Midweek Roundup: 2 New-To-DVD/VOD Reviews – “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” + “Manglehorn” (7.1.15)

First up in a series of back to back films I watched so far this week, was an independent film starring the Oscar nominated Rinko Kikuchi (2006’s “Babel”), in a film that had one of the more interesting concepts that I had heard about this year. And one that had a long theatrical run here in Portland, at mainly some of our more art house theaters. Coming off strong word-of-mouth and a synopsis built around a young Japanese woman (played by Kikuchi), who goes about her mundane existence somewhat jaded by the life that she’s living in as a secretary to a rather wealthy philanthropist. One day she stumbles across a VHS recording of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). She grows a certain fascination and obsessiveness with the film, particularly that of the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the suitcase of money he gets from the ransom, and goes about planning a trip to the United States in hoping that she can go back to the exact location in which it was buried, in hopes that she’ll find the money and escape the monotony of her everyday life.

This was just as much of a hidden treasure of a find, much like the hidden gem of the VHS tape its main character finds and pursues as the main story line of the film. Anyone who is a fan of the original film (and I can’t speak for the series, having not seen it) will find this story entertaining as it puts a new spin on a person’s movie-fed obsession where the lines of reality and faux fiction are blurred to whereas someone who’s not familiar with movies (like the Kikucki character) might take something they see in a movie as reality and pick up where the story left off. Kind of like an updated, more contemporary version of the old series of books – “Choose Your Own Adventure”. Besides the original and inventive plot which alone should draw the viewer in. It features a rather strong, stand out performance by the brilliant and under utilized Japanese actress Kikuchi, and plays out like a character study about one woman’s hopefulness and new found sense of self-worth as she makes the trek from Tokyo to the rural icy winter of the North Dakota setting of which the original film was based in. It’s a somber piece, with a lot of it shot in beautiful wintry landscapes in the Dakotas. It allows the viewer to immerse themselves and invest in her “quest” to find the ransom money, and suspend disbelief in the sheer absurdity of her intentions. As well intentioned as they may be. This is for a specific type of target audience. For lovers of both the original “Fargo” and moviegoers looking for something a bit different than what they’re used to. I personally really enjoyed this film and the deft handling of the story, and found myself finding it to be quite enjoyable from beginning to end. This one already landed itself a spot on my list of Honorable Mentions of the films I’ve seen (so far) this year. I can say with some degree of confidence that it should not disappoint, especially for fans and lovers of more modern day, contemporary independent cinema. [strong B]

The second one up was from a director whom I really admire, the very young and talented David Gordon Green. Who’s maybe the most divisive independent filmmaker on the scene but who’s career trajectory draws similarities to that of someone like a Steven Soderbergh. Who, like Soderbergh, seems to have adapted the “one for them, one for me” approach to film-making. I loved his more indie friendly early work that he’s done with films like “George Washington” (2000) and “All The Real Girls” (2003). He then seemed to go in a bit more of a mainstream direction with films like “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Your Highness” (2011), and “The Sitter” (2011), only to seemingly be returning to his more independent roots with his back-to-back films released within the same year – 2013’s “Prince Avalanche” and the understated but brilliant character study “Joe”. So based on mere credibility alone and the shift in which his career has been taking as of late I sought this one out.

“Manglehorn” is the second feature film I’ve watched in two weeks starring Al Pacino, who, seems to be in sort of a resurgence phase as he’s been attached to more interesting looking projects like this one and the recently reviewed “Danny Collins”, also released this year. It takes a look at the life a character that seems slightly familiar to others like Bill Murray in last year’s “St. Vincent”. He’s a bigot, unlikable character, full of regrets of how his life could have played out but didn’t. In a series of voice-overs, we learn that he lost the once love of his life because well, he was too selfish to realize that he had much of a good thing going for him. He know lives in solitude as a locksmith. He sees his somewhat regularly, but because of his own failures, doesn’t seem to be able to develop much of a relationship with him. He tries to form a bond with a local banker (played by Holly Hunter) and an ex-drug addict turned massage parlor owner (played by one of the more interesting casting choices in art house director Harmony Korine). It’s through these relationships that he tried to “reconnect” with himself, but ultimately winds up failing at, because, well, he’s an old man set in his ways.

