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Cinema-Maniac: Boxing Helena (1993) Review

Boxing Helena (1993) is an extremely divisive film with very little discussion surrounding it. In the realm of controversial films such titles like I Spit On Your Graves (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Natural Born Killers (1994), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and other such films draw plenty of film lovers (and sometime an uninformed outsider) sharing conflicting viewpoints, and sometime ideology gets thrown into the fold. These are the kind of films that make you ask if a film can go too far. Obviously the answer is yes they can go too far. I draw this conclusion with my experience with the 2012 Ron Morales film’s Graceland which briefly had full frontal nudity of minors. However, such cases are extremely rare as I go years without even thinking a film has gone too far with its material. You might be wondering where exactly Boxing Helena stands in terms of controversy? If we’re purely talking about the content in the film than it’s nothing special. It’s simply an experimental indie film that went to the mainstream public with a traditional Hollywood studio treatment resulting in extreme divided reaction towards the film.

Boxing Helena tells the story of an Atlanta surgeon Nick Cavanaugh (played by Julian Sands) dangerous obsession with Helena (played by Sherilyn Fenn), a woman he had a one night stand with. This is the kind of film where knowing specific parts of the story will spoil the experience on first time viewing. That sounds like a no brainer, but you’ll be amazed how many reviews for Boxing Helena from paid professionals, and amateur reviewers online basically give away 42 minutes worth material. This plot point is usually given away in synopsis (if the review has one) when the film is reviewed. That’s not even including the possible hundreds of film sites that also give away a major plot point that should be have been a surprise instead of just given away in a synopsis. Before hand, I of course went on IMDb to check what the film premise was about, and unintentionally spoiled something that should have been shocking, but instead I didn’t expect for the film to take 1/3 to get to that point. I read about the film Boxing Helena before going on IMDb when checking up a list of controversial films (I occasionally like a challenge in discussing a film) so that’s what sold me on it. However, I advise anyone who has an interest in seeing this film to be cautious when reading reviews on this film. If it sounds like a synopsis, just skip it, and read whatever left in the written review. Best advice I could give to go into this as blindly as possible.

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Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk to you again.

On to the actual meat of discussion in Boxing Helena story. The story is slow moving while introducing interesting concepts in the first act. Nick Cavanaugh is shown being neglected by his mother at a party, and not being affected much by his mother death as an adult by leaving his mother funeral early. Raising a question of what kind of relationship Nick had with his mother? To bad the film almost immediately stopped poking around with the idea. Last time Nick mother has anything to do with the story is a hallucination where Nick sees his naked mother in an attempt to imply they had an unhealthy relationship, but how far it went is uncertain. It’s a “connect the loose dot” form of writing done badly when there’s little foundation to connect concrete information given to the viewer. What’s concrete is Nick had a trouble relationship with his mother, but everything else in association to that is kept vague. There isn’t enough to make the connection between Nick relationship with his mother, and the type of woman he’s attracted to come off as viable. At best, it’s imaginative speculation, but at worse making something significant out of something that ain’t there to be found.

In terms of characters they’re just plot devices. To an extent all characters can be considered plot devices, but there are capable writers who are able to masked this. Jennifer Lynch was not able too. I wouldn’t need to count on my hand the amount of characters that were fleshed in this movie because they don’t exist. All supporting characters are basically one trait exacerbated too inconvenient Nick. In the film, Nick has a girlfriend, Anne Garett (played by Betsy Clark) whom he just has a relationship with. If the film dabble a bit on Nick obsession perhaps being greater than his love for Anne there would have been a point to Anne in the film. Anne, much like the implications of Nick troublesome relationship with his mother, provides little in the way of something concrete to confirm themes, and ideas. In one of the very few scene Anne is in she treats Nick in a motherly way. As mentioned before, there’s speculation to be had that Nick might have a thing for women that remind him of his mother, but there’s not enough established about the characters to make it more than mere speculation.

The loose dots could have been remedied halfway with Dr. Lawrence Augustine who is played by Art Garfunkel…I don’t know why he just is in the movie. It’s mentioned briefly that Lawrence helped with Nick on his obsession with Helena, the woman Nick had a one stand with, but to what extent is kept vague. All the viewer is told about Nick mother is that she’s neglectful, and in one instance of the film Nick see’s an image of his mother when Helena is choking him. Does that mean that Nick had an abusive, or perhaps had sexual relation with his mother? The viewer will never know since there is nothing much to Nick’s mother, nor does Dr. Lawrence provide much insight as a friend of Nick. You think Art Garfunkel, of all people to have been cast, would have imparted on Nick some wisdom about relationship, but that’s the sound of silence.

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Julian Sands: “Got breast milk?”

 

Another plot device comes in the form of Ray O’Malley played by Bill Paxton. Ray O’Malley is more of a possessive friend with benefits who loves having sex with Helena. Ray contribute slightly to the film’s story, but then there’s the ending which undoes virtually all his contribution in the film. For Helena who is the other main character on the other hand, throughout the film she does speak about how almost every man she comes across only love her for her looks. Helena is played by Sherilyn Fenn who is stunning in the film which makes such an idea easy to swallow. Her personality on the other hand has little to dig into as for most of the film she’s verbally, and physically fighting against Nick possessive nature over her. This mostly due to the fact that the film’s ending once again undoing what development, and characterization the viewer thought there was in the film. So Helena fears to commit to a relationship through her arc means nothing in the end. In particular, if Helena arc did mean something than it would require an incredible amount of disbelief that two people experience the same exact thing while unconscious.

The ending to Boxing Helena is single handedly the most polarizing aspect about it. It’s so fundamental to how viewers perceive their overall view on the film it’ll change your perspective into an extreme. On one hand it could simply be viewed as a cautionary tale of an obsessed doctor psyche. However, since the ending rewrites the rules it makes it come off as clueless writing when scenes not involving Nick Cavanaugh are shown to the viewers. The twist ending, despite how much it undoes still retains Nick Cavanaugh characterization, and can still be viewed as cautionary tale of being incapable to overcome his obsession. A character in the film, due to this ending, basically stroke Nick Cavanaugh ego as being a superior man holds some weight. However, because of the ending many of the implied themes, and ideas have even less of a foundation to be more than mere speculation. As you can probably tell by this review the film’s ending makes a non-spoiler review challenging to write around.

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Not the first time both of these get wet in this film.

Julian Sands stars in the film to good, and bad degree of acting. The good being Julian Sands is able to make his character come off as a truly pathetic person, and the bad being the material doesn’t make his character sympathetic. Another good in Julian Sands performance are some of the heavier dramatic scene that requires a burst of anger, or subdue emotion he pulls off. There’s a scene of Julian Sands with Sherilyn Fenn out on the porch in heavy rain. Sands yells at Fenn character to scream out for help, but also in the same scene he’s still comes across as vulnerable despite having power over Fenn character. A bad side to some of Sands dialogue delivery is he’s unintentionally hilarious. One moment that stands out in goofy delivery is when Sands says Helena as desperately as he can before Helena experience an accident. On the whole, Sands performance could be considered positive with occasional mishaps along the way.

Sherilyn Fenn also stars opposite of Julian Sands for a majority of the film. While the film does rely heavily on her looks, and pulls of creating a sorta seductive aura around her. Fenn comes off convincingly in later scenes too that rely less on her looks. Unlike the rest of the cast, Fenn is slowly given limitation to her performance preventing her from being as expressive as the other cast. Yet, she’s still able to be convincing in her role coming off as vulnerable, and strong. A downside to this is most of the time she’s constantly screaming her lines, and doesn’t have as many vulnerable scenes compared to Sands. It doesn’t help either that there isn’t much to Fenn character either so Fenn gradually changing into a different person sadly go to waste due to context of the film.

The only other noteworthy performance comes from Bill Paxton who dress up like a dated, 90s greaser in the film. Aside from his silly appearances, Bill Paxton only appears in four scenes, and is silly in all of them. He hams it up in his short screen time, and makes an impression. The other supporting actors in the film are fully onenote. Art Garfunkel doesn’t do much in terms of range, Betsy Clark doesn’t do much either with her time, and Kurtwood Smith despite playing his small part well won’t stay with you because once again, very limited screen time. Also, since it’s wholly a serious movie the whole supporting cast performances eventually mesh with each other being indistinguishable from one another.

 

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Game over man. Game over.

Jennifer Lynch direction is fine for a first a time director. There are certain shots that are questionable in the way they’re frame. For example, there’s a scene of Julian Sands looking out at the front of his Mansion garden, and is unable to see a clearly visible crouching Bill Paxton behind some branches. It makes you wonder how Sands wasn’t able to see Bill Paxton when he’s as visible as he is. Another bad shot is when Helena is hit by a car, and lingering on it for too long exposes the bad effects used in the moment. Jennifer Lynch was both subtle, and heavy handed with some of her imagery. Heavy handed when cutting to a bird in cage whenever Fenn is failing to escape the grasp of Julian Sands. The subtle imagery comes in how very selective shots are framed to make it appear it’s actor are stuck in boxes. As for anything else I would say the selection of music is fitting, but none of the original music stands out. A lot of the music choices are orchestrated pieces with rare inclusion of insert tracks. The only piece of music that stands out is a cover of Bonnie Raitt “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Venice. To Lynch credit, it fits perfectly into what she was trying to get across in her film.

This would usually be the end of the review with me posting my closing thoughts, but there’s still one other thing left to talk about, and that’s the ludicrous statement that this film is sexist towards women. The criticism came from the 90s when it was release, but as of the moment of this review being posted it’s as relevant as ever. Labeling this a male power fantasy is silly since Helena is constantly fighting back against her captor for the entire film. Helena wants nothing to do with Nick, even when holds her captive, and Nick is doing anything to prevent her from escaping. If anything, it’s actually against power fantasies since Helena fight every chance she gets. Nick isn’t rewarded for his action which is proven by the film’s ending.  Another thing that disproves the film so call “sexism” is Nick does not enjoy obsessing over a woman he had a night stand with. In his own words regarding his obsession, “I’m still haunted for my love for her”. Even if I take into account the way the film is shot it’s still part of Nick character whose otherworldly attraction to Helena is presented by those images, and having seen the film entirely Nick does not enjoy seeing Helena the way he does. It’s negative for his mindset, and negative in his life. Just imagine if the film were to be release in 2016, and it would have caused a far greater riot. I clearly don’t think highly of Boxing Helena, but there’s one thing that Jennifer Lynch didn’t come across when directing her film, and that was sexist.

Boxing Helena I see as a lost opportunity. Beneath the many faults I do feel if handled by a more experience director could have been great. By a first time director, Jennifer Lynch lacked the experience she needed to pull off such an experimental project, and couldn’t reach the high mark she set for herself. None of this is further evident with the ending, and scenes that go against the notion of the ending. Much like its title character, the film itself is trapped in a metaphorical box, but instead of going outside of the box, and sticking to it guns with an ending that would have garner it some respect, even among some detractors. It’s ending plays it safe which goes along with abstract theme of society putting people in boxes, but at the cost of giving the impression Boxing Helena is not worth taking out of its box, even among the more “artsy” film lovers.

3/10

Side Stuff: Casting Controversy

There’s also the controversy of casting when it comes to this film. I read one review that made a joke out of it for a closing statement. Granted I wanted to do the same, but someone else beat me to the punch. Originally Madonna was meant to play the part of Helena, but dropped out due to unexplained reasons. Afterwards, Kim Basinger was set to star, but once again stepped down from the role. Unlike Madonna, Kim Basinger exit from the film caused her to go to court, and file for bankruptcy. Her exit from the film cost to pay around, allegedly, $9 million dollars to the film’s producer. Given that Kim Basinger would win best supporting actress four years in 1997 L.A. Confidential I doubt Kim Basinger regret passing up on Boxing Helena.

