Friday, February 19, 2016


A War (Krigen)

A War official site Without physically being in a battlefield, the chaos and brutality of war can often seem abstract and remote to us. The concept of collateral damage during a war can also become merely statistics and headlines. That detachment is completely diminished when you watch Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm's third feature "A War" (Krigen | Denmark 2015 | in Danish | 115 min.). Nominated for best foreign language film Oscar, this intelligent and thought-provoking film vividly decodes those concepts with a story in Afghanistan's war zone, and shows us how the war continues after the soldiers come home. You can't help but wonder what you would do if you were in the same position as the film's protagonist.

Stationed in a remote village in Afghanistan and led by Commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk), a Danish company routinely patrols the empty mountain roads to keep Taliban out of sight. When a soldier is blown up by an IED, the entire team is devastated, especially Lutfi "Lasse" Hassan (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) who is visibly shaken. One soldier bluntly complaints to Claus that the patrol is pointless and only exposes them to grave danger. However, Claus sees it differently. He believes their presence outside the camp is crucial for the locals to feel safe from the Taliban.

Back home, Claus's wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles to take care of their three young children. Claus's absence in their daily routines starts to show significant impact on their growing up. Despite the difficulties Claus's young children may face, their lives exhibit a sharp contrast to the lives of the children Claus encounters in Afghanistan.

One day, when Claus leads his company into a village, they are under furious attacks from the Taliban and Lasse is severely injured. Desperately trying to end the enemy fire and to save Lasse's life, Claus calls for air support which leads to tragic consequences that everyone must confront.

A War Official Site

After making acclaimed "A Hijacking" (Kapringen 2012), the writer-director Tobias Lindholm once again tells a gripping story by taking us right next to those soldiers as if we were the cameras mounted on their helmets. The hand-held camera's violent moves mirror the nerve-wrecking atmosphere perfectly. Everything looks like a threat even in a deserted location and even during an encounter with children. The edgy feeling of sensing that something bad is going to happen is almost unbearable. A soldier declares: "You can't imagine what it's like out there." The film realistically shows what it's like out there.

During the second half of the film, the physical war in Afghanistan is carried over to the mind and soul of these soldiers after they return to Denmark. Although it is a different kind of war, its intensity is never eased. The moral and ethical compass is challenged following the aftermath in the war zone. The war never ends, it simply changes its battle ground.

The film does not speak loudly with an anti-war message, but it makes you wonder if these soldiers should get involved in the Afghanistan War in the first place. Everyone seems to have the best intention, but the brutal war continues to create so-called collateral damage both physically and mentally, abroad and at home.

"A War," a Magnolia Pictures release, opens on Friday, February 19, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! official site Renowned writer-director Ethan Coen and Joel Coen brothers have made many films including a few master pieces. But when they intend to have some light-hearted fun, they also never fail in delivering sly humor and mischiefs. Their latest satire goofball comedy "Hail, Caesar!" (USA 2016 | 106 min.) is wildly entertaining and funny, despite the fact that it contains little plot and intellect. The film plays out like an ensemble of hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live with a straight-faced host—Josh Brolin.

The "host" in the movie is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a "fixer" or a go-to guy in the '50s Hollywood studio system. Whether a celebrity is involved in a scandal or a production is stuck, Eddie is the one to take care of the mess whenever there is a problem. His latest problem involves a large scale production "Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ" with a not-so-bright Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as the lead actor. Before the last important scene can be shot, Baird is kidnapped by "The Future," a group of communist Hollywood writers who blame the studios for taking all the profit that they deserve to share. They ask for $100,000 ransom money for the release of Baird.

Even before the era of cellular phones, Eddie runs around like the most capable CEO who puts off fires and gets things back in order. He gathers religious leaders from different faith to counsel the subject of God for the Caesar production. He finds a father for the unborn-child of a pregnant mega-star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). He forces a director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to cast a dumb cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a period drama. He fences off tabloid twin-sister columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton). He goes to confessionsat a rate even the priest thinks is too frequent. He meets a recruiter for career-changing opportunity. He checks out footages with a film-editor C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand). Of course, he still has time to deliver a suitcase of ransom money to get Baird back to the production. He is a true fixer, indeed.

