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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Review – ‘Lone Survivor’ 10.19.14

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Peter Berg hasn’t made a good film since 1998 with his groundbreaking, twisted, and dementedly hilarious “Very Bad Things”. Since then he has gone on to direct quite a few flops starting with 2003’s “The Rundown”, then 2008’s “Hancock”, only to hit rock bottom when he directed 2012’s “Battleship”. Which at that point I almost dismissed him from my directors whose movies I’d watch list. He seems to be like a not as well known, watered down Michael Bay, strictly in terms of the kinds of films that he usually makes. Big budget Hollywood popcorn fare summer movies. Which to me is about as low as any serious director can go. That’s why I was slightly skeptical going into this one. As Berg hasn’t done a really good film in fifteen years. That and I remember seeing it advertised at one of my local theater conglomerate chains as I passed by when it had just come out. The friend who I was with at the time asked me if I wanted to go to see it. I quickly told him “Nah I think I’ll pass. It’s got Mark Wahlberg”. Anybody who knows me well enough knows how I feel about Wahlberg. He’s a Hollywood puppet (see “Transformers 4” for further proof). Let’s say I’m usually pretty disappointed with the roles he chooses. Though after hearing from a couple of friends of mine that it was actually good, and in one case great. I figured why the hell not. After all how bad could it be?

Based on a true story. “Lone Survivor” starts out by showing us an opening montage of different units within the military and the rigorous training that they go through in order to become soldiers. Soon after, we flash forward to a injured Mark Whalberg, known as Luttrel, as he’s being shipped off in a helicopter. Jumping back 3 years, we meet a rag tag group of soliders played by Wahlberg (Luttrel), Emile Hirsch (Dietz), Ben Foster (Axe), Taylor Kitsch (Murphy – who I could have sworn was Josh Hartnett until I sifted through the cast on my phone), and finally Eric Bana (Commander Kristensen). After some setting up of the characters and giving the viewer some background into who they are as people, they’re given their objective – the killing of a Taliban leader. They then very strategically plan their mission. Only to be lifted up in helicopters to head out and be dropped off in the Afghan Mountains. After some milling about in the mountainside they are exposed and have to capture an old man and 2 kids. They have to make a decision involving the Rules of Engagement and depending on which way they decide, their mission could potentially become very compromised. They ultimately wind up making a moral decision and then retreat back up into the mountains. Then about halfway in to the film, they see their first taste of action and the hunters become the hunted. Which sets the wheels in motion for the second half of the film.

There are a lot of strong elements that I liked about the film and just a couple of not so strong ones. First things first, hats off to Peter Berg. He takes a much smaller film than from what he’s used to and somehow makes it feel bigger. While also making it look artistic unlike his other commercial Blockbuster fare that he’s been doing. His grandeur style really works well here. It’s shot impeccably with some very nice, sweeping cinematography. He gets the camera right in there with each of the soldiers using extreme close up shots that are both intimate and personal, and allow the viewer to feel like they’re in on the proceedings. Along with this, he does a great job at capturing that “band of brothers” feel and making you really care for each of the characters. Once the second half starts and things really start to get going he begins shooting in a more hyper-kinetic style which gives the action a sense of immediacy. Which I personally haven’t seen done since Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008). It also has a great score, one that sounded like it was done by the post-rock inspirational group Explosions in the Sky. Adding rich textural guitar tones which I thought lent itself well in heightening the drama. As for each of the actors, they all do serviceable enough jobs in the roles they are given. Ben Foster, at least for me, stood out just a notch above the rest. The not so strong elements, for me, was that I felt like it got a little too caught up in itself in the last quarter/30 minutes. The way in which the turn of events unfold seemed slightly implausible. Also throughout, and particularly towards the end, there seemed to be this underlying American patriotism that comes across as a bit contrived and cliched. Even more, when the credits finally do roll they add in this poetic device to try and pull at the audience’s heartstrings. Very much like last year’s film by Paul Greengrass “Captain Phillips” of which I drew quite a few comparisons to. So while I really, really liked the first 3/4’s. The last quarter just didn’t hold up as well as I was hoping it would. But I have to give credit where credit is due with this one. It’s is a well shot action-packed thrill ride that has quite a bit of heart. So for Berg’s excellent direction and a great story with believable characters that I was both engaged and moved by. I would recommend this to just about anyone. I’m glad I wound up watching it in the end. Because after all, I almost skipped it entirely. Which would have been a mistake on my part.

[B]