Sources (this side content):

LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/1993-08-29/entertainment/ca-29280_1_david-lynch

EW.com: http://www.ew.com/article/1993/04/09/boxing-helenas-controversies

Backup Link for source: https://web.archive.org/web/20160906193722/http://www.ew.com/article/1993/04/09/boxing-helenas-controversies

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Cinema-Maniac: Brooklyn (2015) Review

Simplicity isn’t something I demand when it comes to films. One reason being I prefer films that offer plenty for me to analyze either on a technical, or narrative level. Another reason being when it comes down to it simple stories, and simple characters are easy to fully comprehend on one viewing. Leaving very little to ponder once the film ends. Sometimes offering no reasons to rewatch a simple film in the future if I understood everything I wanted on a single viewing. At the same time it’s a necessity to have simplicity in films because not every great story, and masterpiece needs complexity. I would much rather have films like Whiplash which while not an amazing viewing experience soars in accomplishing its single minded goal as opposed to something that collapsed under its own weight. Brooklyn I would place alongside with a film like Whiplash; both films didn’t provide anything amazing of an experience from the reception they received, but they accomplished what they set out to do with little to no hiccups.

Brooklyn is about an Irish immigrant, Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), who lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local while being torn up between two countries she loves. The film is a simple mixture of coming age, and romance that doesn’t get elaborate. It follows a simple three act structure, and is linear as a film can traditionally get. What differentiate it from a traditional romance film is nothing in the film is overly dramatize. Conversations feel natural with dinner scenes serving to get across the passage of time without directly stating it. These dinner scenes also provide the films with most of the jokes as well as some insight into some it characters. Everything in the film is written to get across the most amount of information with simple dialogue. Working wondrously for the film.

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Oh, been wondering what happened to Carrot Top.

The romance isn’t the main focus of the film, but rather use as a narrative tool to show growth in Ellis life. Showing Ellis as young timid girl to eventually becoming an adult woman. Her interaction with her love interest, Tony (Emory Cohen), changes her as a person, and seeing those changes is what makes the romance effective. Much like Ellis, Tony feels like an actual person expressing the kind of life he desires with Ellis. In his own understated way contributes more to the film than just being a love interest. Another appealing aspect of the romance is how it portrayed. There’s no flair to any of it. One example of this is when Tony confesses to Ellis he loves her, and the scene is neither accompanied by music, nor characters making a big deal out of it. Simply being treated as another part of the relationship. Granted a love confession in serious relationship is significant, but the way it written it intently wants the audience to know every moment between these two is significant no matter the context.

As a coming of age film it has the message of growing up is filled with hardship, but an added bonus is actually seeing the character growth in the film. It does not end when Ellis experience a life altering event by moving to 1950s America. The film instead uses the opportunity of Ellis growing to make her face a serious dilemma. Viewing the conflict she face with in a new light as oppose in the beginning of the film where she viewed it like a young adult simply going along with what everyone else wanted. It’s also very clever how it uses a one off character within the first act of the film to be a fulfilling showcase of far of a person Ellis came in her journey. In terms of a tone it plays out a bit like a fantasy before the third act where reality comes crashing down. While there is the issue of living in an entire country feeling homesick, and trouble socializing it never overcomes Ellis life. She is simply able to deal with her problems directly. If not, then she’ll asks her friends, or family for advice.

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Creed: With arms with open.

If there is any serious issue with the film writing it would be the climax of the film. Once Ellis has to decide to live in Ireland with a newfound purpose, or go back to the US to a life that helped her transition into adulthood. The catalyst, or motive that determines Ellis decision feels tacked on plain, and simple. Throughout the film, it makes an attempt to make both 1950’s America, and Ireland as desirable places to live without any serious problems that is too much to handle. However, after a conversation with someone Ellis didn’t like in her past it reminds her of everything she hated that particular country. Here lies the simple problem of the audience not knowing what Ellis specifically means. This film starts out with Ellis spending her last day in Ireland before going to America, and that’s honestly all the viewer is given on Ireland. She experience similar events in both the US, and Ireland. Viewers only gain a full understanding of how much the US means to her as oppose to Ireland where it comes across as a repeat of what Ellis experienced in America. However, like the rest of the film, this is an understated moment that does not dramatize the climax “movie moment” kind of way. The same applies to the ending. While subtle in showing how much Ellis grew as a person it is also understated. Everything about the is simple to comprehend, and in a understated execution succeeds in what it tackles.

Much like the screenplay by Nick Hornby, the acting is once again understated, but for simple reasons. None of the performances are powerhouses, though they’re all fine because of the film’s direction. Saoirse Ronan takes leading the role as Ellis portraying in one of her most challenging role. She comes off as awkward, naive, sincere, funny, and other shades of her character. What is best about this performance is how steadily she transition into becoming an adult. It’s a steady change that retains her character established traits with a new boost of confidence. She expresses through her performance how much she matured, and her facial expressions gets it across vividly. There is a not a scene in the film where you’ll be impressed by her acting since the entire film is subdue in emotion. Taking a timid woman at the start of the film, and convinces viewers she’s now a strong individual. Still, it’s another noteworthy performance from Saoirse Ronan who doesn’t have to put up a fake American in this film which is another plus.

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I’ll take any opportunity to post a image of Saoirse Ronan. What? I like her.

The other performances are overshadowed by Saoirse Ronan. Of course it’s because she the leading actress, but there’s rarely a scene where she’s not present. Only Emory Cohen gets the most of amount of screen time of the supporting cast. His performance is also sincere, and very believable in his performance. The moments he shares with Saoirse Ronan are sweet. They’re both good onscreen together. Acting veterans like Jim Broadbent, and Julie Walters aren’t utilize much in the films. Walters can deliver a funny line, but with the exception of one scene she’s mostly spent her time in the dinner scenes with some kind of reference to god. Jim Broadbent is in the film less so since his only purpose seems to be to deliver a plot point to get the story rolling. He doesn’t get to do much in the film, but doesn’t takes it seriously nonetheless to not be a distraction. Then there’s Domhnall Gleeson who only appears in the third act. His chemistry with Saoirse Ronan makes it possible to believe why Ronan character can like him, even if they spent less time together. 

Supporting actors like Hugh Gormley, Brid Brennan, Maeve McGrath, Emma Lowe, Barbara Drennan, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Eileen O’Higgins play typical characters. Being used mostly to portray the nice old lady, the woman who has trouble maintaining relationship, the depressed mother, the irritable old woman, and other archetypes. As you might have imagined none of these archetype are exaggerating the personality. Director John Crowley doesn’t miss anything when it comes to details in the costumes, and showing visually showing good distinction between two countries. Yves Belanger cinematography is visually the most interesting part of the film. Offering some standard wide shots, but it’s at it best when it comes to showing the most out of its actors performances. Music is composed by Michael Brook offering a classic sounding soundtrack to the film, and having some Irish music. John Crowley is smart enough to know when to place music, and when not too.

Brooklyn is a film that will leave viewers conflicted at the raving reception it received. While in no way close to resembling a bad film it’ll nonetheless contribute to disappointment by its many raving reviews that it receives. This will make some viewers expect something grander than what they will actually see. On the contrary, if you want a coming of age, and romance that is more down to earth than Brooklyn is the film for you. It’s has sweet moments of romance without being sugarcoated. Has the ability to gripping without over dramatizing any events. By all, it’s a simple film that knows how to tell a simple tale without many layers on it, and when it works nearly this flawlessly it doesn’t have to be more than it is.

9/10

Cinema-Maniac: I Saw the Devil (2010) Review

If there’s another genre that had a bigger fall from grace it would be the horror genre. Much like the action genre, allot of fans can agree the 80s was where it peaked in popularity. However, horror can still continue to push the boundary of what is acceptable both visually, and from a creative perspective. How much is too much when it comes to blood, and gore. How in depth of an character exploration can you create before you begin thinking like a killer. Horror has the ability, more so than other genre, to put viewers in a uncomfortable situations, and even scare them in some cases. As someone who doesn’t see allot of horror movies it’s unfortunate very few horror films from the 90s, and 2000s didn’t entice me in viewing the genre without a preconceived notion. What made matter worse is despite having seen very few horror films, most of what I was exposed to by friends, and family were generally trite films within the genre. There were eventually films that won me over like 1931 Frankenstein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 (the only horror movie to scare me to date), and George A. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead which is my all time favorite zombie film. That’s why I’m happy to write about I Saw the Devil. A modern horror film that is hybrid with a psychological thriller, and succeed for all the right reasons work as well it should have.

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Choi Min-sik: “Mmm, I could use this arm for a pie.”

I Saw the Devil is about a secret agent exacting revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases. While not entirely a horror film, one admirable trait that I Saw the Devil accomplishes far better than general horror films is contextualizing the blood, and gore. Too often do many films within this genre disregard characters, and story for the sake of bloodshed. The film is deliberately slow paced for this singular reason. For starter, it slow pacing helps it create an atmosphere of dread over it’s main Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). What it also allows for is to display impatience within Kim Soo-hyeon witnessing him losing sleep over finding his wife’s killer. Showing Kim Soo-hyeon will do anything in his position in the name of vengeance. Splicing scenes of both Kim Soo-hyeon, and Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) current activities in the film to never lose focus of time. Showing the two men psychology are similar in certain ways, but makes it easy to determine who the film wants you to sympathize with as Kim Soo-hyeon is going after killers while Kyung-chul goes after women to kill.

Another aspect of the story that is appealing is putting a twist on a familiar premise. In some horror films, if the victim of the deceased faces with the killer it’s either save until the climax, or becomes a film where the victim tortures the killer until someone dies in both scenario. By the end of the first act, the film victim Kim Soo-hyeon confronts killer Kyung-chul in which, surprisingly a choreographed fight scene ensues. After this confrontation, the film still continues by using a hunter, and the hunted mentality for its characters. At certain points in the film, this mind game between the two characters are discussed in the film. One attempted to be persuaded to simply let up on the vengeance, and ponder if there’s any value in it. For another he receives a taste of his own medicine while also deriving pleasure of how to get under the skin of whoever chasing him. In terms of characterization enough is given about Kim Soo-hyeon to understand his action. Simple things like having a wife, and caring for his family is as deep as it goes for Kim Soo-hyeon as a person. It’s enough to give an idea of his mentality before he decides to take revenge, and seeing how his act of revenge ultimately affects eventually becomes a dynamic characterization.

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Come at me bro!

The same cannot be said for those it represent as killers since the film never bother exploring the psychological aspect of what can motivate its criminals to do the things they do. There’s a cannibal in the film who loves eating people, but that’s about as deep as it goes. All the criminals function as criminals. They’re meant to be evil for the sake of being evil in order to take pleasure in their deaths. It could be debated the intention was to to debate in the act of revenge itself is justified, but on the other hand the film does not lay down any ground work for greyness. Nothing is more evident of this than the usage of its female characters. From the victims perspectives they respect women as people, but every time a criminal interacts with a woman it’s with the intent to do whatever the criminal desire to do with them. It’s portrayal of representing both sides is one dimensional at best. Just fine for a revenge fantasy film, but when the script tacked on a family aspect to Kyung-chul character it says it wanted to be something more thought provoking. Made even noteworthy when it wants to use Kyung-chul family to get across a specific agenda that doesn’t work out since they’re only included in one before popping back up again. It hard see the film for anything other more than just a piece of revenge fantasy where viewers takes satisfaction in seeing its main character harm criminals.

Other issues within the film are specifically connected to the horror genre itself. Moments in the film required higher suspension of disbelief in order for the film to function the way it wants too. One of these problematic plot point is not Kim Soo-hyeon not killing his wife’s murderer when he’s given three good opportunities to do so. It’s given context, and established motivation for why Kim Soo-hyeon won’t simply kill Kyung-chul. What is not explained in the film is how Kyung-chul manage to find personal information of Kim Soo-hyeon within a quick span of time. There’s no mention in the film he’s connected with anyone in the police force, nor has ties with many criminals that can provide this information. Another issues comes in the form of useless police officers for the film both as characters, and narrative devices. Within the film, the police officers biggest contribution is making an arrest after Kim Soo-hyeon has another encounter with Kyung-chul. As far as usage go they give minimal remarks on how they dislike killers receiving medical treatment in a hospital despite their crimes, and does not provide additional characterization for any of the criminals. A miss opportunity for the police officers is providing a semblance of a man hunt. Rarely is there a mention of the police making progress of finding a suspect who is going after serial killers. There’s is a moment where it seems like the police are close to tracking down Kyung-chul, but it ends up being forgotten plot point. I would mention that the police did provide Kim Soo-hyeon information needed to track down his wife murderer as a positive from the police inclusion, but he’s a secret agent so information gathering wouldn’t be as difficult to obtain if he was an ordinary citizen.

