The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The 18th century version of Dirty Dancing.

(DreamWorks) Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt (voice), Sam Douglas, Karoline Herfurth. Directed by Tom Tykwer

Obsessions are destructive. They can lead us into temptation, directly into harm’s way, into the path of a freaking school bus. Obsession is the madness that whispers to us in the night, promising all manner of pleasures but in the end delivering only sackcloth and ashes.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born to a fishwife, a woman who paused only a moment to allow her birthing to slip out of her into the pile of fishguts and offal that lay below her stand at the fish market in 18th century Paris before resuming her chopping of cod.

Through a rather charmless set of circumstances the young Grenouille winds up an orphan, but he’s not just any kid. He has a marvelously developed sense of smell, able to distinguish the most subtle of fragrances from miles away. Somewhat ironically, he also has no scent of his own, which further creates the impressions among those who live with him that there’s something sinister about young Grenouille…and they’re right.

He goes to work for a tanner and finds himself luxuriating in the rich smells, the stink that is Paris. Grenouille yearns to have a scent of his own, one that will fill people with such longing and desire that they won’t be able to help themselves; they must love him. One evening while delivering some hides in the city, he encounters a young girl selling plums (Herfurth) and becomes intoxicated by her smell. He is so entranced that he can’t bear to be away from her. She, quite understandably, thinks he’s a lunatic stalker and is terrified of him. He tries to muffle her screams and winds up smothering the life from her. As she dies, her scent dissipates driving Grenouille nearly mad with frustration. However, he manages to slip away before being discovered.

Some nights later he delivers some hides to a perfumer named Baldini (Hoffman) who’s seen better days. To Hoffman’s astonishment, Grenouille turns out to have the best nose of any man he’s ever met; he merely lacks the education to become a great perfumer on his own. Hoffman arranges to buy Grenouille’s contract from the tanner and Grenouille becomes his apprentice.

Baldini teaches him most of what Grenouille needs to know to distill perfume on his own; in return, Grenouille gives Baldini enough perfume formulas to make Baldini rich for many years to come (although it doesn’t turn out that way). Grenouille then makes his way to Grasse, the center of the French perfume industry. There he becomes enamored of a young girl (Hurd-Wood) whose father (Rickman) suspects that there is a serial killer in their midst.

That’s because there is; Grenouille has embarked on a twisted, vicious plan to distill the essence of beauty and for that he will need beautiful young girls who unfortunately must die in order for their essence to be properly extracted. He needs 13 of them and the young girl will be his 13th; can he be stopped before he finishes his plan?

This is based on the excellent Patrick Susskind novel “Parfum” which the novelist thought unfilmable; even though producer Bernd Eichenger is a personal friend of the author, he was reluctant to give the film rights to anybody, even his friend. However, German wunderkind director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) is just the man to undertake such a venture.

What we get is something of a mixed bag. This is in many ways an unpleasant film to watch; Tykwer not only captures the squalor of 18th century Paris, he wallows in it as he does in the twisted desires of the protagonist. To a very real degree I felt grimy after watching this to the point where I felt an urge to take a shower.

However, that does not a bad film make. Whishaw, who is appealing in Bright Star, has a very unlovable character here, and yet he makes him compelling. He gets fine support from Rickman and Hoffman, whose crucial but relatively small role lights up the movie for the short time he’s in it.

Tykwer does a yeoman job in re-creating the 18th century France, both the rural Grasse and the urban Paris. He also carries out the near impossible – making a movie that is very largely about fragrance, a sense that cinema doesn’t utilize, and making it work. It can be hard to watch in places, particularly some of the later scenes, but for the most part this is a unique, compelling work that is different enough to be worth your checking out.

WHY RENT THIS: The film captures the squalor of 18th century France very nicely. It is certainly different than most of the thrillers you’ll see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very, very twisted and difficult to watch in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, mayhem, gore, a whole lot of nudity and some truly shocking and revolting images. Parents, keep your kids away from this DVD!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Paris, the movie was filmed in Barcelona which the producers felt looked much more like 18th century France.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Despicable Me