★★★ / ★★★★
Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy), born as Michael Peterson, wanted one thing in life: To become famous. But where he lived at the time didn’t offer a lot of opportunities. Despite being raised in a relatively normal family, at school, he bullied other students and attacked teachers. Over time, he learned to rely on his fist instead of his brain. After robbing a post office, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. His term lasted more than thirty years and most of that time was spent under solitary confinement because of Broson’s hunger for violence. He was convinced that he could become famous for being the most violent prisoner in the country. And he was right. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, “Bronson,” based on a true story, was a painful look at a man who couldn’t discern between his true self and his alter ego. Others treated him as a bomb waiting to go off. In most of the scenes in which he was allowed to interact with other people, we felt nervous for the unsuspecting individuals because Bronson was, to say the least, highly unpredictable. We weren’t sure if, when there was a disagreement, big or small, he would decide to walk away from the situation or commit bloody murder. The movie had an interesting technique in telling Bronson’s story. There were times when he talked directly to the camera and made jokes out of extremely serious situations. It worked because while I feared him, I felt pity for him as well. What the man needed was a psychiatric evaluation and to be placed in a stable mental institution, not passing him around from one jail to another like an unwanted rag doll. While Bronson’s proclivity for violence was probably innate, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us that violence, especially in prisons, only led to more violence. Hardy’s performance was completely electrifying (and terrifying). He was fearless in embracing Bronson’s bellicose nature yet there were profoundly quiet moments, like when he would stare at his art, where we were allowed to ponder that maybe there was true humanity underneath his muscular exterior. I also enjoyed that sometimes the film was shot like a fantasy story. A prime example was when he was freed from prison because keeping him inside cost Britain a lot of money. It didn’t feel real and I began to wonder if he really was out in the world or it was just his own way of dealing with being in solitary confinement for so long. “Bronson,” surreal, eccentric, savage, was a strange journey because we ended up right where we started. I admired the way it challenged me as I juggled feelings of fear and sympathy for someone who lost track of reality.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The man with the scorpion jacket had three part-time jobs, not one of which fully described his isolated existence in the City of Angels. By day, he was a stuntman for action movies and a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man who gave him a job when he didn’t have any. By night, he was a getaway driver for criminals who needed the money for their own reasons. Driver (Ryan Gosling) only had one rule when it came to the heists: his clients had exactly five minutes to ransack the place and get back into the car. Whatever happened within the five-minute window, he was on their side no matter what. However, once the allotted time ran out, he was just another person in the street who kept his head down. “Drive,” based on a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was similar to Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” despite sporting vastly different milieus, for its control of visual style to highlight the bubbling disposition of a seemingly unemotional and reticent protagonist, punctuated use of violence, and sublime characterization through critical decision-making. When Driver met Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos), her son, who lived a couple of steps from his apartment, something inside him couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Driver and Irene eventually got closer through small gestures but what they had was more friendship than romance. Driver hoped to change that. On the way to a dinner date, Irene revealed that her husband (Oscar Isaac) was about to be released from prison. As they pulled over to a stoplight, the emanated red light covered Driver’s face. Though he remained emotionless, as if the husband’s presence was no real threat to what he, Irene, and Benicio could have, the red, acting like a black light, revealed what he attempted to cover up. The return of the husband could’ve taken the picture on a cheaply maddening route by allowing Driver and Standard to become rivals, sneering at each other and testing one another’s masculinity when Irene wasn’t looking. There was none of such sitcom-like set-up. Their relationship, as tenuous as it was, surprised me because Standard seemed to really appreciate what Driver had done for his family. And he should. But his freedom had a price which thrusted the film into bloody violence. Although the violence was mesmerizing, almost having a poetic lyricism feel to it, there was an understated sadness in having to inflict pain on others for the sake for information and, if necessary, take their lives. Hossein Amini’s screenplay was admirably paradoxical. Although Driver’s motivation was to protect Irene and her son from crooks, it seemed that with each kill, he grew further from his dream of being with them rather than toward. Thus, the violence, though necessary, did not feel at all glamorous. The violence was ugly and Gosling’s angelic face, coldly calculating at times, provided an excellent contrasting template. Lastly, I admired the film’s elegance in connecting every character. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Shannon’s longtime pal, and Nino (Ron Perlman) were allowed to shine in the latter half. Unlike the masked bandits that hired Driver at night, their motivations were more than just about money. Like Driver, they fought for what they considered to be very important to them. And that made them as lethal as scorpions.