Hail, Caesar! Official Site

As if they are giving us an exciting tour inside the sets of studios, the Coen brothers pay homage to the glory of cinema through each amusing skit. Even though these skits mostly seem independent from each other, their glamor and amusement are simply irresistible on their own. From a short scene such as film-editor C. C. Calhoun feeding the film projector to a long take such as an energetic Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) tap-dancing as a sailor on a movie set, the film does nothing less to enchant the audience. It constantly feels like an opening performance at an Oscar ceremony.

Although Channing Tatum's character Burt is not very significant to the story, but his charming performance steals the show handsomely. He shows us once again what a great dancer he is in case you are not yet convinced by "Magic Mike XXL" (2015). When he turns his head with the Soviet song "The Sacred War" (Священная война) on in the background, how can anybody hold back chuckles with the Coen brothers behind the camera?

Obviously the Coen brothers are not offering anything serious by making this delightful film. They are just having some fun. There is nothing wrong with that, especially when their goofiness works.

"Hail, Caesar!," a Universal Pictures release, opens on Friday, February 5, 2016, and it will open the Berlin International Film Festival on February 11, 2016.

Friday, January 15, 2016


Son of Saul (Saul fia)

Son of Saul official site The horror of the Holocaust is already well-known for us. Yet once again, the Hungarian director László Nemes is able to brilliantly plunge us deep into the enormity in his impressive feature directorial debut "Son of Saul" (Saul fia | Hungary 2015 | in Hungarian/Yiddish/German/Polish | 107 min.). What he accomplishes remarkably in this film is that he takes us to the concentration camp as close as possible and then evokes our own imagination to experience the heinous crimes at the death camp. It offers a completely different perspective from most works that depicts one of the darkest chapters in human history. The film's striking achievement is awarded with Grand Prix (second place) at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it might just bring the second foreign-language Oscar back to Hungry (the first is "Mephisto" in 1981).

In 1944, near the end of World War II, the Nazi regime speeds up its "final solution" by herding Jews into gas chambers day and night in Auschwitz concentration camp. To keep up with the needs of industrialized mass-killing, many Jewish prisoners are put into special units called Sonderkommandos to help with disposing the dead bodies and sorting through victims' belongings after each batch of extermination operation. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) works as a member of Sonderkommando right outside the metal door of a gas chamber. He looks completely numb and follows orders like a robot that performs the routines: shepherding the newly arriving Jews into the gas chamber, going through the clothes for valuables, removing the dead bodies, burning the corpses, and cleaning up the gas chamber for the next round of Jews.

When a teenager boy is found still alive after the gas chamber's metal door is reopened, Saul witnesses how a Nazi stops the boy's breathing and then schedules an autopsy of the boy by a Sonderkommando doctor. Upon Nazi's leaving, the seemingly emotionless Saul comes up to the doctor and tells him that the boy is his son and asks to have the body for a proper Jewish burial. That means he must find a rabbi to recite Kaddish when he buries the boy's body. Under Nazi's noses, he hides the boy's body, and then obsessively goes on an impossible mission of searching for a rabbi in the crowd that are marching to their death. Nothing can deter his determination, certainly risking his own life is nothing compared to the boy's burial.

Son of Saul Official Site

Shot with a narrow Academy ratio format, the director László Nemes unfolds his story by using close-ups at Saul's head almost throughout the entire movie. Even if we can have a glimpse of Saul's surroundings next to his head, they are still blurred by the camera's shallow-focus. However, we have little trouble filling in the rest of the images in our heads, in turn, feeling terrified by the sound of death that overwhelms Saul. As a result, we are closely confined to Saul's presence and we experience the unbearable first hand, similar to how Saul focuses on what's in his hands and walls off all the hell everywhere around him.

