Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Another big all-star event of superheroes

Theavengerstheageofultron01“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is another big all-star event of superheroes which is pretty much same as “The Avengers” (2012) and, to some extent, many other Marvel Comics superhero movies. Again, a bunch of various superheroes (and super agents) gather together, and they are going to face another dangerous adversary, and they will definitely go through lots of bangs and crashes on the screen before the massive climatic sequence decorated with far more bangs and crashes than before. There are also occasional moments for dealing with their private matters and, yes, it turns out that these guys still need to learn more about how to work well with each other as a team despite what they went through in the previous film.

Because “The Avengers” was followed by “Iron Man 3” (2013), “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), and “Captain America: the Winter Soldier” (2014), some of you may be confused as watching the opening action sequence in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, especially if you did not see the last one. While the SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) was collapsed due to what happened to Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and others in “Captain America: the Winter Soldier”, the Avengers are still operating as usual, and they are about to defeat Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and his Hydra minions, who have been working on something dangerous at their secret headquarters located somewhere in an eastern European country named Sokovia (no, you cannot find it on the world map).

Besides putting an end to Strucker’s organization, the Avengers have another important goal in their mission. An alien weapon previously shown in “The Avengers” (2012) is currently in Strucker’s possession, and it does not take much time for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to retrieve it after he successfully breaks into the Strucker’s lair. The mission is nearly accomplished, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is supposed to take it back to his world, but then Stark is tempted to use it privately for a while. He wants to create an artificial intelligence which can protect the Earth and the humanity from the enemies from inside and outside the Earth, and he even enlists Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in this private project of his.

Theavengerstheageofultron06Stark’s project soon comes to fruition (it just takes a few day!), but then he and the other Avenger members face the disastrous consequence of his misguided attempt. Right after it is created, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly absorbs the vast amount of knowledge from the Internet, and, like that naughty A.I. in the Terminator films, it concludes that the Earth will be better without the human race.

After escaping from Stark’s laboratory with a surprise attack on the Avengers, UItron immediately prepares for his merciless goal, and it also recruits Strucker’s two secret human weapons: Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). While Pietro can zip and zap here and there within a second, his twin sister Wanda is equipped with psychic and telekinetic powers, and she certainly does her job well when the Avengers try to stop Ultron at the abandoned shipyard base of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a South African arms dealer who has some invaluable metal needed for Ultron’s own ambitious project. You may say that Ultron is indeed an apple that does not fall far from its tree, and James Spader has a fun with his role whenever UItron shows some of unpleasant personality traits we saw from Stark.

Now you may think the movie is overcrowded, but there are more characters to appear in this film. We see the familiar supporting characters including Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), Sam Wilson/the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Stan Lee, and a certain villain who makes a small cameo appearance around the end credits. In case of the characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman, they are just briefly mentioned during one scene because, well, they are busy with their work as their boys play together outside.

Theavengerstheageofultron08There are also new supporting characters in the story whom we may meet again in the following films. Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini), the loving wife of Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who has a little more things to do here), provides a temporary safe house for the Avengers, and, thanks to the nice, cozy environment of her rural house, they get some time for restoring their teamwork spirit and planning their next move to stop Ultron. In case of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), her unbelievably fantastic expertise in biomedical technology becomes the crucial factor behind the introduction of another major player later in the story. It is interesting to see Julie Delpy in a small supporting role in a Hollywood blockbuster film like this, but she only appears briefly during a scene involved with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)

Juggling all these many various characters in his big canvass, the director/writer Joss Whedon does as much as he can do, but his screenplay often feels incoherent and half-baked while frequently murky in case of characterization and motives. Except their interesting position somewhere between “King Kong” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a subplot between Romanoff and Dr. Banner does not add much to the main story although Scarlette Johansson and Mark Ruffalo do what they can do with their scenes as good actors. Robert Downey Jr. is entertaining as usual with his sardonic wit, but it is a bit difficult to fully understand Stark’s motivation at some points in the story, and you may wonder whether he really learned anything from his plight during “Iron Man 3”. Chris Evans is less interesting here compared to his Captain America films, and Chris Hemsworth remains the weakest link in the bunch mainly due to his flat character mostly defined by his simple manhood and his mighty hammer, which, I assure you, gets more laughs than its owner.

Theavengerstheageofultron04Anyway, you will probably not be bored mainly because of a number of big action sequences in the film. They are as loud, massive and well-made as you can expect from its huge production budget, but I somehow felt distant while watching them. As going back and forth between many main characters amidst chaos, they are so busily edited that I felt lost at times, and I was constantly conscious of their artificial aspects as observing the special effects on the screen. When Ultron reveals his army of robots as initiating the final step of his spectacularly dreadful plan during the climax sequence, we only see the works done by a group of many CGI technicians listed in the end credits, not the real awe or menace to be felt as a fun part of the story.

Because the filmmakers shot several scenes in Seoul, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” drew lots of attention in South Korea in last year, and I must confess that I had some anticipation for that sequence. It is rather a shame that Seoul does not get much fun or damage compared to the other cities demolished in the film. While Johannesburg provides a nice ground for the destructive match between two main characters which is followed by the coda evoking the images of 9/11, Seoul only gets a passable vehicle chase sequence which looks less realistic compared to the Johannesburg sequence. As noticing several unrealistic details, I even wondered whether they actually shot it in Seoul.

