Parasite (Gisaengchung)


Who is the exploited and who is the exploiter?

(2019) Dramedy (NEON) Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Seo-joon Park, Jung Ziso, Jeong-eun Lee, Andreas Fronk, Hyae Jin Chang, Myeong-hoon Park, Hyun-jun Jung, Ji-hye Lee, Keun-rok Park, Joo-hyung Lee, Ik-han Jung, Jeong Esuz, Dong-yong Lee, Seong-Bong Ahn, Hyo-shin Pak, Kang Echae. Directed by Bong Joon Ho

 

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider worldwide, the desperation of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum also grows. As capitalism turns into a modern-day Wild West, it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to figure out that some will do whatever is necessary to survive.

The Kim family is the kind of family that often takes the brunt of those pointing the finger at the poor and blaming them for their own poverty. Patriarch Ki-woo (Choi) is chronically unemployed and a bit of an idiot. His shrill wife Chung-sook (Chang) has the family bringing in income by folding pizza boxes but they can’t even get that right. They live in a basement flat with a toilet on a ledge looking out onto the street where drunks often urinate. Ki-woo, despite the haranguing of his wife, can’t be bothered to shoo the offenders away. Their phone service has long been switched off and they steal Wi-Fi from a neighbor who has inconveniently put password protection on his router.

Clever son Ki-taek (Song) gets a tip from his buddy Min (S-j Park) who is about to depart to study abroad that a rich high school girl he is tutoring in English will need a new tutor while he is gone. Min offers to recommend Ki-taek for the job but Ki-taek, who was unable to afford college, doesn’t have the credentials for the job. Not to worry: his sister Ki-jung (S-d Park) has no problem forging the documents he needs.

When Ki-taek goes to the beautiful modernist house the family lives in for an interview, he realizes the materialistic mom Yeon-kyo Park (Jo) is somewhat simple and easily swayed. He realizes that there could be a bonanza here for his family. He finagles his sister an interview as a teacher for the ADHD younger son Da-song (H-j Jung) specializing in “art therapy.” In the meantime his own student daughter Da-hye (Ziso) has taken a shine to him.

Cold-blooded Ki-jung realizes there’s room for the whole family, but it will take some finagling to get the established servants out, including their beloved housekeeper Moon-gwang (J-e Lee). Through clever manipulation, brazen gall and a thorough lack of mercy, Dad is moved into the driver’s position and Mom into the housekeeper’s job. Now the Kim family is living the high life and can think about maybe moving on up, as George Jefferson might say. However, the Park home holds an unexpected secret that throws all of their machinations into disarray.

Bong Joon Ho is already one of South Korea’s most masterful directors, with films like The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja to his credit. Here, he comes into his own with the kind of movie that is going to elevate him into an elite class of directors, guys like Del Toro, Cuarón and Wong Kar-Wei. This is one of the best-written movies I’ve seen this year, with clever dialogue and a plot that while it has some zany elements to it never falls out of believability.

The cast performs solidly, particularly Ho’s go-to guy Choi who takes a character who could have easily have become a caricature and gave him depth and even a bit of gravitas. Jo is also memorable as the somewhat dense mom of the Park family.

The movie changes tone in the second half and there’s some fairly intense violence that occurs, some of it quite disturbing. It isn’t a movie for the weak of heart but neither is it a movie for the weak of mind; there is an awful lot of subtext going on about class distinctions, and exploitation. Just who is exploiting who in this movie may not be terribly clear by the end of the credits. However, I must say that the only thing that is keeping this from a perfect score is a somewhat convoluted ending involving a coded message that overstays its welcome a bit.

Frankly, this is one of the best movies of the year and it certainly should be on the radar of anyone who really likes movies. There’s a scene on how a bad thunderstorm affects the wealthy Parks and the not-so-wealthy Kims that is a gut-punch that comes almost out of nowhere but Ho is such a deft director that it doesn’t feel out of place. Do yourself a favor and catch this one because it’s sure to get some love come awards season.

REASONS TO SEE: Very cleverly written. Well-acted. Some very dark humor but funny throughout. An intriguing look at class warfare from a different angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some bloody violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; it is also South Korea’s official submission for the Best International Film award at the 2020 Oscars and is an early favorite to make the short list.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoplifters
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Snowpiercer


Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

(2014) Science Fiction (Radius) Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ah-Sung Ko, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Emma Levie, Stephen Park, Clark Middleton, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Paul Lazar, Tomas Lemarquis, Kenny Doughty, Robert Russell, Magda Weigertova. Directed by Joon-Hoo Bong

It is an illusion of humanity that we have control of anything. Control of our environment, control of each other – the only thing we really have control over is our own actions. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying to make everyone and everything around us conform to our own needs.