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Choi Min-sik ain’t happy with this buried alive prank. 

I Saw the Devil is entirely reliant on talent of two highly regarded actors from Korea who are Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee. Choi Min-sik as the psychaotic Kyung-chul is a  performance that is show stealing. Portraying a psychopath whose proud, and takes pleasure in the accomplishment of his killings. Embodying the truest essence of a killer without going over the top. Choi Min-sik subdue portrayal makes his character much more memorable because of it. Coming off as human as possible making it believable in one moment he holds your best interest to then later on want to chop you up into pieces. Withholding any urge to exaggerate his mannerism, and body language. At the same time, despite how often the viewer will see him get abused, Min-sik is a talented actor that he’s still manage to make his character despicable. The character of Kyung-chul has remotely no essence of any likable traits, yet Choi Min-sik understanding of his character paints a clear understanding of his mentality. In the all best possible ways, Choi Min-sik delivers a performance is very impressive to see unfold as much as it is capable to make you immerse within the film.

Byung-hun Lee who plays isn’t too shabby himself in the film either. Lee does a excellent job displaying a character whom seem to have all life sucked out of him. Remaining calm in any situation, even when to face with the killer. Despite displaying a humanless exterior for most of the film when the situation demands it Byung-hun Lee, in a few scenes is able to be emotional. There’s a final moment as the film closes where in a single moment Lee be expresses how mentality broken his character has become. When it comes to the sequences that require to fight him against actor Choi Min-sik, and neither of whom are expert in martial arts their performance of these sequences can fool anyone. Especially Byung-hun Lee whose swift movement can make a viewer further believe he encompasses his perfectly. As for the rest of the cast they’re at best character actor being good at playing off that one specific trait of their characters. It’s no exaggeration when saying the film is essentially a showcase for actors Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee than. Given the film aims that’s not a negative. The (I’m surprise to have) stunts work in the film are have good work put into them, and in certain scenes amaze by its creativity.

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I’m huntin wabbits!

The film is directed by Jee-won Kim who also has a writing credit in the film. His direction in the film is basically flawless. Despite sporting a beautiful look thanks to Mo-gae Lee it still manages to create scenes that master of the horror genre would be proud off. One important tool in Kim framing of a horror sequence is lightning, and showing specific details of the environments. In the opening sequence, Jee-won Kim makes it clear how helpless one of Choi Min-sik victims is in the environment. A recurring feeling Jee-won Kim goes for is making the viewer feel trapped in certain environments. Rarely showing what’s on the outside of an car, or building when a horror set piece is in place. His usage of wide shots is minimal in the film mostly being reliant on close on medium, and close ups whenever in buildings, and cars. What it accomplishes is not showing any blind spot to where an escape route is possible. Another aspect Jee-won Kim avoids is the common horror trope of people tripping while they run. Since there isn’t a high death count that never becomes an issue. If there’s any moments where Jee-won Kim becomes indulgent it’s mostly towards horror fans. He makes up for the lack of kills by going all out in showing good practical effects of body parts, makes sure lots of blood is spilled, and doesn’t cut away from hard to watch sequences. There’s a scene there you see a character cutting off an Achilles tendon, and the viewer sees the entire process. Another standout sequence execellent direction revolves around Choi Min-sik riding in a taxi with suspicious characters. Without being specific, this particular is carefully constructed to be bloody displaying Choi Min-sik stabbing people multiple times in a taxi, and having little blood spill on the camera as it spins around taxi. Jee-won Kim is relentless where it counts, but not overboard to the point where it’s indulgent on blood, and gore.

I Saw the Devil is wonderful combination of horror, and a psychological thriller understanding the best of both genre. The horror elements allows it to go into dark places as well as be bloody in presentation. Balance elegantly with the psychological mind games of two characters who simply hate each other guts to fuel it story after its first act. It’s a wonderfully twisted cat, and mouse game even when it’s clear at points it wants to be more than just revenge fantasy entertainment. On a technical level alone it offers two great performances from two good actor which alone makes it worth viewing. If you haven’t seen a good usage of horror within films, or simply a fan of horror movies I Saw the Devil will satisfy viewers who simply want the blood, and gore, while also offering viewers who are looking something more than just meaningless bloodshed.

8/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Man from Nowhere (2010) Review

In the action genre it’s difficult to find a universal meaning for what classifies a great action movie. For some it could simply mean the film in question has plenty of violence to satisfy adrenaline junkie. While for others it could simply mean the story took it time to make the preceding events meaningful if it comes of the cost of little violence being shown. If there is a middle ground in the genre it’s often not dictated by it main character, but rather the writer. Anyone who writes action films must understand their main character thoughts, and physical limitations (if any) before the presence of a threat ever appears. If not accounted for this crucial building block can misguide the writer. For example, if the writer is attempting to do the everyman hero archetype correctly than viewer exposure to seeing them perform superhuman feat, and surviving multiple impossible scenarios will serve against the everyman hero archetype. There’s also the argument that the action genre already peaked unable ever surpass the classic films whose influence is still present in the genre today. I on the other hand would say since the 80s the genre has been improving in certain areas, especially when it comes to crafting characters, and stories that never loses the viewer attention even when no violence seems presence. Jeong-beom Lee’s film, The Man from Nowhere/Ajeossi, understands the genre, but thanks to smart choices in the script, and execution of a familiar template creates a film that embodies the best aspect it genre at it most meaningful.

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Go make me a sandwich you emo!

The Man from Nowhere follows a quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past taking on a drug trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend. Our leading character is Tae-sik (Bin Won), who on the surface is the every man action hero archetype who seems distant from people. In the action genre, the mysterious loner who some innocent person (usually a child or navie young woman) befriends by being persistent isn’t new in films. What matter most when it comes to familiar ideas, and plot devices is the usage of them. In The Man From Nowhere it gets virtually everything right about good writing from the very first scene. Setting up story elements that will later be expanded into greater significance as it progress. It sets up important story pieces for about half an hour establishing its central relationship with simple key scenes, and setting up intrigue in Tae-sik without directly revealing anything about him. You know from the premise Tae-sik cold attitude towards his neighbor child isn’t without reason. How writer, and director Jeong-beom Lee uses this plot device correctly was not reserving, displaying Tae-sik emotional attachment solely for its climax. By doing this, Jeong-beom Lee film benefits from this decision since it allows Tae-sik to be further developed as a character, and let the film not be reliant on showing the cold hearted protagonist become emotional for its central storyline.

It’s first thirty minutes are significant to how well the story is structure. Starting off like a character drama before switching gear in its second act to be an action thriller. For example, one moment in the film shows Tae-sik paying his respect to a woman whom nothing is revealed about. As the film eventually reveals Tae-sik connection to this woman the pieces fall into place for his attachment towards his neighbor daughter Jeong So-mi (Sae-ron Kim). It becomes a meaningful revelation since before Tae-sik past is revealed he is shown to care for Jeong So-mi. Another example of a well executed plot device is from a simple phone call. It’s between two criminals where a simple exchange is in placed to move the story forward. What detail is given, but not placed directly at the viewer attention is a snippet of dialogue. In context, it does more than move the story forward as a couple lines is given more significant later in the film. One of the best part of the story is how plot devices are more meaningful by the way they were used, and when to use them at the right time. The only serious issue to be found with the writing in its first act is in a scene where Jeong So-mi talks to Tae-Sik in a alley. It’s basically the equivalent of Jeong So-mi breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience to feel bad for her since she has a terrible life. It doesn’t help that the way it filmed explicitly shows Jeong So-mi character turning around, and describing how she is use to being neglected. It’s a heavy handed moment despite being well acted by Sae-ron Kim.

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Freeze…get it guys cause it cold, and raining?

Once the story kicks in it never lets up, nor does it undermine the importance of focusing on characters. As it story expands into something larger Tae-sik becomes more developed as the film progresses. Another positive of the film is never forgetting about its characters preventing itself from oversimplifying the conflict. While it is easy to know whom to cheer for in the film, the execution of it the story makes it clear that a good guy, or a villain is not just a label certain characters carry. Succeeding in giving characters small traits that attempt to make them more human than just an obstruction of its main character goal. The film weakest character are easily the policemen whom serve to reveal information on the current situation, and discovers details on the protagonist of the film. What Jeong-beom Lee accomplishes through his writing, and choices is delivery an action film that places equal importance on providing a good story as well offering familiarity within the genre. Action junkies, and casual viewers will probably know the beats of this specific premise, but it’s much more than a well written film. It’s a step forward for the genre that often recycles ideas by giving it more depths than what was expected of it in the past. Displaying a willingness to take the genre to greater heights in a different way.

Actor Bin Won takes the lead as the quiet, hardened pawnshop keeper. Striking a balance between the everyman, and the cold character he display on the surface. One contributing factor to his performance is being able to balance the material he’s given with ease. Won does not deliver his dialogue emotionlessly when he speaks. Knowing through his delivery how to properly express himself in the context of certain scenes. When it comes to scenes where Bin Won has to display other range of emotion it feels consistent for the character. Bin Won does not overact in any facet of his character so he is never too robotic sounding, nor too emotional when it demands him. Another advantage to Bin Won performance is seeing him performing the action sequences himself. There’s a stunt in the film where Bin Won is an executing a leap from the second storey of a building, leaping through the window followed by a roll on the ground to break his fall, and all done in one swift take. Moments like these further emphasizes not only Bin Won ability as an actor to commit to a role, but further makes his character more involving knowing the actor himself is performing these scenes blurring the line between actor, and character. 

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Little girl. You begging doesn’t work like this right?

Actress Sae-ron Kim does well in the role of playing the film naive, persistent child Jung So-Mi who befriends the quiet pawnshop keeper. She makes her character sympathetic, and in the few scenes she shares with Bin Won they play off each convincingly. Never once does she come across as pouty, or annoying the film. It’s remarkable that in her young age in the film, she actually has an understanding of how to deliver her material properly. Kim Hyo-seo plays Hyo-Jeong (So-Mi’s mother) is in few scenes, but contributes to the film nonetheless. Her few moments in the film shows the actress playing a struggling mother. Despite the length of time she’s actually makes good use of her time. Then there’s Kim Hee-Won, and Kim Sung-Oh both of whom do a good job in their roles. Usually in action movies whenever an actor is given a villainous character they go all out. However, both Hee-Won, and Sung-Oh performances are grounded making their characters more human. By portraying them as criminals it helps take them more seriously if they simply went out to be comically evil.

The supporting cast in general places good effort into the film no matter the size of their role. Actor Thanayong Wongtrakul is probably the last actor worth mentioning in the film. Wongtrakul plays Ramrowan who’s basically the adversary of the film protagonist. Like his other co-stars whom play criminals, Wongtrakul performances is also grounded making his character more memorable than it would have been otherwise. The film score is composed by Hyun-jung Shim. His score does include the bombastic sound one might expect from the action genre, but the noteworthy tracks are the ones that evoke feeling of a different genres, or uses unorthodox instruments to compose an epic sounding soundtrack despite its modern setting. Two outstanding tracks from the film are Chain of Mystery that evokes feeling of uneasiness perfect for a horror film, and the tracked named after the film itself. Thankfully, director Jeong-beom Lee knows when to implement the soundtrack to emphasizes a scene to make it more impactful, and when not to use too.

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Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to just chill here until one guy arrived.