★★★ / ★★★★
Locked out from their hostel because of curfew, Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) were invited by Alex (Lubomír Bukový) into his room and recommended that they go to Bratislava, Slovakia if they wanted women who were willing to have sex. In need of no further convincing, the trio took the train and checked into a pretty nice hostel in which they had to share the room with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) and Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova). They were well-endowed so the guys more than welcomed the situation. After the first night of flirting, drinking, and dancing in a club, Oli was nowhere to be found in the morning. Unbeknownst to the American backpackers, the girls were hired by a murder-for-profit group to lure them into unconsciousness only to wake up in a dungeon full of sharp tools. Written and directed by Eli Roth, “Hostel” was overwhelmingly violent even though there were only two scenes that featured torture. Two was more than enough and they were shot with incredible realism. I felt like I was there in that room and anticipated things to go very wrong and very bloody. The horror and suspense came in when the masked person about to inflict pain held up his cold instrument of choice and decided which body part he was to make contact first. As the characters screamed to the top of their lungs, vomited, and begged to be released, I wanted to look away because of the violence yet, at the same time, I was desperate to see how or if the characters could extricate themselves out of their predicament. That’s why I enjoyed the film: There was always a possibility that the characters, even though they weren’t exactly model citizens, could get away and exact revenge. Sure, they did drugs, engaged in casual hook-ups, and had a lack of respect for the locals, but not one of them deserved to be tied up in a chair and mutilated in any way. Furthermore, the picture was not devoid of a dark sense of humor and genuinely sad moments. When Paxton accidentally dropped two of his excised fingers while playing dead, he had to quickly reach for them with his three remaining fingers before the butcher, busy chopping up limbs, turned around. I was tickled with the fact that Paxton was desperate enough to keep his two fingers when what was at stake was his life. The butcher must’ve been three times his size. If he got caught, it would surely be over for him. And then there was Josh, pressured by his friend to travel all over Europe to have sex with as many women as possible. He was a closet homosexual, possibly bisexual, and there was sensitivity in his interactions with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasák) while in sitting in the bar. If Josh and Paxton were so close, why not just tell him the truth? Surely Paxton, if he were to look closely, could have recognized the signs. “Hostel” consistently embodied a menacing atmosphere that became more apparent and potent as the story unfolded. I watched in terror and disgust through my fingers, very thankful to have every single one of them.