And I do not think that the juggling of various superheroes from different worlds is as successful as intended. As an alien god, Thor is probably mightier than anyone in the group, and he may fit well with Hulk and Captain America considering their respective superpowers, but Black Widow and Hawkeye belong more to the world of super spies, where Iron Man can also be more comfortable considering that his ‘superhero’ abilities depend on technology and intelligence.

Theavengerstheageofultron07In the end, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is more or less than a bridge between the previous Marvel Comics superhero movies and the upcoming ones including the third Avengers movie where everything in the expanding Marvel universe will probably come together and be resolved. Although I had a nice time with three Marvel Comics products in last year, I felt the same exhaustion I experienced from “The Avengers”, and that trend is being continued here. It is not entirely boring, but we get more of the same thing we have seen before, and I come to have more concern on its genre which seems to be going nowhere in quality while merely being increased in quantity.

Because the movie is neither more nor less than the sums of its elements just like “The Avengers”, I am going to make a simple objective evaluation based on three Marvel Comics superhero movies coming after “The Avengers”. “Iron Man 3” got 3 stars from me while “Thor: The Dark World” got 2 stars and “Captain America: the Winter Soldier” got 3 stars, so the average score is around 2.7, and I give “Avengers: Age of Ultron” 2.5 stars. Seriously, I found this rating method really convenient, and it may be helpful to you too.

Sidenote: Because this is an action film where lots of things happen quick and fast on the screen, I recommend you not to spend extra money on 3D or IMAX.

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Wild Tales (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Six revenges served wild, dark, and hilarious

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“Wild Tales”, an Argentine film which was deservedly nominated in Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year, is like a fabulous dinner course almost perfect from the beginning to the ending. With each own spices and ingredients, its six different stories entertain us as serving a dish called revenge wild, dark, and hilarious. Because each of them is so funny and smart in their setup, progress, and execution like any excellent short film should, I will try as much as possible while describing them to you one by one, but I strongly recommend you to watch this terrific portmanteau movie right now lest I unintentionally spoil your entertainment in this review.

As the apéritif of the movie, the opening segment, “Pasternak”, succinctly establishes the overall tone of not only itself but also the following segments. Mainly because they happen to sit near each other, two passengers on the board begin a small conversation not long after their plane takes off, and it looks like just another usual interaction between two total strangers during flight. But then, in the middle of the conversation, they realize that both of them actually know a certain man – and that is not the only surprise for them. After slowly building up its momentum like an airplane ready for its immediate takeoff, “Pasternak” quickly accelerates itself as we and the characters in the film come to see what is really going on, and then it literally dashes into the arrival spot with shock and laugh for us.

What follows after the main title sequence, which humorously reflects our primal nature behind revenge and retribution, certainly meets our expectation – and more. First, we are served with “The Rats” and “Road to Hell” as appetizers, and these two spicy hors-d’oeuvres delight us with darkly comic suspense before striking us with their pungent final taste. After that, the three main course dishes are respectively served in “Bombita”, “The Deal”, and “Till Death Do Us Apart”, and these segments have lots of things to savor in their meatier tales which amuse and jolt us with their barbed but cheerful sense of black humor.

wildtales05“The Rats” is about another accidental encounter associated with revenge. A guy enters an empty diner during one night, and a young waitress recognizes him as a man responsible for her family’s misery a long time ago. Her co-worker, a blunt, acerbic middle-aged female cook who is also an ex-con feeling no qualms about committing a crime, does not hesitate to suggest that she should not throw away this golden opportunity for her revenge. A tool for murder comes handy to the waitress as the cook points out, but she is uncertain about whether this is really what she wants – or whether that tool in question is really effective.

“Road to Hell” presents us a deadly confrontation which may remind you of Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” (1971) and other similar thriller films on the road. A young man is driving fast along a remote road with his fancy sports car, and he becomes annoyed when some shabby vehicle blocks his way. As passing that vehicle, he throws insults at its driver who looks older and poorer than him, and, not so surprisingly, that turns out to be a very big mistake. Not long after their unpleasant encounter, his car suddenly has a flat tire problem, and there surely comes an expected trouble driving toward him along the road. This may look pretty obvious to you, but then the eventual mutual hostility between two contrasting characters goes all the way along with the violent slapstick absurdity fueled by its take-no-prisoner attitude. You will keep wondering how further it can go with that, and I can only tell you that it definitely goes pretty far before delivering its punch line which is one of the biggest laughs in the film.