From a technical standpoint Jeong-beom Lee film has the polish look of a blockbuster. Tae-yoon Lee cinematography is simply beautiful to look at, even during the film’s darker moments. Lee isn’t afraid to show the few instances of darker material thus giving the conflict a greater sense of weight. Thankfully, Jeong-beom Lee also knew to use shots of dark material sparingly so the effect wouldn’t diminish over time. When the film finally gets to the action scenes they are well worth the wait. Despite the gap between action scenes, and length between them all of the set pieces aces good filmmaking techniques. Not only does Lee use long takes of his actor performing the action sequences, but make sure to never lose the audience. The film first fight scene last less than a minute, but the performance, and the way it shot doesn’t diminish it’s a good action scene. Bin Won convincingly performs the fight in the speed it was required to pull it off. The film’s climax is easily the film’s most memorable sequence. Not only contextually is it the most satisfying set piece since the film builds up to this moment, but the actual action scene by itself is well choreographed. It doesn’t exaggerate Bin Won ability within the scene, and does a good job in giving multiple performers within in the scene something to do. So you won’t see an actor in the background simply seeing the hero killing someone making it also feel grounded. There’s also some practical blood splatter effect in the film for added effect in its brutality. When the film gets to the knife fight between the hero, and his adversary it’s more believable than one might expect. The blades of the knives barely clash with each other with the fight sequence playing more on overpowering the other opponent. It also doesn’t last too long to take away from the serious tone of the scene.

The Man from Nowhere excels in execution, and delivery of its own material creating a must see film. There are films I shower with endless praise, and there’s also films I personally would recommend reader to check out, even if it means they might trust my viewpoints on films less if we disagree. This is a film I would personally recommend to anyone reading this. While it does the carry the label of an action film, and contains familiar story beats the execution makes the film more meaningful than the simple label of being an action film. It might not succeed in making you emotionally invested, but an action film like this that places equal importance on good characters, and story as well as providing of what expected of it within the genre are commendable traits. Standing as a good example of pushing the action genre forward in a positive direction, and offering more than what audiences demanded of such films from the past. It’s a masterpiece in the genre, and is one of the most satisfying (and crowd pleasing) film the genre has produced.

10/10

Cinema-Maniac: Homicycle (2014) Review

When determining what films to see, and review I welcome taking a “risk” once in awhile. By “risk” I mean going blind into a film that is not discuss in professional reviewing outlets, or among bloggers. What makes these “risks” satisfying is discovering a great film, and giving it exposure no matter the size of your contribution, or readership. Every review on an obscure title praising a good unknown anything will give it a better opportunity to grow. This is one aspect of the internet I embrace than no matter how I end up feeling about a finish product I get expose to all sorts of media I probably wouldn’t have checked out my limited knowledge. Of course there are films like Homicycle that make me question if the word standards is like a myth to certain filmmakers. Sometime there are bad films I encourage seeing either for building standards, or to find entertainment in a way that wasn’t intended. However, Homicycle is filled with so much deadweight I advise you not to see it to save your time on something better. As of this very moment, this is the worst film I’ve seen that has cycle in its titled. Yes, it’s even worse than the time I saw I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle.

Homicycle is about the titled character who dispenses vigilante justice against a criminal organization. It sounds cool, but that didn’t translate into a product that resembles entertainment, or even competency by bad filmmaking standards. For starter, the film quality of writing along the line of one of those kind of films that just has a single thin idea stretched out. In Homicycle, if we removed the filler material of the film than the actual meat of the film is 50 minutes long. With the filler, it’s only 70 minutes, yet feels allot longer than it actually is. The film has little essence of substance even on a surface level as neither story, or characters are expanded on beyond the basics. Scenes just go into random scenes disconnected from any semblance of progress. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the film self aware tone is what kills the film. It knows the setup is right up a traditional 80s B movie throwing in a simple story, odd characters, and some occasionally awful dialogue. However, intentionally making a bad film does not translate into an unintentional comedy. Since it knows what kind of trashy film it is making it impossible to enjoy to enjoy from a so bad it’s good perspective.

As for the actual story itself it’s one of vengeance. The film never confirms the of identity of Homicycle, but the single clue the film gives to the audience leaves little to the imagination who it can be. A character connected to the vigilante spells it out to the viewers by saying his name. Removing any possible mysterious aura from him. Another aspect about Homicycle is the lack of confirmation of what exactly he is. In one scene, he punches through a guy guts in order to kill him, but within the same scene get beaten by a normal man. Then there’s the fact the film suggests a character in the story, Eddie (Mac Dale), came back from the dead to seek vengeance. Having already explained the film doesn’t go beyond the basics. What kind of force made him come back to life isn’t surrounded by concrete material. If it was something supernatural it wouldn’t fit since nothing otherworldly is mentioned in the film. However, it doesn’t work the in the “realistic” vein either since it means Eddie survives a shot to the head at point blank, his wife buried him in her backyard, and been buried for who knows how long in better condition than he was alive. A film can’t just assume it audience will accept anything at face value if they did nothing to earn that trust.

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Public Service Announcement: Don’t jerk

What follows Homicycle around is a string of bad jokes escalating to sheer boredom. It place randomly with toilet humor, or innuendos jokes. When jokes are used to pad out the running it’s quite sad. Characters relationship don’t go beyond the basics. You’ll have to assume what archetype characters fall into. For instance, the villain of the film Brock (Peter Whittaker) is the best developed character in the film. He dresses up as a pirate, has odd fetishes, and is a criminal lord. That’s it. Nothing about why he acts the way he does, dresses the way he does, or what his goals are is shown. Picture the rest of the film characters being less developed than Brock. Filling the screen with characters that just mesh with one another in a forgettable manner. Having no personality of any kind.

The filler material consist of a sleazy producer talking about how scary the film apparently is. This is your introduction into the film. So, this sleazy film producer claims the film is so scary there’s sexy nurses are in the lobby ready to dispatch to help if the film causes you health problems. If I was watching this introduction in a film theater it makes since, but at home it simply tells me the filmmakers were to lazy to write the exact same scene simply changing two words to make it work when viewing it at home. Also, if you happened to die during the viewing of the film your family will immediately inherit 1 million dollars according to the sleazy producer. If that wasn’t pointless than the film inclusion of a bikini contest certainly will be. Sometimes when filmmakers know they’re losing their audience they’ll throw in some sex appeal to keep viewers awake. This bikini contest adds nothing of value to the film. The contestants names are Candy, Mandy, Brandy, and Sandy. Why all the contestants have Andy in their names I can’t tell you. Probably it was meant to be a joke, but that would be giving the film too much credit if I acknowledge it had any idea of what comedy is.

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For the last time. I’m not a Vampire. They suck.

 

The biggest waste of time in the film, besides the whole thing, is an intermission with ads for concession food. Homicycle, if we’re being generous, is 70 minutes long so an intermission is not needed. Besides being insulting that the filmmakers believe viewers can’t sit through a 70 minute long movie. This intermission is also pointless. Another pointless addition in the film is a concert that you might have guessed by now adds nothing of value to the film. These filler moments of the film break pacing as it brings things to a sudden stop. Another point of filler are repeating two scenes. A flashback showing Eddie death is shown twice in the film. Though, the biggest middle finger is the film opening sequence when is the same scene used to end the film. No variation as it plays the same opening sequence in its entirety for its ending. So when taking it all in, the film went in circles, and accomplished nothing pass the starting point.

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From a filmmaking point of view there’s also no passion shown in its production. The most amount of effort put into the film was copying the grainy image of a 80s B movie, and duplicating shots from that era. However, the visuals don’t improve the story, nor is able to hide the horrendous acting. Director Brett Kelly couldn’t be bother fixing easy mistakes. One of them was showing an actor firing a nail gun, and no nail being visually shown coming out of the nail gun. He lingers on special effect shots too long you can see the hose where fake blood is coming out when a person’s head is decapitated. Another trait of Brett Kelly is his sheer ability to add random things in post production. For instance, there’s a shot that last for a few seconds, and in the background the sky is purple. No reason why, it’s just there just because Brett Kelly can.

The one scene in the film that showcases Brett Kelly lack of understanding as a director is the film shootout in a warehouse. Brett Kelly made his fake gun muzzle effect, and fake splatter very noticeable in this sequence. The slow motion in the scene makes the poor special effect very noticeable. Apparently in the same scene, Kelly felt it was necessary to place render images of blood splatter in the background, yet whenever there’s a cut the blood splatter that was in the background is longer there. So Brett Kelly went out of his way to ensure there these special effects are in the film, but didn’t care enough to maintain continuity which defeats the purpose of adding special effects in the scene. He also forgets to place fake muzzle effects when a background actor is shown shooting at Homicycle. Another inconsistency are the CG bullets that come out of Homicycle automatic guns. Then for some reason Brett Kelly doesn’t bother placing CG bullets coming out the guns even though the rest of sequence he had them there before. Within the same sequence, Brett Kelly forget to show certain goons getting killed on screen, and absolutely forgets bullet holes despite the fact he chose to add fake blood splatter in post production. Also, the goon despite not being obstructed by anything all missed shooting Homicycle. This is the worst shootout I’ve seen in a homage film.

The acting much like everything else is awful. Only actor Peter Whittaker is noteworthy because of his over the top performance, and fake eyebrows. He puts effort into his performance attempting to make badly written scene funny. However, he’s unable to make jokes work because his co stars don’t bother putting effort into their performance. Peter Whittaker isn’t talented enough to make a joke work on his own. Brett Kelly not caring about producing anything of value spread to his actors which is why they phone it in. Special effects are cheap looking when they’re lingered on too much, and every single practical effect is badly executed. Music is forgettable, and the cinematography while good visually duplicating 80s B movie imagery is enough to hide the many issues of the film. If anything, I want to spotlight Trevor Payer, Jennifer Mulligan, and David A. Lloyd who are all given writing credits. Between three minds they couldn’t come with enough material to create a feature length film. That’s embarrassing.

Homicycle is the worst kind of film that doesn’t offer anything worth of value. When negatively dissecting the film, the self aware tone tells you the filmmakers made an intentionally bad movie so there’s not much to learn from it. There’s not much to dissect either as it’s dead air through it 70 minutes run, and 20 of those minutes are filler material that could have been out. In the end, you’re left with a film that is worthless. If the filmmakers didn’t put any effort to create a film of any value viewers shouldn’t put any effort themselves in seeing this garbage either.

0/10

Cinema-Maniac: 1: Nenokkadine (2014) Review

Psychological stories are among my favorite forms of storytelling along with the Western genre, Samurai films, and martial art films. This is mostly contributed to personal preferences as these four type of films, if everything is done correctly, hit all my sweet spots of what I’m looking for in a film. Western films in particular I consider the genre to find the best examples of writing in films for in depth narrative, and character exploration while martial art films can get me emotionally invested in events than a traditional action movie. Psychological stories what they tend to offer, besides the occasional intelligent writing, is endless possibilities in writing, and countless pondering thoughts once the film ends. When psychological films are done correctly you’ll have example likes Inception where debates over an ending among other elements are still written about. Clues that could have been missed the first time further can make you appreciate a film. Whereas other examples can fall into M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense category of thinking it’s smarter than actually is. Despite it being well received, I still hold on my beliefs that it’s a film that is poorly written, and badly directed since it build around a single gimmick. That brings me to write about today’s film that falls into the later category of psychological films I dislike that are unable to use their key element in the story in any meaningful way. While not uncommon, it’s never a welcoming sight to see the exact moment where a film fall apart.

1: Nenokkadine is about a rock star who must overcome his psychological inhibitions to seek revenge for his parents’ death. The film waste no time drawing in viewers into the story starting with a kid running away from adults shooting at him. You immediately wonder why, and the opening sequence does it job in setting up the psychological elements without faltering. However, after the flashback is over it’s immediately followed by a musical number. Now the first song does have context since Gautham (Mahesh Babu) is performing at a rock concert. So the transition into a musical number isn’t jarring. Unlike the rest of the film where musical numbers just happen out of nowhere. While it is par for the course for Indian movies to insert musical numbers into a number of their films it is also common for some of the films to insert them accordingly. This film feel no need to fit them in so it’s spontaneous when it occurs. At least the first song while it contribute little narratively was an enjoyable, energetic track about finding yourself. Whereas the other 4 musical numbers are simply about love with corny lyrics. Except the last song in the film which could have been cut out since it contributes nothing.

