With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

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Double Life (Nijû seikatsu)


It always feels like somebody’s watching.

(2016) Drama (Star Sands) Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Franky, Aoba Kawai, Yukiko Shinihara, Shohel Uno, Yukino Kishii, Naomi Nishida, Setsuko Karasuma, Ryuju Kobayashi. Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi

 

There is a certain thrill to observing other people unseen. There is an implied intimacy, seeing people as they truly are when they are sure nobody else is watching. That is how they reveal what makes us human – or at least so goes the theory as voiced by noted French photographer and writer Sophie Calle.

Tama Shiraishi (Kadowaki) is a grad student working on her master’s thesis. She lives with her boyfriend videogame designer Takuya (Suda) in a modest apartment in suburban Tokyo. They do have morning sex from time to time but they are distant from one another, showing little affection for each other. It can be chalked up to the business of their lives; Takuya is up against some looming deadlines for his upcoming game, Tama is consumed with her thesis on the meaning of being human which isn’t going very well.

Her professor, Shinohara (Franky) is a feared presence around the philosophy department of the university but he is soft-spoken and surprisingly helpful to Tama. When she proves to be too shy to distribute a questionnaire to 100 people, Shinohara – seeing the Calle book on his desk – is inspired to suggest that Tama observe a single person without their knowledge and use her observations as the basis of her thesis.

Tama chooses Ishizaka (Hasegawa), a neighbor who seems to be perfectly happy. A successful book publisher, he lives with his gorgeous wife and adorable daughter across the street from Tama – she can watch them playing together from her balcony. However, as she tails her subject, she discovers to her surprise that he is having a torrid affair which includes some rather public lovemaking.

The more she tails her subject the more emotionally involved that she gets. As she later describes it, she feels an empty part in herself beginning to get filled up. Her late nights and exhaustion lead Takuya to suspect that it is she having an affair and when Ishizaka’s wife discovers his infidelity, the fallout will not only affect his family but Tama and her boyfriend as well.

This is a film that takes a while to get rolling but once it does the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the interest of the audience. There is a certain cultural element to this – Japanese eroticism is somewhat different than Western eroticism – that makes even ordinary, normal activities seem sexual. The fact that the exterior shots take place in an overcast wintry gloom tends to heighten the feeling of repression as the characters bundle up against the cold.

Kadowaki does a stellar job here playing a character who has difficulty relating to people and prefers not to be the center of attention. Her oversize glasses and frumpy dress make the actress look somewhat plain although she is far from that in reality. However, it suits the character well here as few people give her a second glance including the people she is tailing.

The movie feels a bit long and while it is based on a novel by Mariko Kolke there is an almost soap opera vibe at times. There is a subplot about Professor Shinohara coping with his mother’s final days in the hospital with a new girlfriend (Kawai) which is a complicated situation in itself that tends to convolute the film and pull attention from the main story.

Kishi utilizes handheld camera work during most of the stalking sequences and it does wear on the viewer after awhile since the bulk of the movie is spent watching Tama stalk her academic prey. It is only when the two finally confront each other and Tama admits to some of her own inner demons that the movie gets a real emotional spice to it.

Hamlet’s famous line “To be or not to be” is utilized in several different ways, including in a Japanese play that Tama attends. The point of her thesis is what it means to be human and the idea is that Tama hasn’t really figured that out yet and with the movie opening with a suicide attempt – even though it is dark and chaotic you should be able to figure out who is trying to do themselves in – the “not to be” gets its share of attention as well.

Like many of the films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, there seems to be an infusion of new blood and exciting young directors coming out of Asia right now and Kishi is one of them. While the elements of soap opera and extraneous plot devices do hold the movie back, there is at least enough substance here to make this a worthwhile film to seek out to perhaps give some insight into your own humanity – and how well it would stand up to the scrutiny of constant observation.

REASONS TO GO: There is the allure of voyeurism. The wintry tone of the cinematography enhances the feeling of the film. The theme of being or not being is utilized here better than in most films.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overstays its welcome and is a little bit too close to a soap opera. The stalking scenes contain a little too much handheld camera work for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Kishi and the first lead role in a feature for Kadowaki.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seduction
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: With Prisoners

Clinical


The line between doctor and patient blurs.