“Bombita” and “The Deal” are less gritty compared to “Road to Hell”, but that does not mean that they are less clever or hilarious. In “Bombita”, things become quite nightmarish for its ordinary hero after his car happens to be towed away due to a silly administration mistake. He arrives very late at his young daughter’s birthday party because of that incident, and then his wife tells him later that she is going to leave him because she cannot stand his continuing neglects on her and their daughter any more. When he tries to make a petition on how unfairly he was fined for illegal parking, he finds himself hitting against the uncaring attitude of bureaucracy, and then he becomes more frustrated and furious as his life continues to be crumbled more and more as a result of his protest. He eventually decides to do something, and it will not be much of a spoiler to tell you that, as shown in the beginning, he surely knows how to get his sweet, efficient revenge as a professional with a particular set of skills.

wildtales03In case of “The Deal”, it revolves around the immediate personal crisis of a rich business man who has to protect his reckless young son responsible for a terrible hit-and-run incident. The father is willing to pay the prosecutor, his family lawyer, and his poor gardener who is persuaded to be a patsy in exchange of money, but the situation becomes quite silly as everyone joining in this scheme tries to benefit from it as much as they can. As the angry public demand for swift justice is growing outside minute by minute, the father feels more pressure put upon him, but, as a seasoned business man, he does know how to deal with such a shifty deal negotiation like this.

The final segment “Till Death Do Us Apart” begins with an ongoing wedding ceremony full of joy and happiness, but it soon goes into a far darker mood after the bride discovers her husband’s infidelity by accident. Deeply angered and hurt by this, she is initially thrown into the pit of despair and sorrow, but then she is fully charged by her bloody thirst for revenge. Hell has no fury like a bride betrayed on her wedding day, and her husband and the guests at the wedding are going to have a night to remember for the rest of their life. And, of course, there will be a big cake to be served in the end as the dessert for them and us.

All of these six stories are written and directed by Damián Szifrón, and he deftly present his stories under his smooth, masterful direction. Most of anthology films are usually mixed bags while feeling inconsistent or disjointed in the aspects of tone and quality, but “Wild Tales” effortlessly flows from one story to the other at its obligatory transition points, and all of its stories are flawlessly bound together through their lethal black comedy, Szifrón’s dexterous storytelling, and the uniformly good performances from his wonderful cast. Absolutely shocking and outrageous at the most unexpected moments, the movie is also supremely amusing and hilarious, and I found myself laughing or chuckling hard as it went further for more laughs and absurdities to deliver payoffs as satisfying as promised, if not more than that. Overall, this is one hell of fun ride you cannot miss.

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Song of the Sea (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4): An enchanting 2D animation from Ireland

songofthesea01Inspired by Celtic folklore tales, Oscar-nominated animation feature film “Song of the Sea” tells a simple fantasy tale with its lovely style to be appreciated and admired. While it may be a little too slow for young audiences who are mostly accustomed to those hyperkinetic digital animation feature films, this charming Irish animation movie will appeal to adult audiences with its own gorgeous scenes based on its hand-drawn animation. Even when the story loses its grip to some degrees around its middle part, the movie keeps serving us with enchanting moments to behold, and this is an enjoyable visual experience to savor on the whole.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young boy named Ben (voiced by David Ralwe) and his family. They live alone in a lighthouse island near some beach town, but they are happy with each other in their lighthouse house while expecting a new family member to come. Ben’s pregnant mother Bronach (voiced by Lisa Hanigan) is near her delivery, and, as a good son very close to his mom, Ben promises that he will be a good brother to his baby sister.

However, a sad thing happens not long after that. Bronach is gone from her son when she is about to give a birth to her daughter, and she never comes back. Ben later hears from his father Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) that his mother was dead during the birth of his sister Saoirse (voiced by Lucy O’Connell), and that hurts him a lot while his father is devastated by the loss of his wife.

Several years have passed. We see Ben, who has grown up more, having a fun time with his big sheepdog Cù (it means dog in Gaelic). Saoirse, who has never uttered any single word since her birth, grows up to be a cute little girl, and she sticks around her brother even when he is rather harsh and uncaring to his mute sister. Although he has not yet fully recovered from his grief, Conor is still a good father to his kids, and he tries as much as he can for providing a nice, comfortable environment for them.

songofthesea02Because Saoirse’s birthday is coming, Conor’s mother comes from the city to visit her son and grandchildren. While glad to see Ben and Saorise, Granny (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) is not so pleased to see that her son remains to be a grieving widower as before, and she thinks it is the best for her grandchildren to live in the city along with her. Conor does not want that much, but he comes to change his mind after Saoirse happens to discover a mysterious coat hidden in a chest during one night. When she wears it and then goes out to the sea by herself, she is transformed into a white baby seal, and we get one of the best scenes in the film as she swims around various underwater sights along with other seals.

Being angry about his father’s decision and feeling suffocated in his grandmother’s house, Ben eventually decides to go back to his home for himself, and then he and Saoirse come across a trio of old fairies on their way back home. It turns out that the fairy tales his mother used to tell him are actually real, and Ben learns that his mother was a mythological entity called Selkie. As her daughter, Saoirse is also a Selkie (does it require two X Chromosomes, I wonder?), and she should return to the sea with her coat as soon as possible. She must sing a song Ben learned from his mother, and that will liberate many spirits stuck around the country and sending them back to their realm before it is too late for them – and her.

