we drive by—we can't help but to look at the aftermath, we may speculate about the cause of the accident, but we never seem to know the truth, then we move on and forget about it after we pass it.

How lucky are the boys for not being Jew! All they have to deal with are their cruel grandmother and inconveniences such as sexual advances from a slutty church girl and from a friendly German officer (Ulrich Thomsen), when they are not playing the torturer to each other. If this is how bad World War II could get, the film is an insult to the millions of people who suffered and died during the war.

After the film was submitted as the Hungry's entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it's perplexing how it made to the final short list of nine films to be nominated. It's probably because the screeners didn't have time to watch films from other countries and couldn't resist the twin brothers' blank stares, just like the German officer in the film.

"The Notebook," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, September 5, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Friday, August 29, 2014

 

Love Is Strange

Love Is Strange official site When same-sex marriage became legal in many parts of the world including many states in the US, it has been a long bumpy yet unfinished journey for the gay right movement since Stonewall. There have been handful gay and lesbian characters in films and on televisions, although they rarely appear to be older. The director Ira Sachs changes that status quo with his latest tender drama "Love Is Strange" (USA 2014 | 93 min.). The film affectionately tells a story about an older gay couple whose love not only continues to change their own lives, but also profoundly impact people around them.

The first big change in the story is that 71-year-old painter Ben (John Lithgow) and musician George (Alfred Molina) finally get married after being together for 39 years. However, an immediate consequence of their marriage is for George to lose his teaching job at his church. Unable to afford their mortgage payment for their New York City apartment, they decide to sell it and seek for temporary housing arrangement.

Ben's supportive nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burroughs) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) open their home and let Ben sleep under their son Joey's (Charlie Tahan) bunk bed. Meanwhile, George crashes on the couch of his party-loving gay cop neighbor Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson).

Not only Ben and George must cope with the separation anxiety, but also they have to seek delicate balance while interacting with their hosts and to figure out a way to survive in the city together.

Love Is Strange Official Site

In the film, the director Ira Sachs tells his story without underlining the word "gay" when portraying his protagonists and he treats them as simply who they are, an old married couple like any married straight couple. That's a remarkable progress for portraying gays in cinema. He gives the audience plenty time to observe the subtle exchanges among his characters and never bother to elaborate more details than the viewers can witness. Together with the excellent performance by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, he beautifully crafts a heartfelt drama that focusing on a gay couple who lost their six pack abs long time ago.

However, that doesn't excuse the implausible plot setup. It's hard to believe that George and Ben must sell the apartment after George lost his teaching job at a church. George must have been paid very well for teaching children singing. It's even harder to comprehend that they go ahead with that selling decision which makes no economic sense and results their separation. But without that setup, the entire film has to go back to the drawing board. A few supporting characters, such as Ben's nephew Elliot and Joey's friend Vlad (Eric Tabach), are also clearly underdeveloped.

The cinematography by Christos Voudouris (the director of photography for "Before Midnight") is terrific in the film. One of the marvelous long take of Joey at a stairwell is absolutely mesmerizing and deeply moving, and the fantastic closing shot of the film ends the film's poignant undertone with a welcoming uplifting note.

"Love Is Strange," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, August 29, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.



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