Now before the film reaches the 41 minute mark it’s story is actually intriguing. It strikes a nice balance playing with Gautham psyche without over complicating matters. The streamlined story is constantly making the viewer wonder if its leading character is imagining events, or if they actually happened. Every major event within the first 41 minutes serve to play a mind game with the viewers. Presenting events in careful manner to not reveal the truth of Gautham memories. It’s also everything pass those first 41 minutes that the film entirely falls apart. Due to a simple scene the psychological angle the film started with is absolutely gone. No longer will you question if Gautham can’t tell the difference between imagination, and reality. This is one moment with Samira (Kriti Sanon) explaining her method to coworkers on how to get an interview with Gautham destroys any doubts you might have had of Gautham psychology being unstable. It’s so plot breaking that further events in the film that attempt to play with the idea of Gautham imagination with their only being one reasonable outcome from that one that scene in the film. Ultimately you end up seeing a film that thinks it’s more intelligent than it actually is. Throwing plot twist as every major turning point. If the film wasn’t trying to be a psychological thriller first than the issue wouldn’t as glaring. However, it would still be an overblown love story.

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It’s not you, or me, but the musical numbers I can’t handle.

A major chunk of the film is focus on romance that is overblown. The script doesn’t give the protagonist, and love interest enough time before they fall in love. In context, these two character share a single musical number, and a single action scene which is enough for the protagonist to basically die for his love. This is despite the fact after he learns his love interest has been deceiving him simply forgetting the fact that he been lie by this woman a majority of the time they spend together. After a scene where the damsel in distress get rescue consciously for the first time the romance becomes lovey-dovey. It’s further embarrassing seeing adult characters written like teenagers saying romantic to each other like they were little kids.

Then there’s a subplot revolving around Hydrogen Cyanide getting mixed into seeds causing infertile land causing inedible food in the background that only appears if neede to make progress. That’s a mouthful for sure, but it doesn’t end there as the flimsy attempt to tie in this subplot into its main storyline becomes over the top. Before it eventually evolves to a possible ego stroking film that’s only made to make it star look good. If main character Gautham who is constantly refer to as Rockstar in the film can find the Golden Rice than he can stop world hunger. You might be wondering how a film about a rockstar trying to find his parents killer ended up becoming a green environmentalist action film. The answer is simple as I went to the film IMDb page, and see nine people were given credits. Nine people writing a single film that almost three hours explains allot. It explains why the film never bother explaining how a rockstar just has the skill of a secret agent. This also explains why the film uses of flashbacks several time in the film, withholding certain information, and explains why a film that is wholly serious gives up attempting to balance a serious tone with comedy. Also, explains why despite Gautham popularity he doesn’t have any fanatic fan that would stalk him despite apparently being describe as Indian biggest rockstar.

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Characterization for leading character Gautham is surprisingly dynamic. He has an conflict that is both external, and internal that he is desperate to find the resolution for. Despite the story placing importance on overblown romance Gautham turmoil is a driving force for the film. While the film doesn’t spend much on telling us about Gautham himself his conflict in the film is enough to make him an interesting character. Changing his minded goal of revenge into something more personal like remembering their faces. Touches like this make Gautham far more interesting than hardened person who already has his mind set on killing only to possibly change his mind in the end. That’s another aspect to his character that is great. Gautham deciding whether or not to take revenge isn’t the climax of his character. The storytelling isn’t coherent consistently, but Gautham as a character is easy to understand. It’s just a shame Jeremy Zimmermann, Arjun Y.K., Suneel Madhav, Thota Srinivas, Palnati Surya Pratap, Venkateswararao Potluri, Hari Prasad Jakka, Jakka Hariprasad, and Sukamar (who also the film’s director) nine credited writers couldn’t think among themselves how to create a good story to along with him. The other characters, are not even worth mentioning since they’re treated as plot devices, and nothing more.

The rest of the cast isn’t worth discussing in depth since they play pretty straightforward roles. Kriti Sanon who plays Samira is given a role where she plays an woman infatuated with her love interest. As some point in the film it seemed she would be required to do more than smile, look pretty, and bubbly when around the Mahesh Babu, but it doesn’t last long. So she overshadow in every possible way when she shares scenes with Mahesh Babu. Her biggest praise would be she could sing, and dance well, but so can her co star Mahesh Babu. Nasser who plays the film antagonist doesn’t appear in the film until the climax. While screen time is a contributing factor to his lack of an impression is his bland portrayal of a villain makes an easy part of the film to forget. Kelly Dorji is more of the same playing a villain, though his final scene allows him to mix change his dialogue delivery. Supporting actors in general from Anu Hasan, Pradeep Singh Rawat, Sayaji Shinde, Krishna Murali Posani, Gautham Ghattamaneni, Anand, Ravi Verma, and Srinivasa Reddy give the impression they’ll be given roles before disappearing from the film with pure ease.

Sukumar as an director at least nailed down making good music videos in the film. They look stylish as well having good dance choreography to showcase. Playing up a particular aspect in different musical numbers, including the corny love song where he films like a cheesy romance movie. Devi Sri Prasad did an excellent job creating the music. The action scenes in the film all good stunt work, but an issue in all of them is editing. In virtually all the action speed, and quick cuts are played around with. For example, there’s a fight scene where Mahesh Babu has to defend his love interest from a group thugs. Within the same fight scene there’s good practical effects that make the lack of psychics look convincing. This particular fight scene is unable to hide the fact actors in the background simply standing around waiting for their que to be in the scene. Also, this particular fight scene repeats the same shot of its own fight within the same sequence. What is not fun to see is seeing an entire action scene not being allowed to play out by itself without being tampered in some way. As oppose to the film first action sequence where playing with the motion of speed wasn’t abused while it played out.

Another issue is some of the bigger set pieces lack creativity. There’s a set piece in a parking lot having our hero fight off a gang motorcyclist trying to kill. Despite showing some of the motorcyclist carrying guns they never fun them while riding the motorcycles. That sequence in particular plays to traditional to the run, shoot, and cover style of action choreography without changing much in how it plays. Finally, the final action set piece requires you to disbelief the fact that our hero is couple of feet away from armed guards shooting at him, in a wide open space, and somehow not getting shot. The choreography in the final action sequence is sloppy unable to hide the fact that Mahesh Babu should have gotten in despite not hiding behind cover. If the sequence showed Babu dodging bullets by showing some bullet pierce on the ground, or destroy some light to distort vision it would have been easier to swallow the nonsense. There’s also some bad CGI in a sequence with a ship is burning then exploding, and some set pieces being filmed way too close to tell what’s going on. They’re done in a way where it’s easy to lose coherence while viewing them. It’s a shame too since they have some good stunt work in them, though in a nearly three hour film a couple action sequences won’t do much to salvage a bad even if they edited, and filmed correctly. Especially when a long chase sequence is only showing Babu running after someone without spicing it up in any way.

1: Nenokkadine is an overlong film with a psychological angle that shoots itself in the foot 41 minutes in the film. It’s think it smarter than actually is resulting in a film where it length is noticeable. The overblown romance, the bad psychological aspect, and the lackluster subplot of finding Golden Rice to stop world hunger aren’t an exciting mixed elements like they should have been. Mahesh Babu performance alone cannot out do the damage done by jarring transition into musical numbers, and badly edited action sequences. While star Mahesh Babu demonstrated he has talent. It’s unfortunate that none of the filmmakers, and especially it credited don’t have any of it to produce something worthwhile in a nearly three hour film.

3/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) Review

The Admiral: Roaring Currents was a film that I never heard off, until I did research, and discovered it’s the highest grossing film in South Korea (as of now), and it the first South Korean film to make over 100 US million dollars internationally. Financially successful The Admiral: Roaring Currents is impressive on a business standpoint. From an artistic standpoint it also caught my attention. Since I live in the US, it’s weird learning that a country highest grossing film is not based on an established property, or an entry in a franchise. After learning this I looked up a trailer, and once again traits of a significant movie showed. It’s international appeal was evidence borrowing traits of a Hollywood blockbuster presenting the idea that this film is epic in emotions, epic in battles, and just historical epic filmmaking. So with my exposure to the film I decided to check it out since everything seemed in its favor. That is until the film start, and you realize beside being a expensive cinematic piece of Korean patriotism. It’s also a film that lacking in evoking epic emotions like what seen on screen.

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Stare men! Stare into the readers souls!

The first hour of the film is meant to set up the characters, stakes, and provide context for the massive naval battle that will occupied the second half of the film. Unfortunately, instead of being the grand, historical epic film it desperately wants to be it comes across as a hollow blockbuster with a historical backdrop. One thing that is made immediately clear within the film is that it paints complex political issues into a simple battle of black, and white. Showering itself in national pride proudly portraying Koreans as the good guys, and showing the Japanese they fight as the villains. Given the premise down to the bare minimum is 12 Koreans ship battling 330 Japanese ships which is best comparable to the story of David, and Goliath. It’s quite the underdog setup that if it was presented morally grey could have resonated with any audience regardless of nationality.

In the film, it makes a clear case the Japanese are evil. A Korean character says in the film their enemy (the Japanese) steal their provisions from civilians, and use children for target practice. With this single scene the film throws away any intention of representing both side equally. It would be acceptable if it ended simply by showing Japanese killing children, but the film continues showing Japanese in a negative light. Characters aren’t better off either. You could deduce whatever Japanese character is in the film is going to be presented as evil. However, the Korean characters aren’t compelling either. The film the person is centered on, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-Sik), receives most of his characterization through text in the first two minutes of the film. Yi Sun-sin is touted as a double agent, is tortured, and remove from his position. Afterwards, he gets reinstated because the nation of Korea needs him if they want to lose to the Japanese. With this information being the first thing you learn about Yi Sun-sin where his character could have gone is intriguing alone. As you probably come to expect from me reviewing films of this quality it’s usually not the case. Sun-sin character receives traits like contemplation of his life, national pride, and to engage in the massive battle. These contemplative thoughts aren’t explored to any great depth. They get a mentioned in one scene, and then done.

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Remember the Battle of Thermopylae men? Well, they are all cowards compare to me. 

Another character that ends up uneven is Lee Whe (Kwon Yool) who ends being the audience gateway to learn more about his father Yi Sun-sin. The conversations between these two character are the closest the film goes into character exploration. It’s easy characterization painting a clear picture of differing positions between the two. Seeing them interact with each other is interesting due to conflicting feelings on what should be done in the battle. Lee Whe understands his father, but doesn’t see the scenario in the same light he does. Leading to moments where Yi Sun-sin explains his reasoning to put his worries at ease. It display the strong bond between the two character to be able get along no the difference in thoughts in a dire situation. This relationship between father, and son never grows into anything emotionally gripping, nor tell the audience anything about Lee Whe as an individual. All of Lee Whe character is tied to what his father does in this current moment of his life so history between them not in this specific event, and time is not explored.

Finally, the last character worth mentioning is Im Joon-Young who is a spy for Yi Sun-sin (Jin Goon) who sole purpose is to gather intel on the enemy. Aside from showing a small glimpse of the Japanese oppressing the civilians of the land they conquered this is about as far as this character is taken. There’s a subplot of his possible deaf lover which would be something compelling to see, but the first time she appears on screen is to tell her man goodbye. There’s no flashbacks, or a scene where the two interact as a regular couple so it ends up being meaningless in the film narrative.

A major writing issue with the film is the Turtle Ship itself. In the film, it’s established that this ship is essential in Admiral Yi Sun-Shin strategy in fighting against a large vessel of 330 ships with his mere forces of 12 warships. What advantage, and capabilities the Turtle Ship has over a regular warship is never explained. One would think a crucial detail like that would at some point be discuss in the film. It would have been fine if the film mentioned if it had stronger armor, better canons, or anything that explains what it’s better than an average warship. It would have better correlated why Yi Sun-Shin is intent on battling with it, and so crucial in his plan.