The journey for helping her and other spirits will not be an easy task for Ben, for there is a big opposing force standing on his way. Macha (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan), an old but powerful witch who is feared by a few remaining spirits not captured by her yet, goes after Saoirse for finishing a job she has been doing for many years, and the sequence where Ben encounters Macha becomes creepier as it reveals how chillingly she pushes her good intention like Nurse Ratched. She believes with no doubt that she is doing a right thing for everyone including her, and her seemingly gentle appearance is both disturbing and pitiful as you think more about the tragedy and horror behind it.

songofthesea03“Song of the Sea” is the second work of the director/co-writer Tomm Moore, who previously made “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and also got Oscar-nominated for that impressive debut. While the animation relatively looks more smooth and fluid here in “Song of the Sea”, Moore continues that distinctive hand-drawn animation style shown in his previous work. Many scenes in the film feel like storybook illustrations, and the characters look broad and simple with round/angular lines as their two-dimensional aspects are frequently accentuated in movements. The backgrounds are often purposefully drawn without perspective like those ancient murals or kids’ paintings; I like how the waves and the other kinds of flows are dynamically expressed with bold lines on the screen, and the watercolor depiction of the blurry clouds in the sky particularly reminds me of those impressionistic paintings by J.W.M. Turner.

I must point out that its story is predictable from the start as a typical family drama about loss, grief, and acceptance. I felt impatient while noticing a number of notable narrative hiccups, but, fortunately, such flaws like them do not seriously damage the power of the many fabulous moments in the film such as the scene involving the literally hairy lair of the Great Seanachaí (voiced by John Kenny), a lonely entity who is ironically quite forgetful in contrast to his inherent job of preserving many past memories. The actors providing voice works are suitably cast in their respective roles, and young actor David Rawle holds his own place well as supported by veteran actors including Brendan Gleeson, who previously collaborated with Moore in “The Secret of Kells”.

I am not sure whether “Song of the Sea” is better than “The Secret of Kells”, but that is just my small reservation. I observed its bountiful and colorful details with pleasure, and it was also nice to see the small comparison between sketches and final products during the end credits. If you are looking for something different from usual animation films, you will likely enjoy it as much as me. In case of its main targets, well, I hope they will have a chance to encounter it to learn how animation films can be more interesting and imaginative.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014) ☆☆☆ : After the separation

Thedisappearanceofeleanorribythem01Although it has nice moments of insights and emotions, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” may leave you some impression of being incomplete and underdeveloped, and, as some of you already know, there is a good reason for that. In the beginning, there were the two versions which separately look at the story from its two main characters’ respective perspectives, but then, mainly thanks to Harvey Weinstein who acquired them after their premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, the director/writer Ned Benson was forced to condense them into the one-movie version subtitled as “Them”, which was released in US around late 2014. While they got less exposure, the original two versions, subtitled as “Him” and “Her” respectively, were later put together with the “Them” version in the subsequent Blu-ray/DVD edition which was released in US around early 2015.

Going back and forth between Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” shows us how this young couple get more drifted apart from each other after Eleanor decides to leave her husband. Yes, there was a time when they were full of love and happiness as shown in the lovely opening scene, but then their relationship somehow becomes deteriorated several years later, and Eleanor, who looks very numb and unhappy in the following scene, comes to attempt suicide on a bridge on one day.

Fortunately, she is rescued and taken to the hospital, and then she is gone from her husband’s sight without giving him any chance of talk. She moves to live in her parents’ house, and she tries to restart her academic education at the New York University. Through the help of her father Julian (William Hurt), she begins to study under Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), and the other family members are also willing to give Eleanor emotional comfort and support as she searches for the next step in her life.

Thedisappearanceofeleanorribythem05Meanwhile, we also see Conor’s struggle and confusion with his life without Eleanor. Baffled by her disappearance, he wonders whether there is really any possibility of rebuilding their relationship, but then he has the other problem to deal with. His restaurant bar may be closed down sooner or later, and he will probably have to ask for help from his father Spencer (Ciarán Hinds), a successful restaurant owner who is now past his prime but is still doing well compared to his son’s shabby business going downhill. Conor’s relationship with his father is strained to say the least, and we can sense the distance between father and son when Conor comes to stay at Spencer’s house for a while.

The movie focuses on small moments between characters rather than plot, and the director Ned Benson maintains well the slow, leisurely rhythm of realistic daily life as Conor and Eleanor individually navigate through their respective changed circumstances full of doubt and uncertainty. We come to learn a little more about an incident which tested the strength of their relationship, and, though they and others do not often mention or discuss about it, it is apparent that both of them were deeply affected by that incident – and they still feel hurt as trying to deal with the resulting grief in different ways.

Uneven and meandering at times, Benson’s screenplay is a little too mannered and reserved to generate intended emotional effects, but its narrative defects are mostly compensated by the performances Benson draws from his talented performers. As the two dramatic centers of the story, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are constantly engaging to watch regardless of whether they are together or not on the screen; Chastain wonderfully and subtly captures every point of her character’s emotional journey, and McAvoy is also effective as her counterpart although his character is inherently less interesting than Chastain’s. During one crucial scene where their characters happen to be together during one night, Chastain and McAvoy deftly handle the shifting emotional state surrounding their characters, and we can feel affection as well as estrangement between them especially after Conor makes one small confession to Eleanor.