(2016) Thriller (Netflix) Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nester Serrano, William Atherton, Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Dion Basco, Adrian Flowers, Trevor Snarr. Directed by Alistair Legrand

 

Sooner or later, all of us without exception must endure some sort of traumatic experience. These experiences help shape us and we all deal with them in different ways. Some of us tackle them alone and try to work our way through them without help. Some of us lean on family and friends and allow them to prop us up as we learn to adjust to them. Still others seek the professional help of a therapist or psychiatrist. One wonders though; how do psychiatrists get help when they undergo a traumatic experience themselves?

Dr. Jane Mathis (Shaw) is having to deal with this vexing question. One of her patients, Nora (Eisley) didn’t react to Jane’s treatment well. Jane believes in forcing patients to confront their traumas which is a controversial therapy in and of itself but in Nora’s case the patient went right over the edge. Feeling that Jane was to blame for her situation, Nora went to Jane’s office (which is part of Jane’s home) and in front of Jane’s horrified eyes slit her own throat. Nora survived fortunately but was confined to a psychiatric hospital after the bloody suicide attempt.

Jane struggled to pick up the pieces, seeing her mentor Terry (Atherton) as his patient. She also got involved in a relationship with Miles (Stanford), a police detective which begs the question: why do movie psychiatrists always have romantic relationships with cops in psychological thrillers? Anyway, Jane finds herself having a hard time concentrating on her patients’ problems which seem mundane and petty to her. She’s drifting along some – until Alex (Rahm) comes along.

Badly burned and disfigured in a car accident, Alex is having a terrible time adjusting. He has issues going out into public; he feels like he’s being stared at (and he probably is). Jane is intrigued by his case – her professional curiosity has been stimulated for the first time since, well, since Nora filleted herself in front of her. She begins devoting more and more time to Alex and is beginning to see some progress.

However, Jane is beginning to have some terrifyingly realistic visions of Jane, visions in which Jane is paralyzed and unable to move. Terry writes them off as a specific kind of dream but Jane is beginning to have doubts about her own sanity. If she’s not sane, can she help others to find their own sanity?

I can’t say I have a particular fondness for psychological thrillers although I do enjoy them when they’re done well. This one, unfortunately, is only half-done. The story is pretty similar to many most veteran film buffs will have seen already and quite frankly isn’t as good as most of those. There are plenty of logical misses and characters do insanely dumb things in order to further the plot along. While there are a few genuine surprises, most of the twists and turns experienced moviegoers will see coming.

Legrand does a good job with the atmospherics, keeping things nice and tense throughout although he relies a little too much on jump scares for my taste. He also managed to get together a decent cast with a few names like Atherton, who is best known for playing officious bureaucratic sorts putting in a notable role as a supporting good guy as well as Serrano who plays the officious bureaucratic sort here.

Rahm is an up and comer, getting some good supporting roles and a couple of decent lead roles on television. He grabs the most attention here and not just for his make-up; he does a terrific job as a man cowering from life and hiding an inner bitter core. It’s the kind of performance that can lead to better things for a young actor and I certainly that becomes the case here.

Shaw who most will remember from 3:10 to Yuma and the first season of Ray Donovan is a bit wooden here. I get the sense that this is a director’s decision to make the character closed-off emotionally but I think it is taken too far and eventually we as an audience feel disconnected from Jane as a character. I don’t think it was a particularly good decision and I know Shaw is capable of much better.

In short, this is a fairly middle-of-the-role movie that is reasonably entertaining but compared to other things Netflix has to offer a bit lacking in quality. I think if Jane had been a little bit less of an ice queen the movie would have been a lot more intriguing. As it is I can give it a mild thumbs up but not much more than that. If you’re looking for a thriller that will pin you to the edge of your seat, keep looking.

REASONS TO GO: The vibe is sufficiently creepy. Atherton does some strong work in a rare sympathetic role. Rahm is an up and coming star.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pedestrian. There are too many jump scares, plot holes and lapses in logic. Shaw is too wooden in this role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some gore, plenty of terror, some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw previously played a psychiatrist on House, MD.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fourth Kind
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

The Priests


There's never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

There’s never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

(2015) Horror (CJ Entertainment) Dong-won Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Ho-jae Lee, So-dam Park, Soo-Hyang Jo. Directed by Jae-hyun Jang

NYAFF

There are those who will tell you that the things that go bump in the night are real. There are also those who will tell you that there are things that will possess a human body, things that can only be driven out with the help of an exorcist.

Exorcism does exist, although it is no longer the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, movies on the subject notwithstanding. However, we most associate the rituals of exorcism with Catholicism, and it has to be said much of that goes back to a certain 1973 movie that turned out to have some roots in fact. This one, apparently, only has roots in that movie.