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During production, the cast, and crew celebrated Burning Men by burning the sets.

The second half of the film consist of a massive naval battle, and yes it is awesome. It’s during this naval battle where the scale, the bombastic soundtrack, and overblown exaggerated drama create the film most engaging material. Becoming easy to lose yourself with the events of the film. Aspects of the naval battle itself are not without criticism. Like mentioned, the overblown drama during the battle is extraordinary. In the film, there’s a romance subplot that doesn’t get much attention so when that subplot conclusion comes narratively it is hollow in feelings. It also breaks character consistency since in one scene this character is shown doing sign language to talk to her lover, but during the naval battle knows what her lover is saying even he’s too far away from land to read his lips, and was presumed to be deaf. Another aspect of the battle is it will test your suspension of disbelief. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin virtually beats more ships then he likely would have as his ship survives one unlikely scenario after another. The most over the top example comes when Admiral Yi Sun-Shin ship is corner from three sides, and Sun-Shin has the idea to use canon fire to propel his ship away from being cornered. Describing this moment is far different from actually seeing it for yourself. Whether or not it’s possible for such a thing to happen I can’t comment on since I’m no physicist.

Despite the numerous issues with the extensive naval battle itself I would still defend it for being the best part of the film. Unlike the previous hour, this naval battle is focus, and gets everything right in creating a thrilling atmosphere. There’s no talk of politics. Just a epic battle that engulfs itself with extreme emotions, and patriotism. It also uses simple moments like citizens witnessing the battle itself, and reacting to it to further get lost in the moments of battle. These moments eventually correlate into an morally uplifting scene for the Koreans, and a boosting excitement for non-Korean viewers. The very lengthy naval battle in this film will go down in film history as one of the best ever filmed. Now I might as well talked what happens after the naval battle since I more or less cover the entire movie story. If it ended with the moment between father, and son, the film rating wouldn’t have changed, but the actual ending will leave some scratching their head as to why that was the closing moment the film ended on. Since nothing was established about the Turtle Ship seeing one in action doesn’t scream excitement unless you know about the Turtle Ship.

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I lost count at 54 men killed.

The film stars Choi Min-sik as Admiral Yi Sun-sin who is a terrific actor in general. In this film he puts another top notch performance. He gives his character more complexity than the actual writing itself. A simple gesture of Min-sik delaying an immediate response tells the audience there’s a lot on this person’s mind. Min-sik plays the role seriously embodying his character perfectly inspiring his men with his words to keep fighting, bold in displaying a man hardened by war, and portraying a person who reputation doesn’t make him a larger than life figure. While the film is an extraordinary underdog story Choi Min-sik portrayal of Admiral Yi Sun-sin keeps him as human as possible. So no matter what extreme scenario the character survives Choi Min-sik performance makes it easy to accept. Also, he’s Choi Min-sik, if any Korean actor deserves one film that tells everyone “I’m awesome” it’s him.

Known Yool is decent in the role of Lee Whe. His chemistry with Choi Min-sik is excellent with both actors working great of each other. Known Yool is more varied in his expressions compare to Choi Min-sik because of the material he’s given. While good, Yool doesn’t embodied his character the same way Choi Min-sik does whom he shares many scenes with. Jin Goon is okay in his role as Im Joon-Young. He doesn’t leave much of an impression because of screen time, though his shining moment is during the naval battle. Now I do like to spend time talking about as many actors as possible so they too can get credit even if the contribution is small, though this film does me no favor. Cho Jin-Woong, Ryoo Seung-Ryong, and Kim Myung-Gon are all Korean actors playing Japanese characters speaking in the Japanese language incorrectly. The Korean actors don’t make the proper pronunciation of Japanese words when speaking as sometime within the same pronounce the same words differently. It’s quite jarring, though largely will go unnoticed for those who don’t watch many films from Asia. The remaining important actors includes the likes of Kim Tae-Hoon, No Min-Woo, Ryohei Otani, Park Bo-Gum, and Lee Jung-Hyun whom all give one note performances. One has to be silent, another has to be the concern lover, and another has to be angry. With their simple portrayals they won’t live much of an impression.

The film’s director, Kim Han-Min, did an excellent job overall. His only major criticism in his direction is misusing composer Tae-Seong Kim bombastic soundtrack in the whole film. When nothing narratively, or visually impactful is happening Kim Han-Min will have Tae-Seong music playing in it. Moments that could have been effective without music lose their impact. However, in the second half the usage of music is spot on. Another aspect of Kim Han-Min direction is spot is the naval battle itself. CG is noticeable, but for the most part keeps the action up close. Despite the large scale of the battle never once does Han-Min makes the audience become confused in what’s going on. He always creative in bringing in new ideas into the naval battle making sure it never becomes boring. This naval battle is probably going to be the technical achievement of his career. Another aspect worth praising is the film stellar cinematography bringing to life some memorable images, and the sets, and costume designs are good as well.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents is an epic film without equally sweeping engagement. As an historical film it simplifies the actual events into good vs evil. There’s no shame in the film hiding patriotism, nor the unequal portrayal of the enemies. Along with with story pieces, and character that don’t have much to them to captivate the viewers before the massive naval battle ensues. These aspects of the film will test audiences forgiveness for its writing shortcomings. If you take it as a piece of entertainment you might find it a decent diversion with the naval battle being the clear highlight of the film. No matter what way you might decide to view the film from there’s no escaping it could have ended up better, though maybe years from now a filmmaker will use this film as a template to make the masterpiece it couldn’t become.

6/10

Cinema-Maniac: No Tears for the Dead (2014) Review

On the surface U-neun nam-ja/No Tears For the Dead in English simply looks like another polish Korean action film. Well that is correct, but the man behind it, director/writer Jeong-beom Lee is famous for doing a film named The Man from Nowhere (US English title). It was the highest grossest film in Korea in 2010, and gained international attention that only a handful of Korean films have reached. There’s a (as expected) Indian remake named Rocky Handsome set to release somewhere in 2016, and (typical reaction) an announce US remake of the film. With these remakes it’s safe to say The Man from Nowhere cemented its place in Korean, and action cinema. Another thing that occurred was it made Jeong-beom Lee a talent on everyone’s radar. Unless you’re Jee-woo Kim (I Saw the Devil), Joon Ho Bong (Gwoemul), or Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) the Western world will more than likely forget great filmmakers if they fail to follow up on their success. If they do prove their big hit wasn’t a fluke, than they might get a call from Hollywood to direct a film in English language production. Jeong-beom Lee won’t join the likes of his other peers as No Tears For the Dead is not a good film, let alone one that comes close to matching half of the traits that many loved about The Man From Nowhere.

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Getting into the rhythm of making my new rap album. Crying Bullets.

No Tears for the Dead is about a hit man traumatized from accidentally killing a young girl during a job, and is given the mission to eliminate her mother. The killer for hire who becomes remorseful is a premise that grants leeway in exploring themes, and character traits that would otherwise be ignored in the action genre. Aspects like the protagonist becoming accustomed to taking lives, addressing how the character views change on the matter on killing growing older, and in some instance showing an inability put it behind them for a normal life. These are aspects for these kind of characters could be explored helping to create an action film that could be more meaningful than good guys killing bad guys. However, an hour into the film you’ll realize nothing within that span of time ends up becoming meaningful. For the first hour, the film is more in line of a drama setting up the pieces before changing gear into an action film for its later half. What is problematic about this is, within the first ten minutes, the film relays the information of what’s protagonist Gon (Dong-gun Jang) has to find for his boss, and that Gon is guilty about murdering an innocent child. Scenes beyond these ten minutes beat you over the head with the fact Gon feels guilty for killing a child. If you didn’t understand within the first ten minutes of the film then the film will dedicate an hour to make sure you get plot point.

Gon guilt over killing a child isn’t contemplative in the way it’s written. There is one flashback inserted into the film that show Gon past, and his drug addicted mother (Kim Ji-Sung). What purpose this flashback serve is not clear as Gon decision on whether or not to kill the mother, Mo-Kyung (Kim Min-hee), is determined by his past experiences. There isn’t any monologue, nor a discussion he has with the other characters as to why he made the decision that he did. The most that get elaborated on this is Gon saying “I’m tired”, but exactly what aspect of his old ways he’s tired off doesn’t come across plainly. Before Gon utter those words he kills a couple of people, and after uttering those words one would assume Gon stops killing for the remainder of the film. Except for the fact Gon makes a bomb to take out one of the goons who is trying to kill him which derails that possibility. So even when grasping at straws there’s no depth to the theme the film brings up on redemption, and killing. Another aspect of this writing that fell through was lacking scenes incorporating Gon with his mother. His mother is never given a name, never shows what led his mother to the situation she’s in, and how this led to Gon becoming a gun for hire. As a character, Gon mother has little value in the story, and as a plot device isn’t developed further then when it’s introduced.

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Want to know why I’m angry lady? It’s hard finding a still without me holding a gun.

Then there’s the interaction between Gon, and Mo-Kyung which instead of building on what’s established only reiterates the same point in the first hour. Gon is guilt ridden for killing Mo-Kyung’s daughter, and Mo-Kyung is dealing with it in her own way. Their interaction could have developed them both into more complex characters, but alas it does not. Aside when Gon, and Mo-Kyung meet in an elevator there’s no scenes of them interacting like regular people. Gon observe Mo-Kyung from the sidelines. Having already mentioned the lack of monologue preventing an understanding of what Gon is thinking leads to pure speculations. Connecting loose dots while stimulating does not amount to much if there’s nothing concrete to connect them together. Gon does have a complete character arc, but there’s not much to his character. The whys he suddenly feel guilty about taking lives is left blank, as well as other aspects of his character. Other issues also include the script making a big deal of the desired item in question when found being made into a big deal when it reveals, even though the first ten minutes confirmed what the item is, and who likely has it. A subplot involving the police ends up contributing little to the story as well as other characters whom contribute little in the long run. The second half of the film is more like an action movie, but the lack of emotional resonate from the buildup makes the ensuing violence lacking in weight to what was presented. It’s first half got across it does not want to be a piece of mindless action which conflicts with the brainless approach in viewing the film second half. Then there’s the film’s ending which plays against expectation. It’s a good ending completing Gon arc, though the other underdeveloped elements prevent from staying in the mind.

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So you want me to kill a man? Pfft. I’m head of security at Jurassic World in my spare time.

Now time for some actual compliments for what the film did correctly. Starting with the man behind it Jeong-beom Lee. He’s confident in his craft which is evident throughout the film. His selection of shots, with the help of cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, gives the film a sleek look. There’s also good stunt work, and fight choreography in the action sequences. Jeong-beom knows how to film action, and using shaky cam accordingly. Usually adding to an action scene than obscure the set piece. Another aspects of these action sequences is they come mostly in the form of hand to hand to combat. While some of the scenes require leap in logic when it comes to how characters survive none of the action sequences suffer any serious issues. There’s a fight scene that has actor Jang Dong-gun fighting in a small hallway that is very inventive. Using the small space to create a sense of enclosure, and Jang Dong-gun character skill in hand to hand combat to convincingly turn an outnumbered fight in his favor. The one set piece that emphasizes gun fighting is staged elaborately. Usually in gun fights you’ll have the duck, and cover approach which is boring if not done right. However, Jeong-beom Lee one only gun fight makes use of the actors moving across the environment besides narrowly dodging bullets. Jeong-beom made sure to show one character shooting while going to cover, and the person who being shot at not testing his luck for a kill. The gun fight also have the actors moving to different level of a single building visually adding a nice change in scenery in the set piece. Lee makes the right choice to keep the action sequences small, and manageable never going to big making them work as well as they do. As a director, Jeong-beom does nothing wrong from the selection of music that fits the tone, to editing action sequences to make as coherent and wisely framed as possible, and putting trust faith into his crew which shows through out with good production values.