In the near future, the reality of climate change has finally been accepted universally and the governments of the planet have decided to do something about it. Sadly, they’ve waited so long that all they can do is the environmental equivalent of a Hail Mary end zone pass on the last play of the game. A gas, released into the atmosphere simultaneously all over the globe, should reduce global temperatures significantly and give us a chance to clean the carbons out of the atmosphere.

As with most things governments undertake, things go completely, horribly wrong. The temperature does reduce down to the levels that we need them to – and then keep falling, and falling, and falling. In a matter of hours, the planet is frozen solid and all life on it has ceased to be.

That is, except for the life on a kind of Supertrain. Those aboard the Snowpiercer at the time of the freeze all survived, along with a few stragglers who made their way on board before the end came. The train circles the globe on a specially built track, taking roughly a year to make each circumference.

Instead of being powered by nuclear energy, it’s powered by a perpetual motion engine. It’s the brain child of Wilford (Harris), a mysterious industrialist who now lives a reclusive existence in the engine room of the train. In the rear of the train are the half-starving lower class, barely able to eke out a living and subsisting on gelatinous protein bars that keep them alive (although you really don’t want to know what they’re made out of). In between is the upper class, living with a bounty of food and clean water and in excessive luxury. From time to time, representatives of the upper class – and by representatives I mean armed guards – come to the back with spokesman Mason (Swinton) to cart off children from the back, to distribute the meager supplies that the front gives out, or to perform all manner of humiliations and torture on the back-dwellers.

Well, Curtis (Evans) has had enough. He is brewing revolution, aided by his mentor Gilliam (Hurt) who has been through several of these. They are waiting for the right time to make their move, although many of the tail end inhabitants grow restless, particularly Edgar (Bell) who looks up to Curtis with something like hero worship, Tanya (Spencer) whose son Timmy (Reis) has been taken by Mason and her goons, and Fuyu (Park) who just wants to kick some ass.

Their plan hinges on springing the drug-addicted Namgoong Minsoo (Song) who designed the train’s security system and would be able to deactivate the gates that separate the back of the train from the front. However, even if they spring him (with the promise of plenty of the drug Kronole as reward) and his perky daughter Yona (Ko), getting to the front of the train and taking over the speeding missile on rails will be no easy feat, if it can be done at all.

This is based on a French graphic novel written back in the ’70s although the climate change element (among others) has been added on by the filmmakers. Like much art from that era, there is a decidedly grim and dark element to the movie. It carries very much a 70s vibe, although there is a 21st century Looney Tunes element to it as well.

Evans, better known as Captain America in the Marvel movies, is as grim and gravelly voiced as a poor man’s Clint Eastwood here. The All-American Cap would be absolutely horrified by some of the things Curtis must do to survive and he certainly wouldn’t approve of the class system on the train. In many ways this is Evan’s most complete role to date – this isn’t the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing and that’s a good thing. Not that the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing isn’t worth seeing.

Swinton is so over-the-top that you half expect a giant hammer to suddenly materialize out of the screen and smash your pointy little noggin like so many nails in a board. Her Mason comes off as a cross between Dolores Umbridge, Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand with emphasis on the latter. Her fake overbite reminds me of one of those “Stay Calm” memes come to life.

Bong, who previously directed the comic horror film The Host, brings from that film the broad comedy with a dark edge while adding some fairly serious social commentary as well. Certainly this is about the sharp divide between the privileged wealthy class and the desperate poverty class but it’s also about the economics of survival and the folly of human arrogance. Some conservatives see liberals as the villains here while liberals will likewise see conservatives as being the targets of Bong’s criticism. I’m not sure he had American politics in mind when he wrote and directed this but I suppose we all see what we want to see.

A few words of caution. First, as to the dialogue – it’s atrocious, especially as the film winds down. There’s a confrontation between Wilford and Curtis in which the two say things that sound like they came out of a middle school book report on Atlas Shrugged. Actors the caliber of Ed Harris shouldn’t have to say dialogue like this.

Second, the violence. There’s a lot of it and it ranges from brutal axe attacks to some silly shoot-outs. While you will get somewhat numb to it by the end of the movie, those who are sensitive to such things should have a care about seeing this.

Finally, the ending. It’s a humdinger in terms of visuals but when it hits it’s both coal-black grim and to be honest, ludicrous. Again, think 70s cinema when you watch it and it may make more sense to you but even with that in mind you might end up tearing out your hair, assuming you have any.

