★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Kill List (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), ex-soldiers, were experiencing financial difficulty because Jay hadn’t worked in months due to his back. After a dinner party turned into a verbal battlefield between the husband and wife, Gal (Michael Smiley) informed Jay about a contract job that paid a solid sum. Jay, desperate to keep his household together, accepted. Fiona (Emma Fryer), meanwhile, talked to Shel about her son (Harry Simpson) and her prospect about having kids. “Kill List,” written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, was a fine fusion of thriller and horror where many details were purposefully vague. As questions plagued our minds, the three title cards, “The Priest,” “The Librarian,” and “The M.P.,” that took over the screen were the only certainty, signifying the three people that Jay and Gal were assigned to kill in which the reasons were unknown to them. But they didn’t need to; what was important was the money. At times, the picture’s abstruse nature worked for itself. For example, one of the persons they had to kill had a prodigiously negative impact on Jay’s psychology. Instead of being a professional and going for the easy and clean kill, he lost his temper and went on a violent, gory rampage. Even Gal, seemingly no stranger to murder-for-profit, had to look away. Though we didn’t know exactly what Jay saw in the videotape that pushed him over the edge (although we were able to hear sounds), it probably had something to do with what happened back then that traumatized him as a soldier. At its best, the mystery piqued my curiosity. It forced me to look closer on how the characters reacted to dialogue and the things they experienced through sight and sound. However, at times, its secrecy was frustrating. As Jay descended into madness, which conflicted with his motivation to be a good husband and father, not enough of our questions were answered. What did the client (Struan Rodger) have against the three men? What was so special about Jay and his family that they had to go through dark twists in the latter quarter of the film? We deserved to be informed because we put time into watching the story unfold. By not answering some of our key questions, the movie felt shallow. Eventually, I got the impression that it had a great idea of making a hybrid of two genres but the writers didn’t quite know how or they were too lazy to piece information together. Ultimately, the project felt like a gimmick rather an a compelling story worth sitting through and thinking about. Directed by Ben Wheatley, “Kill List” benefited greatly from good performances. I enjoyed the contrast between the ugliness of marriage when things were tough and the macho friendship between Jay and Gal even when things were tough. Since those two aspects felt real, I cared when they were challenged. If only I was able to say the same about the nightmarish spiral down the rabbit hole.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Machete” was a fake trailer so good, it was green lit as full-feature film. Machete (Danny Trejo) was a Mexican Federale who disobeyed his boss which led to his wife’s beheading. Three years later and now in America, Machete was approached by a mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) for a job. For $150,000, Machete was assigned to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose platform was to ensure a stricter Mexican-American border, while making his speech for re-election. But the simple assassination plot was not what it seemed. The heated debate about illegal immigration was directly related to a drug cartel led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and the kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). “Machete,” directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, was an incredibly violent, bloody, laugh-out-loud funny, creative mess. The filmmakers knew that the movie was an exaggeration of good and bad action films that we loved and hated. Most of the action defied the law of physics but it didn’t matter because it was entertaining. It provided an excellent example of a character whose background information we did not need to know or fully understand. We just knew he had to survive because he was a symbol of the people, specifically immigrants, both legal and illegal, who were every day marginalized yet used as a scapegoat when a country was in an economic turmoil. Amidst the flying bullets, blades scraping through skin, and blood being painted on walls, I was surprised that it had moments of thoughtfulness, although wrapped in humor like a burrito. For instance, one of Booth’s henchmen stated that we allow Mexicans to enter our homes to clean, take care of our children or siblings, and park our cars, yet we wouldn’t allow them to enter our country. Controversies concerning illegal immigration aside, there was a painful truth to that statement. Furthermore, as enjoyable as the men were to watch, there were some interesting casting choice concerning the women who eventually came to fight on Machete’s side. Michelle Rodriguez was a perfect choice to play Luz because she was edgy, tough, and beautiful. On the other hand, Jessica Alba as an immigration and customs enforcer was not entirely convincing because she didn’t have enough angst and roughness. I actually squirmed in my seat during her speech, while standing on the hood of a car, about our rights to stand up to a law that failed to protect its people’s best interests. I felt like I was in a room with a high school teacher who got a little too carried away by the subject at hand. The most fascinating was Lindsay Lohan whose dream was to become a “model” but she really meant taking her clothes off over the internet. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she wanted to satirize her wacky life. “Machete” embraced the offensive, the grimy, and the bold. I embraced it right back.
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.