Leading actor Jang Dong-gun is the best part of the film. His performance is complex putting his all into his character. Coming across as both a no non-sense assassin in body movement, and getting across he’s a troubled soul through his eyes. Never once in the film is Jang Dong-gun afraid to reveal the more emotional side of his character. Dong-gun performance is more compelling than the actual film. There’s several scenes in the film where Dong-gun is silent, but thanks to the way be expresses himself through facial expressions, and body movement what his character feels comes across clearly. He also performs in the action sequences convincingly not being afraid to take a couple of hits. Regardless of what Jang Dong-gun is shown doing on screen he’s the easily the best actor in the film.

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Don’t worry about us. We do very little to help you.

Kim Min-hee has the second largest role in the film. Her character visibly goes through more series of emotions. For the first hour of the film nothing about her performance is noticeable since her character is all over the place, and Kim Min-hee is unable to make her character come across as putting up a facade like the writing intended. However, pass the forty minute mark of the film Min-hee shows a gradual mental downfall of her character. Slowly showing her character becoming broken in her state.

Supporting cast includes the likes of Brian Tee whose solid in his role. Tee is simply meant to be the adversary to the hero of the film, and nothing more. For the role, Tee is also convincing in his performance in the action scenes he’s in. Anthony Dilio is plays one of Tee’s henchman, though the only noteworthy thing about his performance is speaking in Korean, English, and Spanish (only in scene) in a single movie. Dilio only meant to look tough aesthetically. Same thing applies to Alessandro Coumo who is only aesthetically needed for his small role. Byun Yo-han, and Jun-Seong Kim deliver one note in his performance which fine because of the characters they play. Not so much for Jun-Seong Kim who has more screen time making his lacked in varied expressions noticeable. Finally, there’s Kim Hee-Won who shines in the final act of the film, though doesn’t leave much of impression anywhere else in the film.

No Tears for the Dead (2014) has a polish look, and good set pieces, but hampered down by bad writing, and actors who are unable to elevate the material. It has good setup to create meaningful characters, and has the desire to provoke the viewers unlike your average action film, but sadly aimless writing, humorless story, lack of depth presented in its theme, and lack of emotional resonates makes the entire film self-conflicting for the whole run. No matter what way you attempt to view the film from there’s always more issues than positives in the writing. It’s too serious to be entirely brainless, but it’s lack depths to punch the viewer with a series of emotions like it wanted. Dong-gun Jang, and the action sequences are the only consistently high quality aspect of the films, but whenever one isn’t on screen the film is unable to stand as strongly. Despite the conflicting material, Dong-gun Jang performance was a highlight of the film no matter what he was doing. Unfortunately, the good qualities wasn’t enough to save the film from being a messy film that couldn’t live up to its potential.

4/10

Cinema-Maniac: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Expectations of Martial Art films have changed significantly over the decades. The days of getting cheesy English dubs for live action Martial Art movies are gone now with most home video releases of offering people to see them in their original language. Even when the films do receives English dub they are not as silly as what was release in the 70s. Another thing that also changed over time was the fight choreography implementing the environment as part in the fight during the 70s, and then pushing martial artists body limits during the 80s. An era which created plentiful of Martial Art classic films giving rise to legends Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Then came the 90s where some Chinese talent went oversea to find success in Hollywood. While the quantity of great martial films wasn’t as high as in the 80s the quality of them improved with some offering more complex plot lines. However, while there is more to the history of the subgenre than my broad generalization there’s no mistaking during the 2000s that China dominance over the Martial Arts subgenre dwindle as legendary talents were aging, and therefore not perform like they use too. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai wants to be a one of those classics from the subgenre heydays in a time where characters were kept simple, and emphasis on fight choreography was the norm. While it is an homage to those kind of films martial art films of the past. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai doesn’t ignite the same kind of feelings of those earlier films it loves.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai tells the story of a laborer who moves to Shanghai in the hope of becoming rich. From that synopsis, if you’re familiar with crime films that contain an immigrant as the protagonist there’s no need tell readers what to expect. While it is a classic story to tell in the crime genre of immigrant hoping to make it big in foreign land it’s also been told countless of times. It’s telegraphed from the overly strong, naive country-bumpkin protagonist Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), the young ambitious new criminal on the block Long Qi (Andy On), the father whose disapprove of the criminal lifestyle Master Tie (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), the young woman who eventually falls in love for the naive protagonist Tie Mei (Luxia Jiang), and a few singular purpose background characters. Making these characters arcs more predictable is adding martial arts replacing gun wielding gangsters for fists, and axes. Instead of touching on the subject of family there are few discussions about honor, and fighting. Retaining the classic story of beat of crime families uniting to eliminate a great threat that could overthrow them in power. So forth is the nature of the film to ooze old fashion cinema on everything. What this ends up creating is a typical story that aims to pay homage without changing anything. If you’re not familiar with these kind of stories the undercooked plot beats won’t make it engaging. Containing the moments you would expect from hero Ma Yongzhen becoming good friends with Long Qi after a fight, the two new friends talking about dreams on a bridge at night looking at the stars, and Ma Yongzhen given the option to run away when things become chaotic. The scenes are in place for creating good material, but the rush nature of a script that had too many ideas don’t allow time to develop them to their fullest effect.

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The silent fart. Philip Ng deadliest technique.

The first signs of trouble in the script appears before the title card does. There’s text that (paraphrasing) says that Shanghai is a city of dreams for the people of China, and hard work can get you the life you want, but the thousand of youths coming into Shanghai are tempted to take the easy way out to by becoming gangsters. This text is delivered while dramatic music plays in the background, the film grayish color filter to show some harshness in the situation, and showing the viewers a crowded deck filled with immigrants with their head held down. This sets up the idea it’ll be touching on the realistic issues dealt with achieving the “American Dream” (well, in this case the “Shanghai Dream”) with martial arts as a bonus. Then it shows a grown man taking away a Potato from a starving girl which naturally makes one wonder how the immediate harsh tone will be followed up with. PUNCH! Out of nowhere a single punch is all it take to conflict with the tone established leading into a heavily edited fight scene. A fight scene where our main character kicks two baddies several feet from the ground is an odd contrast after seeing a deck of depressing looking immigrants. Now there was a better way to transition into the fight scene. Some simple dialogue of the grown man rudely stating he’s still hungry with our hero telling him to give it back to the little girl. When the grown man says no giving the signal to his buddy to prepare for a fight would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the fight scene, and transition into fight scene more smoothly. However, this opening never bothers bringing up why the grown man stole the Potato simply assuming the viewer will make assumption this immigrant is bad for stealing food from a little girl. Though, without context given in the scenario it could easily be interpreted as a grown man getting back food stolen from him.

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I’m guessing Andy On paycheck is the reason the film has a grayish color filter.

The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of issues. There’s a scene early in the film where our hero helps an old man who stole opium from a gang, but the old man the protagonist helps goes nowhere. Then, there’s the romance aspect of the film which is underdeveloped. Our protagonist spends more time with his boss than he does his love interest. Also, there’s a subplot of our hero meeting up with his brother which disappears as it goes on. If a plot point is not underdeveloped it’s either forgotten about. The only aspect of the writing that works to any degree is Ma Yongzhen bracelet. His bracelet was given to him by his mother, and was given words of wisdom that would remind of Ma Yongzhen not to kill. It’s a simple motive where the outcome of the bracelet is telegraphed, but it was executed just fine. It’s just a shame there’s not much depth in it usage. A simple solution to the writing would have been to make the story longer, though given it wanted to be an homage script writer Jing Wong probably felt being derivative was the best bet. To his credit, the movie does progress naturally, and knows the classical story beats of old fashioned cinema to mirror classic martial art films from the era. However, by simply placing those classical story beats into the film his lack of understanding shows when he has no idea what made them work in the first place. While the film is superficially reminiscent of some classic martial art films with similar stories like Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), and Shaw Brother’s Boxer from Shantung (1972) it doesn’t build on its inspiration. It just ends up being typical in how it unfolds, and average as an homage that doesn’t illustrate what made its source of inspiration classic films in the sub genre.

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Philip Ng seen here channeling his inner Bruce Lee.

Philip Ng takes center stage portraying Ma Yongzhen in a role that is more demanding of his looks than his acting skills. Appearances wise, Philip Ng nails the expressions of a country bumpkin in his naivete optimism. Switching between badass martial artist, and your average joe seamlessly. Another aspect of his look that works to his advantage is fitting the bill of coming across the average joe. Sporting a look that is reminiscent of Bruce Lee from The Big Boss, and Jackie Chan from Battle Creek Brawl. When he performs in the fight scenes he’s convincing, though not impressive for his lack of speed in performing the fights. What Ng doesn’t share among the likes of Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan are the charisma of those actors. Try as he might, but Ng simply comes across as trying to hard to look cool, especially in the end of the film. In terms of line delivery he’s okay. He doesn’t have the timing to be funny, nor the lack of understanding to ruin a joke. Ng doesn’t come across as someone threatening when he fights, but is alright in the moments he’s not need in combat. For the role Ng is in it’s adequate, even if lacking star power.

Next up is Andy On who plays Long Qi. His performance is also adequate. On doesn’t demonstrate very difficult emotions as scenes don’t linger much on complex emotions. However, he has style, and doesn’t phone in his acting. Much like Ng, Andy On fighting is convincing in the few times he fights. He also has good chemistry with Philip Ng making what scenes they share together the film best offering in terms of acting. It’s where the best moments come from as the two really sell their friendship, even if the writing is not up to par. Both actress Michelle Hu, and Luxia Jiang don’t get much to do in the film beside looking pretty. They’re both the love interests to perspective characters caring for their lover, and showing concerns. Not much to discuss. There’s also no well known legends in the west martial art film stars Kuan Tai Chen, and Hark-On Fung whom presence in the film are not noticeable unless you know your martial art films. Now if you’re exciting to see well known martial art legend Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who gets top billing, he is barely in the film. Hung Kam-Bo doesn’t get to show much of his acting, and fighting prowess’s in the film as he fights only briefly in one scene. Unless you’re a fan of martial art films the lack of screen presence from Tai Chen, Hark-On, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo will seem insignificant, but for those who do know them will make their inclusion in film lackluster of wasted talent.

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I used to be a magnificent butcher, but now I just cook food. 

The fight choreography is done by Yuen Woo-Ping whom name would be selling a point to fans of martial art films. Unfortunately in this instance a master of fight choreography isn’t at his best. A reason for this being with the exception for two, all the fight scenes are one sighted leaving no opportunity for counter moves, or complex maneuver to perform for the actors. Another aspects of the fights that take away from the fight choreography is them being overly edited. All the fight scenes have tempered speed which tends to ruin the flow of a fight scene when switching between fast, slow, and back to regular motion frequently. Applied with quick editing that changes up shots the editing doesn’t play to the fight scenes strength. If the speed of the fights weren’t tampered with Philip Ng (who performs in most of them) isn’t a quick a performer. Usage of wires are noticeable in some instances as one might take notice that defying physics, and taking yourself seriously don’t go hand in hand.

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Noticed I didn’t put any stills of fighting. Here’s one.