Fr. Kim (B.O. Kim) is the go-to guy for exorcisms in South Korea, mainly by virtue that he was the deacon for the go-to guy for exorcisms, who is now too old and too feeble to perform them himself. He is in the midst of performing one now, a grueling affair that has gone on for six months. The victim is Young-shin (Park), a 14-year-old parishioner of his. He is a curmudgeonly man who has gone through Deacons at a terrifying rate – twelve of them thus far. Of course, some of the things they’ve seen during the rituals would be enough to send any sane man flying for the exit.

His latest Deacon is Choi (Wang), who has been coasting his way through the seminary. Not taking his theology terribly seriously, he has made it through life on the back of his delightful grin and his not inconsiderable charm. Now, however, he has been given a new assignment and he reluctantly takes it on, but in fact he’s kind of intrigued. After all, he’s seen the movie too. He just doesn’t really believe in it. It’s just a movie, right?

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things are going badly for the girl. She’s been compelled to commit suicide by the demon inside her but survives somehow in a coma. The demon is looking for a good man (what woman isn’t?) to take over; apparently men are much better possessions. Kim knows that the spirit of the demon must be moved into the body of a pig which should then be drowned in a river in order to make sure the evil entity doesn’t return to the girl. And the family has sued to turn off the life support so that their daughter can finally be at rest – they believe Fr. Kim has been molesting her, which prompted the suicide attempt. And everything is pointing to this night to be the best possible time to get rid of the possession – and the good father with his reluctant assistant – who has demons of his own to conquer – will move heaven and earth to save this innocent little girl.

Certainly the film takes most of its cues from the classic William Friedkin film The Exorcist (but also from other demonically-inclined films like The Omen) but there are some differences here. It introduces modern horror stories, like intimations of abuse by a priest, and political infighting within the church hierarchy, but curiously stays away from modern horror idioms. This is definitely a man’s movie – the only female character with any substance in the film is the victim herself.

This isn’t as effects-laden or as gory as other exorcism movies, particularly those of recent vintage. Jang relies on atmosphere and an overall feeling of dread that something spectacularly bad is about to happen. He’s so good at building up the tension that the climax, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment – but only a bit. I don’t think it is possible for any climactic scene to live up to the build-up that this one got.

Park as the possessed girl outdoes even Linda Blair here; she has her moments where the innocent little girl is present but for the most part she is chilling, manipulative, much smarter than either of the priests and in short, a worthy opponent. She scares the living daylights out of you every time she’s on the screen.

Kang is one of Korea’s rising stars and also one of its best looking. He sometimes has to play a bit of the fool and his foolishness is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film but again, cultural differences. Movies from other places don’t necessarily have to live up to American expectations, no? In any case, he has some moments, particularly near the end of the movie. He does have a good amount of potential in any case.

The special effects are pretty minimal so American teen horror audiences will probably think this lame, but true horror fans are going to recognize the craft here and perhaps flock to it should it get any sort of distribution. Keep an eye out for it on various web horror outlets (like Shudder) and your local film festivals, particularly those that celebrate the realm of the fantastic. This is a solid, entertaining and downright spooky film that ranks among some of the best of the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some real nice touches of authenticity. Park delivers a show-stopping performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the effects are a little weak by American standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of terror and disturbing images, as well as some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kang is considered to be one of Korea’s biggest heartthrobs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Dark


Hey, I'm walking here, I'm walking here!!

Hey, I’m walking here, I’m walking here!!

(2015) Suspense (Screen Media) Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Michael Eklund, Brendan Sexton III, Benny Ash, Redman, Eunice Ahn, Steel Burkhardt, James Dinonno, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Anita Valentini, Rose Wartell. Directed by Nick Basile

 

On August 4, 2003, New York City suffered through one of the worst blackouts in the city’s history. Anyone who hasn’t lived through a blackout will not understand what a big deal they are. They often happen in the middle of summer when temperatures are high, so your home gets gradually hotter and hotter. There’s no refrigerators so no cool drinks; there’s no TV, Internet or or radio unless you’re on a battery-operated device and once those batteries die, there’s often no way to replace them as batteries quickly sell out and most markets. You can’t cook if you have an electric stove (and often if you have a gas one) and once the sun goes down, no light except for candles. Plus, plenty of people will take the opportunity to be assholes and looters. It’s not pleasant at all.

