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-]

Advertisements

Review: ‘The Sacrament’ 8.31.14

Poor Ti West. For a Writer/Director who’s career showed such early promise with his groundbreaking theatrical debut (he had only made a couple of really small indies prior) – 2009’s ‘The House of the Devil’, one of my top 10-20 films of the past 5 years. Also one in which I showered its praises. I told everybody you had to see this movie because it drew comparisons to some of the great masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. This was one of those filmmaking “wunderkinds”, similar to someone like M. Night Shyamalan and ‘The Sixth Sense’, who’s career also started off young and with a bang. And like Shyamalan, every subsequent film he’s put out since then has been considerably worse than its predessesor. West’s 2011’s – ‘The Innkeepers’ was more or less just a rehashing of ideas from ‘The House of the Devil’ both in style and in content. However, whereas ‘The House of the Devil’ was a master class in both wracking suspense and creating a sense of foreboding dread. ‘The Inkeepers’ fell kind of flat with me. I thought the premise of a seemingly haunted hotel with 2 leftover clerks during its final days of closing was shmaltzy and just another excuse for West to cook up another one of his trademark “slo-burners” by roaming his camera around the hotel’s empty rooms and corridors, similar to ‘The House of the Devil’, but in an exercise that I found to be much less effective. Even still, the chills did surmount and their was a fair amount of suspense built up throughout. Just not enough and the ending felt slightly anticlimactic.

Here West is essentially recreating the events of the Reverend Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. A religious group who Jones, because of his opposing viewpoints with America’s opressive ways of living, moved his followers down to South America to create their own Utopia, or what they referred to as “Eden”, in the late seventies. West basically takes this story and spins his own take on it. Presenting it as a fictionalized story when it actuality it couldn’t be more non-fiction. He also shamelessly uses what is becoming overdone specifically with films in this genre, and films it in a POV, hand held, found footage style. Which doesn’t necessarily add anything. If anything it detracts from the story. Why? Because where movies like the ‘Blair Witch Project’ and more recently the ‘VHS’ series actually look like found footage. Nothing here even remotely looks like found footage. In fact, the camera stock comes out looking like there was quite a bit of money put into it. So, sorry Ti but your picture doesn’t resemble anything like that of other films of this type. Furthermore, West also employs his trademark “slo-burning” style once again here. But while it was highly effective in ‘The House of the Devil’ and remotely effective in ‘The Innkeepers’, here it is completely ineffective because we already know how things are going to end (unless of course you are 1% of the population and know nothing about Reverend Jones and Jonestown). That, and when we do finally come to the inevitable ending, West uses shock tactics to show us up close and personal how these people came to their end. Again, nothing effective about this at all whatsoever. For me, when I saw the documentary ‘Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple’ (2006) all I needed to see was the helicopter POV shot of the hundreds of people lying in the field after their demise to really understand how undeniably devastasting this tragic event was. Thank you West, but I don’t need to see people foaming at the mouth or lighting themselves on fire to nail the point home. This was done solely to elicit gasps from the audience which was pointless and unecessary. Why this film was ever even made is beyond me. It’s about as useless as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot for shot remake of Hitchcock’s beloved ‘Psycho’. Done purely for selfish reasons without even a semblance of having the audience in mind. My best advice for you would be to stay as far from this one as possible.

Grade: D