A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

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Review: “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” 1.25.15

In what was amongst a dozen foreign films that I had been anticipating that came out last year, comes acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono’s latest, whom I had really only been familiar with from his 2010 effort – “Cold Fish”, which basically encapsulated everything I loved and do love about Asian cinema. It was a warped and depraved look at one very weak man’s undeliberate affiliation with the Yakuza (Asian Mob). It resembled something akin to Takashi Miike’s “Ichi The Killer” (2001) (still considered in my opinion to be one of the best examples of what is true art house Asian cinema). That and it had some rather funny comedic undertones that aren’t usually found from films of this region of the world. At least from the genre in which it came from. Then came the release of Sono’s newest – the overtly titled “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?”. I had really wanted to see this film with an audience (“Cold Fish” was so bat shit crazy in its depiction of extreme violence and nihilism I could only imagine what it would have been like seeing with a large group of people) but since it had a very short one week engagement here in Portland I never got the opportunity to. That being said, I had this one queued up on my Netflix queue and had been highly looking forward to seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

Sion Sono’s newest (I just recently discovered this guy’s been around making films for 30 years) revolves around a rag-tag group of teenagers called the “Fuck Bombers” who go around town with their amateur video equipment trying to capture every crime, fight, or illegal activity that takes place (think J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8”). They’re just like any other novice film crew – their ambitions seem to be much higher than their actual talent. One day they catch a fight among the two Yakuza families in town. And in atypical fashion the families let the cameras roll allowing the kids unprecedented access to their first ringside seat in which they’re able to capture it all on film. Meanwhile another plot device pops up, one involving a flashback where the daughter of one of the heads of the two families, named Mitsuko, who is widely known not just because of her affiliation of being in a Mob family, but because as a toddler she was featured in a toothpaste commercial (the last part surprisingly important as it comes up multiple times throughout the course of the film). During one chance encounter the young Mitsuko comes home one day to find that her house has been infiltrated with the “Ikegami” Yakuza clan. Except her rival mob boss father, head of the “Muto” clan, doesn’t happen to be home, and her mother basically wipes out every member of the clan and leaves the boss of the Ikegami clan for dead. Except he lives. We then jump forward 10 years later…the Fuck Bombers are still trying to find their big break in moviemaking, Mitsuko is currently being held captive by the Ikegami clan as a truce between the two families has been broken, and Muto (Mitsuko’s mob boss father) is trying desperately to rescue his daughter so that she can play a big part in a movie which he thinks will be the ultimate gift to his wife, now serving 10 years in prison for wiping out the almost entire Ikegami clan. Mitsuko does escape and enlists the help of a random guy on the street named Jiro, who she buys out to be her boyfriend for the day in order to try to help ensure her escape. Once reunited with her father Muto who tries to kill Jiro in thinking that Jiro is part of the opposing clan, hoping to save his life she tells her father that the unsuspecting Jiro is actually a famous film director, and is ready to make his “masterpiece” with her as the star, in turn saving his life. Jiro enlists the help of the now twenty somethings Fuck Bombers to try to help him make the film Mitsuko’s father demand he makes or he dies. This is the central story and plot that makes for the rest of the film as Jiro masks as a director and with the help of the Fuck Bombers film crew he sets out to make an amateur film that promises Mitsuko’s mob boss father that this will be the dream role that he’s been waiting for his daughter.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” winds up being a smorgasbord of different ideas all wrapped up into one. Never relenting in its execution or letting us forget that we’re at the hands of one of Asian cinema’s most unapologetic, creative, and original directors right alongside Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park, Takashi “Beat” Kitano, Joon-Ho Bong, Kim Jee-woon, Yimou Zhang, and Stephen Chow, with a splash of Quentin Tarantino. At the heart it feels like the director’s homage to moviemaking, as once the Fuck Bombers are employed to film the two rival Yukuza clans, we’re thrown into every process of what it requires to make a film. It’s wild and unpredictable (trust me when I say nobody is making films like this guy) and goes beyond the borders of what we know to be even remotely conventional filmmaking. What we have here is essentially a film within a film. As along with the Fuck Bombers film crew the viewer is allowed access into DIY access into the proceedings. It’s a uproariously fun, violent, unrelenting, bizarre, deranged, utterly insane crazy universe that the director creates and stays prominent in feel and tone for its entire running time. My one complaint was where his last film felt more like a serious crime drama thriller, this lays the comedy pretty thick, at times reminiscent of a hyper violent Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) film. Its shift toward this about halfway in comes a little unexpected and in my opinion it could have been just a good of a film without all the underlying black comedy. The last thing I should point out is the entire last half hour of the film is so batshit crazy and excessively violent it makes the bar scene with Uma Thurman from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) or the ending battle in last year’s “Dead Snow 2” look restrained and tame. So if you’re the type of person like me that’s into this kind of material, especially fans of foreign and Asian cinema, you’ll have a rollicking good time. Everyone else might have a hard time getting into this sort of thing.

[strong B]