Kate Naylor (Able) already has problems enough. A former model, she’s working as a yoga instructor and lives with photographer Leah (Breckenridge) – in fact, she’s recently moved in with her into a Brooklyn loft. She hasn’t quite unpacked yet which irritates Leah, but then a lot about Kate is irritating. For one thing, Kate smokes a ton, even though Leah is after her to quit. Kate’s also got kind of a temper and a bit of a masochistic streak, shocking her girlfriend when she asks her to choke her during a sexual encounter early in the movie.

When the blackout hits, Leah is out of town and things between the two women are disintegrating despite Leah’s best efforts to make it work. Kate seems disinterested in meeting her halfway and when she has the opportunity to pick up a Canadian biker (Eklund) during the blackout, she does so. She also fends off the advances of neighbor John (Sexton).

As the darkness deepens, Kate lights up some candles, poses for some self-portraits in lingerie, listens to tunes on her boombox and looks at old photos of old affairs. She begins getting restless, especially once she’s finished all the booze in the loft. She gets dressed up in a slinky dress and goes out to a local tavern that has a generator, and gets trashed. Once she gets home, she hears noises and sees disturbing things, like someone rattling her doorknob. Her sanity begins to erode. But then, her sanity was not too stable to begin with.

The concept of a woman alone in the darkness is not a new one as a subject for suspense movies, but this is the only one I know of in which the heroine is mentally ill. Able, who is a fine actress just starting to get some intriguing roles, gets the lion’s share of screen time and she does a pretty good job. For the most part, Kate’s issues are not easily seen unless you spend a couple of hours with her, particularly in a stressful environment.

The problem with Kate is twofold. For one thing, she’s such a bitch that it’s hard to really relate to her or root for her. That’s the double-edged sword of having someone with emotional or mental issues as your lead character; your audience isn’t going to relate to them unless they have similar issues. They may find the point of view fascinating (as Kate’s is from time to time) but after awhile the charm or lack thereof dissipates. This isn’t a knock against Able’s performance, just the way the character was written.

The movie does drag a little bit, particularly through the middle when Kate is alone in her apartment, taking pictures of herself, taking a bath and slapping herself in the face. After a little while, you may want to join her. Sorry, that was just impossible to resist.

Sound is very important in the movie and Basile makes good use of it (he also gets points for using a Dead Can Dance song on the soundtrack). There are a few jump scares but Basile uses the sounds of the city to portray the normalcy, then as the blackout rolls in, the sounds change and become much more threatening. It’s a masterful piece of the storytelling puzzle that is rarely used this well.

I also thought that the relationship between Kate and Leah was portrayed in a manner that really rung true. These two don’t sound like a Hollywood couple; they are the kind of couple that exists in the real world, far from perfect but definitely with at least a spark there. These are people probably sitting at the table next to you in the coffee shop or the bistro.

There was a minor quibble for me in the plot; during the blackout, Kate ends up drawing herself a bath. However, from a logical standpoint, she lives at least two or three stories up. How did the water get there? Most buildings use pumps to get the water up to the higher floors. That wouldn’t be working in an electrical blackout. Just saying.

There was enough to recommend this film but only just; the use of sound and Able definitely are the things to look for here. I would have liked Kate to be more relatable but that’s more of a personal preference. I’m sure there are plenty of film buffs who wouldn’t have a problem with it. Oh, and with Joe (Gremlins) Dante as an executive producer on this, there is definitely a pedigree. All in all, a promising indie film that is flawed but mildly recommended.

REASONS TO GO: Really awesome sound. Realistically depicts the dynamics of a relationship that is falling apart.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit. The lead is too unlikable to relate to.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity, a couple of sex scenes as well as further sexual content, drug us and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Basile’s first feature film that’s not a documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wait Until Dark
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Bridgend

Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

In Bruges


Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoy the magic that is Bruges.

(2008) Crime Comedy (Focus) Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clamence Poesy, Jordan Prentice, Jeremie Renier, Elizabeth Berrington, Zeljko Ivanek, Mark Donovan, Anna Madeley, Jean-Marc Favorin, Rudy Blomme, Thekla Reuten, Inez Stinton, Ciaran Hinds, Theo Stevenson, Sachi Kimura, Eric Gordon, Stephanie Carey. Directed by Martin McDonagh

My wife is fond of saying that your sins will find you out. She used to say that to our son when she knew he was hiding something from us. With a mom’s unerring nose for a kid’s transgressions, she’d sniff out whatever it was that he was keeping from her. Sometimes, it’s a pity that our mums can’t be with us even as we get older to steer us right.

Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been ordered to Bruges to cool their heels after botching a job. Of course their chosen profession is contract killing, so who would think of looking for them in a sleepy little tourist town like Bruges, the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium?

The skittish Ray could care less; he’s bored out of his skull and haunted by the results of his sanctioned but unintended mayhem. Ken on the other hand is a little more worldly; he is quite content to sit back, do some sightseeing and enjoy the magic that is Bruges. He knows that in time, his employer will call with instructions and the best thing to do is lay low and make as few waves as possible.

Ray, being Ray, is more interested in hanging out in the pub, finding himself a girl and getting his bones generally jumped. After getting more than a little tipsy one night, Ray and Ken run into a location set for a Dutch movie being filmed in Bruges, with a dream sequence starring Jimmy (Prentice), who prefers the term “dwarf” to “midget.” Ray also meets a beautiful local named Chloe (Poesy) whom he flirts with. She finally agrees to go out to dinner with him.

Meanwhile, their employer Harry (Fiennes) is getting more and more frustrated that he can’t contact his men since they are always out when he calls. He leaves a profanity-laced message with Marie (Berrington), the very pregnant receptionist who happens to be the co-owner of the boutique hotel the men are staying at. When Harry finally gets in contact with Ken, he gives the man instructions that the worldly killer may not want to follow, but at this point, Ken may not have a choice.

The top three leads – Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes – are three tremendous talents who by themselves individually would entice me into the theater. All three together, well now you’re talking. Gleeson in particular has developed into a marvelous actor who gives a memorable performance nearly every time out. His trademark “gruff with a heart of gold” rough about the edges sorts translates well for Ken.

Farrell has that innate Irish charm that has served him well in both major high-profile projects and smaller independent-minded ones like this one. While Farrell has been somewhat less active in the cinema recently, this one shows him at the apex of his game. His Ray is young and less experienced, virtually jumping out of his skin and bored to tears, failing to see what’s right in front of him. Yet Ray is truly a tortured soul and his sins are just about to catch up with him, but the question becomes is it too late for redemption. Farrell’s soul-searching is particularly poignant and you virtually watch him crumble before your very eyes in one unforgettable scene.

Finally, Fiennes who has Schindler’s List and The Constant Gardener on his resume of award-winning performances doesn’t have a whole lot to do here but makes every scene he is in memorable. He’s one of those actors who makes every line count and uses every nuance in his arsenal to make his character remarkable.

Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is understated, effectively so. Bruges is already fairytale-like in appearance; he uses the town’s charm to his advantage. Carter Burwell’s score is, as always, well-suited to the atmosphere. Although early in his career he tended to be a bit too jazzy for my taste, he has become in my opinion one of the more reliable film composers working today.

Bruges itself is a character in the movie, and its charm is the movie’s charm. I wasn’t that familiar with the town before seeing this movie; now it’s a place I’d like to visit someday. I suppose that would characterize me as more of a Ken sort than a Ray, but history and architecture are two passions of mine. Movies like this one can make a particular place come alive and excite your imagination. Who knew that Bruges would end up on my bucket list?

The movie was sold as a black comedy and it really isn’t when it comes right down to it. This is more of a crime drama with a bit of farce but the tone is black nonetheless. In point of fact, I’m not sure if the writers and director were quite sure what this movie was intended to be, so it turns out to be neither one thing nor the other. My expectations going in from what I’d heard about it weren’t met so I came out disappointed when I saw it initially, but the truly odd thing is when I revisited it recently (I first saw it in theaters back in ’08) is that my opinion of it revised upwards to a near-mediocre score to the much more enthusiastic score you see below.

There is a great deal of charm in the movie and some wonderful performances in it. I think if you go in without the very high expectations I went in with you might wind up enjoying it more than I did. It is definitely worth seeing regardless, if not for Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes but for the irresistible appeal of Bruges itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, compelling performances from Farrell, Fiennes and Gleeson. Bruges might just enchant you. Dreamlike surreal quality in some scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wobbles between crime caper and black comedy.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some explicit violence, a surfeit of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances here; Farrell eventually won the award.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a gag reel, a montage of all the copious cursing done in the film called F***ing Bruges, and a five minute-plus boat trip through the canals of Bruges, further cementing the magic of the place.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.4M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven Psychopaths
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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