But what drives Saul into his single minded mission remains a mystery. He appears to become apathetic about both the living and the dead at the camp except the boy. He knows very well that his own destination in a few months will be just like everyone else's, but he has little concern over if or how he can survive. Giving the boy a proper burial overcomes everything in the world to him. His search for a rabbi in the death camp certainly creates many suspenseful and intense moments, but his actions and the often blank yet unforgettable looks on his face shed little light about the state of his mind.

"Son of Saul," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 15, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, January 8, 2016


The Revenant

The Revenant official site Even a cat indeed has nine lives, the legendary 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass probably can beat that. He arguable survived a horrendous bear attack and crawled for hundreds of miles in the snow to reach to a camp. Based on Michael Punke's novel about Hugh Glass's remarkable story, the Oscar-winning writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu unflinchingly depicts the hell Hugh Glass went through in "The Revenant" (USA 2015 | 151 min.). As if the physical suffering is not enough, the film adds additional emotional torment on its protagonist by killing his son in front of his eyes. Despite how unconvincing Hugh's survival may look like, the film is a grand showcase of bold filmmaking and excellent performance.

In a dream-like opening scene set in the 1820s, we learn that frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is married to a Pawnee woman (Grace Dove) and has two sons. In no time, a fierce attack from the Native Americans breaks the dream and bring us to the hush reality. Hugh has lost his wife and young son. Now he tries his best to protect his remaining teenager son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) while traveling with a group of fur trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

En-route from escaping the Native Americans, Hugh is badly mauled by a mama bear. With severe wounds all over his body, especially on his neck and back, he is put on a stretcher but not expected to live in the freezing cold. In order to give Hugh a proper burial after he dies, Andrew has no choice but to leave Hugh behind with Hugh's son Hawk, a young innocent Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and an insidious mumbling John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

But John is too impatient to wait for Hugh to die. After he kills Hawk in front of immobile Hugh, he convinces Jim that they have to move on without Hugh. Abandoned in the cold with terrible wounds, Hugh not only miraculously crawls out of his death stretcher, but also astonishingly survives the snow storms, the starvation, the infection, the wild animals, the enemy pursuit, and everything in the wilderness. He has one goal in mind: find John and revenge.

The Revenant Official Site

It's completely incomprehensible for any scientific mind to understand how Hugh could have survived those brutal ordeals that are vividly displayed by the ingenious director Alejandro González Iñárritu. People usually will die quickly in the San Francisco Bay where the temperature is typically in the 50s. Yet, after Hugh is washed off a breathtaking waterfall in ice-cold water with hideous open wounds, he simply gets out the freezing water and lands on the snow covered ground, then keeps moving. The director Alejandro González Iñárritu probably is aware of this predicament so he fills Hugh with vengeance as his motivation to survive. Unfortunately, that seems to be as unconvincing as Hugh's survival against the law of nature. Although the film is billed as a revenge story, most of the film's run time is to show Hugh's incredible luck in coming back to life after each kiss with death.

The film turns the splendid landscape into a bloody killing ground. The gruesome violence is often in full display with unbroken long takes, even when the actors' breaths and blood fogs up the camera's lens. Those scenes may be hard to watch sometimes, but they are also unforgettable. Strikingly similar to Zbigniew Preisner's usage of music in Krzysztof Kieślowski's "Three Colors: Blue" (Trois couleurs: Bleu 1993), the film's score is both dramatic and haunting. But without the outstanding performance by Leonardo DiCaprio who looks like he is needing a shower badly regardless how many times he falls into an icy river, none of these top-notch technical efforts would have mattered. He is a shoo-in for another Oscar nod, and maybe he will finally get the golden statue.

Telling an incredible story, this is a film to be admired on so many fronts. However, even though Hugh Glass may have truly survived against all odds and nature, the film shows no interest in convincingly telling us how he did it. Perhaps that is why he is regarded as a legend.

"The Revenant," a 20th Century Fox release, opens on Friday, January 8, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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