Thedisappearanceofeleanorribythem04Chastain and McAvoy are also supported well by the other actors in the film, though some of them seem to be undermined by the aforementioned condensation process. William Hurt has a subdued but touching scene in which Julian gives a truthful advice to his daughter, and Isabelle Huppert, who plays Eleanor’s French mother, has her own moments during her scenes with Chastain. There is a brief but meaningful scene which gives us a small glimpse into the long, loving relationship between Julian and his wife, and Hurt and Huppert are effortless in conveying the genuine sense of love and understanding between their characters. While Bill Hader is fun to watch as Conor’s close friend who works as a chef for him, Viola Davis, an intelligent actress who always brings something to appreciate to her characters, imbues her functional role with enough sense and personality, and Ciarán Hinds gives a nicely understated performance as a blunt man who has been not a very good dad to his son but still able to show love and care to him along with sincere advices on life.

In contrast, the movie does not give enough space to the other notable supporting characters in the story. In case of Eleanor’s sister Katy (Jess Weixler), there seems to be a lot to tell about her current life with her young son, but the movie never goes deep into that, and I could sense the possibility of a deleted moment right before her first appearance in the film. While Alexis (Nina Arianda), one of Conor’s employees, looks like having some feelings toward Conor as shown in one scene, she is eventually put aside later in the story, and that is all we can get from her.

In spite of other weak points besides the ones I mentioned above, I recommend “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” mainly for its good performances. As far as I heard from others, watching the “Him” and “Her” versions together seems to be a more satisfying viewing experience (their IMDB scores are higher than that of the “Them” version, for instance), but I felt satisfied with the “Them” version anyway although I could see through its numerous problems during my viewing. It indeed feels incomplete while occasionally being dragged and unfocused, but it is still a sensitive adult drama which is told with intimacy and intelligence, so here goes my temporary 3-star rating with reservation.

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The Green Prince (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A most wanted informer

thegreenprince02The real-life story told in documentary “The Green Prince” is as dramatic as any thrilling spy movies. Here is a man working against almost everything which had defined his social/political background, and it is interesting to hear his remarkable story respectively from him and a person who was the only one he could depend on during those dangerous years.

Their relationship began around the late 1990s when the conflict between Israel and Palestine had just entered another violent phase followed by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. As things got worse for him and others in Palestine, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who was 17 at that time, was eager to do something for his country, and he was ready to follow the footsteps of his father Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who was one of the respected founding members of Hamas.

But Yousef never imagined that he had already been drawing special attentions from the Israeli security agency, the Shin Bet, as one of possible targets to be recruited. Once they got the chance to capture him at the right moment, Yousef was swiftly sent to prison, and that was how he encountered Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a Shin Bet agent who instantly recognized Yousef’s great potential as an informer and then deliberately nurtured it step by step. Their relationship was not very stable at first, but Yousef became more willing to work for the Israeli government especially after witnessing how Hamas prisoners cruelly tortured and killed exposed informers in the prison. He began to have growing doubts on Hamas’ violent tactics including suicide bombings which were openly condoned by his father and other prominent Hamas leaders, and he came to believe that working with Yitzhak was a right thing to do for his family and others in Palestine.

thegreenprince05After he was released, Yousef carefully prepared as instructed by Yitzhak. While making no secret about how he was approached by Israeli agents in the prison, he did not draw any suspicion as the dutiful eldest son of his father, and he soon became a crucial member of his father’s inner circle. Any important information circulated around the Hamas leadership was always bound to be delivered to Yousef’s father sooner or later, and Yousef was usually the one who delivered it directly to his father. His father trusted his son more than anyone in his organization, and that is reflected well by one episode involved with an anonymous letter which was sent by Yousef for a certain purpose.

As Yousef showed more of his value as an informer, Yitzhak and others in the Shin Bet took more caution for covering him as much as they could. Not many people knew about the true identity of ‘The Green Prince’ even in the Shin Bet, and Yitzhak also made it sure that Yousef’s fake loyalty was never questioned within Hamas. Just like his father, he was frequently arrested and imprisoned, and he eventually became one of the most wanted men on the Shin Bet’s watchlist. Thanks to a valuable piece of information from Yousef, Yitzhak and his colleagues came upon a very good chance for the success of their mission at one point, but they decided to throw it away at the last minute to protect Yousef. They knew what would happen as a consequence for that, but they also knew that they could not expose their indispensable source who would help them more – and he really did.

The movie is based on “Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices”, which was written by Yousef himself after managing to end his informer career and then moving to US in 2007. Very candid about his past in front of the camera, he even tells us a shameful childhood memory he kept secret even from his family, and it can be said that he was already accustomed to how to cover himself from others even before he was recruited by Yitzhak. Although he cannot possibly return to his homeland for now, he does not regret anything about what he did for saving many people including his own father, who understandably disowned his son not long after his son’s public exposure.

thegreenprince03On the opposite, Yitzhak is equally frank about what he felt and thought during his time with Yousef, and it is rather touching to see how these two different people became far closer to each other than expected despite many uncertain factors surrounding their covert relationship. While he knew well that he had to maintain that shifty professional balance as Yousef’s handler with equal amounts of care and tact, there were times when Yitzhak crossed the lines for holding Yousef closer to him, and he eventually came to care a lot about Yousef. When he learned of Yousef’s desperate situation later, Yitzhak made a risky decision which would affect his life and career, and that solidified their long relationship more than ever.