The set design here is amazing. Each train car is its own world and as you move from the bleak and monochromatic rear, the cars become more colorful and decadent. Some are downright beautiful. This is a world both familiar and alien to us and while the imagery has elements of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the French sci-fi graphic magazine Metal Hurlant and the art deco of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it is a world unique to itself and completely imaginative.

I ended up being quite entertained, although many of my friends ended up disappointed by the film with some outright despising it. All I can say about that is that it is likely this will affect you in unexpected ways and will draw out of you your own individual reaction which is to me something that is the mark of a good movie. You may not agree with me in terms of my admiration for the movie, but you won’t walk away from this with an indifferent point of view.

Speaking of view, Snowpiercer is taking something of an unusual release strategy for movies that are in national release. Unlike most limited releases which don’t make it to every market, this film is in nearly every market although on a limited number of screens. It is likely playing somewhere near you. If you can’t find it, it is available on most major Video On Demand systems, including DirecTV, iTunes and most digital cable systems.

REASONS TO GO: A different kind of role for Chris Evans. Class warfare in a dystopian society done with some really dark humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Piss-poor dialogue. The ending is disappointing albeit spectacular.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence and foul language and quite a bit of drug use (although it is a nonexistent drug).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The drawings in the tail section of the train are by Jean-Marc Rochette, original artist of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the work that this movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Colony

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Deliver Us From Evil

The Housemaid (Hanyo) (2010)


Beauty can be deadly.

Beauty can be deadly.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Woo Seo, Ji-Young Park, Seo-Hyeon Ahn, Jeong-min Hwang, So-ri Moon, Jin-ah Kim, Tae-back Chae, Shin-hwan Jeon, Sang-min Noh, Soon-kyu Jang, Yong-jae Cho, Hyun-Kyung Lim, Keum-yun Lee, Ji-sun Kim, Song-yi Han, Ju-sun Park, Sun-hye Yoon, Ha-young Seo. Directed by Sang-soo Im

This is described as a remake of a classic 1960 Korean thriller but there are enough differences to classify it as only a loose remake. Still, this stands on its own two feet quite nicely.

Eun-yi (Jeon) is hired as a housemaid for wealthy Hae-ra (W. Seo) who is very pregnant with twins. Eun-yi’s primary responsibility is to be a nanny for her daughter Nami (Ahn) but Byung-sik (Y. Yoon), the maid who has been with the family the longest, isn’t particularly happy to see her. Hoon (Lee), the man of the house, is ice-cold and like his wife a bit arrogant.

At first things run smoothly but eventually Hoon takes a liking to Eun-yi and begins flirting with her. The flirting turns into something else and before too long, Byung-sik witnesses Hoon and Eun-yi doing the horizontal lambada. And yes, no self-respecting wealthy Korean businessman would even think of using a rubber so Eun-yi soon finds herself in a family way.

By now Hae-ra’s mother (J-y. Park) gets wind of what’s happening – well, Byung-sik tells her. This just won’t do. It is her daughter who is supposed to be in the lap of luxury, not this upstart. Mommy the monster decides to take matters into her own hands and soon things spiral way out of control.

The original 1960 version was about the emergence of the Korean middle class and how those in the poverty class reacted to them. In that film, the maid was a little nuts and was the one who seduced the husband, not vice versa. Here, we’re seeing the results of Korean prosperity and how it has affected the upper classes and their relationship with those lower on the economic ladder. It’s not a pretty picture.

Jeon is a beautiful woman and is given a role which would be challenging for any actress, but gives us a fine performance. The issue here is not with her acting but how her character is written; at first she is the very model of a Korean servant, obedient and submissive but she changes. Not that people don’t change in a subservient position, but it is…let’s just say it’s quite the change and leave it at that. Park also does a convincing job as the conniving mother-in-law.

The movie is mostly set in the expansive mansion – estate would be more like it – of Hoon and his family but throughout it is shot beautifully, the setting bringing suspense when it needs to but at all times reminding us of the luxury of the privileged class.

Nearly everyone in this movie is devious and back-stabbing at one time or another – even the kid. It’s really hard to connect to a movie when you have nobody to connect with. Notwithstanding, this is a fascinating look at Asian class warfare in a situation Hitchcock would have understood and approved of.

WHY RENT THIS: Stylishly shot. An interesting look at Korean class values.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hard to identify with anyone in this movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, nudity and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chandelier in the main hall is a copy of the Young-whan Bae sculpture Song of Dionysus and is made up of broken shards of wine and soju bottles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

FINAL RATING; 7/10

NEXT: Jersey Boys

Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!