In a Better World (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) had recently lost his mother from cancer. Due to his father’s work (Ulrich Thomsen), he was forced to change schools and live in another country. On his first day, he noticed buck-toothed Elias (Markus Rygaard), nicknamed Rat Face, being bullied by other kids. Christian was naturally drawn to Elias because the two shared a commonality: loneliness. Christian was still mourning his mother and Elias’ inability to express his sadness due to his parents’ (Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm) recent separation. Based on the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, “Hævnen” had something important to say about violence and its role in our lives. It started as a story of bullying. I immediately identified with the two boys when they felt they had to strike back so they wouldn’t be harmed anymore. In a way, I agreed with their course of action. I felt anger for the duo when the adults suggested that the best solution was to sweep the problem under the rug and just walk away. It was as if they had forgotten how cruel certain kids could be like. In my experience, bullies don’t simply allow their victims to walk away because they find satisfaction in scaring or hurting someone. It makes them feel like they’re in control. To let go of that control is like forcing to break a habit. And we all know how difficult it is to break what we’re accustomed to. But the film challenged my stance somewhere in between. Instead of focusing on the schoolyard, it brought up questions concerning violence and its consequences out there in the world whether it be a small altercation between adults or something as important as two groups of people out to hurt and kill each other because they differ in religion. It was more difficult to classify where I stood. All the performances were equally fascinating. Persbrandt was wonderful as a father who strived to be a good example for his children. He took a potentially weak character, considering he was the least violent of them all, into someone who knew what it meant to be a father and a man. Nielsen and Rygaard complemented each other’s acting styles yet they knew how to internalize and let go at the just right moments. Having a great chemistry was crucial because their characters’ friendship was tested in physical, emotional, and psychological levels. By the end, the strength of their friendship felt familiar. It reminded me of what I had outside of the film. “In a Better World,” elegantly directed by Susanne Bier, brought up complex questions but it offered no solution, just possibilities. It didn’t need to because each circumstance was uniquely shaped. Despite the sadness that plagued the characters’ lives, I choose to see it as an uplifting story. One can infer that we have the capacity to control our inner turmoils. If we don’t have that ability now, no matter, we can learn by checking in with ourselves once in a while. It then becomes our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) was expelled from school because of the brutal violence he inflicted upon some of his classmates. School officials didn’t know that Erik was physically abused by his step-father (Johan Rabaeus) at home and Erik’s actions were classic signs of transference. Erik’s mother (Marie Richardson), fully aware of the abuse, decided to send her son to a prestigious boarding school to get her child away from her husband and so that her son could have a chance of a promising future. Unbeknownst to her, she sent Erik to another version of hell where the older students, led by Otto Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgård), bullied the younger ones for the sake of senseless tradition. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and directed by Mikael Håfström, what I loved about the film was it offered a rich insight about the criteria of evil and that, most of the time, it was hard to discern an evil action from an evil person. Evil actions were all around. Aside from Erik’s physically and emotionally abusive home, there was bullying outside of the classrooms, fellow classmates instigated unnecessary fights for the sake of vapid entertainment, the school officials actively neglected the seniors’ cruel pranks, even the kitchen staff decided to turn a blind eye to the flinch-inducing violence because they were afraid to lose their jobs. Sometimes allowing bad things happen could be considered evil, too. There was no doubt, at least in my mind, that it was the adults’ responsibility, whether an adult was a revered headmaster or a lowly cook, to take immediate action when students were being harmed. In a myriad ways, the violence in the school could be considered as a hyperbole. Nevertheless, it is all the more relevant today. With all the senseless bullying in schools all over the country (and I’m sure in other parts of the world as well) and the bullied committing suicide because they thought their lives weren’t going to get better or that no one was willing to listen and take an active role against their plight, it’s sad, even maddening. Håfström’s film was successful because it had a defined central theme and equally engaging and challenging characters. The picture was designed to make us angry, to question our own inaction when we see injustice around us, and to convince us that we have the power to make changes if we choose to. It wasn’t just about the violence. It was also about the friendship that grew between Erik and his intellectual roommate (Henrik Lundström). Through their interactions did we really get to learn who they were, what they wanted to be, and what they meant to each other. Their interactions were surprisingly moving and served as a great contrast against the darkness happening within the school and the individuals who controlled the system. “Ondskan” contained wonderful performances. Wilson had to carry much of the film and he found a balance between being ruthlessly tough and struggling to do the right thing. At the end of the day, he’s the kind of guy I would want by my side.