Going back and forth between Yousef and Yitzhak, the director Nadav Schirman mixes their interview parts with enactment sequences and archival footages, and his documentary is engaging to watch as providing another interesting look into the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Although he is only shown through archival footages, Sheikh Hassan Yousef comes to us as another important part of the story, and I could not help but think that the documentary could have been more interesting (and more objective, perhaps) if it had also looked at the story from his viewpoint, though that was certainly impossible from the very beginning.

Regardless of your view on its subjects, “The Green Prince” has a well-made documentary equipped with a compelling story which holds your attention for its fascinating aspects. It remains an open question whether Yousef’s big personal sacrifice was worth as much as he and his handler believe, but we may say that there is still hope at least, considering their close relationship which ultimately changed both of their lives. thegreenprince01

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The Motel Life (2012) ☆☆☆ (3/4): Two brothers in sad, bleak life of loneliness

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“They set along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”

 –  from “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

As watching two brother characters of “The Motel Life”, I was reminded of the close relationship between the father and son characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road”. In a grey apocalyptic world nearly devoid of hope and humanity, Father and Son cannot possibly imagine living without each other, and that makes the story all the more poignant as they desperately hold onto each other in front of more despairing plights on their uncertain journey across barren landscapes.

While their life is less gloomy in comparison, it is still tough and hard to live for Frank (Emil Hirsch) and his older brother Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff), who have wandered together for many years in Reno, Nevada. Their father, who was probably not a very good dad to them, left his family when they were young, and, as instructed by their dying mother, two young brothers had to take care of themselves after she died. They attempted to leave together before getting themselves separated from each other by authorities, but, unfortunately, Jerry Lee lost his right foot when they tried to get a free ride on a freight train.

Since that terrible accident, they have been stuck in the shabby world of low-rent motels and seedy bars, and they look lonely and isolated in their hopeless life with no visible future for either of them. While Jerry Lee currently has a girlfriend, it is apparent that their relationship will not last that long just like his previous relationships with other women, and Frank is still haunted by the memories of his ex-girlfriend Annie (Dakota Fanning) as slowly descending into the pit of alcoholism.

And then an accident happens during one dark, cold winter night. Frank runs over some boy not long after getting drunk, and he is shocked to realize that he has just killed that boy because of his reckless driving. Trembling with panic and guilt, he tells Frank that they must leave Reno now, and they soon get out of the city by their old car.

themotellife06However, things do not go well for them, and then they find themselves in a more difficult circumstance. Jerry Lee is brought to a local hospital after his botched suicide attempt, and Frank must find any possible way to get the money for buying their new car as soon as possible. While feeling more remorseful about his irreversible deed, Jerry Lee also becomes more terrified of getting arrested for that, and, to make the matters worse, the local police begin to smell something suspicious about him.

While there is some tension as Jerry Lee and Frank try to wiggle out of their trouble, the movie puts more emphasis on characters as leisurely moving along its simple plot, and we meet a few people around these two sad, unhappy brothers. Their friends Tommy (Joshua Leonard) and Al (Noah Harpster) are losers as pathetic as them, and Jerry Lee’s girlfriend Polly (Jenica Bergere) is no better than them. In case of Earl Hurley (Kris Kristofferson), a local used car dealer who once hired Frank not long after Jerry Lee’s accident, he looks genuinely concerned when he learns of Frank’s sudden decision to leave the city, but he does not ask too much to Frank while helping him as much as he can.

And we see more of how Frank and Jerry Lee have had comfort and solace through their own private world where they freely wield their imagination together. While Frank is the one who concocts short tales for them, Jerry Lee draws various sketches inspired by his younger brother’s stories, and we often see some of his sketches hung upon the walls of their motel room. While some stories are adventure tales with Frank and Jerry Lee as brave heroes, other stories are about women and wild romance, and Frank is always ready to tell Jerry Lee any stories he made up – including the lie about that unfortunate dead kid killed by his older brother.

themotellife05Whenever Frank tells another new story, the movie switches to animation mode as if it looked into how Frank’s stories are re-imagined by in Jerry Lee’s mind. These animation sequences feel more like filler materials at times, but they mostly work while occasionally being reflective of Frank and Jerry Lee’s seedy life environment as well as their wishes and hopes. The animation by Matt Smith is nicely drawn in its gray brown tone, and it sometimes goes wildly along with absurd pulpy elements such as a loony transvestite pirate captain with very nasty traits or a sensual hospital nurse ready to inject another shot of drug to her patient.