There’s a fight in the film that is done in one take which sounds impressive until I tell you the post production work that ruined it. The one take fight scene is sped up while typical for the film is more noticeable in this sequence. If performed well, and on time than the sequence wouldn’t need alteration. Then, there’s not framing half of the sequence correctly as there is moment where it does not show Philip Ng fighting against actors. The camera gets to close barely capturing some of Philip Ng blows as it continuously spins around until the fight scene ends. Before the fight scene occurs there are only three people visible ready to fight, but as soon as Philip Ng attacks, and the camera spins around more actors are suddenly in frame. This also creates a continuity error, though that isn’t anything unexpected for action scenes. Everything else in the film is adequate. For a film paying homage you’ll get the shots you expect, and the same applies to the music. Not much to be surprised by as director Ching Po Wong made generally safe choices. His only truly questionable is making the entire film gray instead of black & white. In few scenes there’s some semblance of color so it’s jarring why Po Wong simply didn’t choose to filter the film in black & white.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is wholly average as a movie, an average showcase of martial arts, and average anything you could think off. It takes the classic ideas associated with the “American Dream” in a crime a story along with the classic imagery one would expect from this kind of story. All without throwing its own flare to familiar ideas. As an homage it doesn’t disrespect old fashion cinema, but at the same time does nothing to represent the best elements of old fashioned cinema. Having too much on its plate, and not enough time to make all the ideas it has be put to good use. If you only want to see it for the action the fight scenes are edited heavily with motion of speed being played with in all of them, and virtually every fight being one sided in the favor of what the story demands. Choreography wise it’s okay with a few making little use of what’s in the environment, but the actors performing them aren’t as skillful as the stars they pay homage to. This movie doesn’t falter seriously, but neither excel in anything at the same time either.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Revenant (2015) Movie Review

Under good hands the ordinary can seem extraordinary. In film, it has the power to make a story that is entirely set in one car surprisingly engaging (Locke). At the same time, it has the power to take something like a giant serpent, and its army wrecking Los Angeles boring (Dragon Wars). Thanks to medium like films, they have the power to share those kinds of experience that otherwise probably never would have experienced by viewers in their life. In some cases, making you feel like as if you’re right in the story. The Revenant is such a film achieving an immersive experience that makes up for it shortcomings that come up from the writing.

The Revenant follows frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a fur trading expedition in the 1820’s fighting for his survival. There is a narrative thread woven from Hugh Glass desire to seek revenge, but a cat, and mouse game the film is not. Choosing to focus instead on Glass struggle with nature the film is written in a way to emphasize visceral, visual experience. Dialogue heavy scenes are few in between, and the focus is hardly removed from a wounded Hugh Glass ongoing battle against nature, and to a certain extent his fellow men. Spending around a third of the film with Hugh Glass alone without monologuing on anything associated with himself. Opting to show Hugh Glass as much possible with his wounded body to carry on forward. Only hearing the sounds of the environment (the cold wind blowing, waterfalls) to create a sense of desolate. Expressing his pain in a series of grunts, and screams. Hugh Glass is a man of very few words throughout the film. Whenever he does speak Glass dialogue is written to get across the broadest idea in the least amount of words. This same notion also applies to the era where the film takes place in. It never explicitly states where, nor when the story takes place in, but just gives the minimal amount of information. As a whole the film takes itself seriously, though does offer a couple sparsely spread out brief comedic moments. These bits of humor are a rarity serving their purpose to lighten things up. However, the tone is not trying to balance itself making it serious business at all time.

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Leonardo DiCaprio: How many more Buffalo you want me to eat to get an Oscar!

In the writing department developed characters are not in full focus. Hugh Glass is not developed beyond his standard traits introduce in the beginning of the film. He’s a loving father who cares for his son, and a tough individual who can withstand what nature throws at him. There are trinkets of dialogue where characters do talk about Glass past, but never a full scene dedicated to showing it. You will get brief glimpses into the past of Hugh Glass, though the significance of them underwhelms since it never leads to anything. These glimpses of Glass past attempt to make him more of a definable character, though the only aspect of them that feels organic is Glass dedication. A common theme in the movie is his dedication to persevere through his injuries no matter how painful it is. Glass lives by the words “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight”. Demonstrating this belief in his dedication to stay alive as well as becoming a motif for narrative purposes.

One important trait of the writing that fails at is creating morally grey characters. Within the film own context, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) action are attempted to be painted as an act of necessity for survival. Showing his hesitation in Hugh Glass leadership, and lack of confidence in the group chances of survival when chased by Indians. Attempting to make his action justifiable to an extent. What’s disappointing about this element is whenever the film shows more, and more of Fitzgerald he is clearly meant to come across as the film villain. Throwing out the morally grey characters it wanted to create in the film becoming a more streamline revenge story. Two moments backing up this claim is Fitzgerald dialogue in the climax is most evident of his wholly villainous turn taunting Hugh Glass. Another is Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) who in spite of his position of Captain does not order his men to search for Fitzgerald because the film wants its protagonist to learn something from his journey.

Then, there’s a moment in the climax where Fitzgerald performs an action reminiscences of an event that scarred him. What makes little sense is that it’s established in a scene that any type of reminder of that event puts Fitzgerald on edge never wanting to think about it. However, when he performs the specific action it eliminates consistency in his character, and remove what little characterization he had. Slowly transforming the morally ambiguous action of characters into good, and evil. If there were more to Fitzgerald had more to his character than the film still would have worked with the revenge story intact as well as having the intended morally ambiguous characters, but the small moments, and important details get toss aside derailing it.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu direction while unsubtle in the tackling of the film main theme did a magnificent job in creating a visceral experience. Using breathing as a motif in his storytelling (and part of the soundtrack), and the loose visual representation of being reborn/resurrected. In the film, every time Leonardo DiCaprio character struggle through an overwhelming ordeal Alejandro Gonzalez focuses the lens on showing him getting stronger in his ordeal. Giving the proper direction to DiCaprio on movement to illustrate his growing strength. His usage of CGI is small, but made every usage is for great effect. In a noteworthy scene with heavy CG Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled, and tossed around by a Bear. Paying close attention since the Bear is CG Alejandro was smart in using practical effects hidden within the CG Bear make whatever the CG Bear makes contact with move. It’s especially noteworthy when considering most of the Bear attack scene was done in one take leaving little room for error. Under his determined direction the film always feel like it’s in good hands.

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This particular sequence early in the film is amazing. Nothing else to add.

The opening sequence of the film is a technical accomplishment that should be noted. Opening up with an Indians attacking a group of hunters doesn’t sound complicated on paper, but when you make it on a big scale it does. However, the scope of the Indian attack on the hunters isn’t the reason it’s an accomplishment for the film. Rather it’s the fact that both cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and editor Stephen Mirrione created a set piece comprised mostly of a series of one shot takes. Right when the first hunter is shown falling to the floor from arrows shot on his back Lubezki continues aiming the camera at where the viewer should be focus for a seamless shot. In this one shot, a hunter is shot in the neck with an arrow showing the arrow make contact, while another hunter is struck in the back with a wooden spear, and the sound of death scares a hunter causing him to shoot a hunter in front of him without a cut. Another compliment to Emmanuel Lubezki would be the lighting. Yes it’s an entirely random aspect of filmmaking to praise when it goes largely unnoticed. The Revenant was virtually shot entirely with natural lighting which is impressive since there are filmmakers who can’t even do fabricated lighting correctly. Only one scene in the movie uses a dash of creative artificial lighting. It was for a campfire shot in which the wind was causing the fire to behave in an unpredictable and distracting way, Lubezki used some light bulbs around the fire to make what he calls a cushion of light. Making an already beautiful looking film more technically impressive.

If there’s a possible complaint to be had with the cinematography that would be the repetitive usage of wide angle shots. It becomes noticeable before reaching the hour mark that the film love to use wide angle shots by itself, or have the shot pan in either the left, or right direction. In addition, it also has a couple of wide angle shots that spin around too. While harmless for the film intentions the visual is very noticeable when viewing it.

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Come on boys! Let look for a new angle!

Now if you’re going into the film with the idea to see a thrilling spectacle you’ll be disappointed. While the film few set pieces are excellent, and fantastically filmed with a visually large scope in mind. They will take a back seat to everything else that is shown in the film. Shots of DiCaprio crawling stay up longer than a set piece that requires DiCaprio escaping from a group of attacking Indians. The film focus is more on showing the punishment nature dishes out at Hugh Glass where he spends allot of time crawling, limping, and walking out of whatever get thrown his way. It shown with a series of wide angle shots of the cold wilderness, and the distance Glass has to travel. Whenever Glass is walking the camera pans out from a distance to illustrate how resilience Glass is in his environment. In total, it’s debatable there’s a total of actually four set pieces; the opening sequence, the Bear attack, DiCaprio running away from a band of Indians, and the climax. Of course, the quality of the set piece is far more important than the actual amount. Thankfully, all the ones the film offer are executed to their fullest effect. Another aspect are the set pieces emphasizes urgency than it does violence. Hugh Glass is in danger, and by not being in good shape he has to get away from danger as quickly as possible. Becoming more immersive than exciting upon viewing.

To date, this is Leonardo DiCaprio best physical performance to date. In terms of line delivery DiCaprio barely talks in the film. His co star, Tom Hardy, has more spoken dialogue than DiCaprio does. Back on point, DiCaprio vocal performance is a series of grunts, and screams of pains. What holds the performance together is DiCaprio performing difficult tasks, and hurting his body throughout the film. He expresses so much emotion in his facial expressions, and body movement. Tom Hardy also puts in a great a performance. Despite the script treatment of John Fitzgerald Tom Hardy performance humanizes the character. Making emotions surrounding him conflicting, even after taunting Leonardo DiCaprio character in the climax. The only criticism would be his accent in the beginning of the film makes some of his dialogue discernible. It’s an issue that doesn’t remain with Hardy performance. In one scene in particular he shares with Will Poulter regarding if the means were justified to survive Hardy is cold, yet understanding in the scene. Proving he’s a difficult person to read, especially when taking into account a prior scene where he shows desperation.

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In his time off, Max is know as the Counsel Warrior.

Supporting actors Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, and Forrest Goodluck are noteworthy since they have good amount of screen time to make an impression. Will Poulter plays Jim Bridger in the film. With the scenes Poulter is given he does an excellent job in expressing deep fear, conflict, and sorrow in his character. Sharing scenes convincingly with Tom Hardy display layer relationship on the journey. Domhnall Gleeson plays Captain Andrew Henry who presence on screen varies depending depending on what act the film is in. Gleeson puts in a strong performance commanding authority that is required to pull off his character convincingly. Forrest Goodluck speaks in a different language for most of his screen time. He’s simply fine in the role since he’s not given difficult material to portray like his other costars. While fine in portraying DiCpario son it’s not much of a showcase of talent in the actor. The score creates a atmosphere that is certainly elevated by the rousing and gloomy score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and The National’s Bryce Dessner. In some moments, it is Eno-esque while in others the sounds become erratic. Altogether, it’s a haunting collection of tearful strings, glazed synths, and engulfing bass that mirrors the scenery and action at hand with compelling results.

The Revenant is lacking in deep characters, but makes up for it good performances, an interesting story that emphasizes the visual experience of filmmaking, and is beautifully shot throughout. On a technical level it’s quite a marvel of a film. While the story does get streamlined in the final act preventing itself from being as complex as it could been it doesn’t deteriorate it from reaching it goals. Its simple characters work fine in a film where’s its protagonist is attempting to survive harsh condition succeeding in immersing the viewer to the very end.

8/10

 

Inspired By True Events

The Revenant sports the “Inspired By True Events” tagline attached to it. So how much does it stray from the actual story? Well, the filmmakers had the courtesy to use “Inspire” instead of “Based On A True Story” since the actual Hugh Glass never had a son in any sense in anything written about him. However, the confrontation with an enraged grizzly bear, the part of Glass being dumped in a shallow grave 200 miles from friendly territory and leave with all his equipment, Glass hauling his broken mess of a body out of his own grave, scraped the infection out of his wounds, set his broken leg and started crawling toward the nearest outpost, a French trapper outpost called Fort Kiowa are confirmed to be true.

All whole ordeal lasted six weeks for Hugh Glass. After successfully avoiding vengeful Arikara war parties, wolves and bears, while surviving on berries, roots, rotting carcasses, and rattlesnakes, Glass made it to the river. A Sioux hunting party came upon the living man-corpse and helped him fashion some branches into a crude raft, which he sailed to Fort Kiowa and safety. As soon as he recovered, Glass set out to hunt down Bridger and Fitzgerald. When he finally found them, he … forgave them. But only after he got his rifle back. In the case for the film while the revenge story did feel tacked on it is a good way to reward patient viewers in a film that’s over 2 hours. If the film was fateful it would ended things on a anticlimactic note, though there is more to the story.

If your interested, or just really like reading check this article by Historynet that goes into great detail on the story if you like.