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A woman was driving in the middle of nowhere and her luck turned grim when one of the tires gave out. She called her husband, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), to inform him of her predicament. In the middle of their phone conversation, a man named Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) knocked on her window and offered to help. She refused, told him that she already called a car service, and thanked him for his kindness. He insisted but she refused again. So he decided to break into her car and beat her until she lost consciousness. When, covered in a plastic bag, she became aware of her surroundings, he transected her limbs and threw her head into the river. Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “Akmareul boatda,” also known as “I Saw the Devil,” was an intense psychological study of a man so hell-bent on vengeance, he didn’t care if he hurt the wrong man. The lush cinematography made an interesting contrast with the characters’ dark ideations. When the searchers found the woman’s head in the river, there was something so sad and sinister about the scene. It was sad because her father and husband expected that the head wouldn’t be her’s but at the same time they somewhat knew that it was over. It was sinister because I felt like Kyung-chul was watching among the crowd of journalists and photographers. What I found unique about the story was in the way Agent Kim had the upper-hand for most of the film. It was unpredictable because it didn’t follow a typical narrative. For instance, the sadistic killer and the husband confronted each other prior to the half-way point. With each time the killer lost a physical confrontation, a part of his body was broken and he was allowed to run (or limp) away. Unbeknownst to the killer, the secret agent forced him to swallow a tracking device. The comedy kicked in when Kyung-chul was aghast that every time he was about to molest a young girl, Agent Kim foiled his plans and gave him another broken body part. Behaviorism failed to work. We wanted to see the killer suffer but there came a point where we had no choice but to ask ourselves how much was enough. Agent Kim claimed that the violence he inflicted was driven by the promise he made to his late wife. But maybe there was something inside him that relished being in control of another human being and acting like he was above the law. It worked as a meticulous case study of what torture does to the person inflicting the pain. As wild as the picture became, I admired that it had ways of pulling us back to the murdered wife. I especially liked the way the director handled the difficult phone call between Agent Kim and his wife’s family. His father-in-law actually asked him to stop. I imagine it must have been so difficult for him to come to that decision. “What you’re doing will not bring her back,” the sister said. Agent Kim’s eyes searched for an answer that could prove her statement wrong. There wasn’t any.
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen years ago, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) escaped an abandoned factory where she was tortured for reasons unknown. When she was placed in a facility which housed victims of child abuse, she was befriended by the kind Anna (Morjana Alaoui) despite Lucie’s much darker past and chilling visual hallucinations. Anna voluntarily took up the role of the Lucie’s crutch so she had to be the strong one. Eventually, Lucie made it her quest to hunt down the people responsible for her torment but that was simply the beginning. Although highly influenced by the “Saw” series, “Martyrs” was a stronger breed because the gore was amplified, the violence was more unflinching, and the questions it brought up about cruelty and human experimentation were actually interesting. The film had a Hitchcockian twist. Since Lucie was the survivor of the first scene, I assumed she would be the one we were supposed to follow throughout the picture. But as it went on, I started to doubt whether she was a particularly trustworthy protagonist because she didn’t have a full grasp with reality. Was the family she murdered in cold blood truly responsible for her kidnapping and torture? Then the film made an astute decision. Half-way through, it was revealed that this was Anna’s story as she had the unfortunate luck to go through what her best friend went through and then some. When she was taken in a torture chamber, there was a brilliant twenty to thirty minute interval when not a word was uttered. All we heard were sounds of a spoon scraping a metallic plate as a woman forcefully fed Anna some disgusting-looking green goop, a man landing heavy blows on Anna’s already frail body, and the sounds of scissors chewing through Anna’s hair as if it hadn’t been fed in years. It was very painful to watch but I was so curious as to why such cruelty was being done to her. When it was revealed, it felt inspired yet empty. It was inspired because I could not recall a villain that performed evil things for the same reason. It was nice that the mysterious individuals didn’t want their victims to learn a lesson or to value the life they’ve been given. At the same time, it was empty because the tormentors’ endgame was so subjective. I started asking questions like how they earned money to build such futuristic-looking facilities and machines. I had to laugh to myself a little bit. But perhaps it was a defense mechanism because I needed to process the very shocking images I just saw. Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, “Martyrs” is without a doubt not for people with a weak stomach. Meanwhile, fans of sadistic horror might be pleasantly surprised. I had no idea what I was in for. In the end, I felt a mixture of sadness, horror, and disgust. My body felt so weak, I couldn’t even make a proper fist.