The movie is based on Willy Vlautin’s acclaimed debut novel, which was adapted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. While their adapted screenplay is terse and sparse, its unforced narrative provides enough space for mood and characterization, and the directors Alan and Gabe Polsky, who made a directorial debut with this film after producing several films including Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009), show considerable skill and confidence in their competent direction. The weary loneliness surrounding their main characters is palpably felt along with the bleak wintry background on the screen, and the Polsky brothers and their cinematographer Roman Vas’yanov give us a number of well-handled scenes which are restrained but effectively capture the somber undercurrent of deep sorrow and desperation below the surface. One of the main scenes in the film is a bit showy for its longtake shot unfolded in a local casino building, but this stylish approach works along with fluid, unobtrusive camerawork, and it effectively sets the ground for the following scene.

The Polsky brothers draw very good performances from their actors. Completely different from his recent lightweight turn in David Gordon Green’s quirky comedy film “Prince Avalanche” (2013), Emil Hirsch shows an unexpected side to surprise us here in this film, and his harrowing performance conveys well quiet despair and torment inside his depressed character. As Frank is pushed more by his growing self-loathing along with alcohol, his deteriorating body eventually gives him a painful warning at one point, and Hirsch does not hit any false note as Frank struggles to start another depressing day with his usual groggy hangover.

themotellife02When Frank meets his ex-girlfriend later in the story, we see a small glimmer of hope between them. Annie looks better than before as a girl making a new start, and it is possible that she and Frank restart their relationship although their past remains to be a dark cloud hovering over them. Dakota Fanning, who has now grown beyond her early years, is solid in her supporting performance, and she and Hirsch have a sad, tentative scene where their characters try to be a little closer to each other during their own private time. As two people scarred by their harsh world, they are drawn to each other as before, but we also see how they are inhibited by themselves.

As a wretched man who has no one to depend on except his younger brother, Stephen Dorff, who somehow did not get enough chances despite his promising early years, is heartbreaking to watch in one of the best performances in his career. He and Hirsch click together well with the real sense of brotherhood between their characters, and they are particularly good during the scene where Jerry Lee takes a shower with Frank’s willing assistance in their motel bathroom. While Dorff bares his character’s vulnerability without any hesitation in front of the camera, Hirsch literally supports Dorff as standing behind him, and their earnest performances make this scene into one of a few warm, intimate moments in the film.

While it is surely a slow, gloomy character drama looking at the bottom of the society, “The Motel Life” has a tarnished but sincere heart fueled by its praise-worthy performances, and we come to see its damaged characters as basically good people despite their flaws and mistakes. At one point, Earl gives a wise advice to Frank: “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a low life. Make decisions thinking you’re a great man.” It may come quite late for Frank and Jerry Lee, but, as reflected by the final scene of the film, it is never too late to follow that advice.

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Goodbye Solo (2008) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4) : An unlikely friendship between two different people

goodbyesolo03Through its simple but thoughtful storytelling, “Goodbye Solo” slowly draws us into its intimate human drama. At the beginning, we are put right into the ongoing conversation between its two main characters, and they cannot possibly look more different from each other to us as their conversation is being continued. We see more of gaps and differences between them as following their story, but we also see how their accidental encounter leads to something meaningful for both of them. In its slow, subtle progress coupled with the vivid sense of real life, the movie generates the series of genuine human moments between them, and then it touches us as arriving at its finale with more care and respect toward its two main characters.

They are Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) and William (Red West), and most of the scenes in the movie are viewed through Solo, who is a Senegalese immigrant working as a taxi driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He lives with his Mexican wife Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and her daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), and he is an amiable man of sunny optimism and open-hearted attitude, though he is not exactly happy with the current state of his life. He hopes to be a flight attendant and wishes to see more of the world, but it seems unlikely even when he happens to get a lucky chance for job interview from a local airline company. While his wife, who is soon going to give a birth to their baby, wants him to take care of his family with more responsibility and stableness, he still wants to follow his aspiration.

William is a reticent old guy who does not reveal a lot about himself. When the movie begins, he has just made an odd proposition to Solo as riding Solo’s taxi, and Solo cannot help but amused by this weird offer although William is very serious about it. He needs somebody who will take him to the Blowing Rock Park on next Saturday morning, and he will pay Solo $ 1,000 if he provides this personal service to William as promised – but he never talks about whether he wants Solo to take him back to the city after that.

goodbyesolo01While the deal is eventually made between them, Solo naturally becomes concerned about William, especially after learning that the Blowing Rock Park is well-known for its high mountain cliff and the strong vertical wind blowing upward around the cliff (it is so strong that local people say snow is blown up to the sky at this place). He actively approaches closer to William over the course of several days; he lets William stay for one night at his house before William moves into a motel room, and he continues to hang around William as trying to find any possible way to help him – or why he wants to end his life.

William does not welcome Solo much, but he does not repulse Solo’s good-willed approach, though what he is planning to do is still an inconvenient truth they never mention or discuss directly. He allows Solo to stay temporarily in his motel room when Solo leaves his house due to his conflict with Quiera. He also gets himself acquainted with Alex, a smart, lively girl who befriends William with no hesitation just like any innocent kid would. He still prefers to keep thoughts and feelings to himself even when he gets chances to enjoy himself through Solo, but he seems to be brightened up a bit, and it is possible that he has some second thoughts on his initial plan.