This was a mediocre film by Gordon Green, which has quite a few strong elements, particularly that of Pacino, who proves once again why he is one of the greatest actors of the past half century or so. When given the right kind of role and material, like this one, he’s one of those actors that can make a somewhat familiar, cliche driven script into something much greater than. His performance here is top notch, despite the contrived script and often times poor execution. There are themes here that will resonate with anybody, both young and old, about things like regret, remorse, and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to try and change. It’s somewhat of a mess when looked at an analyzed as a whole. But for Pacino’ performance alone, and a story that at times felt universally human, I can give it a recommendation. Along with another brilliant score by the post-rock band, Explosions in the Sky, it’s certainly not a great film, but is just good enough and worthwhile of a recommendation. [B-]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “St.Vincent” 1.4.14

I can’t say I had the highest of hopes for this one, despite knowing very little about it other than having seen what appeared to be a mediocre trailer for it prior to its release. However, once the 2015 Golden Globe nominations were announced, and I saw that it got a nomination for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) and more importantly a Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) nomination for Bill Murray. Anybody who’s anyone I would think would see a film just based on the mere fact that it’s a “Bill Murray film” that garnered him a nomination. As I think it goes without being said that he may not be the most gifted actor in the business, he’s certainly one of the more universally loved. Which is certainly the case with me. So with that in mind I decided to make it a point to catch the film while it was still in theaters.

“St.Vincent” starts by introducing us to Vincent (or Vin as he’s called) played by the ever so wonderful Bill Murray. Vin is a textbook degenerate – one who resembles something like a cross between Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” (2003) and Danny McBride in the TV series “Eastbound and Down”. He drinks too much, is disrespectful to just about everyone he meets including his new neighbor (played by Melissa McCarthy – my first introduction to her in a movie), and cavaliers around a stripper (played by Naomi Watts playing a Russian woman with a thick accent – which surprisingly works) so that he can use her as his sex slave. That is until one day by a matter of chance he winds up being asked to babysit the McCarthy character’s son Oliver (played by the excellent Jaeden Lieberher in his debut performance). Oliver is having quite a bit of trouble at his Catholic private school because he’s just one of those teeny, puny kids that are easy targets to get picked on. Vin begins to watch young Oliver after school, as his mother has one of those demanding jobs that requires her to stay late. Vin does this at first simply because he is a selfish old man who is quickly going broke. But as the two of them start to develop a relationship, with Vin’s crazy lifestyle and antics acting as an almost catalyst for Oliver to gain the confidence he needs, while also providing the change that Vin’s character can benefit from because it seems like all he may need is some company around. As this relationship blossoms so does the story, and we start to gain some insight into the man Vin really is on the inside and not just the out.

The film winds up being slightly predictable, formulaic, and follows Hollywood movie tropes a little too closely. But if you’re able to put that aside, within it contains a beautiful and deeply moving film about life and one man’s experiences that have made him into the man he is. Even if he he is a little bit rough around the edges he’s utterly human. This multilayered and complex role almost seems tailor-made for an actor like Murray. Who puts in a dynamite performance here which ranks up there with the best of his “rebirth” roles (the “rebirth” of Bill Murray is considered post-1998’s “Rushmore”). I would even go so far as to say he was better in this than he was in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003) and on par with his role in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). He is the meat and bones of the film and is well deserving of the Best Actor Golden Globe nomination he received. Also, his relationship with the Jaeden Lieberher character is heartwarming, funny, and touching, and a lot of credit needs to go to him as well as it must be hard to play so well as he does off an actor of Murray’s caliber. Melissa McCarthy, who as mentioned I was previously unfamiliar with, also did a pretty good job as the troubled mother hit with unforeseen circumstances. The movie takes a grand shift at about the middle point that took me by surprise and really shows why Murray is just as good of an actor delving into dramatic territory as he is comedy. I felt while the film was pretty standard fare up to this point, it really started moving and was both engaging and touching from then forward. Culminating in a climax that had me on the verge of tears I was so moved. Despite it feeling like a somewhat familiar story that we’ve maybe seen done before, if you can look past that you should see that the film’s got so much heart and soul and humanity for its characters that I was easily able to overlook its contrivances. Highly deserving of both its Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Actor, this is a worthwhile film that I can see being universally liked as it winds up being very effective on a lot of different levels. Up to and including the pitch perfect closing montage as the credits rolled.

[that sweet spot between a B and B+]