While this is a typical story revolving around two contrasting personalities (it is also reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” (1997) for their shared subjects), the movie takes its time in building up plot and characters. Seemingly loose and improvised on the surface, the screenplay by the director/editor Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Bahareh Azimi is exact and efficient in its subtle narrative arc as doling out small but crucial moments to let us know more about its characters. Bahrani’s usual collaborator Michael Simmons’ camera succinctly presents these moments in plain but considerate ways as a part of Bahrani’s economic storytelling. During one certain scene involving Solo’s brief conversation with a minor supporting character in the film, the camera merely watches on that character’s movement from the distance at the end of this scene, but that is all it needs for telling us something about that character in question during that short moment, which takes less than 30 seconds.

goodbyesolo06“Goodbye Solo” is Bahrani’s third work, and he already distinguished himself as a new talented director to watch at that point. His debut film “Man Push Cart” (2005) impressed me with its remarkable verisimilitude, which somehow resonated with my memories of the streets of New York even though I have nothing much common with its struggling Pakistani immigrant hero. His following work “Chop Shop” (2008) is another vivid, realistic slice of hard life from the fringe of American society, and Ale, its young but tough orphan hero striving for a little better life for him and his sister in his shabby Queens neighbourhood, is one of unforgettable child characters for his touching resilience and aching vulnerability.

Like his previous works, the movie looks at its characters with curiosity and empathy, and it establishes well the authentic mood of their daily life in Winston-Salem, where Bahrani grew up under his Iranian immigrant parents. Bahrani worked closely with his two main actors through several weeks of preparation before shooting, and the rest of the cast mainly consisting of local non-professional actors bring more realistic touches to the film. The taxi stand shown in the film is a real one, and Solo’s colleagues are also real taxi drivers, and so is that unseen operator busily communicating with taxi drivers behind the window. When the movie was invited to Ebertfest in last year, Bahrani told the audiences an amusing anecdote about one of his non-professional cast members; that shabby guy at the taxi stand was an alcoholic who would go for drinking whenever money came handy to him, so Bahrani had to pay him bit by bit while shooting scenes with him.

His two leading actors give natural nuanced performances while effectively complementing each other. Devoid of any artificial aspect, they simply present their characters as distinctive human beings, and we believe in their characters from the very start. Souléymane Sy Savané, who made a debut with this film (he is from Ivory Coast, by the way), instantly earns our affection with his warm, likable presence, which is the main source of several humorous moments in the film. He moves effortlessly between humor and drama with his open, expressive face, and his face speaks volume even when the camera just looks at Solo silently driving his taxi from time to time.

goodbyesolo05Although many things about William are remained vague even in the end, Red West, a veteran actor who has mostly played small supporting characters during his long career (he played young leukemia patient’s father in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” (1997), for instance), is also fabulous in his role. Considering his interesting life story (He was a close friend to Elvis Presley during their high school years, and he later worked for Presley as his driver/bodyguard until he got fired not long before Presley’s death), West probably had enough materials to shape his character (but I heard he is a lot different from his blunt character in the film), and his understated performance subtly conveys emotions and thoughts behind his wrinkled face whenever we get a chance to glimpse into his character’s sad, moody state of mind.

Meditative and empathetic in its unadorned approach, the movie is a haunting story of kindness, compassion, and understanding. When it finally comes to the expected arrival point at the Blowing Rock Park, it initially seems to be a simple matter of ending the story in one way or another at its inevitable narrative fork, but Bahrani surprises us as hitting a delicate balance between his story subjects, and he sets the right tone for that. The colorful autumn forest shrouded in fog and clouds generates tense but serene ambiance on the screen, and that makes this part feels feel quite unworldly compared to the other scenes of the film. We sense what is said and understood behind wordless exchanges between the characters during a quiet, elegant moment of powerful emotions, and Bahrani also draws a good performance from young actress Diana Franco Galindo, whose direct, earnest acting is one of key elements in this moment like Savané and West.

Not long after watching “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop”, I got a chance to watch “Goodbye Solo” at the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2009, and, unless they intended some kind of retro style, it was one of the worst movie theater experiences I have ever had in my life. While the old wooden seats were tolerable to some degrees, the screen was not big enough for the audiences, and the quality of projection condition was pretty lame to say the least because of dim projection light and many other things which would make any serious moviegoer cringe. To be frank with you, when I recently revisited the movie for writing this review, I felt like watching a new movie at times. I must confess that I was disappointed to know that Bahrani could not come to the festival, but, looking back at that atrocious screening condition, I am glad that he went to Ebertfest instead around that time.

Despite such a lousy viewing experience like that, “Goodbye Solo” has remained as one of the best films I saw during that year. When the screening was over, two audiences sitting near me were baffled by its ending and then complained about that, and I immediately told them what really mattered is not the ending but the relationship developed between Solo and William. Regardless of what actually happened around the finale, William and Solo respectively come to learn something valuable through their special relationship in the end – and life will go on as it should.

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